In a continuation of our two-part series, our Historian, Elizabeth Jane Timms, looks back at the death of Prince Albert:
The passing of the Prince Consort is, of course, synonymous with the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, where it took place, a room which I have researched for some six years. The room had been that in which Queen Victoria’s ‘Uncle King’ George IV had died on 26 June 1830. It had been known as the ‘King’s Bedroom’ under George IV and seemed to have combined the functions of both a bedchamber and bathroom for the King. It was hung with satin in Waterloo blue and contained a bath cabinet with curtains and chairs with matching blue upholstery. The George IV curtains in the Blue Room were still in place towards the end of the nineteenth century; we know this because the silk satin was by then so rotten that new hangings had to be made to replace the originals.The Blue Room – known by the byname ‘The Albert Room’ after the Prince Consort’s death – was also that in which her other paternal uncle, William IV had died on 20 June 1837. That historic day had been quite a different one for Victoria in public as well as private terms, for the passing of King William IV had occasioned the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Conyngham and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, to ride from Windsor to Kensington Palace, to wake a young Princess Victoria from her sleep at 6:00 am, to acquaint her with the news of her uncle’s death, and ‘consequently, that I am Queen’.
There is a sad irony in this, for, at the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria sat where her aunt, Queen Adelaide had once sat at the bedside of the dying William IV. This time, there was no proudly confident flourish – ‘of COURSE quite ALONE’ – as she had written later in her journal on the triumphant day of her accession in 1837 because this time she was ‘ALONE’ in a different sense – as Prince Albert’s widow.
Queen Adelaide had been present when William IV received the sacrament and burst into tears when the blessing was pronounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury. William IV had particularly wished to survive long enough to see another anniversary of Waterloo Day – 18 June – and begged his doctor to do what he could so that he might last long enough to celebrate it (A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 73). Surely, it was appropriate then, that the curtains in the Blue Room were of ‘Waterloo blue’ satin, when the King died there, two days later.
Before the final days of his illness, Prince Albert had always slept in the Queen’s Bedchamber at Windsor, of which watercolours survive, located in the King’s [Victoria] Tower. The Blue Room is located in the Clarence Tower, within the private apartments and is also the tower at Windsor in which, significantly, the Queen’s Highland ghillie, John Brown, died in 1883. The Queen ordered that his room be preserved and for flowers to be placed on his pillow. Basement plans and dimensions for the Clarence Tower and Victoria Tower are maintained in the National Archives at Kew, bearing the stamp of the Office of Woods. A photograph of the East Front of Windsor Castle in the Royal Collection by Roger Fenton, made in 1860 shows the Queen’s Apartments, with the Queen’s Tower to the left, then to its right, the Clarence Tower, Chester Tower and the Prince of Wales Tower.
Perhaps there was a final fatalism about Prince Albert’s wish to be moved to the Blue Room, in which two previous British kings had died. He had said in the first throes of illness: ‘[He kept saying] … he should not recover! which we all told him was too foolish & [he] must never speak of it…’ (cit., Christopher Hibbert, Victoria: A Personal History, 277). He had told Queen Victoria: ‘I do not cling to life. You do; but I set no store by it… I am sure if I had a severe illness I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity of life.’ (cit., Ibid, 277).
We can reconstruct the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, thanks to the images made by the photographers Hills & Saunders which were made of it as well as the watercolours, to record its appearance, notably by the artist William Corden the Younger. Queen Victoria presented a paint box to William Corden in 1862; it is preserved by the artist’s descendants (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 9). The Corden watercolours – one dating from 1864, the second from 1868 – show the room hung in blue, with the two beds at the centre; a large mirror, showing the room hung appropriately with sets of blue hangings and two beds separated by a vast mirror, opposite a stone fireplace to the middle ground right and two paired candelabras. A sensitive pencil study by Sir Joseph Noel, made a beautiful pencil study showed the Blue Room by moonlight, with the two beds.
This room of such profound emotional significance to Queen Victoria was intended to be a living monument, just as Frogmore Mausoleum when completed, would be referred to by the Queen as a ‘shrine’. Unlike the German fashion, there was to be no ‘Sterbe-zimmer’ [Death Chamber] – such as her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, would encounter in Berlin, where the room in which King Frederick William IV had died, was preserved untouched. It was thought that the Blue Room was kept exactly as it was at the time of Prince Albert’s death, but in many ways, this is a historical misconception. Whilst much was kept as it was, the room’s appearance did in fact change dramatically, to adapt the room into the living monument that Queen Victoria required it to be. A great deal of artistic activity took place to give the room a respectful and highly religious patina. A notice had been fixed to the door of the Blue Room to inform everyone who passed by, that everything inside was as it had been at the time of the Prince’s death (Hibbert, 287). Indeed, other rooms at Windsor Castle as well as those in other royal residences had similar notices affixed to their doors, but this was another untruth.
When Queen Victoria visited Darmstadt in April 1880, she discovered that the room in which her second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse had died in 1878, was kept unchanged, with the bed covered in black crepe. (Richard Hough, Louis and Victoria, 54, cit., Greg King, The Last Empress, pp. 20-21). Queen Victoria had come to Darmstadt for the confirmation of her two eldest Hesse granddaughters, Princesses Victoria and Elisabeth of Hesse. The Queen wrote when visiting the Hesse town residence of the Neues Palais, in Darmstadt: ‘All the things on her table, letters etc., all left, and she gone! Then went to her bedroom, where all has been placed again, as it was. It was quite overwhelming.‘ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 170).
What changed? A bust of Prince Albert was placed on a high plinth between the two beds, commissioned by Queen Victoria from the sculptor William Theed within a fortnight after the Prince Consort’s death; it was completed at the end of January 1862 and based on a death mask which Theed made of the Prince. The bust remained in the Blue Room until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. The ceiling was painted as early as 1862 with Raphaelesque designs – Raphael having been considered by Prince Albert as the greatest of all artists – and the ceiling also was painted with gold stars by Professor Ludwig Gruner – Prince Albert’s artistic adviser who was also involved in the interior design of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore – importantly, the ceiling of the mausoleum of Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, was also painted with gold stars, so clearly this was sacred imagery for the Queen and points to a Victorian ideal of an imagined, royal firmament. A memorial portrait of the Prince dressed as a Christian knight by Edward Henry Corbould was inserted into the main door of the Blue Room at the wish of Queen Victoria.
One of the most poignant objects that remains from this time is a bracelet in the Royal Collection, inserted with a watercolour of the Duchess of Kent. It was to have been a Christmas present for 1861 for Queen Victoria from Prince Albert – given to her in the year of her mother’s death. Tragically, as Prince Albert died precisely ten days before the traditional giving of presents – known in German as the ‘Bescherung’ – it was Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, who gave it to her mother instead, on New Year’s Day, 1862, according to the inscription engraved upon the bracelet: ‘Last gift / from my / beloved & adored Albert / ordered by him / for Xmas 1861 / Given me by Alice / Jan. 1st. 1862’. It was later placed in the Blue Room, where Albert had died. Movingly, a Dr Brown had been in attendance on Prince Albert in his last illness; the same Brown who had attended the Duchess of Kent at the end (Wilson, 253).
A sculpture at Osborne – ‘Venus and Cupid’ by Edward Muller was meant to be a birthday present from Queen Victoria to Prince Albert for 1862; it remains in one of the ground floor corridors.
Prince Albert’s death also gave life to an entire phantom household ritual, a thing however not unknown among the rich, who could afford such empty rites (Stanley Weintraub, Albert: Uncrowned King, 438). The water in the Prince’s wash jug was replaced daily and filled with hot water; the linen and towels were changed (Hibbert, 286). Fresh flowers were placed on the pillows and wreaths later laid on the bed in the shape of a cross. Visitors were required to sign their names in the Prince’s visitor book, which Benjamin Disraeli described poignantly, as ‘calling on a dead man’. (cit, Ibid, 287). The pen that belonged to the Prince Consort was left ready on his writing table; his blotter was left open. (Ibid, 287).
All this is a strange recreation of what Queen Victoria wrote on visiting the rooms of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prince Albert’s father, in Coburg: ‘Poor dear Papa’s bedroom with his bed and everything left in it just as it was – and a sitting room which is just as poor dear Papa used to have it; on his writing table are the pens with ink in them, just as he left them! And so they must remain, they are quite sacred to us.’ (Quoted in HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, 111). And of course, the Queen talked about Prince Albert, to keep him alive (Ibid, 167).
Queen Victoria’s image perfectly united this image of love and mourning; whilst dressed in widow’s weeds, she continued to wear her favourite scent of orange blossom – so symbolic of her wedding in 1840 – which her granddaughter, Princess Louis of Battenberg, later remembered.
The Prince’s clothes were laid out fresh and brushed to use – a sad recreation of the young Queen Victoria who had adored watching her new husband shave during their honeymoon at Windsor Castle and who had delighted in having him help her on with her stockings. The Prince’s medicine glass stayed on the table beside his bed for over forty years. The Walter Scott novel which the Prince had been reading last was placed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle with an inscription by the Queen marking the place he had reached. This was exhibited until recent years, at Kensington Palace. This was probably the same Walter Scott novel Peveril of the Peak, which Queen Victoria had intermittently read aloud to Prince Albert, whilst he sat on his sofa.
The Prince Consort’s watches were kept working; his handkerchief was still on the sofa. His dressing gown was laid out every evening and his walking sticks stood ready. At the royal residences of Windsor, Balmoral and Osborne, the Prince’s bed was turned down at night. Even his clothes still hung in some of his closets and the Prince’s chamber pot was apparently scrubbed every morning. (King, pp. 20-21).
The bust of the Prince – almost certainly that by William Theed – was placed between the beds, and the Prince’s portrait hung above these, on which was put wreaths of evergreen. Queen Victoria ordered a memorial picture of the Prince Consort dressed as a medieval Christian knight by Edward Henry Corbould to be inserted into the main door of the Blue Room. We might remember the costume balls at Buckingham Palace such as the bal costume of 12 May 1842, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert seem to have been dressed in costumes inspired by the tomb effigies of Edward III and Queen Philippa of Hainault. After Albert’s death, Queen Victoria ordered that his bust at Osborne be decorated with holly and ivy; the Sevres vases were filled with holly, yew and ferns (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria & Albert, 176).The Queen was photographed gazing at a bust of Prince Albert, together with her daughter, Princess Alice. The Princesses were also snapped by William Bainbridge in March 1862, grouped around a bust of their dead father. This was a custom that was to be repeated, for the bust of the Prince would thereafter be placed at the centre of group photographs made of the Royal Family as if to stand in for the Prince’s absence. The Queen had commissioned a painting from the Scottish artist Joseph Noel Paton In Memoriam. Whilst it remained incomplete, the composition was developed enough to show us what the Queen had in mind – the result was meant to show the Queen, and six of the royal children sat around the bust of Prince Albert by William Theed.
Queen Victoria’s stationery was given thick black edges. She wore mourning for the rest of her life, although the deepest of this mourning was reserved for the 1860s; by the 1890s, it had slightly relaxed to include lace trimmings. One of Queen Victoria’s deepest black crepe dresses has survived in the Royal Collection. Her accounts show that she spent much less on dress at this time, understandably for her widowhood (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 154). She turned her back on colour and jewellery, for Prince Albert had taken the greatest interest in her dress. The stance she had adopted for her costume was a firm one, and she never relinquished it. The Queen wrote simply: ‘My poor sad face and garb must tell its tale’ (cit., Ibid, 157).
Princess Alice regularly wrote to her mother for the anniversary of Prince Albert’s death; an engraving of the Prince can be seen in the sitting room of Princess Alix of Hesse – Alice’s surviving youngest daughter – in the Neues Palais, in Darmstadt. When Princess Alice died in 1878, she died tragically on the exact anniversary of Prince Albert’s death in 1878, murmuring: ‘From Friday to Saturday – four weeks – May [her youngest daughter, Princess Marie of Hesse, who had recently died of diphtheria] – dear Papa…’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 376). Queen Victoria wrote to a beloved granddaughter, Alice’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse the same day underlining the 14th twice for emphasis that Alice had joined both of their ‘dear’ grandfathers, the paternal one of which had died only the year before (Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 9).
Queen Victoria took to sleeping with a cast of Prince Albert’s hand close to her bedside. Perhaps this is the one in the Royal Collection which is engraved at the cut-off wrist, Prince Albert 14 December 1861, and is a life-size cast of his hand, showing the two rings he was wearing at the time of his death, attributed to the sculptor Mary Thornycroft.
Nor was this the only mention of jewellery. The Queen instructed that after her death, certain personal items of jewellery should be placed in the Blue Room of private importance and not passed on to members of the Royal Family. These included several of the Queen’s rings, a locket containing the Prince’s hair when a baby, a necklace with a photograph of the Prince under glass with the inscription: ‘Die reine Seele schwingt sich auf zu Gott” [the pure soul flies up above to the Lord]; there were also other personal presents of great value, such as a bracelet given to the Queen by Prince Albert in 1840, three days after the birth of the Princess Royal, later Crown Princess of Prussia, to which stones were added on the births of subsequent children (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The Blue Room at Windsor Castle, European Royal History Journal, Vol XVI). On the day of Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria began a letter to the Crown Princess: ‘My darling Angel’s child – Our firstborn. God’s will be done’. (cit., Wilson, 256).Even the smallest item of personal jewellery could be made into a memorial. A memorial ring of gold and black was made to contain a micro-photograph of Prince Albert in 1861, attributed to J. J. E. Mayall (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria & Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, 164). Queen Victoria was painted in full-face in mourning in a colour lithograph, now in the British Museum. It shows the Queen fingering a locket at her throat, probably containing Prince Albert’s hair, and there is special emphasis on her wedding ring and no other jewellery, whilst she holds a black fan (Charlotte Gere, Victoria & Albert, Love and Art: Queen Victoria’s Personal Jewellery, 14).
A hatchment – a funeral escutcheon – was made to hang at Osborne (Ibid, 165). It was taken down for the Prince and Princess of Wales, who honeymooned at Osborne in 1863, but then afterwards replaced. It left a permanent mark on the wall, visible some twenty years later (Ibid, 175).
The Queen even held one of the Prince’s nightshirts (Hibbert, 287). Perhaps to replicate the Prince’s body, another possible recreation of what she had written when waking up with Prince Albert for the first time on their honeymoon at Windsor: ‘He does look so beautiful in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen.’ (cit., Ibid, 123). The Queen kissed Prince Albert’s clothes the first morning of her widowhood, having gone in to look upon her dead husband’s features and been warned by the doctors not to kiss his body. A mournful legend arose that she even wrapped her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, in Prince Albert’s nightclothes, but this cannot be substantiated, due to lack of evidence. A post-mortem photograph of the Prince on his deathbed was commissioned by Queen Victoria two days after the Prince’s death from the photographer William Bainbridge; it shows the Prince in left profile with a bandage supporting his lower jaw. The photograph was shown publicly for the first time on a BBC documentary, Victoria & Albert, in 1996.
The Blue Room – so faithfully preserved by Queen Victoria as a living shrine in memory of Prince Albert – was stripped by Edward VII as part of his programme to modernise and de-clutter the private apartments in the royal residences, notably at Windsor. The room is now The Duke of Edinburgh’s Writing Room. The present author’s original research has made it possible to establish that at least two items of furniture from the Blue Room can be identified as such today. One of these is a secretaire, currently displayed in the Victoria Closet at Frogmore House (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Vol XVI).
The last direct mention I have been able to find of the Blue Room in the Queen’s journal was in 1898 which the Queen spent at Windsor. Queen Victoria saw the return of the anniversary (the ‘terrible 14th’) of Prince Albert’s death for the last time on 14 December 1900. Perhaps appropriately, she spent it at Windsor Castle. She left Windsor to spend Christmas at Osborne, four days later. When the Queen’s body returned to Windsor, it was laid to rest in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, next to the husband she had lost forty years hence.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901 at Osborne House, her room was, sealed off in respect for her memory, although a plaque was later fixed above her bed. The blinds were pulled down, and the room became effectively, another shrine for the Royal Family, a fact emphasised by the fact that large iron gates were inserted, to seal off the Queen’s rooms. As such, they remained for some fifty years. Ironically, a posthumous portrait of Prince Albert was still on the Queen’s headboard, as was the case in all her residences, together with a pocket for the Prince Consort’s watch (Michael Turner, Osborne House, 18).
The words above the entrance to the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore speak for the Queen’s final words to Prince Albert: ‘Vale desideratissime! His demum Conquiescam tecum, tecum in Christo consurgeam’. [Farewell best beloved! Here at last I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again’.