The light is subdued in the Blue Room. He lies in his bed, plumped up with pillows. His breath is slow and laboured, his skin terribly white, his hair stuck down by sweat. Kneeling on the floor beside his bed, trembling, his wife – the queen. Holding his limp hand, she knows he is dying. Beside her, five of her children, their faces pinched with fear. Standing awkwardly, nearby, various ladies in waiting, equerries, doctors, and a minister or two. But she has eyes only for her darling prince. The time is almost eleven in the evening. As he slips away, she mutters, ‘Oh, this is death, I know it.’ On his passing, the queen lets rip a scream that tears down the walls of Windsor.
On the 14 December 1861, Albert, the Prince Consort, died. He was only 42. His unexpected death plunged Queen Victoria into grief so overwhelming that it endured for the rest of her life. Her pain was shared by the nation in an outpouring of angst that would not be seen again until the death, 136 years later, of Princess Diana. But after a while, public and politicians alike began to ask whether the Queen’s period of mourning would ever end?
Prince Albert and Princess Victoria meet
The 16-year-old Princess was immediately smitten – on meeting Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha for the first time, she confided in her diary that her German cousin was ‘extremely good looking’. It was 18 May 1836. They would not meet again for another 3½ years by which time, October 1839, Victoria had become queen. This time, her praise went even further – ‘It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful’. Albert had the teenage queen’s heart ‘quite going’.
The motivation for the visit was marriage – the queen, her politicians decided, was in need of a husband – not a king, the young queen was adamant on this, but a consort. Victoria, who previously had been against marriage, was now ready to embrace it. Etiquette forbade Albert from proposing; the onus fell on the gushing queen. With graciousness, he accepted, saying in German, he would be honoured ‘to share life with you’. Victoria was overjoyed – ‘Oh! how I adore and love him’.
Four months later, on 10 February 1840, Victoria and Albert were married. That night, their wedding night, they ‘did not sleep much’, and she woke to find his ‘beautiful angelic face’ next to hers. Within weeks she was pregnant. She was not happy to be pregnant but she would spend much of their 20-year marriage with child – bearing nine children.
The public however was less impressed by this German in their midst; a foreigner after ‘England’s fat queen and England’s fatter purse’. They would have liked it even less had they known the extent that the queen relied on him. From the affairs of state to the minutia of domesticity, she sought his advice on everything – and invariably accepted it. Without him, she wrote, she did nothing… ‘moved not a finger, didn’t put on a gown or bonnet if he didn’t approve it’. Prince Albert was king in all but name.
The Sickly Prince
On 1 October 1860, Prince Albert suffered an accident – horses bearing his carriage bolted and, unable to control them as they headed towards a level crossing, he had to throw himself off. He suffered only cuts and bruises but felt as if his ‘last hour had come’. His doctor feared that Albert’s constitution had been so badly affected that if he was to fall ill, he would lack the strength to fight it.
On 16 March 1861, Queen Victoria’s mother died of cancer. For a whole month she became a recluse – refusing to see her husband or children, eating alone, and poring over her childhood mementoes saved by her mother. Burdened by his wife’s instability, overworked and overwrought, Albert became plump and lost more of his hair to the point of wearing a wig. His mood was not helped by the shenanigans and indiscretions of his eldest son, Bertie, the future Edward VII, which, he felt, threatened to make a nonsense of the monarchy. On 24 November, in the pouring rain, Albert paid a visit to his wayward son in Cambridge. The visit brought a degree of rapprochement between the two, but Albert caught a dreadful chill. The queen later blamed her son for Albert’s illness – ‘That boy…I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder.’
Depressed and run down, Albert complained of stomach pains which had been troubling him for a number of years. He feared the illness would kill him but kept his fears to himself. Once he told his wife that if he fell ill he would not ‘struggle for life. I have no tenacity of life’.
The queen began to tire of her husband’s complaints, writing in a letter, ‘I need not tell you what a trial it is to me’. Only on 11 December, three days before his death, did the doctors convey the true extent of her husband’s illness. Albert was too weak to even hold a pen and wandered from room to room listlessly, with Victoria following him, hallucinating he was back in Germany. Albert had contracted, so his doctors told Victoria, a fever, a euphemism for typhoid. Subsequent theories point to stomach cancer.
In his final hours doctors administered constant doses of brandy. They were powerless. At 11pm, 14 December 1861, Prince Albert died. He was buried nine days later, the Queen too grief-stricken to attend the funeral.
The Widow of Windsor
The Blue Room in which Prince Albert died remained unaltered for the rest of Victoria’s life, a snapshot of the time when her life changed forever. The glass from which he had taken his last sip was kept on his bedside table, his blotting book and pen forever opened at its last entry, fresh flowers delivered every day.
Victoria retreated into her period of mourning, which by the dictates of Victorian society, was expected to be a year. However, Queen Victoria doggedly refused to come out of mourning. She wore black for the rest of her life, and retired from public life and matters of the state for many years. The politicians feared she was suffering from insanity – after all, her grandfather, King George III, had been inflicted.
Queen Victoria would reign for another 40 years without her husband to guide her. As Benjamin Disraeli wrote, ‘With Prince Albert we have buried our sovereign. This German prince has governed England for 21 years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown’.
Rupert Colley’s new novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available.
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