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Princess Victoria first met her cousin and future husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, when she was 16 years old. They met again when she was 19 and a queen. Betraying her innermost feelings, she described him thus:
Excessively handsome, such beautiful eyes ... my heart is quite going!
As he was of lower social standing than herself, it was Queen Victoria who did the proposing. Albert accepted; his family had engineered the match. The couple enjoyed each other's company and seemed happy together. Jane Bidney of Beer in Devon was commissioned to hand-make1 the lace trimming for the wedding dress. The work took six months to complete and cost £1,000. On 10 February, 1840, Queen Victoria married her charming prince at the Chapel Royal in St James' Palace.
First Assassination Attempt
While the Queen was expecting her first baby, the Royal couple were driving through London in her carriage when two bullets were fired at it. Though shaken, the Queen was uninjured. The would-be assassin, Edward Oxford, 18, was tried for high treason, declared insane and sent to Broadmoor Hospital. Given the option of release if he emigrated, he bought a one-way-passage ticket to Australia.
Also in 1840, the first postage stamps were issued. The black-and-white stamps bore a portrait of Queen Victoria's head in profile and cost a penny, giving rise to their nickname 'Penny Black'. Prior to this, all mail items had to be paid for upon delivery, so it was to be hoped that one didn't have too many admirers.
The Queen greatly enjoyed the sexual freedom her marriage brought her, although she resented the natural conclusion: pregnancy. She hated being pregnant and consulted doctors in an effort to find out how not to conceive. What she didn't know - and her medical people couldn't bring themselves to tell her - was that condoms were widely available. Made from a sheep's bladder and tied on with ribbon, they were known as 'armour' due to the fact that they were protection from venereal diseases for upper-class men. So to recommend them for the Queen would have been out of the question.
The royal couple went on to have nine children: Victoria, Albert Edward (who became Edward VII2), Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. The fact that the 5-feet-tall Queen was able to deliver nine healthy babies is testament to her strength and tenacity. In those days - even with the best medical attention - women were lucky to survive childbirth and the child mortality rate was high.
Prince Albert as a father was a strict disciplinarian, and in Queen Victoria's eyes he could do no wrong, as she stated in a letter to her oldest son Albert Edward:
None of you can ever be proud enough of being the child of such a father who has not his equal in this world - so great, so good, so faultless.
Ireland and a Million Dead
Queen Victoria fell in love with Ireland early in her reign. She took holidays there, and her affections were returned by the Irish people. However, the potato blight of 1845 caused widespread famine, and the late response of the British Government made matters worse. They took three years to repeal the Corn Law which prevented the import of cheap grain into Ireland. A million Irish people died of starvation or hunger-related diseases over a period of four years, and another two million destitutes had to leave their homes for pastures new.
Although Queen Victoria personally donated £5,000 towards famine relief, this was far outshone by the £14,000 raised by Irish soldiers serving in India, and even the Choctaw Indians donated a quantity of grain and $710 cash. The tragedy had taken place within the United Kingdom, while other parts of the Kingdom were the richest in the world. A later official royal visit failed to repair the damage to the relationship between the Queen (the British figurehead) and the people of the fair Emerald Isle.
The Influence of Albert
Queen Victoria loved Christmas all her life, recording gifts received in her childhood meticulously and descriptively in her journal. When she married Prince Albert, many German Christmas traditions were adopted into Royal family life. Prince Albert decorated the private family Christmas tree with strings of dried fruit, bonbons, wax dolls and painted unshelled walnuts. This practice is generally acknowledged as being the start of the commercial overdose consumers suffer from today - as early as September in some shops.
I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas tree is not less than ours used to be.
- Prince Albert
The tradition of hanging mistletoe around Christmas began in the Victorian era, as a way around the social restrictions of the time. No unmarried girl could spend time alone with a young man; if they were courting then they would be chaperoned. At Christmas, under the mistletoe, a lover could taste their sweetheart's lips, perhaps for the first time.
Despite having Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Brighton Pavilion to live in, Queen Victoria did not consider any of them suitable as a family home. So, in 1845 she bought the original Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and an estate of 342 acres from Lady Isabella Blachford. This, though, was too small, and so Thomas Cubitt was contracted to build a new Osborne House on the site, to Prince Albert's design. The estate offered the Royal Family a much-needed retreat and they were able to spend time together as a family. The children each had their own vegetable patch that they would tend themselves and be responsible for.
The Queen wrote about her children in her journal in 1846: 'a good, moral, religious but not bigoted or narrow-minded education is what I pray for'.
In 1848 the Queen and her husband leased Balmoral Castle, in Deeside, Scotland, and later purchased it for £31,500, further increasing the Royal Family's property portfolio. After a significant expansion and restoration, including the installation of flushing toilets, they took a holiday there each summer, thanks to the advent of railways in Britain.
The Great Exhibition of 1851
Prince Albert was interested in the arts, science, trade and industry, and he organised a project on a scale which had never been attempted before. The Great Exhibition was a commemoration of the great advances of the British industrial age and the expansion of the empire. It was a huge success, attended by dignitaries from all over the world. The profits from the Great Exhibition helped to establish the South Kensington museums complex in London.
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Opened in 1852 as the South Kensington Museum, it was renamed in May 1899 to honour Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The 'V&A' is the world's greatest museum of art and design. It has a National Art Library which due to its range and depth is a major public reference database. Today there are over 20,000 works in the V&A collections, covering a wide range of objects including ceramics, fashion, furniture, glass, metalwork, paintings, photographs, prints, sculpture and textiles. The museum has so many items that they have to be rotated as there just isn't enough space to display them all at once.
The £31m British Galleries at the V&A, which were opened in 2001 by Prince Charles, trace British culture from Tudor times to the Victorian era. On display is a writing desk which once belonged to Henry VIII. The galleries were part-funded with a grant of £16m from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green houses one of the world's largest and oldest collections of toys; dating from as far back as the 16th Century, it includes some of the first jigsaw puzzles ever made. Also among the treasures are rocking horses, dolls, teddy bears, puppets, toy soldiers, train sets, model cars and board games.
Two thousand years ago, Roman governments had provided public baths, toilets and clean water for the people to prevent them succumbing to disease. In the 19th Century, one of the biggest killers was cholera, a disease caught from drinking polluted water. There were major cholera epidemics, and a Dr John Snow researched an outbreak in the Broad Street area of London, tracing it to a certain well. People didn't believe him when he tried to inform them that the well water was causing the sickness, so he removed the pump handle, preventing its further use. The rate of outbreaks lowered in that area and Dr Snow's peers began to take notice of his findings. Gradually public facilities improved (although nothing like on the Roman scale).
Dr Snow became a celebrity, and he was rewarded with a post on the team of royal surgeons. On 7 April, 1853, Dr Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria prior to the birth of Prince Leopold. Some of her medical advisers had tried to dissuade Her Majesty from partaking of the pain relief, but she had declared:
It is we who are having the baby; and we will have chloroform!
The Victorians were very religious: childbirth was seen as a natural process and to intervene with medical aid was considered sacrilegious. However, Queen Victoria was, in their eyes, ordained by God, so if she was having chloroform during childbirth, this effectively sanctioned its use and it became prevalent (for those who could afford it.)
The Crimean War
We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat; they do not exist.
- Queen Victoria
The Crimean War began when Russia sent troops to the Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey. On 28 March, 1854, Britain and France became involved in the war in the Crimea, the diamond-shaped peninsula to the north of the Black Sea. More than a million people were killed during the war, with many of those victims dying as a result of sickness and disease rather than on the battlefield. The appalling conditions that soldiers had to endure, as well as military incompetence (like the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade3), led to significant changes in the way subsequent wars were planned and fought.
During the war, Queen Victoria reviewed her troops and visited hospitals, raising the morale of her armed forces. Mary Seacole (1805 - 1881) was one of those rare women who nursed the British soldiers; a memorial service is held by her graveside at the anniversary of her death every year in her Jamaican home town.
The formal treaty of peace finally came into effect on 1 April, 1856.
The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military decoration for gallantry, was created by Royal warrant on 29 January, 1856.
Prince Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Emich of Leiningen
Prince Carl was Queen Victoria's half-brother; the Duchess of Kent's son from her first marriage. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1837 and had a successful military career in the Bavarian army. The Queen held him in much affection and doted on his two sons Ernst and Eduard. Prince Carl suffered an apoplectic fit and died in November 1856, aged 52 years.
Proclamation to India
In her Declaration to the people of India in 1858, the Queen declared:
It is our Royal will and pleasure that none be in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law.
The Duchess of Kent
After months of estrangement, Queen Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent were reconciled, thanks to Albert's intervention, and the women developed a close relationship. The Duchess doted on her grandchildren, and she was a trusted companion and invaluable support to the Queen. In 1861 the Duchess had an operation on her right arm but the wound became infected. Attempts to remedy matters were unsuccessful, and she died on 16 March, 1861. The year turned out to be Queen Victoria's personal annus horribilis with a more severe blow to swiftly follow.
Albert invited the Earl of Shaftesbury to Buckingham Palace to discuss the matter of child labour, and the two kindred spirits engineered amendments to the Factory Act: in future children could only work from 6am to 6pm in the summer and 7am to 7pm in the winter.
Albert wasn't popular among the British people, and he wasn't granted the title of Prince Consort until 1857. His influence probably helped avert war between Britain and the United States after he intervened during a diplomatic row in the autumn of 1861. Prince Albert's health was always poor: in November 1861 he contracted typhoid fever, and his death a month later at the age of 42 left Queen Victoria devastated.
He was King in all but name.She commissioned a number of monuments in his honour, including the Royal Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens which was completed in 1876. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's love story is passionately portrayed in the 2001 film Victoria & Albert, starring acting legend Sir Peter Ustinov (as King William IV) in one of his last roles.
- Queen Victoria describing her late husband.