She is our country’s longest serving monarch to date and after over 63 years on the British throne, some people may argue that Queen Victoria is our greatest example of a dutiful monarch. There could however have been a completely different outcome for Victoria’s legacy and the catalyst for this was the death of her beloved consort Prince Albert.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha married on 10th February 1840, nobody could ever imagine that within 20 years Queen Victoria would be without a consort. On the 14th December 1861 this was exactly what happened. Prince Albert died of suspected typhoid fever in the presence of the Queen and five of their nine children. Prince Albert was only 42 years of age and the couple had only been married 21 years.
Although Queen Victoria had been on the throne for over twenty years, the 14th December 1861 marked the beginning of the reign of the mourning Queen.
The Queen’s mourning became a prime concern of her existence over the years following Albert’s death. She wore nothing but black clothing (something she would continue to do for the remaining 40 years of her life), she stayed in seclusion rarely appearing for her people. Prince Albert’s private rooms were maintained exactly as he would have liked when he was alive with hot water brought in every morning as formerly done for his morning shave.
It wasn’t until a year had passed did Queen Victoria’s subjects begin to see this mourning as obsessive and the uneasiness about the Queen’s state of mind became apparent. It wasn’t just the Queen’s state of mind people feared for, it was the British Monarchy as a whole. This unease was not helped by Victoria’s refusal to appear in public, the Queen did not open parliament again until 1866 and this was only reluctantly. This self imposed isolation was encouraging the growth of a republican movement and was seriously damaging the reputation of the usually constant and reliable Monarchy. I believe a protestor summed up the mood of the country when he pinned a note to the railings of Buckingham Palace saying, “these commanding premises to be let or sold in consequence of the late occupants declining business”, a stroke of humour there though in a sense the protestor is writing the truth.
In the years after Albert’s death, with Victoria very much secluded at Balmoral, she developed a very curious relationship with a servant of her household John Brown. For several years Brown had been a part of the Queen’s household as a horse attendant however when Queen Victoria began regarding Brown as a close friend, she made him controller of her household which gave him unique access to the mourning Queen. John Brown was a Scottish highlander, rough and informal in his manners, drank frequently and had a thick Scottish accent, why then would Queen Victoria regard him as a close friend especially as his attitude towards her was so casual. It was a relationship even the Queen’s children resented and even some Britons started to call her ‘Mrs Brown’. In my opinion this was another choice made by the Queen which had not helped her popularity nor begin to restore the damaged monarchy.
The ever secluded Queen was such a boost for the republican movement in Britain and many radical MP’s spoke against her and wished for her removal. It was when the republican movement was at its height did the Queen’s son the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) contract typhoid fever, the disease which was believed to have killed her husband. Queen Victoria was so fearful her son would die her distress was at an all time high. Thankfully the Prince of Wales pulled through and it was the 27th February 1872 that the Queen finally came out of seclusion and the republican feeling began to subside. It was this day that saw a grand service of thanksgiving at St Pauls Cathedral and a parade through London to celebrate the Prince’s health, it was this day that Queen Victoria’s subjects saw the Monarch they had been longing to see for near on ten years and it was this day whereby the British Monarchy and its reputation slowly began to be restored. The Monarchy was doing what it does best, putting on a grand state occasion to remember.
The republican feeling hadn’t completely subsided, on 29th February 1872 (just two days after the thanksgiving service), 17 year old Arthur O’Connor waved an unloaded pistol at Victoria’s carriage just as she arrived at Buckingham Palace. It was John Brown who grabbed the attacker and stopped the incident from escalating. Far from damaging the Queen’s increasing popularity, the incident further recovered Victoria’s popularity.
Nobody can argue that the Queen must have been devastated at the sudden loss of Prince Albert and nobody was denying her a period of mourning. It was just that period of mourning the Queen took lasted over a decade. A decade where really Britain never saw its Queen, a decade which damaged the monarchy so much it was on the brink of being abolished. We all know Queen Victoria was in mourning for the rest of her life but after 1872 she did it in a way which involved her people which after all is all her people ever wanted. My question is this:
Was Queen Victoria wrong for secluding herself from her subjects for so long or should the Queen have been allowed however long it took for her to get over the death of her Prince Albert?
photo credits: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives via photopin cc
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