Prince Albert's father, Duke Ernest of Coburg, was a brother of Queen Victoria's mother, the widowed Duchess of Kent. Since Albert was a second son, he would have no inheritance and no occupation. The family conspired almost from his birth in August 1819, three months after that of Victoria, to link the first cousins in marriage. Victoria seemed almost certain to become queen after her elderly and childless uncles George and William had their turns on the throne. By law, she required a Protestant consort. A student at the University of Bonn when, in 1837, Victoria succeeded William IV, Albert had met his cousin only once, when an immature teenager. Victoria was unimpressed. As queen, however, she interviewed German, Dutch and even Russian princes, and found them all unsatisfactory. In truth she was not interested in marrying, as she was enjoying her role and wanted nothing to inhibit it, but her advisers emphasized the matter of the succession, rather than the reining in of her willfulness. In October 1839 Albert was invited back.
The Royal Collection Windsor
Victoria knew she was rather plain, with her chief and perhaps only asset her position as queen of the mightiest empire on the globe. In her diary she wrote, "It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert-who is beautiful." He was also well-educated (the queen had been taught by tutors), talented in the arts, and interested in science and technology. A few days later, Victoria (as queen) proposed, Albert accepting quickly although he knew that his life thenceforth would be secondary to the support of the queen. They were married on February 10, 1840 with Albert in a British field marshal's uniform but without any further dignity of rank. (Parliament was unhappy with the importation of German princes and princesses, as had gone on since George I had been imported from Hanover after the death of Queen Anne.)
Although Albert's role at the start, despite desks in tandem, was only to wield the blotting paper for her signature, and he chafed at his being far less than the master in his own house, biology altered the marital and political balance. Within weeks of the marriage, Victoria was pregnant, the first of nine times that her role diminished with not only the lassitude of pregnancy but with the social need to sequester herself when bulky with child. It was what Victoria had dreaded, but the couple knew nothing of artificial contraception, which in any case was illegal, and the queen was a passionate Hanoverian. A Regency Bill empowered him to act in event of the incapacity or death of the queen. The red dispatch boxes from her ministers arrived daily, whether or not she was up to them. Albert's informal authority and influence grew. He even managed to eject from the court the domineering Baroness Lehzen, the queen's former governess, who had run the royal household over the heads of the official appointees.
Supreme now in the domestic area, Albert began putting affairs in Germanic order, reducing or eliminating long-standing sinecures and perquisites. As he confided sweepingly to the Duke of Wellington, his goal was "to be the natural head of the family, superintendent of her household, manager of her private affairs, her sole confidential adviser in politics, and only assistant in her communications with the officers of the Government, her private secretary and permanent Minister." And he would do so without English title or rank, submerging, as he put it, his "directing individuality" in the queen's position and personality. Although he was sacrificing personal ambition on her behalf, and would burn himself out in doing so, he was also acquiring power. She held audiences with her ministers with the prince at her side, and he often drafted papers for her which she then rewrote in her own hand. In many ways he became a husband of his time, calling her "Dear Child" and overseeing the education of their children, whom both parents wanted to become, whatever their abilities, miniature Alberts. The marriage prospered as Victoria realized the advantages in a managing husband in whom she could take pride and who responded to her physical and emotional needs.
Albert dabbled in almost every aspect of the cultural and intellectual life of his adopted country. He was a serous patron of the arts, a composer and a painter, an architect and an educator. He helped design the royal family's private country houses -- Osborne on the Isle of Wight, and Balmoral, in Scotland. He competed for the chancellorship of somnolent Cambridge in a contested election, and on winning it, modernized the obsolete classics-and-theology curriculum with science and technology, despite foot-dragging from eighteenth-century minded dons. Socially conscious despite his instinctive elitism, he arranged for the design and building of experimental houses to better serve working class families. With a sense of urgency to adapt a reluctant nation to technological modernization and increasing international competition, he organized and oversaw the enthralling Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair and the greatest triumph of his life. In a memorandum on the exhibition he had declared, "Machinery, Science, and Taste…are of no country, but belong, as a whole, to the civilized world."
Albert's authority, almost always informal, was not always appreciated. Many considered him to be a German interloper -- and no English gentleman. Hostile except during his highly visible but temporary successes, the press appeared to seek opportunities to strike at his foreignness -- and would have been all the more critical had it been more generally known that in the privacy of their personal apartments, he and the queen usually conversed in German, in which Albert was always more comfortable. Charles Greville, clerk of the Privy Council, described the royal pair as "one person, and as he likes business, it is obvious that while she has the title he is really discharging the functions of the Sovereign. He is King to all intents and purposes."
In the middle 1850s, the Crimean War, pitting autocratic Russia, ambitious to help itself to Turkish territory in the Balkans, against France and Britain, who wanted to prop up the crumbling Ottoman Empire, at first fed antagonism toward Albert. Politicians and the press charged the prince with meddling in the interest of his many Coburg relations, who had indeed married into ruling families across Europe. Rumors spread early in 1854 that he had been charged with treason and put in the Tower of London-a canard that drew thousands of the curious to the Tower to look for the prince peering from a barred window. The prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, had to go before Parliament to vouch for Albert's "unimpeachable loyalty." As the war developed to the disadvantage of Britain, which was still fighting with the generals and the equipment that had won at Waterloo in 1815, it was left to Albert by default, as the only activist field marshal in the army, to press for realistic training with simulated combat and for a military instructional camp, which led to the establishment of Aldershot. Younger generals he recommended went to the Crimea to take over the faltering war, and a new prime minister, Lord Palmerston, once antagonistic to Albert (the feeling was mutual: the prince privately called him "Pilgerstein"), "I had no idea of his possessing such eminent qualities . . . , and how fortunate it has been for the country that the queen married such a prince."
With peace, Albert turned to the education of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, who seemed unadaptable to Albertine rigor, and the betrothal of the truly Albertine Princess Victoria to the future crown prince of Prussia, Frederick. Both projects proved failures. "Bertie," the heir, lacked intellectual capacity, and his parents saw no potential in him. The Queen would later give him nothing to do, and he took up womanizing, but after waiting for 59 years for his turn, he was, as Edward VII (1901-10), rejecting his father's name, an amiable and uncontroversial king. "Vicky" would become empress of an unified Germany for only ninety-nine days, as her husband's accession in 1888, also long delayed, occurred as he was dying of laryngeal cancer. She would be best known, unfortunately, for her firstborn son. The insufferable and egomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II would lead Germany into World War I.
The later 1850s and early 1860s were years of depression for Albert. He parted from his beloved daughter in tears; the miseducation of Bertie proved frustrating to both father and son; and Albert was suffering from a fatal illness, which he concealed. The queen's naming him (as Parliament would not) prince consort in July 1857 was ridiculed in the press but explained as required by the imminence of having their adult children outrank their father, "a foreign prince."
|Victoria and Albert.|
Albert would not live to see that. Barely 40 in 1859, he looked 60. He no longer went shooting or even deer-stalking, blaming press of business. He compared himself to a mill-donkey, turning the wheel round and round. But his chronic cramps and chills, he seemed to realize, were symptoms of inoperable illness -- probably stomach cancer. Late in 1861, he rushed to Cambridge in a chill rain to berate his son, then in a mockery of a university stint, about an affair with a prostitute, Bertie's sexual initiation. Returning home, Albert took to his bed with what was very likely pneumonia. He arose only once, to draft a letter for the Queen defusing a bellicose ultimatum to be sent to the United States, then in a war with secessionist states about a British mail packet, the Trent, intercepted to seize two Confederate envoys. His physicians diagnosed typhoid fever, although no other case of the contagious disease had been reported in the vicinity. They were optimistic about his recovery. If, however, his ailment were something else, he had no resources left to fight off the terminal episode of pneumonia. Medicine in mid-century was helpless, or incompetent, or both, and he was dosed with brandy until he died, at 42, on December 14, 1861.
Victoria was distraught, and never recovered from his loss. Benjamin Disraeli, a future prime minister, declared, "With Prince Albert we have buried our Sovereign. This German Prince has governed England for twenty-one years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown."