Prince Albert: The man who saved the monarchy, by A. N. Wilson

by
29 November 2019

John Pridmore enjoys a study of Albert by a self-confessed admirer

A. N. WILSON has long admired Prince Albert. The cover of his book Eminent Victorians, published in 1989, shows us miniatures of sundry 19th-century luminaries circling like satellites around a central and much larger depiction of Albert. Thirty years later, Wilson’s esteem of Albert is undiminished. “In British history,” he writes, “no other public figure of comparable ability, breadth or benign influence even touches him.”

Early chapters in this magnificent biography provide an expert account of how this younger son of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (“the stud-farm of Europe”), compliant with the scheming of those who arranged such matters, married his cousin, the diminutive and intermittently furious Victoria. Subsequent chapters, although much else besides, are a portrait of a roller-coaster marriage.

Albert and Victoria, Wilson reminds us, were “two very different, very complicated and very fallible people”. Their marriage was a battlefield. Often Albert had to write to his wife to tell her to pull herself together. But they remained lovers to the end.

Wilson sees the Prince Consort as a man in pursuit of two great objectives. The first proved an impossible dream: that of a peaceful and prosperous Europe, a federation of benign constitutional monarchies. He imagined that he could promote this noble end by marrying off his nine children among the royal houses of Europe. The catastrophic consequences of this idea were the conflicts whose legacy is with us still.

Albert’s second goal, the cultural enrichment of the nation, was amply realised. Wilson invites us to look more closely at the Albert Memorial and its prolific statuary. Here are the scientists and artists, the poets and musicians, the engineers and architects whose importance the Prince understood, whose company he enjoyed, and whose creativity he encouraged. Having inspected the Albert Memorial, we can cross the road to the Royal Albert Hall. Then a short walk will take us to the “Albertopolis”, the complex of magnificent museums and galleries in Kensington whose very stones speak to his praise.

courtesy of royal collection trust/© HM the Queen Elizabeth 2019Roger Fenton’s photo of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, taken close to Victoria’s 35th birthday in 1854. From the book

Albert was prodigiously talented, exceptionally well-educated, and hugely energetic. This triple endowment — not, to be sure, endearing him to gormless courtiers — was deployed to the full in the creation of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Paxton’s “Crystal Palace”, the home of the Exhibition, overawed everyone. Wilson invites the reader to marvel with him, not so much at the 100,000 exhibits assembled beneath its glass roof — including the penknife with 80 blades — but at the tenacity of the one man who saw this staggeringly complicated project through to completion.

Wilson’s great gift as a biographer has always been to reveal the springs that make his subjects who they are. So we understand Albert better as we recognise how, in many respects, he remained burdened by his unhappy Coburg childhood, and how his relentless rectitude was rooted in his dread that any in his own household should ever be as dissolute as his own father and brother.

And what drove him to work so hard, though he was rarely altogether well? Again, it all goes back to early days. Albert internalised and maintained the regime imposed on him as a student — to be hard at it by five every morning. Perhaps, too, he knew deep down that the night was coming when no man can work.

I noticed one howler. Surely it was William Tyndale, not Martin Luther, who dreamed that his translation of the Bible would enable every ploughboy to read the scriptures for himself.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Prince Albert: The man who saved the monarchy
A. N. Wilson
Atlantic Books £25
(978-1-78239-831-8)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
With Sam Wells, Catherine Fox, Mark Oakley, Suzannah Lipscomb and many others. 
See the full programme

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Theology Slam is back, continuing its search for the most engaging young voices on theology and the contemporary world. Find out more

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)