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Victoria and Bertie
Queen Victoria was mostly German. Her father, Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of King George III, was a Hanoverian, a descendant of George Louis, Elector of Hanover, brought to England in 1714 and placed on the throne as King George I to ensure the Protestant succession. All of Queen Victoria’s Hanoverian forebears—King George II, his son Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his son King George III—married German wives, reinforcing the German strain on her father’s side. Queen Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria Mary Louisa of Saxe-Coburg, was German. Queen Victoria herself then redoubled the German fraction in the royal family by marrying her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, the son of her mother’s older brother. The Queen’s early environment was mostly German. Her governess was German; the cradle songs by which she was lulled to sleep were German; she heard nothing but German and spoke only that language until she was three. Her eager sympathy with most things German was due to her husband. “I have a feeling for our dear little Germany which I cannot describe,” she said after visiting Prince Albert’s birthplace.
The British monarchy, in the years before Victoria’s accession, had come on hard times. Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessors on the throne—George III, George IV, and William IV—have been described as “an imbecile, a profligate, and a buffoon.” Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent, looked scarcely more promising. Retired from the British Army because of a taste for harsh discipline which had provoked a mutiny at Gibraltar, permanently in debt, a bachelor at forty-eight, he lived mostly abroad with his mistress of twenty-eight years, a French-Canadian woman named Madame de St. Laurent. Inspired in 1818 by an offer of an increased parliamentary subsidy if he would marry and produce a child, he ushered Madame de St. Laurent to the door and proposed to a thirty-year-old widow, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. They married and within ten months, on May 24, 1818, a daughter was born. Eight months later, the Duke of Kent, having made his contribution to English history, died of pneumonia.
The princess, second in line for the British throne, lived with her mother in practical, red-brick Kensington Palace, whence she journeyed from time to time to visit her aged uncle, King George IV. Early, she knew how to please. Climbing into the lap of the gouty, bewigged monarch, she would give him a beguiling smile and plant a whispery kiss on his dry, rouged cheek. “What would you like the band to play next?” the old gentleman once asked. “Oh, Uncle King, I should like them to play ‘God Save the King,’ ” piped the child. “Tell me what you enjoyed most of your visit,” King George said when it was time for her to go. “The drive with you,” chimed little Princess Victoria.
She understood that she was different from other children. “You must not touch those, they are mine,” she announced to a visiting child who was about to play with her toys. “And I may call you Jane, but you must not call me Victoria,” she added for emphasis. An exasperated music teacher once presumed to lecture, “There is no royal road to music, Princess. You must practice like everyone else.” Abruptly, Victoria closed the piano cover over the keys. “There! You see? There is no must about it!” When she was ten, she discovered and began to study a book of genealogical tables of the kings and queens of England. Startled, she turned to her governess and said, “I am nearer to the throne than I thought.” When her governess nodded, Victoria’s eyes filled with tears. Solemnly, she raised her right forefinger and made the famous declaration, “I will be good.”
In 1830, when Victoria was eleven, the death of “Uncle King” brought the Princess even closer to the throne. The new King, her sixty-five-year-old uncle William, had sired ten children, all illegitimate; Victoria, accordingly, was Heir to the British Crown. King William IV reigned for seven years, but at five A.M. on June 20, 1837, a group of gentlemen arrived at Kensington Palace, having come directly from Windsor Castle, where the King had just died. A sleepy young woman in a dressing gown, her hair still down her back, received them and they kneeled and kissed her hand. A reign of sixty-four years had begun. “I am very young,” the new Queen wrote in her diary that night, “and perhaps in many, though not all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that few have more good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right that I have.” The eighteen-year-old Queen, bubbling with youthful high spirits, provided a tonic for the British people, surfeited with foolish old men on the throne. On political matters, Victoria scrupulously followed the advice of her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Their relationship was a blend of daughter and father, adoring younger woman and elegant, urbane older man—and sovereign and subject. The world thought Melbourne a cynic, but he charmed the Queen with his sophistication, his dry wit, and his deep devotion. She proclaimed him “the best-hearted, kindest, and most feeling man in the world,” praise endorsed when her beloved spaniel, Dash, came up to lick Lord Melbourne’s hand. “All dogs like me,” the Prime Minister said, and shrugged, but the Queen would not believe it.
The vicissitudes of politics removed Lord Melbourne but, in 1839, Victoria herself chose the male counselor who was to have the greatest influence on her life. Her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, three months younger than Victoria, had grown up a serious, purposeful child. “I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man,” he had written in his diary at age eleven. Victoria had first met her cousin before she came to the throne, when both were seventeen. “Albert’s beauty is most striking,” she told her diary. “His hair is about the same color as mine; his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.”
Subsequently, she noted further details: the “delicate moustachios and slight but very slight whiskers,” the “beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.” Both knew that their elders hoped for a match. Still, the choice was up to her. She was almost ready to make that choice after watching him climbing the stairs at Windsor in October 1839. “It is with some emotion that I beheld Albert—who is beautiful,” she told her diary. A few days later, she invited Albert to come to her private audience room, where she proposed. Albert consented and began the difficult task of becoming the husband of the Queen of England. When he suggested, before the marriage, that it would be nice to have a longer honeymoon than the two or three days set by the Queen, she reminded him, “You forget, my dearest Love, that I am the Sovereign and that business can stop and wait for nothing.” The marriage ceremony took place at St. James’s Chapel in London and the wedding night at Windsor. The following morning, the Queen rushed to her diary. Albert had played the piano while she lay on the sofa with a headache, but “ill or not I NEVER NEVER spent such an evening!!!. My DEAREST DEAR Albert sat on a footstool by my side and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness, I never could have hoped to have felt before!—really, how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband!”
In the early months of marriage, Albert’s position was awkward. Victoria adored him and had insisted that the word “obey” remain in their marriage service, but, as he wrote to a friend, he remained “the husband, not the master of the house.” His position improved when, nine months and eleven days after the wedding, he became a father as well as a husband. The child was a daughter, Victoria (called Vicky by the family), rather than the hoped-for Prince of Wales, but this disappointment was overcome eleven and a half months later when Prince Albert Edward (known as Bertie) arrived on November 20, 1840, at Buckingham Palace. The Prince was baptized at Windsor on January 25, 1842, in the presence of the Duke of Wellington and King Frederick William IV of Prussia, who bestowed on his godson the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle. After the ceremony, Victoria wrote: “We prayed that our little boy might become a true and virtuous Christian in every respect and I pray that he may become the image of his beloved father.”
Bertie, installed in the nursery with an English and a German governess, began to speak bilingually; later, a visitor observed that the royal children “spoke German like their native tongue.” Bertie’s first words were mocked by his precocious older sister, and the Queen worried that her son “had been injured by being with the Princess Royal who was very clever and a child far above her age. She puts him down by a word or a look.” Despite their squabbles, brother and sister were close.
Queen Victoria gave birth four times in her first four years of marriage, six times in her first eight years, nine times in all. Surprisingly in that era, all of her children lived to adulthood. She did not enjoy the process of childbearing. “What you say of the pride of giving life to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own I cannot enter into that,” she wrote eighteen years later when Vicky as Crown Princess of Prussia wrote rapturously about the birth of William, her own first child. “I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.”