From his relationship with Queen Victoria to his role as prince consort, we reveal eight surprising facts about Prince Albert’s life…
Albert was Queen Victoria’s first cousin
Prince Albert and his wife, Queen Victoria, were first cousins, sharing one set of grandparents. They were related through Victoria’s mother (Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld) and Prince Albert’s father (Duke Ernst of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha), who were brother and sister.
Victoria and Albert were born just three months apart, with Victoria being the older of the two (she was born on 24 May 1819 at Kensington Palace and Albert was born at Schloss Rosenau, in Bavaria on 26 August). They were even delivered by the same midwife, Charlotte Heidenreich von Siebold.
Albert did not propose to Victoria – she asked him to marry her
Queen Victoria was attracted to Albert from the moment she first met him. “He is extremely handsome,” she wrote in her diary when Albert paid a visit to London just before her 17th birthday in 1836. “His hair is about the same colour as mine; his eyes are large & blue & he has a beautiful nose & a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.”
Although initially drawn to one another, it would be more than three years before the royals actually met again. During this time, Victoria had been crowned queen (on 20 June 1837) and continually expressed her reluctance to take a husband: “I dreaded the thought of marrying,” she wrote in April 1839. “I was so accustomed to having my own way that I thought it was 10 to 1 that I shouldn’t agree with any body.”
On 10 October 1839, however, Albert visited Windsor as part of a trip to visit the English court. As before, Victoria was completely enthralled with him. “He is so amiable and unaffected – in short, very fascinating; he is excessively admired here,” she enthused in her journal.
Five days into their reunion, during the afternoon of 15 October, Victoria proposed. As reigning monarch, Victoria had to be the one to suggest marriage – and Albert duly accepted her offer. “Oh! How I adore and love him, I cannot say!” the queen wrote in her diary shortly after their engagement. Albert, meanwhile, told a friend that he had “obtained the height of my desire”.
The couple married on 10 February 1840 in the Chapel Royal of St James’s Palace, and went on to have nine children: five girls (Victoria, Alice, Helena, Louise and Beatrice) and four boys (Albert, Alfred, Arthur and Leopold). Their marriage had been encouraged partly by their mutual uncle Leopold, who had been preparing Albert for the role of Victoria’s consort for quite some time.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from their marriage service at St James’s Palace, London on 10 February 1840. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)
Albert designed Osborne House, the royal residence on the Isle of Wight
In May 1845, Victoria and Albert purchased the Osborne estate on the Isle of Wight for the princely sum of £28,000. With its extensive grounds and secluded location, it was the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of London life. Victoria was enormously fond of the house, using it for more than 50 years to host visitors. It is “impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” she wrote of the estate.
As Victoria and Albert’s family expanded, it became apparent that the original house – once owned by Lady Isabella Blachford – required an extension. Thus, in 1848, Albert commissioned the master builder Thomas Cubitt (who had previously worked on the Duke of Westminster’s Belgravia estate in London) to remodel the home. On Cubitt’s recommendation, the original house was demolished and a new house was built from scratch. Albert contributed significantly to the design of the new property – an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo. He was also heavily involved in the landscaping of the grounds, and would reportedly direct gardeners while standing at the top of one of the house’s two towers.
Osborne House on the Isle of Wight – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s summer home and rural retreat. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Albert insisted that all of Queen Victoria’s bridesmaids were born “of a mother of spotless character”
Although Victoria ultimately chose her 12 bridesmaids according to their social status and rank, Prince Albert wanted his bride to select them based on their reputations – demanding that they each be born of a mother of “spotless character”.
“This was all very well in theory,” wrote Tracy Borman in a recent article for History Extra. “But in practice many court ladies had enjoyed affairs with Victoria’s ‘wicked uncles’, all of whom had preferred mistresses to wives.”
Albert was a ‘king’ in all but name
Within months of marrying Queen Victoria, Albert had moved his desk next to hers and became, effectively, her private secretary and chief confidential adviser. He quickly became involved in the running of the country, advising his wife on matters ranging from political neutrality in parliament to disputes with Prussia and the United States.
According to historian Helen Rappaport, Albert was in essence a “king without the title” – particularly after Victoria began having children. “With his wife continually side-lined by pregnancy – Albert [became] all-powerful, performing the functions of king but without the title, driving himself relentlessly through a schedule of official duties that even he admitted felt like being on a treadmill,” Rappaport wrote in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine.
Albert was a “hands-on” parent
Albert “was a new type of father, ahead of his time, with a hands-on approach to child rearing” says writer and documentary producer Denys Blakeway. He certainly played an active role in raising his children (unlike many husbands and fathers in this period). Commenting on his parenting style, he once remarked: “There is certainly a great charm, as well as deep interest, in watching the development of feelings and faculties in a little child.”
But Albert also had unreasonably high standards for his children, developing a rigorous educational programme for each of them. This “took little account of the abilities of an average intellect,” says Blakeway. “Albert was the product of an intensive German education that had made him into an accomplished polymath. He expected the same of his children – and more.”
The prince consort closely supervised the day-to-day running of his children’s schoolroom, dispensing advice to their teachers whenever he saw fit. One of these, a governess named Madame Hocédé, once commented that Albert never left her “without my feeling that he had strengthened my hand and raised the standard I was aiming at”.
Nevertheless, Albert had a close relationship with many of his children – notably his firstborn, Victoria, who reportedly resembled him in character. Vicky’s governess, Lady Lyttelton, once remarked on how the prince enjoyed spending time with her during her early years: “Albert tossed and romped with her, making her laugh and crow and kick heartily”.
Queen Victoria with Prince Albert and their children in 1846. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Albert organised the Great Exhibition of 1851
According to contemporary newspaper reports, the Great Exhibition of 1851 – sometimes referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition – was a sight to behold. “They who were so fortunate as to see it hardly knew what most to admire,” The Times reported on 2 May. The exhibition was the world’s first international display of design and manufacturing, showcasing the wonders of British steam engines and a veritable feast of exotic goods. Some six million people – a third of the population at the time – are believed to have attended the event, with notable visitors including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin.
Queen Victoria, accompanied by Prince Albert and their children, opens the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London, May 1851. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
At its heart, the exhibition was about showcasing British accomplishments and cementing the country’s status as an industrial leader. It was the brainchild of the civil servant Henry Cole, who organised the event alongside Prince Albert. The duo wanted it to be a spectacle enjoyed by all nations, “for the purpose of exhibition of competition and encouragement”.
Historian Dominic Sandbrook says: “To subsequent historians the exhibition represented the summit of Victorian imperial self-confidence… To thousands of people at the time, it probably represented little more than a terrific day out.”
Albert died unexpectedly at the age of 42
At 10.50pm on Saturday 14 December 1861, Prince Albert drew his final breath. He had died at the relatively young age of 42, having been unwell for around two weeks. On his death certificate, the official cause of his passing was given as “typhoid fever: duration 21 days”. More recently, however, historians have attributed his death to illnesses including Crohn’s disease, renal failure and abdominal cancer.
Curiously, just a few weeks before his death, Albert made the following, somewhat ominous, remark to his wife: “I do not cling to life. You do; but I set no store by it. I am sure if I had a severe illness I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity of life.”
The impact of Albert’s death, both publically and politically, was “enormous”, wrote Helen Rappaport in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine. “It was seen as nothing less than a national calamity, for Britain had in effect lost its king.”
Victoria sank into a deep depression following her husband’s death, withdrawing from public life and refusing to appear at social functions. Her mourning lasted decades – she wore black and slept next to an image of Albert until her own death almost 40 years later, in 1901.
Rachel Dinning is Digital Editorial Assistant at History Extra.