Thankless consorting


June 27, 1997

One of the great paradoxes of Victorian Britain is that a society we are constantly told was patriarchal, was ruled over by a woman. No contemporary could have been more aware of this than the Queen's consort, Prince Albert.

For Albert many of the standard male and female roles were reversed. The second son of a minor German ruler, his life chances depended upon his making a good marriage. His qualifications were his lineage and his looks. If it was the former which enabled his uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians, himself previously married to an heiress to the British throne, to bring him to Victoria's attention as a suitor, it was his good looks which caused his cousin, the queen, to select him and, eventually, propose to him.

An intelligent, serious and determined man, thus found himself at an alien court in a country whose ways he hardly understood and of whose language he had little command. He was the queen's husband but far from her equal. On his marriage he became His Royal, as opposed to a mere Serene, Highness. But although the wives of kings become queen consorts automatically, British public opinion was little enamoured of minor German princes and Parliament was as little inclined to agree to a loftier title for Albert as it was to give him a generous financial settlement. When Victoria mooted the idea of making him King Consort to her prime minister, Lord Melbourne's response was robust: "For God's sake, let's hear no more about it ma'am; for if you once get the English people in the way of making kings, you will get them into the way of unmaking them."

Never popular with the British public, Albert had to wait until 1857 to be made Prince Consort.

Stanley Weintraub finds a clue to Albert's feelings about his subordinate position in the painting "Omphale and Hercules" by Anton von Gegenaur that covered most of the wall opposite the prince's bathtub: "The seductive young woman, dandled on the broad thigh of the muscular god and clad only in alabaster flesh and a head scarf, is in Greek myth the queen of Lydia, who once kept Hercules as her sex slave ... Foreshadowing Albert's public role, the Omphale-Hercules relationship also represented a stage in the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy, for as the Queen's consort Hercules often ceremonially deputised for her."

Albert as Victoria's sex slave, the object of her hearty Hanoverian sexual appetite, is an astonishing and provocative thought, which leads even those of us who doubt there was ever anything overtly sexual in Victoria's subsequent relationship with her sturdy highland servant, John Brown, to ponder on the psychosexual nature of her fondness for him.

Yet as Weintraub demonstrates, a limited patriarchy did emerge from under the skirts of the monarchy and develop within the royal household, the result both of Albert's personality and Victoria's many pregnancies. Albert's influence upon Victoria and upon Victorian Britain was considerable.

It was Albert who turned Victoria into a Victorian. Before her marriage the young Queen had, despite her strict upbringing and declaration of "I will be good", shown signs that she had more in common with her father's generation of the House of Hanover than has been recognised. The first years of her reign had shown her to have been pleasure loving, imperious, wilful and too much the political partisan. With marriage came an end to late nights and the beginning of a cosy domesticity, which considering the couple spoke to each other in German most of the time, is aptly described as gemutlich. This domesticity was very much for the family and was accompanied by a strict formality, German royals being punctilious about correct etiquette, for courtiers and visitors, who found the court dull and uncomfortable. Albert's un-English seriousness and strictness were imparted at least superficially to the queen and had, in Weintraub's view, found in mid-19th-century Britain their "time and place". They were, in time, to be considered a hallmark of the reign.

More importantly Albert was able to gain influence. The queen's combination of lassitude, depression and irresponsibility made her entrust more and more of her duties to her husband and he was able to stamp his own notions of the role of a constitutional monarch upon the British monarchy. He conceived of a monarchy above politics but with political influence, nonpartisan but influential. Weintraub sees him as seeking "to mould monarchy into a conspicuous pulpit as well as a national symbol". By the end of his life Albert had achieved much of his vision of a modern monarchy: one of his last acts, the amending of a bellicose message from Palmerston to the American secretary of state after the interception of the British ship Trent by a US warship, may have avoided war with the US; the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been to a great extent his creation; he had helped to modernise the British army and the British universities; and had done much to elevate the tastes and ameliorate the social conditions of British society. Save in select, if influential middle-class circles, he was not much thanked for all this. He was never much liked by the conservative and pleasure-loving aristocracy and lower classes, neither of which cared much for pulpits, royal or otherwise. His ideal monarchy was to die with him and, thanks to Victoria's withdrawal from public life and the character of the Prince of Wales, a largely symbolic monarchy was to be the pattern of the future. Perhaps this was just as well; an Albertine monarchy depended upon an Albert.

It cannot have been a happy life. Disliked by the public, lampooned by the press and frustrated by British politics, which persisted in presenting him with the uncongenial Lord Palmerston as foreign minister and then prime minister, his achievements were gained against the grain of his adopted nation. The nadir of his unpopularity came early in 1854 when credulous crowds waited before the Tower of London expecting Albert to be sent there as a traitor. Nor did his marriage, for all the children, the warm family circle, suggested by the Christmas tree which he and Victoria turned into a national tradition, and the havens from an intrusive world at Osborne and Balmoral, fulfil its early promise. Victoria loved Albert fiercely and possessively and he responded with dutiful affection but she became ever more demanding, had little liking for babies and small children and made the last years of his life a torment with her complaints and scenes. His eldest son proved a great disappointment and, though he took comfort from his close relationship with the intelligent and serious Princess Royal, her marriage to Prince Frederick William of Prussia deprived him of a fond companion.

Stanley Weintraub has written a sensitive and sympathetic biography of an intelligent and dutiful man who died worn out in the very literal service of queen and country. The queen's mourning, excessive even by Victorian standards, may well have reflected guilt after her fits of petulance and rage inflicted on her adored husband. The country too esteemed him greatly once he was dead but, while alive, Albert "the good" had never been one of us.

A. W. Purdue is senior lecturer in history, Open University.

Albert: Uncrowned King

Author - Stanley Weintraub
ISBN - 0 7195 5756 9
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 478

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