Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

A. N. Wilson
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Review by Metellus Cimber II

Most people like to think that they know the basic facts about the Prince Consort's life. The younger son of the Duke of a comic-opera German State about the size of Staffordshire, Prince Albert married the Queen of the greatest empire that the world had yet seen; gave her nine children; organised the Great Exhibition of 1851; was pious, moral, cultured, and inconsiderately died (probably of stomach cancer) in 1861 at the age of forty-two, leaving his widow, Queen Victoria, to endure a nervous breakdown; she was to take more than a decade to recover from it.

All of which is true but, as this well-researched book shows, there was much more to Prince Albert. He was the only Royal since the Tudors who could truly be described as a genius. Even allowing for the fact that he had excellent tutors and had studied at Bonn University, then at the height of its reputation, and had been one of its star students, his intellect was remarkable. At Bonn he studied law, political economy, philosophy and the history of art. He had earlier studied Latin; he was to become fluent in German, French, English and could get by in Italian; probably in other European languages too. Nothing escaped his interest, whether history, science, engineering, architecture or literature. New technologies and their possible development were endlessly fascinating to him. Appropriately, he loved the art of the Italian Renaissance, especially of Raphael, for he was a Renaissance man born in the nineteenth century. Sadly, only one of his children, the Princess Royal, inherited his intellect. Apart from that, he composed and played music and was a noted sportsman, especially a fencer and rider.

It is not now widely remembered that Albert's death was marked by sincere, terrible nation-wide mourning. Nothing like it had been seen since the attractive and popular Princess Charlotte, then heir to the throne, had died in childbirth in 1817. The Victorians, as well as Victoria herself, knew that they had lost a great and irreplaceable man at a time when he was needed. No previous royal consort had ever evoked such genuine sorrow and apprehension when they died. While Albert had not been charming and popular in the way that, for example, King Charles II had been, he was greatly respected and valued.

Albert had become King in all but name. Like the present Queen, he often showed greater wisdom than the statesmen who served the Crown. By dint of patient study, he had made himself an expert on the work of every Department of State; constantly suggesting reforms and improvements. He started by reforming the shambolic Royal Household and then extended his scope to everything else. This caused protests; the holders of well-paid non-jobs and recipients of perks were outraged when these were abolished, but the taxpayer was usually the beneficiary of Albert's reforms. By the time of his death, it had become normal for a new Government Minister on taking office to seek an early appointment with the Prince Consort to learn about what his Department was, or should be, doing and which reforms were likely to become necessary.

At home Albert sought to place the monarchy above politics; to that end he restrained his wife's persistent urge to interfere. Abroad, he opposed the interventionist gunboat diplomacy of statesmen like Palmerston and tried to promote peace within Europe. Marrying his children into as many royal families as possible was part of this strategy; the royal cousins should resolve disputes around a table instead of going to war. Another Albertian plan that did not materialise was to promote the development of a peaceful, democratic, loosely-federated Germany under the benign presidency of Austria. Had that happened, we might have been spared the wars of 1870, 1914 and 1939. Partly as a result of Albert's disappearance, it did not happen: German nationalism and Prussian militarism triumphed; France was flattened; England was sidelined; Austria was expelled from Germany; Prussia got Bismarck; Germany got Prussia and Europe got the German Empire. The countdown to 1914 had begun.

What of the British Army? Although he was Honorary Colonel of several British regiments, Albert had no real military experience. It came as a surprise to me to learn that the Duke of Wellington had urged that Albert should succeed him as Commander in Chief. In reality this was an inspired choice; Wellington was well-aware of the numerous deficiencies of the Army, which would become obvious during the Crimean War. However by 1850 he was old and was opposed by formidable interest groups, whom a Royal Prince might possibly be able to overcome. He had noted Albert's formidable organisational capacity and ability to get things done. If anyone could reform the Army, it was Albert.

Regrettably and predictably, there was political opposition. Instead, the post of Commander in Chief was offered first to Lord Hardinge, whose deficiencies were shown to his great disadvantage during the Crimean campaign. (Hardinge suffered a serious stroke and collapsed while in the act of delivering to the Queen and Albert the highly-critical report of the Commission that had been set up to investigate the deficiencies of the Army's leadership in the Crimea. Albert had to help him to a sofa.)

Hardinge's successor, HRH The Duke of Cambridge, was even worse. This arrogant and reactionary old lobster served as C-in-C from 1856 to 1895. Devoted to the old-style Army, he worked, after Albert's death, to defeat or minimise every reform proposal, such as setting up a General Staff. The Queen, who was his cousin, usually supported him. Under Cambridge's leadership the British Army became a stagnant institution, lagging far behind the French and German armies in professionalism. Its redeeming features were the quality of its ordinary soldiers, NCOs and junior officers. Its weaknesses were dramatically revealed by its poor organisation at the start of Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899. Brilliant officers with innovative ideas were well-advised to transfer to the Indian Army or even the German Army – in which a number of Britons served before 1914 – beyond Cambridge's reach.

Cambridge did however deliver at least one memorable quotation. Addressing the Gentlemen Cadets of Sandhurst on the subject of an outbreak of venereal disease among them, he reportedly shouted:

"It appears that you young gentlemen have been putting your private parts where I would not stick the ferrule of this umbrella!"

Prince Albert remains one of the great “what ifs?” of history. But it is reasonable to suppose that Albert would have done a much better job than Hardinge or Cambridge. Whether he would have succeeded in reorganising the Army along German lines, or in persuading the Government to introduce conscription, is uncertain. It is also possible to speculate that Albert, had he survived, might eventually have clashed with a Prime Minister who did not take kindly to his discreet interventions and reforms of Government Departments. He was officially the mere consort of a constitutional monarch, but in reality his influence was vast. It was also almost entirely beneficial. We were lucky to have him.

Metellus Cimber II

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