Today I faced a fear that haunted me for the whole of my PhD – I finally plucked up the courage to do a google image search for ‘Prince Albert’
Greetings loyal subjects of the crown! As you will doubtless have heard in the news, today is the day that Queen Elizabeth II surpasses Queen Victoria as the longest reigning monarch in British history. To mark ‘Better Than Vicky Day’, I thought I would take a moment to consider the man who was inevitably going to crop up on this blog in all his mutton-chopped glory: Prince Albert.
There are some really great biographies of Albert, which treat him with far more reverence and scholarly rigour than I have space or inclination to do here. In particular I’d recommend Hector Bolitho’s Albert: Prince Consort (2014); Stanley Weintraub’s Uncrowned King (1997); and Gillian Gill’s fascinating We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals (2009).
Albert puts Victoria on the naughty step
Albert is perhaps best known for his role in organizing the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the six months after it opened on 1st May, the Crystal Palace hosted more than 6 million visitors (roughly equivalent to a third of population of Britain at the time) and housed more than 100,000 items which included the Koh-I-Noor diamond, Hiram Power’s Greek Slave, steam engines, early bicycles, tapestries, furniture, art, and a reconstruction of a villa from the recently excavated city of Pompeii. Liza Picard has written a very fun article for the British Library on the exhibition, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (which itself was constructed using the £186,000 surplus from the exhibition) has a great video of the Crystal Palace construction.
Albert is also widely known in popular culture for having introduced the Christmas tree to Britain, bringing light and festive cheer into our homes and hearts. This on its own seems sufficient to put him squarely ahead of Prince Philip, whose best-known gift to the children of the nation has been the Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme, and the associated terror of having to take a poo outside in the dead of night in a force 10 gale.
Sadly, Albert died young in 1861 – aged 42 – of typhoid fever. He was already unwell in the November of that year, when word reached Windsor Palace that the Prince of Wales was rumoured to be having an affair with the actress Nellie Clifden. Albert went to Cambridge to have a stern word with wayward Eddie and, upon his return, suffered a fatal relapse. Victoria, it seems, never really forgave Edward for the fact that his man-parts had inadvertently caused his father’s death. In this regard, I think we have to award the point to Prince Philip, whose constitution seems to have survived his eldest son sleeping with whomever he likes.
Thankfully, dear readers, you can take comfort from the fact that Albert has been immortalized in stone for posterity, and nowhere more bizarrely than this sculpture from the National Portrait Gallery. Let’s just take a moment to gaze upon its Saxon, mutton-chopped magnificence:
This sculpture stands at the end of the main corridor of the 19th century gallery, and you can’t help feeling when you approach it, like you’ve intruded on some terribly intimate moment of dressing up. If love makes fools of us all then this sculpture is definitive proof that Albert and Victoria were very much in love, which reminds me of a particularly great exhibition at the Royal Collection a couple of years back called Albert and Victoria: Love and Art. If you can get your hands on a catalogue, I thoroughly recommend it. It was an exhibition of the many gifts and love tokens that Albert and Victoria exchanged over the course of their 20-year marriage. Highlights include this incredibly racy by the standards of the day (Lorks! Naked shoulders!) portrait of Victoria which was intended for Albert’s eyes only, and a rather sweet charm bracelet which Albert bought for his wife, with new lockets added for each child born to them.
No doubt Albert will appear again on this blog, but in the meantime happy BV day!