Death Brings a Christmas and New Year Draped in Black Jan 2, 2018 2:07:10 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Jan 2, 2018 2:07:10 GMT -5
Death Brings a Christmas and New Year Draped in Black
Late during the night of Saturday, December 14, 1861, people in London living in the vicinity of St. Paul’s Cathedral were awakened by the mournful tolling of the great bell. Realizing the ringing of the bell at such a late hour signified either a national crisis or the death of a monarch, many dressed quickly and hurried toward St. Paul’s. Some had read, or heard about, the bulletin issued the previous morning indicating Albert, the prince consort, who had been ill for approximately two weeks, had rallied during the night and the nation breathed a sigh of relief, confident he was on the road to recovery. According to spokespersons for the Royal Family, he was suffering from nothing more than a “low fever,” however, most also knew that in Victorian parlance, this could mean anything from a chill to typhoid fever. Others however, did not know there had been a death at Windsor Castle until the following morning at church when Prince Albert’s name was omitted when it came time to pray for the queen and her family. But news of the death spread quickly and soon, passing bells were ringing in every city and village in England.
On December 9, Dr. William Jenner, one of the royal physicians treating Prince Albert, diagnosed typhoid fever, but Albert’s problems had started two years earlier when he became seriously ill with stomach cramps. Then in the fall of 1860, the prince was injured when forced to jump from a runaway carriage. Though he suffered nothing more than minor cuts and bruises, he lamented that his “last hour had come” and his doctor feared Albert’s constitution was so frail that should he fall ill, he wouldn’t have the strength to fight the malady. Then in March 1861, both Albert’s aunt, the Duchess of Kent, and the queen’s 74-year-old mother died. Victoria was grief-stricken and shut herself away, refusing to see either her husband or any of their nine children. As a consequence, Albert assumed most of her duties despite his chronic stomach ailments. The last public event at which he presided was the opening of the Royal Horticultural Gardens in June 1861. Two months later, the royal couple traveled to Ireland, where the Prince of Wales (“Bertie,” the future Edward VII) was serving in the army, during which time he met Nellie Clifden, an Irish actress.
By November, the queen and her consort were back in residence at Windsor Castle, the Prince of Wales had returned to Cambridge, where he was a student, and two of Albert’s cousins had succumbed to typhoid fever. Albert also learned there were rumors in the foreign press and making the rounds in gentlemen’s clubs that Edward was still seeing Nellie Clifden. He and the queen were deeply concerned about their son’s indiscretion, fearing blackmail, pregnancy or some other scandal. Though Albert was weak and ill, on November 24, he traveled to Cambridge in the pouring rain to confront his wayward offspring, after which the prince consort caught a dreadful chill. Queen Victoria later blamed Bertie for his father’s illness, declaring, “That boy ... I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder.” The monarch, not always a sympathetic soul, also grew tired of her husband’s complaints, once writing in a letter: “I need not tell you what a trial it is to me.”
In the meantime, the United States of America – which had declared war on, and invaded, the newly-formed Confederate States of America – ordered the arrest of two Confederate envoys sailing to Europe aboard a British ship in what came to be known as the Trent Affair. Britain was outraged at such temerity and to avoid an armed confrontation with the rebellious former colony, Albert intervened and Abraham Lincoln released the men.
It wasn’t until December 11 that physicians attending the prince consort – who had by this time taken to his bed – revealed to the sovereign that her husband had contracted “a fever,” i.e., typhoid, and was desperately ill. He was so weak he couldn’t hold a pen and so delirious he believed he was back in Germany and began to wander about listlessly as his anxious wife followed him from room-to-room.
His condition worsened and by December 14, doctors were administering constant doses of brandy to their royal patient. In the dimly-lit Blue Room, where he lay amid frequently-plumped pillows, his breath was labored. He had no color and his hair, wet with perspiration, stuck to his head. Victoria knelt on the floor beside the bed, holding Albert’s hand. By this point, the trembling monarch knew her husband was dying. Five of their children stood nearby, along with doctors, equerries, ladies-in-waiting and clergymen, but the queen paid them no heed, oblivious to all and wanting nothing more than a sign of recognition from her beloved prince. Then suddenly she got to her feet and threw herself onto the bed, leaning forward, whispering in German.
Within 30 minutes, Albert’s struggles for breath were audible from the anteroom and he was bathed in sweat. Alice, the princess royal, had seen death and furtively whispered to her mother, “That is the death rattle. I’m afraid this takes away all our hope.” She later recalled her mother “started up like a lioness, rushed by everyone and bounded on the bed imploring him to speak and to give one kiss to his little wife.” The distraught Victoria kissed the prince passionately and continued clinging to him as his breathing became easier. “Oh, this is death,” she cried, holding his hand, which was already growing cold. “I know it. I have seen this before.” Her 42-year-old husband was dead and the monarch’s wails reverberated through Windsor Castle. Finally, she was persuaded to leave the Blue Room and, followed by the children, hurried to the nursery, sobbed, “Oh! Albert, Albert! Are you gone?” According to one of her dressers, as midnight struck, the queen, mad with grief, continued to sit silently in the nursery, “gazing wildly and as hard as stone.”
The first morning of her widowhood, Queen Victoria made her way to the Blue Room where the dead prince lay. By this time, his valet had washed the corpse and dressed his master in a long, dark blue frock coat with a gold aiguillette (braided cord) adorning his right shoulder and a gold and crimson sash with tassels across his chest. The valet did not remove the rings the prince was wearing at death. The sovereign, who had been warned by the doctors not to kiss her dead husband for fear of disease, fondled and kissed his clothing instead. Then she ordered that every part of the Blue Room be photographed so that it could be preserved precisely as it was when the prince entered immortality and her life fell apart.
The body – which wasn’t embalmed – was placed in a white satin-lined wooden coffin, which was, in turn, placed inside an outer casing of lead adorned with silver gilt ornaments. Inside the great palace, a double-width of druggett (heavy felted wool) formed an elaborate black pathway through two rooms, down the staircase and all the way to the entrance “so as to form a mourning route for the remains,” trod by those following the coffin. After the double coffin was moved to the ante-throne room eight days later, it was placed within a third massive mahogany state coffin over which was spread a heavily-embroidered black velvet pall lined in white satin.
The prince did not lie in state, allowing British subjects to pay their final respects to the man who had performed the duties of king for more than two decades, but most realized Albert’s death would have tragic ramifications. Flags flew at half-mast, churches were festooned in black crape, commerce on the Thames came to a standstill and theaters, shops and other business establishments closed. In private homes, curtains and blinds were drawn, brass identification plates were encircled in black, lamps and mirrors were covered and everyone attempted to display to the world that they, like their monarch, were in mourning. Women dressed in black, men donned black armbands and children weren’t exempt with even the dresses of babes in arms being trimmed in black grosgrain. Horses and carriages were adorned in black and strips of funereal crape fluttered from the whips of omnibus and hansom drivers. Some even attached black ribbons to the collars of family pets. In the country, beehives were draped in black in keeping with the old superstition that bees must be told of a death in the family to prevent their flying away. Stationers took advantage of the situation, selling copies of the most recent photographs of the prince at exorbitant prices. Without doubt, Christmas of 1861 was one of the bleakest in British history.
Following Albert’s death, the queen’s physicians recommended a change of residence. Victoria initially objected, wanting to remain at Windsor until Albert was buried, but prepared to leave on Tuesday, the 18th, for Osborn, the royal home on the Isle of Wight, after the doctors convinced her she and her children risked infection. Unfortunately, Osborn did not raise Victoria’s spirits and instead of attempting to recover for the good of the country and her family, the Queen set about turning mourning into an art. Naturally, she dressed in black from head to toe, as was expected of a widow of means, but announced she would remain in full mourning until the end of 1864 – a period of three years. “They cannot tell what I have lost,” she insisted. The lady was obsessed with a single thought – to die – to join what she described “as the sunshine” of her existence, “the light” of her life. “There is no one to call me Victoria now,” she lamented and to her German-speaking relatives, sadly declared, “I have no one now in the world to call me du.” (In German, du is the intimate form of you.)
After nine days, Prince Albert was finally laid to rest. The funeral at St. George’s Chapel was private and only men attended – Queen Victoria was too distraught to appear at her beloved consort’s sendoff. In actuality, an all-male funeral wasn’t that unusual during the Victorian era when it was feared women, being the weaker sex, might collapse in paroxysms of uncontrollable grief. (Actually, women were much more likely to collapse because their tightly-laced corsets didn’t allow them to take a deep breath.) Bertie, 20, at the time, and Arthur, his 11-year-old brother, were their father’s chief mourners. Many noticed young Arthur’s eyes and face were red and swollen. At the conclusion of the services, the wind “mourned hoarsely against the casements” and the troops outside could be heard reversing arms as the melancholy knell pealed from the castle spire. The coffin was then lowered quietly through the aperture in the stone floor to the royal vault below to the mournful strains of the “Dead March.”
Somehow, the queen made it through the days, but the 42-year-old widow was overwhelmed by the long, dark nights. “What a dreadful going to bed!” she wrote. “What a contrast to that tender lover’s love.” She was jealous of Vicky, her eldest daughter, who had a husband “on whose bosom you can pillow your head when all seems dark.” Shortly before the New Year, she issued instructions that the public period of mourning for the prince consort be “for the longest term in modern times” and members of the royal household would remain secluded in mourning for a year.
Black had replaced the merry reds and greens of the holiday season, but some, such as Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse in Oxford Circus, were reaping the benefits of the monarch’s grief. Because of the sudden demand for its Noir Impériale black silks and high quality patent, Jay’s was forced to enlarge its premises. And though general mourning officially ended February 10, Victoria had made mourning fashionable and the demand for all things black continued. The shops of haberdashers, drapers, milliners and tailors filled their windows and counters with black and manufacturers produced commemorative items such as plaques, busts, plates, handkerchiefs, bookmarks, tea sets and even pot lids to meet what seemed the insatiable demand for mourning items. Photographic dealers couldn’t produce images of Prince Albert fast enough to fill the orders and it seemed Victoria’s subjects so sympathized with their queen they were determined to emulate her and mourn for three years, too. Not only were textile mills producing black cloth as quickly as possible, there was also a run on black dye by those who couldn’t afford to purchase new mourning wardrobes and instead had to dye the clothing they already owned.
The call for mourning jewelry was such that Whitby (where Dracula’s ship landed in England), a small village on the Yorkshire coast, became famous for its jet jewelry and has remained so to this day. Brooches, beads, clasps, combs, headdresses and other items to accommodate every aspect of Victorian mourning were created.
The distraught queen remained inconsolable and neglected her daily journal until Jan. 1, 1862, when she wrote: “Have been unable to write my journal since the day my beloved one left us. And with what a heavy broken heart I enter a new year without him!”
But while the populace eagerly embraced their sovereign’s decision to turn the country into one of what seemed to be perpetual mourning, those in authority were acutely aware the government was in peril. The monarch flatly refused to discuss matters of state or perform her duties as mandated by the constitution. Instead, she languished at Osborne and Balmoral, her home in Scotland, and Buckingham Palace was deserted. She also declined to entertain foreign dignitaries and when the King of Sweden visited England, he was forced to bunk at the Swedish legation, and Prince Humbert of Italy had to make do with a modest lunch at the White Hart Inn rather than a state dinner.
When she returned to Windsor, the grief-stricken queen ordered that Albert’s dressing gown and fresh clothing be laid out on his bed in the evening and a steaming jug of hot water be set on the washstand. A marble bust of the prince was commissioned and placed between the two beds in the Blue Room (above) and above it hung his portrait, wreathed in evergreens. Fresh flowers were strewn on the pillows and the glass from which he had taken his last dose of medicine stood on the bedside table, where it remained for 40 years. His blotting book lay open on his desk with his pen upon it as though he had been writing and just stepped away. Guests were still required to write their names in his visitor’s book as well as that of the queen. On one occasion, Victoria had a photographer take her picture as she gazed upon the bust of her departed husband. At night she lay in bed clasping one of his nightshirts to her bosom as she attempted to fall asleep. On a table next to her bed lay a cast of her beloved’s hand.
No one denied that Victoria had loved Albert with all her heart and soul, but some felt her overt demonstrations of grief were for the benefit of others. Before long, her ministers and ladies in waiting were whispering among themselves that even though the queen appeared to be in rude health, she continued to neglect her duties. Finally, in 1864, her physicians politely suggested she begin riding again to improve her constitution. She agreed and her favorite pony and John Brown, her Scottish ghillie, were brought from Balmoral to Windsor. The handsome blond-haired, blue-eyed Brown was very attentive to his sovereign and to the dismay of the court, the queen appeared to be quite taken with this strong, protective male and it was feared the monarch might become as dependent on this commoner as she had been on her prince consort.
But even though the queen’s disposition improved, she still neglected her duties as monarch and by 1871, there were calls for her abdication. It wasn’t until Benjamin Disraeli was elected prime minister a second time in 1874 that Victoria – still clad in black from head to toe – regained her interest in affairs of state and began to resume her role as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Sources: Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert by Stanley Weintraub; Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hilbert; Lisa Waller Rogers; Robert Colley, History in an Hour; Helen Rappaport, BBC History Magazine; and Gods and Foolish Grandeur.