Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is searching the snowy grounds of Buckingham Palace when she catches sight of her husband Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) furiously ice-skating on the lake, working off his anger after their blazing row. Suddenly a crack appears and he plunges down into the freezing water.
Terrified, the Queen runs forward and throws herself down onto the surface of the ice. She reaches desperately into the water – and after an agonising few moments that seem to stretch on forever, she manages to pull her husband to safety and hold him close.
“People won’t believe it’s true,” creator and writer Daisy Goodwin tells RadioTimes.com. “I was astonished when I first heard about it.”
You’d assume this dramatic incident is a work of fiction – but in fact, what we see on screen was inspired by a real life incident which could easily have killed the Queen’s husband less than a year into their marriage.
Did Prince Albert really fall through the ice – and did Queen Victoria save him from drowning?
Absolutely. The real story of Prince Albert’s ice-skating accident and Queen Victoria’s heroic rescue is just as dramatic as what we see in the ITV drama, even if a few of the details are slightly different: it happened much earlier in their marriage, the incident didn’t help patch up an argument about the Queen’s goddaughter (so far as we know, at least), and he didn’t get completely trapped under a sheet of ice. But in essence, the story is true.
Prince Albert was a keen skater, so in early 1841 Queen Victoria had a pair of ice skates made for him as a present. On 9th February the young couple went for a walk in the freezing grounds of Buckingham Palace. It was only a day before their first wedding anniversary – a date which had also been chosen for the christening of their first-born child Princess Vicky.
They had managed to shake off most of their attendants. The Queen had one Maid of Honour with her, but Prince Albert had left the palace without telling anyone (a newspaper report explained: “It not being understood by Col Bouverie and Lieut Seymour that His Royal Highness intended to skate, they were not, as usual, in attendance on the Prince, who had left the Palace, with Her Majesty, without their knowledge”).
It must have been an unusually private walk for the monarch and her husband, and he took the opportunity to strap on his skates and head out onto the ice.
What happened next left the Queen badly shaken, but proved she was a quick thinker in a crisis. She wrote in her diary: “The ice cracked, & Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below.
“In my agony of fright & despair, I screamed, & stretched out my arm, Miss Murray pulling me. My dearest Albert managed to catch my arm, & reached the ground in safety. Oh! how thankful I felt to see him at my side again & that God should have mercifully preserved him from such a great danger!
“He cut his chin a little, & was of course dripping with water, so that he ran home as fast as he could. It was a horrid experience, & I never felt anything so dreadful, as seeing my beloved one in the water, & thinking, as I did, that I should lose him before my very eyes unable to rescue him!”
The Times gave a fuller report a few days later. “After walking for a short time with the Queen, on the margin of the lake, His Royal Highness put on his skates, and left Her Majesty, who remained watching the movements of the Prince from the gardens,” the article informed readers.
“He had not been on the ice more than two or three minutes, when, as he was proceeding at a rapid rate towards the spot where the Queen was standing, and had reached between three or four feet on the water’s edge, the ice suddenly broke, and, instantaneously he was immersed, head over ears, in the water.
“His Royal Highness immediately rose to the surface, when Her Majesty, with great presence of mind, joined her hand to that of the Hon Miss Murray (telling her to stand firm, and to betray no fear), and, extending her right hand to the Prince, dragged him to the shore. Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness. As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the Queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape.”
Albert went home, had a hot bath, and recovered enough to spend the evening with his uncle Leopold that evening when he arrived. He spent a few days feeling ill – but it was a lucky escape?
How had this happened? It was a particularly cold winter that year and the ice in the centre of the lake was almost a foot thick, so it should not have cracked so easily. However, it emerged that the keepers had broken the ice to help the birds who lived on the lake, and the holes in the ice had only just begun to freeze over again – creating a treacherous trap for a careless ice-skater.
Prince Albert was very grateful for his wife’s brave rescue. He wrote in a letter to his stepmother a few days later: “I managed, in skating, three days ago, to break through the ice in Buckingham Palace Gardens. I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies, and when within some few yards of the bank I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out.
“Victoria was the only person who had the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help. The shock from the cold was extremely painful, and I cannot thank Heaven enough, that I escaped with nothing more than a severe cold.”
Victoria season two airs on Sundays, 9/8c on PBS Masterpiece
Victoria will be back for series three – date to be confirmed