A German man by ethnicity and by birth, Prince Albert was born in the Saxon ducal holding of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, which existed within the grander realm of the German Confederation. The family from which Albert, Prince Consort was descended was large and extensive; the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha family had various members installed as monarchs throughout Europe – one being Queen Victoria herself. Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were first cousins: their parents were siblings. His wife ruled Great Britain from 1837-1901; the second-longest of any British sovereign surpassed only by her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth (r. 1952-present.)
When Albert Became Prince Albert
Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840, three years into her reign. Seeing as royal custom prevented a reigning monarch from being proposed to, Victoria proposed to her future husband herself. The couple had met as early as 1836 and pursued a four-year courtship after being introduced by their mutual uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (r. 1831-1865.)
Though the Queen herself was ethnically German, Prince Albert’s ethnicity was met with a degree of abrasiveness from the British public. Legally, a monarch’s spouse serves as a consort rather than being bestowed full monarchic power upon marriage. Historically, there have been several Prince Consorts in the British monarchy, another example being Prince Philip, husband of reigning Queen Elizabeth I. He has, however, been granted the legal title of Prince rather than Prince Consort. Despite his titular barring, Prince Albert managed to operate to his fullest extent for his family.
Parliamentary skepticism of the Prince resulted in his first seventeen years of marriage being legally barred by the mere title of Prince. In 1857 Victoria granted her husband the title of Prince Consort, though it was a symbolic gesture and title. Despite his marriage to the Queen and the de facto influence that came with it, Prince Albert was never granted any legal power de jure.
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Albert, Prince Consort, was criticized for being a German, for the branch of Protestantism he practiced, and for coming from a small insignificant state by comparison to the British Empire – all this frustrated the Prince.
Albert’s Impact On British Politics
Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, died in 1820 when the future Queen was in infancy. At the time, politics were a male-dominated phenomenon. The Queen lacked a male role model both at home and in her understanding of public political life, a void that Lord Melbourne would eventually fill.
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, served as the Prime Minister of Great Britain under Victoria from 1835 to 1841. He would play a massive role and political influence on the young Queen, who took the throne at just eighteen years old. Lord Melbourne led the left-leaning Whig Party, which dominated British parliament and political discourse for most of the nineteenth century. The party would eventually form a coalition that would become the contemporary British Liberal Party.
The Queen and the Prime Minister enjoyed a very close relationship, much like a father and a daughter. Having lost her father at such a young age, the young Queen was significantly impacted by Lord Melbourne’s tutorship. Their close relationship cultivated rumors of a budding romance between the two, the Prime Minister being forty years the Queen’s senior, though they were likely unfounded.
In 1841, Lord Melbourne’s Whigs had lost the general election to Parliament, and Victoria had been married for a year. The Queen’s ear and companionship quickly fell to her new husband, with whom she was infatuated, and her relationship with the former Prime Minister dwindled.
The political contrast between the two men is rooted in their compassion for the less fortunate, in which the Prince greatly surpassed the Prime Minister. Though he did not feel very welcomed, the Prince evidently had the Queen’s ear – a position more powerful than any title.
The Royal Couple
Victoria and Albert’s marriage produced nine children, all of whom survived into adulthood: remarkably rare for the era. Victoria’s fertility proved immeasurable for the British Empire. She famously married all of her children (and subsequent grandchildren) into various royal families throughout Europe – some related to Victoria and some not. This was not an uncommon practice. European nobility wanted to keep royal blood royal.
In addition to fathering nine children, Prince Albert had a presence in British public life. The Prince not only held massive influence over his bride by helping her with private government paperwork but also began to sway public opinion in his favor. In 1840, Parliament passed the Regency Act designating the Prince as acting sovereign in the event of the Queen’s death prior to one of their children turning eighteen. In turn, Albert began to issue his influence over the royal family, establishing a legacy that echoes to this day.
In 1841, the general election which ousted Lord Melbourne in favor of a Conservative government placed Prince Albert in charge of an ad-hoc Royal Commission. This authority allowed Albert to bring his enlightened ideals into fruition by promoting fine art and eventually an exhibition in 1851.
Albert’s capable performance in overseeing the Royal Commission catapulted his public career. Various attempts on his life (alongside the Queen) also yielded an elevated public opinion of the couple.
The Role Of Albert, Prince Consort
Albert’s first show of competence came when he re-aligned the royal family’s financial portfolio. In 1844, Prince Albert organized enough funds to purchase the Osborne House in the Isle of Wight as a personal private residence of the family of the crown. As a private estate and landowner, Albert’s progressive and forward-thinking made him abhor cheap child labor and encourage free trade.
Prince Albert was a massive proponent of education reform in Britain. His liberal outlook was manifested in the royal position shifting to a more progressive policy in economics, finances, education, the welfare state, and even slavery – they led by moral example, not by political discourse. The Prince’s education reform came during his tenure as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1847, where he famously incorporated the natural sciences and modern history into his new curricula.
Several educational and cultural institutions were set up during the era of Prince Albert. West of London, in the region known as South Kensington, Prince Albert oversaw the opening of the British Natural History Museum, the British Science Museum, Imperial College London, and the Royal Albert Hall (only named so after the Prince’s death.)
The Political Role Of The Prince
Despite only claiming the title (and power) of Prince Consort as of 1857, Prince Albert cultivated a successful and active career. His loving marriage, his competence, and his success allowed him to enjoy a fruitful royal career regardless of title.
In 1852, the Tory (Conservative) Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, passed away – the first of his title, the Duke of Wellington, was the British commander who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. With his death, much of his administrative office positions were absorbed by Albert. With the fiscally fickle Tory no longer in control of the military, Albert proposed a military reform.
In terms of foreign policy, Prince Albert attempted to diplomatically broker a peace between the Russian and Ottoman Empires – a feat that proved impossible. The resulting conflict in 1854 was the Crimean War, in which the British stepped in against the Russians. Nevertheless, Albert, Prince Consort, played a strategically critical role by organizing the army mobilization and strategic warpath.
In 1857, the Queen finally granted her husband the title of Prince Consort. Despite the delay, Albert, Prince Consort, played a significant and influential role in shaping British politics in his time.
The Legacy Of Prince Albert
Prince Consort Albert began to experience intense stomach cramps as early as 1859. Regardless, Albert stoically continued in his hard-working nature. Most notably, a scandal that could have dragged Britain into the American Civil War (which broke out in 1861) was diplomatically smoothed over by Albert, Prince Consort, and President Abraham Lincoln.
In December of 1861, Albert, Prince Consort, succumbed to his mysterious illness, initially written off as typhoid fever but later disputed. The Prince was a mere forty-two years old. Though the Queen would continue to sit on the throne for the next forty years, she was devastated at the loss of her husband. She donned black clothing as a symbol of her mourning for the rest of her life. Albert and Victoria’s marriage was a genuinely romantic companionship rather than a political ploy of a strategic marriage.
Prince Albert arguably set the apolitical standard of the Royal Family, which is practiced to this day. Having been politically tutored by Lord Melbourne, Victoria was always privy to a Whig, Liberal, and left-leaning outlook, as was her husband. However, the Prince’s legacy set the moral standard for royals to rise above political operation and act as stoic neutrals to any and all scandal and political leanings.
With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria heavily secluded herself from public life, which would eventually erode her reputation and public opinion. When she passed away in 1901 at the age of 81, she was laid to rest alongside her husband. Both are buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Frogmore Gardens, Windsor.