The Death of Prince Albert

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Irony of ironies, but the very date that Queen Victoria branded a bad omen and which holds a very fraught history within the Royal Family is in fact my birthday: December 14. I’ve never known quite what to make of that, especially since Queen Victoria was the first British monarch I took a particular interest in. But there’s a reason she hated the day – and a few reasons why she became quite superstitious about it – her husband died on December 14, plunging her into a 40-year widowhood at the age of 42.

Not only that but 10 years later, her eldest son nearly died of the same disease (Typhoid) on the very same day – when the 14th rolled around, however, he miraculously began to recover. Seven years after that, Princess Alice became the first  of Victoria’s children to die on, you guessed it, December 14, 1978. Even as late as 1895 the date had resonance – Mary of Teck, then Duchess of York, gave birth to her second son on December 14th of that year and her husband was afraid to tell the Queen lest she be somehow offended. She wasn’t, but she did note his birth date was “unfortunate.”

So, on this most unfortunate of days, but one on which I get to eat cake and open presents, let’s go back to the OG and take a look at Prince Albert’s death.

This history picks up where another blog post left off, thanks to a little incident involving the Prince of Wales and an “actress” by the name of Nellie Clifden. On November 22, 1861, Albert traveled to Sandhurt to inspect new buildings under construction, during which he caught a cold. Deeply upset at the time by the news that his eldest son was involved in a sexual relationship with a woman of ill-repute, he was also plagued by anxiety and insomnia. A workaholic to his core, he didn’t pause to rest, but instead prepared on November 25 to travel to Cambridge where he could have a man-to-man talk with his son.

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The discussion the two men had went well for the purposes of their rather fraught relationship, however it also involved a rather long walk in bad weather, during which Bertie got them lost. He was exhausted by the time he returned to his wife and younger children at Windsor Castle. He wrote to his eldest daughter, then Crown Princess of Prussia, a few days later:

“I am at a very low ebb. Much worry and great sorrow (about which I beg you not to ask questions) have robbed me of sleep during the past fortnight. In this shattered state I had a very heavy catarrh and for the past four days am suffering from headache and pains in my limbs, which may develop into rheumatism.”

Victoria, who wrote to their eldest daughter daily, followed this up with:

“Dearest Papa is not well, with a cold and neuralgia – a great depression. The sad part is – that this loss of rest at night (worse than he has ever had before) was caused by a great sorrow and worry, which upset us both greatly – but him especially – and it broke him quite down. I never saw him so low.”

By the end of 1861, six of Victoria and Albert’s nine children were still living at home. Vicky, the eldest, had married the Crown Prince of Prussia nearly four years previously and was then in the early days of her third pregnancy. Bertie, the second child, had left home for a mixture of military training and furthering his education, and was then in the middle of another round of studies at Cambridge that would ultimately prove futile. Alfred, the second son and fourth child, had embarked on his Naval, while the remaining children, spanning the ages of 18 to four, still lived with their parents.

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In addition to domestic worries over Bertie, the British government was navigating around the outbreak of civil war in the United States after the first shots had been fired the previous April. But in the middle of this, a British mail steamer had been stopped by an American warship when those shots were fired in Charleston, on board of which were two Confederate envoys on their way to Britain. Both envoys were seized and taken to New York, which broke international law and outraged the British government to the point that an outbreak of war between Britain and the northern states wasn’t out of the question. It was Albert and not Victoria who kept this from happening, but it came from countless nights writing missives by candlelight and by the end of the year, his health was frail enough to be taken down by a cold.

On Sunday, December 1, he forced himself to attend chapel. The next day he was unable to dress and spent the next day on a sofa in his dressing room, telling his family he was dying. Victoria would have none of it and told him to stop being ridiculous. He responded by saying, “I do not cling to life. You do; but I set no store by it. I am sure if I had a severe illness I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity of life.”

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By Friday, December 6, he seemed to be doing better after several days being forced to take to his bed. He inquired after news and spent time with his daughter, Alice, then engaged to Prince Louis of Hesse, by looking over the plans for her new house. Victoria, much relieved, even brought in their youngest child, Beatrice, called “Baby” by the family to cheer her husband up. She repeated French verses she was learning in the schoolroom for him, making him laugh, and cuddled with him on the bed.

By the next day, however, a rash developed on Albert’s stomach and it was clear to doctors that he was suffering from Typhoid Fever. Victoria was devastated – Albert was moved to the bedroom and Victoria spent time at his bedside, crying and watching him while he slept. He couldn’t sleep on Sunday night and wandered from room to room, feverish and mercurial. At various points he was kind and loving to Victoria, holding her face and kissing her, while at others he grew so peevish and impatient that he slapped her hand away when she tried to help. Before the sun rose, he requested to moved to the Castle’s Blue Room and Alice took to playing the piano in the adjoining room for his amusement. When she played Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott tears sprang to his eyes, his homesickness for Germany having never gone away despite 21 years in England.

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When the doctors next visited him, there was serious concern and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was told he should be worried. Alice wrote to Vicky in Berlin to let her know their father was very ill – when Albert asked her what she had said he responded, “You did wrong. You should have told her I am dying.”

By December 11, he was beginning to feel better. Victoria found him in the morning sitting up in bed and he spent time resting on her shoulder, telling her, “It is very comfortable so, dear child.” She was so pleased by his apparent improvement that on December 13, she finally tore herself away from his bedside to take a walk in the gardens, but the moment she was gone he took a serious turn for the worse. When told the news – and what it implied – Victoria broke down and seemed to understand that the end was near. Crying to her lady-in-waiting, she bemoaned the fate of the country, for Albert had taken over a significant amount of – if not the majority of – governance.

When she returned to the Blue Room, she found Albert very quiet and arranging his hair the way that he did every morning when he was well, “as though he was preparing for another and greater journey.”

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The next morning, on Saturday, December 14, Victoria went to the Blue Room at seven o’clock in the morning per usual. She later wrote:

“It was a bright morning, the sun just rising and shining brightly. Never can I forget how beautiful my darling look lying there with his face lit up by the rising sun, his eyes unusually bright gazing as it were on unseen objects and not taking notice of me. Sir James was very hopeful, so was Dr. Jenner and said it was a ‘decided rally,’ – but that they were all ‘very, very anxious.’ Sir H. Holland was very anxious. All constantly there or in the next room and so was I. I asked if I might go out for a breath of fresh air. The doctors answered, ‘Yes, just close by, for half an hour!’ I went out on the Terrace with Alice. The military band was playing at a distance and I burst out crying and came home again … Sir James was very hopeful, he had seen much worse cases. But the breathing was the alarming thing – so rapid…I was crying in despair saying, how should and could I ever get on.”

Throughout all of this, Victoria refused to summon Bertie to Windsor from Cambridge because she blamed him for Albert having grown ill in the first place. At the last minute, without asking permission, Alice wrote to him herself and he arrived with hours to spare.

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Bertie and Alice

All eight of the children took a spot at their father’s bedside, the room becoming a bustling hub of doctors, family and servants. Victoria left the room for a moment to collect herself and it was then that the death rattle sounded, identified by Alice. She immediately went to fetch her mother, telling her the end was near. She returned to the room saying, “Oh, this is death. I know it. I have seen this before.”

Later, she recounted:

“I took his dear left hand which was already cold and knelt down by him. All, all was over. I stood up and kissed his dear heavenly forehead and called out in a bitter and agonizing cry, ‘Oh! My dear darling!’ and then dropped on my knees in mute distracted despair, unable to utter a word or shed a tear! Then I laid down on the sofa in the Red Room and all the gentlemen came in and knelt down and kissed my hand and I said a word to each.”

That evening she slept with her youngest, Beatrice, wrapped up in one of Albert’s shirts.

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Victoria never recovered from Albert’s death. The Blue Room was kept as a shrine, as were his rooms – shirts and water laid out by servants each day as though he might appear. He was interred at Frogmore House in an elaborate mausoleum in which Victoria would eventually join him, but not until January 1901.

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