prince consort Albert

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Albert, prince consort (1819–61). Albert was the second son of Ernest, duke of Saxe-Coburg, and Louise, daughter of Duke Augustus of Saxe-Coburg-Altenburg. His parents were divorced in 1826. He was a shy and delicate child and always lacked stamina but was exceptionally diligent and serious-minded. His tutor, Christoph Florschutz, was the dominant influence on his early years and gave him a love of learning, particularly in languages, history, the natural sciences, and music, which lasted throughout his life. He became a gifted composer and organist and made the Victorian court something of a centre of musical life.

The possibility of a match with his cousin Queen Victoria, who was the same age, was fostered by their uncle Leopold, king of the Belgians, and by Baron Stockmar, one of her advisers, but they did not meet until 1836 when they were both 17 years old. Victoria then found him ‘extremely handsome’, but at that stage neither thought of a lifetime's companionship. Albert enrolled at Bonn University and eagerly applied himself to study in natural science, political economy, and philosophy as well as developing his musical talent. When they met again at Windsor three years later Victoria fell instantly in love and Albert, unsure of himself at first, soon responded. Five days after their meeting she proposed to him and they were married on 10 February 1840.

If Albert was unexpectedly swept off his feet by Victoria's ardour, he was less enthusiastic about her country, nor did her subjects take to him. He was not thought important enough to marry the queen of England, and the facts that he was German, Victoria's first cousin, lacked wealth and position, and was hardly known in England all counted against him. He was variously (and wrongly) supposed to be a ‘Coburg adventurer on the make’, a political radical, a papist by inclination, and (even worse because accurately) an intellectual. Parliament reduced the allowance that was proposed for him from £50,000 to £30,000 p.a., and refused to grant him precedence next to the queen. Precedence was nevertheless conferred on him by letters patent, but he received no title and was not officially designated prince consort until 1857.

Victoria adored her husband and insisted that he should be by her side on state and ceremonial occasions which often made her nervous, but she was reluctant to admit him to a share in her political duties, so that in spite of their private happiness he was frustrated by his lack of influence and of opportunity to practise his slowly acquired theoretical knowledge of his new country's constitution and its social problems. He did however guide his wife towards political neutrality, weaning her from her previous Whig partisanship and reconciling her after 1841 to Peel, for whom he felt a strong affinity and intellectual sympathy. After 1842 he acted as Victoria's informal counsellor, private secretary, and sole confidant. He also strongly influenced her taste in music and art, with a strong bias towards early Renaissance style, as evidenced in his reconstruction of Osborne as their private family home. He took an interest in the workings of the royal household and set about modernizing and pruning household offices. In many ways he was a natural bureaucrat—he was efficient, painstaking, and absorbed by detail. He was happy to become, on Peel's suggestion, chairman of the Fine Arts Royal Commission and he threw himself energetically into his favourite project to make South Kensington a centre for the arts and for education. In 1847 he was elected chancellor of Cambridge University and he devoted a substantial share of his time thereafter to the reform and modernization of the university, with a particular concern for the development of scientific education and the raising of intellectual and pedagogic standards. His attempt to promote the causes of social improvement, science and technology, and the public patronage of the arts and sciences was summed up in the organization of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which he did a great deal to bring about. Nor was he inactive in other public fields. He attempted to guide British foreign policy in peaceful directions and tried to insist that Palmerston should submit his policies and dispatches to the queen. Palmerston's refusal led to his dismissal from the Foreign Office in 1851. Nevertheless, Albert was unable to avert the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 and Palmerston's return as prime minister in 1855. Almost his last act on his death-bed in 1861 was to tone down an aggressive dispatch to Washington on the Trent affair which probably averted war with the USA.

Perhaps Albert's most lasting contribution to his adopted country was the example he set, with Victoria, of a respectable and devout private life. They produced nine children, to whom Albert was a loving and devoted though heavy-handed father. His relations with his eldest son, the future King Edward VII, suffered from ‘Bertie's’ resistance to the ambitious and sometimes oppressive system of education which his father devised and supervised, aided by Victoria, who wished her son to become a second Albert, despite their temperamental difference. The relentless pressure placed on the prince of Wales resulted in his alienation from his parents and increased the anxieties from which Albert increasingly suffered. His habits of overwork and his consequently weakened physical constitution resulted in an inability, and perhaps a lack of will, to resist the attacks of ill-health which set in during the last year of his life and he died of typhoid fever on 14 December 1861 at the age of 42.

Albert has been described as ‘perhaps the most astute and ambitious politician of his age’, but his political successes were few. It was his fate to be a highly sensitive and intelligent man who failed to understand the mentality of his adopted countrymen or to realize how alien to them were his passions for intellect, hard work, and the patronage of the arts and sciences. His marriage was not always easy, for Victoria was a strong and determined personality, but it was founded upon a genuine and profound love which by its example exerted a deep influence on the character of Victorian England.

E. A. Smith


Weintraub, S. , Albert: Uncrowned King (1997).

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Albert, Prince (1819–61) Consort of Queen Victoria. Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and first cousin of Victoria, he married her in 1840. Albert took an active role in diplomatic affairs and called for moderation in the Trent Affair (1861).

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Albert, Prince, Consort of Queen Victoria (b Rosenau, Ger., 1819; d Windsor, 1861). Trained in mus. by his father Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, who himself comp. opera. Patron of many Eng. mus. enterprises and friend of Mendelssohn. Wrote church mus. and some pleasant Lieder in style of Schubert and Mendelssohn.