By: Victoria Yates
Albert Francis Charles Augustus Emmanuel of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born in Schloss Rosenau, Bavaria, on the 26th of August 1819, the second son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. The boys had a difficult time in their early years thanks to the turbulent marriage of his parents which ended when, in 1826, the Duke divorced his mother on the grounds of adultery. He exiled her to Switzerland and forbade her from having any further contact with her children. She died of cancer at age 30 in 1831, the year after which the Duke married his own niece, a relatively unsuccessful union.
The boys were privately tutored and, as with most German princes of his time, Albert then went on to the University of Bonn where he studied law, philosophy, art history, and political economy. Beyond the classroom he excelled in fencing, riding, and music. It was Albert’s ambitious Uncle Leopold, the King of the Belgians, who would first set in motion the idea of a union between Albert and his cousin Victoria.
Through Victoria’s mother (Leopold’s sister), it was arranged that the brothers would visit in 1836. But they were not the only suitors paraded for the young Victoria, and indeed her Uncle the King was against any such match. Despite this, Victoria & Albert seem to have relatively quickly fallen for one another, and although lacking in formality a marriage was assumed to be in the making. The following year, 1837, Victoria became Queen at the age of 20, but still she resisted attempts to be forced into a marriage. It wasn’t until two years later that she would propose to Albert, marrying him on the 10th of February 1840.
It was not initially a popular union. Many felt Albert to be from an impoverished strand of the family and Parliament were reticent to deal with Albert as Victoria saw fitting. The Prime Minister advised the Queen against allowing her husband the title King Consort, and Parliament refused to grant him peerage to further limit his political role; he wouldn’t receive his official title of Prince Consort until 1857. Shortly after the marriage Victoria became pregnant.
Albert began taking on public roles including the Presidency of the Society for the Extinction of Slavery which, although abolished in the British Empire continued in areas such as America and France. Despite his practical approach and penchant for activism his role as an advisor to Victoria didn’t fully come into effect until the death of the Prime Minister, and her confidante, Lord Melbourne. He took on the job of private secretary to the Queen and is widely accredited with driving his wife’s interest in social welfare, encouraging visitations of factories and bringing forward issues such as child labor law.
Outside of policy he was also a huge force in cultural matters, being elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1847. Albert used the post to reform the university curriculum, modernizing the system by expanding the subjects beyond the most strictly classical to include more modern history and natural science. He was also hugely critical in the maintenance of the Royal house’s financial affairs, modernizing and improving the family’s estates. It was Albert’s decision to take out a lease on Balmoral Castle, a much cherished home for the Royal family to this day.
A passionate fan of the arts both privately as a collector and as an intellectual, Albert also masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851. This was held in Hyde Park in a specially designed glass building known as the Crystal Palace. It was a project that met near constant criticism but which Albert tirelessly worked towards. His great love was in applying science and art to manufacturing, and he felt the exhibition would only boost British industry.
The exhibition proved to be a runaway success; it was the first time that such items were readily viewable to any member of the public where before they were the domain of private collectors. The Exhibition took hold in the British imagination. In total the event raised more than £180,000, which went into purchasing land and creating cultural and educational institutions. These included what we would now know as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the base of whose collection came from the Great Exhibition.
Besides furthering his liberal ideologies and desire for a better and modernized England he remained a pillar for his family, hugely involved (unusually so for a man of his time) in the upbringing of his children. Albert showed himself to be devoted and enthusiastic. With Victoria he had nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood, and came to marry into some of the most influential royal houses in Europe.
In 1861 Victoria’s mother died and in her intense grief Albert took on many of the Queen’s responsibilities despite suffering from chronic stomach ailments. Even in his gravely ill state he remained a powerful and active statesman, intervening in growing tensions with the United States. In December he was diagnosed with Typhoid fever, dying on the 14th of December 1861 surrounded by family at Windsor Castle. The death devastated the Queen who went on to wear black in mourning for the rest of her life and who had Albert’s rooms preserved exactly as they had been.
Albert’s breadth of interest and influence spawns the most pressing political concerns of the day, to the advancement of the burgeoning scientific world, to the maintenance and appreciation of the arts. He led the way on numerous causes close to his heart throughout his short life, and was intrinsic in helping create the Queen’s vision of England and the monarchy. Few have worked so tirelessly to shape the world they see for the better in so many varied arenas. And few have had such a lasting and palpable impact.