He took every matter that came to his notice –be it state business, education, household management or farming– to a serious study and always emerged with suggestions. He was an active chancellor in Cambridge and promoted a new curriculum. He supervised his children’s education. He discussed foreign policy intelligently with the ministers. He economized the household so much so that they were able to buy Osborne house as their private property. He was devoted to his wife. He was an accomplished pianist and even composed songs. What can a wife ask for more? A longer life span, perhaps.
(my impression after reading Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert by Stanley Weintraub)
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was the husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. Being a spouse of a more highly-stationed woman has always been a sore trial for any man, and Albert found himself in that unenviable position in a young age of twenty. He was born as a Duke of Saxony, but Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was only a small duchy in Germany. What was a Saxon duchy compared to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland? When the Queen’s intention to marry Albert was declared formally, the British public and government did many things to make sure that this unimportant foreign prince knew his place. The parliament rejected Victoria’s proposal to grant his beloved Albert an English peerage and granted him a smaller annuity than previous consorts. Victoria’s attempts to grant Albert precedence over all the Royal Family (except herself, of course) were also unsuccessful. When they married in February 1840, perhaps the only thing that Victoria had managed to do was to ensure that her dear husband was formally titled His Royal Highness.
Yet the Prince refused to be reduced to a mere “husband, and not the master in the house”. Within months of their marriage, he began to help Victoria with her state business (it helps that Victoria soon became pregnant and needed someone to help her with her work). A compulsive reader and a natural learner, Albert began to widen Victoria’s knowledge. Albert had benefited from two years in the University of Bonn, while Victoria’s education was limited to a private tuition at her childhood home. He sorted Victoria’s papers and gave each a title or comments in red ink, and showed Victoria important articles in newspapers, which otherwise would not have captured her attention. Prior to her marriage, Victoria had been much attached to Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister from the Whig party, and tended to show partiality to the Whigs. The Bedchamber crisis in 1839 was a clear example. This apparent partiality undermined the Queen’s reputation. It was Albert who suggested to her that the Sovereign should be above party politics. When Sir Roberts Peel from the Conservative Party, whom Victoria disliked, became Prime Minister as a result of the 1841 general election, it was partly due to Albert’s arbitration that Victoria did not react as violently as in 1839. In later years, Albert stood by Victoria when her ministers came to see her. Sometimes he received them alone when Victoria was indisposed. He had access to all Victoria state papers, and after some time, he corrected Victoria’s letters.
He also economized the Queen’s household and the Duchy of Cornwall (which traditionally belongs to the Prince of Wales). He improved efficiency and scrutinized the expenses. By 1844, he had managed to secure enough capital to buy Osborne House as a private residence for the Royal Family. Victoria noted proudly that Osborne House is “his house, not mine”. All these were accomplished by a 25 years old man. Finance was not the only aspect he re-organized. Albert noticed that Victoria often started her day so late that much of it was wasted. Soon after their marriage, Albert saw to it that they started their day together with a breakfast at no later than nine. (I need an Albert! I start my day late too!).
His interest in education did not stop with Victoria. He devised an intense educational programme for their nine children. It was reported that, unfortunately, only his eldest daughter responded well to his efforts. In 1847, he was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Though the position of Chancellor was traditionally honorific and he was not expected to actually do anything, Albert actively campaigned for a reformed curriculum. He believed that applied sciences, engineering, and manufacturing should be included. Many opposed him, of course. That was a time when the university is a place to nurture clergymen and gentlemen, not engineers or chemists. His interest in science, engineering, and manufacturing manifested most clearly in his ambitious idea of the Great Exhibition of 1851. All sorts of modern technology and machineries were displayed in this six-month exhibition, which was one of the pioneering world fairs. A surplus of £180,000 was raised from the exhibition, which went to purchase land in South Kensington and establish educational and cultural institutions there.
Albert was devoted to Victoria, but Victoria was more than devoted to him. She adored him. In her private journal, she repeatedly referred to Albert as “dear Angel”, “the perfect Albert”. She wrote that marriage imposed many restrictions on a woman’s life, but it was much easier to bear “if one has a husband one worships!” Despite her great devotion to her husband, she sometimes behaved as his Queen rather than his wife. Albert did what he could to remind her. Prior to their marriage, Albert asked Victoria to invite him to England (for he could not come to see the Queen uninvited). They both knew that this meeting was for discussing their marriage. Victoria, who had just tasted the great liberty her new position afforded, was not much interested in settling down to marriage life. So she postponed it again and again. Finally, Victoria sent a letter stating that if Albert wanted to come, it should be within the period she stated. This time, it was Albert who postponed, in the pretext that an important guest was coming to Coburg on Victoria’s preferred dates. Their mutual uncle (they were first cousin) told Albert that one did not make a Queen wait, but perhaps that was exactly what Albert wanted. Another occasion occurred after their marriage. Albert was hosting a dinner outside the palace when a messenger from Victoria came to say that the she expected Albert to return to Buckingham soon. Albert dismissed the messenger. Shortly afterward, another messenger appeared to repeat the message. Finally, another messenger came to say that “the Queen commands the Prince’s immediate return to Buckingham Palace.” Albert’s guests heard these messages. Albert dismissed this last messenger and stayed with his guests until dinner was over, and he deliberately spent the night in Claremont (their other residence) instead of the palace.
He was unpopular, of course. One can hardly be involved in so many matters without attracting one or two disagreements. In Albert’s case, it was far worse because he was a foreigner. Victoria herself belonged to the House of Hanover, so she and her predecessors the King Georges were actually foreigners, but the British public seemed to regard her as their own. Albert was often ridiculed in the weekly magazine Punch, the elder generations of the royal family disliked him, and he was sometimes accused of meddling in state business and foreign policies. The Anglican Church viewed his interest in science with suspicion.
Albert died in 1861, aged only 42. I think it is not too surprising that he died young. When the amount of energy spent per unit time is higher, it is expected that you will run out of power sooner, right? Or perhaps he had done enough, so that he did not need another ten or twenty years to do his life-work. He did accomplish much. Some people might say that his achievements were due to his high position. That is only partially true. Had he been born in a peasant family, almost certainly he would not have been able to reform the curriculum in Cambridge or pioneering the Great Exhibition. On the other hand, we have not often seen other royals or government leaders accomplished what he did, have we? (And I, who have benefited from 8 years of university education, have not done anything yet to impart my knowledge to others).
King George VI, who has been recently much talked about thanks to the movie “The King’s Speech”, was a great grandson of Albert and Victoria. He was named Albert after his great grandfather, for he was born on 14 December, the anniversary of Albert’s death. In the movie, when he had to meet his council to declare his accession, George VI saw portraits of his predecessors and this made him even more nervous. The first portrait that he saw was that of Queen Victoria. It is a pity they do not show Albert’s portrait. For I think anyone would have rightly found it a very daunting task to follow the footsteps of Prince Albert.
I wrote a previous note praising Queen Victoria. I think I may have to correct one or two things in that note. I wanted to delete the note as I began to think that she was not that great. Perhaps her main accomplishments are to choose the right husband and to survive without him. But as Siti said, those are great accomplishments, too. So I refrain from deleting the note.