One of the most famous monarchs in British history, Queen Victoria hardly needs an introduction. She and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had nine children who grew up against the backdrop of Victoria’s all-consuming grief after Albert’s death from suspected typhoid in 1861. A family full of fascinating individuals, their lives were packed with enough scandal and drama to make The Crown seem positively dull.
1. Victoria, German Empress, Queen of Prussia (1840–1901)
With her father’s intelligence and her mother’s willfulness, Vicky was a mischievous child, leaving Victoria to complain that she was “amazingly advanced in intellect but, alas! also in naughtiness.” Vicky’s intellect made her Albert’s favorite child, and the two shared a close bond. At that time, male children took precedence in the line of succession, meaning that despite being the eldest, Vicky was not the heir to her mother's throne.
In 1858, Vicky married the future German Emperor Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Her family hoped the marriage would help usher in a liberal Germany. Although she had eight children (including the future Kaiser Wilhelm II), Vicky’s influence in her new country was limited, as her husband’s reign as Emperor lasted only three months before he died from throat cancer in 1888.
Vicky then retired from public life and grew closer to her mother, maintaining a constant correspondence that totaled nearly 8000 letters. Vicky outlived Queen Victoria by only six months, dying from breast cancer in 1901.
2. Edward VII (1841–1910)
Known as “Bertie” by his family, Victoria fervently hoped that her heir would be like his father. Yet with his quick temper and short attention span, she soon labeled him “my caricature.” The more his parents tried to curb his behavior, the worse it became.
In 1861, Bertie’s liaison with an actress caused a scandal, and Albert hastily traveled to admonish his son. Upon returning, the already weakened Prince Consort grew ill and died. Victoria laid the blame at Bertie’s feet, writing, “I never can or shall look at him without a shudder.”
Although relations between the pair eased after Bertie’s marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Victoria refused to give him any responsibility, which only escalated Bertie’s playboy lifestyle. Yet after Victoria’s death, he embraced the monarchy’s shift to a public institution. Despite Victoria’s fears, Bertie proved a popular king until his death in 1910.
3. Princess Alice, Duchess of Hesse and Rhine (1843–1878)
As a child, Alice was, according to Victoria, “easy to praise and hardly ever in trouble.” Yet she, too, would rebel, sneaking out for cigarettes with Bertie. Compassionate and sensitive, Alice became the family’s caregiver, and it was she, at 18, who nursed her father in his final illness, then took over her mother’s duties in managing the household and corresponding with ministers after his death.
While her marriage to Prince Louis of Hesse provided some respite from her family, it was not an escape from her mother. Relations soured, with Victoria disapproving of Alice’s “indelicate” interest in human anatomy and her decision to breastfeed her children. (Victoria named a royal cow “Princess Alice” in response.)
During the Austro-Prussian War, Alice threw herself into nursing, corresponding with Florence Nightingale and establishing charities that trained nurses and advanced social conditions. At 35, she succumbed to diphtheria on the 17th anniversary of her father’s death.
4. Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1844–1900)
Referred to by Victoria as a “sunbeam in the house,” Victoria’s second son, Alfred, was cheerful and good-natured. He developed an early fascination for science and geography, leading his father Albert to regret that “poor Bertie” would inherit the throne instead of him.
Alfred also formed a lifelong passion for the Navy, joining when he was 14 and swiftly moving up the ranks. The travel required sometimes brought unexpected consequences. In 1862, Alfred was elected to ascend the Greek throne but had to decline on political grounds. Later, while visiting Australia in 1868, he survived an assassination attempt.
In 1893, Alfred became the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Having grown to resent the melancholy atmosphere of his mother’s home and his unhappy marriage to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, he soon became an alcoholic and died from throat cancer in 1900, at age 55.
5. Princess Helena (1846–1923)
Level-headed and easy-going, Helena grew up favoring the outdoors and practical activities. Victoria wrote disparagingly about her appearance, claiming that “poor, dear” Helena “does not improve in looks and has great difficulties with her figure.” After Albert’s death, Victoria was determined to have a married daughter living at home, and Helena was soon wed to the penniless Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Despite a 15-year age gap—and Christian initially believing he was to marry Victoria herself rather than her daughter—the pair were content in the marriage.
Helena remained close to her mother and was a useful, stabilizing influence. Like her sisters, she took up an interest in nursing, and was a founding member of the British Red Cross and President of the British Nurses' Association. She led a quiet life and continued her charity work until her death in 1923 at the age of 77.
6. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1848–1939)
Creative and spirited, Louise had a reputation for being the most beautiful, yet rebellious of Victoria’s children. She was a talented artist and sculptor, and her attendance at the National Art Training School made her the first British princess to attend a public school. Victoria came to admire Louise’s talent and “fine strong character,” but was furious with her support and correspondence with feminist figures like Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett.
After hearing whispers of flirtations and an illegitimate pregnancy, Victoria set on finding a husband for Louise. Her marriage to a British subject, the Marquess of Lorne in 1871, was received enthusiastically by the public, with Victoria calling the wedding “the most popular act of my reign.” There were rumors about Lorne’s sexuality and Louise’s affairs, however, and the marriage proved loveless.
Louise remained devoted to social reform and charity work until her death at 91 in 1939. Her Jubilee sculpture of Victoria still stands outside Kensington Palace. Unusually, perhaps due to the rumors of Louise’s scandalous antics, her files are completely closed in the Royal Archives, meaning the full story of Louise remains a mystery.
7. Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn (1850–1942)
Dutiful and well-behaved, Victoria wrote that Arthur was “dearer than any of the others put together.” Just as his brother Alfred held a lifelong passion for the navy, Arthur had a fascination with the army, beginning his training aged 16 before going on to hold numerous posts in his 40 years of service.
Arthur remained in his mother’s good graces, and had strong relationships with all of his siblings. He also had a long and happy marriage to Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia. Arthur served as Governor General of Canada and remained involved with the military in both World Wars until his death at age of 91 in 1942.
8. Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853–1884)
After Leopold’s birth, it soon became clear that he had been born with the hereditary bleeding disease, haemophilia. With Victoria “in constant anxiety about him” Leopold’s life was therefore markedly different from his siblings, with the queen exerting greater control over his upbringing. Despite his condition, Leopold was an energetic child, rebelling against his mother’s overprotectiveness, but developing close relationships with his siblings, particularly his sister Louise.
Leopold was also the cleverest of Victoria’s sons, sharing his father’s analytical mind and love for music. He eventually studied at the University of Oxford. His talents lead to Victoria giving him, rather than her heir, a key to cabinet papers and enlisting his help in government correspondence. To Victoria’s surprise, Leopold eventually married and had children with Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont. However, in 1884, a fall on his knee quickly caused a brain hemorrhage, and he died 10 days before his 30th birthday.
9. Princess Beatrice (1857–1944)
The last of Victoria’s children, Beatrice—known as “Baby”—was her mother’s constant companion. Victoria’s affection toward Beatrice meant she was resented by her siblings. From an early age, Beatrice said “I shall never get married. I will stay with mother.” If anyone mentioned the word marriage in front of her, they would be strictly reprimanded by Victoria.
Despite her previous views on the matter, in 1884, Beatrice fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenburg and became determined to marry him. Victoria refused to speak to Beatrice for over six months, but eventually she relented, on the condition that the couple lived with her. Beatrice’s happiness was short-lived, as Henry died just 10 years later. After her mother’s death in 1901, Beatrice heavily edited Victoria’s journals for publication, leaving them a third as long as the originals. She died in 1944 at the age of 87.