December 13, 2021

For four weeks Prince Albert trailed sleeplessly around Windsor Castle, suffering from a mysterious illness that, when a rash appeared on his stomach, was thought to be typhoid. He’d fallen ill chasing after his libertine son Bertie, the future Edward VII, who had brought a scandalous woman to Cambridge from America. On his way back from a vain attempt to instil moral discipline in the wayward boy, Albert was caught in the cold November rain. He’d been exhausted even before he visited Bertie and predicted his demise: “I do not cling to life; you do; but I set no store by it,” he wrote to Victoria. “I am sure that if I had a severe illness I should give up at once.”

He died December 14, 1861, leaving Victoria to her famously prolonged and expressive grief. Victorian medicine gave him a sorry end: on the day before he died, he was doped with brandy every half hour. This was the shattering conclusion to one of the great nineteenth century romances. Two cousins who had met young and married passionately were tragically torn apart. But as Albert’s comment about setting no store by life suggests, the marriage was not always the fairytale it was supposed to be.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

Albert had been ill for years: rheumatic, depressed, full of stomach cramps, shivering in between bouts of diarrhoea. But he had not always been a sickly royal. In his short time as Victoria’s consort, Albert transformed the monarchy and Britain. Those 42 years had been enough for him to achieve in a lifetime what most people couldn’t dream of in a dozen. He is a model of hard work, someone who ought to be an object of fascination to Progress Studies for his ability to see the big picture and the details, and to get things done.

The wonders of his name form a dizzying list. Without Albert, we would never have had the V&A, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College. That swath of South Kensington was based on his vision and paid for by money raised by the Great Exhibition, which he enabled and promoted. His proposals for affordable, sanitary housing for the poor were presented there.

Albert was a reformer. He built a close relationship with Robert Peel, the prime minister who revoked the Corn Laws, thus making bread affordable for labourers. When he was appointed Chancellor of Cambridge, the syllabus was limited to Maths and the Classics; only 40 students each year took honours degrees. He introduced the chance to study Moral Sciences and the Natural Sciences; he also proposed using the colleges’ income from rents to fund 700 places for poor students. In 1843, Albert drove through the streets of Birmingham, side-by-side with the radical mayor, and was cheered by republican Chartists: he put the monarchy in touch with the people.

He also rudely awakened it to a new century of industrialisation, capitalism and technology. When he married Victoria, the royal household was still roasting 12 large joints of meat a day, and hundreds of candles were replaced overnight, irrespective of use. The monarchy was a sleepy old institution on the brink of republicanism. Albert was sent to save it.

Albert tamed and tightened the royal household: he made it solvent and relevant. But he also tamed and tightened Victoria. The man behind the monuments is every bit as impressive as he is imagined to be, but like so many great Victorian men he combined public marvels with a darker domestic side. Victoria was broken into his expectations of a tradwife. This wasn’t just standard Victorian patriarchal dominance. As A.N.Wilson wrote in his absorbing biography of Albert — the first one since the 19th century — says: “Albert had entered wholeheartedly into the idea that he was being groomed and prepared to become Britain’s Enlightened Despot. Only the Little Woman on the throne was thwarting his ambition.” As well as being a beacon of progress and hard work, Albert’s life is a cautionary tale about how easily the pursuit of good deeds in a naughty world can become self-defeating and cruel.

When he was first married, Albert had complained: “The difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, and not the master in the house.” As with all his other achievements, he worked hard to establish things the way he thought they ought to be. After the first pregnancy started Albert moved his desk next to Victoria’s; when the child was born, she gave him the keys to Cabinet boxes. From here on, Albert expanded and maintained huge informal power, keeping, as Jane Ridley said, “a vigilant watch over all departments of government.”

He worked like a Catherine wheel. As Victoria had seven children in ten years — which for her involved depression and incapacitation — he became her de facto private secretary. Day and night, Albert drafted and copied letters. When Victoria wrote to her ministers, Albert influenced her, dictated to her, or wrote the letter himself. (Peel thought Albert’s endless letters were part of what made being Prime Minister unendurable.) He worked himself into an early grave trying to secure the power he thought should be his. In all this work, Alfred was, as Stanley Weintraub said, the uncrowned king.

Albert manipulated Victoria, making her account for her moods and tempers. If she got angry, he would be silent, later sending her belittling notes admonishing her lack of self-control. These letters sometimes began, “Dear Child”. To help “improve” herself, Victoria kept a notebook of her shortcomings, writing down any instances when she had irritated or upset Albert, noting her failures to hold her tongue. If Albert was satisfied, he would give her a good certificate of improvement. He manipulated Victoria during a post-natal depression, lying about her childhood governess to have the woman removed from the household. This left Albert as the sole influence.

The effect of his disturbing treatment of Victoria is nowhere more evident than in the letters she wrote to their daughter Vicky after Albert died. So controlled had Queen Victoria been that for years afterwards she could barely do or think anything unless she felt her daughter’s “Dear Papa” — her Angel — would have approved. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Victoria would have been treated far better by her husband if she hadn’t been unfortunate enough to be Queen.

The bullying was partly the result of their very different tempers. Before Albert, Victoria was a London girl who liked court life, with all its drinking, dancing, socialising and late nights. Before Victoria, Albert had been known to stay up until a reasonable hour playing sober games of dominoes. Albert took Victoria away from court life — quite literally — by establishing private royal residences on the Isle of Wight and in Scotland, living as if by Cowper’s dictum that “God made the country, and man made the town”. She followed because she was infatuated; he showed fewer signs of being in love with her.

His concern was to maintain bourgeois values, which were politically important. Victoria had to distance herself from her “wicked uncles”, the generation of Georgian and Regency rolling stones who had diminished the monarchy’s reputation; obese, dissolute, licentious and lecherous sybarites, her immediate predecessors William IV and George IV were the model of everything Victoria and Albert weren’t going to be. (Albert also had no-good relatives of his own to escape: his parents had both ended up in the middle of all sorts of scandals and had eventually divorced. Albert’s father then chose his own niece for his second wife.)

We are used to a big royal family with a clear line of succession. It wasn’t like that before Victoria. Victoria’s second child, born in 1841, was the first Prince of Wales since 1762, when George III’s eldest son had been born. George III’s sons fathered plenty of children, but almost none of them was legitimate. Other than Victoria, the only heir was Princess Charlotte, who died in childbirth, leaving Victoria as the future monarch. If Victoria had died, the throne would have gone to Ernst, Duke of Cumberland, later King of Hannover, a notorious Right-winger rumoured to have murdered his valet and fathered a child with his sister.

With Victoria and Albert’s family, therefore, the monarchy was stabilising. As the world grew increasingly modern, they were a bulwark of traditional values. It wasn’t just the old-world feel of the gold coaches and mock-medieval robes that gave The Firm its publicity niche. Being a good old-fashioned family was (and is) essential to future success. The famous Winterhalter portrait of Albert and Victoria surrounded by their adorable children linked them with a middle class ideal of family. Their nine offspring were a sign that the Royal Family was respectable again, not Regency.

At Christmas, this message was broadcast far and wide. A popular etching of Albert, Victoria and their children admiring their newly decorated tree in 1848 makes the Winterhalter portrait look subtle. Albert is credited for starting the craze for Christmas trees in this country — the Victorian equivalent of Kate Middleton’s clothes selling out within hours of her wearing them.

William and Kate have just released their latest Christmas family portrait. It is as respectable and aspirational as a Boden catalogue and has more than a touch of Winterhalter about it. Taken on their “private vacation”, it owes a significant debt to Albert’s bourgeoise model. The Royal Family is still living in his shadow. And some of them, of course, are still struggling with the fact that not everyone can live up to his ideals.