Did the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert degenerate to the point that, shortly before Albert’s death, Victoria lived in fear that he might poison her? Did the Prince Consort petition his wife’s Privy Council to grant him permission to legally separate from her shortly before his untimely demise, as well? Theirs is easily the most celebrated royal marriage in British history. While modern biographers are willing to admit it was no fairytale, it’s nonetheless still portrayed in books, film and television as a genuine love match between a brilliant prince and headstrong queen who in time came to worship him. Certainly his unforeseen death in his early 40s plunged his widow into an all consuming grief from which she never recovered. By the time Victoria died, 40 years after Albert, she’d turned her castles, palaces and estates into such unremitting memorials to his memory that their son, King Edward Vll, likened them to morgues it was his duty to restore to royal residences intended for the living. But did Prince Albert love Queen Victoria as much as she loved him? Privy Counselor and diarist Charles Greville, who was both a royal court insider and confidante of most courtiers, cabinet ministers, politicians and prime ministers closest to the sovereign couple throughout their entire marriage, writes in his monumental diary that he probably didn’t. Furthermore, his exasperation with her mental problems, that everyone at court, especially her spouse, believed she inherited from her notoriously insane grandfather, George lll, only increased overtime, and by the time his health began failing in the 1850s resulted in him avoiding her as much as possible, and possibly contemplating murder. A.N. Wilson also adds the curious story in his book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor, of a palace approved biographer who uncovered a letter penned by the Prince Consort in the Windsor Archives, and written toward what proved to be the end of his life, all but asking his wife’s government to grant them a legal estrangement. While the full complexity of Victoria and Albert’s marriage requires an in depth exploration that falls well outside the scope of a mere blog post, these questions are worth a cursory exploration, especially in light of them being mostly based on the long published correspondence of those closest to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert that, to this day, most of their biographers have chosen to ignore. The author encourages all those readers intrigued by this post’s subject matter to use this essay as a jumping off point from which to conduct their own research concerning this topic, and draw their own conclusions.
In many respects, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and his older brother, Prince Ernest, were brought up by their elders, particularly their uncle Leopold, destined one day to become the king of the Belgians, with the implicit intention of one of them eventually marrying their British first cousin, Princess Alexandrina Victoria. Born less than two months before Albert’s birth, it was during her early childhood that the prospect of Drina, her nickname as a little girl, inheriting the throne became a certainty. From that point onwards her mother’s ambitious family began grooming her two first cousins in Coburg in the hope that one day either of them would become her husband, thus solidifying their hold on the British throne. Intelligent, studious, idealistic and ambitious, Lytton Strachey indicates in his Queen Victoria biography, which was the first of its kind to not be a palace approved hagiography, that Albert mentally conditioned himself from earliest boyhood to fall in love with, or at least become a faithful and devoted husband to, his cousin, who upon her succession to the throne at 18 dropped her first name and from that point onwards was known as Queen Victoria.
A cursory look at Albert’s upbringing explains why he would think marriage to Victoria held the key to his destiny. Born the second, virtually penniless son of a minor German grand duke, the prospect of his heiress presumptive cousin offering her hand in marriage to him was the only ticket he had out of a life destined for equal parts obscurity and financial hardship. If Strachey is to be believed, by the time Albert was a university student he demonstrated no interest in women who weren’t his cousin at all, and there’s no doubt among Queen Victoria’s subsequent biographers that she was the first, last and only woman with whom he was ever romantically involved. Still, insofar as their courtship was concerned, it was Victoria who chose him over her other suitors, gushed about him in her letters and diaries, and in short order proposed marriage. The American proverb concerning leading a horse to water but being unable to make it drink is more than apt when describing the role their mutual family played in Victoria’s decision to marry Albert. They presented him to her, but she’s the one who made the final choice.
But was Prince Albert truly in love with her? At least one well placed courtier who was often in attendance on them throughout their honeymoon, according to Charles Greville, doubted the Queen’s new husband was. Greville himself appears to have harbored doubts as well. For contrary to the often told myth that theirs was a wonderfully romantic honeymoon in which they initiated the baby making at which they’d succeed prolifically throughout their marriage, the privy councillor, who was an eyewitness to their first few days as a married couple, remarked in his diary that their behavior toward each other was both cold and strange. His diary entry marked February 13, 1840 states that despite being married the previous Monday, on Tuesday morning the happy couple was seen strolling the grounds of Windsor Castle, and on Wednesday the Queen held a court ball. The normal protocol for newlyweds, particularly if they were a sovereign and consort, was to remain in seclusion for several days after their nuptials while they were hopefully baby making. Greville states he doubts, given Victoria and Albert’s peculiar behavior, an heir to the throne was conceived in the immediate aftermath of this particular wedding.
Furthermore, his diary entry for February 26, 1840 describes a visit he paid to the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. During their tete a tete, the Duchess, who was a lady-in-waiting to Victoria at the time, observed the grand show of affection the new couple were showing for each other, often walking hand in hand in full view of their courtiers in the gardens of Windsor Castle. Yet, in the Duchess’s opinion, the romance was entirely coming from Victoria, and Albert not only didn’t seem in love with her at all, though willing to pretend he was, but actually seemed depressed, lonely and homesick. Of course, the birth of Victoria, the Princess Royal, later Empress Frederick of Germany, proves her parents had sex on their honeymoon, and the ensuing births of her 8 little brothers and sisters throughout the course of her parents’ marriage proves they had an active sex life. But could Prince Albert simply have been yielding to his besotted wife’s demands in order to serve his own ends? Greville later states in his diary that frequently getting the Queen off and keeping her knocked up was the best means by which her husband could keep her notoriously volatile nature under control, as well as the best means of ensuring his maximum control over the throne while Victoria was in seclusion.
For one thing all her biographers agree upon, from Elizabeth Longford to Stanley Weintraub, is that Victoria made the choice to worship and obey her husband, and the only reason he became Britain’s uncrowned king is because the Queen allowed him to do so. She was the one who ultimately held the power in their marriage, and she never let him forget it. To that end, and far from the picture of domestic bliss their marital household has often been portrayed as being in films and tv, they engaged in extreme arguments and verbal fights that appear to have emotionally worn Albert out overtime. While the exact nature of Queen Victoria’s mental problems will never be known, even during her lifetime her passionate mood swings and frequent outbursts of blinding rage were thought symptomatic of the same mental disease that had so bedeviled her grandfather, King George lll, and that he’d probably passed it down to her. Greville makes increasing references to Queen Victoria’s hereditary malady throughout his diary’s 2nd volume, and also states Albert lived in perpetual terror of exciting it and thus often avoided her when he felt about to provoke it.
But did he, perhaps out of extreme exasperation, threaten to poison her sometime in the mid 1850s? In his diary entry dated September 17, 1855 Greville had dinner with the Viscount Clarendon, who at that time was serving as Her Majesty’s secretary of foreign affairs, in which the government minister told him bluntly that the Queen had recently brought her incessant outbursts of temper under control because she feared her husband might try to poison her otherwise, which Lord Clarendon believed he was more than capable of doing. One must keep in mind, this is not the observation of some low ranking, below stairs servant, but of a senior ranking government official with frequent professional and personal access to the royal couple. And he suspects one is contemplating murdering the other. His observation certainly doesn’t bespeak of a husband madly in love with his wife!
According to A.N. Wilson, long suppressed archival evidence was once uncovered suggesting matters had come to a head between Albert and Victoria shortly before his death. In The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor, Wilson writes a friend of his, whose a palace approved author, discovered a letter within the Windsor Castle archive written by Prince Albert and addressed to his wife’s Privy Council. In it he states her mental disorder has become intolerable, he’s convinced she’ll eventually become irretrievably insane just as her grandfather did, and he would like the government to grant him permission to legally separate from the Queen. While the Greville diary, plus the observances made in the correspondence of those closest to Queen Victoria, plus the vitriolic ramblings she often scrolled in her own letters and diaries, make this request seem plausible, and Wilson repeated the story in a Spectator article, there’s nonetheless room for doubting the veracity of this claim. First of all, A.N. Wilson is an unapologetic republican who frequently, and one suspects gleefully, predicts the impending demise of the British monarchy. Claiming that one of the most venerated of monarchs in British history was a bat shit crazy bitch whose husband tried to leave her serves his ends nicely. Furthermore, he doesn’t divulge the name of the author who found this letter, then goes on to claim the request was likely destroyed by the castle archivists once it was brought to their attention and returned. So with no evidence to back this claim up, it remains unsubstantiated and nothing more. But in light of the revelations made in the Greville diary, it’s certainly feasible.
After Prince Albert’s untimely death in the early 1860s, Queen Victoria was plunged into a prolonged state of grief from which she never recovered. While she certainly believed she loved her husband, was someone as innately obtuse and selfish as she was capable of real love? Lytton Strachey observed in his biography of her that Victoria’s emotional dependence on Albert was much like a farmer’s devotion to his water well, meaning the farmer draws upon the well for his survival, but he could just as easily transfer his devotion to another well once the first one went dry. Does the farmer possess a specific love for the initial well? In Victoria and Albert’s case, any man that she’d chosen to marry, given her maniacally passionate, and apparently monogamous, nature, she would’ve have been completely devoted to, and mourned as a god among men once he died. Thankfully, Prince Albert was a man of singular qualities who was deserving of a measure of respect, if not veneration. But what of the feeling’s of the well regarding the farmer? Albert had made up his mind in early youth that the British throne’s heiress presumptive was the only wife for him. Her position was the key to his devotion to her, and likely any woman in the same position he would’ve offered himself up to for marriage. Fortunately for him, she was obsessed with Albert from the moment they met. It’s doubtful he ever requited this obsession, but at least he made the most of it, left the monarchy better than he found it, and derived what happiness he could from it. It could’ve been worse.