In recent years, there seems to have been a surfeit of books and documentaries presenting a very unjust image of Prince Albert as a dour and humourless man, driven by a desire for power, and with little understanding of his children’s needs.
Although this appears to be a recent phenomenon, it is in fact nothing new but rather a repetition of the misconceptions and slanders repeated about him from the moment that his engagement to Queen Victoria was announced.
Even before he arrived in England for his wedding in February 1840, satirical cartoons portrayed him as the ‘pauper prince’ who was marrying The Queen solely for prestige, power and money. More damagingly, many members of ‘society’ and The Queen’s own relatives greeted him with such hostility that Albert himself feared that the entire nation was against him.
As though to emphasise this resentment, Parliament grudgingly discussed his annuity, and ultimately granted him £20,000 less than had been granted to Prince Leopold on his marriage to Princess Charlotte, forty-four years earlier; and even when he arrived in England and proved himself to be a wise, unassuming and brilliant man, a xenophobic society, already prejudiced against the foreigner, treated him with disdain and found any excuse to denigrate him:
“That he did not dress in quite the orthodox English fashion,” wrote his mentor, Stockmar, “that he did not sit on horseback in the orthodox English way; that he did not shake hands in the orthodox English manner etc. etc. all this even those… who knew and esteemed him could not quite get over. One heard them say, ‘He is an excellent, clever, able fellow but look at the cut of his coat, or look at the way he shakes hands.’”[*]
It is a testament to Albert’s strength of character that he did not crumble under such criticism but, from the moment he married, dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the service of The Queen and the country. Rather than being driven by a desire for power, Albert’s primary motivation was his religious faith and a genuine belief that ‘to whom much is given, much will be demanded.’
Those who had known him since childhood frequently commented on the sincerity of his beliefs which he attempted to put into practice in every area of his life. In his youth, a friend recalled seeing him surreptitiously giving money to a beggar and, when he realised he had been seen, he begged the friend to say nothing of it to anyone.
On another occasion, while still a child, he witnessed a poor man’s house being burnt to the ground and immediately began raising money to build him a new one, not resting until the task was complete.
His beliefs, however, did not turn him into an overly pious or solemn young man – on the contrary, those who knew him well spoke often of his sense of humour and his love of practical jokes – nor did his Lutheran faith turn him into a bigot. Far more tolerant than many of his contemporaries, he not only spoke out in favour of the Roman Catholics in England, but also showed a profound and non-judgemental understanding of those whom society condemned as ‘sinners’. When, for example, the unfortunate Queen of Spain was criticised for her promiscuity, Albert felt nothing but sympathy for her, and refused to join the popular chorus of condemnation.
As Victoria came to rely on his political judgement, Albert was always careful to ensure that in all his speeches and actions, he let it be known that he was acting for The Queen, rather than assuming authority for himself; and, when attending formal functions with his eldest son, Bertie, Albert willingly stood aside to allow prominence to The Prince of Wales.
The many talents of this truly Renaissance man have often been overlooked in the rush to criticise him, for he was a musician, an artist, a scientist and an engineer as well as a prince. The great Felix Mendelssohn was deeply impressed by his compositions, as well as his ability to sing and to play the organ. Members of the Royal Academy commented that he could easily have made a career as an artist; and he was eager to understand all the latest advances in engineering and technology in order to improve conditions for workers and to make machines safer in the factories. Forward-thinking as he was, he was even a proponent of the building of the Channel Tunnel over a hundred years before work began on the project.
First and foremost, Albert sought to use his gifts for the good of the people. He regularly visited factories, impressing the workers by his ability to speak with them in their own language, without condescension; and wrote numerous letters and memoranda to Parliament suggesting improvements based on his findings in the various places of work. He was interested, too, in providing healthy environments and housing for the poor, creating at Balmoral, for example, homes which attracted the attention of some of the foremost philanthropists and housing reformers of the age.
It is, however, in his home life that he has recently come under the greatest criticism by certain historians who accuse him of behaving like a tyrant to his own children. One need only read his own letters and the journals of those who were actually present in the royal household, to see how far this is from the truth, and how deeply he loved his family. By the standards of the time, Albert spent an inordinate amount of time with his children, playing with them, seeking out new and happy experiences for them, creating for them the beautiful seaside home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, complete with their own little Swiss Cottage, and studying all the most modern methods of education and childcare in order to do his best for them.
The fact that his eldest son, Bertie, did not thrive under Albert’s educational system – which was based solely on the advice that Albert received from his mentor, Stockmar – has often distracted from the fact that his other children relished their father’s devotion to their well-being and happiness. If Albert made mistakes with Bertie, he did so with the highest intentions, seeking only to prepare him for his future role as King. Repeatedly, too, Albert sought to understand Bertie’s behaviour and, even when he behaved irresponsibly, Albert assured him that he only wished to help him and that, if he would find it easier to speak of his problems with someone other than his father, Albert would understand.
Perhaps the greatest refute to those who continue this unjust condemnation of this great and remarkable man, comes from one of his own children. Looking back some years after her father’s death, his second daughter Alice wrote from the heart: “What a joyous childhood we had and how greatly it was enhanced by dear, sweet Papa…”
One might add, how greatly was Britain blessed and enhanced by the presence of so brilliant and self-effacing prince!
|Christina Croft is the author of QUEEN VICTORIA’S GRANDDAUGHTERS 1860-1918 and ALICE, THE ENIGMA – A BIOGRAPHY OF QUEEN VICTORIA’S DAUGHTER, PRINCESS ALICE|
* Baron E. von, Memoirs of Baron Stockmar Vol II (Longman’s, Green and Co. 1873)