Prince Albert
Prince Albert; drawing by David Levine

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. Queen Victoria lived for twenty years before she married him, and reigned for another forty after he died. His period of influence—their time of married bliss—was a mere two decades, far too short a span for achieving much in public life, compared with figures like Palmerston, Gladstone, or the Queen herself, who were on the stage of history for sixty years and more. And yet, as Mrs. Thatcher selectively celebrates Victorian values, Albertian attitudes resurface too. The 165th anniversary of his birth, and the 123rd anniversary of his death, are not immediately obvious dates for commemoration. But in England during the last few months there has been a mild outbreak of orchestrated Albertomania. He has been the subject of an elaborate and much-publicized exhibition in London; the three books under review have been published, and have received great attention in the press. There have been Albert weekends, Albert lectures, and Albert concerts; and he has even found himself acclaimed as “a man comparable to Thomas Jefferson.”

As this fanciful and flattering comparison implies, the quest for the historical Albert is far from easy, and far from finished. He had such an elusive personality, and appeared in so many different guises, that one biography is never adequate, and all biographies are never enough. There is, to begin with, Albert in life: the flesh-and-blood being, who was adored by the queen but regarded with hostility or indifference by most of her subjects for most of his life. Then there is Albert in death: the sculptured statue and sepulchered saint, glimpsed tremulously through a veritable Niagara of Victorian (or, rather, Victoria’s) tears. And there is Albert in myth: the constitutional paragon who, with a prescience only visible in hindsight, steered the silly and adolescent queen away from the snares and follies of political partisanship into the righteous paths of detachment and impartiality by preaching the gospel of Walter Bagehot before he had even written it. One difficulty with most biographies of Albert is that they are never completely clear which of these three subjects they are concerned with. Another is that they do not consider other, and perhaps more fruitful, ways of evaluating him. The three most recent studies of the Prince Consort well illustrate both the strengths and the shortcomings of the biographical method of writing royal history.

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Robert Rhodes James’s life of Albert is presented as a personal and political portrait of the man in his times. Like Albert’s previous biographers, he is ultimately defeated in his quest for the real, inner Albert, because most of his personal papers were destroyed. But he does present him (and also, on occasion, his wife) as a more credible human being, more flawed yet also more attractive, than he has ever appeared before. He shows, for instance, how the prince’s upbringing in Germany, in the shadows of his profligate and promiscuous father and elder brother, left him in constant fear of family scandal. He gives an impressive account of the young Albert’s rigorous education, at The Rosenau and at Bonn University. He offers a candidly critical catalog of the young Victoria’s failings: she was prejudiced, emotional, intolerant, unintellectual, artless, unimaginative, ungrateful, cold, and arrogant. He paints a tender and moving picture of their storm-clouds-and-sunshine marriage, one of the great romances of history. And he provides the most detailed description yet of the upbringing and education of their eldest son, the Prince of Wales, an episode from which neither Albert nor Victoria emerges with much credit.

Rhodes James also illustrates well the problems that the Prince Consort faced as a man trying to do a woman’s job, when what he really wanted was a male role. At the time of Albert’s wedding, his uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians, warned the British prime minister Lord Melbourne that “the position of a husband of a Queen, who reigns in her own right, is a position of the greatest difficulty for any person and at any time,” and in his early years Albert certainly found it to be so. Victoria, who was understandably intimidated by his trained and powerful intellect, tried to keep him at a distance, by hiding behind Melbourne and Baroness Lehzen, her governess. He was forced to have his household chosen for him by the queen and her prime minister; she explicitly stated that he must play no part in politics; and she banned him from being present at her audiences with ministers. His arms were quartered with the royal arms in the inferior position, as if he were a woman; he was not given a British peerage; and he was only formally created Prince Consort in 1857. When he protested that their honeymoon at Windsor was too short, she replied imperiously, “You forget, my dearest love, that I am the sovereign, and that business can stop and wait for nothing.” As Albert summarized it despondently, “I am only the husband, not the master, in the house.”

For a man of his gifts, training, and ambitions, this was highly frustrating. But the demise of the Melbourne ministry, the departure of Lehzen, and the fact that throughout the 1840s Victoria was pregnant almost as much as she was regnant enabled Albert to establish himself as her indispensable guide and confidential adviser, working with his desk beside hers, drafting her official letters, and seeing ministers, either in her company or on his own.

All this is well enough known, but Rhodes James goes much further than any previous biographer in showing the awesome ambitions which Albert entertained, not for himself personally, but for the monarchy as an institution. Far from training Victoria to be an impartial and impotent sovereign, as is still popularly supposed, Albert’s “dominant purpose was not to reduce, but significantly to increase, the real power and influence of the Crown.” Hence his highly publicized and partisan support of Peel, who believed in executive government as strongly as he did, and his equally emphatic hostility to Palmerston, not only on account of his wayward morals, but also because he sought to deny Albert’s claim to a major part in the making and conduct of foreign policy. For the Prince Consort, the crown should occupy a central, creative part in the work of running the country: its duty and purpose were no less than to “watch and control government.” Clearly Albert was playing for very high stakes indeed.

But, of course, it never really worked. As Rhodes James rightly notes, Albert was intent upon “the maximum of political influence with the minimum of criticism,” something which any seasoned politician would have told him was impossible. From the very start, he received a bad press, and throughout his life influential journals like Punch and The Times remained hostile. At the time of the wedding he was pilloried as a poor and lowly foreigner on the make. He made no friends, never understood the English character, and remained, on his own admission, “a true German.” He was too intellectual, too cosmopolitan, too earnest, too bourgeois, to establish a rapport with the public. He never really grasped English party politics, and overrated his position vis-à-vis the crown, and Victoria’s position vis-à-vis her ministers. He suffered for supporting Peel too strongly, and his opposition to Palmerston, “the minister of England,” only made his patriotism seem even more suspect. He meddled too much, delegated too little, and worked too hard, given his weak physical frame. He cried too easily as a boy, tired too easily as a man, and died too easily as a prince. Unlike Victoria, he lacked the will to live. When the going got tough, she got harder, but he got softer; and in the end he got so soft that he dissolved completely.

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Such is Rhodes James’s Albert: convincing yet incomplete. The book is curiously uneven in its coverage, giving too much space to the young Albert, and far too little to the 1850s, the decade which, Rhodes James suggests, saw Albert’s influence at its greatest. Yet it is hard to be sure of this, especially when it appears that the author has not consulted the numerous and weighty papers of the leading politicians of the time. The result is not merely a rather claustrophobic account, excessively dependent on the royal archives, but one that makes it impossible to assess Albert’s real importance in the political life of the country. He may have thought he was influential; but what did the politicians think? The book also suffers because the author has clearly not absorbed much of the recent work on the 1840s and 1850s: a biography that cites such antique authorities as H.A.L. Fisher, A.C. Benson, and Justin McCarthy can hardly be said to be at the cutting edge of modern historical scholarship. The prose is occasionally orotund to the point of flatulence; the lack of genealogical tables makes Albert’s ancestors and relatives hard to place; and the citations to the royal archives are so vague as to be all but useless to scholars.

More fundamentally, the three major claims that Rhodes James advances on behalf of Albert are contradicted by much of the evidence he actually presents. He suggests, for instance, that the Prince Consort was “the most astute and ambitious politician of his age.” But this is mere hyperbole: all too often, Albert was wrong in judgment, mistaken in understanding, and defeated in maneuver. And to claim that he had “to deal with men of power whose knowledge, experience, and intelligence were often inferior to his” ignores both his own youth and naiveté and the heavyweight accomplishments of men like Peel, Palmerston, Russell, and Derby. Secondly, Rhodes James argues that Albert “established the principles of political neutrality,” of “genuine impartiality,” and brought the monarchy much popularity as a result. Yet much of the novelty of his book derives from the overwhelming amount of material he deploys that points in the opposite direction. Finally, he frequently describes Albert as England’s answer to Jefferson. But one has only to compare Osborne with Monticello to see the difference between an earnest bourgeois plodder and an inspired Enlightenment genius.

To make such invidious comparisons only does Albert harm: for while he was no Jefferson, he was, more modestly, an uncommonly gifted prince. That fact emerges with impressive conviction from Hermione Hobhouse’s study, which nicely complements Rhodes James’s book. As a biographer and member of Parliament, he is naturally strongest on politics and personalities; as a former secretary of the Victorian Society and author of a major study of Thomas Cubitt, she is much more interested in “Prince Albert’s work for education, art and science.” Her well-illustrated and extensively researched book is ostensibly the catalog to the Albert Exhibition at the Royal College of Art in London, which has recently closed. But in fact it is a major study in its own right: the fullest and most sympathetic account of Albert’s multifarious activities that we are ever likely to get. Without doubt, Albert was the most compassionate, gifted, versatile, intellectual, and well-educated figure that the British royal family has either produced or recruited during the last two hundred years. Of course, the competition is not strong; but the Prince, Consort’s range of activities, concern for the poor, delight in the company of intellectuals, and genuine interest in the arts and sciences were certainly of an unsurpassed high order.

Like that of the exhibition, the purpose of Hobhouse’s book is to convey “the full range of Albert’s contribution to British national life.” And so it does. He was instrumental in the buying and building of Osborne and Balmoral; he suggested a new suite of entertaining rooms at Buckingham Palace, as well as the Mall frontage; and he nearly (but, alas, not quite) made the drains run on time at Windsor. He composed songs and sacred music, and was a competent sketcher and etcher; he patronized Winterhalter and Landseer and collected early German and Italian paintings. He ran model farms at Windsor and Balmoral, and exhibited his livestock at shows throughout the country. He rode to hounds with skill and verve, and was a competent shot. He believed in better housing for the workers, better education at Cambridge University (of which he was chancellor), and better weapons for the army. He was president or chairman of innumerable societies; he chaired one Royal Commission charged with the decoration of the Houses of Parliament; and he chaired another that planned the Great Exhibition of 1851. And all this was only in his spare time, in those odd moments of respite from the treadmill of public engagements and official correspondence.

As a picture of a gifted and humane man, driven by duty and conscience to do good works, Hobhouse’s book is vividly convincing. Once again, however, the real Albert, the man himself, is suffocated beneath the weight of worthy endeavor. And, although the author’s mastery of Victorian culture and artifacts is predictably impressive, she is less surefooted when she writes of Albert the politician. Certainly, her claim that the Prince Consort’s “greatest contribution to the history of England was indubitably the way in which he established the idea of a monarchy above party politics” is not borne out in Rhodes James’s book (even though in some moods he also thinks it is).

Above all, it still remains unclear just how important Albert’s contribution to English life really was. Of course it was many-sided; but was it really significant? His interest in working-class housing, for instance, made little real impact; his army reforms were at best “discreet but significant,” and at worst, as in the case of his design of new headgear, merely a nuisance; the Royal Commission responsible for the decoration of the Palace of Westminster was hardly a success; and “Albertopolis,” the South Kensington complex of museums and colleges, is more a monument to him than of him. Even the Great Exhibition was far from being a single-handed, Albertian triumph: it was not his idea in the first place; the Crystal Palace was Paxton’s creation; and Albert’s conception of the exhibition as a monument to peace and internationalism was not how it was seen by the mass of the people.

For all his earnest and ambitious versatility, Albert was never really popular in life and, despite the title of Darby and Smith’s fascinating and well-produced book, it is not clear that he was ever really popular in death, either. Of course, there was an immediate outpouring of spontaneous and guilty grief—guilt because Albert’s qualities had so rarely been acclaimed in life, and grief because the Victorians grieved easily and publicly, especially over untimely death. But more measured commemoration of Albert was lukewarm, limited, and unsuccessful. Only twenty-five statues to him were put up throughout Britain and the empire, and they were no better at capturing the real Albert than any of his subsequent biographers have been. He was depicted as a soldier despite the fact that he was a man of peace; in medieval costume even though he was in many ways a quintessentially contemporary person; as a religious figure, when faith meant little to him; and floundering beneath yards of robes and decorations, although his life was characterized by earnestness and simplicity. In some towns, commemorative schemes were held up or abandoned through lack of money, and in others, where monuments took the more utilitarian form of institutes, hospitals, clocks, fountains, and almshouses, the association with Albert was soon completely forgotten.

Considering the pathos of his early death, the Victorians’ addiction to heroes, and their incorrigible inclination toward sentimentality, it is really the lack of a cult of the prince that is most impressive. But if the British people refused to make him a saint, the Queen certainly did. She clung to her grief with reclusive and lifelong tenacity; she surrounded Albert’s sacred memory with the full panoply of relics, shrines, and holy days; she wanted all future kings of England to be called Albert to the end of time; and she commissioned numerous statues, busts, and paintings. But even her more public projects—at Frogmore, in the Albert Memorial Chapel at Windsor, and the Albert Memorial itself at Kensington—were not entirely successful. There were constant wrangles over money, designs, and architects; there was much architectural criticism of Frogmore and the Albert Memorial. None of these schemes was completed until the 1870s; and they never became places of popular pilgrimage. Indeed, by the time of her own apotheosis at her golden and diamond jubilees, Albert had long since been forgotten. She may have made a saint out of him; but it was the British people who made a saint out of her.

Oddly enough, then, the result of all this positive interest in the Prince Consort is largely negative so far as his reputation is concerned. Of course, he was, as he set out to be, a “good and useful man,” and each of these books eloquently illustrates that in one way or another. But, like most biographers, these authors advance additional claims for the importance of their subject’s life, the significance of his death, and the magnitude of his achievements, which are contradicted by much of the evidence they present. For, pace Rhodes James, Albert was no Jefferson; pace Hobhouse, he was not the architect of constitutional monarchy; pace Darby and Smith, there was no posthumous cult; and pace everybody, he was never really popular. Significantly, it has proved no easier to establish a cult of Albert in the 1980s than it did in the 1860s: the exhibition devoted to his life and work which has recently closed in London “spectacularly failed to interest the British public,” and lost its sponsors a great deal of money.

The common failing of all biographers of Albert is that, sooner or later, they never can resist the temptation to present him as the precursor of the modern British monarchy when in fact, as the public’s indifference to him today only serves to show, he was a world away from the impotent and glamorous soap opera it has since become. What we really need are some nonbiographical studies of Albert, which get his life and works in a more rigorous and realistic historical perspective, showing that he was more the end of an old style of monarchy than he was the beginning of a new. For in more ways than not, Albert left no legacy at all: he was the end of the line. There were no successors to the 1851 exhibition’s spirit of peace and internationalism. He left the queen with no textbook training in the trade of impartial sovereign. The education he devised for his son was rejected, which was perhaps just as well, for by the time he acceded to the throne, the job was so much diminished that such an intellectual training was quite unnecessary. By contrast, the role that Albert had wanted for the monarchy was fundamental, rather than ornamental, and most developments since his death would have caused him displeasure and regret. For he was more interested in emulating William III than in anticipating someone like the Duke of Edinburgh. Victoria may have been the first constitutional monarch; but Albert was the last philosopher king.


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This Issue

November 8, 1984