A few months ago we took a look at the courtship, engagement and wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and so today we’re taking a closer look at their first three years of marriage. In short, they were dramatic, surprisingly so given the domestic bliss for which they would later be known, and for which Victoria spent several decades mourning after Albert’s premature death.
But the Victoria who married Albert in 1840 was not the Victoria who was left a widow in 1861 and it took the couple a few years to establish what their dynamic would be. More specifically, what were their roles in public versus private and to what extent was Albert meant to bow to the will of a wife who outranked him?
This question was further complicated by the fact that within weeks of their February wedding, Victoria was pregnant, something which she actively did not want and a view that wasn’t softened over the course of the 17 years that she was giving birth. To be clear, her own descriptions of her reaction and the news itself was it was “too dreadful,” and that she was “furious” and “could not be more unhappy.” Victoria wasn’t one to mince words:
“I am really upset about it and it is spoiling my happiness; I have always hated the idea and I cannot understand how anyone can wish for such a thing, especially at the beginning of a marriage.”
Furthermore, she said if the entire affair was “rewarded only by a nasty girl” that she would drown it. This was included in a sweet little note that she sent her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium. There’s quite a bit to unpack there, not to mention an interesting desire for a boy from a reigning queen – surely, you would think, Victoria of all people would have a progressive point of view on women in authority. Not so much, but we’ll get there.
As for the dislike of pregnancy and the idea of coming motherhood, I think this has more to do with her relationship with men. Fatherless since she was an infant, Victoria sought male authority figures. This was clear in her relationship with William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, her first Prime Minister. This was definitely at play with Albert and the deference with which she would eventually treat him. And it was visible later on in her relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown.
Motherhood complicated that and the physical effects that underlined her adulthood were not what Victoria desired. Furthermore, she found the entire undertaking undignified, a state that emphasized her femininity and the very qualities that she associated with weakness. Which brings us back to desiring a male heir – Victoria was not an aberration of her generation. She was no Elizabeth I. While hyper-aware of her status and position, she was also occasionally at odds with them, desiring in many ways to play only the part of “wife.”
But that came later – at the age of 22, when she discovered she was pregnant, Victoria had not yet ceded ground to Albert and the coming years became a domestic battle royale, for all that the couple loved one another.
In the short-term, the Queen’s pregnancy forced the question of succession and what Albert’s role would be. If Victoria died in childbirth, or later on, before the child had reached 18, a regency contingency had to be established. After a fair bit of negotiation, including proposals that created a regency council or a co-regency (in which Albert would be supplemented by a British peer), a Regency Bill passed that gave Albert complete authority to rule in his child’s name until they were of age.
As Albert wrote to his brother, Ernest, back in Coburg: “You will understand the importance of this matter and that it gives my position here in the country a fresh significance.”
Victoria’s pregnancy provided a second benefit to Albert: greater reliance on him for work. She began to share more of what she was doing with Albert, including paperwork and intelligence coming in from the government. Her husband wrote to his adviser, Baron Stockmar that he was “extremely pleased with Victoria during the past few months. She had only twice had the sulks […] Altogether she puts more confidence in me daily.”
Victoria gave birth on November 21, 1840 at Buckingham Palace to a daughter, christened Victoria after her mother and usually known as “Vicky” to her family. It was a 12-hour labor, during which the Queen “suffered severely,” but was “not at all nervous once it began.” Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and Albert were both present for the birth. Though disappointed by the baby’s gender, when told by the doctor, Victoria responded, “Never mind, the next will be a prince.”
For two weeks after Vicky’s birth Victoria privately recuperated and was cared for by her husband in a scene described with:
“He was content to sit by her in a darkened room, to read to her, or write for her. No one but himself ever lifted her from her bed to her sofa, and he always helped wheel her on her bed or her sofa into the next room. For this purpose he would come when she sent for instantly from any part of the house.”
During the days he took over Victoria’s political work, including representing her at a Privy Council meeting. In the evenings he dined with her mother. Yeah, that’s pretty solid.
But Albert’s entree into British politics also set a new tone for the crown, particularly his belief that the Royal Family should be above party infighting. As discussed in the earlier post linked above, Victoria had shown a strong preference for the Whig party, bolstered in large part by her loyalty to Melbourne. It had led to a disastrous period in 1839 when she refused to do away with her Whig ladies-in-waiting, leading Sir Robert Peel to believe she did not have confidence in him to run a government and he stepped down. Melbourne returned and the entire fiasco showed the Queen playing favorites and overriding the will of the government.
Albert was having none of that. As they went about on a progress in 1841 during which time Victoria introduced him to a number of aristocratic British families, he was horrified by the deeply entrenched political rivalries he saw, which he believed “demoralised the lower classes” and “perverted many of the upper.” Fair enough.
When the Tories won by a landslide in 1841, Victoria refused to attend the first session of the new Parliament and showed marked reluctance to welcome Peel to BP instead of Melbourne. But the change served Albert well since on his way out Melbourne’s advice to Victoria was to rely on her husband who, he believed, had a good head on his shoulders. Albert, who had more in common with the reserved, socially awkward Peel, was key to streamlining the change of hands and it proved a watershed moment for their marriage and Victoria’s reign. She did end up leaning on Albert more heavily and it was he, not Peel, who became the true new Lord M.
Within three months of Vicky’s birth Victoria was pregnant again, a state in which she was once again horrified to be. Later on she wrote:
“What made me so miserable was to have the first two years of my married life utterly spoilt by this occupation. If could enjoy nothing, not travel about or go about with [Albert]. If I had waited a year it would have been very different.”
As described by her biographer, Christopher Hibbert:
“A ‘poor woman’ was ‘bodily and morally the husband’s salve,’ she complained. When heavily pregnant she felt more like a cow or a dog, a rabbit or a guinea-pig than a human being – women who enjoyed being pregnant were ‘disgusting.’ Besides, she got so depressed and ill-tempered, and then she had terrible quarrels with the Prince as, for instance, when he rebuked her for not paying proper attention when they were cataloging prints together.
“She lost her temper on such occasions. He would leave the room; she would follow him ‘to have it *all* out.’ He would retreat to his room to write her a letter, pained and reasonable, which would exasperate her; and then, in the end, she would be filled with remorse and pity and resolve to curb that hasty temper which she so often lamented in the pages of her journal.”
She went into labor on November 9, 1841 and, after a difficult birth, produced “a large boy.” He was named Albert Edward after his father and his maternal grandfather, but with the expectation that he would eventually be known as King Albert I. Sixty years later, when he ascended the throne, he chose instead the more British “Edward” and became King Edward VII. His birth caused widespread rejoicing throughout the country as a male heir hadn’t been born to a monarch for nearly 80 years, not since Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz had given birth to the future George IV back in 1762.
Behind the Palace walls, however, the royal power balance was about to hit a breaking point. The source of the trouble was Baroness Louise Lehzen, a German woman who had joined the household of the Duchess of Kent when Victoria was a child to care for her and had become a second mother. While her loyalty to the Princess in her youth can’t be faulted, she was ill-equipped to assume the position of power she had been giving once Victoria became queen. Even worse, she resented that Albert had become first in Victoria’s eyes, preferring to fall back on a dynamic that had worked when her charge was unmarried.
As Hibbert succinctly describes it:
“But Lehzen had become crotchety and ever more jealous, convinced that ‘no one but she could take proper care of the Queen as she had done in the past,’ arousing suspicion amongst Tories because of her outspoken support of Whigs, and resentment in Prince Albert whom, in George Anson’s [Albert’s private secretary] opinion, she was ‘constantly misrepresenting.’
“She exaggerated the Prince’s ‘every little fault,’ tried to ‘undermine him in the Queen’s affections and [made] herself a martyr, ready to suffer and put up with every sort of indignity for the Queen’s sake.’ With the Baroness, Anson concluded, ‘ we must always be subject to trouble waters.'”
Rather of out of character for Albert, he was incensed and made irrationally angry by Lehzen’s presence. He kept notes on their interactions and was particularly upset by her authority in the nursery, particularly after the birth of his son. When Vicky grew ill in 1842, Albert became convinced that the health regimen she was kept on under Lehzen’s direction, in conjunction with the court physician, was making her too weak to fight it. He eventually had his way, but not until there was a serious bust up between the couple.
In the aftermath the Queen finally Lehzen go, dismissing her on the grounds of her health. She returned home with a generous pension, and while Victoria continued to write to her until Lehzen’s death in 1870, they should only see one another twice more. Stockmar said of the incident:
“It was not without great difficulty that the Prince succeeded in getting rid of her. She was foolish enough to contest his influence, and not to conform herself to the change in her position… If she had done so, and conciliated [Albert], she might have remained in the Palace to the end of her life.”
The entire dynamic evidenced a strand of Albert’s personality that I don’t particularly care for – an arrogance that manifested itself as believing his opinion and choices were inherently better and more morally-sound than those of anyone else, including his wife. Victoria’s personality was transformed under Albert’s direction, and while he had his positive attributes, efficiently carrying out his duties being one of them, he did not so much support the Queen as control her. His fury at Lehzen, who may very well have been unfit, betrayed a need to have Victoria wholly reliant on him because that is what he wanted – what he needed to ensure he got what he wanted.
For a time that worked. But when he prematurely died at the age of 42, Victoria was wholly unprepared to function without him as a complete person. She wasn’t, not really. She was a widow the way way she had been a wife – obsessively, hysterically, devotedly.
This period of their marriage and the domestic dysfunction that surrounded it was over by 1843. The Queen gave birth to their third child, Alice, and a new period of her reign was ushered in with the mid-to-late 1840s.