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This article was written by Theodore Martin and was published in 1885
Albert Francis Charles Augustus Emmanuel, Prince Consort of England, was the second of the two sons of Ernest, duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and of his wife Louise, daughter of Augustus, duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. He was born at the Rosenau, a summer residence of his father's near Coburg, 26 August 1819, rather less than a year after his brother Ernest, now duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They were the only children of the marriage, which terminated in 1824 by a separation, followed in 1826 by a divorce. Although thus early deprived of his mother's care, the prince always retained a vivid recollection of her sweet and fascinating manners and her great beauty. She died at St. Wendel, in Switzerland, in 1831, at the age of thirty-two, after a long and painful illness, never having seen her sons after her separation from their father.
The mother's place in watching over the childhood and youth of the young princes was admirably filled by their grandmothers on both father's and mother's side. Albert was a beautiful child, and as winning by his intelligence and playful humour as he was handsome. In 1820 his uncle, Prince Leopold, when on a visit to Coburg, saw him for the first time. The boy formed an extraordinary attachment to him, was ‘never happy except when near him.’ His uncle shared the feeling, and thus began an intimacy which deepened into a lifelong affection on both sides.
The grandmothers were both remarkable women, accomplished, gifted with strong sense and warm hearts. They vied with each other who should show most attention to the two boys, but were careful not to spoil them. In their earliest years they were most under the eye of their maternal grandmother, and, their riotous spirits having become rather oppressive to the good old lady, they were placed, while at the respective ages of four and five, under the guardianship of a Mr. Florschütz as their tutor. The maternal grandmother dreaded evil from the care of children so young being entrusted to a man. But though he was still so young that he liked to be carried up and down stairs, the Prince Albert hailed the change with delight, having from infancy shown a great dislike to being in the charge of women.
The young princes could not have been better placed. Mr. Florschütz was a thoroughly competent tutor. He loved the boys, and they loved and respected him. Albert was his favourite. ‘Every grace,’ are his own words, ‘had been showered by nature on this charming boy. Every eye rested on him with delight, and he won the hearts of all.’ From the first his love for acquiring knowledge was remarkable. He learned quickly and retained what he learned. Though far from strong, he carried the same ardour into his sports as into his studies, and in both established a superiority over his companions. To excel in all he undertook was his aim. Sweetness was combined in his character with force then as in his more mature years. His great earnestness and purity of disposition, together with a cheerful joyous spirit, and a keen sense of the ludicrous, became more marked as he grew up from boyhood into youth, as well as a great consideration for the feelings of others, by no means usual at that age.
His education covered a range of subjects well fitted to prepare him for the practical business of life. The study of history, geography, mathematics, philosophy, religion, Latin, and the modern European languages was relieved by practice in music and drawing, for both of which the prince showed a decided talent. He was an eager and exact observer of natural objects, for which the country round Coburg presented a rich field, and together with his brother he formed a collection of birds, butterflies, stones, and shells, which subsequently formed the nucleus of the ‘Albert-Ernest Museum,’ now deposited in the Festung at Coburg. In his boyish rambles he acquired the habit of accurate observation, and delight in the sights and sounds of a country life, for which in after years he was distinguished. ‘Nothing,’ we are told, ‘could exceed the intense enjoyment with which a fine or commanding view inspired the young prince.’ So it was with him to the last. No feature of a fine landscape, no fluctuation of a fine sky escaped his notice. And as he saw outward objects in their just proportion and relations, so in dealing with the facts and phenomena of history, of politics, or social life, the same keenness of insight and the same precision of estimate were apparent.
When old enough to join in the field sports which in his native country are the prescriptive pastime of his class, he proved to be an excellent shot; but, as in after life, he cared for the pursuit of game chiefly for the exercise and the open-air life as a tonic and the recreation of a few hours. As he often said in later life, he could never understand people ‘making a business of shooting and going out for the whole day.’ To him the mixture of active exercise with the severe studies to which he gave himself in youth, with the definite purpose, as he wrote (1830) to his father, of making himself ‘a good and useful man,’ proved of great value. The delicate child grew up a strong, active, thoroughly healthy youth.
The young princes remained at home till 1832, when they made a short visit to their uncle, now King Leopold, at Brussels. In 1835 they visited the court of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and afterwards that of Berlin, and produced at both places a most favourable impression. They then made a tour to Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Pesth, and Ofen, and returned to Coburg, where Prince Albert resumed his studies with fresh enthusiasm.
Meanwhile the development of the prince's character was being watched by anxious and observant eyes. The idea that his brother or himself would be a fitting mate for the young Princess Victoria of England had been from the first entertained in the family. The Dowager Duchess of Coburg had settled in her own mind that both by mental and moral qualities Prince Albert would prove well fitted to enable her grandchild to bear ‘the dangerous grandeur of royalty,’ and on the duchess's death in November 1831 her views were adopted by her son King Leopold.
In 1836 it became a certainty that the Princess Victoria would succeed to the throne at no very distant date. Of the several aspirants for her hand, King Leopold, who, since the death of the Duke of Kent, had fulfilled the duties of a father to the young princess, thought that none was so qualified to make her happy as her cousin Albert. But in a matter of such grave importance he would not trust his own judgment. He therefore called to his assistance his old and tried friend, Baron Christian Friedrich von Stockmar, on whose penetrating judgment of men and things, as well as fearless independence, the king knew by long experience that he might place implicit trust.
Stockmar, after seeing Leopold fairly established as king of the Belgians, had retired to his native town of Coburg. Stockmar knew and loved the young princess. He had hoped to see the Princess Charlotte filling the throne by the side of his master and friend Prince Leopold, and to aid them in making monarchy in England a model of what a monarchy might be. That hope was extinguished by the untimely death of the princess in 1817. But now it seemed as though it might be revived by the union of the cousins, if the high qualities required to satisfy Stockmar's austere judgment should be found in the young Prince Albert. Writing to King Leopold in the beginning of 1836, Stockmar speaks of the prince ‘as a fine young fellow, well grown, with agreeable and valuable qualities,’ with an English look, prepossessing in person, and with ‘a kindly, simple, yet dignified demeanour.’ As to mind he has heard much to the prince's credit; but he must observe him longer before he can form a judgment upon his capacity and the probable development of his character. ‘He is said to be circumspect, discreet, and even now cautious. But all this is not enough. He ought to have not merely great ability, but a right ambition and great force of will as well. To pursue for a lifetime a political career so arduous demands more than energy and inclination; it demands also that earnest frame of mind which is ready of its own accord to sacrifice mere pleasure to real usefulness.’
Within the next few months Stockmar had the opportunity of observing the prince closely, and he satisfied himself that his mind and character were such that time and training were alone wanted to develop in him the qualities which Stockmar demanded as essential for the high vocation for which the prince's uncle designed him. But in the selection of her future consort he stipulated that the Princess Victoria must be left wholly unfettered, and, before any claim for her hand was preferred, an impression in the prince's favour must first have been produced. The cousins must meet, and neither must be aware of the object of their meeting, ‘so as to leave them completely at their ease.’
In May 1836 the Duke of Coburg came to England with his two sons, and remained there for about four weeks. The secret was kept, but the desired impression was produced. Finding this to be the case, King Leopold, almost simultaneously with the prince leaving England, made his niece aware of what his wishes were. The Princess Victoria's answer showed that these were in accordance with her own. The prince was, however, still kept in the dark, but a plan for his education was laid out, with a view to the possibility of his becoming the prince consort of the Queen of England. Brussels was selected by Baron Stockmar as the place most favourable for the requisite personal training and political study. The prince would there be under the eye and influence of his uncle, who was working out the problem of constitutional government in a country where it had been previously unknown. To Brussels accordingly the prince and his brother went in 1836, and here they remained for ten months, closely occupied with the study of history and European languages. To these the Prince Albert added the higher mathematics and the application of the law of probabilities to social and natural phenomena. His guide in these was M. Quetelet, the eminent statist and mathematician, to whose instructions the prince always acknowledged himself to be deeply indebted.
From Brussels the princes went in April 1837 to Bonn, where they continued to prosecute their studies for the next eighteen months. ‘Amongst all the young men of the university,’ writes his friend Prince William of Löwenstein, ‘Albert was distinguished by his knowledge, his diligence, and his amiable bearing in society. He liked above all things to discuss questions of public law and metaphysics, and constantly, during our many weeks, juridical principles or philosophical doctrines were thoroughly discussed.’ At the same time the prince excelled in all manly exercises. In a fencing match he carried off the prize from about thirty competitors. To music he was passionately devoted, and had already shown considerable skill as a composer. He entered with eagerness, again to quote the same friend, ‘into every study in which he engaged, whether belonging to science or art. He spared no exertion, either of mind or body; on the contrary, he rather sought difficulties in order to overcome them. The result was such an harmonious development of his powers and faculties as is very seldom arrived at.’
Soon after the prince had settled in Bonn the death of William IV (20 June 1837) opened the succession to the throne to the Princess Victoria, then only eighteen. To this event the prince could not be indifferent, and he heard with great satisfaction of the ‘astonishing self-possession’ shown by the young queen in the difficult and trying position to which she had been so suddenly called. ‘Now,’ he writes to her (26 June), ‘you are queen of the mightiest land of Europe, in your hand lies the happiness of millions. May Heaven assist you and strengthen you with its strength in that high but difficult task! I hope that your reign may be long, happy, and glorious, and that your efforts may be rewarded by the thankfulness and love of your subjects.’
The autumn vacation of 1837 was spent by the two young princes in a walking tour through Switzerland and the north of Italy. On their return to Bonn the prince applied himself to his studies with renewed energy. By this time he must have been well aware of the possible great, but most responsible, future before him, and he set himself strenuously to prepare for its duties. The subject was not, however, broached to him by his uncle, King Leopold, till the beginning of 1838, during a visit of the prince to Brussels. In a letter from the king to Baron Stockmar, recounting what had passed, he says: ‘If I am not very much mistaken, Albert possesses all the qualities required to fit him for the position which he will occupy in England. His understanding is sound, his apprehension clear and rapid, and his heart in the right place. He has great powers of observation and possesses singular prudence, and there is nothing about him that can be called cold or morose.’ He also already displayed that ‘remarkable power of self-control’ which, often tested in his later life, never failed him under the most trying circumstances.
On leaving the university of Bonn it was arranged that the prince should make a tour in Italy, accompanied by Baron Stockmar. Up to this time the prince had known very little of Stockmar, and he was therefore a little surprised at being thus sought out by a comparative stranger. But Stockmar had been more than once through Italy with King Leopold, and this appeared the natural explanation. Florence, Rome, and Naples were visited in succession, and in each the prince left no object of interest unnoticed. He was naturally much courted in society, but showed a marked disinclination to its dissipations, grudging the time it abstracted from his graver studies, or from intercourse with the distinguished men of the country. From Naples he turned back towards Coburg, taking Rome, Tivoli, Viterbo, Sienna, Leghorn, Lucca, Genoa, and Milan on the way. The prince felt that this tour had been of great service to him in extending his range of observation and increasing his power of forming right judgments. He had found Stockmar's society to be ‘most precious and valuable,’ while, on the other hand, he had established a hold upon that austere but invaluable mentor's heart, which grew closer and dearer with every future year.
In a memorandum by Baron Stockmar of the estimate formed by him of the prince's character during the Italian tour he notes that ‘his constitution cannot be called strong, but that with proper dietetic management it might easily gain strength and stability.’ He adds that ‘great exertion is repugnant to him, and his tendency is to spare himself both morally and physically,’ a tendency of which the prince most effectually cured himself within a very short period. More remarkable was his other peculiarity, which was no less signally overcome, that the prince showed ‘not the slightest interest in politics. Even while the most important events are in progress, and their issues undecided, he does not care to look into a newspaper;’ and this at the time was no doubt true of the man who, as the years advanced, allowed no incident of domestic or foreign politics to escape his notice, and concentrated the whole force of his mind upon their changing phases and possible eventualities. Stockmar's lessons on these points sank deeply into the prince's mind, and on his return to Coburg he set himself the task of making himself master of English history and language.
But the progress of events had now made it desirable that the Princess Victoria's marriage should not be much longer delayed. She was herself by no means inclined to hurry it on; but the prince having, by his uncle's desire, come to England with his brother (10 October 1839), his presence quickly produced a very altered feeling. ‘Albert's beauty,’ said the queen, in writing her first impressions to King Leopold, ‘is most striking, and he is most amiable and unaffected — in short, fascinating.’ On 14 October the queen made Lord Melbourne aware that the conquest of her heart was complete, much to the satisfaction of her prime minister. Not less was the delight of King Leopold on hearing from the queen that the wish he had cherished for years was about to be realised: ‘I had,’ he writes to her (24 October 1839), ‘when I learned your decision, almost the feeling of old Simeon: “Now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace!” Your choice has been for some years my conviction of what might and would be best for your happiness.
On the prince's side it was no less clear that his heart was deeply engaged. ‘Victoria,’ he wrote (16 October) to Baron Stockmar, ‘is so good and kind to me, that I am often puzzled to believe that I should be the object of so much affection. I know the interest you take in my happiness, and therefore pour out my heart to you.’ Stockmar heard the news with pleasure, but accompanied his congratulations with earnest counsels as to the future conduct of the prince. They accorded with the principles which the prince had thought out for himself. ‘An individuality,’ he wrote in reply, ‘a character which shall win the respect, the love, and the confidence of the queen and of the nation, must be the keystone of my position.’ He foresaw the many difficulties which must inevitably surround his position. But, as he wrote to his stepmother, ‘life has its thorns in every position, and the consciousness of having used one's powers and endeavours for an object so great as that of promoting the welfare of so many will surely be sufficient to support me.’ Prophetic words, because they were spoken from the settled conviction which never afterwards wavered or slept. Not less prophetic were the words of Stockmar (15 December): ‘If the prince really possess the love of the queen and the respect of the nation, I will answer for it that after every storm he will come safely into port.’
Meanwhile the prince was the happiest of lovers; his joy was tempered by the humility which enters into all noble love. ‘What am I,’ he writes to the queen (21 November), ‘that such happiness should be mine? For excess of happiness it is for me to know that I am so dear to you.’ Not all the splendour of the alliance could reconcile the grandmother at Gotha to losing the idol of her affection. ‘I cannot rejoice,’ she wrote to the prince's father. To his brother it was no less hard to part with him. ‘I love and esteem him more than any one on earth,’ he wrote to the queen (19 December). ‘Guided by his own clear sense,’ he added, ‘Albert always walked calmly and steadily in the right path. In the greatest difficulties that may meet you in your eventful life, you may repose the most entire confidence in him. And then only will you feel how great a treasure you possess in him.’
The prince left Gotha on 28 January 1840, followed by the earnest good wishes, but also by the regrets, of his countrymen of all classes. He reached Dover on 6 February, and was met with the heartiest welcome, which attended him all along the route till he reached Buckingham Palace on the 8th. The announcement of the marriage had given general satisfaction. Some absurd doubts as to the prince's protestant convictions had in the meantime been raised, only to be swept away, and a movement had been made in the House of Commons to reduce his annuity from £50,000, the sum proposed by Lord Melbourne, to £21,000. This motion had been negatived, but another, moved by Colonel Sibthorp and supported by Sir Robert Peel and his friends, was carried, reducing it to £30,000. This seemed for the moment not to augur well for the prince's popularity; but if any feeling of this kind rested in his mind, it vanished before the cordiality with which he was hailed by the crowds who turned out to give him welcome from the moment he set his foot on the English shore.
His demeanour at the marriage in the chapel of St. James's Palace (10 February) deepened the favourable impression which his appearance had produced — young and handsome as he was, and bearing himself with a quiet grace and dignity quite exceptional. The morning had been wet and dark, but before the sovereign and her husband left Buckingham Palace the sun had broken out with peculiar brilliancy, so that they were well seen by the thousands who lined the roads from the one palace to the other. ‘There cannot exist a dearer, purer, nobler being in the world than the prince,’ were the queen's words in writing to Baron Stockmar the next day. Of this faith he was to prove himself eminently worthy.
A man of a character so marked and a disposition so resolute was sure to find it no easy matter to obtain the independence and power with which alone he could be satisfied. There were naturally in the royal household some who were reluctant to surrender the control which had hitherto been in their hands; there were others who scarcely concealed their disappointment that the queen had selected her husband from abroad. All was happiness between the queen and himself, but so early as the following May the prince wrote to his friend, Prince von Löwenstein: ‘The difficulty in filling my place with the proper dignity is that I am only the husband, and not the master in the house.’ Such a state of things could not last long, when the queen herself was determined that in all matters, save those of state, the paramount authority was to be conceded to the husband whom she had vowed to obey as well as to love. Her example was enough to quell resistance; and the prince's own tact, forbearance, and superior grasp of mind were not long in removing every obstacle to his legitimate authority.
His position with regard to public affairs was more delicate and difficult. Being what he was, it was impossible he should not engage in the study of politics domestic and foreign, so as to be in a position to assist the queen in forming just conclusions in regard to all matters affecting the welfare of her kingdom, as well as upon those which affected her family and home. So late as October 1838 Baron Stockmar had been struck with the prince's indifference to politics. This indifference was no longer possible, and he at once devoted himself to the study of them with as much conscientious zeal as if he had himself been the head of the state. At the same time he fully appreciated the just jealousy with which any active intervention in affairs of state would be regarded, and he laid it down as a rule never to expose himself to the charge of interference with the machinery of the state, or of encroachment on the functions or privileges of the sovereign. The principles on which he acted were thus expressed by himself ten years later, in a letter to the Duke of Wellington: ‘to sink his own individual existence in that of his wife — to aim at no power by himself or for himself — to shun all ostentation — to assume no separate responsibility before the public — to make his position entirely a part of hers — to fill up every gap which, as a woman, she would naturally leave in the exercise of her regal functions — continually and anxiously to watch every part of the public business, in order to be able to advise and assist her at any moment in any of the multifarious and difficult questions brought before her, political, social, or personal’ — to place all his time and powers at her command ‘as the natural head of her family, superintendent of her household, manager of her private affairs, her sole confidential adviser in politics, and only assistant in her communications with the officers of the government, her private secretary, and permanent minister.’
To fit himself for accomplishing all this was the work of time, and the prince had to feel his way cautiously, and to inspire confidence in his ability and tact, no less than in his freedom from personal ambition. In Stockmar's fearless independence and great knowledge of the working of the English constitution, as well as of the forces at work throughout all the continental states, he knew that he should find the best support. To him, therefore, he appealed ‘to sacrifice his time to him for the first year of his life in England.’ Stockmar loved the prince and queen so well; he felt so strongly of what supreme importance to England the right action of the prince might be, that he yielded to this request; and not only for this first year, but for many years afterwards, he was always ready to give to the prince the benefit of his great political sagacity and wide experience. As Stockmar, according to Lord Palmerston, was ‘one of the best political heads he had ever met with,’ and as, according to Bunsen, he was ‘honoured as one of the first’ statesmen of Europe, the gain to the prince was very great, and it was prized by him as inestimable. It was the condition of Stockmar's friendship that he should speak his mind freely. To none was candour, combined with clear insight, so precious as to the sovereign and her husband. The condition was therefore frankly accepted, and never infringed, for Stockmar's noble sincerity made him more and more dear to both as the years — years of great anxiety and political disturbance — advanced. His first lesson was to inculcate the necessity of entire neutrality as between the rival parties in the state. The queen, much under the influence of Lord Melbourne, her first minister, had previously to her marriage shown too marked a leaning towards the party of which he was the leader. Its fall was obviously not far off. The prince, who shared Stockmar's views as to the necessity for the crown maintaining absolute neutrality between whig and tory, had no difficulty in persuading the queen to hold out the olive branch to the party whose advent to power could not be much longer delayed.
The impression produced by the prince on those who came into contact with him in those early days was generally favourable. ‘The prince is liked,’ wrote the watchful Stockmar (14 February), and a few days later: ‘Those who are not carried away by party feelings like him greatly.’ His love of art, and his knowledge and skill in music, gave him occupation for his leisure hours, and led to his being called on to take a prominent part in the encouragement of both arts. In March he became one of the directors of the Ancient Concerts, and in arranging the programmes of these concerts, as well as those of the Philharmonic Society down to 1860, he did much to raise the standard of public taste in music. He took an active interest in all that was being done in painting and sculpture; he also let it be seen that he shared the public interest in the questions of the day. One of the most urgent of these was the abolition of the slave trade, and he presided at a meeting called to promote it, where he made the first of the compact and suggestive speeches for which he afterwards became distinguished. He never spoke in public without careful preparation, his view being that, as his utterances would be regarded as practically those of the sovereign, no word should be left to the chance of the moment.
By this time the opposition had in a great measure died down which had at first sprung up against the prince in the tory ranks. When, therefore, the queen being enceinte, a regency bill, to provide against the casualty of her death, became necessary, the bill appointing the prince as regent (introduced 13 July 1840) passed through both houses, the Duke of Sussex alone dissenting. This, Lord Melbourne told the queen, was entirely due to the prince's own character. ‘Three months ago they would not have done it for him.’
Having thus seen public acknowledgment made of the status of the prince, whom he had come to ‘love as a son,’ Stockmar retired to his quiet home at Coburg, addressing to him before he left (4 August) the admonition, ‘Never lose self-possession or patience; but, above all, at no time, and in no way, fail in princely worth and nobleness.’ The words were but the voice of the prince's own resolution, as his whole after life proved.
During the summer he went through a course of reading on the laws and constitution of England with Mr. Selwyn, author of the standard work on Nisi Prius, and at the same time read with the queen Hallam's Constitutional History of England. Acting on Lord Melbourne's advice, the queen communicated all foreign despatches to him. The Eastern question, on which England seemed likely to come into collision with France, was then pressing, and it was a good introduction to the study of foreign politics, of which the prince ultimately became thorough master. His Mentor, Stockmar, with whom he kept up a close correspondence, heard of this with pleasure, and urged him to study the despatches thoroughly, as ‘besides the great knowledge thus conveyed they would beget in him a taste for general politics, which, he added, was quite indispensable for the duties of his vocation.’
In November Stockmar came back to London on the urgent solicitation of the prince, who wished to have him near on the first accouchement of the queen, Stockmar being a skilled physician as well as a politician of the highest order. The Princess Charlotte had died with her hand in his twenty-four years before, when, had his warnings to her physicians been taken, her life might have been saved. All went happily now at the birth (21 November) of the princess royal, for the wise old physician's injunctions against excitement of every kind were rigidly enforced by the prince.
Stockmar remained in England till May 1841, assisting the prince with his counsels, and watching the development of his character with loving but sternly critical eyes. ‘Your royal highness's conduct,’ he wrote (7 May 1841), ‘should always be regulated by conviction, based upon a clear perception of what is true.’ He must be on his guard against whatever was false or mistaken in sentiment, and ‘never be satisfied with mere talk where action is alone appropriate.’ This was the task the prince must set before him, hard as it was; ‘it was worthy of him, within his power to achieve, and, unless achieved, it was idle for him to hope for any genuine triumph as a man or as a prince.’
When the letter containing these words reached the prince, the Melbourne administration was tottering to its fall. This event had been for some time apparent to the queen and prince, and he used his influence to prepare the way with the queen for a change which could not be contemplated by her majesty without some degree of pain, attached as she was to Lord Melbourne and his friends. Party spirit ran high. The tories thought that on a former occasion they had not been fairly treated by Lord Melbourne's party, and it was important that they should have no room for complaint should the turn of events place Sir Robert Peel in power. A debate on a vote of no confidence, which left the ministry in a minority of ninety-one (28 August 1841), brought about this result. In Lord Melbourne the queen lost not only a first minister, but also a very dear friend, and to her the separation was necessarily most painful. At this moment the kindness and tact of the prince smoothed every difficulty. It was a source of great satisfaction, both to Lord Melbourne and the queen, that in resigning his position he was able to assure her majesty that he had ‘formed the highest opinion of the prince's judgment, temper, and discretion;’ that his ‘advice and assistance would be of inestimable advantage’ to the queen, and that she could not ‘do better than have recourse to it, whenever it was needed, and rely on it with confidence.’
The change of ministry was effected with satisfaction on all sides. Sir R. Peel used afterwards to say that, on first coming into official contact with the prince, he felt no slight embarrassment, remembering that the curtailment of the prince's income was in a great measure due to the support he had given to Colonel Sibthorp's motion the previous year. But the prince at once removed this feeling by the way he met him. Peel quickly formed a very high idea of the prince's powers, and in 1841 told Mr. Pemberton, afterwards Lord Kingsdown, that he would ‘find him one of the most extraordinary young men he had ever met with.’ This Lord Kingsdown records he found to be more than verified: ‘His aptitude for business was wonderful; the dullest and most intricate matters did not escape or weary his attention; his judgment was very good,’ and his temper admirable.
Peel placed the prince at the head of the royal commission appointed (October 1841) to inquire whether advantage might not be taken of the rebuilding of the houses of parliament to promote and encourage the fine arts in the United Kingdom. The commission included men of the first distinction in politics, art, and literature; and this was regarded by the prince himself as his real initiation into public life, by bringing him into intimate relations with so many leading public men. The secretary of the commission was Sir Charles Eastlake, who was surprised at the wide and accurate practical knowledge as well as the highly cultivated taste of the prince.
On 9 November 1841 the Prince of Wales was born. King Frederick William of Prussia, who was one of his sponsors, came to England to attend the christening on 25 January, and during his stay the foundation was laid of a friendship with the queen and prince, which was cemented by the confidential correspondence of future years.
The prince very early impressed Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen, as he had impressed Lord Melbourne, with the idea that his capacity and strong practical judgment would make his assistance to the queen in her political duties of the utmost value. This assistance her majesty showed that she thoroughly appreciated, and they saw with pleasure that the prince was determined to use the influence which he had gained with extreme modesty and within strictly constitutional limits. To secure his services to the state seemed to the ministry so important, that even at this early period (1842) his appointment as commander-in-chief, in the event of the Duke of Wellington's death, was privately contemplated by them. On the project being mooted by them to Baron Stockmar he decidedly set his face against it, for much the same reasons as were advanced by the prince when the acceptance of the office was pressed upon him by the duke himself in 1850. Stockmar seems to have known the English people better than their rulers did, and to have understood with what jealousy the appointment of a prince of foreign blood, of whom as yet they knew so little, to such an office would have been regarded.
The prince himself knew well that time and accumulated evidence of what he was were needed to win for him the confidence of the nation. Among his first objects was to establish order, economy, and integrity in the royal household, where, under the loose administration of former sovereigns, these qualities had been too much neglected. At the same time he set himself, in concert with the queen, to raise the character of the court. It was not enough that his life was pure and blameless. He took care to make it impossible for gossiping malignity to throw a semblance of suspicion upon it. He never stirred abroad unless in company with an equerry. He paid no visits in general society. All his leisure was given to visits to the studios of artists, to museums of science or art, to institutions for good and benevolent purposes, or to rides to parts of London where either improvements were in progress or were chiefly needed, especially such as might ameliorate the condition or minister to the pleasure of the labouring classes. The life of unintermitting study and toil which was henceforth to be his was already entered upon, and in the palace, as well as in the outer world, the presence of a strong master hand was steadily making itself felt.
His study of politics was unremitting, and, availing himself of the rare advantage of having at command all the information which is accessible to the sovereign, his judgment upon men and things very early placed him on an equality with the most experienced observers and statesmen of his time. In April 1843 Baron Stockmar writes of him: ‘He is rapidly showing what is in him. He is full of practical talent, which enables him at a glance to seize the essential points of a question, like the vulture that pounces on his prey and hurries off with it to his nest.’ This practical talent was ever at work, whatever the subject. Speaking, for example, of the education of the poor, he writes thus to warn the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg of the danger of giving an education not in accordance with the circumstances and probable future of the child, and tells her not to forget ‘that education is the preparation for the future life, and that, if it be not consistent with the pupil's prospects, he may have to pay for the pleasure which his education gives you with the happiness of his whole life, as nothing is more certain to insure an unhappy future than disappointed expectations.’
In this year (1843-4) the prince was mainly instrumental in obtaining an amendment of the Articles of War which had for its object to put an end to duelling. Public attention had been painfully called to the subject by the death of Colonel Fawcett in a duel with his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Munro, who had been compelled to challenge Colonel Fawcett under circumstances of gross provocation, which, according to the prevailing code of honour, left him no alternative. The intimate relations of the two men gave prominence to the hatefulness of a system by which a man who had been insulted must, at the peril of being branded as a coward, expose himself to be shot, and, if the issue proved fatal to his adversary, be punished as a criminal. Feeling that the reform must begin in the army in order to be effectual, the prince opened a correspondence with the Duke of Wellington, which ended in the amendment above mentioned, declaring it to be ‘suitable to the character of honourable men to apologise and offer redress for wrong or insult committed, and equally so for the party aggrieved to accept frankly and cordially explanation and apologies for the same.’ This proved to be the death-blow to ‘affairs of honour.’
In the end of August of this year (1843) the prince accompanied the queen on a visit to King Louis-Philippe at the Château d'Eu. The reception of the English royal family by the French was most cordial, and even enthusiastic. A six days' tour in Belgium followed in September. The country put itself into holiday array to welcome the royal visitors, and the people were everywhere warm in their demonstrations of satisfaction at this visit to their king, while the queen was delighted to be once again under the roof of one who had ever been a father to her, and to whom she owed it that she was so happily mated.
In October the queen and prince visited Cambridge, where the prince received the degree of L.L.D. from the university of which he was not long afterwards to be the chancellor. ‘The enthusiasm of the students,’ the prince writes to Stockmar (30 October), ‘was tremendous, and I cannot remember that we were ever received anywhere so well as upon the road to Cambridge (to which 2,000 horsemen accompanied us), and in Cambridge itself.’ In the same letter the prince mentions with satisfaction that he has netted a good return from the sale by auction of his farm stock, a subject in which he took the greatest interest, having established a model farm at Windsor in 1840 for the purpose of breeding stock and introducing agricultural improvements. To the last nothing that tended to make farming more efficient and more economical escaped his notice.
During a visit of the queen to Sir Robert Peel at Drayton Manor in November, the prince went to Birmingham to inspect some of its chief manufactories. Birmingham was at this time the stronghold of Chartism, and some of the ministry sought to prevent him from going there, being alarmed lest his presence might provoke some unpleasant demonstration. But the prince overruled their scruples, and the result showed that he had rightly understood the temper of the people. He was received by crowds that thronged the streets to excess with admirable good humour and the warmest demonstrations of loyalty. ‘The people,’ he wrote (17 December), ‘regarded the visit as a great proof of confidence, and did all they could to give assurance of their loyalty.’ The prince visited five of the principal manufactories, the town hall, and King Edward VI's school, where he was much pleased to find that, although it was strictly a church of England foundation, there were 400 dissenters among the boys, and that the system pursued there worked most harmoniously. From Drayton Manor the royal party went first to Chatsworth and then to Belvoir Castle. At the latter place the prince carried off the honours of the hunting-field to the amazement of most, who were not prepared to find him so bold and skilful a rider. This sport was one, however, in which, in compliance with her majesty's wish, he rarely indulged, and in a few years he gave it up altogether.
On 29 February 1844 Prince Albert's father died at Gotha. To his father the prince was devotedly attached, and his grief was consequently very great. With his death the prince felt that a great and important chapter of his life was closed, and that thenceforth he must put behind him the cherished associations with his old home. ‘From that world,’ he wrote to Stockmar, ‘I am forcibly torn away, and my whole thoughts are diverted to my life here and my own separate family. For these I will live wholly from this time forth, and be to it the father whose loss I mourn for myself.’
In June of this year the Russian emperor Nicholas visited the queen. His visit was unexpected, and was probably made with the view of ascertaining whether England could be detached from the French alliance in the event of his making any move upon Turkey. He professed not ‘to covet an inch of Turkish soil for himself,’ while asserting that he would not allow anybody else to have one. The prince was not to be hoodwinked as to the real aims of Russian policy in the East. He spoke out to the emperor firmly and frankly on the same lines as Sir R. Peel and Lord Aberdeen, letting it be seen that England would not look calmly on at any attempt to interfere with Turkey, or at any movement which might close the free passage across Egypt of English commerce or English mails. As to France it would be the policy of England to continue to cultivate a close and friendly alliance with that kingdom. By his political sagacity and his courage the prince produced a deep impression on the emperor, who said of him to Sir R. Peel ‘that he wished any prince in Germany had as much ability and sense.’
A visit of the Prince of Prussia (now Emperor of Germany) to the queen in August of this year resulted in the establishment of a very cordial and intimate relation between Prince Albert and himself, which was cemented by four subsequent visits of the Prince of Prussia to England, and by the marriage, in 1858, of his son to the Princess Royal of England.
In October King Louis-Philippe paid a return visit to her majesty at Windsor Castle. The visit was of political importance, as it smoothed down the jealous and angry feelings which had been roused by the recent high-handed conduct of the French in the island of Tahiti. While the prince made the strength of his character and his remarkable abilities felt with Louis-Philippe and the other royal personages with whom he had recently been brought into contact, he was gradually increasing in popularity at home. This was shown whenever he appeared in public with the queen, who, in writing to King Leopold (28 October 1844) of her opening of the Royal Exchange, said: ‘My beloved Albert was most enthusiastically received by the people. ... The papers say “No sovereign was ever more loved than I am” (I am bold enough to say), and this because of our happy domestic home and the good example it presents.’ Soon afterwards the prince wrote to Baron Stockmar: ‘You always said that if monarchy was to rise in popularity it could only be by the sovereign leading an exemplary life and keeping quite aloof from and above party. Melbourne called this “nonsense.” Now Victoria is praised by Lord Spencer, the liberal, for giving her constitutional support to the tories.’
In 1845 the queen and prince were able to gratify a long-cherished desire to possess a place of their own, ‘quiet and retired, and free from all Woods and Forests and other charming departments, which really are the plague of one's life,’ by purchasing the estate of Osborne in the Isle of Wight. The prince's genius for landscape gardening and for agricultural improvement was exercised with the best results in laying out the grounds, and generally in improving the estate. It was his pride that he made his farming pay, and he lived to see, in the growth of his plantations, how well his plans for beautifying the property had been devised. What Scott said of Abbotsford the prince might have said of Osborne: ‘My heart clings to the place I have created. There is scarce a tree in it that does not owe its existence to me.’
Here his passionate love for the country found scope for its gratification. The woods and shrubberies were a favourite haunt of the nightingale. Of all birds he loved its song the most, and the queen notes in her journal that he would listen for it ‘in the happy peaceful walks he used to take with her in the woods, and whistle to them in their own long peculiar note, which they invariably answered.’ One of the attractions of Osborne for the prince was its proximity to Portsmouth, which gave him the ready means of watching the condition of the fleet, a subject to him of the most vital interest. In this year much progress in strengthening it had been made, and on 18 July he writes with great satisfaction to Stockmar: ‘Since the war no such fleet has been assembled on the English coast; and it has this additional interest, that every possible new invention and discovery in the naval department will be tried.’
Watching the current of home politics with keen and anxious eyes, the prince saw that, although Peel was able to carry his measures with very large majorities, his hold over his party was by this time slipping from his grasp. To the prospect of the confusion likely to ensue upon the breaking up of the conservative party the prince looked forward with no small apprehension, as, to use his own words, ‘the opposition had as many different opinions and principles as heads.’ For the moment, however, the country seemed, at the close of the parliamentary session, to Sir R. Peel, to be both prosperous and happy, and Ireland tranquillised by the measures which he had carried through. The queen and prince, therefore, felt themselves free to carry out a cherished project of paying a visit to Germany, in which the prince might show the queen the scenes where his youth had been passed. Three weeks of August were devoted to this object. After spending some days on the Rhine, during which Bonn was visited, while the prince's old friends and masters were introduced to the queen, Coburg was reached on the 19th. ‘How happy, how joyful,’ the queen writes in her journal next day, ‘we were, on awaking, to feel ourselves here, at the dear Rosenau, my Albert's birthplace, the place he most loves! He was so happy to be here with me. It is like a beautiful dream.’ On 2 September they left Gotha on their return. Here the prince saw for the last time his grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Gotha, whose motherlike affection for him he had requited with all a son's love. ‘When at last,’ writes the queen, ‘we were obliged to leave, she clasped him in her arms, and kissed him again and again, saying “Gott segne Dich, mein Engel!” (God bless you, my angel!) in such a plaintive voice.’ She died on 7 February 1848.
The return to England was made by way of Antwerp, where the King and Queen of the Belgians met the royal visitors. In fulfilment of an old promise Tréport was taken on the way back to England. Here a very cordial reception was given to the queen and prince by King Louis-Philippe. It was during this visit that the king, in conversation with the queen, the prince, and Lord Aberdeen, volunteered the declaration, subsequently violated, that he entertained no designs which could have the effect of placing any of his sons upon the Spanish throne.
Meanwhile the state of affairs in England had become critical. A wet season had blighted the prospects of the farmers, while the potato disease made famine imminent in Ireland. Peel, convinced that free trade in corn was inevitable, but that it was unmeet he should initiate the change, resigned; but, on the failure of Lord John Russell to form a ministry, consented to remain in office, and to face the hostility of the party which had originally placed him there. The prince could not but admire Peel's courage in adopting this resolution. So important was the crisis that he went to the House of Commons (29 January 1846) to hear the debate upon Peel's financial statement. Such, however, was the heated state of men's minds, that this innocent wish to hear a great debate was construed by the party led by Lord George Bentinck into a maneuvre of the minister to give the semblance of royal sanction to his measures. The prince felt that he must never again expose himself to the risk of similar misconstruction, and was thus deprived of the satisfaction of being present at any of the debates of either house. During this stormy session and the ministerial crisis which ensued on the fall of Peel's ministry at the end of June, the queen writes, the prince's ‘use to me and to the country by his firmness and sagacity is beyond all belief.’ He had by this time made himself fully master of the political situation at home and abroad, and his judgment and sagacity were daily making themselves more and more felt by the statesmen whose position at the head of affairs brought them into more immediate contact with him. Politics had now indeed become his favourite study. In the painful controversy which arose on the subject of the Spanish marriages in the autumn of 1846, and especially in the correspondence to which it led between the royal family of France and Queen Victoria, his advice was of the greatest service to her majesty. He foresaw, what was proved by the event, that Louis-Philippe's conduct in the affair would give a shock not only to his reputation throughout Europe, but to the stability of his government in the troublous epoch of revolutionary change which seemed to the prince to be fast approaching. The days of despotic and aristocratic supremacy, he felt, had gone by, and changes were inevitable, which should make rulers feel that their people did not live for them, but that they must live for their people.
In February 1847 the prince was elected chancellor of Cambridge University after a keen contest in competition with Lord Powis. The ceremony of installation took place at Cambridge on 5 July in the presence of the queen. ‘Never,’ writes the prince to Stockmar, ‘have I seen people in such good humour. There was a great gathering of bishops, scholars, royal personages, nobles, and political men, and all seemed well pleased. My Latin, too, proved a success.’ The prince was much gratified by this event, as one among many significant indications that, while he was gaining by degrees the confidence of the country, the queen was growing in popularity and establishing a firmer hold upon the loyalty of her people.
This was no unimportant gain, for the times were rapidly becoming more and more critical for crowned heads in Europe. Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, were all penetrated by a revolutionary spirit. Wherever the prince was free to use his influence abroad to induce such changes in the prevailing systems as might avert the dangers of resistance to legitimate reforms, he did not fail to express his opinions, and these were already coming to be recognised throughout the Continent as those of a sagacious statesman. But the lessons he inculcated were only to be learned under a sterner pressure. By the end of 1847 the cry for independence had been raised throughout the north of Italy. Sicily was in full revolt, Naples had extorted a liberal constitution from its sovereign, Tuscany and Sardinia had done the same, and on 24 February 1848 a revolution in Paris drove Louis-Philippe and his family into exile. England had its own troubles from bad harvests and great commercial and financial depression. ‘Here,’ the prince writes to Stockmar (27 February), ‘they refuse to pay the income tax, and attack the ministry; Victoria will be confined in a few days’ — Princess Louise was born 18 March following — ‘our poor good grandmama is taken from this world. I am not cast down, still I have need of friends and of counsel.’ Now the fruits of his past years of political study and reflection were apparent in the calm courage with which the prince met the startling events that were crowded into the next few months, and in which he was sustained by a similar spirit in the queen. ‘My only thoughts and talk,’ she writes to King Leopold (4 April) ‘were politics; but I was never calmer and quieter, or less nervous. Great events make me calm; it is only trifles that irritate my nerves.’
While Italy, Austria, and Germany were convulsed with revolutionary outbreaks which followed on the example of France, England and Belgium remained unshaken. A threatened movement of the chartists on 10 April, in such numbers as to create anxiety, evoked a spirit amid the general population which showed how deeply attached the country was to its constitution. ‘We,’ the prince wrote next day, ‘had our revolution yesterday, and it ended in smoke. How mightily will this tell over the world!’ Ireland alone was dangerous. The Russell ministry had been compelled to adopt even more severe measures of coercion than those which their party had displaced Sir Robert Peel for attempting. England continued to suffer greatly from stagnation of trade and general financial depression, but the prince never lost heart. ‘Albert,’ the queen writes to King Leopold (2 May 1848), ‘is my constant pride and admiration, and his cheerfulness and courage are my great comfort and satisfaction.’
On 18 May the prince presided at a meeting of the Society for improving the Condition of the Working Classes, and made the first of his many expressions of the sympathy and interest which he felt ‘for that class of our community which has most of the toil and least of the enjoyments of this world.’ His speech attracted great notice. Its main idea was, that while the rich were bound to help, yet that ‘any real improvement must be the result of the exertion of the working people themselves.’ The favourable impression thus produced was deepened by the appearance of the prince at a meeting of the Royal Agricultural Society at York in July, when he surprised those who knew most about agriculture and the machinery employed in it by showing that he was thorough master of the knowledge which their whole lives had been spent in acquiring. At this meeting, writes the queen to Stockmar, ‘he made another most successful speech, and he is himself quite astonished at being such an excellent speaker, as he says it is the last thing he ever dreamt he should have success in. He possesses one other great quality, which is “tact;” he never says a word too much or too little.’
The close of the session (5 September), which had been unusually protracted, set the queen and prince free to go, for the first time, to Balmoral, a property in Aberdeenshire which the queen had recently acquired on the recommendation of Sir James Clark, the court physician, because of its fine air, dry climate, and beautiful situation. Even in this secluded retreat the prince was absorbed in the tidings of fresh disturbances which reached him from all parts of Europe, as well as from India, where the war against the Sikhs was causing the English government great anxiety. He was much engaged, too, in maturing, in communication with many of the most distinguished and influential members of the Cambridge University, a plan for giving a wider scope to the course of study there, which was successfully carried through in the course of this autumn. ‘The nation,’ the Times wrote, ‘owed a debt of gratitude to the prince consort for having been the first to suggest, and the most determined to carry out, the alteration in the Cambridge system.’ The example thus set was soon afterwards followed by Oxford.
While the countries of the Continent were still agitated by revolutionary movements, and by the reaction, due less to conviction than to overbearing military force, which followed upon the violence by which these had been marked, trade and manufacture in England had been gradually recovering, wages were rising, and the popular discontent of which the chartists had taken advantage was dying out. Ireland, too, had regained a temporary tranquillity. Sedition had for the time been crushed, and the people were doing their best to retrieve their losses from the ruined harvests and agitation of the last four years. The queen seized the opportunity to visit the country (August 1849), and her presence evoked an exuberant display of loyalty natural to the demonstrative temperament of the Celtic race. The prince was everywhere received with enthusiasm. He showed, as usual, the keenest interest in all local institutions, especially those for the improvement of agriculture. The peculiar aptitude of the country in soil and climate for the rearing of cattle was urged strongly by him as a certain source of future prosperity. His counsels were appreciated and acted upon with the best results; so also his suggestions for the improvement of the system of education at the Queen's Colleges were elaborated with great care, and were gratefully acknowledged.
In this year (1849) the prince projected the idea of the great International Exhibition, which was ultimately carried out in 1851, and which up to that time engaged much of his attention, and called into play all the resources of his intelligence and tact. The strain upon his strength caused by his ceaseless activity and the incessant demands upon his time in every movement of public interest were now beginning to tell upon a constitution never very strong, and we find the queen writing to Stockmar (25 January 1850) that ‘the prince's sleep is again as bad as ever, and he looks very ill of an evening.’ Change of air, and of life and scene, was urged by his doctor, but of this the prince would not hear. The tasks which he had set himself must be carried through, especially that of organising the Great Exhibition. Of this Lord Granville writes (8 March): ‘The whole thing would fall to pieces if he left it to itself.’ The scheme encountered great opposition, and chiefly from those who feared, not without cause, that the sight which it would present of what had given to England's manufactures pre-eminence throughout the world would stimulate a competition among other nations, which might in the end tell formidably upon the prosperity of the kingdom. But the prince had so much faith in the energy and resources of the British race, that he did not fear their being able to hold their own in the future as in the past, and, in any case, he deemed it to be ‘England's mission, duty, and interest, to put herself at the head of the diffusion of civilisation and the attainment of liberty.’ His views were developed in a speech at the Mansion House (21 March 1850) which raised him higher than before in the public estimation. ‘People,’ the queen writes to King Leopold (26 March), ‘are much struck by his great power and energy, by the great self-denial and constant wish to work for others, which are so striking in his character. But this is the happiest life.’
The death of Sir Robert Peel (2 July 1850) was deeply felt by the prince, who had long admired his sagacity and courage, and whom, in the first impulse of his grief, he writes of to the Duchess of Kent as ‘the best of men, our truest friend, the strongest bulwark of the throne, the greatest statesman of his time.’ Sorrow at his loss brought on a fresh attack of sleeplessness, which, in the state of tension to which his mind was wrought by his anxiety about the Great Exhibition and other matters, caused the queen considerable uneasiness. Not the least of these was the necessity which had arisen for putting a check upon Lord Palmerston's habit of sending away official despatches on foreign affairs without their having previously been submitted for the queen's consideration, by which she had on several occasions found herself committed to a policy on which she had had no opportunity of expressing an opinion. The now historical memorandum by the queen (12 August 1850), defining what her majesty would in future expect on this point, led Lord Palmerston to request an interview with the prince. In this he had his first experience of the prince's clearness of view, firmness, and tact, which he learned in after years to look up to with such genuine admiration, that he regarded the prince's early death as the greatest calamity which could have befallen the nation.
The demands of the Exhibition year upon the prince were such as to try the severest constitution. His influence had become by this time so great in all questions of social interest, that his presence at great public meetings to advocate the advancement of art, science, and philanthropy, was eagerly sought. Of the impression he produced, the best and truest record is found in the words of the queen, writing to Stockmar (17 August): ‘He has such large views of everything, and such extreme lucidity in working all these views out. His greatness is wonderfully combined with abnegation of self, with humility, with great courage, with such kindness, too, and goodness, and such a love for his fellow-creatures. And then there is such a desire to do everything without shining himself. But he does shine, and every word which falls from his lips is listened to with attention.’ The success which everywhere attended the prince's efforts helped to carry him through them. His reward for all his toils was the inward conviction that he had done, and was doing, work which would bear good fruits for the country of his adoption and for mankind.
When the Duke of Wellington pressed the prince personally in 1850 to accept the office of commander-in-chief, he probably did so because he recognised in him the foresight, the mastery of details, the power of organisation, and the force of character which are essential for such a post. Added to these was a clear perception of the necessity that England should always be in a position to keep what she had won, and to hold her own against insult or aggression. How this was to be done was a subject which occupied much of the prince's thoughts; and the seizure of the sovereignty of France by Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of 2 December 1851, and the hazard of a French invasion, made this a matter of urgent anxiety. From this time onwards he made himself intimately acquainted with every detail both of the naval and military resources of the kingdom, and used every effort to have them put upon a satisfactory footing. Earnestly as he loved and had wrought for peace, the condition of Europe was such that he knew well it could not settle down into a state of enduring tranquillity until after many questions had been settled by the arbitrament of the sword. When a rupture might take place, or how it might affect England, it was impossible to foresee, but safety could lie only in the consciousness that it was well prepared. On the death of the great duke (14 September) he made the measures for insuring this safety his peculiar care, and his counsels were eagerly sought by Lord Hardinge, the duke's successor, from the consciousness that no one had stored up such exact information as the prince, or was more skilful in suggesting how defects might be remedied or existing resources turned to the best account.
Apprehension of danger on the side of France soon died out before the evident anxiety of its new emperor to cultivate the friendship of England. This was so obviously his interest, and the assurance of internal peace was of such vital moment to France at this moment, that credit was given, if not to his good will, at least to his necessities. But already an uneasy feeling was abroad as to the hostile intentions of Russia towards Turkey, to which England could not be indifferent. The country, therefore, was well pleased when a government combining apparently all the elements of strength was formed under Lord Aberdeen, and it saw with satisfaction the efforts which were made to put both the forces upon a more satisfactory footing. On the prince's suggestion a camp for the training of troops to the incidents of life in the field was formed at Chobham Common. He also pressed on the government the idea of a permanent camp of instruction, which ultimately led to the establishment of the camp at Aldershot. The prince paid frequent visits during 1853 to the camp at Chobham, and watched the training of the troops for the work of actual warfare, in which its preparatory discipline was soon afterwards to be tested. The spectacle also (11 August 1853) of a review at Spithead of ‘the finest fleet, perhaps, which England ever fitted out, forty ships of war of all kinds, all moved by steam except three,’ gave him intense satisfaction. ‘I speak of it,’ he writes to Stockmar (16 August), ‘because last autumn we were bewailing our defenceless state, and because I must rejoice to see that achieved which I had struggled so long and hard to effect.’ The feeling was natural, as he saw that England was at this time drifting into war with Russia. He had never been deceived, as Lord Aberdeen had been, into trusting Russia's protestations. ‘We must deal with our enemies as honourable men,’ he writes to Stockmar (27 September), ‘and deal honourably towards them; but that is no reason why we should think they are so in fact; this is what Aberdeen does, and maintains that it is right to do.’ The prince was alive to the danger of not letting the Emperor Nicholas see betimes that his designs of aggrandisement were seen through, and, if persisted in, would bring England into the field. The vacillating policy of Lord Aberdeen pained him; but so little was the prince's character then understood that the most bitter attacks were made against him as sympathising with the schemes of Russian ambition, and as an evil influence working behind the throne to thwart the policy of her majesty's government. So far were these carried that it was for a time currently believed that he had been impeached for treason and committed to the Tower. These calumnies had the good effect of forcing from ministers, both past and present, on the meeting of parliament (31 January 1854), the fullest vindication of the way in which the prince had used his position as the nearest friend and private secretary of the queen, not only within strictly constitutional limits, but also to the great advantage of the nation. From this time that position was rightly understood, and successive governments eagerly availed themselves of his information, experience, and sagacity on questions of great national importance.
Throughout the Crimean war and in the arrangement of the terms of peace these were found to be of the greatest value. By none were they more frankly recognised than by Lord Palmerston, who had been at one time by no means predisposed to regard the prince with favour. ‘Till my present position,’ he said to a friend some time after he had become premier in 1855, ‘gave me so many opportunies of seeing his royal highness, I had no idea of his possessing such eminent qualities as he has, and how fortunate it has been for the country that the queen married such a prince.’ In the remaining years of the prince's life Lord Palmerston found increasing reasons for the opinion thus expressed. They were years of great anxiety, in consequence of the state of affairs upon the Continent, the restless and vague ambition of the Emperor of the French, the struggles of Italy, ultimately triumphant, for independence, and the growing antagonism between Prussia and Austria in their struggle for supremacy in Germany. On the prince the government could at all times rely for valuable information, which was not always to be obtained through the ordinary official channels, and for the conclusions of a calm and penetrating judgment unswayed by political or party bias.
Nor was his influence less available in every movement for promoting the interests of art and science, for developing the education and improving the material welfare of the people. His speeches at meetings for promoting these objects were eagerly studied, and carried into the people's homes ideas which have since borne the best fruits. He always lifted his subject to a high level, and his life was felt to be impregnated by a noble sense of duty and a determination to do always what was right. So he won by degrees a hold upon the hearts of the English people much stronger than he was himself aware of.
His toil was unremitting. Rising at seven every morning, the day was never long enough for what he had to do. Imperceptibly the strain was undermining his health; but to the last he preserved his natural vivacity and cheerfulness. ‘At breakfast and luncheon,’ the queen writes (1862), ‘and also at our family dinners, he sat at the top of the table, and kept us all enlivened by his interesting conversation, by his charming anecdotes, and droll stories without end of his childhood, of people at Coburg, of our good people in Scotland, which he would repeat with a wonderful power of mimicry, and at which he would himself laugh most heartily. Then he would at other times entertain us with his talk about the most interesting and important topics of the present and former days, on which it was ever a pleasure to hear him speak.’
In the strongest man there is only a limited power of endurance. If he puts the work of eighty years into forty years, there can be but one result. So it was with the prince. While yet young in years he had done the work of a long life. During the three or four last years of his life signs were not wanting, in recurring attacks of illness, that he was using up his physical resources too rapidly. He had doubtless an inward feeling that this was so, and that the end might not be far off. Shortly before his last illness he said to the queen, ‘I do not cling to life. I set no store by it. If I knew that those I love were well cared for, I should be quite ready to die to-morrow.’ Very significant were the words which followed: ‘I am sure if I had a severe illness I should give up at once, I would not struggle for life.’ His old friend Stockmar had said many years before that any severe fever would kill him. The prediction proved true. Early in November 1861 the prince showed signs of serious indisposition. Persistent sleeplessness was one of the worst symptoms. With his usual energy he struggled on at his multifarious pursuits. The last of his political acts was one which will always be remembered to his honour, for it was probably instrumental in preventing a war with America, which threatened to arise out of the unwarrantable seizure of Messrs. Mason and Slidell, the confederate envoys, on the English steamer Trent. The draft of the despatch to be sent to the American government on the subject was submitted to the queen for consideration on the night of 30 November Its terms seemed to the prince likely to cause perilous irritation. Ill as he was, he was up by seven next morning and wrote the draft of a memorandum for the queen, pointing out his objections, and brought it to her, telling her he could scarcely hold his pen while writing it. His suggestions were adopted by Lord John Russell, and the disaster of a war was averted.
From this time onward the prince grew steadily worse. Typhoid fever was developed, and by the night of 14 December 1861 his strength had run down, and calmly and gently his noble spirit was released from its burden of ‘world-wearied flesh.’ The event, wholly unexpected by the nation, filled it with profound sorrow. Much as it had seen in the prince to admire, it had yet to learn how much it owed to him of which it knew nothing, how deep and loyal had been his devotion to his adopted country, how pregnant for good had been his example to his family and to those on whom rest the responsibilities of governing the state, of which he had for many years been the silent stay. As this has from time to time been brought to light, the country has not been slow to acknowledge its debt of gratitude, and to assign to him a foremost place among its most honoured worthies.
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|The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815
|Irish Affairs 1760-89
|Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel
|Primary sources index
|British Political Personalities
|British Foreign policy 1815-65