The Cult of the Prince Consort
Prince Albert: His Life and Work
Prince Albert: A Biography
Western monarchy is not merely, as Max Weber observed, institutionalized charisma: it is institutionalized male chauvinism as well. Whether priest or magician, philosopher or warrior, sovereigns are expected to be men, and in most cases they are. The Kingdom of Heaven is ruled by a God not a Goddess, and the Kingdom of the Jungle by a lion not a lioness (or by Tarzan not by Jane). In some countries, the Salic law made it impossible for women to accede to the throne, and even where it did not, women have always been severely disadvantaged in the succession stakes. If a king’s first child is a son, he is ipso facto heir apparent, and will accede automatically; but if the child is a daughter, she is merely heir presumptive, and will only accede if no son is subsequently born. A king is by definition king regnant, and his consort is therefore queen; but the husband of a queen regnant is not therefore king. And so, with inexorable if superficially paradoxical logic, it is always better to be the woman playing the role of the man (with correspondingly increased scope as queen regnant) than to be the man playing the role of the woman (with much diminished opportunities as prince consort). Kings usually reign, and queens occasionally rule: but gender always governs.
So being the husband of a regnant queen is even more of a non-job than being vice-president of the United States. To be so close to the presidency as to be only a heartbeat away from the White House is one thing; to be so near to the throne yet with no prospect of ever occupying it is quite another. And, since queens regnant are understandably unusual in Western history, their consorts are even rarer, and most inevitably live and die obscure. How many people, for instance, can name the husbands of Catherine the Great and Maria Theresa? Or know the male consorts of English regnant queens since the sixteenth century? Queen Elizabeth I preferred to execute her favorites rather than marry them; Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, was no more significant a figure in his day than Mr. Thatcher is in ours. Then there was Prince Albert; now there is the Duke of Edinburgh, whom the Queen has never created Prince Consort; and, since King Charles III and King William V are ready and waiting to reign, there will probably not be another male consort to a British regnant queen until the second half of the twenty-first century at the earliest.
Only because Albert is in competition with such pygmies does he appear a giant. For he was never a major figure in his own right. Like all male consorts, he had the wrong job for his sex, or the wrong sex for his job, and he was additionally hampered by being dead and gone at forty-two.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.