The Coburg Connection

Richard Shannon

  • Albert, Prince Consort by Robert Rhodes James
    Hamish Hamilton, 311 pp, £15.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 241 11000 9

There have been only four consorts (counting the present incumbent) of reigning English queens. The role is awkward: a ‘lot high and brilliant’, as Prince Albert himself put it, ‘but also plentifully strewn with thorns’. Other states make (or made) sensible provision either to avoid the inherent difficulties or to accommodate them. Most dynasties adopted the so-called ‘Salic’ law of succession among males only. There have been no reigning French queens. The effort by the German Emperor Charles VI, the last male Habsburg, to arrange for his younger daughter to succeed to his hereditary lands led to Europe’s a being turned upside down. Others – the Iberians notably – allowed female succession and fulfilled the logic by granting male consorts equal title and status. The English, characteristically, dodged the issue and defied all logic. The English system consists in essence of allowing female succession (in preference indeed to agnate males) but of hoping against hope that there will be no occasions of it. The first two occasions offered dismal precedents. Mary I’s consort, King Philip of Spain, was dangerously powerful in his own right, and only Mary’s barrenness saved England from becoming yet another component of the Habsburg Empire. Her half-sister, Elizabeth I, avoided the problem by avoiding matrimony altogether. Anne’s consort, the dim Prince George of Denmark, confined himself largely to trying (and failing) to provide a successor to the Stuart crown.

It is the most cogent testimony to Prince Albert’s consortship from his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840 to his early death in 1861 that a hundred years later there was hardly any anxiety about the succession and marriage of Princess Elizabeth. Indeed, the biggest problem was felt to be Prince Philip’s German-sounding name (Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg), and he was accordingly camouflaged in his mother’s Anglicised name, Mountbatten – formerly Battenberg, a morganatic offshoot of the Hessen-Darmstadt house. The general assumption was that Prince Albert had provided the definitive and approved working model.

Robert Rhodes James has written an entertaining and effective but oddly out-of-kilter book about that model. His standard texts appear to be Justin McCarthy and H.A.L. Fisher, historians whose reputations had faded when Mr James was a schoolboy under Sir Roger Fulford. He puts one in mind of those Sloane Rangers who, so it is said, keep to their A-level texts at university to avoid intellectual fatigue. Yet, as against this, his is the first biography of the Prince to make what might be called both significant and candid use of the materials in the Royal Archives. He shows that a considerable amount of pious fiction has been built into Albert’s reputation as pillar of the Victorian monarchy. It would certainly do Prince Philip no good at all to attempt to emulate Prince Albert’s notions of his constitutional function as covert statesman and monarchist.

Albert’s received reputation is that, by his intelligence and cautious acumen, he played a crucial role in adjusting the Hanoverian monarchy to its modern ‘constitutional’ functions of being outside and above politics. In reality, Albert strove to strengthen the monarchy’s hand in politics and his – highly intelligent – quest to achieve conservative ends by liberal means was frankly partisan. On occasion he went a little too far out in the open, as when he ostentatiously attended in the Commons gallery to lend support to his beau idéal of statesmanship, Robert Peel, at the time of the Corn Law repeal crisis. He learned from that mistake – though what he learned was not to withdraw from commitment, but to keep himself decently under cover. He viewed Peel’s death in 1850 as a political disaster. He manoeuvred the monarchy into hindering as far as possible those ‘two dreadful old men’ (as Queen Victoria later dubbed them in a letter to Uncle Leopold of Belgium), Russell and Palmerston. It was the Court which prodded the coalition into being at the end of 1852 under Peel’s heir, Aberdeen. The Crimean War was as much of a disaster to Albert as it was to Aberdeen. Albert made no secret of his detestation of Palmerston (and of Russell, too, for that matter); and although they came eventually to have a wary respect for each other, neither Albert nor Palmerston wavered in his conviction that what was essential was resistance to and counterworking of the other. Palmerston had most of the advantages on his side: patronage, public opinion and – for all that he was a generation older than Albert – buoyancy of health and spirits. The eventual collapse of Albert’s morale and his virtual death-wish at the age of 42 was as much a consequence of Palmerston’s unchallengeable political ascendancy from 1859 as of anything else. The ultimate and cruel irony of Albert’s career was that the long-coveted title of ‘prince consort’ was eventually conceded in June 1857 by Palmerston in the flush of his electoral victory and rout of the Peelites. What was ostensibly a diadem of success proved in reality a collar of subjection.

If it is a virtue in Mr Rhodes James to start along this road, it is a weakness that he does not push on far enough. He is good about the ‘slow-dawning realisation of the gulf of attitudes which existed between himself and his wife’s country that inexorably created the melancholy and despair which made the end of his life so sadly shadowed’, but is apt to be coy about the substance of those attitudes. The one he deals with most adequately is Albert’s determination to get and keep a firm grip on the conduct of foreign affairs. Albert wanted to manoeuvre British power and influence in such a way as to sustain a conservative and legitimist dispensation in Europe. He defended the Austrian suppression of the troublesome Polish Republic of Cracow in 1846 (he edited and planted newspaper articles for this purpose). He disapproved strongly of his ministers’ support for the ‘Italian’ cause. He pushed hard for a German as against a Danish resolution of the Schleswig-Holstein question. Mr Rhodes James rightly judges as ‘an exaggeration, though only marginally so’ Clarendon’s sour comment: ‘the Queen and Prince are wrong in wishing that courtiers rather than Ministers should conduct the affairs of the country. They labour under the curious mistake that the Foreign Office is their peculiar department and that they have a right to control, if not direct, the Foreign Policy of England.’

‘Control, if not direct’ might well be defined as the leitmotif of Albert’s wider ambitions as the Queen’s ‘informal but potent member of all Cabinets’. Albert was well aware that, outside the Foreign Office, the application of influence would need to be much more covert and circumspect. Like most high-minded people who are absolutely assured of their own good faith and righteous motives while being possessed of decidedly manipulative tendencies, Albert was very sensitive to and resentful of public criticism. Again, Mr Rhodes James is acute on this point: Albert was ‘intent upon the maximum of political influence with the minimum of criticism – to be in the fray, yet seemingly above it. These are dangerous objectives to attempt to combine simultaneously.’ It is, however, a curious feature of Mr Rhodes James’s devotion to those orotund Liberal partisans McCarthy and Fisher that when it comes to Peel, one of the mythic heroes of the good old cause, Albert’s dangerous game is veiled in that highly effective form of discretion which consists in missing the main point. (The contrast between Mr Rhodes James’s tender handling of Lord Randolph Churchill and the brusque treatment that statesman suffered at the hands of Roy Foster comes irresistibly to mind.) Albert liked Peel not only for his high seriousness, sense of public duty and moral commitment to the welfare of the mass of the people: what he also (and more materially) liked him for was the fact that they shared a high notion of the prerogatives of executive government and a low opinion of legislatures dominated by public opinion and party politics. For both of them ‘constitutional government’ meant, at bottom, benign manipulation from above. They both realised that party politics, as it was developing in the mid-19th century, was the most perilous threat both to the prerogatives of the executive and to the influence of the monarchy. After the Reform Act, Peel had no conception of how a ministerial majority in the Commons could be made other than by the agency of party. This was a fact of political life which Albert also learned. There was no chance of resuscitating the old Parliamentary patronage of the Crown. Their answer to this conundrum was to persist in the delusion that parties could be confined to the making of desirably stable majorities upon which strong and potent executive government could conveniently base itself. They were willing to tolerate parties being strong and active in the constituencies but insisted that they be docile and submissive in the Commons. This contradiction eventually exploded in Peel’s face. Peel as minister defying party in the name of a higher national (and governmental) good; Aberdeen as minister of a coalition which made nonsense of the party system: these were Albert’s models. Mr Rhodes James does not seem to want to know too much about this. His line veers too readily into a curious kind of celebratory teleology: Albert ‘took the opportunity to develop a role unprecedented by any consort of any English monarch, and in the process guided and assisted Queen Victoria through the difficult first years of her eventually triumphant reign’. This is not so much to miss the point by not seeing it as to dodge nimbly to avoid the intellectual discomfort of being hit by it. If Albert created the modern monarchy, he created it in spite of himself.

The clues to Albert’s quest and his eventual failure lie deeper in the English and German backgrounds of the early 19th century than Mr Rhodes James allows. He stresses Albert’s consistent and serious Germanness to good effect, especially on the side of art, music, science and connoisseurship, in all aspects of which he had an original and important mind. But much can be obscured here by a too ‘English’ set of assumptions about – to take one crucial example – the politics of Albert’s favourite child and bearer of his doctrines, Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia. Setting up Bismarck as a counter-model does not necessarily prove anything about Bismarck’s enemies and critics, of whom the Crown Princess was one. Victoria and her husband Frederick (emperor, briefly, in 1888) certainly got across Bismarck, and there is much about Bismarck’s eventual resolution of the problem of German unification which did not accord with the views of Albert or his Coburg mentor Stockmar. But the Crown Princess, Empress Frederick, was very far from being a proponent of a ‘Gladstone cabinet’ in Germany – which was what Bismarck accused her of being – and in this she was very much her father’s daughter. At the same time Bismarck was perfectly correct in denouncing her as a deliberate importer into Prussia of Coburg political principles. That was precisely what her father had trained her to do. Importing Coburg principles into England was precisely what he had been trained to do. ‘Vicki’ was the sort of conservatively liberal monarchist who found Marx more interesting than J.S. Mill.

Albert was widely mistrusted and never popular. That much of his unpopularity took absurd or even pathological forms, as in the hysteria at the time of the Crimean War, has had the effect of obscuring how sound the ground for mistrust was. When the Coburg éminence grise Stockmar wrote to Albert in 1854 that he loved and honoured the English constitution from conviction and thought that, ‘with judicious handling’, it was capable of realising a degree of civil liberty which left a man scope to think and act as a man, he was not only defining his terms in a way which left civil liberty as a subsidiary derivation of an implied and larger unspoken entity of government: he was also writing to one who had just handled very judiciously the making of a Peelite-dominated coalition with Palmerston exiled to the Home Office and Gladstone manipulated against Russell’s objections into the Exchequer, and who, more specifically, was an eager patron of Gladstone’s plan to restore Sir Robert Peel’s principles of finance. ‘Judicious handling’ was indeed the keynote.

Albert is most accurately seen in the context of the crisis of the early 19th-century Hanoverian monarchy and, especially, in the light of certain assumptions about the crisis made by Christian Friedrich Stockmar, that calculating and high-minded Coburg physician, and his employer Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (this last was exchanged for Gotha in 1826). Their outlook could fairly be summarised in the following terms. Europe (and in particular Germany) had been delivered from revolutionary Jacobinism and Napoleonic imperialism largely by the English, who, in Stockmar’s words, ‘surpass all others in Europe in energy and vigour of character’. However, Europe (and Germany, again, more particularly) needed not only to have its ‘liberties’ thus restored: it needed also an infusion of constitutional principle to renew or replace its shattered or outmoded institutions and offer the means by which firm and efficient national government could be reconciled with the encouragement of due and proper civil liberties. Europe had nothing to hope for in this direction from either Russia or Austria; and Prussia, which might have given a lead, had fallen under the influence of the other Eastern powers. Restoration France was too much at odds with itself to offer any positive initiatives. England was the one great hope: England the builder of coalitions for war might be the benign inspiration for European reconstruction in peace. Unfortunately, English energy and vigour in war had dissipated into peacetime turmoil and disaffection, with the monarchy especially sunk in dangerously deep discredit at the incompetent hands of the Regent and his scandalous and buffoonish brothers. The great need initially was to restore the tone of English institutions by recovering the prestige and influence of the English monarchy; and thereby to provide Europe with a compelling example of the blessings of true constitutional government.

For both Stockmar and Leopold, being good Coburgers meant being better Germans. Leopold was an Ernestine Wettin, a member of the elder branch of the Saxon house which had championed the Reformation and which was deprived of the Electoral dignity after defeat at the hands of Charles V in 1547. (Mr Rhodes James is a little unsure in these reaches: he imagines a Saxon ‘kingdom’ at this time.) Compared with the grasping and opportunist younger Albertine line, who grabbed the Electorship, who grubbed about for the Polish crown, who kowtowed to Napoleon for the Saxon crown, the Ernestines cultivated a reputation for higher things. Leopold and Stockmar were not interested in an English connection for the benefit of a German particularism. In their ambitions, a Coburg connection with England would serve higher, international purposes.

The opportunity of such a connection providentially offered itself: the Prince Regent’s only child, Princess Charlotte of Wales, was of marriageable age. Suitors pressed about this greatest prize in the Gotha Almanack stakes. Some were rejected on ‘Philip of Spain’ grounds, as being too important in their own right. Others were rejected on ‘George of Denmark’ grounds, as being dim or dull. It was difficult to reject Leopold of Coburg. He was personable and obviously bright. His family’s duchy, Saxe-Coburg, was of no consequence. Though only in his twenties, Leopold had made a reputation in dealings with Napoleon and had figured creditably at the Vienna Congress. In Stockmar, first his physician and then his confidential adviser and man of affairs, Leopold had a counsellor who matched his own sagacity and an agent who could operate with private unobtrusiveness. Together they were at the heart of a benign conspiracy. In 1816 Leopold got the prize: he married Charlotte and prepared his great enterprise of being the consort of an English princess royal and queen-regnant-to-be. He would make consortship into a high art and a deep science and the result would provide uncountable benefits, for England directly and Germany and the world indirectly.

The benign conspiracy fell apart in 1817 when Charlotte died in giving birth to a dead child. Leopold’s grief was much more than that of a heart-broken husband and lover. No longer certain consort or possible regent, he was left merely the embarrassed recipient of £50,000 per annum of Parliamentary grant and the occupant of Claremont. The Prince Regent’s childless brother Frederick York became heir; and after him the grotesque sequence of unmarried brothers, starting with William Clarence, replete with bastards, gout and debts. Now began the richly comic lurching into matrimony of these unwieldy Sons of England, competing to be the founder of the future royal line. Clarence (later William IV) tried diligently with his new wife, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen: but no more than Anne and George of Denmark could they keep their children alive. Edward Kent, as it turned out, won the race by getting a girl, Victoria, in 1818. The proud mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent, was the widow of the late Prince of Leiningen – and the sister, it so happened, of Leopold of Coburg.

What later became famous, or notorious, as the ‘Coburg Connection’, depended largely for its success on the ‘reinforcement principle’: never trust to just one link if more than one is feasible. Francis Frederick, Duke of Saxe-Coburg’s formidable brood of seven children built up two other important areas of dynastic influence by this means. One was an Austro-Hungarian connection, founded by Leopold’s elder brother Ferdinand’s marriage to the heiress of a wealthy Hungarian magnate, Prince Kohary. This connection was further built up by Ferdinand’s son August and grandson Philip. Did Philip prime his boon companion, Crown Prince Rudolph, with Coburg ideas? At all events, they married, in an evil hour, Belgian Coburg sisters, granddaughters of Leopold. Both marriages ended (in different ways) messily. Another Coburg match was that of the Emperor’s brother Archduke Ferdinand Max with Leopold’s daughter Charlotte: that ended messily in Mexico. Others were not so unfortunate: August’s daughter Clotilde married the important Archduke Joseph. Another daughter, Amélie, married a brother of the Empress Elizabeth. His youngest son Ferdinand became Prince (1887) and then Czar (1908) of Bulgaria.

The other notable connection was the Lusitanian one. Ferdinand Coburg-Kohary’s eldest son, Ferdinand, married Queen Maria II of Portugal. In 1853 he became Regent. He fought the good liberal Coburg fight against the reactionary Miguelistas; and the early death of his son Pedro V, in 1861, shocked the ailing Prince Albert. Reinforcement of this Braganza connection came with yet another son of the Viennese August, who married the daughter of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, and enjoyed the distinction of being both an Austrian and a Brazilian admiral.

There was never a Prussian connection of any consequence other than that of Albert’s daughter the Empress Frederick, mother of William II, the Kaiser of the First World War. That proved to be a Coburg enterprise which turned rancid for both mother and son. A brilliant Russian prospect opened when Leopold’s sister Julia married Constantine, the younger brother of Emperor Alexander I: but that, too, turned sour in separation and divorce the ci-devant Grand Duchess featured occasionally as ‘poor Aunt Julia’ in her niece Victoria’s correspondence. The pride of the Coburg system was always the English connection.

The distraught Leopold had his sister Victoria Kent to keep the link in repair. He himself travelled restlessly. He passed through Coburg in 1819, shortly after the birth to his oldest brother, Duke Ernest, of a second son, christened Francis Charles August Albert Emmanuel, known always as Albert. Leopold paid little attention at the time. He did not get on particularly well with the Duke, who lacked the better Ernestine Wettin qualities. The boy’s grandmother, the formidable ‘Grandmother Coburg’, saw the possibility of a match between her Coburg grandson Albert and her English grandaughter Victoria from the start, though she didn’t seem to have in mind a replay of the Charlotte-Leopold scenario of 1816. After all, even when Edward Kent’s sudden death in 1820 meant that there would be no Kent sons to pip Princess Victoria’s chances, there seemed every likelihood of Clarence progeny. It was several years before it became clear that only Princess Victoria stood between her wicked uncle Ernest Augustus of Cumberland and succession, after Clarence, to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland. Meanwhile, Leopold had his own fortunes to rebuild. He prudently declined the throne of the new state of Greece in 1830, but accepted that of the new state of Belgium in 1831. In 1832 he married a daughter of Louis Philippe, King of the French. It was only in 1832 that Leopold started looking seriously at his nephew Albert.

Albert had the merit of being unlike his father and his older brother Ernest. He was handsome, personable, amusing, intelligent. This familial contrast stoked rumours, already current in Coburg, as to the paternity of the Duke’s second son. The ducal marriage was not happy. The Duchess, Louise of SaxeAltenburg, was certainly flirtatious and indiscreet: but Mr Rhodes James gives good reasons for discounting the allegations – first published in Berlin in 1921 – that Albert’s father was a Jewish court chamberlain, Baron von Meyern. This was held to explain Albert’s son Albert Edward’s Judaic predilections. But the innocent explanations are far more cogent: Albert happened to take after his mother rather than his father; and his son was often in need of credit. (Perhaps the best testimony for this case is that Roger Peyrefitte pushes the Jewish angle only very tentatively in Les Juifs.) The evidence indicates that the Duchess’s infidelity to the Duke dated, at the earliest, to two years after Albert’s birth. Albert’s parents separated when he was five. His mother went off with a Lieutenant von Hanstein; and Albert never saw her again.

Naturally Albert was distressed by these sad events, but there are no indications that he was permanently wounded by them. To all appearances he was a happy, biddable child, who responded well to the heavy doses of Ernestine indoctrination administered by his tutor Florschütz. In 1832 and 1836, he was presented at Brussels for Uncle Leopold’s inspection. By now the question of what the Coburgs might do about Princess Victoria of Kent had become pressing. She was certain to become queen on her uncle William IV’s death, which could not be long delayed. The 1836 inspection was fraught with this prospect. Stockmar made a preliminary assessment at Coburg, and reported to King Leopold that Albert lacked nothing in charm and attractiveness – ‘it may also be considered a fortunate circumstance that he has already a certain English look about him’ – but that he seemed deficient in strength of will and intellectual and moral force. ‘To pursue so difficult a political career a whole life through requires 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. If simply to fill one of the most influential positions in Europe does not satisfy him, how often will he feel tempted to regret what he has undertaken. If he does not, right from the start, regard it as a serious and responsible task upon the fulfilment of which his honour and happiness depend, he is not likely to succeed.’ Leopold agreed with Stockmar’s assessment: but calculated that Albert was capable of being trained as a worthy Coburg runner. The game was worth the gamble. Albert would be infused with strength of will and intellectual and moral force. A course at the University of Bonn was arranged. A Grand Tour of Italy was fitted in. Florschütz redoubled his efforts.

Leopold and Stockmar had to move cautiously. Charlotte and Victoria were very different cases. Charlotte had been desperate to marry, to escape from the horror of her parents’ pathological feuding. Victoria was under no such pressure, especially when she became queen on William IV’s death in 1837. She immediately dumped her interfering mother and the egregious ex-equerry Conroy, whose hopes of William’s earlier death and getting the regency were only too nakedly apparent. Queen Victoria set out frankly to enjoy being young, sovereign and free. Leopold had to avoid being linked in Victoria’s mind with his inept, would-be managing sister. He needed to work himself into being Victoria’s surrogate father: but unfortunately Victoria had found just such a surrogate in her amusing and fatherly Whig prime minister, Melbourne, who had little time for Coburgs and no interest whatever in encouraging a husband who might supplant him. But, for a good Coburger, obstacles existed only to be got around. Once settled on in Brussels as the Coburg matrimonial candidate, Albert had to be ‘produced’ tactfully and discreetly. No one had more tact and discretion than Stockmar. He liaised for Leopold with Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s former governess and the Duchess of Kent’s agent. The Duchess herself usefully fended off a bid from Prince Adalbert of Prussia. Leopold was intensely relieved that a bid from his old rivals the Dutch fell before Victoria’s distaste for ‘Kalmuck’ features (‘So much for the Oranges, dear Uncle’). Albert’s careful ‘production’ was clinched in 1839. He and Victoria were married on 10 February 1840.

Albert is indecipherable outside this intensely Coburg and Ernestine matrix. It enveloped him all his life. It sent him to his early death. He never ceased to be a patriotic German and a Wettin. ‘While I shall be untiring in my efforts to labour for the country to which I shall in future belong, and where I am called to so high a position, I shall never cease to be a true German, and true Coburg and Gotha man.’ When he was 11, he had written in his journal, under Florschütz’s admonition: ‘I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man.’ Left to himself, Albert would have become a minor princeling noted for his enjoyment and patronage of art, literature, science and music. Given the resources, he would have equipped Coburg rather than Kensington with the ‘Albertopolis’ of museums, conservatories, colleges and galleries. Perhaps his Coburg might have eclipsed Weimar, and we would now be talking of the ‘Coburg constitution’ and ‘Coburg Germany’. Certainly he would have been happier in such a role. Victoria enjoyed being queen: Albert did not enjoy being consort. For that he would have needed to possess naturally and easily the qualities in which Stockmar had diagnosed him deficient. After all, she had married him mainly for his charm and attractiveness – her ministers found her embarrassingly candid on the theme of male beauty: she wanted Albert to have strength of will and intellectual and moral force as a man rather than as a statesman. As Victoria realised with dismay, nothing came easily or naturally to Albert. Even his triumphs, such as the Great International Exhibition of 1851 – its international character was at Albert’s characteristically Coburg insistence – did nothing to make him more confident or relaxed. He could not understand why he had failed to make of his eldest son what Leopold and Stockmar had successfully made of him. Nor did he have any deep religious faith which he could draw on. Victoria’s devoted dependence upon him only intensified his ‘over-love of business’, his ‘hasty and harsh’ impatience – all the instilled Coburg imperatives which drove him to exhaustion. He was a true creation of German romanticism and Leopold and Stockmar were the Dr Frankensteins.