Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, the fourth child and second son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was born on this day in 1844 at Windsor Castle.
At birth, he was second in the line of succession behind his elder brother the Prince of Wales. Known affectionately as ‘Affie’ in the family, after a childhood mispronunciation of the name Alfred, he studied violin at Holyrood, Edinburgh. In 1856 it was decided that Prince Alfred, in accordance with his own wishes, should enter the Royal Navy. He passed the examination in August 1858 and was appointed as midshipman on the HMS Euryalus at the age of 14.
In July 1860, while on this ship, he paid an official visit to the Cape Colony, where he made a very favourable impression both on the colonials and the native chiefs.
On the abdication of King Otto of Greece in 1862, Prince Alfred was chosen to succeed him, but the British government blocked plans for him to ascend the Greek throne, largely because of the Queen’s opposition to the idea. She and her late husband had plans for him to succeed to the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg.
Prince Alfred, therefore, remained in the navy and, after being promoted to captain, was appointed to the command of the frigate HMS Galatea in February 1867.
In the Queen’s Birthday Honours on 24 May 1866, the Prince had been created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Ulster and Earl of Kent.
While still in command of the Galatea, the Duke of Edinburgh started from Plymouth on 24 January 1867 for his voyage round the world. On 7 June 1867, he left Gibraltar, reached the Cape of Good Hope on 24 July and later paid a royal visit to Cape Town. He landed in South Australia on 31 October. Being the first member of the royal family to visit Australia, the Duke was received with great enthusiasm. During his stay of nearly five months, he visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Tasmania.
During his stay in Sydney, the Prince was the victim of an assassination attempt: he was shot in the back while attending a picnic to raise funds for the Sydney Sailors’ Home. The wound, although serious, was not fatal, and the Prince was able to resume his voyage and return home in April 1868. During subsequent voyages, he visited Hawaii, New Zealand, India, Ceylon and Hong Kong and became the first European Prince to set foot in Japan in September 1869, when he was received in audience by Emperor Meiji.
On 23 January 1874, the Duke of Edinburgh married the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, the second and only surviving daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The bride was nine years his junior and was the first and only Romanov to marry into the British Royal Family.
Queen Victoria was not enthusiastic about the match, confiding to her diary upon the announcement of the engagement: “Not knowing Marie, and realising that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts and feelings are rather mixed”.
Tsar Alexander II, though, seemed rather better-disposed towards the couple, and spared no expense for the wedding, granting his daughter the then staggering sum of £100,000 as a dowry, plus an annual allowance of £32,000, not to mention some of the best jewels owned by the Romanovs, including the sapphires he had inherited from his mother, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, a parure that had belonged to Catherine the Great and a newly-commissioned diamond and Burmese ruby complete parure. The groom was made honorary chief of a Russian guards regiment and even had a Russian battleship named after him – the Gerzog Edinburgsky.
After a short honeymoon in St Petersburg, Alfred and Maria left Russia to live in England. Alexander II never lost hope that they would return, and the honeymoon suite at Tsarskoe Selo was kept preserved for the couple for two decades. It later became the bedroom of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife Alexandra, in 1894.
The newlyweds moved into Clarence House in London, which was their main residence in England. The Duke, however, remained in the Royal Navy and was stationed in Malta for several years, and later at Devonport, Plymouth. His wife accompanied him on his postings, and the couple’s third child, Victoria Melita, was born in Malta.
The Duke of Edinburgh was eventually promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1893.
On the death of his uncle, Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in August 1893, the duchy fell to the Duke of Edinburgh, since his elder brother the Prince of Wales had renounced his right to the succession. At first regarded with some coldness as a “foreigner”, he gradually gained popularity among his German subjects.
While he maintained Clarence House as his London residence, he spent long periods of time in Coburg and it was there, at Schloss Rosenau, the birthplace and boyhood home of his father Prince Albert, that he died of throat cancer on 30 July 1900, one of three children of Queen Victoria to predecease their mother (the others were Princess Alice and Prince Leopold).
He was buried at the ducal family’s mausoleum in the Glockenberg Cemetery in Coburg and was succeeded as the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha by his nephew, Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany, his only son having committed suicide in January 1899.