Despite the buttoned-up era that bears her name, it turns out Queen Victoria was actually a deeply passionate women with a high libido. As new SBS documentary series The Secret Life of Queen Victoria reveals, there’s much more to this royal than a stiff upper lip.
During her reign, the powerful Victoria became intensely close with key men in her life, not only forming deep bonds but also igniting some fires in britches.
Queen Victoria was highly involved with state affairs and was particularly close to Lord Melbourne (born William Lamb), the Prime Minister from 1834-41, who guided the young queen as she ascended to the throne at 18 years old. According to historian Tristram Hunt, Victoria was smitten by Melbourne, almost 40 years her senior.
“She adored his wit and caddish worldliness, and developed a crush on him,” Hunt says. In fact she was so close to Melbourne, she garnered the nickname “Mrs Melbourne” and the two were said to be inseparable for the first years of her reign.
If you believe the ITV drama Victoria, the young queen was so taken by Melbourne, she proposed to him. But the show’s adviser and Queen Victoria biographer AN Wilson admits, “They did not have a physical relationship, and marriage would have been out of the question. But they did love one another.”
In truth, the overall consensus of historians was that theirs, though an unusually close relationship, was more of the fond father/daughter variety.
Prince Albert, also her first cousin, was the love of Victoria’s life, and in her diaries she made no secret of her lust for him early in their courting.
“It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert, who is beautiful,” she wrote of the 20-year-old on his visit to Windsor Castle on 11 October, 1839. “He really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios and slight, but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist. My heart is quite going!”
But things got really saucy when Victoria witnessed her future husband going commando during a military parade in Hyde Park. It was less Mr Darcy, more Chippendales.
“I just saw my dearest Albert in his white cashmere breeches, with nothing on underneath,” she wrote.
The pair married on 10 February, 1840, and by Victoria’s account, the wedding night went off with a, er, bang.
“It was a gratifying and bewildering experience,” she wrote in her journal. “I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness. He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again.”
She also described the night as “bliss beyond belief!” and admitted “we did not sleep much”.
The couple were said to have installed a special button in the bedroom of their Isle of Wight estate, Osborne House, that would bolt all the doors instantly when pressed to prevent any interruptions from servants during sexy time.
Passion in the royal bedroom was one thing, passionate and vicious rows another, with the couple engaging in power struggles throughout the marriage. Albert was frustrated by playing second fiddle to the queen, while Victoria was resentful of having to be submissive to her husband.
But the union remained rock solid until the end, when, after 21 years of marriage and parenting nine children, Albert succumbed to typhoid at just 42 on 14 December, 1861 at Windsor Castle.
Victoria was devastated and remained in mourning for the rest of her life – some 40 years.
Victoria courted controversy when her relationship with her rough-hewn Scottish servant John Brown intensified as he comforted her after the death of Albert. The six-foot-plus horseman, seven years Victoria’s junior, became her devoted confidant and protector.
Because of the unusually close relationship between queen and servant, gossip around the court soon turned to talk of an affair. Victoria’s staff called him “the Queen’s stallion”, her daughters joked he was “Mama’s lover” and the nickname “Mrs Brown” was coined. Rumours swirled that they indeed married. At the least, the Queen and Brown sleeping in adjacent bedrooms raised eyebrows.
While there’s no definitive proof of just how intimate the relationship was, new evidence suggests it was a passionate one, and not a little saucy.
In researching her biography, Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, Australian journalist Julia Baird uncovered an account of Victoria’s longtime physician, Sir James Reid, who stumbled upon the Queen and Brown seemingly playing a raunchy game in her bedroom:
“Brown says to her, lifting his kilt, ‘Oh, I thought it was here?’ She responds, lifting up her dress, ‘No, it is here.'”
The poignancy of the loving relationship that spanned some 20 years is best described in Victoria’s own words, bereft after the sudden death of Brown in March 1883.
“Often my beloved John would say, ‘You haven’t a more devoted servant than Brown’ – and oh! How I felt that!” she wrote. “Often I told him no one loved him more than I did or had a better friend than me: and he answered ‘Nor you – than me. No one loves you more.'”
She took her love for Brown to the grave. Upon her death in January 1901, her instructions provided that, along with trinkets memorialising Albert, she be buried with Brown’s mother’s wedding ring (which he'd given her) on her finger, his photograph in her hand, and a lock of his hair and his handkerchief laid upon her.
In Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul, there’s a sparkle in the ailing Queen Victoria’s (Judi Dench) eye the first time she sets eyes on the tall and handsome Abdul Karim (Ali Fazel). The Indian Muslim servant was sent to Her Majesty as a Golden Jubilee "gift from India" in 1887, four years on from John Brown’s death.
Again, royal tongues would wag as the pair – he 24, she 68 – became close, arguably much closer than the Queen and John Brown. As the newly minted Empress of India, Victoria was fascinated by all things Indian and elevated Karim to the station of teacher or “munshi” (one of many elevations of station) so she could learn Urdu and Hindi. Karim introduced her to curry, which became a daily staple on the royal menu.
Karim became Victoria's constant companion and confidante in the winter of her life. The untold story of their 14-year relationship could finally be told when author Shrabani Basu discovered Karim’s diaries in 2010, over a century after Victoria’s death. Her book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant is the basis for the film.
"In letters to him over the years between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the Queen signed letters to him as 'your loving mother' and 'your closest friend'," Basu told the BBC. "On some occasions, she even signed off her letters with a flurry of kisses – a highly unusual thing to do at that time. It was a relationship that sent shockwaves through the royal court and was arguably a relationship far more scandalous than her much reported friendship with Mr Brown."
Whether or not the Queen and her munshi were lovers isn’t clear, although, scandalously, they spent a night together alone in her Scottish Highlands escape, where she would stay with John Brown.
Again, an unlikely relationship between queen and servant would be most poignantly symbolised on her death. Victoria instructed that Abdul be one of the principal mourners at her Windsor Castle funeral, and he was the last to see her body before the casket was closed.
Despised by the court for his influence over the Queen, Abdul was unceremoniously exiled back to India after her death by her son, King Edward VII, who ordered any trace of their relationship be destroyed. But their story lived on in the form of his diaries kept in his family since his death in 1909.
Watch The Secret Life of Queen Victoria on Friday 27 October at 7:30pm on SBS.