When Victoria, newly crowned queen of England at the young age of 18, fell in love with and married her German first cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840, both came to the marriage with very differing ideas of the path their marriage would take. Victoria felt as queen that she would have the best of both worlds: control of her beloved country and love and companionship with her husband. Albert hoped that in the midst of child-rearing and domestic activities, the usual sphere of a woman in the mid-nineteenth century, Victoria would eventually hand over the reins of power to him and concentrate on their family. Obviously this was a match against the odds, even in today’s society. This interesting and potentially explosive relationship is the basis of Gillian Gill’s We Two, a wonderful double biography of the royal couple and their 21 years of marriage.
Both Victoria and Albert were descended from the Coburg family, a small duchy located in what is today the German state of Bavaria. Both were raised in single parent households, Victoria losing her father to pneumonia at eight months old, and Albert losing his mother at five when she was banished from court following an ugly divorce. When Victoria’s three older uncles died childless, she was crowned queen at 18 years old, just barely old enough to rule on her own. Her mother the Duchess of Kent and her friend Sir John Conroy had hoped to rule as regents for Victoria (meaning they would rule in her name if the current monarch died before Victoria turned 18) and so imposed a strict series of rules and isolation on Victoria, called the Kensington System, which kept the young Victoria under their power and isolated from her royal relatives. They even at one point tried to get her to sign a document allowing them to rule for her until she was 21, which thankfully she did not sign. Once queen, Victoria banished the hated Conroy from court, and would not regain friendly relations with her mother until her children were born.
Albert, on the other hand, was raised from childhood with the goal of being married to Victoria. Victoria, however, was unimpressed when she first met him as an awkward teenager in 1836. Albert then spent the next two years undergoing “refinement” by his Coburg relatives to be more of what Victoria was looking for, and it worked. They were married four years later. Poor Albert met with extreme anti-Coburg hostility when he first came to England. Members of Parliament and the public were concerned that as a foreigner, Albert had his own agenda (which he did) and would work his agenda through his wife (which he did). Albert’s stoic public demeanor, heavy German accent, and insistence on morality in a court long known for indulgence and adultery did not make him popular either.
Like most men in nineteenth century England, Albert felt himself to be superior to women, and thus had a very hard time taking second place to his wife the queen. All of the other European royal families did not allow women to be crowned as sovereigns, so Albert had no one to turn to for advice or look to as an example. Many of these kingdoms refused to give Albert the precedence he enjoyed in England, which added insult to injury. As it was, it took Victoria until four years before Albert’s death to finally convince Parliament to give him the title of Prince Consort.
Albert’s greatest achievement was the conception for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first World’s Fair), which brought international manufactures and technology to London under the spectacular roof of the Crystal Palace. Albert is also credited with keeping Britain out of the American Civil War, when he rewrote a very harsh letter that was to be sent to Lincoln following the capture of a British mail carrier carrying two Confederate diplomats to England.
Between 1840 and his death in 1861, the two would raise nine children, which kept Victoria extremely busy and more reliant upon her husband to help with affairs of state. Unlike most women of the time, Victoria felt child-bearing and motherhood to be a ball and chain, preventing her from doing the things she loved and from being a more complete queen. It didn’t help that childbearing was very unsafe back in the nineteenth century, and many women and children died in childbirth. Victoria was one of the first women in England to use ether during childbirth, which she happily recommended to all women and helped to bring about its more widespread use. Her resentful feelings about motherhood translated into chilly relations with her children during their childhood. Happily, as her children grew up, these feelings began to abate, and she became especially close to her oldest daughter, “Vicky” through their letters when she moved to Prussia. Her youngest daughter Beatrice, born three years before Albert’s death, became her especial favorite. Albert, on the other hand, was an extremely devoted father who spent a lot of time with his children, especially his two oldest daughters Vicky and Alice. He had agendas for each of his children to marry well and bring his ideas and legacy to their own kingdoms, and was especially hard on his son and heir Bertie, who would become Edward VII.
Having never read anything about Queen Victoria, I really enjoyed this book. It was never for a moment dry history. Any woman out there who is a working mother trying hard to balance the priorities of husband, family and job will appreciate what she went through and how amazing it was that the pair did not run away from each other screaming. Although I am sure Victoria had loads of help with her brood, I cannot imagine the stress on the body of bearing nine kids, and then raising them. (Kate Gosselin should take note!!!) The only birth control option available for the upper classes in the nineteenth century was abstinence. Victoria enjoyed relations with her husband so much that she did not want to give that up, so numerous children were the inevitable result. Nineteenth century child mortality rates were very high and sadly families expected that one or more children might die, so it was very important for the monarch to have as many children as possible to both ensure the succession and/or to be married off to other royal kingdoms. Many times these children would be married off to old, ugly, mean or related husbands or wives in need of titled spouses, which would be horrible. I can’t think of anything more gross than marrying a guy 35 years older than me who was my uncle. YUCK.
Another interesting aspect of the book discussed the genetic trait of hemophilia in the royal family. The trait originated with Victoria and Albert’s union and was spread to succeeding generations. Women are the carriers of the disease since it is carried on the X chromosome, and since women have two X chromosomes, a hemophiliac X chromosome can be compensated for by the other normal X chromosome. Not the same for males, who only have the one X chromosome, so the affliction of hemophilia is usually exhibited only in males, passed on to them from their mothers. Essentially, hemophilia is a disorder that prevents normal blood clotting, so something as simple as a bump on the head or a skinned knee could be fatal. Victoria’s eighth child Leopold suffered several hemorrhages, and her daughters Alice and Beatrice were carriers. Since her children intermarried with royals from other countries, and their children did as well, hemophilia has become known as the ‘royal disease’.
Despite being at odds sometimes in their political views and child raising ideas, Victoria and Albert loved each other very much. Victoria was decimated when Albert died at the very young age of 42, and after his death, essentially removed herself from the public eye to mourn. It was said she wore black until the end of her life, 40 years later. She never remarried, although the book briefly touches on the famous relationship she enjoyed with a Scotsman, John Brown. Her reign would last 63 years, and when she died, the British empire was at the height of its power. To this day she is still England’s longest-ruling monarch. Both are buried together in the Mausoleum at Frogmore.
I really enjoyed this book as a very readable and enjoyable biography of one of the earliest “power couples”. I hope you will pick it up yourself.