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The death of Prince Albert – Part One

In a two-part series, our Historian, Elizabeth Jane Timms, looks back at the death of Prince Albert:

Prince Albert, the beloved husband and Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, died on 14 December 1861, at Windsor Castle. So enormous were the consequences of this death, both for the British monarch publicly and Queen Victoria privately, that we can sometimes overlook the death itself, although any event is only rightly assessed by its genuine impact.

For Queen Victoria – 42, the same age as the Prince Consort had been when he died – another half of her life lay ahead, and her life as a royal widow had begun. At the same time, a cult surrounding the Prince Consort’s death had been born, giving way to a flood of almost feverish commemorative activity, in the form of countless statues, plaques, monuments as well as numerous Albert Squares and Albert Streets, aside from the ‘Albertopolis’ – the cluster of Kensington Museums which are Prince Albert’s greatest legacy to this country and of course, the Albert Memorial. Albert’s death, therefore, in many shapes and forms, took on a whole new life of its own.

The cultural memory of the Prince Consort was tattooed onto the streets and squares of Great Britain and beyond, as well as at the private royal residences, such as Balmoral. It was as if Queen Victoria by so doing, would not permit him to be forgotten by her subjects, although Prince Albert had always disliked memorials and effigies. Even the railings in London were painted black and have remained so ever since, a strange socio-historic relic of the Prince’s passing. The cult of Prince Albert’s memory was the despair of Charles Dickens, no less: ‘If you should meet with an inaccessible cave anywhere in that neighbourhood, to which a hermit could retire from the memory of Prince Albert and testimonials to the same, pray let me know of it’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria & Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, pp. 166-67).

The cult of Prince Albert’s death was, however, a mere extension of the vast commemorative cult of Queen Victoria’s marriage and children, which had been practised during the Prince’s lifetime, when even the first tooth lost by the Princess Royal in Scotland in 1847, was set into a gold thistle brooch. Perhaps we should see this as portentous, maybe not. It may well be but a darker version of that cult of happiness.

I view it as necessary to recognise that the death of Prince Albert, which turned Queen Victoria from a royal wife into a royal widow, nevertheless was the same woman. The solemn, monochrome image of Queen Victoria does not always correspond for many with the supreme personal happiness of the Queen before Prince Albert’s death. We should see that the two are interlinked for the grief-stricken widow was also the passionate wife but the same Queen Victoria.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the Queen – though personally devastated and utterly grief-stricken, continued to retain political involvement and her journal entries, though full of her personal pain, nevertheless are also revealing of what I consider to be a calm, though stunned, collectiveness. There is no trace of emotional hysteria in them. The first of these journal entries is for 1 January 1862 and is short. It is from among those of the Queen’s journals which were copied and edited by the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice at her mother’s instruction, burning the originals as she went.

Any historian of Queen Victoria’s family might feel a sense of solemnity when encountering this simple blue notebook by Parkin & Gotto, which Princess Beatrice used to complete her copy editing task at the behest of the Queen. The informed reader knows what Queen Victoria has experienced when looking at this new volume for 1862, which makes the sight of it a profoundly moving one, because the Queen is beginning another year, alone.

1861, the year which had seen for the Queen, the loss of both her mother, the Duchess of Kent in March and Prince Albert in December, was at an end. The reader might also be forgiven a momentary sense of relief that these have occurred, in the same way in which anyone reading the Queen’s life, has an ominous feeling throughout 1861 that these events still lie ahead for her. Understandably, Christmas 1861 is full of reminiscence of the Christmas of 1860 at Windsor, the last in Prince Albert’s life. The last entry in the Queen’s journal for 1861 occurs on 13 December 1861, the day before Prince Albert’s death at Windsor. What follows next are blank pages, a telling analogy in themselves, although looking at the Queen’s entries for the previous fortnight, we are, of course, not unprepared for what follows.

In a sense, the Queen’s own words perfectly reflect her state of mind at the time, for we see her grasping at hope and the entries almost read like an exercise in self-reassurance, punctuated with sorrow and anxiety. Most telling perhaps, there is no entry whatsoever for 14 December 1861, the day ever after referred to by the Queen as that ‘terrible 14th. Princess Beatrice’s handwriting – in red ink – records after the entry for 13 December 1861, that there were simply no further entries for this year. Princess Beatrice, of course, knew the reason for this, but there is no mention of the death of the Prince Consort, her father. She simply sticks to her royal, familial commission and continues with her task of copying, editing and altering. There are no more entries in the Queen’s journal until 1 January 1862 – symbolic indeed of the event that was so shattering for the Queen that the silence in the diary for a Queen who famously wrote so many words – estimated by the author Giles St Aubyn to have been around 2,500 a day – quite literally, speaks volumes.

This was because – as Queen Victoria annotated a photograph of herself in mourning at Windsor– ‘Day turned into Night’. A moving heading in the Queen’s handwriting can be found at the start of one of her pocket sketchbooks, dated ‘Aug 6 1864’: ‘III Year of My Great Sorrow’ (Ibid, 176).

Prince Albert returned to Windsor on 26 November, having lectured the Prince of Wales outdoors at Cambridge in the pouring rain, over his recent behaviour with an actress, Nellie Clifden. He spent a sleepless night, shivering at Madingley Hall, Cambridge and complained of ‘rheumatic’ pain in his back and his legs (Wilson, 251). He wrote to his eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, that he had been suffering from ‘a very heavy catarrh and… from headache and pains in my limbs’. (cit., Hibbert, 275).

Dearest Papa… is not well, with a cold [and] neuralgia… I never saw him so low’, the Queen wrote to the Crown Princess (cit., Ibid, 276). The Prince’s last Cabinet memorandum was later annotated by the Queen: ‘This draft was the last the beloved Prince ever wrote. He was very unwell at the time & when he brought it to the Queen he said, ‘I could hardly hold my pen’”. (cit., 277).

The Queen went on to detail the Prince’s state of collapse, reporting herself to be feeling ‘terribly nervous and depressed’. (cit., Ibid). On 2 December, the Queen wrote: ‘My poor Albert had a sad night of shivering, sleeplessness & great distress. Sent for Dr Jenner, who found him extremely uncomfortable, sad & distressed. Dr Jenner assured me there was no reason to be alarmed.’ (cit., Wilson, 253). The Queen wrote: ‘The Queen was ‘crying much… for I saw no improvement.’ (cit., Ibid).

Prince Albert was restless and wandered about from room to room. By 4 December he was not eating, sipping only raspberry vinegar in Seltzer water (Ibid, 253). On 6 December, he was judged to have improved, but the following day developed a fever. On 9 December, Dr Jenner pronounced a favourable turn. The Queen’s journal entries show her oscillating between hope and reality: ‘Oh! As if my heart must break – oh! Such agony as exceeded all my grief this year…. I seem to live in a dreadful dream. My angel lay on the bed in the bedroom & I sat by him watching him & the tears fell fast’. (cit., Ibid, 278).

Prince Albert in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, printed in carbon 1889-91 by Hughes & Mullins as a commission from Queen Victoria (John Jabez Edwin Mayal [United States Public domain or Public domain])

The Prince’s mood moved between affection – calling the Queen by her pet names ‘Frauchen’ and ‘Weibchen’, [little wife] and slapping her hand in irritation: ‘poor dear darling’. It was at this point that he asked to be moved into the Blue Room, where the sun was streaming through the windows. In the next room, Princess Alice prayed the great Lutheran hymn, Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott, at which tears filled Prince Albert’s eyes. Prince Albert reprimanded Princess Alice for only telling the Crown Princess in a letter that their father’s illness had grown more serious, saying: ‘You did wrong. You should have told her I am dying’. (cit., Ibid, 279). By 11 December, the Prince was sitting up and taking broth: ‘He laid his dear head (his beautiful face, more beautiful than ever, has grown so thin) on my shoulder and remained a little while, saying “It is very comfortable so, dear child’.” (cit., Ibid, 279). On 12 December, his hands were trembling, and his breathing became more rapid the next day. The Prince was given brandy every half an hour (Wilson, 254).

Prince Albert’s mind appeared to be wandering, for he started to arrange his hair and had dreams of his childhood, imagining he heard the birds twittering in the woods back home at Coburg (Hibbert, 281). The Queen went to Prince Albert at seven o’clock each morning, but shortly before the end, wrote: ‘Never can I forget how beautiful my darling looked lying there with his face lit up by the rising sun, his eyes unusually bright…’ The Queen’s doctors, Sir James Clark and Dr Jenner, as well as Sir Henry Holland, were all extremely anxious but permitted the Queen to go for a short walk on the Terrace with Princess Alice.

The Prince of Wales had been sent for from Cambridge, and with the other royal children, they went to Prince Albert. The Prince’s bed had been moved away from the wall. He had got up to allow his sheets to be changed for fresh ones (Wilson, 254). It was later when the Queen returned that she realised his breathing had changed. The Prince’s valet, Rudolph Loehlein was also present, as was Prince Ernst of Leiningen, Colonel Phipps, General Bruce and the Dean of Windsor, Gerald Wellesley (Ibid, 254). Queen Victoria leant over the Prince and whispered: ‘Es ist das kleine Frauchen, ein Kuss. [It is your little wife, kiss me.] Queen Victoria’s own words to describe this event – written later – were as follows: ‘Two or three long, but perfectly gentle breaths were drawn, the hand clasping mine, & (oh! It turns me sick to write it) all, all was over… I stood up, kissing his dear heavenly forehead & called out in a bitter and agonising cry, ‘Oh! My dear darling!’ and then dropped on my knees in mute, distracted despair, unable to utter a word or shed a tear!…’ (cit., Wilson, 255).

The Queen went to lay down on a sofa in the Red Room. Sir Howard Elphinstone, Prince Arthur’s Governor, described that Princess Alice was knelt beside her, holding the Queen in her arms, whilst Princess Helena, was weeping distractedly. Elphinstone wrote: ‘The Prince… had gone without a struggle, but likewise without saying a word… He died in the same room as King William IV’. (cit., Ibid, 281).

Check back tomorrow for part two of our history piece looking back on the death of the Prince Consort.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. Her academic subject is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has spent nearly ten years conducting original research on historic royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on TV and radio, including the BBC. Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor on BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical and genealogical journal, Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life Magazine, the official magazine of the Tudor Society. She was History Writer for Royal Central (2015-2020), writing a blog for the web's most popular royal news site. Her current projects include the portraiture of Queen Jane Seymour and Prince Henry Tudor (*1511).