Albert (1819-1861) was the husband of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort of Great Britain. His most important achievements were the strengthening of the constitutional monarchy and the establishment of the royal family as a moral force in the life of the nation.
Albert was the second son of Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and of Louise, daughter of Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Altenburg. He was born on Aug. 26, 1819, at Rosenau, Germany. Educated by a private tutor, he was advised and encouraged by his uncle Leopold, who became king of Belgium in 1831, and by Baron Stockmar, a friend and confidant of the Coburg family. After a short visit to England in 1836, Albert spent 10 months studying in Brussels. He then attended Bonn University and toured Italy with Stockmar.
Marriage to Victoria
His marriage to Victoria had, in effect, been settled in 1836, but they did not announce their betrothal until November 1839, more than 2 years after Victoria ascended the throne. Although the marriage was arranged for political and dynastic reasons, Victoria had fallen deeply in love with Albert, and he returned her devotion. Their marriage in February 1840 was not, however, enthusiastically supported by the English. Albert was never to win the unanimous support either of the populace or of the aristocracy.
During the first period of their marriage, Victoria was unwilling to offer Albert royal tasks commensurate with his real abilities. "I am only the husband, and not the master in the house," he wrote to a close friend less than 3 months after his wedding. It took time for Albert to influence the Queen in public affairs, and even then he never fulfilled the role assigned to him by Stockmar of acting as her "constitutional genius." However, he was a personality in his own right, keenly interested in music and in the progress of science and technology and deeply concerned about the duties of royalty in a changing social context.
Change of Albert's role came gradually following the birth of the Princess Royal in November 1840 and the replacement of Lord Melbourne as prime minister by Sir Robert Peel in 1841. Above all, the retirement to Germany in September 1842 of Baroness Lehzen, Victoria's devoted Hanoverian attendant, strengthened Albert's position. His increasing involvement in government affairs was also guaranteed by the domestic happiness that he afforded the Queen. A keen gardener and a fine shot, he was always happy in the country with his family. As Albert and Victoria shared the delights and the difficulties of bringing up their nine children, sketched and painted together, and played duets, she came to rely upon him more and more. In 1857 he received the title Prince Consort.
Albert respected Peel, with whom he had much in common—a distaste of faction, a strong sense of duty, and a high-minded seriousness; moreover, both recognized that politics had to take into account the economic and social changes that were transforming Britain into an industrially based economy. The events of 1848, a year of European revolutions, confirmed Albert's view that in the course of social change the interests of workingmen had to be safeguarded as well as those of the middle classes. "The unequal division of property … is the principal evil," he wrote in 1849. "Means must necessarily be found, not for diminishing riches (as the communists wish) but to make facilities for the poor. … I believe this question will first be solved here in England."
Albert was one of the main architects of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was held in London's newly built Crystal Palace. This exhibition was designed to display in international as well as national terms how society was being reshaped by science and technology. On the opening day of the exhibition, Victoria wrote in her diary, "All is owing to Albert—All to Him." Although this was an exaggeration, it was certainly true that Albert's zeal and enthusiasm had inspired everyone connected with the originally hazardous and controversial enterprise.
Deeply suspicious of Lord Palmerston, who had become foreign minister in 1846, Albert had his own network of foreign intelligence sources and his own approach to international relations. He and Victoria did not hide their feelings about the Palmerstonian policies that they honestly believed to be perilous. Their first clash with Palmerston came in 1847 on the issue of Portugal, and there soon were differences on France and Spain. When Palmerston resigned in 1851, there was sharp criticism both of Albert and of the Queen. On the eve of the Crimean War (1853-1856), Albert was strongly attacked in the press for what were condemned unjustifiably as pro-Russian sympathies. Between the end of the Crimean War and his death, Albert remained strongly interested in European, and particularly German, politics. He was sympathetic to German unification under Prussian leadership. His advice was frequently taken on difficult issues, but in 1859 there were renewed differences both with Palmerston and with Lord John Russell on the Italian question. In 1861 Albert used his influence to prevent Britain from becoming embroiled in the American Civil War as a result of an incident involving the mail steamer Trent.
Albert died on Dec. 13, 1861, after an attack of typhoid fever. The Queen was desolate and throughout the rest of her long reign tried to model her actions on what she thought her beloved Albert would have done.
Further Reading on Albert
The standard biography of Albert is Sir Theodore Martin, The Life of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort (5 vols., 1875-1880). Other biographies are Roger Fulford, The Prince Consort (1949); Frank Eyck, The Prince Consort: A Political Biography (1959); and Hector Bolitho, Albert, Prince Consort (1964). Kurt Jagow's edition of Letters of the Prince Consort, 1831-1861 was translated by E. T. S. Dugdale in 1938.
Additional Biography Sources
Bennett, Daphne, King without a crown: Albert, Prince Consort of England, 1819-1861, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1977.
Hobhouse, Hermione, Prince Albert, his life and work, London: H. Hamilton, 1983.
James, Robert Rhodes, Albert, Prince Consort: a biography, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1983.
James, Robert Rhodes, Prince Albert: a biography, New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1984, 1983.
Scheele, Godfrey, The Prince Consort: man of many facets: the world and the age of Prince Albert, London: Oresko Books, 1977.