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.’

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