Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born on 26th August 1819, the second son of the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The title may have sounded prestigious, but the territory in question was one of the myriad of small principalities that comprised Germany prior to its reunification in 1871. The holders of ducal and princely titles had connections with other European royals, but often had very little money to support their desired lifestyles.
Albert was a first cousin of Princess Victoria of England (his father and her mother were brother and sister) but was virtually penniless. On the face of it, he was an unlikely candidate for the role of husband of the ruler of a major imperial power.
Albert had an excellent education before being introduced to Princess Victoria (his senior by just three months) in 1836. It is clear that they took an instant liking to each other and it was therefore no surprise that on their second meeting, in 1839 after Victoria had become Queen, that she proposed marriage to him. They were married in February 1840.
Albert’s position at court was difficult for some people to accept. Not only was he yet another German in the Royal Family, but he was utterly devoid of wealth. He was therefore seen by some as an opportunistic adventurer.
Albert’s difficulty was finding a role as the Queen’s husband, other than ensuring that she produced a succession of healthy children – nine of them in total, all of whom lived to adulthood.
However, Albert had no intention of merely being a royal cipher and he sought a role that made use of his undoubted abilities. There is little doubt that he had a greater intellect than Victoria, who always depended heavily on sound advice from her trusted ministers when it came to making important decisions. Albert – although not a member of the Government – was one such adviser, and one on whom Victoria came to depend a great deal.
Albert did much to make the royal household more efficient and economical, as well as ensuring that the royal residences of Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle and Osborne House were kept in good repair.
Albert also channeled his administrative abilities into philanthropic activities and promoting science and the arts. His major achievement in this regard was his championship of the Great Exhibition that took place in 1851 in London’s Hyde Park. This was a major success that showcased British arts and industries to the millions of visitors from Britain and abroad. The large profit from the event was used to buy land in South Kensington that now houses the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum.
Albert was eventually accorded the title of Prince Consort in 1857, but he only had four years left in which to enjoy the status this gave him. He died of typhoid on 14th December 1861, aged only 42. Queen Victoria long blamed their son Albert Edward (who later reigned as King Edward VII) for hastening Albert’s death, given that Albert was appalled by their son’s dissolute behaviour and had made a hasty visit to Cambridge to reprimand Edward when he was already seriously ill. He died only two weeks later.
Albert’s death was undoubtedly the greatest tragedy in Victoria’s life. She immediately withdrew from public life and spent the rest of long life wearing mourning black and playing very little part in affairs of state. Had Albert lived longer, there is little doubt that Victoria would have had a much more productive reign than she did.
© John Welford