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Features

Prince of progress

Prince Albert, who died 150 years ago this month, was a far more interesting figure than his pompous monuments suggest

10 December 2011

3:00 PM

10 December 2011

3:00 PM

The tragedy of Prince Albert was not that he died at the age of forty-two 150 years ago this month, but that his quick-tempered and lusty Hanoverian wife loved him too well. Queen Victoria’s orgiastic response to widowhood — her determination through four decades of sorrowful singledom never again to be amused — kicked over the traces of the real Albert and replaced him with that earnest-looking paragon who stares cheerlessly at pigeons and commuters alike from some 20 or so heavyweight sculptures and monuments scattered across the British Isles.

Victoria’s grief was elemental: ‘My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!’ So absolute was her absorption in her suffering that it became her raison d’être. It was a form of hysteria, a glorious mummery rooted partly in sadness, partly in selfishness. It sought to create a saint from a man whose lodestar was rationality. In the long term it succeeded in robbing the posthumous Albert of the very qualities that once had set the Queen’s heart aflutter, replacing the armour-clad Byronic Lohengrin painted in 1844 by Robert Thorburn with an image as heavy, dark and immovable as the Widow of Windsor herself.

Perhaps it was only appropriate. Albert’s life was a considered flit from flightiness. As an 11-year-old boy, he confided to his diary, ‘I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man’, a motto better suited to a missionary than one whose chief purpose would be the siring of royal heirs. He attained his lofty end by marrying the most eligible woman on earth, who also happened to be his cousin. Marriage removed him from the corrupting influence of his loose-living father, Ernest of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, described by the Literary Gazette in 1823 as ‘a not overwise sort of personage’ on account of his weakness for kiss-and-tell courtesans, and his beloved brother, another Ernest, whose rakishness would soon match that of the boys’ father.

In Britain, Albert was cold-shouldered by an aristocracy hellbent on fornication and foxhunting, and his bride’s family, precious about precedent, were unwilling to yield place to this impecunious Teutonic killjoy. Albert positively shuddered at the recent history of Victoria’s family, annals of madness and badness, beginning with George III and ending in the rouged cheeks of the Prince Regent and the crinkly décolletages of his numerous pneumatic mistresses. Albert reformed corruption in the running of the Royal Household. At a more profound level, he reformed the royal house itself. For her part, Victoria, still her own woman, succumbed to Albert’s good looks more than his good intentions: at the sight of him she described her heart as ‘quite going’. Happily for husband and wife, parents ultimately of nine children, it would continue to ‘go’ for the next 22 years. In December 1861, the abrupt withdrawal of the physical expressions of love was among sources of the Queen’s sadness: ‘I long so to cling to and clasp a loving being.’

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Neither Albert nor Victoria had enjoyed a happy childhood. Baby Victoria was only eight months old when her father died, Albert a child of five when his mother was banished from court as a result of a flirtation with an army officer. Both idealised a concept of family life to which they were strangers. Their very public espousal of domestic bliss was an exercise in wish-fulfilment.

In creating the perfect family, Albert also created for himself a sphere of influence in which, denied any formal public role, he could at last be king of the castle. An early champion of photography, he was pictured seated while Victoria stooped over him. Given her position as sovereign, it was monochrome iconoclasm of a radical variety. In time, Albert commissioned from ­Winterhalter portraits of the Queen with her babies. In one such image, of Victoria with her third son Arthur, the composition suggests religious iconography inspired by early paintings of the Virgin and Child, the ultimate family enlisted in the service of Albert’s rebranding exercise. With no false modesty about the eminence of her position, Victoria was happy to play along.

For his part, Albert built stage sets for his pantomime of family piety: Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral in the Highlands. These purpose-built holiday homes formed a royal Neverland but no one questioned the veracity of the illusion. That several of the couple’s children were miserably unhappy, unable to meet Albert’s exacting standards, scarcely mattered: what mattered was to escape the past and whitewash the present.

Albert’s doctrine was progress and for this he deserves our continuing gratitude. Victoria was a child of the Regency: at the outset of her reign, her enclosed world of courtiers and coteries venal in their motives would not have felt alien to her Tudor forebears. It was Albert who forcibly expressed to Victoria the limits of her position and the constraints of constitutional monarchy. The Queen never quite got it: an assiduous bureaucrat, she was also a compulsive meddler who expected her ministers to humour her whim of iron. But thanks to Albert she came closer to that model of impartiality which we acclaim as a crowning glory of Britain’s throne.

In place of political power, Albert diverted royal patronage to art, science, music and literature. He even entered grubby regions of industry and manufacturing. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations may not have been the Prince’s idea, but he was conspicuous in throwing his weight behind it. When the exhibition closed in October 1851, having netted profits equivalent to almost £20 million, there was enough money to contemplate creating in South Kensington a decidedly un-English cultural quarter, in which his name survives in a museum and concert hall.

‘No human power will make me swerve from what he decided and wished,’ Victoria wrote in December 1861. And none did. The Queen reserved to herself interpretation of Albert’s decisions and wishes. It was a policy which suited her. But it was not the whole story.

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