Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort

by Susan Flantzer

NPG x24138; Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha by Vernon Heath, printed and published by Samuel E. Poulton

Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha by Vernon Heath, published by Samuel E. Poulton, albumen carte-de-visite, 1861 NPG x24138 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born at Schloss Rosenau near Coburg now in Bavaria, Germany on August 26, 1819. Albert was the second of the two sons of Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and his first wife Princess Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. Albert was christened with the German names Franz Albrecht August Karl Emanuel, but was called Albrecht, Albert in English. His godparents were:

Albert had one brother who was fourteen months older:

Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, with her children, Albert and Ernst; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Since Albert and Ernst were close in age, they were also close companions during their childhood. However, their childhood was marred by their parents’ disastrous marriage, separation, and divorce. Albert’s mother and father were very different and drifted apart soon after Albert’s birth. Albert’s father was a notorious womanizer and as a result, his young wife Louise (who was 17 years younger than her husband) sought consolation with Baron Alexander von Hanstein, who was the Duke’s equerry. Louise was exiled from court in 1824 and divorced in March of 1826. Seven months later, Louise secretly married von Hanstein. She died in 1831 at the age of 30 from cancer of the uterus. After Louise’s exile from court in 1824, it is probable that she never saw her sons again. In 1831, the Duke married again to Duchess Marie of Württemberg, his niece who was the daughter of his sister Antoinette. The Duke and Marie had no children, but Marie had a good relationship with her stepsons (who were also her first cousins) and maintained a correspondence with Albert throughout their lives.

Albert was first educated at home by a caring tutor, Johann Christoph Florschütz, who had a lifelong correspondence with Albert. Albert then studied with private tutors in Brussels, Belgium (where his paternal uncle was King Leopold I of the Belgians) and then studied at the University of Bonn, which many German princes attended. While at the University of Bonn, Albert studied law, political economy, philosophy, and art history. In his free time, he played music and excelled in gymnastics, fencing, and riding.

The Coburg family had strong ties to the British royal family. Albert’s uncle Leopold (the previously mentioned King of the Belgians) had married Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only child of King George IV, who had died in childbirth. His aunt Victoria had married King George III’s son, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and was the mother of the future Queen Victoria. Plans for a possible marriage between first cousins Victoria and Albert had first been mentioned by their grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg in letters to her daughter the Duchess of Kent in 1821. The idea was later taken up by their uncle Leopold.

In 1836, the cousins met for the first time when Ernst and Albert were taken by their father on a visit to England. Seventeen-year-old Victoria seemed instantly infatuated with Albert. She wrote to her uncle Leopold, “How delighted I am with him, and how much I like him in every way. He possesses every quality that could be desired to make me perfectly happy.” In October of 1839, Albert and Ernst again visited England, staying at Windsor Castle with Victoria, who was now Queen. On October 15, 1839, the 20-year-old monarch summoned her cousin Albert and proposed to him. Albert accepted, but wrote to his stepmother Marie, “My future position will have its dark sides, and the sky will not always be blue and unclouded.” The couple was married in the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace on February 10, 1840 at 1 p.m. Traditionally, royal weddings took place at night, but this wedding was held during the day so the Queen’s subjects could see the couple as they traveled down The Mall from Buckingham Palace.
Unofficial Royalty: Wedding of Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

NPG D11227; The Bridal Morn (Queen Victoria; Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) by Samuel William Reynolds Jr, after Frederick William Lock

The Bridal Morn (Queen Victoria; Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) by Samuel William Reynolds Jr, after Frederick William Lock, mezzotint, published 1844 NPG D11227 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Shortly after his marriage, Albert wrote to a friend, “I am only the husband and not the master in my house.” Albert was expected to be ready at a moment’s notice to go to his new wife to read aloud, play the piano, be petted, or blot her signature. Victoria was delighted to parade Albert before her court and, as she confided to her diary, to have him put her stockings on her feet. It was during Victoria’s early pregnancies that Albert showed a talent for diplomatic dealings with her ministers and an ability to understand complex government documents. Soon Albert was dealing with more and more of Victoria’s governmental duties and they worked with their desks side by side. As Albert’s influence over Victoria grew, she began to defer to him on every issue.

Victoria was quite temperamental and had a strong sexuality which Albert apparently met, as evidenced by the birth of nine children. Albert was somewhat prudish and his high moral standards would never allow extramarital affairs. He found marriage to Victoria a full-time job which exhausted him physically and mentally. Victoria rewarded Albert by creating him Prince Consort in 1857.

All of Victoria and Albert’s nine children grew to adulthood. However, their youngest son, Leopold, was afflicted with the genetic blood clotting disease hemophilia and two of their daughters, Alice and Beatrice, were hemophilia carriers.
Unofficial Royalty: Hemophilia in Queen Victoria’s Family

Victoria and Albert’s children and grandchildren married into other European royal families giving Victoria the unofficial title of “Grandmother of Europe.” Their grandchildren sat upon the thrones of Germany/Prussia, Greece, Norway, Romania, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom as monarchs or consorts. Through these marriages, Victoria and Albert’s daughters and granddaughters transmitted the genetic disease hemophilia into other royal families. Victoria and Albert’s descendants currently sit upon the thrones of Denmark, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Unofficial Royalty: Queen Victoria’s Children and Grandchildren

Victoria and Albert and their nine children in 1857; Photo Credit – Wikipedia

Victoria and Albert, whose primary residences were Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, felt they needed residences of their very own. Albert’s architectural talents are evident in the seaside Italian style palace Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and in Balmoral, a castle in the Scottish highlands. Osborne and Balmoral became their favorite homes. Following Victoria’s death, Osborne was given to the state and served as a Royal Navy training college from 1903-1921. Today it is open to the public as a home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Balmoral Castle remains the private property of the monarch and is used by the British Royal Family for their summer holidays.
English Heritage: Osborne House
Official Website: Balmoral Castle and Estate

View image | gettyimages.com Balmoral Castle in 1854

 

Besides helping Victoria privately with her paperwork, Prince Albert took on a number of public roles. He became President of the Society for the Extinction of Slavery. Slavery had already been abolished throughout the British Empire, but was still legal in a number of places including the United States and the French colonies. After being appointed Chancellor of Cambridge University, Albert was able to have the curriculum modified to include modern history and the natural sciences in addition to the traditional mathematics and classics.

Albert’s interest in applying science and art to the manufacturing industry led to the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Prince Albert, along with Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant and an inventor, organized the exhibition. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the exhibition allowed countries to show their modern and technological achievements. Queen Victoria opened the exhibition in a specially designed glass building known as the Crystal Palace on May 1, 1851. It was a huge success and a surplus of £180,000 was used to purchase land in South Kensington, London on which was established educational and cultural institutions, including what would later be the Victoria and Albert Museum.

NPG D16397; The Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. Plate 2. The Foreign Nave by Joseph Nash

The Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. Plate 2. The Foreign Nave by Joseph Nash, hand-coloured lithograph, published 1851, NPG D16397 © National Portrait Gallery, London

After years of mismanagement by the previous Hanover monarchs, Albert managed to modernize the royal finances and investments, and under his watch, the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall, the hereditary property of the Prince of Wales, steadily increased. Today’s British royal family can thank Prince Albert for their financial situation.

On March 16, 1861, Queen Victoria’s mother died. Because of Victoria’s grief, Albert took over many of her duties despite the fact that he was chronically suffering from stomach problems. In the fall, Victoria and Albert learned that their 20-year-old eldest son Bertie (the future King Edward VII) was having an affair with an Irish actress. Devastated by this news, Albert traveled to Cambridge to discuss the matter with his son. On November 25, 1861, the two walked together in the pouring rain while Albert explained how horrified he and the Queen felt about the situation. Victoria later blamed her son for Albert’s final illness – “That boy…I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder.”

When Albert returned to Windsor Castle, he complained of shoulder, leg, back, and stomach pain and could not eat or sleep. He was examined by doctors who assured Victoria that Albert would be better in two or three days. Even while Albert was feeling ill, he was still working. When the Trent Affair, the forcible removal of Confederate diplomats from a British ship by Union forces during the American Civil War, threatened war between the United States and United Kingdom, Albert intervened on November 30, 1861 to soften the British diplomatic response. His action probably prevented war between the United States and the United Kingdom.

However, Albert’s condition continued to worsen. Victoria continued to hope for a recovery, but finally, on December 11, the doctors told her the dismal prognosis. At 10:50 PM on December 14, 1861, Albert died in the presence of his wife and five of their nine children.

Sir William Jenner, one of Prince Albert’s doctors, diagnosed his final illness as typhoid fever, but Albert’s modern biographers have argued that the diagnosis is incorrect. Albert had been complaining of stomach pains for two years and this may indicate that he died of some chronic disease, perhaps Crohn’s disease, kidney failure, or cancer.

L0021975 The last moments of HRH the Prince Consort.

The last moments of HRH the Prince Consort, Photo Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Left a widow with nine children at the age of 42, the Queen’s grief was immense. She withdrew from public life and wore black for the 40 years that she survived Albert. The Blue Room in Windsor Castle where Albert had died was kept as it had been when he was alive, complete with hot water brought in the morning, and linen and towels changed daily. Among themselves, Queen Victoria’s family called December 14 “Mausoleum Day.” They were expected to attend the annual memorial service in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore where Albert was buried. After her death on January 22, 1901 at the age of 81, Victoria was interred alongside her beloved Albert in the Royal Mausoleum.

Tomb of Victoria and Albert; Photo Credit – findagrave.com, Scott Michaels

Wikipedia: Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prince Consort

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