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The last book read to Prince Albert displayed at Buckingham Palace

Public domain

As Prince Albert reprimanded his second daughter, Princess Alice, for telling her eldest sister the Crown Princess, that their father’s illness had worsened, he said sadly (but correctly): ‘You did wrong. You should have told her I am dying’. The Prince’s fatalism was such that he acknowledged what the Queen did not dare herself to admit. Indeed, Queen Victoria’s letters to her uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians, read like bulletins as much directed at herself as to the recipient. Whilst expressing grave concern, they do not allow herself even to write the possibility of the Prince’s death.

As late as two days before Prince Albert died, the Queen was writing to King Leopold: ‘I can again report favourably of our most precious invalid…’ As if to remind herself, she added at the end: ‘I am very wonderfully supported, and excepting on three occasions, have borne up very well…’ Queen Victoria listened to the hours striking throughout the night (Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 319) in a strange emotional replay of how she had heard the hours chime on the repeater watch whilst she attended her dying mother the Duchess of Kent, only six months earlier. The Queen’s journal betrays racking nervous anxiety, as if unable to conceal it in this self-conversation on paper. To King Leopold however, she wrote on 12 December 1861: ‘I do not sit up with him at night as I could be of no use; and there is nothing to cause alarm…’ (A. C. Benson and Viscount Esher, Letters of Queen Victoria, Vol III, 472).

Her journal entry for 12 December 1861 makes it clear that there was cause for grave alarm. The Queen seems to have concluded that the illness was following a pattern in length and that within a week he should be through the time period of his convalescence. By the next day, she was hoping to herself that the Prince’s life would yet be spared. There were no further entries for 1861 after 13 December. Symbolically, the journal falls silent on 14 December 1861, the date he died. 

Prince Albert was eventually moved into the Blue Room at Windsor, perhaps with a touch of the Prince’s peculiar fatalism, on 8 December 1861. It was the room in which both George IV and William IV had died. The Queen’s journal entry makes clear that this change of rooms pleased him. He had, therefore, chosen the place in which two British Kings had died, as the Prince and not King Consort of his wife, the Queen regnant, Victoria. Blue can also be, the colour of royal mourning. When Queen Elizabeth of York died, Henry VII ordered books to be bound in blue velvet and a new velvet cloth of estate in blue; he later attended a service on the death of the Queen wearing velvet blue mourning (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, 417).

During this last period of the Prince Consort’s illness, Princess Alice read aloud to her father, although his illness had made him irritable and he disliked the books which she had chosen for him. These included George Eliot’s Silas Marner (Ibid, 319) and also as Queen Victoria told the King of the Belgians, ‘Von Ense’s book’, which referred to the Memoirs of Varnhagen von Ense (1785-1858) who had served in the armies of both Austria and Russia before entering the Prussian Diplomatic Service. The Queen thought it ‘not worth much’. She went on: ‘He likes very much being read to as it soothes him’. It is clear from the Queen’s context of ‘we’ that both she and Princess Alice were reading aloud to Prince Albert.

There was, however, one further book which was chosen. As the Queen told her uncle Leopold: ‘W. Scott is also read to him’. It is poignant that Scott was chosen, as it formed part of Scotland that the Queen and Prince had shared and loved in life together. Eventually, both would rest side by side within a gigantic tomb chest hewn from a flawless block of grey Aberdeen granite. Queen Victoria had recorded seeing this Scottish sarcophagus unpacked at Frogmore on 30 November 1864: ‘It gave me a strange feeling to contemplate what is to be our resting place. Oh! could I but be there soon!’ (cit., Ibid, 616). Walter Scott summed up the romance of Scotland, the love of the Highland mountain scenery, the Prince’s ‘own work’ – Balmoral Castle.

Queen Victoria records in her (edited) journal on 2 December that she read aloud to Prince Albert; she read to him the following day and notes that Princess Alice also did. On 4 December she noted that he enjoyed being read to but that no book seemed the right choice. She recorded reading to him again on 5 December, Princess Alice taking over the next day. The Princess from 8 December onwards, began playing some chorales on the piano in the next room for Prince Albert. The Queen recorded reading aloud to Prince Albert on 10 December, the Prince having asked her to do so. She read again to him the next day, the last (recorded) day that she ever did this.

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. The mark was fittingly, a page of black-edged mourning stationery.

This was the copy of the Walter Scott book that contained his novel Peveril of the Peak, which Queen Victoria had intermittently read aloud to Prince Albert, whilst he sat on his sofa. It survives in the Royal Collection, the leather-bound volume entitled ‘Novels and tales; v. 25 of the author of Waverley, 1824‘. The place reached was page 81, Chapter V. The Queen also wrote in her own hand in the frontispiece: ‘This book was/read up to the mark/in Page 81 to my/beloved Husband/during his fatal illness & within 3/days of its terrible/termination Dec: 14/1861./VR’. The Queen’s jewellery from Prince Albert was all inscribed after his death and bore similar inscriptions.

Queen Victoria’s appreciation for Sir Walter Scott predated her love for Prince Albert. It is even possible that she dressed one of her famous wooden dolls as the Countess of Leicester, based on Scott’s mistake in Kenilworth (Longford, 32).  She wrote as early as 1836 on reading Sir Walter Scott’s Rokeby: ‘Oh! Walter Scott is my beau ideal of a Poet; I do so admire him both in Poetry and Prose!’ (cit., Delia Millar, Queen Victoria’s Life in the Scottish Highlands, 15). On 9 January 1837, she wrote in her journal that she was reading to her devoted governess Baroness Lehzen from Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor (Longford, 46).

After her marriage, she would read aloud from Scott. The six-year-old Prince of Wales recited some lines from Scott’s Lord of the Isles for the Prince’s birthday in 1847, dressed in a kilt. In 1850, the Queen quoted from the Lady of the Lake in her journal. The year prior to the publication of her Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands (1868), the Queen signed her name in Sir Walter Scott’s journal but considered it a ‘presumption’ to do so (Longford, 408).

Amongst the objects selected for display at the Summer Opening Exhibition, Queen Victoria’s Palace at Buckingham Palace is this same copy of Scott’s Novels and tales, containing Peveril of the Peak. It is not the first time that this solemn volume has been publicly exhibited. It was displayed in a glass case in a darkened room at Kensington Palace as part of Victoria Revealed, the Palace’s former permanent exhibition.

Studying this gilt, leather-bound volume we might imagine Queen Victoria’s hands across time, fingerprints from the Blue Room, as it were. It is believed to be the last book which Queen Victoria read to Prince Albert, so perhaps it was this very volume she recorded reading from on 11 December, after which the reading sessions dried up.

On closer examination of this page, I was astonished to read the singular coincidence of the last sentence read aloud to the Prince, in Scott’s novel: ‘He heard the sound of voices, but they ceased to convey any impression to his understanding; and in a few minutes, he was faster asleep than he had ever been in the whole course of his life’.

Prince Albert died on 14 December 1861. Like Scott’s Julian, he was ‘faster asleep than he had ever been in the whole course of his life’.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

Queen Victoria’s Palace is open as part of the Buckingham Palace Summer Opening from Saturday, 20 July 2019 – Sunday, 29 September 2019.


About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.