Victoria – fact or fiction?

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes are back on our screens as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which means it’s time for a return to that fine old British tradition of historical nit-picking. This is our week-by-week guide to the true history behind the ITV drama.

Was Dr Brydon really the only survivor of the retreat from Kabul?

In the Victorian era, it became a well-established myth that only one man survived the disastrous retreat from Kabul: William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in General Elphinstone’s army.

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William Brydon

The late Victorian artist Elizabeth Butler’s famous painting ‘Remains of an Army’ shows Brydon alone in a desolate landscape, and ITV’s Victoria paints a similar version of events.

But the reality of the First Anglo-Afghan War was slightly complicated. Brydon was the only British soldier to make it back to Jalalabad from Kabul without being captured, but there were also several Indian soldiers (then called sepoys) from his army who achieved the same feat.

Nor were they the only survivors of the Khyber Pass massacre; more than 100 officers, women and children were taken captive, only to be later released.

But the most extraordinary part of Brydon’s story to feature in ITV’s Victoria was completely true: Brydon’s life was saved by a frozen copy of Blackwood’s Magazine which he had tucked inside his hat. In fact, the TV retelling didn’t do justice to quite how close Brydon’s scrape was; the sword-blow that cut through the magazine also shaved off a fragment of his skull.

All joking aside, what’s up with Prince Albert’s helmet?

The first episode told us (a little unnecessarily, one might add) that Prince Albert dressed “on the left” – but we don’t mean that kind of helmet.

The helmet in question is the Albert Shako, which Tom Hughes’s prince brought up almost every time he opened his mouth, throughout episode one.

Introduced in 1844 as a more practical alternative to existing military headgear, we can’t be certain that it really was designed by Albert himself. What is certain, however, is that people hated it. Regardless of who really came up with the design, the idea that Prince Albert spent his spare time faffing about with hats was just as funny to Victorians as it is to today’s ITV viewers. In 1843, the satirical magazine Punch published a cartoon of “Prince Albert’s Studio”, in which the would-be hatter is shown proudly displaying his handiwork to a bemused Victoria.

Who on earth would eat that soup?

Lots of people. The departure of Victoria’s preferred chef, Charles Elmé Francatelli, meant guests at the royal table were forced to pick over a vile dinner of soup, made from leeks, prunes and (best of all) a whole boiled chicken’s head. Don’t pull that face – it’s actually rather popular.

TV chef James Martin would like you to know that cock-a-leekie soup is making a comeback, prunes and all. You can read his recipe for a modern take on the traditional Scottish dish at the BBC Good Food website. The Duchess of Bucchleuch certainly enjoys it.

How old was the Duchess of Bucchleuch really?

Much younger than she is on TV. Last night, viewers were introduced to Victoria’s new Mistress of the Robes, a fearsome Caledonian duchess played with aplomb by Diana Rigg. The real Charlotte, Duchess of Bucchleuch, was born in 1811. In 1844, when the show is set, she would have been 33 – just eight years older than Victoria.

Yes, that’s almost half a century younger than Rigg (79), but why not bend the truth if it allows for such a great bit of casting? It’s a certified historical fact that every TV show with Diana Rigg in it has been 35% better than the Rigg-less alternatives. So there.

Why did Francatelli really leave?

In the show, heartbroken Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley) left because he couldn’t bear to be near the newly promoted Mrs Skerrett (Nell Hudson), after she refused his offer of marriage back in series one.

In real life, however, the given reason for Francatelli’s abrupt departure from the palace was a fracas with another member of the household staff, Mr Norton the Clerk Comptroller. At the time, it was reported that Francatelli “took the opportunity of insulting Mr Norton in the presence of all the Pages and about 40 others”. After “high words ensued”, they called for a policeman to arrest him, but the hot-headed chef had done a runner by the time the police arrived.

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