This year marks the bicentenary of not only the birth of Queen Victoria but also of her husband, Prince Albert. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, was an eager skater who loved winter sports as part of enduring royal pleasure. Not only did he drive the Queen’s sledge when the royal couple were visiting Brighton during a sudden snowfall, but he also enjoyed charming activities such as building a snowman with the growing brood of royal children. Windsor and the royal Christmas became part of the same thing, with the Queen’s trees being set up on tables for each member of the Royal Family and the festive season celebrated as Albert would write to his brother Ernest with proud satisfaction, that ‘everything was totally German’.
The winter pastime recalls the occasional freezing of the Thames and more often, the lakes on which Londoners enjoyed taking to the ice in their skates. Samuel Pepys, for example, saw the elegant sport in St James’s Park on 1 December 1662, writing in his diary that he ‘did see people sliding with their skeates, [sic] which is a very pretty art’. On 15 December 1662, he watched the Duke of York – the future James II – skate in St James’s Park: ‘Thence to the Duke, and followed him into the Park, where, though the ice was broken and dangerous, yet he would go slide upon his scates, [sic] which I did not like, but he slides very well.‘
Prince Albert occasionally skated in the gardens at Buckingham Palace but more frequently skated on the frozen ice at Frogmore. As Queen Victoria wrote, at Buckingham Palace in February 1841: ‘Albert put on his skates, & helped me to walk across the ice… to the island.’ After skating all around the lake, he suddenly reached a place where the ice was unsafe and it cracked, with the unlucky Prince ‘up to his head’ in water. He was shaken but unharmed. He skated on the frozen lake at Claremont in December 1844.
Queen Victoria had been taught to skate by Mr Talbot, a tutor from Eton, but preferred to be pushed over the ice rather than skate herself. A charming coloured picture in the Royal Collection shows Queen Victoria wearing a bonnet and wrapped in ermine with a fur-trimmed muff, being pushed in a sledge across the frozen lake at Frogmore. The scene is imaginary and dates from a much later period, but it recalls the particular pleasure which Queen Victoria took in the winter pastimes so often recorded in her journal.
The lake at Frogmore provided a tranquil and private setting for skating and sledging on the ice. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that Prince Albert skated for the first time at Frogmore on Christmas Day 1840. Ten days later, he pushed her in her sledge chair over the ice at Frogmore for the first time. The Queen was delighted, writing: ‘We drove down to Frogmore & Albert pushed me in a sledge chair on the ice, which was delightful, & it went with such rapidity. I had never been on the ice before’ (cit., Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 115). The pleasure was repeated in early January 1841, whilst the lake was still hard at Windsor.
Also, Prince Albert played ice hockey which allowed the watching Queen an opportunity to admire her husband’s skill and possibly his trim, handsome figure. When Prince Albert fell on the ice playing, the Queen admired how he bravely got back on his feet again. On New Year’s Eve 1846 she wrote again: ‘Albert went down to Frogmore to skate… [he] skates so beautifully, & always is the winner at the games of hockey’ (cit., Ibid, 113).
The Prince’s skates were beautifully made and contained exquisite detail. For example, there was a swan’s head on the tip of each skating boot (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 182). We know this because Queen Victoria described it herself. Movingly, the Queen noted this down only much later, presumably as an antidote to her gnawing grief, when such details were both painful and precious. Queen Victoria remembered Prince Albert’s pair of skates in her ‘Reminiscences’, written down in January 1862, the month after the Prince’s death. Preserved in the Archives, they are a poignant reminder of those magical winter days on the ice at Windsor, written down by a grieving queen.
The charity Summer Open Days at Frogmore do not enable the lake at Frogmore to be seen as a newly married Queen Victoria first saw it, frozen over with ice in December 1840. The tranquil lake in June sets a completely different scene. When Great Frogmore was adjoined to the estate in 1792, the canal was reconfigured as the arm of a lake. It was where a water pageant was held in the grounds of Frogmore to celebrate the King’s Jubilee in 1809, with decorations by George III’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth and James Wyatt (ed. Royal Collection Trust, Frogmore House and the Royal Mausoleum, pp. 35-48). A modern study of the layout of the lake shows us the curving arm of the lake, whose angles were perfect for pushing the Queen’s sledge chair.
Albert skated at Windsor in 1860, the last Christmas of his life. He skated on the ice with Prince Ludwig (‘Louis’) of Hesse, the fiancé of his second daughter Princess Alice, in that part of Windsor Park known as the Slopes, two days before Christmas Day. The following January, the Royal Family were at Osborne, where Prince Albert skated on the frozen Barton Pond with the young princes.
Prince Arthur, Queen Victoria’s arguably favourite son, was photographed in skating boots and took part in the Skating Carnival of January 1870 in Canada. That same year, the Queen’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise painted a skating scene perhaps recalling her mother being pushed over the ice by her father because the figures include a woman in a sleigh chair being pushed by a man over a frozen pond. Plates and photographs survive in the Royal Collection of Prince Albert’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren skating for example, on the frozen lake at Sandringham.
Prince Albert’s royal skating legacy lived on after his death.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.