On December 14, 1861, Prince Albert succumbed to what was believed to be typhoid fever, although a recent book Magnificent Obsession by historian Helen Rappenport suggest the prince suffered from Crohn’s disease. (The Daily Mail). Queen Victoria’s grief over the loss of her husband, Prince Albert, came to define her entire reign. The extent of Queen Victoria’s despair was laid bare in a previously unseen letter, in which she expressed the hope that she would go to an early grave. The remarkably candid letter, which has been acquired by London auctioneers Argyll Etkin, is thought to be the first in the public domain in which the Queen yearns for her own death, so she can be reunited with her husband. Victoria wrote the ‘astonishing’ letter in March 1863, some 15 months after Albert’s death, to 82-year-old Viscount Gough. In writing to her daughter Vicky, the queen lamented “Why may not the earth not swallow me up?”
Albert’s loss was the removal of her other half for they shared an identity. They were Victoria and Albert. Complicating the queen’s grieving period was the extraordinary circumstances of her life. After all, she was the most powerful monarch in the world at the time. European royalty depended on the stability of the British crown. Victoria has so come to depend upon Albert, more so than even her prime ministers, that after his death, she was rightly “at a loss.” Albert had served as more than her prince consort and father of her children.
Within a year of her mother’s death, Victoria now grieved her husband’s death. She would never recover from Albert’s passing. Victoria again turned to Princess Alice for support. Alice had nursed her father through his illness and became Victoria’s life line following Albert’s passing. Victoria’s dependence upon her daughter had Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, Alice’s betrothed, questioning whether the princess would make him a suitable grand duchess.
It took more than a few weeks for Victoria to manage her emotions and to lay out a plan for the remainder of her reign. She made the decision to treat all of Albert’s opinions as if they were an unwritten constitution. Victoria made slight alterations in Albert’s dictates, but she never abandoned the essence of her husband’s wisdom. The problem was that Victoria did not possess Albert’s intellectual capacity to learn from his mistakes and to change his mind. Victoria became downright unmovable from 1861 to her own death in 1901.
She turned the many family residents into mausoleums dedicated to Albert’s memory. All of his private rooms were treated as shrines to her husband. Nothing was removed. His clothes were set out each day. Valets prepared for his morning ablutions with fresh towels and water. The last offices of Prince Albert grew more exacting in Victoria’s life. She observed his passing in unrelenting details. She expected every mention or reference to Albert to be pious in nature. Her children were never to mention their father unless they did so with great deference.
Jerrold M. Packard (Victoria’s Daughters, St. Martin’s, New York, ©1998, pp. 94-95) explains, “Though Victoria’s position in a constitutional monarchy largely circumscribed her actions and authority to figurehead status – the physical embodiment of a state in which parliamentarians governed – the monarch’s desire to monitor and advise her government’s actions was to an amazing extent acceded to by her ministers, men who permitted her to review and comment on their deliberations and decisions to any degree she chose. Her participation was, in the main, always treated with near-religious respect, and her views granted as much deference as possible.
“Victoria regarded her role as a trust requiring her own unequivocal seriousness, immutable labor, and faithworthy probity; and she strove to fulfill that trust over any interest in personal gain or what would make life more comfortable for herself. Her entire existence reflected that outlook, whether it took the form of seemingly bizarre relations with her children or the demands she unflinchingly placed on her ministers. As for her official capacities, her closest adviser…was her husband, an adviser whose term was furthermore not fettered by any electorate. In the last years of their marriage, the prince consort spoke openly for the monarch whose grasp of national affairs came nowhere near matching his own, and who to her credit recognized her shortcomings and her husband’s concomitant strengths. Lord Granville would write of the sovereign after her loss: ‘Having given up [for] 20 years, every year more, the habit of ever deciding anything, either great or small, on her own judgment…who has she upon whom she can [now] lean?’ Gone was what one biographer called ‘an ever open encyclopedia on the desk beside her.’ When Albert died, not only did the normal physical and emotional love that passes between spouses vanish with him, but so did the one person over whom this queen did not want to reign.”
From History Extra tells us, “When Prince Albert breathed his last at 10.50pm on the night of Saturday 14 December 1861 at Windsor, a telegraph message was sent within the hour to the lord mayor that the great bell of St Paul’s Cathedral should toll out the news across London. Everyone knew that this sound signified one of two things: the death of a monarch or a moment of extreme national crisis such as war.
“People living in the vicinity of the cathedral who had already gone to their beds that night were woken by the doleful sound; many of them dressed and began gathering outside St Paul’s to share the news with shock and incredulity. Only the previous morning the latest bulletin from Windsor had informed them that the prince, who had been unwell for the last two weeks, had rallied during the night of the 13th. The whole nation had settled down for the evening reassured, hopeful that the worst was now over.
“Most of the Sunday morning papers for the 15th had already gone to press and did not carry the news, although in London one or two special broadsheets were rushed out and sold at a premium. For most ordinary British people the news of Prince Albert’s death came with the mournful sound of bells, as the message was relayed from village to village and city to city across the country’s churches.
“Many still did not realise the significance until, when it came to the prayers for the royal family during morning service, the prince’s name was omitted. But it was still hard to believe. The official bulletins from Windsor had suggested only a ‘low fever’ – which in Victorian parlance could be anything from a chill to something more sinister like typhoid fever. The royal doctors had been extremely circumspect in saying what exactly was wrong, not just to the public but also Albert’s highly strung wife, and very few had any inkling of how ill he was. How could this have happened, people asked themselves; how could a vigorous man of only 42 have died without warning?
“The impact of Prince Albert’s death, coming as unexpectedly as it did, was dramatic and unprecedented. The last time the nation had mourned the loss of a member of the royal family in similar circumstances had been back in 1817 when Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent – and heir to the throne failing the birth of any legitimate male heirs – had died shortly after giving birth to a still-born baby boy. Public grief at this tragedy had been enormous, and it was no less with the death of Albert.”