The Heart of Victorian England

By Munson, James | Contemporary Review, May 1992 | Go to article overview

The Heart of Victorian England


Munson, James, Contemporary Review


Every May the public has a rare opportunity to see one of England's most unusual royal buildings. The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, the final resting place for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, stands apart. Its copper roof, now turned a gentle green, is just visible among the trees in Windsor Great Park. The visitor reaches it by walking down the Long Walk. The building seems to have been transplanted from Ravenna and set down in the midst of a quintessentially English landscape. Few buildings in England are more poignant in their memories and few embody the character of their creator more than the Royal Mausoleum.

Queen Victoria's decision to build a special resting place for herself and Prince Albert had been taken before his early death in December, 1861. Albert's father had been buried in a mausoleum at Coburg after his death in 1844 and her own mother, the Duchess of Kent (who was also Albert's aunt) decided on a classical mausoleum for herself. The site she chose was at Frogmore, in the grounds near Frogmore House which had become her residence. Indeed, as she lay dying in 1861 the builders could be seen from her windows on their way to the unfinished structure.

It was therefore not surprising that Victoria should herself choose Frogmore after Albert's death, or that she should choose to have a mausoleum. The alternative would have been burial in the vaults of St George's Chapel, Windsor. This proposal filled the Queen with horror. She had always disliked Windsor, even before the Prince's death. She remembered the appalling scene enacted there in the months before she came to the throne, when her |Uncle-King', William IV, attacked her mother at a state dinner to celebrate his birthday. To her own dying day she shuddered when she saw the room to which she had fled in tears. She especially disliked the rows of coffins which filled the crypt underneath the glories of St George's Chapel, just above. There the remains of the martyred King Charles I lie near those of the Tudor despot, Henry VIII.

Windsor, however, symbolised much more than this: it embodied the spirit of the bad old days -- of George III, blind and senile and of her |wicked uncles'. With Albert she had established what she saw as a new dynasty, not just in name but in spirit, and it must be made clear to the nation that Albert, to whom all was owed, could not be buried in just one more coffin in the royal vaults. A special structure was needed to express in stone the new era. The Orleans dynasty in France, after Louis Philippe succeede his deposed Bourbon cousin, Charles X, in 1830, had done the same thing. They had rejected St Denis for a new mausoleum at Dreux: Victoria had always befriended the Orleans family and the example was not lost. The Mausoleum at Frogmore, like that at Dreux, was meant both to house the mortal remains of the new dynasty's founder and to symbolise the altered character of the Monarchy.

It is not surprising that the sketches which the Queen drew for the architects were based on the mausoleum built for Albert's father which the Prince himself had helped to design. Because of his love for Italy, he had wanted an Italian design based on the thirteenth century and Victoria did the same. What she had so liked about the Coburg structure was its cheerfulness: the stereotyped view we have of her as a grieving widow sunk in unrelieved grief and near to madness is a fiction based on court gossip.

The Queen's strong and straight-forward faith in the resurrection meant that she wanted the new structure to reflect God's glory which would swallow up her own grief. In a letter to her eldest daughter, written as the foundations were being dug at Frogmore, she said: |Always pray for him [Albert], as before -- never make any difference, I don't and won't, and treat him as living, only invisible to us --as he has reached the end of our journey'. The Mausoleum, therefore, would need to reflecct this strong faith: it must be bright and affirmative. …

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