“Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!”
With these words, Queen Victoria described her wedding day in her diary – 10 February 1840, writing up the event for the day’s entry from Windsor Castle. It marked the beginning of her marriage to her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The opposite date of this ecstatic exhortation of joy on behalf of the Queen was unquestionably 14 December 1861; the day of the death of the Prince Consort at Windsor Castle, after which there was a hiatus of two weeks, before the grief-stricken Queen could even bring herself to record the event of the previous fortnight in a journal entry. Twenty-one years had preceded this date, during which the Queen had given birth to nine children, five daughters and four sons.
I believe that to understand Queen Victoria, we have to undo that tragic transmogrification from queenly widow, back into royal wife – introduce colour into the monochrome of her widow’s weeds. Thankfully, due to a wealth of recent research, our perception of the solemn Queen and Empress of her later years, is changing; we can encounter her character as a young princess, formed in the anvil of a problematic and isolated childhood at Kensington Palace; we can see her as a devoted wife. There were, after all, over twenty years of royal marriage that charted the Queen’s personal happiness, which only ended abruptly with the premature death of Prince Albert, annotating in her own handwriting a group photograph of the Royal Family in mourning ‘Day turned into Night‘.
Even allowing for the indulgent grief that came to characterise the age to which Queen Victoria gave her name, an age which developed its own dictates of mourning, allowing a cult of death to flourish, it is only natural that the Queen’s grief for the Prince Consort should be commensurate with her great love for him. This (mutual) love was formerly expressed in sculpture, in gifts, in works of art, letters and jewellery. It was no accident that his death would find equal fulsome expression, in statues, memorials, photography, morbid rituals. We have to, get beneath the widow’s cap to the bridal wreath that was underneath. Queen Victoria’s wedding, therefore, deserves its own attention.
Queen Victoria’s choice of her cousin, Prince Albert, was by no means immediate, being instead rather a case of royal love at second sight. He came to England in 1836 at the age of sixteen, as the preferred choice of her maternal uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, as a husband for her. Her accession in 1837, on the death of her paternal uncle, William IV, meant that the young Queen was not initially keen to forego her newfound freedom and independence. Prince Albert’s second visit to England in October 1839, was, however, the occasion for a complete coup de foudre; the adoring Queen wrote that Prince Albert set her heart “quite going”. The Queen’s engagement led to her official Declaration of Marriage at Buckingham Palace on 23 November 1839; with the wedding planned for the following February.
The choice for the wedding was the royal peculiar of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. It had been the place where the Queen’s paternal grandparents, George III and Queen Charlotte had married in 1761; it would also be where Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, The Princess Royal would herself wed in 1858, in the only wedding ceremony of his children which Prince Albert would live to attend. The wedding of the Duke of York and Princess Mary of Teck – the future George V and Queen Mary – would also take place there in 1893. Queen Victoria formalised the move of the British monarchy from St James’s Palace – hitherto its principal London residence – to Buckingham Palace, on her accession in 1837. Prince Albert arrived in pouring rain at Dover on 7 February, pale from the extreme seasickness he had suffered during the rough Channel crossing; the Queen and Prince rehearsed the marriage ceremony the night before the wedding itself.
Queen Victoria woke before nine o’clock, in her bedroom at Buckingham Palace, to heavy rain. The diary entry for that day betrays her extreme emotion and is full of underlining, in the transcripts of her early journals by Lord Esher. She first wrote a note to Prince Albert, which is touching in its simplicity: “Dearest, How are you today and have you slept well? … What weather! I believe, however, the rain will cease. Send one word when you, my most dearly loved bridegroom, will be ready. Thy ever faithful, Victoria R” (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 120, 2000).
The Queen had her hair dressed and then had placed on top of her coiffure, a wreath of orange blossoms. She made a quick pen and ink sketch of her bridal headdress, tucked into the pages of her journal. The Queen’s wedding dress was of white Spitalfields satin, with a “deep flounce” of Honiton lace and a corresponding veil. The penchant for Devon’s bobbin Honiton lace was closely copied as part of the accoutrements that feature in the wedding dresses of her daughters and daughters-in-law, except for Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont, who instead had the Brussels lace, popular at this period. Such were the Queen’s nerves, it was apparently noticed that her wreath of orange blossoms was shaking as said her responses. The Queen’s silken bonnet, decorated with orange sprigs, which she wore after the Wedding Breakfast for the carriage ride to her honeymoon at Windsor Castle, has survived. Queen Victoria’s wedding dress has also been preserved and is today kept in the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection at Kensington Palace.
The Queen’s wedding veil became an item of precious, painful significance. The Queen wore it subsequently at the christenings of all her children and notably also for example, at the wedding in 1882 of her fourth son, Prince Leopold, wearing it over her widow’s weeds, a telling imagery for how the Queen saw herself. The Queen also allowed her beloved youngest child, Princess Beatrice, to wear her wedding veil on her marriage to Prince Heinrich of Battenberg in 1885, the only one of the Queen’s daughters to be permitted to do so. As various other photographs of royal marriages would equally feature in their time, Queen Victoria’s wedding veil (“my dear wedding veil”) was itself photographed on its own for the ‘Album of Important Occasions 1837-1885’, although this was not in itself unusual, because the wedding bonnets of Princess Alice and the Princess of Wales from their marriages were photographed.
There is, however, something especially poignant about this image. This veil, to which the Queen ascribed such sentimental importance and later – deep personal symbolism – is depicted draped over a sofa, with the Queen’s orange-blossom wreath on top of it. Prince Albert in fact, designed for the Queen a set of orange-blossom jewellery, to which pieces were added over the years, from 1839-46. This parure was of porcelain, gold and enamel, with blossoms taken from genuine orange sprigs: “My beloved one gave me such a lovely unexpected present … the leaves are of frosted gold, the orange blossoms of white porcelaine & 4 little green enamel oranges, meant to represent our children” (Quoted in Charlotte Gere, Victoria & Albert, Love and art: Queen Victoria’s personal jewellery, essay from a study day 5-6 June 2010, ed. Susanna Avery-Quash).
The Queen wore a diamond necklace and long ‘Turkish’ earrings by Rundells, which had been created the previous year out of diamonds presented to her by the Sultan Mahmud II in 1838. A large sapphire, diamond-set brooch, was worn at the front of her dress. This was a gift from Prince Albert; unusually, this brooch – which formed one of the most treasured pieces amongst the Queen’s personal jewellery – does not feature in the painting made of their wedding, ‘The Marriage of Queen Victoria’ by Sir George Hayter, as the author Charlotte Gere has demonstrated. She does, however, wear it in the painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, which the Queen gave as a present to Prince Albert on their seventh wedding anniversary, in 1847. It shows the Queen wearing her full wedding attire and jewellery. The brooch was a deeply personal object, all the more so because of the day on which it was worn and because it was a present from Prince Albert. So important was the brooch, that the Queen mentioned it specifically in her journal and later in her will, leaving instructions that it should revert to the Crown on her death. Queen Victoria’s beloved half-sister, Princess Feodore of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, gave the Queen a ruby and diamond ring for her wedding, showing two hearts, inscribed with the words: “Unis a jamais” [United forever].
Similarly, as were the cakes of several of her children at their weddings, the ‘Royal Wedding Cake, Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria and His Royal Highness Prince Albert, Married February 10, 1840’, was captured for posterity, although this time in a hand-coloured lithograph. The cake was circular, decorated with festoons of orange blossom and entwined myrtle sprigs; it apparently weighed 300 pounds. It also featured figures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in ancient Greek costume, a pleasing forerunner to the period costumes they would later both enjoy wearing as a couple of themed balls. Remarkably, pieces of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake survive – two boxes in the Royal Collection contain samples of it, which were distributed at the Wedding Breakfast. The boxes are made of cardboard, bearing the royal crown and read: ‘The Queen’s Bridal Cake, Buckingham Palace, Feby [sic] 10 1840’. Though the Wedding Breakfast took place at the Palace, the Queen would herself had preferred a private, simple wedding ceremony in a small room at Buckingham Palace itself, professing “a horror” of marrying before a large congregation (Hibbert, Pg 120).
Queen Victoria was driven to St James’s Palace, accompanied by her mother, the Duchess of Kent and the Duchess of Sutherland, her Mistress of the Robes. Arriving at St James’s Palace, the Queen went her to the dressing-room, to assemble with the twelve bridesmaids who would carry her train, which seems to have been short, making her walk up the aisle slowly. Queen Victoria herself ‘designed’ the simple white dresses of her bridesmaids and made a pencil watercolour sketch of how they looked, with their sprays of roses. Each of these bridesmaids was afterwards presented with a turquoise, pearl and diamond brooch in the shape of an eagle by the Queen and Prince Albert, made to the Prince’s designs.
A sprig of Queen Victoria’s myrtle wedding bouquet was planted and grew into a bush in its own right. We know this because the myrtle bouquet held by Princess Alexandra of Denmark was taken from this bush, which she carried when she married the Queen’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales at St George’s Chapel in 1863 (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, Pg 159, 1997).
Prince Albert stood in front of the altar to the Queen’s right, as was correctly depicted in Sir George Hayter’s painting of the wedding. There were, of course, no photographs made of the marriage itself because the process was still not properly advanced, grainy daguerreotypes from the early 1840s being the earliest photographs that were made of the Queen. Panoramas were, however, made of the procession. An impression of how Queen Victoria and Prince Albert might have looked on their wedding day, is from the photographs made by Roger Fenton in 1854, although it shows them in court dress, not wedding attire and has often been mistaken for a picture made on the day of their marriage. Prince Albert wore the uniform of a British Field Marshal and the Order of the Garter.
The Queen was led to the altar of the Chapel Royal by the Duke of Sussex. She walked wearing shoes, presumably made by (Richard) Gundry & Son, who held the royal warrant of Boot and Shoemakers to the Queen during her lifetime. The pair of Gundry satin shoes kept in the Museum of London dated 1838-40 do not originate from a royal source but are traditionally thought to be those the Queen wore for her coronation. There are a pair of Gundry shoes believed to be those Queen Victoria wore for her wedding, kept in the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. A pair of black leather Gundry mourning shoes with crepe rosettes, believed to have belonged to Queen Victoria, are kept – appropriately – at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
This marriage marked the beginning of a family, whose numerous descendants themselves married into the other royal families of Europe and continue still to be numerous today. As her four-year-old daughter, Princess Beatrice was to poignantly remark after her father’s death, “What a pity that I was too little to be at your marriage” (Quoted in Hibbert, Pg 287). The Queen’s wedding day had indeed been – by her own admission – “the happiest day” of her life.