When Queen Victoria read the ultimatum, she was horrified. She didn't want to worry her sick husband, her beloved Prince Albert, but she desperately needed his advice. She handed it to him along with a pencil so that he could make any necessary changes.
It was 1861 and tensions between the American North and the deep South had reached boiling point. The first shots had even been fired at the battle of Bull Run in July. The problem for the British government was that many people were sympathetic with the South and the seceding states wanted recognition and assistance. Two diplomats, Mason and Slidell, were on their way to England on the British mail steamer the Trent to plead the case, along with their wives and children.
When Captain Wilkes of the American ship, San Jacinto, heard about this, he decided to intercept them off the coast of Cuba. He fired two shots across the Trent's bow and boarded the ship without a fight, although he later said that Mrs Slidell had been furious and a very pretty girl had slapped First Lt Donald McNeill Fairfax across the face because he kissed her. He then imprisoned Mason and Slidell at Fort Warren near Boston. Wilkes was regarded as a hero by the North and paraded in New York from Broadway to Washington.
The British government was up in arms! How dare the Americans imprison innocent men travelling on a British ship flying the British flag! This was a violation of international law. Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, ordered his Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell, to write an ultimatum to the American government. He demanded the immediate release of the prisoners and threatened to break off relations with the Americans in one week if this was not done. He also ordered troops to be sent to Canada in case of war. Luckily, this document needed the approval of the Crown before it could be sent.
Prince Albert didn't like this sort of confrontational language at all. He had fought against slavery for a long time, and he didn't want the British to be associated with a war for the slave-owning South. He decided to tone down the language. He changed the wording to indicate that the British believed that the insult to the flag was unintentional and that the government hoped that redress would be spontaneously offered.
This solved the situation between the British and the Americans. Poor Prince Albert died of typhoid a very short time later.