Lucy Worsley talks ‘Victoria & Albert: The Wedding,’ premiering on PBS

In advance of the PBS premiere of Victoria & Albert: The Wedding, I had the great good fortune to spend a bit of time with perhaps one of the most delightful individuals in British television, Lucy Worsley. She also just happens to be the presenter for the two-part series, which airs immediately following the premiere of series 3 of Victoria.

Victoria & Albert: The Wedding, which premieres Sunday, January 13, recreates the wedding that changed British matrimonial ceremonies forever, the nuptials of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It’s the wedding that set the standard for generations of brides to come.

Lucy Worsley’s day job is the Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that manages some of the unoccupied royal palaces such as Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace (State Apartments and Orangery), Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle.

Most likely, you are familiar with Lucy’s night gig as the BBC television presenter for series such as Six Wives with Lucy Worsley, If Walls Could Talk, A Very British Murder, Tales from the Royal Wardrobes and Tales from the Royal Bedchamber.

Lucy Worsley

Lucy Worsley on set (Credit: Courtesy of BBC Studios/Jacobo Garcia Fernandez)

Worsley recently spoke to me by telephone about Victoria & Albert: The Wedding — and a bit about herself, too.

Bill Young: Where did your love of history come from?

Lucy Worsley: In my case, when I was 9 or 10 years of age, I would read Jean Plaidy novels about the lives of the Tudors, which planted a little seed in me.

I do have to tell you that my father is a scientist and really wanted me to be a scientist, too, so I started to study science. When I was 18, I was well into biology and chemistry, and it was my mother — actually, give here the credit — who said “you don’t want to do this do you? You want to do history, what you love.” And I had to go tell him. He was furious about it. He said I’ll never earn a living with a history degree! I’m very proud of the fact that I do and often mention the fact when I see him.

BY: Your ability to combine your obvious love of history with re-enactments is brilliant. It’s made history accessible to a much larger audience. History is now cool as opposed to the textbook dryness of years past.

Why do you think this way of presenting history connects with both a much wider and much younger audience? 

LW: Well, I got into all of this being a museum curator, which is essentially what I am for my day job, with the television bits being a bit of moonlighting from that. My job is talking to people about the past. That’s what I enjoy doing. I know when our visitors come here to Hampton Court Palace they feel like they ought to ask questions about things like the Reformation or what is Baroque architecture. You can sense that they feel they ought to ask that, but what they really want to know is, where did they go to the loo? What did they eat? What were their underpants like?

It’s sometimes those nitty gritty dirty details of the past that can just open a little window into somebody’s life. I like the history that kids like. I’m quite lowbrow [laughing].

 BY: Keeping it lowbrow, what is the oddest thing you found yourself doing from a re-enactment standpoint in the name of being historically accurate for the time?

LW: I once cooked a hedgehog. May I quickly add that no hedgehogs were harmed in the making of that particular program. We got some hedgehogs that had died naturally from a hedgehog sanctuary. We were looking at medieval cooking techniques, and there is a brilliant one where you get your hedgehog and you wrap it in clay and stick it into the fire for a few hours. When you smash the baked clay, all the prickles come off with the baked clay so all the flesh of the hedgehog is there for you to eat.

I didn’t try it, but it probably tasted like chicken.

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BY: What’s the most interesting thing you discovered over the years in your role as historian?

LW: One of my favorite things that we have here [Hampton Court Palace] is kept up in the spooky attic. If kids come in, I take them up to see it. They are so unimpressed at first. They say it’s a broken, brown pot. What’s good about that? I then tell them that it’s 500 years old and that this was a chamber pot, or what the Tudors called a piss pot. They spelled it “pysse,” so I’m not saying a rude word here. A p-y-s-s-e pot, a Tudor pysse pot. And, when it broke, someone threw it out into the yard here at Hampton Court.

500 years later, our archaeologists dug it up, put it back together and it got sent off to the laboratory to be tested chemically. When it came back, the report from the lab said it still contained traces of 500-year-old Tudor “pysse.” It was still there.

At that point, everybody wakes up and pays attention, impressed by that point.

BY: Shifting gears a bit before we get to your upcoming series on Victoria and Albert’s wedding: Your biography of Jane Austen had a slightly different take than other biographies written about her. I saw this in the same vein as your television programs in that, to me, it gives the reader a much more realistic insight into Austen, making her life much more interesting that is normally portrayed.

What it is that drew you to Jane Austen to write the book?

LW: Well, in my business, we look out for anniversaries, which sounds a bit crass on one level, but it does give you a reason to talk about a person. You and I are talking now because Queen Victoria was born on the 24th of May, 1819, so very nearly 200 years ago. That’s why we have the book, the television series, we have exhibitions opening about her at Kensington Palace.

So I noticed that Jane Austen had an anniversary coming up, a couple of years ago now, and she’s so well-known and so well-covered that I thought, What could I bring to that party?

I had the idea of approaching it like I approach my day job and looking at the different houses where she had lived. That’s the sort of approach that I like. I like to use not just documents but also things as my sources. 

BY: I think that’s what make things accessible in a day and age where many people suffer from short-attention-span theater when watching or reading things.

LW: Unfortunately, my competition isn’t foreign affairs or constitutional history or physical history. My competition is football or shopping or computers. We have to try and be as compelling as those things are to young people.

Lucy Worsley, presenter of 'Victoria & Albert: The Wedding'

Worsley, presenter of ‘Victoria & Albert: The Wedding’ (Credit: Courtesy of BBC Studios/Jacobo Garcia Fernandez)

BY: I think with Victoria, you find that young people are interested in this young Queen that is 18 years old and they see themselves.

LW: That’s what was great about Queen Victoria. She had such a disturbing, troubling, semi-abusive, isolated childhood. Now, when she’s 18 and three weeks old, there’s this moment of joy that no one could relate to, where she becomes Queen and she breaks free of the system and thinks, I’m the boss now.

It had to have been so empowering. It certainly inspired me when I was a little kid.

BY: It had to have been tough for Victoria to wake up at 18 and find yourself Queen. When you think you’re past the death of Charlotte, and you know it’s soon to be your time to reign, and you are forced to live within the Kensington System as a teenager.

LW: It definitely was. I feel a bit of compassion for her on the day she woke up and found herself the Queen, because she didn’t know then how hard it would be. She certainly had the best of intentions. We can’t deny her commitment or her courage. She was also a woman of her time in that she was totally in the grip of what today we might call Impostor Syndrome. She never believed that she should have been the Queen. She always thought that a man should be the King, she always felt that she was second best and, what you see when she comes to the throne is a bit of full-on “queening.” She makes decisions about things, she exercises her power and then she realizes it’s going to be a lot harder than she thought. She slightly loses confidence, and you’ll see when you watch the show why — this is some of the political background as to why she eventually agrees to marry Albert, which sounds like a disappointing thing to do that cuts out all the romance — yes, they were deeply and desperately in love later on, but there were a lot of other good reasons besides romance that she decided to marry him.

I loved the fact that, at this point, she had all the power in the relationship and told him when they were going to get married. She even used the word “tell.” She had a conversation with Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister, where she said “I’ve made up my mind. Hadn’t I better tell Albert of my decision?” This was before the poor guy even knew what was going on. Eventually the tables turned, as he definitely had all the power later on.

BY: Speaking of Lord Melbourne, what was it about Lord M that he could see that Victoria was up to the task to be Queen whereas others just saw a little girl who had no business being Queen?

LW: Lord Melbourne was a bit of a guilty pleasure. Very charming, very witty. It’s hard to get it out of your head that he owned slaves, he was a sadist, he liked spanking housemaids. He got up to some very bad stuff, but he kept all of that quiet out of his relationship with Victoria. It was pure, almost innocent. Today, people call it a May to December romance almost.

I’m very fond of and drawn to their relationship. The old person, the young person. The jaded, the fresh. He really did help her, hugely. She couldn’t bear to be with anyone else. He became the world to her. That’s another reason she had to marry Albert as people kept calling her “Mrs. Melbourne.”

BY: Victoria and Albert. Very different, but they seemed like the perfect match. What one thing do you think they learned from each other?

LW: The perfect match  — that’s what they wanted you to believe. That’s what the Victorian newspapers wanted you to believe. They played out this perfect model of being a royal family. That was the greatest achievement for the Victorian Age as a whole, having a happy life, a happy home. I think once you drilled down into the dynamics of their relationship, there was a lot of covering up going on.

There are times when they argued, where terrible things were said by each of them. Albert had what you might call intellectual intelligence. She had something that was really undervalued at the time but that we can appreciate it more now. She had what today we might call emotional intelligence, which made her a much better politician. Saying the right thing, doing the right thing and wearing the right thing. You can see this in the stage management of the wedding.

She would have been great in show business.

BY: Victoria was well known for keeping diaries, very frank diaries. In reading her diaries, what surprised you most about her?

LW: The sense that she had no secrets. I think this is a trap or a tragedy for anybody royal. Once she began to understand that she was going to be Queen, her mother made her keep a “behavior book” where she had to write down every day how well she’d behaved.

Imagine that level of scrutiny into your life. She knew that we’d be reading her diary. That’s a really alien thought to us, isn’t it? We think diaries are private. There is nothing private about her life.

She had to show enormous mental resilience just to keep going, just to turn up and do her duty. Actually, if you read her diaries really carefully, there are things that she doesn’t mention. When she wrote in later life some very frank letters to her eldest daughter — with whom she felt very close, as there was only a 20 year age difference between them — she says more intimate things to her daughter in those letters than she does in her journal.

BY: What was your biggest challenge in the recreation for Victoria & Albert: The Wedding?

LW: Well — behind the scenes, it was really funny — finding 200 people who were willing to dress up and take part. Getting that huge congregation together. It was filmed in Hampshire, where Jane Austen is from, and all those people you see in the church are members of the Jane Austen fan clubs, people who do regency dancing or go to Jane Austen Society meetings. They all have their own clothes from the right period. They all were quite happy to take part.

I’m not sure they knew just how long they were going to trap them in that church. In the kitchen, the sugar sculpture on top of the cake, that was such a work of artistry. You could do it, but it would have taken days, so in the end we 3D-printed the actual sculptural element on top of the cake.

From 'Victoria & Albert: The Wedding'

From ‘Victoria & Albert: The Wedding’ (Credit: Courtesy of BBC Studios/Jacobo Garcia Fernandez)

BY:  In this Sunday’s premiere of Victoria & Albert: The Wedding, you noted that Albert picked the music for the wedding. Many of your programs involve music at some point and its importance in history. What has been the most interesting and/or surprising for you in your television projects: the royal history or the music history?

LW: To me, royal history is a means to an end. I like royal people, not because they are royal, but because they tend to be the best documented people who are alive at any given time. You can’t separate royals from their whole structure of their court, their households and their servants. But you can quickly move out of the aristocracy and more into the actual lives of actual normal people.

I like music and I like dancing mainly because they are different windows into a lost world, and they all leave you to think about what was going on in people’s lives. With dress, for example, a whole lot of it is about hierarchy. Today, we kind of all dress the same. A billionaire might be wearing jeans. You see the court of Henry VIII, a velvet suit appropriate for appearing in the presence of the King would have cost as much as the rent on your London townhouse for a year. People were literally wearing their wealth.

BY: Looking back at all you have discovered and/or uncovered, would you live upstairs or downstairs?

LW: Naturally, I’m drawn to upstairs, but I do think at some point you get more freedom downstairs. And sometimes you get more freedom and you get the ability to do the things that a modern person would want to do. A Victorian woman was expected to be the centerpiece of home and to sit there exercising her virtue. If you had been an 18th century woman, it’s likely you would have been more economically active, and that’s because in the 18th century, all the members of the family had to work to bring in the money, because the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened, so it wasn’t possible yet for the man to earn enough money to keep the wife at home.

So, you think, perhaps I might want to live a bit earlier and a bit lower down the social scale. You really don’t want to be an aristocrat in the court of Henry VIII as a woman. The restrictions must have been terrible, and not just the glamorous clothing and the restrictions that followed.

BY: I’m thinking downstairs with upstairs money.

LW: That’s perfect. 

Next to Parliament, I think a visit to Hampton Court Palace is in my future. I have to get up to the spooky attic and see that  Tudor “pysse pot.”

Victoria & Albert: The Wedding airs Sunday, January 13 and January 20, 2019, at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. Central on PBS. 

(My conversation with Worsley above was lightly edited for clarity.)

In: Drama