The woman who as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland would give her name to a period of unprecedented change in world history, the Victorian Era, was in fact born Alexandrina Victoria and was only fifth in line to the throne but the dissolute lifestyle of her uncles and their penchant for producing bastard children was to quickly propel the young Princess to the position of heir apparent.
Her father was Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of King George III who died just a year after Victoria’s birth and she was raised by her mother Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg Gotha who proceeded to control every aspect of her daughter’s life.
The young Victoria soon came to resent the suffocating presence of her mother and dislike her intensely something she later regretted following her mother’s death when it was revealed in her private papers the great love and affection she felt towards her daughter.
She was permitted little freedom as a young girl not being permitted to play with other children and instead having to remain all day in isolation at her studies with her only companion her pet dog Dash, and forced to sleep in her mother’s bedroom at night. Her only amusement was playing with her dolls and confiding her thoughts to her diary which she was to maintain throughout her life.
A little over a month after she passed eighteen and came of age her uncle King William IV died and she was informed by the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne that she was now Queen. Her reaction was limited to informing him that from now on she would be known only as Victoria.
In the public imagination we think of Queen Victoria as a stern and humourless matriarch but the young Victoria could not have been more different; she was excitable, passionate, flirtatious, and though she had no particular desire to marry informed by Lord Melbourne that protocol dictated that until she did so she would have to continue to live with her mother the search for a husband began almost immediately.
The man she was to marry was her first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha but when they were first introduced she was neither impressed nor disappoined, but he was by the best of a bad bunch. Things changed however on their second meeting when she confided to her diary:
“(Albert) is extremely handsome, his hair is about the same colour as mine, his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth, but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful.”
We do not know Albert’s thoughts.
By the time he came to stay at Windsor Castle she was hopelessly smitten and acted with haste proposing marriage on 15 October 1839.
The wedding took place four months later on 10 February 1840, in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace in London.
Despite having taken to her bed exhausted and suffering from a thumping headache, Victoria wrote excitedly of their first night together:
“I never, never spent such an evening!!! My dearest, dear, dear Albert . . . his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped in his arms and we kissed each other and again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how could I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband . . . to be called by names of tenderness I have never yet heard used to me before – was bliss beyond belief! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
Unsurprisingly perhaps given her passionate response to her new husband Victoria was very soon pregnant and she was to give birth nine times in the following seventeen years and though Albert, the Prince Consort, had no legitimate claim to the throne in his own right he would certainly sire many who did.
The Monarchy had been held in particularly bad odure ever since the time of the Regency and the reign of George IV.
It was seen by many as dissolute, amoral, and the Royal Family itself viewed as little better than parasites. So much so that there were four attempts on Victoria’s life in the first decade of her reign including once being beaten repeatedly over the head with a cane.
All this was to change because of the Prince Consort, who during his lifetime was always more popular than the Queen herself.
Albert was a tall, sober, and earnest young man who had no fondness for display and was not enamoured with the formality and absurdities of Court life. Rather he considered himself a man of duty with a role to fulfill and one he would undertake with the utmost seriousness and dedication. He was determined that the Queen and he would govern the country in partnership with the Government of the day and along with Victoria he attended meetings of her Privy Council and conducted meetings with Ministers in private.
Together they would pore over her official papers and he drafted her private correspondence. He was also appointed to head a series of Boards and Commissions established to look into ending slavery worldwide and abuses of child labour.
His activism was resented by many however and caused some disquiet in Government circles particularly when he attended sittings of the House of Commons or lent his name to specific causes that were not Government policy.
He also offended the Church when he publicly recommended a knighthood for Charles Darwin following the publication of his Origin of the Species.
Albert is best remembered now for the Great Exhibition which brought all the technological wonders of the age together under one roof in Hyde Park, London where the specially commissioned iron and glass structure designed by Joseph Paxton that was to become known as the Crystal Palace.
Albert had fought long and hard against considerable opposition for the Great Exhibition which ran from May to October 1851 and was to present Britain and its Empire as the Workshop of the World.
The Great Exhibition was to prove a triumph selling more than six million tickets, or the equivalent of one-third of Britain’s entire population, and the proceeds from it would later be used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
At home Victoria and Albert narrowed the distance between the Royal Family and the people by living a life of simple domesticity rejecting the environs of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle in London for the still grand but simpler Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and from 1851 at Balmoral in Scotland.
Albert in particular wished to portray a Monarchy stripped of its pretensions and mystique in favour of them being seen as a happy, hard working couple devoted to their family and their country living a lifestyle to which others could aspire.
In this he largely succeeded and Victoria was a willing partner delighted to be seen as a mother not only to her children but her country.
By 1861 Victoria and Albert’s eldest son Edward, the Prince of Wales, was engaged to be married to Princess of Alexandra of Denmark but he was also having an affair with the Irish actress Nellie Clifden which if it became public would cause a scandal and so Albert, who though he cut a fine figure had not been in the most robust of health for some years and was suffering from a fever, dragged himself from his sickbed to visit Edward at Cambridge where he was studying to provide some fatherly advice and end the gossip that was already circulating.
The relationship between Albert and his son was never as bad as it has often been portrayed but he did despair at Edward’s loose morals and his lack of work ethic and sense of duty.
On 25 November, whilst walking in the grounds of the University where Albert told Edward that his philandering must cease they got lost and were caught in a heavy rainstorm.
Following their meeting Albert returned to Windsor with what appeared to be heavy cold but he was also suffering greatly from pains to his legs and back. Even so, Albert at first refused to reduce his heavy workload but was eventually forced to take to his bed.
On 9 December the Royal Physician William Jenner diagnosed him with typhoid fever and declared that there was little he could do. Five days later on 14 December, Albert, the Prince Consort died aged 42.
It is not known if Victoria ever apportioned blame but she never truly forgave Edward for her husband’s death and was to repeat on numerous occasions that Albert had “been killed by that dreadful business.”
Victoria was utterly inconsolable following the death of her beloved Albert and went into a deep mourning withdrawing from public life with the bedroom they shared turned into a shrine dedicated to his memory. A lock of his hair she had placed upon his pillow and his pyjamas were laid out every night, and she vowed that in future she would wear only black.
Even at a time when an extended period of mourning for a loved one was expected Victoria’s grief seemed excessive and her self-imposed exile from public affairs was to imperil the very existence of the Monarchy itself.
There was already a growing Republican movement in Britain fuelled by events on the Continent that in recent decades had witnessed revolution and the fall of Kings. If the Queen wished to live in splendid isolation and the Monarchy ceased to be a functioning one then there was no reason to have it at all and she could mourn as a private citizen.
The press began to describe her as “The Widow” and the gossip surrounding her increasingly close relationship with her Scottish manservant John Brown saw her derisively referred to as ‘Mrs Brown.’
It wasn’t until 1870 and the Premiership of the emollient and persuasive Benjamin Disraeli that she was at last convinced to again fulfil her public duties but she never discarded her mourning clothes and was rarely if ever seen to smile.