Victoria adored her "Bertie," although at first, their relationship was plagued by political tensions and was hardly ideal. After her Consort died in 1861, Victoria mourned him for the rest of her days.By Brenda Ralph Lewis for British Heritage Magazine
When Victoria and Albert first met, in 1836, both of them were only 17 years old and as different as could be. Victoria hailed from a Hanoverian dynasty known for its vulgar and quarrelsome nature, and she inherited her family's exceptional stubbornness and intolerance. Strongly opinionated, she was also impressionable and poorly educated. Albert, on the other hand, had turned himself into a pillar of virtue and self-discipline in reaction to the debauchery of his father, the Duke of Coburg, and his elder brother Ernest. Unlike Victoria, the intelligent Albert benefited from a splendid education in languages, culture, philosophy, music, and every other kind of learning designed to make him the ideal prince. At 17, the priggish Albert, aware that he had been earmarked for Victoria since infancy, regarded her with indifference and even disdain.
Victoria, by contrast, thought Albert good, sweet, clever, and extremely handsome. Engagement rumours abounded in England at the time, but nothing came of them--yet. Three years passed before the couple met again. By then, Victoria had succeeded to the throne of England on the death of her uncle, King William IV, in 1837. Victoria and Albert now found themselves with very different priorities. The reigning monarch was duty-bound to produce heirs, and Albert realized, reluctantly, that he was to be the husband who could make this possible.
As Queen, Victoria outranked the minor German Prince, so there was no question of his proposing to her. She proposed to him, and though he dutifully accepted, he did so without joy, sliding into one of the deep depressions that typified his sensitive nature.
The English royal system had never devised a proper place for the husband of a reigning queen. Albert had no official function, no special title, no automatic place in the order of precedence. Furthermore, Victoria's subjects distrusted him as a German and a foreigner and regarded him as a thief come to steal their Queen. Many believed Albert lacked a suitably high-born ancestry for Victoria, and he reciprocated with his own dislike of England, its climate, and the philistine nature of Victoria's family and court.
Albert had even more reason to be downcast after the couple married on 10th February, 1840. Beyond question, he loved Victoria. "I believe that Heaven has sent me an angel whose brightness shall illumine my life," he wrote to her, but his life was far from satisfactory. He appeared destined for a powerless background role. Though Victoria behaved like a star-struck girl, following Albert round a room with admiring eyes, she made no attempt to involve him in her official duties. The nearest he came to state affairs was applying the blotting paper to her signature on documents.
Ostensibly, Victoria acted in this fashion because, as she herself reminded Albert, the English were "very jealous of any foreigner interfering in the government of this country." However, the same barriers applied to Albert's role within his own household. After Princess Vicky, the first child of the marriage, was born on 22nd November, 1840, Victoria insisted on giving control of the nursery to a woman Albert intensely disliked: her old governess, Louise Lehzen. Lehzen was a cunning, manipulative woman of no great intelligence, and Albert believed, with good reason, that she was dangerous.
Albert adored his daughter, fussed over her, and constantly feared for her welfare. When, in 1842, Vicky fell seriously ill, Albert feared the worst, but ultimately the crisis resolved Albert's problems.
Lehzen and the royal physician, Dr. James Clark, so mismanaged Vicky's treatment that Albert sought to intervene. The conniving Lehzen had held Victoria in thrall for years, and the Queen took Lehzen's side against her husband. A monumental argument ensued in which each parent accused the other of not caring if Vicky lived or died. In a rage, Albert wrote to Victoria: "I will have nothing more to do with it! Take the child away and do as you like and if she dies, you will have it on your conscience!"
Fortunately, the dreadful Lehzen had never diminished Victoria's love for Albert, and his forceful attitude so shocked the Queen that she backed down and apologized. Victoria dismissed Lehzen, pensioned her off, and sent her back to Germany.
The dark cloud immediately lifted from the royal marriage. It became clear that many of Albert's early difficulties in England had been due to Lehzen's malignant influence on the young Queen, which had encouraged suspicions of envy, ambition, and intrigue on Albert's part. Princess Vicky, despite all fears, recovered. The disagreements between Albert and Victoria did not end with Vicky's recovery. On many occasions, usually when Victoria was in the grip of post-partum depression, the two quarrelled over something trivial. These arguments took on a pattern. She would lose her temper and upbraid him. He would escape to his study. She pursued him, still arguing and complaining. Then, she would change her mind completely and smother him with apologies and promises to be good in the future. He would forgive her and all would be well--for a while. However, no rift as profound as the confrontation of 1842 ever occurred again. Lehzen's departure freed Albert to play a part in the life and affairs of his adopted country.
Prince Albert ultimately had a far more profound influence on Britain than any other member of the Royal Family, present, past, or, indeed, future. Almost single-handedly, he made a crucial difference to royal involvement in foreign and domestic affairs and in science, art, and industry. He created a new image for the once isolated and exalted Royal Family, bringing it into the public arena as caring leaders deeply concerned with the welfare of their subjects.
He became the first member of the Royal Family the public came to know personally, as he toured the squalid, unhealthy homes of the poor--"abominable stinking holes," Albert called them--and intervened on behalf of the unemployed who faced destitution. In his wake, Victoria came to realize that outside her palaces, too many people faced insecurity, privation, epidemic disease, and early death and needed royal philanthropy. Not everyone welcomed Albert's influence in political circles, but ministers and others in power followed his lead in broadening the concerns of government on the basis of morality rather than political or personal gain.
This remarkable achievement depended on Queen Victoria's willingness to follow her husband's lead. She proved more than cooperative. After 1842, a total volte-face occurred. Victoria now idolized Albert beyond reason. Her inordinate adoration of him grew so powerful that it sometimes overwhelmed Albert himself, who could barely cope with the physical demands Victoria made on him. Certainly, Albert's diffident, undemonstrative nature contrasted sharply with Victoria's emotional and volatile character.
Albert, however, fought through these difficulties to exert a supremely beneficial influence on Britain and on his wife. Where once Victoria had struggled to comprehend state papers or policy documents, Albert understood them easily and explained them to her. When Victoria did not have the capacity or patience for it, Albert sent memoranda, comments, and advice to ministers in her name. In 1857, Victoria broke with all precedent and gave Albert the title Prince Consort by Royal Letters Patent, which made the title a personal gift from the sovereign. No queen before or since ever granted such a gift to her male consort.
In family matters, Albert's word became law, and Victoria gave their nine children to understand that he was their one and only role model. Several of them, notably the future King Edward VII, who was a thoroughgoing libertine, diverged from this example. When they did so, Victoria tended to interpret their failings as a betrayal of Albert rather than regrettable expressions of their own individuality.
This slavish devotion to her husband turned crippling when Albert died in 1861 at age 42. Victoria's grief, like her love and adoration, grew both excessive and selfish. She sublimated her entire world to the loss of Albert. Wearing lifelong black in mourning was not unusual in the 19th century, but Victoria went far beyond this outward demonstration of bereavement. She convinced herself of her own imminent death and prepared herself to depart. She insisted on leaving his room at Windsor exactly as he had left it. She banned all laughter and merriment from the royal palaces. She retired into seclusion, neglecting her royal duties and even her family. Shortly before Albert's death, the 20-year-old Prince Edward, her heir, had been found out in the first of the illicit affairs in which he later specialized. The news deeply distressed Albert, who once confessed that such affairs made him feel physically sick. Weeks later, he died of typhoid, probably caused by the faulty drains at Windsor Castle. Victoria, however, blamed Edward for "killing" his father. She never truly forgave him, and for as long as she lived she excluded him from the role the heir to the throne should have played.
However, the ultimate proof of just how obsessive Victoria's relationship with Albert had been came from her reworking of his image. She cast him as a saint, an almost supernatural being who was too fine for this world and therefore left it early. The biography Victoria later wrote of her husband amounted to a hagiography in which she canonized him into the angelic "Albert the Good."
Victoria died in 1901, after 40 years of widowhood, and was buried next to Albert at Windsor. A statue of the Queen made in 1862 was brought out of storage and placed in the mausoleum next to the likeness of her husband. Albert's effigy looks upwards towards the dome of the mausoleum, as if gazing loftily at the heavens beyond. Victoria's statue, however, looks at him, her love, devotion, and sorrow at his early loss and her long widowhood captured forever in stone. It says everything about her, about him, and about a relationship that was extraordinary by royal or any other standards.
This article was written by Brenda Ralph Lewis and originally published in British Heritage Magazine in June 1999. Brenda Ralph Lewis has written frequently for British Heritage magazine and is the author of many books dealing with world history. Her particular interests include royalty and the Second World War.