Musings on the Monarchy: Victoria Season 2, Episode 4 (Spoiler Alert)
By: Ellen LeCompte
A Different Kind of Throne
Disease and drains were to be the ultimate downfall of the Coburg bothers, Albert and Ernest, reflective of the Dark Side of the Victorian Era - specifically, the syphilis and typhoid epidemics due to rampant prostitution, open sewers and contaminated water. We see Ernest’s health progressively taking a downturn while he makes an effort to keep his turmoil private. It was a time when loveless marriages arranged for social and financial advancement meant men commonly pursued ‘professional companionship.’ And, that the resultant venereal disease was often brought back to the home, with its agonizing symptoms and ironically, infertility. The so-called prescribed ‘cures’ of those times were often worse than the malady they were intended to treat. Mercury had terrible side effects causing neuropathies, kidney failure, and severe mouth ulcers and loss of teeth, and many patients died of mercurial poisoning rather than from the disease itself. Ernest paid a heavy price, indeed, for his philandering.
Ironically, despite his efforts to bring modern plumbing to the royal residences to ensure hygienic means for everyone, Albert died at age 42 from typhoid (according to his death certificate), widely attributed to the poor drains at Windsor. Victoria, however, always blamed her eldest son, Edward, with his wild ways, for causing Beloved Papa’s death from stress. Interestingly, Albert was not the first to introduce a toilet into a royal residence. Nor was he the first to refer to it as a ‘throne.’ Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, gets the credit for both as he invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste in 1592. He built one for himself and one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, cheekily referring to it as her ’throne.’ The additional moniker of the “John” that the toilet sometimes is referred to is arguably attributable to Sir John Harrington himself.
The Irish “Situation”
This episode was admittedly a cheerless one, overshadowed as it was by the Irish Situation, as it was first called. Since William the Conqueror, Ireland has been the thorn in the English Lion’s paw. Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I gave Irish land to their English supporters to colonize in the hopes that they could control the local population and bring Ireland into the United Kingdom fold peacefully. It has been anything but, with endless vicious bloody attacks right on into the 20th century. The ‘Clearances’ in 18th century Scotland further exacerbated the situation with the evicted Scots immigrating to Ireland, (hence the term ‘Scotch-Irish”), adding even more destitute second class citizens to an overburdened countryside. Between the absentee English landlords who lived the Good Life in London off the income wrung from their Irish holdings, and the disastrous potato famine of 1845-49, the Irish who already lived in the poorest country in Europe had no chance of survival.
Over a million men, women and children died of starvation and disease, with another million – some say two million - fleeing the country, mostly to America. Sir Robert Peel, a deeply religious man, wrestled with his conscience and his political party obligations on how to deal with the tragedy, ultimately forfeiting his prime minister’s post and taking the higher road, though it was too little too late. Even in America, the so-called land of opportunity, the Irish were subject to appalling discrimination due to their Catholic religion and English disdain. “Irish need not apply” was often on help wanted notices and boarding houses. Viewed as ‘disposable,’ they were left with the lowest, most menial – and often dangerous - jobs, with thousands of lives lost building railroads and canals. Queen Victoria, who thought it a beautiful country, made several visits to Ireland and personally donated £2,000 for famine relief. In the end, it made no difference and her affection for the Irish evaporated in the 1870’s and ‘80’s over their perceived disrespect to the memory of her Darling Albert when she sent a bust of her beloved late husband Albert as a gift to the people of Dublin and it was returned. A sad ending to a sad story…
“To be Irish is to know that, in the end, the world will break your heart.”
― Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Tune in next Sunday, February 11 for Episode 5 of Victoria Season 2 on Masterpiece. And, return for more Musings on the Monarchy.
About Ellen LeCompte
As the President Emeritus of the Richmond Branch of the English-Speaking Union, Ellen LeCompte is more than just an anglophile who has spent the last 50 years traveling from Virginia to the UK, attended British boarding school, studied at Cambridge and has a 17th century cottage in the Cotswolds. Since 2003 she has been recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as their UK expert. A graduate of the College of William and Mary with a degree in international economics, Ellen started LeCompte Travel in 2001 organizing small, customized special interest tours and private itineraries featuring special access exclusive experiences with personalized themes such as Masterpiece Theatre, historic events, decorative arts, gardens, and architecture. And yes, she has met The Queen! Twice.
About the English-Speaking Union
The Central Virginia Branch of the English-Speaking Union (ESU) is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is to strengthen and broaden ties among the worldwide English-speaking community. Recognizing that English is a shared language that fosters global accord and goodwill by providing educational and cultural opportunities for students, educators, and members, the ESU is linked to over 70 ESU branches in the United States, as well as a network of branches in over 50 countries. The Central Virginia Branch is committed to supporting the English language in the Richmond area by providing scholarships to teachers for summer study in the UK as well as sponsoring Richmond's 'Bardathon,' a platform for high school students to experience the plays of William Shakespeare.