In 1840, the newly crowned 18-year old Queen Victoria wedded her 20-year old first cousin—a German prince named Albert—in what would prove to be one of the most genuine and devoted marriages in the monarchy’s history.
Victoria came to the British throne in 1837 at the age of 18. Her predecessors, George III, George IV, and William IV had been unimpressive kings, and they had impaired the reputation of the monarchy. By her authority and her example, Victoria restored its reputation and dignity and embodied, represented, the era’s mood and moral improvement. Along with her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, whom she married in 1840, Victoria made the most of what limited political power and influence the monarchy still retained within the British constitutional monarchy system. She communicated regularly throughout her entire reign with her Prime Ministers. She also bore nine children and enjoyed many of the advantages of the industrial society in which she was living.
Queen First, Wife Second
In getting married and in the early years of the marriage, she was very keen to show Albert that, although he might be the paterfamilias, she was the queen. That was the thing which counted most. Albert himself was a very earnest young man, by all accounts rather humorless. He had been educated at the University of Bonn. He was an intelligent and very gifted person. His uncle, the King of Belgium, King Leopold, had foreseen the possibility of a marriage between the two of them because they were exact contemporaries. Leopold had, in effect, trained Albert for the job of becoming Victoria’s husband. It was a gamble because no one could ever be certain that the marriage was ever going to come off.
At first, Victoria didn’t like the sound of it. She wasn’t keen at all. When he came to Britain in 1839, she began to thaw because he was handsome and had excellent manners.
At first, Victoria didn’t like the sound of it. She wasn’t keen at all. When he came to Britain in 1839, she began to thaw because he was handsome and had excellent manners. He was serious and charming and had many of the qualities she might have looked for in a husband. It wasn’t long before she proposed to him. Normally, it would be the other way around, but she was the queen.
The British people traditionally don’t like foreigners. There is a long history of xenophobia in Britain, and the fact that Albert was German made him a subject of suspicion. The queen understood that and so did her ministers. It was necessary almost as a matter of policy not to give authority to this man who had just arrived from Germany. It wasn’t until 1857 that he was given the title of Prince Consort.
Prince Albert the Useful
The queen at first let him have no political authority at all. Gradually, his abilities began to show themselves and he started to be admitted into the interior circles of British political life. The first thing he did to get a good reputation was to restore the conduct of the royal household. The royal household was run in a chaotic way. Over the centuries, an accretion of special offices, duties, privileges, and rights had come in so that the palace was absolutely full of people, many of whom had very little jobs to do and for which they got very big salaries. For example, there were three different sets of servants, one to clear out the ashes from the grates, a second set to lay a new fire, and a third lot to actually light the fire. Not only was it cumbersome, it was very difficult to get the fire quickly changed when you needed it, that sort of thing.
Prince Albert took the whole thing in hand, rationalized the administration of the royal household from top to bottom, got rid of dozens of unnecessary servants and sinecure holders, with the result that the household was run better and at far less cost. You can imagine that the government is enthusiastic about anyone who can save it some money. It wasn’t long before the ministers began to realize that Prince Albert was a real asset. “We can use him.”
When she was starting to give birth for the first time, less than a year after their marriage, he was admitted to the Privy Council, the group of ministers immediately around the monarch, and was named regent in the event of her death. This is a time when death in childbirth was common. Women often died in their twenties and thirties giving birth. So, the possibility of a regency re-emerged, and Albert was named. That is a measure of his admission into the favored circles.
Albert wrote to his father in 1841, after a year and a half: “I study the politics of the day with great industry. I speak quite openly on all subjects. And I endeavor quietly to be as much use to Victoria in her position as I can be.” In a letter from Victoria to her uncle Leopold, she writes, “Albert is indeed a great comfort to me. He takes the greatest possible interest in what goes on, feeling with me and for me, and yet abstaining to keep from biasing me either way. We talk much on every subject and his judgment is, as you say, good and calm.” British politicians of both parties came to respect him for his hard work, active conscience and good judgment, and for his very high moral tone.
A Very Intense and Warm Marriage
Sometimes she would fly into uncontrollable rages against Prince Albert, and we have detailed written records of all their arguments. They have intense rows. They would fight verbally for a while, and then eventually he would withdraw and they would send letters to each other, many of which also still survive through which we can trace a documented course of their arguments.
His letters to her are rather condescending. He points out to her why it was that she lost her temper and where her faulty reasoning was, and eventually after a week or three she would feel better and they would get back together again and go off. So, in a way, it was a very intense and warm marriage on the whole. It certainly wasn’t entirely trouble free.
Prince Albert’s death in 1861 came as an absolute catastrophe, a shattering blow from which she never fully recovered. In the short term, it sent her into a profound depression and withdrawal from society. Every day from then until the end of her own life, which lasted for another 40 years, she had Prince Albert’s shaving gear brought in the morning. She had his bathrobe ready. They had a double desk where they had done their work. She had new paper and pens laid out on his side of the desk. She often used to go to bed with a plaster cast of one of his hands which she would hold when she went to sleep. In the early 1860s, she refused to attend public functions at all. She became more and more reclusive, with the result that her Prime Minister at that time, Lord Palmerston, was afraid that republicanism might start to gain ground in British politics as the queen had seemingly abdicated her responsibilities. The whole of the rest of her life, she wore black mourning clothes.