Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, A. N. Wilson. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.
Summary: A full length biography, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, stressing his contributions to cultural and political life in Victorian England, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Most of us, at least on “this side of the pond” mostly know of Prince Albert as the subject of a prank beginning with the line “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Actually, in reading this biography, the prank has added irony both in that its subject was a very serious man, and that for one who died so young, he accomplished so much. A. N. Wilson’s biography, published on the two hundredth anniversary of Albert’s birth goes far to redress that unfamiliarity.
Wilson presents Albert as the son of a Coburg Duke (Ernst I), who failed at marriage but was determined to prepare his sons for dynastic greatness. Albert learned not only the lessons that prepared him for this station, but also shaped the strong sense of rectitude he brought to his eventual marriage with Victoria, a Coburg cousin who was in most direct succession to William IV. He also develops the influence of Stockmar, Albert’s mentor from his early teen years through the first decade of his marriage.
Wilson portrays the genuine love affair between Albert and Victoria, initially cool to him but warming to great passion, and the lukewarm reception of Commons, reducing his proposed annual grant. At the same time, Wilson teases out the complicated character of that marriage, of Albert’s quest for control, even influence over royal matters, and how Victoria’s nine pregnancies played into all of that. At very least, the two contributed to the great influence of the House of Coburg in dynastic affairs across Europe through their progeny!
Much of the account explores the struggle Albert had with his position–for most of the time, merely husband of the Queen, and only at the end of his life Prince Consort. His own son was ahead of him in precedence. He aspired to so much more, trying to shape foreign affairs through long missives to foreign secretaries, as well as weighing in on political matters. Over time, he helped shape Victoria’s approach to constitutional monarchy that sustained her popularity, and that of the monarchy long after her death. He shrewdly managed royal finances, allowing for the purchase of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
One of his distinctive contributions was as Chancellor of Cambridge University, overseeing the modernization of the curriculum stressing modern history and the sciences. Another was the Exhibition of 1851 and the develop of the complex of museums in Kensington known as “Albertopolis,” later complimented by Royal Albert Hall, a premier concert venue. Wilson portrays the intensity of Albert’s work ethic for his adopted country, recognized only late in his short life when, finally, he was designated “Prince Consort.”
There is an air of sadness that hovers over this hard-working man of rectitude. He found himself worn by the moods of Victoria, the troubles of Europe, and the evidence of profligacy on the part of his own son Bertie. Sadly, he was a seriously ill man, possibly dying of stomach cancer. Perhaps he pushed himself so hard, knowing his time was so short. It was sad that he could not bask in his considerable contributions to the monarchy and England.
Wilson not only portrays the man, but the various key figures like Peel and Palmerston, and the transformation occurring in England, to which Albert had contributed. Of course, all of this was in the backdrop of Victoria, who went on to reign for four decades after Albert’s death at age 42, in the end showing herself stronger even than Albert. This is an important account of a figure whose impact is still felt two hundred years after his birth.