Marlborough College Summer School

The Last Marriage of a Prince of Wales, 1863

Richard Mullen looks back on the wedding of Prince Albert Edward to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

Marriages of the Prince of Wales have been fairly rare events in English history: that of Prince Charles is only the sixth since the creation of the title. The last one was that of his great-great-grandfather, later King Edward VII, in 1863. The public saw the marriage as nothing less than 'a love match', free from the diplomatic entanglements of the past; in fact it was the product of five years' hard work behind the scenes.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had begun the search for a bride in 1858: an early marriage would 'settle' a 'difficult' son. Under the Act of Succession the bride could not be a Roman Catholic. The Queen and the Prince were anxious to continue the tradition of a German match, a tradition upheld in 1858 when the Princess Royal, the first of their children to marry, became the wife of Prince Frederick of Prussia. The Times fuelled public speculation when, in the summer of 1858, it drew up its own short list of seven princesses. Alexandra of Denmark, then a girl of thirteen, was fifth on the list.

Princess Alexandra had many assets: she was exceedingly beautiful, charming, devout and, although daughter of the heir to the Danish throne, economical. But as the Queen gathered information she felt Alexandra to have two great drawbacks. She was connected, through her mother, to the Duchess of Cambridge, the Queen's aunt. The Queen did not like the Cambridge family as they were too inclined to enjoy life in the traditions of her 'wicked uncles'; nor did the Queen think much of Alexandra's own relations; 'The mother's family are bad, the father's foolish'. Far worse in the Queen's eyes was the fact that Alexandra was Danish. The last royal marriage with Denmark had been a disaster. George III's sister, Caroline Matilda, had married Christian UII and within a few years the 'Queen of Tears' was driven into exile after having been divorced and imprisoned for adultery. Denmark was also involved in the long battle with the German Confederation over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The Queen was not anxious to form any connection that might be seen as anti-German.

It is therefore ironic that it was her daughter 'Vicky', recently married into the Prussian royal house who came to play the largest part in arranging the Danish match. Although initially opposed, on political grounds, the Princess Royal became convinced that Alexandra would be the perfect match for 'Bertie' and she sent back glowing reports of the young girl. Both the Queen and Prince Albert agreed that Alexandra was the best choice and when Prince Albert's brother wrote to protest at the rumours of a Danish match, he was told, none too politely, by his brother to mind his own business.

The Princess Royal arranged the first meeting between the young couple in Speyer Cathedral in September, 1861. This went well and the Prince of Wales wrote that 'the young lady of whom I had heard so much' was 'charming and pretty'. Prince Albert was delighted but warned his son that he could only see the Princess again if he agreed to propose. Two disasters then struck which seemed to endanger the match. The Prince had had a brief affair with an actress in Ireland, the news of which was now going the rounds of London society. Then, in December, 1861, the Prince Consort died and the grief-stricken Queen was convinced that 'Bertie's Fall' had been a main cause of his death. She feared that rumours of the 'Fall' might prejudice the Danes against the marriage and at one time she even thought of warning them of the problems they might be inheriting. She now wanted a speedy marriage to prevent further 'Falls' and to get her heir out of her sight.

By September, 1862, things seemed settled enough to plan a proposal. The Queen left on a pilgrimage to her husband's birthplace. She was soon joined by the Prince who had prayed at his father's tomb for guidance. The Queen arranged to meet Princess Alexandra at the King of the Belgians' palace at Laeken. She gave the young princess a sprig ot heather picked by the Prince and was instantly taken with her, partly because Alexandra had worn black out of deference to the Queen's mourning. Six days later, on September 9th, the Prince was also at Laeken and took Alexandra for a walk in the garden. After saying that he hoped the heather would bring her good luck he asked whether 'she liked our country... and then offered her my hand and heart'. The Prince was delighted and told the Queen that 'I really don't know whether I am on my head or my heels'.

The proposal, and its immediate acceptance, were only the beginning of problems; most of these were caused by the Queen, whose presence and prejudices dominated the marriage. She insisted that the marriage should have, and be seen to have, no political implications. With this Lord Palmerston's administration readily agreed, although this infuriated the Danes, starved as they were of allies. The Queen refused to invite the King of Denmark to the wedding, not just for diplomatic reasons but because she was genuinely shocked at his immoral past. Lord Palmerston instructed The Times to proclaim that the wedding was purely a personal affair. The date of the wedding proved difficult ton. The Prince did not want to wait until the summer of 1863; the Queen felt May weddings were unlucky and April was reserved for the birth of a grandchild. All that was left was March, but at this point the Archbishop of Canterbury weakly reminded the Queen that it was against church law to have weddings during Lent. To the Queen this was mere 'prejudice' and she informed the Archbishop that in her youth there had been no Lent: the marriage was to be on March 10th. The wedding would take place at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. This had been decided by Prince Albert who had planned on a grand state occasion. For over a hundred years royal marriages had been held at St. James's Palace, and usually at night with little emphasis on ceremonial and even less on public participation. This was the first wedding of a Prince of Wales at Windsor since 1361. But the Queen did insist that the proceedings be 'public' and not 'state'.

In the meantime Victoria had summoned Alexandra for a three week stay at Osborne so that they could become better acquainted. Years later, when she herself was Queen, Alexandra recalled that she had been 'terribly frightened at the whole process'. Nevertheless she scored an outstanding success and the Queen pronounced her 'a pearl' and 'so pretty to live with'. Alexandra returned to Denmark for a final farewell and left Copenhagen on February 26th, 1863, as numerous bouquets were thrown into her carriage. When the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert , neared Gravesend the Danish party could make out through the rain the word 'Welcome' in ten-feet-high letters. Englishmen ignored the Queen's wish that celebrations be kept to a minimum and eighty thousand people crowded into Gravesend to welcome the Princess. The crowds were delighted when the Prince, pale and nervous, ran up the gangway and took his eighteen-year-old bride in his arms and kissed her.

The royal train took almost an hour to reach London so as to allow people to see the bride. The prevailing mood of Victorian optimism was expressed when two farm labourers stretched a banner between their pitch-forks which read, 'Welcome to the Land of Plenty'. The crowds in Southwark were enthusiastic: bells rang and choirs sang but it was but a prelude to the City of London's reception. People were starved of public ceremonial and it was also a Saturday afternoon. It was the first time since 1501 that a Prince of Wales' bride was to he publicly welcomed in London and the Corporation had spent £10,000 on decoration and another £10,000 on jewellery for the bride. The day saw more people assembled in London than ever before in its history.

Chaos ruled. The city's police, aided by the Volunteers, were unable to keep a route open and the carriages had literally to force their way through the surging crowds. People tried to mount the carriages, and at one stage to unharness the horses and pull the couple in triumph. While the Lady Mayoress was presenting a bouquet in front of' the Mansion House a mounted officer was unhorsed but Alexandra saved the day by freeing the frightened animal's hoof from the carriage wheel where it had got entangled. Danish ministers were terrified and stood up in their carriages in sheer fright, but the crowds were good natured. The Times ' correspondent, W. H. Russell, too polite to note the shabby nature of the royal carriages, summoned up the procession when he wrote, 'No generation of the British-born race has ever witnessed or ever taken part in such a rejoicing'.

In the quiet of Windsor the Queen waited 'desolate and sad'. When changing for dinner Victoria heard a knock at her door, and 'dear gentle Alix … peeped in and came and knelt before me, with that sweet, loving expression which spoke volumes'. Victoria was 'much moved and kissed her again and again'.

Three days later on March 10th the wedding took place, and although freed of the 'cramped quarters' at St. James's, space was still at a premium. At the most there could be nine hundred guests and Lord Clarendon claimed that five thousand people felt they had 'court-going rights'. The choir could only hold 188 people, the majority of whom were standing and the balance were accommodated in the nave only because tiers of seats were erected facing a central aisle. The Queen was not technically present but watched from Queen Katherine's Closet, above and to the left of the altar. People were generally well pleased with preparations although Lord Clarendon, who was invited, told the Duchess of Manchester, who was not, that 'it was a positive mortification to see so many swells' sitting in the nave while 'so many very small people swept past them into the chapel'. Disraeli, still a comparatively 'small person' noted in later years not only that he and his wife had been given seats in the chapel but that at the time 'the Duchess of Marlborough went into hysterics of mortification at the sight of my wife'.

The Prince of Wales was resplendent in a general's uniform and the Garter robes, collar and star. He was supported by his uncle, Duke Ernest of Saxe Coburg (who was able to overcome his opposition to the marriage), and his brother-in-law, the Crown Prince of Prussia. The Prince kept looking up at his mother with, she rioted in her Journal , 'an anxious, clinging look, which touched me much'. As the Prince waited he looked out at the chapel where he saw, as W. H. Russell put it, 'the living history, not of England only, but of Europe, for the last half century'. The chancel alone contained two future Kings of Prussia and Emperors of Germany, the next two Kings of Denmark, the next King of' the Belgians, a future Empress of Russia and Alexandra's brother, William, soon to be elected King of the Hellenes. One of the future sovereigns made a characteristic debut into history: the Queen's grandson, later Kaiser Wilhelm II, bit his uncles' legs, exposed as they were in kilts, whenever they tried to quieten him.

Equally in character was the bride's late arrival: she was to be late for almost every engagement for the rest of' her long life. At last the fanfare of trumpets and kettle-drums announced her entry, preceded by Court officials and heralds. Just then a ray of sunshine burst through the great East Window and surrounded the Queen, swathed in widow's weeds, with a halo of light. The Princess was dressed in satin and Honiton lace with an enormous train of silver and white carried by eight bridesmaids. While the Queen thought they looked lovely, Lord Granville wrote that 'they looked well... when their backs were turned'. The bride was said to be wearing £15,000 in jewels.

The Prayer Book ceremony was followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and all went well, although when the choir, which included Jenny Lind, sang the Anthem, 'This day, with joyful heart and voice, to heav'n be raised a nation's prayer', the Queen began to weep. The music had been composed by Prince Albert. Soon there was hardly a dry eye in the chapel. Even Lord Palmerston, who, before the service, had crawled over several pews to get a Prayer Book for Lady Palmerston, 'quite broke down'. The young Prince was so affected he could only bow his assent to the Archbishop's asking if he would have 'this woman to thy wedded wife'. Cannons boomed as the ring was put on Alexandra's finger and when the Archbishop gave the blessing the Queen buried her face in her hand. Throughout it all, her's had been the dominant presence.

There was even more chaos in Windsor after the wedding than there had been in London on the 7th. Many guests, particularly foreign diplomats, were annoyed at the luncheon arrangements. When the Duke of Cambridge threw the traditional shoe he hit his cousin, the Prince of Wales, in the face. Luckily the 'shoe' in question was only a slipper. Before the couple set out for their honeymoon at Osborne, they were photographed with the Queen and a bust of Prince Albert. True chaos began when the numerous guests tried to get back to London. Crowds surged towards Windsor station. The Archbishop of Canterbury was caught up in the melee and asked a police constable what he was to do: 'Hold on to the next carriage, Your Grace, it's your only chance'. The Archbishop did as he was told and found Thackeray alongside him. The Prime Minister's wife was delighted to find a seat in a third-class compartment while the Marchioness of Westminster was not so delighted, but she was wearing £500,000 worth of diamonds. Disraeli recalled having to sit on his wife's lap. In London, in the crush of the crowds anxious to see the illuminations, six women were trampled to death. But throughout England and the whole of the United Kingdom, people gathered to celebrate.

For the first time in many years the bride of the heir to the throne increased, rather than diminished, the monarchy's popularity. Alexandra did much to restore the Royal Family's tarnished image by relieving the gloom surrounding it after Albert's death, and the Queen's seclusion. The marriage signified the end of the 'German Connection'. Finally, it confirmed the view that ensuring a happy family life for the Prince of Wales was now a primary aim in finding him a wife. From now on, politics and diplomacy would take second place.

Richard Mullen has taught modern British history at the University of Oxford.



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