Review: Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy

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.

Review: The Heir Apparent

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The Heir ApparentJane Ridley. New York: Random House, 2013.

Summary: An award-winning biography of Edward VII, often criticized for his faults of character as heir to the throne under Victoria, whose reign ushered in a critical transition in the British monarchy in the first decade of the twentieth century.

This biography poses the question of whether a badly-behaved individual can make a good king. Jane Ridley explores the life of Albert Edward, known as “Bertie” to those intimate with him, who lived in the shadow of Queen Victoria for six decades before accessed to the British throne in the last decade of his life as Edward VII.

Ridley used access to Royal Archives and extensive research to write what may be the definitive biography of Edward VII. She traces his childhood, and the strict regime and moral rectitude of Albert and Victoria that proved singularly unhelpful. He was lax and undisciplined in his studies, hated reading (even as an adult the most he read were novels when ill), and incurred his parents disapproval. This worsened as he matured. His “fall” with actress Nellie Clifden broke his father’s heart and Victoria blamed his death, coming soon after on Bertie.

His response was to become a womanizer. He had a succession of affairs and mistresses, chronicled at length, though with restraint. This continued throughout his marriage to Alexandra and included actress Lillie Langtry, Jennie Churchill, socialist Daisy Warwick, and “royal mistress” Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles!). When he accessed to the throne, he was dubbed “Edward the Caresser.”

Victoria more or less wrote him off and tried to limit his access to official reports. So he did the social rounds to the country estates of the elite, raced horses, gambled, and ate, drank, and smoked prodigiously. He loved dressing well and expected those around him to be meticulous in their dress.

One would think such an individual would be a disaster as a king. Yet it turned out that this was not the case. After Albert’s death, Victoria became something of a recluse. Edward became the public face of the royal family, both in making public appearances throughout the country, and in tours abroad. He cultivated relationships with the royalty of Europe, most of whom were related to him in some way or another. He was known as “the Uncle of Europe” who counted Kaiser Wilhelm as nephew, and Czar Nicholas of Russia as nephew-in-law.

Edward VII became King in his sixties in 1901. He was overweight, incessantly smoked, had a cancer on his nose that was treated with radium, and already had survived several brushes with death as well as outliving siblings and some of his children. He had to postpone his coronation due to appendicitis. He probably would have been diagnosed with COPD or emphysema today. Yet he worked hard and tirelessly as King, demonstrated a “common touch” that endeared him to the people. He exercised a kind of personal diplomacy that complemented formal efforts with European heads of state, and opened the doors to an alliance with France that decisively shifted the balance of power when the war he strove so hard to avoid came.  He modernized the kingship and helped redefine the idea of a constitutional monarchy before his death from severe bronchitis and heart attacks in 1910. Over 400,000 people filed past his coffin when he lay in state.

Ridley has given us a magnificent portrait of this heir and king who turned out to be far more than he appeared to be. It took a wife who looked past his womanizing, unpardonable as it was. It took mistresses who were discrete (most were). But it particularly took someone who understood what people wanted of their king, who would be the people’s king. It took someone who understood the uses and limits of his power, and exercised this to the full, both with a succession of Prime Ministers, and foreign heads of state. One wonders what he could have done had he come to the throne sooner and/or lived longer. Ridley does a great service in chronicling the life of this deeply human and under-estimated king.

The Heir Apparent was named one of the best books of the year in 2013 by The New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe.