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A portrait of Prince Albert

The life of Prince Albert: The perfect prince

A portrait of Prince Albert by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Albert: Prince Consort of Queen Victoria

Born: 26 August 1819 at Schloss Rosenau, Saxe-Coburg.

Died: 14 December 1861 at Windsor Castle, England.

Consort Tenure: 10 February 1940 - 1861

The German prince who swept the young Queen Victoria off her feet and shared her life for 21 years was also a man of ambition. With a steely determination to be a statesman of influence in his own right, Prince Albert eventually became the power behind the Queen, known to the public as the uncrowned King. Having faced criticism and suspicion as a ‘foreigner’ his greatest legacy was gaining the public’s respect, being seen as the prince who was doing things for them.

Johnny Foreigner v Little Englanders

When Prince Albert died at the age of 42 Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, largely due to his influence. One of many suitors proposed for the then 20-year-old Queen Victoria, their early marriage saw him in a subservient role, barely allowed to put stamps on the Queen’s letters.

Albert craved a meaningful role and was keen not just to be seen as a consort to sire royal children. His early ambitions were quickly crushed by Victoria who was determined to keep her new husband under her control. This treatment was most likely due to the government and the public having concerns about a ‘foreigner’ exerting power over the throne.

Members of high society and the English press questioned Victoria’s choice of husband asking why a prince from a small German dukedom was chosen over other ‘eligible’ European princes.

A vicious rhyme mocked how Albert had arrived in England ‘for better or for worse, England’s fat Queen, and England’s fatter purse’. When Prime Minister Lord Melbourne proposed giving Albert a salary of fifty thousand pounds there was a rebellion led by the opposition leader Sir Robert Peel who suggested reducing it by half. The constant deliberation by Parliament over Albert’s role left him in a depressed and bewildered state. Despite Albert’s concerns about his future, the royal wedding went ahead at St James’ Palace, London on 10 February 1840.

Battle Lines: Prince Albert and Lord Melbourne

Albert was determined to grasp an opportunity to assert himself politically, despite Victoria's unwillingness to share power, keen to show that she was the monarch. Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, who enjoyed a close relationship with the Queen, was loath to allow Prince Albert the means to interfere with political decisions.

The first issue that arose between the two men was Albert's wish to bring his staff from Germany. Melbourne persuaded Victoria to suggest Albert accept the Prime Minister’s private secretary George Edward Anson. The move angered Albert and resulted in a furious row between him and Victoria. This set the tone for an increasingly combative atmosphere in the royal household.

Although very much in love with Victoria,m an increasingly frustrated Albert felt that his wife was complicit in denying him a title and allowing him to share state business. That opportunity arose when Victoria became pregnant and while incapacitated by sickness agreed for Albert to help with some of her duties. The change of heart saw Victoria becoming more confident in her husband’s abilities in his more prominent role in state affairs. As time went by and Melbourne recognised Albert’s stabilising effect on an often moody and contrary Victoria, the two began to form a convivial friendship based on mutual respect and an acknowledgement of their mutual need.

Anti-slavery campaign

Prince Albert’s first official public duty was on 12 June 1840 when he attended the world’s first Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The organisers were keen to have a royal patron and the campaign was determined to bring an end to forced labour. Britain’s association with such a barbaric industry had been in existence for 200 years.

In 1807 slavery was abolished in Britain and 1834 banned across the empire, but globally it continued benefiting many British businesses. The subject was too controversial for Queen Victoria to be openly seen to have an opinion. Prince Albert took up the mantle to make a stand against slavery. He made his opening speech for the conference to a packed hall in and in one stroke vanquished the view of him as a clockwork Prince.

After this success, Albert began to feel he could make a difference as he made use of Victoria’s pregnancies to take on the role of her stand-in when dealing with Government business. In his new role, he attended cabinet meetings, read important letters in the red dispatch box and was given his own key. Senior parliamentary figures found Albert easier to deal with and a stabilising influence on Victoria who was regarded as petulant and temperamental.

Social conscience: Albert’s determination to improve working-class lives

Increasingly involved with projects, including overseeing the redecoration of the Houses of Parliament, Albert’s passion to improve life for Britain’s citizens saw him tour Birmingham, the ‘city of a thousand trades’ in November 1843, accompanied by Prime Minister Robert Peel.

The sprawling city was at the heart of the industrial revolution and the largest manufacturing hub exporting goods all over the globe from factories Albert was keen to inspect. Impressed by the innovations of industry he was disturbed by the squalor and deprivation of ordinary working people who toiled to make Britain wealthy.

Albert became very vocal about improving the appalling living conditions of working people. He put into action plans to improve workers’ lives focusing on issues of ‘poverty, malnutrition and poor housing’, which Albert saw as the peril of England’s rapid industrial advance. The prince called for the education of poor children and allotments for people to be able to grow food. Perhaps, the most progressive of all was his belief in ‘benefits for the labouring classes’. Because of his position as a royal, Albert’s left-wing-leaning ideals entered the mainstream and allowed other members of polite society to support him.

Albert the hero and protector of Victoria

An assassination attempt on Queen Victoria’s life while out driving in a carriage towards Hyde Park acted as a turning point in how the British public and press perceived the German prince. The would-be assassin, a young man from Oxford, who fired shots at the royal carriage, claimed to be from an organisation called Young England. Such a claim was discovered to be nothing more than a figment of his imagination. Convicted of treason it was the first time an insanity plea was used as a defence in court and accepted.

The incident was the first of eight assassination attempts on the Queen. The fact that Prince Albert was present with Victoria at the time of the attack and later showed mettle by insisting they be seen taking the same route again, bestowed on the royal consort the status of protector, admired by the public and the once critical press for his bravery.

Champion of Innovation: The Great Exhibition

During Prince Albert’s travels around the country by train, he witnessed the invention of the first electric telegraph, the Penny Farthing bicycle, the growth of Britain’s train network and the launch of the world’s most advanced ship, SS Britain. It is at this moment excited by technological advances that he had ideas to bring British industry to an international audience.

In June 1849 Albert met with Sir Robert Peel who shared Albert’s passion for British innovation. Also present was civil servant Henry Cole who persuaded Albert that an exhibition in London would showcase British inventions and inspire designers and manufacturers. Albert thought that a British version of the recent Paris Fair could be international. This ambitious showcase of Science and Art became known as The Great Exhibition. It aimed to be the greatest the world had seen.

Opposition to the project cited the cost and concerns over assassination attempts. Despite nearly being abandoned the grand project went ahead.

Architect Joseph Paxton’s proposal for a ‘glass conservatory’ won a national competition with Hyde Park chosen as the location. Building began on the vast structure covering 16 acres and requiring 5,000 ‘navies’ to erect it and install 300,000 panes of glass.

Opened to great fanfare by Queen Victoria on 1 May 1851, the exhibition was a resounding success for Albert. 100,000 exhibits were displayed during the five months the doors were open to the public which ranged from pottery and porcelain to ironwork, pianos, steam hammers, hydraulic presses and even a couple of houses.

Six million people from every walk of life visited the Great Exhibition which became Albert’s greatest project. Albert insisted that profits be invested in building museums for the public resulting in the suburb of South Kensington becoming the site of the new village of museums including the Natural History Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Royal College of Music, Imperial College, and the home of the Royal Albert Hall.

New responsibilities in war

Albert’s change of status in Britain saw him take on increasing responsibilities, particularly when in 1854 the country went to war with Russia in Crimea. Determined to be involved he conferred with generals about funding new regiments and as a consequence raised money for the army’s first permanent training camp in Aldershot.

Part of his proposals suggested setting up volunteer reservists which became Britain’s Territorial Army. He also met with Florence Nightingale and helped her improve the army hospitals. Albert’s natural leaning towards egalitarianism saw him come up with the idea of the Victoria Cross to be awarded to all ranks, particularly ordinary soldiers and not just officers.

Albert’s Christmas Tradition

After the birth of Queen Victoria and Albert’s first child, Princess Vicky on 21 December 1840 the family spent their first Christmas together at Windsor Castle. Contrary to the popular belief that Albert introduced the first Christmas tree to Britain it was Queen Charlotte, wife of George III who started the tradition. But Albert changed the way the British public celebrated the festive season.

Christmas had been seen as a time for drinking and revelling with friends and lovers but Albert, a devoted father and in love with his wife, made the season a time to celebrate family. The royal tree, decorated with children in mind helped to change its significance as it became the focal point for family celebrations.

Images of the royal family standing around the Christmas tree would help spread Prince Albert’s vision of Christmas around the world and one associated with family and children rather than adults indulging in debauched excess. In 1843 the first Christmas card appeared followed by the introduction of the Christmas cracker in 1846.

Tragic price for a busy schedule

It is believed that the increasing pressure and stress suffered by Prince Albert due to his busy schedule undermined his health, causing him to suffer regular colds, chills, and crippling stomach pains. He would rise at five in the morning to deal with his workload until late at night. He described in a letter to his daughter Vicky that he was like ‘A treadmill donkey at Osborne’. Although finding solace in brief holidays in the Highlands with Queen Victoria and trips to their Isle of Wight villa Osborne House, Albert’s health continued to suffer.

By the late 1860s, Albert was mentally and physically drained. His obsession with work possibly led to his early demise. A walk in the rain in Cambridge with his wayward son Bertie further weakened him and he developed a raging fever at Windsor Castle. Despite doctors reassuring Victoria that her husband would recover, his condition worsened. He died aged 42 from typhoid fever. Speculation also suggested he may have died from renal failure, abdominal cancer, or complications from Crohn’s disease.

Forgotten legacy of Britain

Many of Albert’s achievements were quietly forgotten over the years while Queen Victoria took up the mantle of a Queen in mourning. Some of those achievements included modernising the British monarchy and British society itself. As a man who wanted to make things better his philanthropy and intellectual ambition resulted in seeing British science and technology to be recognised throughout the world. More importantly, he wanted ordinary British people to access it.