The Surprisingly Public Sex Life of Queen Victoria
In an era when women’s sex lives were taboo, the British monarch embraced her sexuality and carnal pleasure.
Souvenir marriage medals were proudly displayed by the damp crowd waiting to see the bride. The police stood in stiff rows along the muddy route from the palace to the chapel, pushing back rowdy onlookers. Burglars began creeping through the alleys and backyards of London, taking advantage of the fact that the bobbies would be distracted for a day. Meanwhile, along the route from the palace to the chapel, tree branches were collapsing under the weight of the people clinging to them.
When Victoria arrived at St. James’s crimson and gold Chapel Royal, she went to her waiting trainbearers, all in white dresses of her design. She gave each of them a small turquoise brooch in the shape of an eagle, as a symbol of courage and strength. Albert waited at the altar, looking dashing in a bright red, tightly fitted uniform decorated with the collar and star of the Order of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry in Britain, with his blue eyes fixed on his solemn little bride as she approached. Florence Nightingale, who, like most, thought Albert a “remarkably agreeable looking youth,” reported that a Mrs. Lefevre, who stood close to Victoria during the ceremony, said she was perfectly composed and spoke distinctly and well but that every orange flower in her head was quivering and she was very pale and her eyes red as if she had not slept. But she signed her name like a lion and was so anxious that PA should appear to advantage that she touched his elbow whenever he was going to do wrong, showed him where to sign his name and put him right when he set the ring on the wrong finger. After the marriage she cleared up and looked quite happy.
The next day, the only report Victoria wanted to correct was that she had cried: “I did not shed one tear the whole time.” She had been trained in the art of composure and did not intend to be seen as an unsteady queen.
The Bride: “I Never, Never Spent Such an Evening”
After the ceremony, the newlyweds snatched half an hour together in Victoria’s room before facing the crowds at the wedding banquet. Victoria placed a ring on Albert’s finger as he said there should never be any secrets between them. (She wrote in her journal twenty-three years later, “There never was.”) Victoria then changed into another white dress, edged with swansdown, and a bonnet with an enormous brim—a hat she could hide inside.
The feast was a frenzy of nodding, curtsying, beaming, and hand-shaking. The couple finally left at four in the afternoon, trotting off in simple fashion as the sun started to poke fingers through the clouds, with three coaches accompanying them and people cheering and running alongside. Greville complained that they “went off in a very poor and shabby style” in an old traveling coach, but the queen did not notice; as the sun singed the clouds red before sinking into black, it was just “I and Albert alone, which was SO delightful.” This would be a refrain throughout her marriage: what she wanted most of all, always, was to be with Albert alone.
After a three-hour journey, the exhausted couple arrived at Windsor Castle. Victoria had a headache; she changed and lay on the couch, mentally scrolling through images of her chaotic day. Albert played the piano as she rested. It was so much quieter than London; what a relief. She thought back on the past few hours: the look on dear Melbourne’s face as he tried to stem his tears. The happy moment when Albert placed a ring on her finger and it was done. The rippling, jostling ocean of faces lining the route to the chapel; and at the palace, the thick heat of goodwill, the deafening applause, the sight of elegant Albert in his uniform. The mad cheering of the boys at Eton as they rolled into Windsor. The profundity of the service. “The Ceremony was very imposing, and fine and simple,” she wrote in her journal, “and I think ought to make an everlasting impression on every one who promises at the Altar to keep what he or she promises.”
What she liked about it most of all, though, was that as they stood before the archbishop, they were called simply Victoria and Albert. For the rest of her life, she thought with a swelling joy, she would just be Victoria to her Albert. She wasn’t a queen or ruler, but simply a wife and lover. She rolled onto her side and looked at her husband as his fingers glided along the piano keys, playing one of his own compositions. Albert looked up and came over to her, kissing her. By 10:20, they went to their room, as Victoria spelled out, “of course in one bed.” She lay by his side, in his arms, and on his chest, smiling in the darkness as he whispered to her.
Victoria woke the next morning after a night of little sleep. She lay still, staring at Albert’s face in the early light, marveling at him and his pale throat, which she had seen only glimpses of before. He was “beautiful, angelic.” She was sated and thrilled with an intimacy her mind had strained to imagine. Luckily for her, the mortifying tradition of the court coming to peer at the royal couple when they first climbed into the same bed had gone out of fashion with George III. She was also lucky in that Albert seems to have been a competent, tender lover. Victoria’s wedding night was the closest thing she had known to bliss. Her elation was palpable in her journal entry:
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. He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness,—really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a Husband! Oh! This was the happiest day of my life!
It was a kind of lustful enchantment. Over breakfast, Victoria gazed at him, again noticing how he had no neckcloth on under his black velvet jacket and was “more beautiful than it is possible for me to say.” The next day, she was cooing in otherworldly tones: “Already the 2nd day since our marriage; his love and gentleness is beyond everything, and to kiss that dear soft cheek, to press my lips to his, is heavenly bliss. I feel a purer more unearthly feel than I ever did. Oh! was ever woman so blessed as I am!” It was the small, intimate gestures she loved the most: when Albert put on her stockings for her, when she watched him shave. He slid into bed next to her, kissing her over and over; they fell asleep with arms entwined. After [Prime Minister] Lord Melbourne remarked that she looked “very well,” she replied that Albert’s “kindness and affection” were “beyond everything.” In these days, it was Albert’s touch that she wrote about, as well as his handsome appearance, while continuing to faithfully record the subject and nature of every conversation with her Lord M.
Historians have long acknowledged that Victoria had a high libido—some have implied she was some kind of sexual predator who devoured a tolerant but exhausted husband. She was undoubtedly extremely passionate, the fact of which clashes with the strong associations Victoria often carries of dour old age and puritanical condemnation. Given how fraught sex was at the time for women— with limited access to contraception and abortion, and no pain relief for childbirth—Victoria’s unbridled and unabashed physical enjoyment of her husband is remarkable.
In the nineteenth century, it was assumed that women with strong libidos were pathological: female desire was considered dangerous and potentially explosive, and it was thought that women’s animal nature would overwhelm their weak will and they would lose control. Women were dubbed “nymphomaniacs” for dreaming, thinking about, or having what was considered to be an excessive amount of sex. Some were given clitoridectomies or had leeches placed on their perineums. Others were told to abstain from meat and brandy, use hair pillows, douche with borax, have cold enemas, or adhere to strict vegetable diets. In 1886, a doctor reported that the most likely candidates for nymphomania were virgins, widows, or women with blond hair aged sixteen to twenty-five. Projection was prevalent in the Victorian medical profession. Most female illnesses were thought to derive from troublesome pelvic organs. The greatest sources of knowledge about the female organs were assumed to be male gynecologists, which made the bodies of women a secret even, or perhaps especially, to themselves. (The 1858 Medical Registration Act specifically excluded women from becoming qualified doctors.) Sex education for girls was unthinkable. British doctor and author of books on masturbation William Acton even argued that some married couples were so ill informed that their marriages were never consummated. (You cannot help but feel some sympathy for Dr. Acton’s wife, given his 1857 declaration: “The majority of women (happily for them) are not troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.”) Many women tried to avoid orgasms because they were told they led to pregnancy. In 1877, Robert Tait wrote:
The majority of women enter the married state with but a very hazy notion of what its functions are… there is a false modesty on these subjects ingrained in our English life which has to be paid for in much suffering amongst women.
For many married women, sex was a chore, not something to be enjoyed. Given the ignorance surrounding women’s bodies, Victoria’s delight in sexual pleasure was genuinely countercultural. Albert did not record his views on sex, but it is clear that he satisfied his wife. And he certainly admired her, writing to his brother approvingly about her oft-praised bosom. Just a few months after his wedding he told Ernest, somewhat defensively, that Victoria had “changed much to her advantage” and had looked lovely at the previous night’s dinner: “She had a very low-necked dress, with a bunch of roses at her breast which was swelling up from her dress.”
Despite the intensity and obvious physicality of his relationship with Victoria, who was certain she was the only woman to whom Albert had ever made love, there has been some speculation that Albert was gay. What made Albert’s contemporaries skeptical was the fact that Albert appeared immune to the charms of London’s great beauties, whose names he too often forgot; he did not flirt and was not impressed with appearance. When Albert turned eighteen, he had jokingly promised Stockmar he would “pay more attention to the ladies.” Stockmar said Albert was just “too indifferent and too reserved” around the opposite sex, adding, “He will always have more success with men.” This was partly true. Albert loved his wife, but socially and intellectually he preferred male company. This preference was obvious to the likes of Lady Clarendon, a politician’s wife, who struggled to make conversation with him at dinner and noted that the only women he spoke to were royalty. While he did not enjoy the after-dinner port drinking and male banter that were then the custom— usually leaving to play chess alone or sing duets with Victoria—his closest friendships were with men.
There is no evidence that Albert had a physical relationship with a man, but many have suspected he did. Lytton Strachey stated that Albert did not take after his cheating father for two possible reasons: either because of his “peculiar upbringing” or because of “a more fundamental idiosyncrasy,” which was “a marked distaste to the opposite sex.” Others point to the male friendships he developed at Bonn University and Albert’s close relationship with Christoph Florschütz, a gifted scholar who shared a small attic room with Albert and Ernest for fifteen years. Albert credits Florschütz, not his father, for the happiest years of his life. His intense attachment to his tutor is unsurprising, given the absence of his mother. Some have also pointed to the strong culture of homoeroticism at many male colleges such as those that comprised Oxford and Cambridge and public schools such as Eton in the nineteenth century, and there is no reason to think Bonn would be exempt. Intimate behaviors—passionate declarations of love, sharing of beds, and kissing—that today would be called homosexual did not attract a label.
It is extremely unlikely that the discussion about Albert’s sexuality will ever move beyond speculation. He and Victoria had an intimate and satisfying marriage, and Victoria was the chief protector and creator of the memory of Albert. No one seriously gossiped about it while he was alive, at a time when homosexuality was not considered an identity but something people occasionally dabbled in, often as teenagers and young men and women. According to Michel Foucault, the beginning of the categorization of homosexuality as an identity did not come until 1870.
And ultimately, the fact that Albert did not ogle or admire other women was one of the things Victoria loved most about her husband. It made her feel secure, protected. It was also excellent revenge on the popular, pretentious society women who circled the royal court. She told Melbourne happily “of Albert’s not caring greatly for beauty, and hating those beauties who are so feted, and wishing to spite them always.” Victoria flew into a fury when Melbourne suggested that that sort of interest in women was apt to come later. It was a stupid thing to say, and Victoria fumed: “I shan’t forgive you that.” She did, though, of course, the very next day. Melbourne apologized and said he had only been referring to Albert’s shyness.
The marriage between Victoria and Albert is one of the greatest romances of modern history. It was genuine, devoted, and fruitful. Together, they ushered in an era when the monarchy would shift from direct power to indirect influence, and from being the fruit of the aristocracy to becoming the symbol of the middle class. They restored and raised the stature of the monarchy, preserving it from the revolutions that toppled the aristocracies and royal families in Europe during the same years that Victoria and Albert were widely feted in Britain. Albert would grow to surpass his wife, for a short time, in influence, but not in longevity, stamina, or sheer will. Albert would soar; Victoria would endure.
In giving Albert free rein to work alongside her as she carried nine children, Victoria was soon to discover that the clever, intellectually restless Albert was a great asset. She spent roughly eighty months pregnant in the 1840s and 1850s—more than six years in total—and even longer recovering from childbirth. During this time, she was able to hand off work to a brilliant, trusted deputy. But her husband had no intention of being a subordinate partner, and this sparked the fiercest fights of their marriage. Even as a boy, Albert had displayed “a great dislike to being in [the] charge of women.” He had then married a woman who was in charge of an empire. As he and Victoria embarked on married life, each tried to assert his or her will in what had traditionally been the most unequal of relationships: husband and wife, and monarch and spouse. In this case, the spouse held the trump card: he would never have to bear children.
From the book Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird. Copyrights © 2016 by Julia Baird. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Julia Baird is a journalist, broadcaster, and author based in Sydney, Australia. She is a columnist for the International New York Times and host of The Drum on ABC TV (Australia). Her writing has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Monthly, and Harper’s Bazaar. She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Sydney. In 2005, Baird was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.