At the age of twelve, Alfred requested to join the Royal Navy and he was appointed as midshipman on HMS Euryalus two years later. After the abdication of Otto of Greece, Alfred was chosen to succeed him, but the Queen was opposed to the idea as it had always been planned for Alfred to succeed to the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg. Alfred remained in the Navy and was promoted to lieutenant on 24 February 1863, serving on the HMS Racoon. He was promoted to captain on 23 February 1866 and was appointed command of the HMS Galatea in January 1867. On 24 May 1866, Alfred was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Ulster, and Earl of Kent, which entitled him to a seat in the House of Lords.
In 1867, Alfred became the first member of the royal family to visit Australia, however he was wounded when he was shot in the back by Henry James O’Farrell who was later convicted and hanged for the crime. The shot hit the duke just to the right of his spine and he spent two weeks being cared for by six nurses who had been trained by Florence Nightingale. Alfred made a full recovery and was able to return home in April 1868 to spend time with his family and resuming command of his ship. The following year, Alfred became the first member of the royal family to visit New Zealand and the first European prince to visit Japan.
On 23 January 1874, Alfred married Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II. The couple had first met when Alfred was in Germany visiting his sister, Alice, who was married to Marie Alexandrovna’s cousin. The couple didn’t see each other again for more than two years while Alfred was touring the world with the Navy, however they met again in the summer 1871 and they spent a lot of time in each other’s company. When the couple expressed a desire to marry, they got a lukewarm reception from both sets of parents. The Tsar did not want to lose his only daughter and Queen Victoria was not convinced Maria Alexandrovna would happy at the British court which was far less austere than its Russian counterpart.
For awhile the marriage was forgotten about, however rumours Maria Alexandrovna had compromised herself with the tsar’s aide-de-camp began to spread and the Imperial family suddenly renewed marriage negations with Alfred. Alfred, refusing to believe the rumours were true, was still in love with Maria Alexandrovna and vowed he would have no other as a wife. The tsarina’s attempts to find her daughter another prince to marry came to naught and she finally conceded defeat. The tsarina and her daughter met Alfred in Sorrento in April 1873 and then Alfred went to Jugenheim to meet the tsar.
When the engagement was formally accepted, Alfred wrote immediately to his mother to tell her the good news and while she responded with enthusiasm, she still had misgivings about the match which she recorded in her diary. The couple were married in great splendour on 23 January 1874 at the Winter Palace with the Orthodox service taking place first in the Imperial Chapel, followed by a Church of England service in the Alexander Hall with the Dean of Westminster. Queen Victoria was unable to attend the wedding so she was represented by her eldest son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Alexandra, as well as her eldest daughter, Vicky, and her husband. Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, also acted as attendant for his brother.
Alfred and Maria Alexandrovna spent their wedding night at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo where the Tsar had ordered a lavish honeymoon suite for them in the hopes it would persuade them to remain in Russia. However, Alfred and Maria left Russia to live in England, however Alexander II never lost hope they would return and the honeymoon suite was kept for them for two decades.
Despite the lavish wedding and the couple’s love for each other, the marriage turned out to be an unhappy one as Queen Victoria had proven to be right about Maria Alexandrovna’s inability to settle in England. Maria Alexandrovna also displayed a superior attitude towards the Princess of Wales, demanding she should be treated as the higher ranked female at court since she was the daughter of a tsar. Since Queen Victoria refused to yield to her demands, the duchess grew increasingly homesick for Russia and made no effort to compromise.
The duchess gave birth to a son, Alfred, on 15 October 1874, and a daughter, Marie, was born on 29 October 1875 at Eastwell Park, a country estate the family leased in Kent. Afterwards, Alfred was stationed in Malta and the duchess gave birth to her second daughter, Victoria Melita, on 25 November 1876. When Russia went to war with Turkey, Queen Victoria wrote a series of furious letters to the Tsar which damaged her relationship with Maria Alexandrovna to the extent she began to hate all things English. Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred’s marriage was also faltering as the duke was becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol and it was affecting his moods.
The only place Maria Alexandrovna seemed happy was at Coburg where she gave birth to her third daughter, Alexandra, on 1 September 1878 at Rosenau Castle. Knowing her husband would succeed to the dukedom, Maria Alexandrovna had a palace built, the Edinburgh Palais, across the central square from the Schloss Ehrenburg, the official residence of the reigning duke.
Alfred succeeded as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on 22 August 1893 after the death of his uncle, Ernst, and the family moved to Coburg, although Alfred was not happy about giving up his career. On the other hand, Maria Alexandrovna was ecstatic with her new role and she made the most of it by refurbishing the castles and promoting the arts. The relationship between the couple continued to deteriorate as they no longer had much in common and the duchess preferred it when her husband was away. Towards the end of the century, Alfred’s health problems grew worse and they weren’t helped by his heavy-smoking and drinking.
On 23 January 1899, Alfred and Maria Alexandrovna celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at Schloss Friedestein, but it was marred by the attempted suicide of their eldest son, Affie, who was gravely ill after contracting syphilis in 1892. The young prince died on 6 February 1899 in Meran and his devastated parents blamed each other. Since the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha could not be passed down the female line, Alfred decided it would pass to his nephew, Charles Edward, the son of his deceased brother, Leopold. Charles Edward was brought to Coburg to begin preparing for his new role as the duke had just been diagnosed with incurable throat cancer and he died on 30 July 1900 at Schloss Rosenau.