Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy by A.N. Wilson - an immaculately researched, lively and entertaining biography - book review

To Queen Victoria, he was an ‘Angel,’ to his children he was an affectionate but controlling father, and to many in his adopted nation, he was the distrusted German outsider… so who was the real Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha?

Monday, 23rd September 2019, 1:14 pm
Updated Monday, 23rd September 2019, 2:14 pm
Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy by A.N. Wilson

A.N. Wilson, one of Britain’s best and most forthright biographers, digs deep into the darkest (and in some cases incendiary) recesses of the Royal Archives to bring us the definitive and sweeping biography of the extraordinary man who fathered an unparalleled European royal dynasty, and laid the foundations of our modern constitutional monarchy.

In the bicentenary year of the birth of both Victoria and Albert, this authoritative exploration of the cold and dutiful royal who married his fiery and passionate cousin offers intriguing never-before-known details about the man and his legacy, including startling revelations from the prince’s voluminous correspondence.

Prince Albert was only forty-two when he died in the arms of his heartbroken wife in 1861, but his remarkable legacy lives on far beyond the confines of the palaces and castles where he spent twenty-one years in a turbulent marriage with Queen Victoria and fathered nine children who would help buttress the principal royal dynasties of Europe.

Because while Victoria is seen as the embodiment of her time, it was the prodigiously gifted Albert, Wilson argues, who was at the vanguard of Victorian Britain’s transformation into a vibrant centre of political, technological, scientific and intellectual advancement.

Far more than just the product of his age, Albert not only saved the monarchy from what had become a ‘grave crisis’ after the excesses of the Hanoverians but became one of the 19th century’s influencers and architects. A composer, engineer, musician, soldier, politician, linguist and bibliophile, Prince Albert, more than any other royal, was, asserts Wilson, truly a ‘genius.’

Ambitious in its scope and endlessly fascinating in its revelations, this magnificent new book, written by an author who puts brio into his biographies, finally gives new light, life and long-overdue recognition to the workaholic prince who spawned London’s incredible Albertopolis, the sprawl of royal schools, colleges and museums in South Kensington which were funded from the prince’s greatest project, the Great Exhibition of 1851.

But Wilson also casts his wickedly discerning eye over the marriage of Victoria and Albert, a relationship that has too often been filtered through the highly emotive and gushing diaries of the queen but which, as many have suspected, was not entirely harmonious.

Perhaps most revealing are a cache of newly-discovered letters from Albert to Victoria – rescued decades ago by a quick-thinking archivist from the censorship of Victoria’s prudish youngest daughter Beatrice – which prove to be ‘passionately angry, buttoned-up expressions of marital hate.’

Constantly upbraiding her for her displays of irrational ill temper, Albert would simply walk out of a room during Victoria’s outbursts and then write loveless, admonitory letters. ‘What you call scolding, I would call simply the expression of a difference of opinion,’ he wrote witheringly. ‘You have again lost your self-control quite unnecessarily.’

In many of his missives, penned after their frequent rows, his usually neat handwriting has degenerated into a scrawl, evidence that his hand had been shaking as he filled the page. Their discord is chillingly apparent and ‘the coldness of the letters still blows like a winter breeze from that box even at the distance of all the years since they were written,’ observes Wilson.

In fact, Albert appears to have found his true calling not as the husband of the queen but as a zealous reformer and poured all his energies into administrative roles whether that was chairing committees, acting as consultant to charities, creating university scholarships for poor students, building affordable homes, or undertaking the organisation of the hugely successful Great Exhibition.

Never spontaneously affectionate, Albert’s love for his children always went hand in hand with his desire to control every aspect of their lives, and his efforts to turn their decidedly non-academic son and heir, Bertie, into a carbon copy of his father went spectacularly wrong.

After a scandal in which the teenage Bertie escaped from an Army camp for a love tryst with young actress Nellie Clifden, Albert was horrified when he heard the news. ‘Oh!’ the Queen later recalled, ‘that face, that heavenly face of woe and sorrow which was so dreadful to witness!’

Already suffering from various ailments and worn down from years of overwork, the exhausted Prince Consort fell dangerously ill and died from what doctors now believe was probably stomach cancer, leaving his distraught wife screaming out in her despair.

Albert, declares Wilson, ‘was not the sole architect of British constitutional development but he undoubtedly played a vital role in the evolution of that strange hybrid: a monarchy held in check by a representative parliament; a democracy whose ultimate power wore a crown.’

Wilson’s immaculately researched, lively and entertaining biography gets to the heart of a clever, complex man who was never entirely at home in either his adopted country or his tempestuous marriage but whose legacy lies not in the personal and private but in his public service and his important role in a new world order.

(Atlantic Books, hardback, £25)