After returning from church, Victoria (Jenna Coleman) and Albert (Tom Hughes) are surprised to find Ernst (David Oakes) has arrived for a visit but Albert later learns his brother has been spending time at Baden-Baden for health reasons. Ernst makes light of his illness and assures Albert he merely overindulged on their visit to Paris, however Ernst has a white powder called calomel in his bags. Calomel was a common medicine used in the treatment of venereal disease but it actually contained mercury.
Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) arrives at the palace with Charles Trevelyan (Edward Bennett) who has some suggestions for the position of Archbishop of Dublin, however Victoria doesn’t recognise any of the names on the list. Trevelyan explains there is a great deal of unrest in the Irish Anglican Church at the moment due to a Catholic dispute over the tithes being imposed. He goes on to explain everyone has to pay tithes but Victoria is confused as to why the Catholics should have to pay anything to a church to which they don’t belong. She is informed the Irish Anglican Church is vital to prevent anarchy spreading as the Catholics vastly outnumber the Protestants and Irish society would crumble without it. Trevelyan then provokes the queen’s displeasure by offering to teach her more about the Irish situation when her nursery duties allow.
A few days later, Victoria reads a letter in The Times from Dr. Traill (Martin Compston), a clergyman, outlining the terrible conditions in Ireland caused by famine. When Peel arrives at the palace, Victoria asks him if he has read the article and goes on to talk about how children are living on seaweed and nettles. Trevelyan assures her studies have been done to prove nettles are very nourishing and they apparently taste like spinach. When Victoria asks about the bodies being left at the side of the road, Trevelyan puts it down to drunkenness. Appalled by his responses, Victoria asks Peel directly if he is going to do something to help but Peel says it would not be in the government’s best interests. Trevelyan explains the Irish population has grown beyond the land’s sustainability and it would be wrong for them to interfere in an act of self-regulation. Disgusted by Trevelyan’s thinking, Victoria tells Peel she wants to go to Ireland to see the situation for herself, however Peel bluntly tells her he could not guarantee her safety.
Meanwhile, Ernst visits a doctor (Andrew Havill) who confirms he is suffering from syphilis and he prescribes more treatment involving mercury vapours.
As Albert works on a solution to the sewage problem at the palace, Victoria rails about the injustice being meted out by the government towards the Irish but Albert tells her to trust Peel as he knows what he is doing. Victoria is less than reassured but she soon has another problem to worry about when Lord Alfred informs her the Duke of Sutherland has been killed in a hunting accident. Victoria vows to bring Harriet (Margaret Clunie) to the palace for comfort but Albert worries about the effect the news will have on Ernst.
The following day, Albert and Ernst are exercising outdoors when Ernst has a coughing fit and has to sit down. Albert teases his brother for being out of condition and tells him he should go back to Coburg to pursue a more healthy lifestyle but Ernst says he needs to avoid Uncle Leopold’s matchmaking. Albert informs him Harriet’s husband has died and Victoria intends to bring her back to court even though Albert thinks it is too soon.
At Parliament, the famine in Ireland has become a contentious issue as the prime minister is urged to provide aid, however Peel argues he cannot provide relief without losing the support of the Irish gentry, the clergy and the farmers. Peel also wonders how he would explain helping the Irish to the working class people of England who are also suffering.
Ernst returns to his doctor where an examination reveals the vapour treatment is working and his symptoms seem to be subsiding. Ernst is happy at the news but the doctor is still concerned and warns him against intimate relations.
Unable to visit Ireland herself, Victoria writes to Dr. Traill telling how moved she was by his letter in The Times and asking if he will come to Buckingham Palace so they can discuss the situation in person. When Traill arrives in London, he is shocked to see how plentiful the food is in the market place and by the grain from Ireland which is wastefully allowed to seep from the bags unchecked. At the palace, Victoria is horrified when Traill tells her Irish grain is still being brought to England to be sold when the children of his parish have nothing to eat and he cannot understand why food is allowed to be exported in a country where people are starving. When Albert joins them, he asks Traill if the problem would have occurred if the Irish did not rely so heavily on one crop but Traill informs him the Catholics are starving because they have no legal right to the land they own. When Victoria asks what she can do to help, Traill says she must persuade the government to send food to prevent more deaths.
Victoria summons Peel to the palace where she urges him to provide relief but Trevelyan claims they will be making Ireland a country of dependents who stand back in idleness while decent English people must work hard for a living. An angry Victoria dismisses him and then tells Peel she will not stand by while the Irish die of hunger but Peel is unmoved. Victoria then orders him to follow her and they go into the nursery where she takes a crying baby Alice out of her cradle and asks Peel to imagine being an Irish woman holding her baby with no milk to feed her. Tearfully, Victoria tells him charity begins at home and she will not let her people starve. Peel is not entirely unsympathetic to what Victoria is saying but if he follows his conscience, he will destroy his party. Nevertheless, Peel goes back to Parliament where he does his best to convince the government to provide famine relief.
Traill returns to Ireland where he starts a soup kitchen from his own home but it is clear his own health is failing. Sadly, Victoria soon receives a letter informing her Traill has died from typhus fever.
- The Great Famine was a period in Ireland between 1845 and 1849 of mass starvation, disease, and emigration which led to the deaths of over one million people and the emigration of two million more. The famine was caused by a potato blight which infected crops throughout Europe, however the Irish poor had become completely dependent on the potato as their main source of food. In September 1845, newspapers began to report “the appearance of what is called ‘cholera’ in potatoes in Ireland” but the full extent of the calamity was only discovered during the harvest as one third of the crop had been destroyed. The destruction was hard on the poor but things got worse the following year when three-quarters of the harvest was lost and the first deaths from starvation were recorded.
- When the famine first began, Sir Robert Peel secretly purchased maize and cornmeal from the United States but it proved to be a mistake as Irish mills weren’t equipped to grind maize and the relief measure didn’t work. In October 1845, Peel attempted to repeal the Corn Laws, tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread artificially high, but he met with resistance from his own party members and his government fell. The incoming Whigs halted Peel’s relief works and refused to stop food being exported out of Ireland.
- Charles Trevelyan (1807-1886), who was in charge of the administration of government relief, was slow to disburse food and monetary aid to the Irish as he believed “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”.
- Rev Dr Robert Traill (1793–1847) was a clergyman in the Established Church of Ireland and was rector of Schull, County Cork, from 1832 until his death. During the Great Famine, Traill established a relief committee for his parish and wrote widely to persuade people to subscribe to it. He set up a soup kitchen at his home and was said to have spent most of his own income on relief for the poor. Traill died of typhus on 21 April 1847. Traill’s great-great-great granddaughter, Daisy Goodwin, is the creator of Victoria and she wrote this episode.
- Queen Victoria, nicknamed The Famine Queen, did not visit Ireland until 2 August 1849 and was criticised for not doing more. The new prime minister, Lord Russell, had to urge Victoria to do something and she eventually wrote a letter asking Protestants to raise money while donating £2,000 herself. Unfortunately, Victoria’s donation hampered relief efforts as royal protocol dictated nobody could donate a larger sum.
- Princess Alice was born on 25 April 1843, two years before the famine broke out.
- George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 2nd Duke of Sutherland, actually died on 27 February 1861 after a long illness. Harriet and George had eleven children, although they are never mentioned on the show. The duchess also used her social position to undertake charitable works and helped organise the petition against slavery.