It was decidedly a family match. Prince Francis Charles Augustus Albert Emmanuel of Saxe–Coburg — Gotha — for such was his full title — had been born just three months after his cousin Victoria, and the same midwife had assisted at the two births. The children’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Coburg, had from the first looked forward to their marriage, as they grew up, the Duke, the Duchess of Kent, and King Leopold came equally to desire it. The Prince, ever since the time when, as a child of three, his nurse had told him that some day “the little English May flower” would be his wife, had never thought of marrying anyone else. When eventually Baron Stockmar himself signified his assent, the affair seemed as good as settled.
The Duke had one other child — Prince Ernest, Albert’s senior by one year, and heir to the principality. The Duchess was a sprightly and beautiful woman, with fair hair and blue eyes; Albert was very like her and was her declared favourite. But in his fifth year he was parted from her for ever. The ducal court was not noted for the strictness of its morals; the Duke was a man of gallantry, and it was rumoured that the Duchess followed her husband’s example. There were scandals: one of the Court Chamberlains, a charming and cultivated man of Jewish extraction, was talked of; at last there was a separation, followed by a divorce. The Duchess retired to Paris, and died unhappily in 1831. Her memory was always very dear to Albert.
He grew up a pretty, clever, and high-spirited boy. Usually well-behaved, he was, however, sometimes violent. He had a will of his own, and asserted it; his elder brother was less passionate, less purposeful, and, in their wrangles, it was Albert who came out top. The two boys, living for the most part in one or other of the Duke’s country houses, among pretty hills and woods and streams, had been at a very early age — Albert was less than four — separated from their nurses and put under a tutor, in whose charge they remained until they went to the University. They were brought up in a simple and unostentatious manner, for the Duke was poor and the duchy very small and very insignificant. Before long it became evident that Albert was a model lad. Intelligent and painstaking, he had been touched by the moral earnestness of his generation; at the age of eleven he surprised his father by telling him that he hoped to make himself “a good and useful man.” And yet he was not over-serious; though, perhaps, he had little humour, he was full of fun — of practical jokes and mimicry. He was no milksop; he rode, and shot, and fenced; above all did he delight in being out of doors, and never was he happier than in his long rambles with his brother through the wild country round his beloved Rosenau — stalking the deer, admiring the scenery, and returning laden with specimens for his natural history collection. He was, besides, passionately fond of music. In one particular it was observed that he did not take after his father: owing either to his peculiar upbringing or to a more fundamental idiosyncrasy he had a marked distaste for the opposite sex. At the age of five, at a children’s dance, he screamed with disgust and anger when a little girl was led up to him for a partner; and though, later on, he grew more successful in disguising such feelings, the feelings remained.
The brothers were very popular in Coburg, and, when the time came for them to be confirmed, the preliminary examination which, according to ancient custom, was held in public in the “Giants’ Hall” of the Castle, was attended by an enthusiastic crowd of functionaries, clergy, delegates from the villages of the duchy, and miscellaneous onlookers. There were also present, besides the Duke and the Dowager Duchess, their Serene Highnesses the Princes Alexander and Ernest of Wurtemberg, Prince Leiningen, Princess Hohenlohe–Langenburg, and Princess Hohenlohe–Schillingsfurst. Dr. Jacobi, the Court chaplain, presided at an altar, simply but appropriately decorated, which had been placed at the end of the hall; and the proceedings began by the choir singing the first verse of the hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost.” After some introductory remarks, Dr. Jacobi began the examination. “The dignified and decorous bearing of the Princes,” we are told in a contemporary account, “their strict attention to the questions, the frankness, decision, and correctness of their answers, produced a deep impression on the numerous assembly. Nothing was more striking in their answers than the evidence they gave of deep feeling and of inward strength of conviction. The questions put by the examiner were not such as to be met by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They were carefully considered in order to give the audience a clear insight into the views and feelings of,the young princes. One of the most touching moments was when the examiner asked the hereditary prince whether he intended steadfastly to hold to the Evangelical Church, and the Prince answered not only ‘Yes!’ but added in a clear and decided tone: ‘I and my brother are firmly resolved ever to remain faithful to the acknowledged truth.’ The examination having lasted an hour, Dr. Jacobi made some concluding observations, followed by a short prayer; the second and third verses of the opening hymn were sung; and the ceremony was over. The Princes, stepping down from the altar, were embraced by the Duke and the Dowager Duchess; after which the loyal inhabitants of Coburg dispersed, well satisfied with their entertainment.”
Albert’s mental development now proceeded apace. In his seventeenth year he began a careful study of German literature and German philosophy. He set about, he told his tutor, “to follow the thoughts of the great Klopstock into their depths — though in this, for the most part,” he modestly added, “I do not succeed.” He wrote an essay on the “Mode of Thought of the Germans, and a Sketch of the History of German Civilisation,” “making use,” he said, “in its general outlines, of the divisions which the treatment of the subject itself demands,” and concluding with “a retrospect of the shortcomings of our time, with an appeal to every one to correct those shortcomings in his own case, and thus set a good example to others.” Placed for some months under the care of King Leopold at Brussels, he came under the influence of Adolphe Quetelet, a mathematical professor, who was particularly interested in the application of the laws of probability to political and moral phenomena; this line of inquiry attracted the Prince, and the friendship thus begun continued till the end of his life. From Brussels he went to the University of Bonn, where he was speedily distinguished both by his intellectual and his social activities; his energies were absorbed in metaphysics, law, political economy, music, fencing, and amateur theatricals. Thirty years later his fellow — students recalled with delight the fits of laughter into which they had been sent by Prince Albert’s mimicry. The verve with which his Serene Highness reproduced the tones and gestures of one of the professors who used to point to a picture of a row of houses in Venice with the remark, “That is the Ponte–Realte,” and of another who fell down in a race and was obliged to look for his spectacles, was especially appreciated.
After a year at Bonn, the time had come for a foreign tour, and Baron Stockmar arrived from England to accompany the Prince on an expedition to Italy. The Baron had been already, two years previously, consulted by King Leopold as to his views upon the proposed marriage of Albert and Victoria. His reply had been remarkable. With a characteristic foresight, a characteristic absence of optimism, a characteristic sense of the moral elements in the situation, Stockmar had pointed out what were, in his opinion, the conditions essential to make the marriage a success. Albert, he wrote, “was a fine young fellow, well grown for his age, with agreeable and valuable qualities; and it was probable that in a few years he would turn out a strong handsome man, of a kindly, simple, yet dignified demeanour. Thus, externally, he possesses all that pleases the sex, and at all times and in all countries must please.” Supposing, therefore, that Victoria herself was in favour of the marriage, the further question arose as to whether Albert’s mental qualities were such as to fit him for the position of husband of the Queen of England. On this point, continued the Baron, one heard much to his credit; the Prince was said to be discreet and intelligent; but all such judgments were necessarily partial, and the Baron preferred to reserve his opinion until he could come to a trustworthy conclusion from personal observation. And then he added: “But all this is not enough. The young man ought to have not merely great ability, but a right ambition, and great force of will as well. To pursue for a lifetime a political career so arduous demands more than energy and inclination — it demands also that earnest frame of mind which is ready of its own accord to sacrifice mere pleasure to real usefulness. If he is not satisfied hereafter with the consciousness of having achieved one of the most influential positions in Europe, how often will he feel tempted to repent his adventure! If he does not from the very outset accept it as a vocation of grave responsibility, on the efficient performance of which his honour and happiness depend, there is small likelihood of his succeeding.”
Such were the views of Stockmar on the qualifications necessary for the due fulfilment of that destiny which Albert’s family had marked out for him; and he hoped, during the tour in Italy, to come to some conclusion as to how far the prince possessed them. Albert on his side was much impressed by the Baron, whom he had previously seen but rarely; he also became acquainted, for the first time in his life, with a young Englishman, Lieutenant Francis Seymour, who had been engaged to accompany him, whom he found sehr liebens-wurdig, and with whom he struck up a warm friendship. He delighted in the galleries and scenery of Florence, though with Rome he was less impressed. “But for some beautiful palaces,” he said, “it might just as well be any town in Germany.” In an interview with Pope Gregory XVI, he took the opportunity of displaying his erudition. When the Pope observed that the Greeks had taken their art from the Etruscans, Albert replied that, on the contrary, in his opinion, they had borrowed from the Egyptians: his Holiness politely acquiesced. Wherever he went he was eager to increase his knowledge, and, at a ball in Florence, he was observed paying no attention whatever to the ladies, and deep in conversation with the learned Signor Capponi. “Voila un prince dont nous pouvons etre fiers,” said the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was standing by: “la belle danseuse l’attend, le savant l’occupe.”
On his return to Germany, Stockmar’s observations, imparted to King Leopold, were still critical. Albert, he said, was intelligent, kind, and amiable; he was full of the best intentions and the noblest resolutions, and his judgment was in many things beyond his years. But great exertion was repugnant to him; he seemed to be too willing to spare himself, and his good resolutions too often came to nothing. It was particularly unfortunate that he took not the slightest interest in politics, and never read a newspaper. In his manners, too, there was still room for improvement. “He will always,” said the Baron, “have more success with men than with women, in whose society he shows too little empressement, and is too indifferent and retiring.” One other feature of the case was noted by the keen eye of the old physician: the Prince’s constitution was not a strong one. Yet, on the whole, he was favourable to the projected marriage. But by now the chief obstacle seemed to lie in another quarter, Victoria was apparently determined to commit herself to nothing. And so it happened that when Albert went to England he had made up his mind to withdraw entirely from the affair. Nothing would induce him, he confessed to a friend, to be kept vaguely waiting; he would break it all off at once. His reception at Windsor threw an entirely new light upon the situation. The wheel of fortune turned with a sudden rapidity; and he found, in the arms of Victoria, the irrevocable assurance of his overwhelming fate.
He was not in love with her. Affection, gratitude, the natural reactions to the unqualified devotion of a lively young cousin who was also a queen — such feelings possessed him, but the ardours of reciprocal passion were not his. Though he found that he liked Victoria very much, what immediately interested him in his curious position was less her than himself. Dazzled and delighted, riding, dancing, singing, laughing, amid the splendours of Windsor, he was aware of a new sensation — the stirrings of ambition in his breast. His place would indeed be a high, an enviable one! And then, on the instant, came another thought. The teaching of religion, the admonitions of Stockmar, his own inmost convictions, all spoke with the same utterance. He would not be there to please himself, but for a very different purpose — to do good. He must be “noble, manly, and princely in all things,” he would have “to live and to sacrifice himself for the benefit of his new country;” to “use his powers and endeavours for a great object — that of promoting the welfare of multitudes of his fellowmen.” One serious thought led on to another. The wealth and the bustle of the English Court might be delightful for the moment, but, after all, it was Coburg that had his heart. “While I shall be untiring,” he wrote to his grandmother, “in my efforts and labours for the country to which I shall in future belong, and where I am called to so high a position, I shall never cease ein treuer Deutscher, Coburger, Gothaner zu sein.” And now he must part from Coburg for ever! Sobered and sad, he sought relief in his brother Ernest’s company; the two young men would shut themselves up together, and, sitting down at the pianoforte, would escape from the present and the future in the sweet familiar gaiety of a Haydn duet.
They returned to Germany; and while Albert, for a few farewell months, enjoyed, for the last time, the happiness of home, Victoria, for the last time, resumed her old life in London and Windsor. She corresponded daily with her future husband in a mingled flow of German and English; but the accustomed routine reasserted itself; the business and the pleasures of the day would brook no interruption; Lord M. was once more constantly beside her; and the Tories were as intolerable as ever. Indeed, they were more so. For now, in these final moments, the old feud burst out with redoubled fury. The impetuous sovereign found, to her chagrin, that there might be disadvantages in being the declared enemy of one of the great parties in the State. On two occasions, the Tories directly thwarted her in a matter on which she had set her heart. She wished her husband’s rank to be axed by statute, and their opposition prevented it. She wished her husband to receive a settlement from the nation of L50,000 a year; and, again owing to the Tories, he was only allowed L30,000. It was too bad. When the question was discussed in Parliament, it had been pointed out that the bulk of the population was suffering from great poverty, and that L30,000 was the whole revenue of Coburg; but her uncle Leopold had been given L50,000, and it would be monstrous to give Albert less. Sir Robert Peel — it might have been expected — had had the effrontery to speak and vote for the smaller sum. She was very angry; and determined to revenge herself by omitting to invite a single Tory to her wedding. She would make an exception in favour of old Lord Liverpool, but even the Duke of Wellington she refused to ask. When it was represented to her that it would amount to a national scandal if the Duke were absent from her wedding, she was angrier than ever. “What! That old rebel! I won’t have him:” she was reported to have said. Eventually she was induced to send him an invitation; but she made no attempt to conceal the bitterness of her feelings, and the Duke himself was only too well aware of all that had passed.
Nor was it only against the Tories that her irritation rose. As the time for her wedding approached, her temper grew steadily sharper and more arbitrary. Queen Adelaide annoyed her. King Leopold, too, was “ungracious” in his correspondence; “Dear Uncle,” she told Albert, “is given to believe that he must rule the roost everywhere. However,” she added with asperity, “that is not a necessity.” Even Albert himself was not impeccable. Engulfed in Coburgs, he failed to appreciate the complexity of English affairs. There were difficulties about his household. He had a notion that he ought not to be surrounded by violent Whigs; very likely, but he would not understand that the only alternatives to violent Whigs were violent Tories; and it would be preposterous if his Lords and Gentlemen were to be found voting against the Queen’s. He wanted to appoint his own Private Secretary. But how could he choose the right person? Lord M. was obviously best qualified to make the appointment; and Lord M. had decided that the Prince should take over his own Private Secretary — George Anson, a staunch Whig. Albert protested, but it was useless; Victoria simply announced that Anson was appointed, and instructed Lehzen to send the Prince an explanation of the details of the case.
Then, again, he had written anxiously upon the necessity of maintaining unspotted the moral purity of the Court. Lord M’s pupil considered that dear Albert was strait-laced, and, in a brisk Anglo–German missive, set forth her own views. “I like Lady A. very much,” she told him, “only she is a little strict awl particular, and too severe towards others, which is not right; for I think one ought always to be indulgent towards other people, as I always think, if we had not been well taken care of, we might also have gone astray. That is always my feeling. Yet it is always right to show that one does not like to see what is obviously wrong; but it is very dangerous to be too severe, and I am certain that as a rule such people always greatly regret that in their youth they have not been so careful as they ought to have been. I have explained this so badly and written it so badly, that I fear you will hardly be able to make it out.”
On one other matter she was insistent. Since the affair of Lady Flora Hastings, a sad fate had overtaken Sir James Clark. His flourishing practice had quite collapsed; nobody would go to him any more. But the Queen remained faithful. She would show the world how little she cared for their disapproval, and she desired Albert to make “poor Clark” his physician in ordinary. He did as he was told; but, as it turned out, the appointment was not a happy one.
The wedding-day was fixed, and it was time for Albert to tear himself away from his family and the scenes of his childhood. With an aching heart, he had revisited his beloved haunts — the woods and the valleys where he had spent so many happy hours shooting rabbits and collecting botanical specimens; in deep depression, he had sat through the farewell banquets in the Palace and listened to the Freischutz performed by the State band. It was time to go. The streets were packed as he drove through them; for a short space his eyes were gladdened by a sea of friendly German faces, and his ears by a gathering volume of good guttural sounds. He stopped to bid a last adieu to his grandmother. It was a heartrending moment. “Albert! Albert!” she shrieked, and fell fainting into the arms of her attendants as his carriage drove away. He was whirled rapidly to his destiny. At Calais a steamboat awaited him, and, together with his father and his brother, he stepped, dejected, on board. A little later, he was more dejected still. The crossing was a very rough one; the Duke went hurriedly below; while the two Princes, we are told, lay on either side of the cabin staircase “in an almost helpless state.” At Dover a large crowd was collected on the pier, and “it was by no common effort that Prince Albert, who had continued to suffer up to the last moment, got up to bow to the people.” His sense of duty triumphed. It was a curious omen: his whole life in England was foreshadowed as he landed on English ground.
Meanwhile Victoria, in growing agitation, was a prey to temper and to nerves. She grew feverish, and at last Sir James Clark pronounced that she was going to have the measles. But, once again, Sir James’s diagnosis was incorrect. It was not the measles that were attacking her, but a very different malady; she was suddenly prostrated by alarm, regret, and doubt. For two years she had been her own mistress — the two happiest years, by far, of her life. And now it was all to end! She was to come under an alien domination — she would have to promise that she would honour and obey . . . someone, who might, after all, thwart her, oppose her — and how dreadful that would be! Why had she embarked on this hazardous experiment? Why had she not been contented with Lord M.? No doubt, she loved Albert; but she loved power too. At any rate, one thing was certain: she might be Albert’s wife, but she would always be Queen of England. He reappeared, in an exquisite uniform, and her hesitations melted in his presence like mist before the sun. On February 10, 1840, the marriage took place. The wedded pair drove down to Windsor; but they were not, of course, entirely alone. They were accompanied by their suites, and, in particular, by two persons — the Baron Stockmar and the Baroness Lehzen.
Albert had foreseen that his married life would not be all plain sailing; but he had by no means realised the gravity and the complication of the difficulties which he would have to face. Politically, he was a cipher. Lord Melbourne was not only Prime Minister, he was in effect the Private Secretary of the Queen, and thus controlled the whole of the political existence of the sovereign. A queen’s husband was an entity unknown to the British Constitution. In State affairs there seemed to be no place for him; nor was Victoria herself at all unwilling that this should be so. “The English,” she had told the Prince when, during their engagement, a proposal had been made to give him a peerage, “are very jealous of any foreigner interfering in the government of this country, and have already in some of the papers expressed a hope that you would not interfere. Now, though I know you never would, still, if you were a Peer, they would all say, the Prince meant to play a political part. I know you never would!” In reality, she was not quite so certain; but she wished Albert to understand her views. He would, she hoped, make a perfect husband; but, as for governing the country, he would see that she and Lord M. between them could manage that very well, without his help.
But it was not only in politics that the Prince discovered that the part cut out for him was a negligible one. Even as a husband, he found, his functions were to be of an extremely limited kind. Over the whole of Victoria’s private life the Baroness reigned supreme; and she had not the slightest intention of allowing that supremacy to be diminished by one iota. Since the accession, her power had greatly increased. Besides the undefined and enormous influence which she exercised through her management of the Queen’s private correspondence, she was now the superintendent of the royal establishment and controlled the important office of Privy Purse. Albert very soon perceived that he was not master in his own house. Every detail of his own and his wife’s existence was supervised by a third person: nothing could be done until the consent of Lehzen had first been obtained. And Victoria, who adored Lehzen with unabated intensity, saw nothing in all this that was wrong.
Nor was the Prince happier in his social surroundings. A shy young foreigner, awkward in ladies’ company, unexpansive and self-opinionated, it was improbable that, in any circumstances, he would have been a society success. His appearance, too, was against him. Though in the eyes of Victoria he was the mirror of manly beauty, her subjects, whose eyes were of a less Teutonic cast, did not agree with her. To them — and particularly to the high-born ladies and gentlemen who naturally saw him most — what was immediately and distressingly striking in Albert’s face and figure and whole demeanour was his un-English look. His features were regular, no doubt, but there was something smooth and smug about them; he was tall, but he was clumsily put together, and he walked with a slight slouch. Really, they thought, this youth was more like some kind of foreign tenor than anything else. These were serious disadvantages; but the line of conduct which the Prince adopted from the first moment of his arrival was far from calculated to dispel them. Owing partly to a natural awkwardness, partly to a fear of undue familiarity, and partly to a desire to be absolutely correct, his manners were infused with an extraordinary stiffness and formality. Whenever he appeared in company, he seemed to be surrounded by a thick hedge of prickly etiquette. He never went out into ordinary society; he never walked in the streets of London; he was invariably accompanied by an equerry when he rode or drove. He wanted to be irreproachable and, if that involved friendlessness, it could not be helped. Besides, he had no very high opinion of the English. So far as he could see, they cared for nothing but fox-hunting and Sunday observances; they oscillated between an undue frivolity and an undue gloom; if you spoke to them of friendly joyousness they stared; and they did not understand either the Laws of Thought or the wit of a German University. Since it was clear that with such people he could have very little in common, there was no reason whatever for relaxing in their favour the rules of etiquette. In strict privacy, he could be natural and charming; Seymour and Anson were devoted to him, and he returned their affection; but they were subordinates — the receivers of his confidences and the agents of his will. From the support and the solace of true companionship he was utterly cut off.
A friend, indeed, he had — or rather, a mentor. The Baron, established once more in the royal residence, was determined to work with as wholehearted a detachment for the Prince’s benefit as, more than twenty years before, he had worked for his uncle’s. The situations then and now, similar in many respects, were yet full of differences. Perhaps in either case the difficulties to be encountered were equally great; but the present problem was the more complex and the more interesting. The young doctor who, unknown and insignificant, had nothing at the back of him but his own wits and the friendship of an unimportant Prince, had been replaced by the accomplished confidant of kings and ministers, ripe in years, in reputation, and in the wisdom of a vast experience. It was possible for him to treat Albert with something of the affectionate authority of a father; but, on the other hand, Albert was no Leopold. As the Baron was very well aware, he had none of his uncle’s rigidity of ambition, none of his overweening impulse to be personally great. He was virtuous and well-intentioned; he was clever and well-informed; but he took no interest in politics, and there were no signs that he possessed any commanding force of character. Left to himself, he would almost certainly have subsided into a high-minded nonentity, an aimless dilettante busy over culture, a palace appendage without influence or power. But he was not left to himself: Stockmar saw to that. For ever at his pupil’s elbow, the hidden Baron pushed him forward, with tireless pressure, along the path which had been trod by Leopold so many years ago. But, this time, the goal at the end of it was something more than the mediocre royalty that Leopold had reached. The prize which Stockmar, with all the energy of disinterested devotion, had determined should be Albert’s was a tremendous prize indeed.
The beginning of the undertaking proved to be the most arduous part of it. Albert was easily dispirited: what was the use of struggling to perform in a role which bored him and which, it was quite clear, nobody but the dear good Baron had any desire that he should take up? It was simpler, and it saved a great deal of trouble, to let things slide. But Stockmar would not have it. Incessantly, he harped upon two strings — Albert’s sense of duty and his personal pride. Had the Prince forgotten the noble aims to which his life was to be devoted? And was he going to allow himself, his wife, his family, his whole existence, to be governed by Baroness Lehzen? The latter consideration was a potent one. Albert had never been accustomed to giving way; and now, more than ever before, it would be humiliating to do so. Not only was he constantly exasperated by the position of the Baroness in the royal household; there was another and a still more serious cause of complaint. He was, he knew very well, his wife’s intellectual superior, and yet he found, to his intense annoyance, that there were parts of her mind over which he exercised no influence. When, urged on by the Baron, he attempted to discuss politics with Victoria, she eluded the subject, drifted into generalities, and then began to talk of something else. She was treating him as she had once treated their uncle Leopold. When at last he protested, she replied that her conduct was merely the result of indolence; that when she was with him she could not bear to bother her head with anything so dull as politics. The excuse was worse than the fault: was he the wife and she the husband? It almost seemed so. But the Baron declared that the root of the mischief was Lehzen: that it was she who encouraged the Queen to have secrets; who did worse — undermined the natural ingenuousness of Victoria, and induced her to give, unconsciously no doubt, false reasons to explain away her conduct.
Minor disagreements made matters worse. The royal couple differed in their tastes. Albert, brought up in a regime of Spartan simplicity and early hours, found the great Court functions intolerably wearisome, and was invariably observed to be nodding on the sofa at half-past ten; while the Queen’s favourite form of enjoyment was to dance through the night, and then, going out into the portico of the Palace, watch the sun rise behind St. Paul’s and the towers of Westminster. She loved London and he detested it. It was only in Windsor that he felt he could really breathe; but Windsor too had its terrors: though during the day there he could paint and walk and play on the piano, after dinner black tedium descended like a pall. He would have liked to summon distinguished scientific and literary men to his presence, and after ascertaining their views upon various points of art and learning, to set forth his own; but unfortunately Victoria “had no fancy to encourage such people;” knowing that she was unequal to taking a part in their conversation, she insisted that the evening routine should remain unaltered; the regulation interchange of platitudes with official persons was followed as usual by the round table and the books of engravings, while the Prince, with one of his attendants, played game after game of double chess.
It was only natural that in so peculiar a situation, in which the elements of power, passion, and pride were so strangely apportioned, there should have been occasionally something more than mere irritation — a struggle of angry wills. Victoria, no more than Albert, was in the habit of playing second fiddle. Her arbitrary temper flashed out. Her vitality, her obstinacy, her overweening sense of her own position, might well have beaten down before them his superiorities and his rights. But she fought at a disadvantage; she was, in very truth, no longer her own mistress; a profound preoccupation dominated her, seizing upon her inmost purposes for its own extraordinary ends. She was madly in love. The details of those curious battles are unknown to us; but Prince Ernest, who remained in England with his brother for some months, noted them with a friendly and startled eye. One story, indeed, survives, ill-authenticated and perhaps mythical, yet summing up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. When, in wrath, the Prince one day had locked himself into his room, Victoria, no less furious, knocked on the door to be admitted. “Who is there?” he asked. “The Queen of England” was the answer. He did not move, and again there was a hail of knocks. The question and the answer were repeated many times; but at last there was a pause, and then a gentler knocking. “Who is there?” came once more the relentless question. But this time the reply was different. “Your wife, Albert.” And the door was immediately opened.
Very gradually the Prince’s position changed. He began to find the study of politics less uninteresting than he had supposed; he read Blackstone, and took lessons in English Law; he was occasionally present when the Queen interviewed her Ministers; and at Lord Melbourne’s suggestion he was shown all the despatches relating to Foreign Affairs. Sometimes he would commit his views to paper, and read them aloud to the Prime Minister, who, infinitely kind and courteous, listened with attention, but seldom made any reply. An important step was taken when, before the birth of the Princess Royal, the Prince, without any opposition in Parliament, was appointed Regent in case of the death of the Queen. Stockmar, owing to whose intervention with the Tories this happy result had been brought about, now felt himself at liberty to take a holiday with his family in Coburg; but his solicitude, poured out in innumerable letters, still watched over his pupil from afar. “Dear Prince,” he wrote, “I am satisfied with the news you have sent me. Mistakes, misunderstandings, obstructions, which come in vexatious opposition to one’s views, are always to be taken for just what they are — namely, natural phenomena of life, which represent one of its sides, and that the shady one. In overcoming them with dignity, your mind has to exercise, to train, to enlighten itself; and your character to gain force, endurance, and the necessary hardness.” The Prince had done well so far; but he must continue in the right path; above all, he was “never to relax.” “Never to relax in putting your magnanimity to the proof; never to relax in logical separation of what is great and essential from what is trivial and of no moment; never to relax in keeping yourself up to a high standard — in the determination, daily renewed, to be consistent, patient, courageous.” It was a hard programme perhaps, for a young man of twenty-one; and yet there was something in it which touched the very depths of Albert’s soul. He sighed, but he listened — listened as to the voice of a spiritual director inspired with divine truth. “The stars which are needful to you now,” the voice continued, “and perhaps for some time to come, are Love, Honesty, Truth. All those whose minds are warped, or who are destitute of true feeling, will BE APT TO MISTAKE YOU, and to persuade themselves and the world that you are not the man you are — or, at least, may become . . . Do you, therefore, be on the alert be times, with your eyes open in every direction . . . I wish for my Prince a great, noble, warm, and true heart, such as shall serve as the richest and surest basis for the noblest views of human nature, and the firmest resolve to give them development.”
Before long, the decisive moment came. There was a General Election, and it became certain that the Tories, at last, must come into power. The Queen disliked them as much as ever; but, with a large majority in the House of Commons, they would now be in a position to insist upon their wishes being attended to. Lord Melbourne himself was the first to realise the importance of carrying out the inevitable transition with as little friction as possible; and with his consent, the Prince, following up the rapprochement which had begun over the Regency Act, opened, through Anson, a negotiation with Sir Robert Peel. In a series of secret interviews, a complete understanding was reached upon the difficult and complex question of the Bedchamber. It was agreed that the constitutional point should not be raised, but that on the formation of the Tory Government, the principal Whig ladies should retire, and their places be filled by others appointed by Sir Robert. Thus, in effect, though not in form, the Crown abandoned the claims of 1839, and they have never been subsequently put forward. The transaction was a turning point in the Prince’s career. He had conducted an important negotiation with skill and tact; he had been brought into close and friendly relations with the new Prime Minister; it was obvious that a great political future lay before him. Victoria was much impressed and deeply grateful. “My dearest Angel,” she told King Leopold, “is indeed a great comfort to me. He takes the greatest interest in what goes on, feeling with and for me, and yet abstaining as he ought from biasing me either way, though we talk much on the subject, and his judgment is, as you say, good and mild.” She was in need of all the comfort and assistance he could give her. Lord M. was going, and she could hardly bring herself to speak to Peel. Yes; she would discuss everything with Albert now!
Stockmar, who had returned to England, watched the departure of Lord Melbourne with satisfaction. If all went well, the Prince should now wield a supreme political influence over Victoria. But would all go well?? An unexpected development put the Baron into a serious fright. When the dreadful moment finally came, and the Queen, in anguish, bade adieu to her beloved Minister, it was settled between them that, though it would be inadvisable to meet very often, they could continue to correspond. Never were the inconsistencies of Lord Melbourne’s character shown more clearly than in what followed. So long as he was in office, his attitude towards Peel had been irreproachable; he had done all he could to facilitate the change of government, he had even, through more than one channel, transmitted privately to his successful rival advice as to the best means of winning the Queen’s good graces. Yet, no sooner was he in opposition than his heart failed him. He could not bear the thought of surrendering altogether the privilege and the pleasure of giving counsel to Victoria — of being cut off completely from the power and the intimacy which had been his for so long and in such abundant measure. Though he had declared that he would be perfectly discreet in his letters, he could not resist taking advantage of the opening they afforded. He discussed in detail various public questions, and, in particular, gave the Queen a great deal of advice in the matter of appointments. This advice was followed. Lord Melbourne recommended that Lord Heytesbury, who, he said, was an able man, should be made Ambassador at Vienna; and a week later the Queen wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging that Lord Heytesbury, whom she believed to be a very able man, should be employed “on some important mission.” Stockmar was very much alarmed. He wrote a memorandum, pointing out the unconstitutional nature of Lord Melbourne’s proceedings and the unpleasant position in which the Queen might find herself if they were discovered by Peel; and he instructed Anson to take this memorandum to the ex-Minister. Lord Melbourne, lounging on a sofa, read it through with compressed lips. “This is quite an apple-pie opinion,” he said. When Anson ventured to expostulate further, suggesting that it was unseemly in the leader of the Opposition to maintain an intimate relationship with the Sovereign, the old man lost his temper. “God eternally damn it!” he exclaimed, leaping up from his sofa, and dashing about the room. “Flesh and blood cannot stand this!” He continued to write to the Queen, as before; and two more violent bombardments from the Baron were needed before he was brought to reason. Then, gradually, his letters grew less and less frequent, with fewer and fewer references to public concerns; at last, they were entirely innocuous. The Baron smiled; Lord M. had accepted the inevitable.
The Whig Ministry resigned in September, 1841; but more than a year was to elapse before another and an equally momentous change was effected — the removal of Lehzen. For, in the end, the mysterious governess was conquered. The steps are unknown by which Victoria was at last led to accept her withdrawal with composure — perhaps with relief; but it is clear that Albert’s domestic position must have been greatly strengthened by the appearance of children. The birth of the Princess Royal had been followed in November, 1841, by that of the Prince of Wales; and before very long another baby was expected. The Baroness, with all her affection, could have but a remote share in such family delights. She lost ground perceptibly. It was noticed as a phenomenon that, once or twice, when the Court travelled, she was left behind at Windsor. The Prince was very cautious; at the change of Ministry, Lord Melbourne had advised him to choose that moment for decisive action; but he judged it wiser to wait. Time and the pressure of inevitable circumstances were for him; every day his predominance grew more assured — and every night. At length he perceived that he need hesitate no longer — that every wish, every velleity of his had only to be expressed to be at once Victoria’s. He spoke, and Lehzen vanished for ever. No more would she reign in that royal heart and those royal halls. No more, watching from a window at Windsor, would she follow her pupil and her sovereign walking on the terrace among the obsequious multitude, with the eye of triumphant love. Returning to her native Hanover she established herself at Buckeburg in a small but comfortable house, the walls of which were entirely covered by portraits of Her Majesty. The Baron, in spite of his dyspepsia, smiled again: Albert was supreme.
The early discords had passed away completely — resolved into the absolute harmony of married life. Victoria, overcome by a new, an unimagined revelation, had surrendered her whole soul to her husband. The beauty and the charm which so suddenly had made her his at first were, she now saw, no more than but the outward manifestation of the true Albert. There was an inward beauty, an inward glory which, blind that she was, she had then but dimly apprehended, but of which now she was aware in every fibre of her being — he was good — he was great! How could she ever have dreamt of setting up her will against his wisdom, her ignorance against his knowledge, her fancies against his perfect taste? Had she really once loved London and late hours and dissipation? She who now was only happy in the country, she who jumped out of bed every morning — oh, so early! — with Albert, to take a walk, before breakfast, with Albert alone! How wonderful it was to be taught by him! To be told by him which trees were which; and to learn all about the bees! And then to sit doing cross-stitch while he read aloud to her Hallam’s Constitutional History of England! Or to listen to him playing on his new organ ‘The organ is the first of instruments,’ he said; or to sing to him a song by Mendelssohn, with a great deal of care over the time and the breathing, and only a very occasional false note! And, after dinner, to — oh, how good of him! He had given up his double chess! And so there could be round games at the round table, or everyone could spend the evening in the most amusing way imaginable — spinning counters and rings.’ When the babies came it was still more wonderful. Pussy was such a clever little girl (“I am not Pussy! I am the Princess Royal!” she had angrily exclaimed on one occasion); and Bertie — well, she could only pray MOST fervently that the little Prince of Wales would grow up to “resemble his angelic dearest Father in EVERY, EVERY respect, both in body and mind.” Her dear Mamma, too, had been drawn once more into the family circle, for Albert had brought about a reconciliation, and the departure of Lehzen had helped to obliterate the past. In Victoria’s eyes, life had become an idyll, and, if the essential elements of an idyll are happiness, love and simplicity, an idyll it was; though, indeed, it was of a kind that might have disconcerted Theocritus. “Albert brought in dearest little Pussy,” wrote Her Majesty in her journal, “in such a smart white merino dress trimmed with blue, which Mamma had given her, and a pretty cap, and placed her on my bed, seating himself next to her, and she was very dear and good. And, as my precious, invaluable Albert sat there, and our little Love between us, I felt quite moved with happiness and gratitude to God.”
The past — the past of only three years since — when she looked back upon it, seemed a thing so remote and alien that she could explain it to herself in no other way than as some kind of delusion — an unfortunate mistake. Turning over an old volume of her diary, she came upon this sentence —“As for ‘the confidence of the Crown,’ God knows! No MINISTER, NO FRIEND, EVER possessed it so entirely as this truly excellent Lord Melbourne possesses mine!” A pang shot through her — she seized a pen, and wrote upon the margin —“Reading this again, I cannot forbear remarking what an artificial sort of happiness MINE was THEN, and what a blessing it is I have now in my beloved Husband REAL and solid happiness, which no Politics, no worldly reverses CAN change; it could not have lasted long as it was then, for after all, kind and excellent as Lord M. is, and kind as he was to me, it was but in Society that I had amusement, and I was only living on that superficial resource, which I THEN FANCIED was happiness! Thank God! for ME and others, this is changed, and I KNOW WHAT REAL HAPPINESS IS— V. R.” How did she know? What is the distinction between happiness that is real and happiness that is felt? So a philosopher — Lord M. himself perhaps — might have inquired. But she was no philosopher, and Lord M. was a phantom, and Albert was beside her, and that was enough.
Happy, certainly, she was; and she wanted everyone to know it. Her letters to King Leopold are sprinkled thick with raptures. “Oh! my dearest uncle, I am sure if you knew HOW happy, how blessed I feel, and how PROUD I feel in possessing SUCH a perfect being as my husband . . . ” such ecstasies seemed to gush from her pen unceasingly and almost of their own accord. When, one day, without thinking, Lady Lyttelton described someone to her as being “as happy as a queen,” and then grew a little confused, “Don’t correct yourself, Lady Lyttelton,” said Her Majesty. “A queen IS a very happy woman.”
But this new happiness was no lotus dream. On the contrary, it was bracing, rather than relaxing. Never before had she felt so acutely the necessity for doing her duty. She worked more methodically than ever at the business of State; she watched over her children with untiring vigilance. She carried on a large correspondence; she was occupied with her farm — her dairy — a whole multitude of household avocations — from morning till night. Her active, eager little body hurrying with quick steps after the long strides of Albert down the corridors and avenues of Windsor, seemed the very expression of her spirit. Amid all the softness, the deliciousness of unmixed joy, all the liquescence, the overflowings of inexhaustible sentiment, her native rigidity remained. “A vein of iron,” said Lady Lyttelton, who, as royal governess, had good means of observation, “runs through her most extraordinary character.” Sometimes the delightful routine of domestic existence had to be interrupted. It was necessary to exchange Windsor for Buckingham Palace, to open Parliament, or to interview official personages, or, occasionally, to entertain foreign visitors at the Castle. Then the quiet Court put on a sudden magnificence, and sovereigns from over the seas — Louis Philippe, or the King of Prussia, or the King of Saxony — found at Windsor an entertainment that was indeed a royal one. Few spectacles in Europe, it was agreed, produced an effect so imposing as the great Waterloo banqueting hall, crowded with guests in sparkling diamonds and blazing uniforms, the long walls hung with the stately portraits of heroes, and the tables loaded with the gorgeous gold plate of the kings of England. But, in that wealth of splendour, the most imposing spectacle of all was the Queen. The little hausfrau, who had spent the day before walking out with her children, inspecting her livestock, practicing shakes at the piano, and filling up her journal with adoring descriptions of her husband, suddenly shone forth, without art, without effort, by a spontaneous and natural transition, the very culmination of Majesty. The Tsar of Russia himself was deeply impressed. Victoria on her side viewed with secret awe the tremendous Nicholas. “A great event and a great compliment HIS visit certainly is,” she told her uncle, “and the people HERE are extremely flattered at it. He is certainly a VERY STRIKING man; still very handsome. His profile is BEAUTIFUL and his manners MOST dignified and graceful; extremely civil — quite alarmingly so, as he is so full of attentions and POLITENESS. But the expression of the EYES is FORMIDABLE and unlike anything I ever saw before.” She and Albert and “the good King of Saxony,” who happened to be there at the same time, and whom, she said, “we like much — he is so unassuming-” drew together like tame villatic fowl in the presence of that awful eagle. When he was gone, they compared notes about his face, his unhappiness, and his despotic power over millions. Well! She for her part could not help pitying him, and she thanked God she was Queen of England.
When the time came for returning some of these visits, the royal pair set forth in their yacht, much to Victoria’s satisfaction. “I do love a ship!” she exclaimed, ran up and down ladders with the greatest agility, and cracked jokes with the sailors. The Prince was more aloof. They visited Louis Philippe at the Chateau d’Eu; they visited King Leopold in Brussels. It happened that a still more remarkable Englishwoman was in the Belgian capital, but she was not remarked; and Queen Victoria passed unknowing before the steady gaze of one of the mistresses in M. Heger’s pensionnat. “A little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed — not much dignity or pretension about her,” was Charlotte Bronte’s comment as the royal carriage and six flashed by her, making her wait on the pavement for a moment, and interrupting the train of her reflections. Victoria was in high spirits, and even succeeded in instilling a little cheerfulness into her uncle’s sombre Court. King Leopold, indeed, was perfectly contented. His dearest hopes had been fulfilled; all his ambitions were satisfied; and for the rest of his life he had only to enjoy, in undisturbed decorum, his throne, his respectability, the table of precedence, and the punctual discharge of his irksome duties. But unfortunately the felicity of those who surrounded him was less complete. His Court, it was murmured, was as gloomy as a conventicle, and the most dismal of all the sufferers was his wife. “Pas de plaisanteries, madame!” he had exclaimed to the unfortunate successor of the Princess Charlotte, when, in the early days of their marriage, she had attempted a feeble joke. Did she not understand that the consort of a constitutional sovereign must not be frivolous? She understood, at last, only too well; and when the startled walls of the state apartments re-echoed to the chattering and the laughter of Victoria, the poor lady found that she had almost forgotten how to smile.
Another year, Germany was visited, and Albert displayed the beauties of his home. When Victoria crossed the frontier, she was much excited — and she was astonished as well. “To hear the people speak German,” she noted in her diary, “and to see the German soldiers, etc., seemed to me so singular.” Having recovered from this slight shock, she found the country charming. She was feted everywhere, crowds of the surrounding royalties swooped down to welcome her, and the prettiest groups of peasant children, dressed in their best clothes, presented her with bunches of flowers. The principality of Coburg, with its romantic scenery and its well-behaved inhabitants, particularly delighted her; and when she woke up one morning to find herself in “dear Rosenau, my Albert’s birthplace,” it was “like a beautiful dream.” On her return home, she expatiated, in a letter to King Leopold, upon the pleasures of the trip, dwelling especially upon the intensity of her affection for Albert’s native land. “I have a feeling,” she said, “for our dear little Germany, which I cannot describe. I felt it at Rosenau so much. It is a something which touches me, and which goes to my heart, and makes me inclined to cry. I never felt at any other place that sort of pensive pleasure and peace which I felt there. I fear I almost like it too much.”
The husband was not so happy as the wife. In spite of the great improvement in his situation, in spite of a growing family and the adoration of Victoria, Albert was still a stranger in a strange land, and the serenity of spiritual satisfaction was denied him. It was something, no doubt, to have dominated his immediate environment; but it was not enough; and, besides, in the very completeness of his success, there was a bitterness. Victoria idolised him; but it was understanding that he craved for, not idolatry; and how much did Victoria, filled to the brim though she was with him, understand him? How much does the bucket understand the well? He was lonely. He went to his organ and improvised with learned modulations until the sounds, swelling and subsiding through elaborate cadences, brought some solace to his heart. Then, with the elasticity of youth, he hurried off to play with the babies, or to design a new pigsty, or to read aloud the “Church History of Scotland” to Victoria, or to pirouette before her on one toe, like a ballet-dancer, with a fixed smile, to show her how she ought to behave when she appeared in public places. Thus did he amuse himself; but there was one distraction in which he did not indulge. He never flirted — no, not with the prettiest ladies of the Court. When, during their engagement, the Queen had remarked with pride to Lord Melbourne that the Prince paid no attention to any other woman, the cynic had answered, “No, that sort of thing is apt to come later;” upon which she had scolded him severely, and then hurried off to Stockmar to repeat what Lord M. had said. But the Baron had reassured her; though in other cases, he had replied, that might happen, he did not think it would in Albert’s. And the Baron was right. Throughout their married life no rival female charms ever had cause to give Victoria one moment’s pang of jealousy.
What more and more absorbed him — bringing with it a curious comfort of its own — was his work. With the advent of Peel, he began to intervene actively in the affairs of the State. In more ways than one — in the cast of their intelligence, in their moral earnestness, even in the uneasy formalism of their manners — the two men resembled each other; there was a sympathy between them; and thus Peel was ready enough to listen to the advice of Stockmar, and to urge the Prince forward into public life. A royal commission was about to be formed to enquire whether advantage might not be taken of the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament to encourage the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom; and Peel, with great perspicacity, asked the Prince to preside over it. The work was of a kind which precisely suited Albert: his love of art, his love of method, his love of coming into contact — close yet dignified — with distinguished men — it satisfied them all; and he threw himself into it con amore. Some of the members of the commission were somewhat alarmed when, in his opening speech, he pointed out the necessity of dividing the subjects to be considered into “categories-” the word, they thought, smacked dangerously of German metaphysics; but their confidence returned when they observed His Royal Highness’s extraordinary technical acquaintance with the processes of fresco painting. When the question arose as to whether the decorations upon the walls of the new buildings should, or should not, have a moral purpose, the Prince spoke strongly for the affirmative. Although many, he observed, would give but a passing glance to the works, the painter was not therefore to forget that others might view them with more thoughtful eyes. This argument convinced the commission, and it was decided that the subjects to be depicted should be of an improving nature. The frescoes were carried out in accordance with the commission’s instructions, but unfortunately before very long they had become, even to the most thoughtful eyes, totally invisible. It seems that His Royal Highness’s technical acquaintance with the processes of fresco painting was incomplete!
The next task upon which the Prince embarked was a more arduous one: he determined to reform the organisation of the royal household. This reform had been long overdue. For years past the confusion, discomfort, and extravagance in the royal residences, and in Buckingham Palace particularly, had been scandalous; no reform had been practicable under the rule of the Baroness; but her functions had now devolved upon the Prince, and in 1844, he boldly attacked the problem. Three years earlier, Stockmar, after careful enquiry, had revealed in an elaborate memorandum an extraordinary state of affairs. The control of the household, it appeared, was divided in the strangest manner between a number of authorities, each independent of the other, each possessed of vague and fluctuating powers, without responsibility, and without co-ordination. Of these authorities, the most prominent were the Lord Steward and the Lord Chamberlain — noblemen of high rank and political importance, who changed office with every administration, who did not reside with the Court, and had no effective representatives attached to it. The distribution of their respective functions was uncertain and peculiar. In Buckingham Palace, it was believed that the Lord Chamberlain had charge of the whole of the rooms, with the exception of the kitchen, sculleries, and pantries, which were claimed by the Lord Steward. At the same time, the outside of the Palace was under the control of neither of these functionaries — but of the Office of Woods and Forests; and thus, while the insides of the windows were cleaned by the Department of the Lord Chamberlain — or possibly, in certain cases, of the Lord Steward — the Office of Woods and Forests cleaned their outsides. Of the servants, the housekeepers, the pages, and the housemaids were under the authority of the Lord Chamberlain; the clerk of the kitchen, the cooks, and the porters were under that of the Lord Steward; but the footmen, the livery-porters, and the under-butlers took their orders from yet another official — the Master of the Horse. Naturally, in these circumstances the service was extremely defective and the lack of discipline among the servants disgraceful. They absented themselves for as long as they pleased and whenever the fancy took them; “and if,” as the Baron put it, “smoking, drinking, and other irregularities occur in the dormitories, where footmen, etc., sleep ten and twelve in each room, no one can help it.” As for Her Majesty’s guests, there was nobody to show them to their rooms, and they were often left, having utterly lost their way in the complicated passages, to wander helpless by the hour. The strange divisions of authority extended not only to persons but to things. The Queen observed that there was never a fire in the dining-room. She enquired why. The answer was “the Lord Steward lays the fire, and the Lord Chamberlain lights it;” the underlings of those two great noblemen having failed to come to an accommodation, there was no help for it — the Queen must eat in the cold.
A surprising incident opened everyone’s eyes to the confusion and negligence that reigned in the Palace. A fortnight after the birth of the Princess Royal the nurse heard a suspicious noise in the room next to the Queen’s bedroom. She called to one of the pages, who, looking under a large sofa, perceived there a crouching figure “with a most repulsive appearance.” It was “the boy Jones.” This enigmatical personage, whose escapades dominated the newspapers for several ensuing months, and whose motives and character remained to the end ambiguous, was an undersized lad of 17, the son of a tailor, who had apparently gained admittance to the Palace by climbing over the garden wall and walking in through an open window. Two years before he had paid a similar visit in the guise of a chimney-sweep. He now declared that he had spent three days in the Palace, hiding under various beds, that he had “helped himself to soup and other eatables,” and that he had “sat upon the throne, seen the Queen, and heard the Princess Royal squall.” Every detail of the strange affair was eagerly canvassed. The Times reported that the boy Jones had “from his infancy been fond of reading,” but that “his countenance is exceedingly sullen.” It added: “The sofa under which the boy Jones was discovered, we understand, is one of the most costly and magnificent material and workmanship, and ordered expressly for the accommodation of the royal and illustrious visitors who call to pay their respects to Her Majesty.” The culprit was sent for three months to the “House of Correction.” When he emerged, he immediately returned to Buckingham Palace. He was discovered, and sent back to the “House of Correction” for another three months, after which he was offered L4 a week by a music hall to appear upon the stage. He refused this offer, and shortly afterwards was found by the police loitering round Buckingham Palace. The authorities acted vigorously, and, without any trial or process of law, shipped the boy Jones off to sea. A year later his ship put into Portsmouth to refit, and he at once disembarked and walked to London. He was re-arrested before he reached the Palace, and sent back to his ship, the Warspite. On this occasion it was noticed that he had “much improved in personal appearance and grown quite corpulent;” and so the boy Jones passed out of history, though we catch one last glimpse of him in 1844 falling overboard in the night between Tunis and Algiers. He was fished up again; but it was conjectured — as one of the Warspite’s officers explained in a letter to The Times — that his fall had not been accidental, but that he had deliberately jumped into the Mediterranean in order to “see the life-buoy light burning.” Of a boy with such a record, what else could be supposed?
But discomfort and alarm were not the only results of the mismanagement of the household; the waste, extravagance, and peculation that also flowed from it were immeasurable. There were preposterous perquisites and malpractices of every kind. It was, for instance, an ancient and immutable rule that a candle that had once been lighted should never be lighted again; what happened to the old candles, nobody knew. Again, the Prince, examining the accounts, was puzzled by a weekly expenditure of thirty-five shillings on “Red Room Wine.” He enquired into the matter, and after great difficulty discovered that in the time of George III a room in Windsor Castle with red hangings had once been used as a guard-room, and that five shillings a day had been allowed to provide wine for the officers. The guard had long since been moved elsewhere, but the payment for wine in the Red Room continued, the money being received by a half-pay officer who held the sinecure position of under-butler.
After much laborious investigation, and a stiff struggle with the multitude of vested interests which had been brought into being by long years of neglect, the Prince succeeded in effecting a complete reform. The various conflicting authorities were induced to resign their powers into the hands of a single official, the Master of the Household, who became responsible for the entire management of the royal palaces. Great economies were made, and the whole crowd of venerable abuses was swept away. Among others, the unlucky half-pay officer of the Red Room was, much to his surprise, given the choice of relinquishing his weekly emolument or of performing the duties of an under-butler. Even the irregularities among the footmen, etc., were greatly diminished. There were outcries and complaints; the Prince was accused of meddling, of injustice, and of saving candle-ends; but he held on his course, and before long the admirable administration of the royal household was recognised as a convincing proof of his perseverance and capacity.
At the same time his activity was increasing enormously in a more important sphere. He had become the Queen’s Private Secretary, her confidential adviser, her second self. He was now always present at her interviews with Ministers. He took, like the Queen, a special interest in foreign policy; but there was no public question in which his influence was not felt. A double process was at work; while Victoria fell more and more absolutely under his intellectual predominance, he, simultaneously, grew more and more completely absorbed by the machinery of high politics — the incessant and multifarious business of a great State. Nobody any more could call him a dilettante; he was a worker, a public personage, a man of affairs. Stockmar noted the change with exultation. “The Prince,” he wrote, “has improved very much lately. He has evidently a head for politics. He has become, too, far more independent. His mental activity is constantly on the increase, and he gives the greater part of his time to business, without complaining.”
“The relations between husband and wife,” added the Baron, “are all one could desire.”
Long before Peel’s ministry came to an end, there had been a complete change in Victoria’s attitude towards him. His appreciation of the Prince had softened her heart; the sincerity and warmth of his nature, which, in private intercourse with those whom he wished to please, had the power of gradually dissipating the awkwardness of his manners, did the rest. She came in time to regard him with intense feelings of respect and attachment. She spoke of “our worthy Peel,” for whom, she said, she had “an EXTREME admiration” and who had shown himself “a man of unbounded LOYALTY, COURAGE patriotism, and HIGH-MINDEDNESS, and his conduct towards me has been CHIVALROUS almost, I might say.” She dreaded his removal from office almost as frantically as she had once dreaded that of Lord M. It would be, she declared, a GREAT CALAMITY. Six years before, what would she have said, if a prophet had told her that the day would come when she would be horrified by the triumph of the Whigs? Yet there was no escaping it; she had to face the return of her old friends. In the ministerial crises of 1845 and 1846, the Prince played a dominating part. Everybody recognised that he was the real centre of the negotiations — the actual controller of the forces and the functions of the Crown. The process by which this result was reached had been so gradual as to be almost imperceptible; but it may be said with certainty that, by the close of Peel’s administration, Albert had become, in effect, the King of England.
With the final emergence of the Prince came the final extinction of Lord Melbourne. A year after his loss of office, he had been struck down by a paralytic seizure; he had apparently recovered, but his old elasticity had gone for ever. Moody, restless, and unhappy, he wandered like a ghost about the town, bursting into soliloquies in public places, or asking odd questions, suddenly, a propos de bottes. “I’ll be hanged if I do it for you, my Lord,” he was heard to say in the hall at Brooks’s, standing by himself, and addressing the air after much thought. “Don’t you consider,” he abruptly asked a fellow-guest at Lady Holland’s, leaning across the dinner-table in a pause of the conversation, “that it was a most damnable act of Henri Quatre to change his religion with a view to securing the Crown?” He sat at home, brooding for hours in miserable solitude. He turned over his books — his classics and his Testaments — but they brought him no comfort at all. He longed for the return of the past, for the impossible, for he knew not what, for the devilries of Caro, for the happy platitudes of Windsor. His friends had left him, and no wonder, he said in bitterness — the fire was out. He secretly hoped for a return to power, scanning the newspapers with solicitude, and occasionally making a speech in the House of Lords. His correspondence with the Queen continued, and he appeared from time to time at Court; but he was a mere simulacrum of his former self; “the dream,” wrote Victoria, “is past.” As for his political views, they could no longer be tolerated. The Prince was an ardent Free Trader, and so, of course, was the Queen; and when, dining at Windsor at the time of the repeal of the Corn Laws, Lord Melbourne suddenly exclaimed, “Ma’am, it’s a damned dishonest act!” everyone was extremely embarrassed. Her Majesty laughed and tried to change the conversation, but without avail; Lord Melbourne returned to the charge again and again with —“I say, Ma’am, it’s damned dishonest!”— until the Queen said “Lord Melbourne, I must beg you not to say anything more on this subject now;” and then he held his tongue. She was kind to him, writing him long letters, and always remembering his birthday; but it was kindness at a distance, and he knew it. He had become “poor Lord Melbourne.” A profound disquietude devoured him. He tried to fix his mind on the condition of Agriculture and the Oxford Movement. He wrote long memoranda in utterly undecipherable handwriting. He was convinced that he had lost all his money, and could not possibly afford to be a Knight of the Garter. He had run through everything, and yet — if Peel went out, he might be sent for — why not? He was never sent for. The Whigs ignored him in their consultations, and the leadership of the party passed to Lord John Russell. When Lord John became Prime Minister, there was much politeness, but Lord Melbourne was not asked to join the Cabinet. He bore the blow with perfect amenity; but he understood, at last, that that was the end.
For two years more he lingered, sinking slowly into unconsciousness and imbecility. Sometimes, propped up in his chair, he would be heard to murmur, with unexpected appositeness, the words of Samson:—
“So much I feel my general spirit droop,
My hopes all flat, nature within me seems,
In all her functions weary of herself,
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.”
A few days before his death, Victoria, learning that there was no hope of his recovery, turned her mind for a little towards that which had once been Lord M. “You will grieve to hear,” she told King Leopold, “that our good, dear, old friend Melbourne is dying . . . One cannot forget how good and kind and amiable he was, and it brings back so many recollections to my mind, though, God knows! I never wish that time back again.”
She was in little danger. The tide of circumstance was flowing now with irresistible fullness towards a very different consummation. The seriousness of Albert, the claims of her children, her own inmost inclinations, and the movement of the whole surrounding world, combined to urge her forward along the narrow way of public and domestic duty. Her family steadily increased. Within eighteen months of the birth of the Prince of Wales the Princess Alice appeared, and a year later the Prince Alfred, and then the Princess Helena, and, two years afterwards, the Princess Louise; and still there were signs that the pretty row of royal infants was not complete. The parents, more and more involved in family cares and family happiness, found the pomp of Windsor galling, and longed for some more intimate and remote retreat. On the advice of Peel they purchased the estate of Osborne, in the Isle of Wight. Their skill and economy in financial matters had enabled them to lay aside a substantial sum of money; and they could afford, out of their savings, not merely to buy the property but to build a new house for themselves and to furnish it at a cost of L200,000. At Osborne, by the sea-shore, and among the woods, which Albert, with memories of Rosenau in his mind, had so carefully planted, the royal family spent every hour that could be snatched from Windsor and London — delightful hours of deep retirement and peaceful work. The public looked on with approval. A few aristocrats might sniff or titter; but with the nation at large the Queen was now once more extremely popular. The middle-classes, in particular, were pleased. They liked a love-match; they liked a household which combined the advantages of royalty and virtue, and in which they seemed to see, reflected as in some resplendent looking-glass, the ideal image of the very lives they led themselves. Their own existences, less exalted, but oh! so soothingly similar, acquired an added excellence, an added succulence, from the early hours, the regularity, the plain tuckers, the round games, the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding oft Osborne. It was indeed a model Court. Not only were its central personages the patterns of propriety, but no breath of scandal, no shadow of indecorum, might approach its utmost boundaries. For Victoria, with all the zeal of a convert, upheld now the standard of moral purity with an inflexibility surpassing, if that were possible, Albert’s own. She blushed to think how she had once believed — how she had once actually told HIM— that one might be too strict and particular in such matters, and that one ought to be indulgent towards other people’s dreadful sins. But she was no longer Lord M’s pupil: she was Albert’s wife. She was more — the embodiment, the living apex of a new era in the generations of mankind. The last vestige of the eighteenth century had disappeared; cynicism and subtlety were shrivelled into powder; and duty, industry, morality, and domesticity triumphed over them. Even the very chairs and tables had assumed, with a singular responsiveness, the forms of prim solidity. The Victorian Age was in full swing.
Only one thing more was needed: material expression must be given to the new ideals and the new forces so that they might stand revealed, in visible glory, before the eyes of an astonished world. It was for Albert to supply this want. He mused, and was inspired: the Great Exhibition came into his head.
Without consulting anyone, he thought out the details of his conception with the minutest care. There had been exhibitions before in the world, but this should surpass them all. It should contain specimens of what every country could produce in raw materials, in machinery and mechanical inventions, in manufactures, and in the applied and plastic arts. It should not be merely useful and ornamental; it should teach a high moral lesson. It should be an international monument to those supreme blessings of civilisation — peace, progress, and prosperity. For some time past the Prince had been devoting much of his attention to the problems of commerce and industry. He had a taste for machinery of every kind, and his sharp eye had more than once detected, with the precision of an expert, a missing cog-wheel in some vast and complicated engine. A visit to Liverpool, where he opened the Albert Dock, impressed upon his mind the immensity of modern industrial forces, though in a letter to Victoria describing his experiences, he was careful to retain his customary lightness of touch. “As I write,” he playfully remarked, “you will be making your evening toilette, and not be ready in time for dinner. I must set about the same task, and not, let me hope, with the same result . . . The loyalty and enthusiasm of the inhabitants are great; but the heat is greater still. I am satisfied that if the population of Liverpool had been weighed this morning, and were to be weighed again now, they would be found many degrees lighter. The docks are wonderful, and the mass of shipping incredible.” In art and science he had been deeply interested since boyhood; his reform of the household had put his talent for organisation beyond a doubt; and thus from every point of view the Prince was well qualified for his task. Having matured his plans, he summoned a small committee and laid an outline of his scheme before it. The committee approved, and the great undertaking was set on foot without delay.
Two years, however, passed before it was completed. For two years the Prince laboured with extraordinary and incessant energy. At first all went smoothly. The leading manufacturers warmly took up the idea; the colonies and the East India Company were sympathetic; the great foreign nations were eager to send in their contributions; the powerful support of Sir Robert Peel was obtained, and the use of a site in Hyde Park, selected by the Prince, was sanctioned by the Government. Out of 234 plans for the exhibition building, the Prince chose that of Joseph Paxton, famous as a designer of gigantic conservatories; and the work was on the point of being put in hand when a series of unexpected difficulties arose. Opposition to the whole scheme, which had long been smouldering in various quarters, suddenly burst forth. There was an outcry, headed by The Times, against the use of the park for the exhibition; for a moment it seemed as if the building would be relegated to a suburb; but, after a fierce debate in the House, the supporters of the site in the Park won the day. Then it appeared that the project lacked a sufficient financial backing; but this obstacle, too, was surmounted, and eventually L200,000 was subscribed as a guarantee fund. The enormous glass edifice rose higher and higher, covering acres and enclosing towering elm trees beneath its roof: and then the fury of its enemies reached a climax. The fashionable, the cautious, the Protectionists, the pious, all joined in the hue and cry. It was pointed out that the Exhibition would serve as a rallying point for all the ruffians in England, for all the malcontents in Europe; and that on the day of its opening there would certainly be a riot and probably a revolution. It was asserted that the glass roof was porous, and that the droppings of fifty million sparrows would utterly destroy every object beneath it. Agitated nonconformists declared that the Exhibition was an arrogant and wicked enterprise which would infallibly bring down God’s punishment upon the nation. Colonel Sibthorpe, in the debate on the Address, prayed that hail and lightning might descend from heaven on the accursed thing. The Prince, with unyielding perseverance and infinite patience, pressed on to his goal. His health was seriously affected; he suffered from constant sleeplessness; his strength was almost worn out. But he remembered the injunctions of Stockmar and never relaxed. The volume of his labours grew more prodigious every day; he toiled at committees, presided over public meetings, made speeches, and carried on communications with every corner of the civilised world — and his efforts were rewarded. On May 1, 1851, the Great Exhibition was opened by the Queen before an enormous concourse of persons, amid scenes of dazzling brilliancy and triumphant enthusiasm.
Victoria herself was in a state of excitement which bordered on delirium. She performed her duties in a trance of joy, gratitude, and amazement, and, when it was all over, her feelings poured themselves out into her journal in a torrential flood. The day had been nothing but an endless succession of glories — or rather one vast glory — one vast radiation of Albert. Everything she had seen, everything she had felt or heard, had been so beautiful, so wonderful that even the royal underlinings broke down under the burden of emphasis, while her remembering pen rushed on, regardless, from splendour to splendour — the huge crowds, so well — behaved and loyal-flags of all the nations floating — the inside of the building, so immense, with myriads of people and the sun shining through the roof — a little side room, where we left our shawls — palm-trees and machinery — dear Albert — the place so big that we could hardly hear the organ — thankfulness to God — a curious assemblage of political and distinguished men — the March from Athalie — God bless my dearest Albert, God bless my dearest country! — a glass fountain — the Duke and Lord Anglesey walking arm in arm — a beautiful Amazon, in bronze, by Kiss — Mr. Paxton, who might be justly proud, and rose from being a common gardener’s boy — Sir George Grey in tears, and everybody astonished and delighted.
A striking incident occurred when, after a short prayer by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the choir of 600 voices burst into the “Hallelujah Chorus.” At that moment a Chinaman, dressed in full national costume, stepped out into the middle of the central nave, and, advancing slowly towards the royal group, did obeisance to Her Majesty. The Queen, much impressed, had no doubt that he was an eminent mandarin; and, when the final procession was formed, orders were given that, as no representative of the Celestial Empire was present, he should be included in the diplomatic cortege. He accordingly, with the utmost gravity, followed immediately behind the Ambassadors. He subsequently disappeared, and it was rumoured, among ill-natured people, that, far from being a mandarin, the fellow was a mere impostor. But nobody ever really discovered the nature of the comments that had been lurking behind the matchless impassivity of that yellow face.
A few days later Victoria poured out her heart to her uncle. The first of May, she said, was “the GREATEST day in our history, the most BEAUTIFUL and IMPOSING and TOUCHING spectacle ever seen, and the triumph of my beloved Albert . . . It was the HAPPIEST, PROUDEST day in my life, and I can think of nothing else. Albert’s dearest name is immortalised with this GREAT conception, HIS own, and my OWN dear country SHOWED she was WORTHY of it. The triumph is IMMENSE.”
It was. The enthusiasm was universal; even the bitterest scoffers were converted, and joined in the chorus of praise. Congratulations from public bodies poured in; the City of Paris gave a great fete to the Exhibition committee; and the Queen and the Prince made a triumphal progress through the North of England. The financial results were equally remarkable. The total profit made by the Exhibition amounted to a sum of L165,000, which was employed in the purchase of land for the erection of a permanent National Museum in South Kensington. During the six months of its existence in Hyde Park over six million persons visited it, and not a single accident occurred. But there is an end to all things; and the time had come for the Crystal Palace to be removed to the salubrious seclusion of Sydenham. Victoria, sad but resigned, paid her final visit. “It looked so beautiful,” she said. “I could not believe it was the last time I was to see it. An organ, accompanied by a fine and powerful wind instrument called the sommerophone, was being played, and it nearly upset me. The canvas is very dirty, the red curtains are faded and many things are very much soiled, still the effect is fresh and new as ever and most beautiful. The glass fountain was already removed . . . and the sappers and miners were rolling about the little boxes just as they did at the beginning. It made us all very melancholy.” But more cheerful thoughts followed. When all was over, she expressed her boundless satisfaction in a dithyrambic letter to the Prime Minister. Her beloved husband’s name, she said, was for ever immortalised, and that this was universally recognised by the country was a source to her of immense happiness and gratitude. “She feels grateful to Providence,” Her Majesty concluded, “to have permitted her to be united to so great, so noble, so excellent a Prince, and this year will ever remain the proudest and happiest of her life. The day of the closing of the Exhibition (which the Queen regretted much she could not witness), was the twelfth anniversary of her betrothal to the Prince, which is a curious coincidence.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00