With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding on the horizon (May 19! It’s so close!), it seems the entire world has come down with royal fever. It’s hard not to become intoxicated by the couple, who seems to have walked straight out of a fairy tale. It’s also not hard to understand why we’re seeing royals in our films and TV shows too — including Victoria on PBS, about real Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.
While you’re probably familiar with the Netflix show The Crown, about Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith), there’s also a show, called Victoria, about another royal couple. It tells the often romantic and sometimes scandalous story of Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) and Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman), the royals who led Great Britain into the Victorian era, a time of peace and scientific enlightenment.
Victoria airs on PBS and is finally back for Season 2, so we thought we’d take a closer look at their real marriage. All families have secrets, and royal families are no different. Here are seven things you need to know about the real Victoria and Albert.
1. True love
First cousins Victoria and Albert met when they were both just 16. Both expressed fondness for each other in letters written to family members, but the idea of a marriage between them only occurred when their mutual uncle Leopold suggested it. By then, Victoria was already queen, and Albert was forbidden from proposing to the royal, so it was Victoria who popped the question. They married in 1840, and she wrote this about her wedding night: “…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 for such a husband.“
2. The “shadow side of marriage”
Victoria and Albert’s marriage was clearly a passionate one, and it produced nine children. In the 19th century, childbirth was a truly dangerous affair due to the high mortality rate and incredible pain. But hope was nearby. As medicine progressed, anesthesia in the form of chloroform became available, but it was highly controversial. Because the Bible says women are meant to bear children in pain due to Eve’s betrayal in the Garden of Eden, most doctors and husbands were against anesthesia. Luckily, both Victoria’s doctors and her husband agreed to give it a try. Once the people of England heard their beloved queen was using chloroform, it became common for other women to use it, too. Thank goodness!
3. Power struggles
Albert was intelligent and enterprising, but despite his love for Victoria often felt frustrated by his lack of power. But as Victoria grew more and more occupied with pregnancy and breastfeeding — which she called “disgusting,” saying it made her feel more “…like a rabbit or a guinea pig than anything else and not very nice” — Albert took on more responsibilities. Victoria resented Albert at times, and though he was quite capable, she was the queen of England after all, and the power struggle often led to huge fights. At one point, after one of her “temper tantrums,” Albert began to worry his wife had inherited madness from her grandfather, King George III.
4. Shots ring out
It was customary for the queen and the prince to ride in an open-air carriage and wave to their subjects. From 1840 to 1882, Victoria was shot at no fewer than six times while in her carriage. Most of the assailants, all male, were ruled to be insane. One man, ex-army officer Robert Pate, struck the queen with his cane. Though it was risky to ride unprotected in public, her subjects were sympathetic to the threats on her life and her popularity rose.
Because the crown had to appear neutral on subjects like politics, Prince Albert was able to give humanitarian issues a voice. He often spoke out against slavery. Though the slave trade was abolished in England in 1807, it was still taking place throughout British colonies. Albert contributed to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, making it illegal throughout the empire. Albert also spoke out about child labor and helped abolish the practice of dueling between army officers.
6. Albert’s untimely death
In 1861, a scandal emerged regarding the royal couple’s eldest son, Bertie (who would become King Edward VII). The 19-year-old was in Ireland training with the army and had several sexual trysts with actress Nellie Clifden. Word got back to Albert, and he went to Cambridge, where Bertie was going to school, to counsel him on morality. They had long talks outdoors in the rain, which it is thought proved to be fatal for Albert. Albert came down with typhoid fever and died three weeks later. He was 42. Victoria blamed her son for Albert’s death until the day she died.
7. Victoria after Albert
Victoria was devastated by Albert’s death. She became a single mom to nine kids and lost the love of her life. Publicly, she went into mourning, donning black dresses for 40 years. But it’s widely believed she became romantically involved with her Scottish servant John Brown, often sleeping in a room adjoining his. Their story is told in the film Mrs. Brown. After Brown’s death, Victoria became close with Abdul Karim, a Muslim from India, who became her closest confidant. Her family despised him, and immediately after her death in 1901 ordered all their letters burned and deported him back to India. Their story is told in the recent film Victoria & Abdul.
While all queens have complicated and intriguing lives, the sheer number of movies and TV shows based on Queen Victoria prove how influential and beloved she remains. Season 2 of Victoria is already underway; you can watch it on your local PBS station as part of the Masterpiece series.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2018.