Despite having read nearly every available biography of Queen Victoria in the early aughts, I realized when watching and recapping the new series based on her airing on PBS that it had actually been a few years since I had sat down and read a biography based solely on her. So this past week, that’s what I did.
And it was pretty fun – kind of like looking at a high school yearbook. The broad strokes have stayed with you, but you’re reminded of some of the smaller personal details that you know you once knew well.
Since today, February 10th, marks the anniversary of Victoria and Prince Albert’s 1840 wedding, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at the real events behind their story. After all, though they would become one of history’s most famous couples, with Victoria remaining in intensive mourning for nearly 40 years after he died, their early years show two people very much figuring out how to live together, how to communicate, what the power dynamic was going to be and how they would raise their family. Like any young couple, except, you know, they did it in Buckingham Palace.
Plans to marry Albert and Victoria were first entertained as early as 1831, the year both turned 12. At the time, Victoria was being brought up as the heir of her uncle, King William IV, at Kensington Palace with her widowed mother, the Duchess of Kent, her attendant, Baroness Louise Lehzen, and her mother’s comptroller, Sir John Conroy. It was a strict and stifling environment, in which Victoria was separated from other children and never allowed to be alone – literally. Baroness Lehzen would remain with her during the day until she was dismissed by the Duchess at night and Victoria would sleep in her mother’s room.
Albert was residing in Coburg with his father and older brother – a childhood marred by his parents’ divorce, his separation from his mother and her subsequent death in 1831. Though their father would remarry within a year, domesticity was not a priority for Coburg’s ducal family and the emphasis of Albert’s upbringing would be on rigorous education.
Marriage between the two was first thought up by their mutual uncle, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, in the year he moved from England (he was the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales, whose death had prompted Victoria’s parents’ marriage) to ascend the Belgian throne as Leopold I. Leopold saw the match as an opportunity for Coburg and a win-win for the family: Victoria would gain a trustworthy consort on whom the family could depend, while Albert’s fate as a second son would be secured.
The cousins would not meet, however, until the spring of 1836 in celebration of Victoria’s 17th birthday. But while Victoria was fond and complimentary of Albert, Albert’s feelings appeared lukewarm at best. Certainly they didn’t seem compatible: Albert couldn’t keep up with the pace of London’s entertainment, finding the endless rounds of schedules balls, concerts and dinners exhausting and taking ill. To Leopold, Victoria wrote:
“They are both very amiable, kind and good. Albert is very handsome, which Ernest is on, but he has a most good-natured countenance […] I thank you, my beloved Uncle, for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to give me in the person of dear Albert. Allow me, then, my dearest Uncle, to tell you how delighted I am with him, and how much I liked him in every way. He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has, besides, the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you could see.”
Albert, on the other hand, noted only that Victoria was “very amiable.”
The following year Victoria would turn 18 and succeed her uncle, William IV, upon his death on June 20, 1837. Her perceptions changed rapidly, an indictment not of Albert, but on her newfound taste for independence. For the first time she not only had autonomy but her own household, a government and an overwhelming workload. Isolated from court in her youth, she had to quickly learn how to navigate life as queen on multiple fronts. She grew incredibly close with her first prime minister, William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne, on whose advice she relied almost entirely.
After two years on the throne, she was prone to grow irritated when the subject of marriage was brought up and had stated that she had little interest in marrying so young. To Melbourne, too, she expressed doubts over Albert’s ability to acclimate to life in London, ticking off his habit of falling asleep at dinner, his poor handle of the English language, his inexperience and youth. But the crux of it was that for the first time she wasn’t beholden to anyone and appeared to be in little rush to change that.
She changed her tune when Albert and Ernest returned to London. Prior to the visit she had been adamant that no engagement would be forthcoming, even going so far as to say she didn’t expect to marry for another two or three years. Albert, meanwhile, was prepared to wait if he had to, so long as he had certain assurances the marriage would take place eventually. “If, after waiting,” he said, “Perhaps for three years, I should find the Queen no longer desired the marriage, it would place me in a very ridiculous position and would to a certain extent ruin all the prospects of my future life.”
He had no reason to worry. He and his brother arrived at Buckingham Palace on October 10, 1839 where Victoria met them at the top of the stairs. Her reaction to seeing Albert again included mention of his “blue eyes,” his “beautiful” face and his “fine waist.” She would soon learn that he was also an excellent musician, a graceful dancer and took pleasure in her company. She fell in love immediately and, though Melbourne warned her to wait at least a week, she proposed to him five days after his arrival and was accepted.
Victoria wrote in her diary:
“He was so kind, so affectionate. Oh! to *feel* I was, and am, loved by *such* an Angel […] He is *perfection*; perfection in every way – in beauty – in everything […] Oh! How I adore and love him […] We embraced each other over and over again.”
Albert, meanwhile, wrote her a letter which read, in part:
“How is it that I have deserved so much love, so much affection? […] I believe that Heaven has sent me an angel whose brightness shall illuminate my life […] in body and soul ever your slave, your loyal ALBERT.”
Victorians, man, quite the practitioners of subtlety.
Anyway, while the couple appeared to be madly in love, England was less enamoured. Newspapers were less than impressed by Albert’s foreignness, particular the fact that he was German. His age gave them pause, with some newspapers opining that their 20-year-old queen might benefit more from taking an older husband who could exert a steadying influence. Coburg, in particular, wasn’t popular, with the general belief being that Albert was marrying Victoria for her money.
Their Uncle Leopold, upon his marriage to Princess Charlotte in 1816, had been awarded £50,000 per annum by Parliament. More relevantly, so too had Prince George of Denmark when he married the future Queen Anne in the 1683 (Britain’s last queen regnant). Albert, at the direction of the Tories, was awarded only £30,000, which he and Victoria both perceived as both a blow and a personal insult. (To be clear, that amount of money in 1840 is worth upwards of £70 million today).
But what Victoria and Albert perhaps failed to appreciate was that the sum was not only due to Albert’s nationality (though, of course, it didn’t make him beloved), but the state of the economy and growing poverty levels. It was an optics game, and one that Victoria would have done well to have ignored. Instead, she decided she loathed all Tories and was even more infuriated when they, led by the Duke of Wellington (war hero from the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo) cast aspersions on the religion of Albert’s extended Coburg relations, many of whom were either Catholics themselves or had married one.
Victoria’s private response comes across as rather unhinged:
“Poor dear Albert, how cruelly they are ill-using that dearest Angel! You Tories shall be punished. Revenge! Revenge!”
During all of this the young couple were separated, Albert having returned home to ready himself before the wedding and say goodbye to Coburg. By the time he had returned, the allowance was settled, as was his marked lack of a title or place in the House of Lords and certain household appointments. It was only the second issue which didn’t seem to faze him much, at least as first – as a Duke of Saxony, he remarked that becoming the Duke of York or one of the other available titles would have felt like a demotion.
Instead, he devoted himself to wedding planning alongside the Queen, requesting that she pick for her bridesmaids only women that came from families of “unblemished character.” This was not the British way, which had no problem judging harshly the moral failures of the lower classes and deeming the consequences just and necessary, but didn’t feel the need to point the finger inward. It would also have been fairly impossible, which was another matter altogether. Victoria responded that:
“I always think one ought always to be indulgent towards other people, as I always think, if we had not been well brought up and well taken care of, we might also have gone astray.”
It’s an intriguing statement from Victoria, one which not only offers some insight into how she viewed herself and her station in the broader world as a young woman, but is also both in keeping with a certain tolerance she would maintain throughout her life towards those far away from her and at odds with the stricter, judgmental attitude she inflicted upon her nearest and dearest.
The issue of morality, particularly at the outset of the Victorian era, is also worth noting. Not for nothing, but Victoria was raised without a father and Albert without a mother. In Victoria’s case, her father had died when she was an infant, but she was raised in a strict and isolated environment, in which she saw her mother helpless and utterly reliant upon the charity of both her uncle Leopold and the efforts of Sir John Conroy. In fact, rumors had swirled in Victoria’s youth that the Duchess and Conroy were lovers – rumors considered baseless by those who knew them well, but such was the extent of their familiarity and closeness.
Albert’s mother, on the other hand, had been the very young wife of a husband more than twice her age. The couple would separate after seven years of marriage and two children following rumors that the Duchess of Coburg had followed her husband’s lead (he was a well-known philanderer) and taken lovers of her own. Her perceived abandonment, disgrace and early death – and, indeed, his own father’s behavior which seemed to prompt it – appear to have pushed Albert into the opposite direction: an upright, black and white view of virtue, integrity and strength of character.
In each other, Victoria and Albert were able to fulfill a certain relationship with the opposite sex that had been lacking in their own childhoods and, indeed, create a domestic environment at odds with the one in which they were brought up. And in reaction to the world around them, they upheld a moral code and standard that would become synonymous with Victoria’s reign.
Victoria awoke to rain on the morning of February 10, 1840 and quickly wrote a letter to Albert, which read:
“Dearest, how are you today and have you slept you well? I have rested very well, and feel very comfortable […] What weather! I believe, however, the rain will cease. Send one word when you, my most dearly loved bridegroom, will be ready. The ever faithful, Victoria R.”
The rain did cease and Victoria, dressed in a white satin gown that would then become the fashion for brides and a wreath of orange blossoms, traveled from Buckingham Palace to the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace. She was walked down the aisle by her paternal uncle, the Duke of Sussex, while her bridesmaids struggled not to trip over each other as they carried her train. While Albert was noted to appear “perplexed and agitated” during his vows, the diarist Charles Greville noted that the Queen conducted herself “with much grace and propriety.”
It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that very few Tories were invited.
A wedding breakfast at BP followed the ceremony, which Victoria described with:
“Our reception was most enthusiastic and hearty and gratifying in every way. There was an immense crowd of people outside the Palace, and which I must say never ceased until we reached Windsor Castle […] the people quite deafening us; and horsemen and gigs, etc. driving along with us. We came through Eton where all the Boys […] cheered and shouted. Really, I was very touched.”
Of their wedding night, Victoria wrote in her diary:
“I NEVER NEVER spent such an evening! […] His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how can I ever be tankful enough to have such a *Husband*! […] to be called such names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to be before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! this was the happies day of my life! – May God help me do my duty as I ought and be worthy of such blessings!”
The couple would spend a truncated honeymoon at Windsor Castle, during which only the first night would be spent alone. Otherwise they received visitors and hosted large parties, which Victoria found exhilarating and Albert exhausting. Albert had hoped that they might, like other couples, have a few weeks, even just a week, to themselves away from court and his wife’s ministers. To this, however, Victoria had scoffed, writing to him:
“My dear Albert, you have not at all understood the matter. You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign, and that business can stop and wait for nothing. Parliament is sitting and something occurs almost every day for which I am required and it is quite impossible for me to absent from London; therefore two or three days is already a long time to be absent […] I must come out after the second day […] I cannot keep alone. This is also my wish in every way.”
For a brief window, Victoria would appear to have it all – a happy marriage with a husband she loved, and her grasp fully around her duties as queen after nearly three years on the throne. The only fear was that of children, which Victoria had no desire to produce just yet. Unfortunately for the Queen, though perhaps fortunately for the succession, she would conceive easily and often. By the end of February she would be pregnant with her first child, Albert would be chafing in what he considered a pointless existence, and the honeymoon was firmly over.
In Part Two we will cover the first three years of the couple’s marriage, 1840 – 1843.
For more, see From Normandy to Windsor