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On this day in history in 1861, died Prince Albert.
Albert was the husband of Queen Victoria, who became unpopular for attempting to interfere in the government, but reorganised the royal court, and brought back Christmas after it almost disappeared in the Industrial Revolution.
Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was born at Schloss Rosenau, Coburg, Germany, the second son of the Duke of Saxony. His childhood was scarred by his parents' turbulent marriage which ended when his mother was exiled from the court and barred from seeing her children again, due to an affair with a German baron. Albert was educated in Brussels and at the University of Bonn, where he studied natural sciences, politics and philosophy and where he excelled in fencing.
Albert first met Victoria when he accompanied his elder brother Ernst on a visit to Kensington Palace, where his brother was intent on courting the then Princess Victoria, heir to the throne. Victoria brusquely rejected Ernst and selected Albert as her ideal match. On coming to the throne in 1839, the young queen proposed to Albert and they were married in 1840.
Albert was granted the style of ‘His Royal Highness’, and in 1857, was given the title ‘Prince Consort’. Although married to the queen, he had no official function in the government, although he effectively became the queen’s private secretary and advised on diplomatic matters. He advised Victoria to abandon her support for the Whig party and become politically neutral, a policy continued by all succeeding monarchs. Albert advised diplomatic negotiation in disputes with Prussia in 1856, and with the United States in 1861, thereby avoiding war with those nations. After Albert’s death, Victoria took decisions on the basis of ‘what Albert would have done’. Sadly, Albert’s motives were mistrusted by politicians, who thought of him as a foreign interloper, and his involvement in political affairs was severely limited.
Albert consequently became involved in comparatively minor public affairs. He designed Osborne House, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight, designed with British produced materials, rather than the ornate French style then fashionable, producing a cost effective country seat. He rooted out waste and inefficiency in the running of Buckingham Palace, saving a great expense to the privy purse. He successfully managed the Great Exhibition of 1851, at the Crystal Palace, a showpiece of British and foreign manufactured merchandise, as a means of bringing the best products to the attention of British artisans and entrepreneurs. This was despite vigorous opposition from politicians who saw the event as undermining Britain’s perceived grasp of the market in manufactured goods. The Exhibition made a profit of £186,000, which was invested in land in south Kensington, to establish educational and cultural institutions, including what would later be called the Victoria and Albert Museum. This area of London is now sometimes referred to as Albertopolis.
Although cut off from mainstream government, Albert involved himself in promoting diplomatic functions, including music and dancing. It is said that Albert, when dancing with ladies of the court, wearing the fashionable tight trousers of the day, would occasionally be embarrassed by the rising of his penis. In order to suppress any untoward movements, he would secure his appendage with a gold chain, keeping it from ascending beyond the length of the chain’s links. In the late Nineteenth century watch chains became known as ‘alberts’. It must be said that this story is unproved and is highly dubious.
Albert resuscitated the celebration of Christmas, which had almost died out during the Industrial Revolution. He imported the Christmas tree from Germany and decorated the palace with holly and mistletoe. He held parties and balls at the Christmas season and sent Christmas cards to everybody he knew, in order to remind them that Christmas needed celebrating, and the practice soon became widespread.
In 1861, Albert was struck down what appeared to be influenza, but proved to be typhoid fever and congestion of the lungs. He died suddenly on 14 December 1861. Victoria was distraught and never recovered from the loss. She dressed in black for the rest of her life. Albert is buried in the Royal Mausoleum at Windsor, alongside Victoria, who died in 1901. [Frogmore House, Frogmore, Windsor, SL4 2JG. Occasionally open to the public. Admission fee]
Weintraub, Stanley. Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert.
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