Today is the 200th birthday of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-1861). Professor John R Davis, director of our MA in Heritage Management, argues that Albert’s influence helped Queen Victoria rescue the British Monarchy.
The monarchy under threat
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the monarchy was in a poor state. There had been a great deal of public discontent about the Hanoverian dynasty that had reigned since 1714. Early Hanoverians had seemed remote and more interested in their German homeland, and more recently George III had famously ‘lost’ the American colonies, faced serious unrest in Ireland in 1798, and was forced into an increasingly conservative political position after the French Revolution in 1789. Growing criticism focused not only on George III, who was suffering from poor mental and physical illness, but also his son: the ‘Prince Regent’, later King George IV, was viewed at best as a spendthrift and at worst as morally degenerate. And the unseemly Hanoverian race to marry and produce an heir among George IV’s brothers did not help public attitudes.
Victoria’s first three years on the throne did not seem promising. Her socialising and her political and personal closeness to the Whig Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, were a concern, and she was increasingly wilful and self-confident at a time when society was becoming more democratic and focused on the serious business of making money. Victoria was playing with fire: in 1830 revolution toppled the French monarchy. What helped bring this situation to a halt, ultimately, was sex. Victoria wrote in her journal in 1839, after meeting Albert for the second time, ‘It was with some emotion, that I beheld Albert – who is beautiful.’
A cultured and educated Prince
Albert was more than just a pretty face, however. Growing up in a small central German state, Albert had enjoyed a relatively modern grammar-school type education in Coburg. He had, unusually, attended university (in Bonn), and listened to some of the foremost and enlightened professors of the age. Not outgoing, Albert was keen and enthusiastic about learning, and in the years waiting for Victoria to receive him as a suitor he had travelled widely in Europe, gaining detailed knowledge of the latest cultural trends in German and Italian speaking lands. Perhaps most importantly, he belonged to a dynastic network that was committed to religious toleration, reform, and constitutional monarchy.
Albert was the protégé of his – and Victoria’s – uncle Leopold. Leopold had once been in line himself to become Prince Consort when he married George IV’s only daughter Charlotte, but after she died during childbirth, Leopold went on to be installed as King of newly-independent Belgium in 1831. Belgium was founded under British influence on the model of a constitutional monarchy, and Leopold quickly became one of the staunchest supporters of this mode of government. In this, he was advised and guided by his former personal physician and mentor, Baron Christian von Stockmar.
Leopold and Stockmar guided Albert and Victoria together, and ensured Albert’s education leading up to his marriage was structured with a view to ruling a democratic, industrial and progressive state. Arriving in the wake of the Hanoverians, Albert faced some hostility in his first years in Britain, but as Leopold and Stockmar had hoped he arrived equipped with a knowledge and character that quickly allowed him to win support. And while being German might be a disadvantage in some respects, in others it created opportunities for action: after the reopening of the Continent to British travellers and traders in 1815, interest had grown in Germanic culture. There was admiration in educated circles for German universities, and the impressive architectural and artistic patronage of the (many!) German monarchs attracted attention. And the reforms undertaken by the German states – including in education, training of designers, and support for industry – were greatly admired.
A star is born
Believing that royals needed to work with society, Albert began his activities at home. Albert is widely credited with having placed the organisation of the royal household on a stable and organised footing. He ensured it operated within budget, put in place streamlined and efficient staff, and began the professional management of royal collections and properties. This was important: mismanagement of the household had previously caused public scandal, as Victoria had found to her cost during the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839.
Albert’s influence ultimately reached far beyond the household, however. After the old Palace of Westminster burnt down in 1834 new buildings had been created for Parliament, and it was Albert who was appointed Chair of the Commission to oversee the decoration of the new Palace. Given Albert’s cultural knowledge, particularly of Germanic and Italian artists, this appointment to raise the profile of British artists and designers was significant, and the job also brought him into close contact with members of Parliament, especially the new Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.
While Peel was a Tory, he supported the introduction of free trade, in the face of overwhelming opposition in his own party from aristocratic landowners who feared a loss of income if foreign landowners could export their food into Britain. Albert’s support for Peel demonstrated his pro-industrial leanings, and when Peel was forced to resign and join forces with the incoming Liberal administration of Lord John Russell, which implemented free trade, Albert clearly supported this cross-party alliance.
British admiration for Germanic scholarship as well as Albert’s liberal, modernising outlook on education were behind his election in 1847 as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Educational reformers saw in Albert the best means of overturning the Anglican Church’s iron grip on scholarship, and introducing a curriculum fit for the modern world. They would not be disappointed: this was exactly the direction in which Albert led Oxbridge, and with it higher education across England.
Most significant of all, at least for Albert’s profile and influence, was his association with the Society of Arts, of which he was appointed President in 1843. The (later Royal) Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce brought together men committed to social and economic modernisation, and under Albert’s leadership in the late 1840s they explored public exhibitions as a means of achieving their aims. Albert’s support for the organisation of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park (close to Kensington Palace), his active involvement as Chairman of the Royal Commission the same year, and the enormous success of the event meant he, and the monarchy, were now viewed as being in tune with industrious, modern Britain. Albert’s leadership of the development of the South Kensington estate – bought with the profits of 1851 and now home to Imperial College London, the V&A, Science and Natural History Museums, the Royal Albert Hall, and many other august institutions – confirmed this association.
Creating the royal brand
Through his engagement with organisations and public movements, Albert showed how royals could actively involve themselves in order to manufacture and manipulate their public image and strengthen their position. While most European monarchs would lose their crowns in 1848, it was arguably due to the British public’s belief that their monarchy supported them that they retained theirs.
Proving the adage that lovers prove the best teachers, Queen Victoria quickly learned from Albert’s guidance and example, as can be seen in the current Victoria: Woman and Crown exhibition at Kensington Palace. After his tragic early death in 1861, Victoria developed this mode of action, ensuring her grip not just on the British Isles but on the whole British Empire. Together, Albert and Victoria demonstrated how monarchs might survive in a modern democratic environment.
Professor John R Davis
Director of MA in Heritage Management at Historic Royal Palaces