A prince among men: could Albert have changed the course of history?

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

Double identities have never been rare: Norman French conquered England. Anglo Irish led its armies to victory. German Jews helped create the modern world. Perhaps thinking of the many Germans living in London, and British in Hamburg, Munich and Dresden, Prince Albert’s eldest daughter Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, invented another hybrid: ‘Anglo-Germans’. This new biography of her adored father, Albert: The Man who Saved the Monarchy is, appropriately, an Anglo-German book, written from both English and German sources and perspectives, by an English author who knows Germany well.

Coburg in the heart of Germany, where Prince Albert was born in 1819, influenced him as much as England and Scotland, where he lived from his marriage to his first cousin Queen Victoria in 1840 until his early death at Windsor in 1861. Coburg was a prosperous duchy of 217 (later, with Gotha, 763) square miles, with great collections and schools (Prince Albert received an excellent education), and an army strong enough to compel a Hanoverian force to surrender in the war of 1866. In England and Scotland, Prince Albert often thought of Coburg. In one of the many unpublished letters A.N. Wilson has found in the Royal Archives, Prince Albert wrote to Vicky, also torn between two homelands, of his ‘painful yearning’ for Germany and a ‘sort of Dualism’, a ‘painful struggle, I might almost say spasm of the soul’ between his past and present selves.

Prince Albert never fully accepted Queen Victoria’s passionate intensity. ‘Deine weibchen, deine schlawin who loves you so indescribably much,’ as she called herself, could snap and scream at him. ‘Marital hell’ alternated with domestic bliss. She was not mad, but maddening. For his part her ‘angel’, her ‘master’, as she often called Prince Albert, was controlling and humourless. He would beg her to ‘regain control of yourself’, or reprimand her: ‘You have again lost your self control quite unnecessarily.’ Inevitably, he retreated into his work.

In addition to the dramas of the royal marriage, and of relations between Britain and Germany, the nature of constitutional monarchy dominates this book, as it did 19th-century Europe. The Coburgs rose to fame as a constitutional dynasty, with handsome princes who married well. Coburg had a constitution from 1821, long before Prussia or Austria. Albert and his adviser Baron Stockmar (Stocky to his friends) hoped to spread monarchies ‘in harmony with the wants and wishes of the people’ in Europe by means of Prince Albert’s cousins’ and children’s marriages. Prussia should become, as he wrote to King Wilhelm I, whose son Frederick had married Prince Albert’s daughter Vicky, ‘truly German and thoroughly liberal’. Before Bismarck came to power in 1862, the ‘and’ in that phrase seemed as natural as ‘but’ would later. If Germany had been united under Coburgs instead of Hohenzollerns, many lives might have been spared, and German might still be spoken in Breslau and Danzig.

At his coronation in Konigsberg in 1861, however, Wilhelm I, to Albert’s dismay, had proclaimed that he ruled by divine right. Prussia was already so full of soldiers that it seemed to an English visitor like an occupied country. A framework for the follies of Wilhelm II existed long before his accession in 1888.

Through the monarchy’s reserve powers, the wealth of the Duchy of Lancaster, their accumulation of experience, and Prince Albert’s compulsion to write memoranda and attend committees, he and his wife acquired more lasting influence on foreign policy, national culture, and the armed forces than many transient politicians. Prince Albert gave advice about subjects as various as the University of Cambridge, the kingdom of Portugal, the Schleswig-Holstein question, the creation of Sandhurst, and children’s education. International, interdisciplinary and industrious, he became what A.N. Wilson calls a one man civil and diplomatic service, a ‘civil servant in a coronet’.

The Industrial Revolution, as well as Prince Albert’s drive, increased the impact of monarchy. His most spectacular achievement was the Great Exhibition, showing ‘works of industry’ of ‘all nations’ in the Crystal Palace (six times the size of Saint Paul’s), which he organised in under two years: an antidote, if one were needed, to the vanity of the present. At its opening his wife heard ‘tremendous cheers’: he was more popular with the public than among courtiers. Its profits helped create the Royal Colleges of Music, Organists, Chemistry, and later the Victoria and Albert Museum (where a statue of Prince Albert in the entrance, celebrating his role in its creation, is long overdue). Author of books on the Victorians and Queen Victoria, Wilson sees Prince Albert not only in his European but also in his cultural contexts. Albert had a passion for designing, anything from labourers’ model houses to his wife’s sapphire tiara, and admired Tennyson. The Morte d’Arthur, it was said, could have been called the Morte d’Albert, who may have seen in King Arthur ‘something of himself’.

Royal influence, however, had limits. Even Lord Aberdeen, more pliant than Palmerston, placed what he called ‘the interest of Your Majesty’s service’ (i.e. government policy) before the Queen’s wishes. Lord Aberdeen suggested Balmoral as a royal retreat, not only to strengthen the monarchy’s ties to Scotland, but also, Wilson points out, because it was as far from Westminster as it was possible to be in mainland Britain. Geography would limit the potential for royal interference. If Victoria and Albert had been as influential as they wished, they might have prevented the pointless, press-driven Crimean war.

In this subtle, amusing, gripping biography the author’s belief that Prince Albert’s vision of a Europe of constitutional monarchies was ‘doomed to fail’ may not convince all his readers. Bismarck succeeded in his militarisation of Prussia and Germany due to the double blow of Wilhelm I’s longevity — he lived to 91 — and the death at the age of 57 of his liberal heir Frederick. If their life-spans had been different, Prussia might have become as liberal as other German monarchies.

Prince Albert developed an addiction for work ‘from which there was no escape’. Victoria complained that he was ‘overpowered by everything’, and stayed up late, ‘talking to too many people’. Never very strong, he suffered from sleeplessness, indigestion, rheumatism, finally Crohn’s disease, stomach cancer or both. At the end of this brilliant biography, it is hard not to weep for the death of the prince who had become ‘a leading light among the nations’, especially two nations that he had tried to make lasting friends, Britain and Germany.

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