Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel was born at Schloss Rosenau, near Coburg, Germany, on 26 August 1819 and was the second son of Ernst III, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and his first wife, Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg in Gotha.
Albert and his elder brother, Ernst, formed a close bond as children as their parents had a turbulent marriage and were eventually divorced. While both parents were guilty of infidelity, it was Louise who was exiled from court in 1824 and she was forced to leave her children behind. Louise eventually married her lover, Alexander von Hanstein, but she died of cancer at the age of 30 in 1831. After Louise’s death, the duke was eager marry again but his reputation had preceded him and he found it difficult to find a bride from a high ranking family. In the end, the duke had to settle for his niece, Marie of Württemberg, who was thirty years his junior.
The brothers were educated at home, however they followed the tradition of most German princes by attending the University of Bonn where Albert studied law, political economy, philosophy and the history of art. Albert was also a keen sportsman and loved music.
The Queen’s Husband
The prospect of a marriage between Albert and his first cousin, Victoria, was first mooted in 1821 when the pair were mere toddlers. Their mutual uncle, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the husband of the ill-fated Charlotte of Wales, who was close to both of them, nurtured the idea the closer Victoria got to the British throne. In May 1836, Leopold encouraged his sister, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, to invite their brother and his two sons to England so Victoria and Albert could meet. Aware of the Coburg plot, William IV tried to push his niece towards Prince Alexander of the Netherlands but she much preferred Albert but no formal betrothal was forthcoming.
On 20 June 1837, Victoria ascended the throne but she resisted being pushed into a quick marriage even though she continued to feel affection towards Albert and wrote to him often. In October 1839, Albert and Ernst returned to London to see Victoria and her feelings were stronger than ever so she proposed to him. The couple were married on 10 February 1840 at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, and Albert was granted the style of Royal Highness by an Order in Council. The marriage was not a popular one with the British public though as they felt Albert was too impoverished and too low-ranked to be married to a queen. There was also a great deal of preoccupation over Albert’s title and the need to keep him away from any political role due to his German birth, however he was eventually created Prince Consort on 25 June 1857.
Matters were no better within the royal household as it was primarily run by Baroness Lehzen, the Queen’s former governess, and Albert’s intrusion was resented. Within two months of the marriage, Victoria discovered she was pregnant and Albert began to take on more official duties which endeared him more to the public. In June 1840, while on a public carriage ride, Albert and Victoria were shot at by Edward Oxford, and the prince was praised for keeping a calm demeanour by the press. Since childbirth was a dangerous business, Albert was designated as regent in the event of Victoria’s death before their child reached the age of majority.
Albert and Victoria’s first child, Vicky, was born in November 1841 and she would be followed by eight others over the next seventeen years. In an age where infant mortality was high, all of the royal children survived into adulthood thanks to Albert’s enlightened views on how the nursery should be run and he finally succeeded in getting Baroness Lehzen dismissed.
Albert often resented not being master of his own household and his first task was to get rid of Lehzen who he disliked immensely. The opportunity finally appeared in 1842 when the Princess Royal’s health suddenly began to deteriorate and Albert quickly blamed Lehzen for selecting incompetent nursery staff. Albert and Victoria quarrelled over Lehzen but the prince was adamant Lehzen should be dismissed and Victoria eventually gave in. Lehzen returned to Germany on the pretext of having to care for her sick sister but she never forgot Victoria and wrote to her often.
As Victoria became increasingly preoccupied with her numerous pregnancies, she began to depend more on Albert’s help and he was increasingly present at Victoria’s meetings with her ministers. The prince also began to re-organise the royal finances which were in a disastrous state and he simplified the whole process to make the running of the palaces more efficient. Albert soon became Victoria’s most important advisor and they reviewed the red state boxes with their desks pushed together. Albert’s handy review of the finances allowed for the purchase of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight as a private residence for his family where they could spend time together away from the stresses of the court. As well as receiving a strict formal education, the royal children were also taught more practical skills such as gardening and cooking.
In 1847, Albert was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and he used his position to campaign for reform and to include subjects like modern history and the natural sciences. As revolution swept throughout Europe due to the economic crisis, the mood in Britain was relatively calm and Albert was widely praised for his enlightened views on the hardships faced by the lower classes and the need to ease poverty.
Not content with social reforms, Albert was an innovator who had a keen interest in the manufacturing industry and this led to the idea behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 which would showcase the best of British industry and promote new ideas. A new building made of glass, known as the Crystal Palace, was specially designed to hold the exhibition and it was opened by the Queen on 1 May 1851. The event turned out to be such a big success, the profits were used to establish educational and cultural institutions, including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Imperial College London, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
During the Great Exhibition, Albert’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Vicky, spent time with Prince Frederick William of Prussia, and the pair fell in love much to Albert’s delight. When Frederick William proposed marriage, Albert happily gave his consent with the stipulation they wait until Vicky was seventeen to marry. Vicky, pretty and intelligent, was her father’s favourite and he had high hopes her marriage would lead to German unification as her new fiancé shared the same liberal views. When Vicky eventually left for Prussia, Albert missed her a great deal and her loss was only heightened by the difficulties he was having with his eldest son. Bertie had always been something of a disappointment to his parents as he proved to be far less intelligent than his sister and did not apply himself to his lessons.
While attending Cambridge, Bertie became involved with an actress and when the rumours got back to the palace, Albert was sent to reprimand him. Albert had been suffering from chronic stomach problems throughout the year, and when he returned to London, it was obvious he was gravely ill. Albert’s doctors diagnosed typhoid, however modern doctors believe Albert was more likely to have been suffering from a chronic disease, such as Crohn’s disease, renal failure, or abdominal cancer. Albert died on 14 December 1861 in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle in the presence of the Queen and their children.
Albert’s body was temporarily entombed in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, but a year after his death, his remains were moved to Frogmore Mausoleum where he would be joined by his beloved wife in 1901.