Albert the Good:
How Queen Victoria’s Husband
Shaped a Century
By Bob Frost
Biography magazine, 2001
Prince Albert (1819-1861)
The modern theory of progress has roots in thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries including Bacon, Locke, Spinoza, and Newton. The notion was carried forth by the philosophes of the 18th century Enlightenment – Montesquieu, Voltaire, Franklin, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot, Kant, and their peers. A biography of Voltaire published in 1789, a year after his death, chronicled the improvements enacted in Europe during the great man’s lifetime: the spreading of press freedom, enhancements in public health, and a diminishment of war, serfdom, and religious intolerance.
As the idea of progress began taking hold around 1700, people assured themselves that the world would never, could never, revisit such calamities as the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the witch hunts of the 1500s and 1600s, the late stages of the Inquisition, and the English Civil War. The events of the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s were “the most devastating in the history of Europe before 1914,” notes historian Derek Wilson – they “cost millions of lives, destroyed commerce, rendered vast tracts of farmland unproductive and brought about the breakdown of social order throughout the German empire….” Historian Ronald Hutton says that the period of civil war and revolution in England in the 1600s was “probably the most traumatic single experience that the English people have ever undergone” including the First and Second World Wars and the Black Death.
Belief in untrammeled progress was not the only current among Western intellectuals during the two centuries of which we speak. The bloodiness of the French Revolution dealt a blow to the creed. The pessimism of Malthus and Schopenhauer was influential. Nietzsche hedged his enthusiasm for the idea. Cyclical views of history were propounded by Vico and Hegel. Slavery expanded in North America during the 1700s; this fact appalled a handful of wise observers. Some believers in progress, such as Thomas Jefferson, kept slaves, consoling themselves with the thought that the incoming tide of progress would, eventually, wash the world clean of the horror. (See here for a history of the idea of progress.)
Faith in progress gained powerful momentum in the 1800s – unstoppable momentum, in the opinion of some – via the stunning expansion of science, technology, capitalism, wealth, and material goods generated by the Industrial Revolution (which, needless to say, wrought much suffering among workers, blissfully ignored by most commentators). In the middle of the 19th century, eager to celebrate its overflowing coffers, Britain devised a new idea: the world’s fair.
The world’s first world’s fair was conducted in London from May to October, 1851 – the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, visited by six million people. The central building, nicknamed the Crystal Palace, exhibited 100,000 items from many cultures. This array of material suggested global unity; global unity implied peace and progress.
Exotic art from China and India; furs from Canada and Russia; furniture and housewares; sculpture and stained glass; the Koh-i-noor diamond; working examples of industrial triumphs such as power printing presses, agricultural machines, locomotives, and an electric telegraph; and newly invented domestic appliances including a gas cooking stove. (From “Daily Life in Victorian England” by Sally Mitchell .)
Also: a model for a proposed Suez Canal, a sportsman’s knife with 80 blades, the world’s largest pearl, a physician’s walking stick containing an enema bag, a method of adjusting chimney stacks to carry smoke down into the sewer rather than up into the air, Austrian furniture, Prussian fabrics, Spanish jewels, French couture, and American raw materials.
Prince Albert likely took considerable pleasure from contemplating such lists of stuff. He was chief organizer of the fair and was justifiably proud of his accomplishment. Perhaps, diligent soul that he was, he resolved to study each of the 100,000 objects in the Crystal Palace (more than 500 items per day). We know for sure that he worked to the point of exhaustion during the fair’s run. “Overwork seemed a compulsion” to him during these months, writes historian Stanley Weintraub. Albert was a workaholic perfectionist. He took on too many tasks, too many responsibilites, too many errands, besotted by the idea of hastening a better life for all.
Albert is a representative man of the 19th century and its immense and rather lovely compulsion to propel progress. He also manifests two other stark facts – do-gooders will always be doubted by someone, and workaholic perfectionists can kill themselves with their labors.
Born on August 26, 1819, Albert was the second son of Duke Ernest and Duchess Louise, rulers of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, an 800-square-mile duchy on the edge of the Thuringian Forest, one of about 40 German states of that era. The duchy was Lutheran, conservative, patriarchal, and placid.
The defining moment of Albert’s boyhood came in 1824 when he was five years old, when his beloved mother was caught having an affair with an army officer, and was expelled from the palace by her husband, a chilly man who brooked no shenanigans in his household – except for his own many affairs. The two little princes, Albert and Ernest, probably never saw their mother again. (Louise naturally longed to see her sons. According to one story, when she heard they would attend a festival, she dressed in peasant clothes, slipped into the crowd, and feasted her eyes upon them. She secretly married her officer lover in 1826; she died of cancer in 1831 at age 30.)
In the strange twists and turns of the childhood mind, Albert was made guilty by his mother’s expulsion, perhaps blaming himself for her behavior and absence. According to a diary he kept as a boy, he began experiencing crying jags almost immediately after realizing that she would not return. He became obsessed by thoughts of sickness and death, and developed hostility toward other women brought into the household.
In time, with iron will, he sublimated his angst. He announced at age 11, “I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man” – a serious and virtuous man, committed to order, precision, perfection, and progress. He rose before dawn, hit the books by 6 a.m., followed a rigid schedule all day, and did not conclude his final lesson until 8 p.m. He learned English, French, Latin, geology, mathematics, and history, and he pursued a rigorous course of physical exercise. “His virtue,” said a puckish observer years later of the adult Albert, “was, indeed, appalling; not a single vice redeemed it.”
Albert’s intense and traumatic childhood had implications for his mature self. As an adult he was prone to depression, bleak episodes of gray, of numbed, lethargic separation from the light. These bouts spurred him to work all the harder. He was thus similar in some ways to Abraham Lincoln, another melancholic of the 19th century, who believed that “work, work, work is the main thing.” For Lincoln, and for Albert, work was a blessing by which they could not only encourage societal progress but stave off personal chaos.
The young prince was considered a potential husband for his cousin, Princess Victoria of Britain, born in 1819, the finest possible catch for royal gallants – she was heiress presumptive to the British throne, at a time when Britain was the world’s sole superpower, and she would become fabulously rich.
Albert first met Victoria in London when they were both 16. The princess, susceptible to good looks in males, decided that the prince was handsome. He, meanwhile, felt a fair bit of interest in the young lady – not that she was kind, nor warm-hearted, nor beautiful, but she possessed a certain energy, a joi de vivre. And he knew full well that marriage with her would allow him to be a good and useful man on a global stage rather than in a tiny backwater.
The groundwork was thus laid for the moment in 1839 when Victoria and Albert met again, both of them 20 and ready to marry. Victoria was now Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. They courted, aided by intermediaries, and discovered congenial feelings. In keeping with royal protocol, Victoria needed to be the one to pop the question. She asked; Albert, as scripted, answered “yes”; and they married on February 10, 1840, at the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace in London.
Now came the wedding night, toasted in many a British pub and club. The proceedings were eminently satisfactory – Victoria wrote a note the next day to Prime Minister Melbourne about her “most gratifying and bewildering night.” She was, and would remain, deeply in love with Albert, and he loved her right back. (It should be noted, they had many stormy times during their two decades together.) In their first years as a couple she called him “my dear master”; he called her “my dear child.” She liked to watch him shave; he helped her put on her silk stockings. Victoria reveled in the voluptuous nudity of such paintings as “Omphale and Hercules” by Anton von Gegenbaur and “Florinda” by Franz Xavier Winterhalter. They installed an extra-large bed in their chamber and affixed a lock to the door; one wonders if the palace carpenter was summoned to add soundproofing to the royal walls.
Even as they gloried in the pleasures of the flesh, Victoria and Albert pursued a policy of public prudery and family-oriented domesticity, driven by a desire to make the royal court, in the phrase of Stanley Weintraub, “impenetrable to scandal” after years of shenanigans among the Hanoverians. With Victoria and Albert, writes historian J.M. Roberts, “for the first time since the days of the young George III (i.e., the 1760s), the phrase ‘the Royal Family’ was a reality and could be seen to be such.” Victoria and Albert’s strait-laced persona, their quest for what historian Edgar Feuchtwanger calls a “royalty almost bourgeois in character,” helped shape an age.
Victoria was pregnant within a few weeks of marriage. Between 1840 and 1857 she gave birth nine times. Inclined to lassitude during pregnancy, subject to depression immediately afterward, and not terribly fond of politics anyway, she handed over many responsibilities to her husband.
Here, then, was power – power to do good – the very thing Albert had been craving and prepping for since boyhood. He seized the opportunity. He mastered the issues of the day, perfected the subtle art of advising the throne, and became one of the half-dozen most influential people in the world.
While fully supporting the limits of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, Albert carved a role for himself as a “monarchical activist,” writes Feuchtwanger, relishing change in the name of progress. He enlisted in the fight against the global slave trade, endorsed economic liberalism, sounded a lonely tocsin for military reform, and sought amelioration of the brutal conditions of factory workers. He became an expert on foreign affairs. He established a strong working relationship with Prime Minister Robert Peel. He was seen trotting through the corridors of the palace trying to keep up with his appointments, bounding up stairs carrying stacks of documents.
He attended countless working dinners; at some of these, he looked up from his roast beef to see faces set against him in stony disapproval. Certain powerful men in Britain felt that government had no role in ameliorating the human condition – they believed that progress, while inevitable, came about through the hand of God, could not be hastened by human policy, and could not be expected to touch all the populace. Albert wanted progress for all, or at least for most.
He saw technology as a key tool in this regard. British factories and workshops were exploding with vigor during these years, producing locomotives, steamships, textiles, telegraph equipment, and machines for making more machines. To Albert, the Industrial Revolution was a wonderful thing. He had the soul of a gifted engineer; he embraced all things technical, acquainted himself with every type of machinery, conversed often with the people who created it. He spearheaded a movement to reform the University of Cambridge curriculum by adding courses in science and technology – a development that has implications to this day for British technological innovation. And in 1851 he created the Great Exhibition.
Before the exhibition, industrial fairs were rare, and were confined within the borders of a region or nation. Albert wrote, “Machinery, Science, and Taste are of no country, but belong, as a whole, to the civilized world.” In an act of bold imagination, he proposed that Britain invite humanity to a great global get-together. He worked relentlessly for months to make it happen. Some 40 nations showed up. Not since the Rome of Augustus Caesar, 18 centuries earlier, had so many parts of the known world been so united in relative amity. Historian Asa Briggs writes, “The Crystal Palace was thought of as a temple of peace.”
The fair took place during one of history’s most significant economic booms, from 1848 to the early 1870s, when “the world became capitalist,” writes historian Eric Hobsbawm: The surge was “amazing….so extraordinary that men were at a loss for a precedent.” The Great Exhibition was the first in a series of “giant new rituals of self-congratulation” punctuating capitalism’s triumph, Hobsbawm notes, followed by world fairs in Paris, Vienna, and Philadelphia. (See here for a profile of Andrew Carnegie, one of the leaders of the capitalist surge; see here for a study of John D. Rockefeller.)
Undoubtedly, many fair visitors in 1851 indulged in a smug sense of British superiority – smugness and hubris were marked aspects of the British 19th century, as they were of the American 20th – but it’s also true that many people grasped what Albert hoped would be the fair’s message: science, technology, and free trade could guide humanity to peace, prosperity, and a measure of happiness, or at least encourage people to think about the possibilities. Albert issued a charming, if wordy, remark that summed things up: “We are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end to which indeed all history points – the realization of the unity of mankind.” He truly believed it. (See here for additional commentary on the century’s love of technology. See here for a comparison of the Great Exhibition to a Beatles album.)
When the exhibition closed, Albert barely paused in his labors.
On occasion, he felt impossibly burdened. He made a revealing comment in 1860 – he said in a letter that he was nothing more than a “treadmill donkey” (i.e., a blind and shackled beast forever turning a grain wheel) “and small thanks he gets for his labour.” The prince was surprised that the British citizenry was not as assiduous as he, and baffled by its lack of appreciation for his efforts. Many Britons never got over their distrust of this foreigner influencing their affairs – and a foreigner from a conservative duchy at that.
He made his comparison to a treadmill donkey in the wake of difficult events. The Crimean War of 1853-56 (which involved Britain and her allies vs. Russia) ground him down physically and psychologically. One reason for his angst, writes Feuchtwanger, was a rumor, believed by a fair number of Britons, that he used his position as prince consort to “undermine Britain’s efforts to stand up to the Tsar of Russia.” (The rumor was false.) Another ordeal during these years was the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, marked by atrocities that bespoke the 16th and 17th centuries.
By 1860 an exhausted Albert was suffering from chronic stomach pains. Doctors diagnosed typhoid fever and treated him with brandy. Many historians now believe that he was fighting stomach cancer.
Would rest and relaxation have helped? Would he have benefited from regular vacations over the 20-plus years of his marriage? Was he working himself to death? These questions can’t be answered with certainty with regard to cancer, but everything we’ve learned about stress in the last 50 years suggests that sustained bouts of it can damage the immune system. “When you get right down to it,” writes Dr. Timothy J. Smith, “stress is what kills us. It takes many forms: oxidative stress from free radicals, chemical stress from toxins, trauma, and emotional stress….It has been (correctly) said that stress doesn’t cause any specific illness, but it makes any and all illnesses worse.”
Prince Albert was confined to bed in late 1861 as his health deteriorated precipitously. Even then he kept up with his duties, drafting a letter that helped defuse a diplomatic crisis between Britain and the U.S. This was his final service to his sovereign and to humanity. He died at Windsor Castle on December 14, 1861, with his wife at his side. He was 42 years old.
Victoria’s grief was bottomless. It was also an exercise in self-indulgence, lasting for years. She slept clutching her husband’s nightshirt. She gazed endlessly upon his statue. She sat on a couch within view of a cast of his hand. She retreated from public life and avoided London; as a result, the British citizenry soured on her, until she was persuaded to come back to them. (The film “Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown”  depicts these years [alternative title: “Mrs. Brown”]. See also the movie “The Young Victoria”  for their marriage years.)
Queen Victoria died in 1901. Within a few years of her passing came the First World War and the termination of humanity’s 200-year romance with uninterrupted progress. The horror that began in the summer of 1914 spread like a pool of blood over the next three decades, a new Thirty Years War. ●