In recent years, there seems to have been a surfeit of books and documentaries presenting a very unjust image of Prince Albert as a dour and humourless man, driven by a desire for power, and with little understanding of his children’s needs.
The Duke of Wellington with Prince Albert, his wife Queen Victoria, and their son, the future Edward VII at Walmer Castle
Although this appears to be a recent phenomenon, it is in fact nothing new but rather a repetition of the misconceptions and slanders repeated about him from the moment that his engagement to Queen Victoria was announced.
Even before he arrived in England for his wedding in February 1840, satirical cartoons portrayed him as the ‘pauper prince’ who was marrying The Queen solely for prestige, power and money. More damagingly, many members of ‘society’ and The Queen’s own relatives greeted him with such hostility that Albert himself feared that the entire nation was against him.
As though to emphasise this resentment, Parliament grudgingly discussed his annuity, and ultimately granted him £20,000 less than had been granted to Prince Leopold on his marriage to Princess Charlotte, forty-four years earlier; and even when he arrived in England and proved himself to be a wise, unassuming and brilliant man, a xenophobic society, already prejudiced against the foreigner, treated him with disdain and found any excuse to denigrate him:
“That he did not dress in quite the orthodox English fashion,” wrote his mentor, Stockmar, “that he did not sit on horseback in the orthodox English way; that he did not shake hands in the orthodox English manner etc. etc. all this even those… who knew and esteemed him could not quite get over. One heard them say, ‘He is an excellent, clever, able fellow but look at the cut of his coat, or look at the way he shakes hands.’”[*]
It is a testament to Albert’s strength of character that he did not crumble under such criticism but, from the moment he married, dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the service of The Queen and the country. Rather than being driven by a desire for power, Albert’s primary motivation was his religious faith and a genuine belief that ‘to whom much is given, much will be demanded.’
Those who had known him since childhood frequently commented on the sincerity of his beliefs which he attempted to put into practice in every area of his life. In his youth, a friend recalled seeing him surreptitiously giving money to a beggar and, when he realised he had been seen, he begged the friend to say nothing of it to anyone.
On another occasion, while still a child, he witnessed a poor man’s house being burnt to the ground and immediately began raising money to build him a new one, not resting until the task was complete.
His beliefs, however, did not turn him into an overly pious or solemn young man – on the contrary, those who knew him well spoke often of his sense of humour and his love of practical jokes – nor did his Lutheran faith turn him into a bigot. Far more tolerant than many of his contemporaries, he not only spoke out in favour of the Roman Catholics in England, but also showed a profound and non-judgemental understanding of those whom society condemned as ‘sinners’. When, for example, the unfortunate Queen of Spain was criticised for her promiscuity, Albert felt nothing but sympathy for her, and refused to join the popular chorus of condemnation.
As Victoria came to rely on his political judgement, Albert was always careful to ensure that in all his speeches and actions, he let it be known that he was acting for The Queen, rather than assuming authority for himself; and, when attending formal functions with his eldest son, Bertie, Albert willingly stood aside to allow prominence to The Prince of Wales.
The many talents of this truly Renaissance man have often been overlooked in the rush to criticise him, for he was a musician, an artist, a scientist and an engineer as well as a prince. The great Felix Mendelssohn was deeply impressed by his compositions, as well as his ability to sing and to play the organ. Members of the Royal Academy commented that he could easily have made a career as an artist; and he was eager to understand all the latest advances in engineering and technology in order to improve conditions for workers and to make machines safer in the factories. Forward-thinking as he was, he was even a proponent of the building of the Channel Tunnel over a hundred years before work began on the project.
First and foremost, Albert sought to use his gifts for the good of the people. He regularly visited factories, impressing the workers by his ability to speak with them in their own language, without condescension; and wrote numerous letters and memoranda to Parliament suggesting improvements based on his findings in the various places of work. He was interested, too, in providing healthy environments and housing for the poor, creating at Balmoral, for example, homes which attracted the attention of some of the foremost philanthropists and housing reformers of the age.
It is, however, in his home life that he has recently come under the greatest criticism by certain historians who accuse him of behaving like a tyrant to his own children. One need only read his own letters and the journals of those who were actually present in the royal household, to see how far this is from the truth, and how deeply he loved his family. By the standards of the time, Albert spent an inordinate amount of time with his children, playing with them, seeking out new and happy experiences for them, creating for them the beautiful seaside home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, complete with their own little Swiss Cottage, and studying all the most modern methods of education and childcare in order to do his best for them.
The fact that his eldest son, Bertie, did not thrive under Albert’s educational system – which was based solely on the advice that Albert received from his mentor, Stockmar – has often distracted from the fact that his other children relished their father’s devotion to their well-being and happiness. If Albert made mistakes with Bertie, he did so with the highest intentions, seeking only to prepare him for his future role as King. Repeatedly, too, Albert sought to understand Bertie’s behaviour and, even when he behaved irresponsibly, Albert assured him that he only wished to help him and that, if he would find it easier to speak of his problems with someone other than his father, Albert would understand.
Perhaps the greatest refute to those who continue this unjust condemnation of this great and remarkable man, comes from one of his own children. Looking back some years after her father’s death, his second daughter Alice wrote from the heart: “What a joyous childhood we had and how greatly it was enhanced by dear, sweet Papa…”
One might add, how greatly was Britain blessed and enhanced by the presence of so brilliant and self-effacing prince!
* Baron E. von, Memoirs of Baron Stockmar Vol II (Longman’s, Green and Co. 1873)
photo credits: Renaud Camus and Bearfaced via photopin cc
Albert obviously loved his children, but he definitely made mistakes when it came to Bertie, good intentioned as they might have been. We all make mistakes when parenting, but it just so happened that his mistakes were magnified due to his pretty much having been a single parent. Queen Victoria – who resented her pregnancies, thought babies were disgusting, and became jealous of her own daughter when she began viewing her as a competitor for Albert’s affection – would hardly win Mother of the Year either then or now. After having read many biographies and excerpts from her letters and diaries, I feel confident in saying that while her relationship with Albert was based on genuine feeling and enjoyment of being around him, she approached her children more like they were part of her job (at least when young). The emotional damage this inflicted on her kids, specifically Bertie, we can’t really measure… but it definitely set an uneven playing field where Albert, try as he may, just couldn’t be both Father and Mother as well as he had at other times. I don’t think this makes him either a good parent or a bad parent. It just makes him the same as the rest of us: Trying to do the right thing with our kids, even if it ends up being the wrong thing – which it sometimes inevitably does.
I do not quite agree with you about Queen Victoria because I believe that it is something of a myth that she viewed her children in this way. There are numerous examples of her caring for them as would any mother – running up and downstairs when they had an illness, missing them when her duties took her from them, recounting amusing anecdotes about them, being worried about them and wanting the best for them..and basically loving them deeply. I agree that she did not enjoy being pregnant but that is quite separate from her feelings about her children. I believe, too, that Bertie is the exception and he was a particularly difficult child whose education was not ideal but he is the yardstick by which, unfortunately, QV & Prince Albert’s parenting skills are measured, which is very unfortunate and does not create the whole picture.
You can love your children – and worry/be with them when they’re ill – and still not be a great mother. Personally, I hope it is a myth, but if it is, it’s one that comes directly from reading her own writings on the subject (and the writings of others who saw her interact with her kids). As Mr. Birch, the tutor hired to help Bertie, wrote: “the hereditary and unfailing antipathy of our sovereigns to their Heir Apparent seems early to be taking root, and the Queen does not much like the child.” (Bertie was then 8 years old.) Victoria gets a pass from me for the first year after a birth because it is entirely possible that she suffered postnatal depression. Being the hormonal and chemical condition that it is, I understand there’s a certain element to it that is involuntary – and even the most doting of mothers can feel negative things towards their own children. That being said, other things aren’t as easy to explain. We know from examining the academic itineraries of the children that for a large portion of their childhood, they only saw their mother twice a day; once in the morning and once before bed. The rest of their time was strictly parceled into lesson blocs. We’ve learned from Albert’s letters to his brother Ernest that he would go see the children whenever he had spare time throughout the day, showing up often and unannounced, but that Victoria didn’t go with him. There was an unfortunate amount of distance between mother and child during the elementary years of all of their children. Victoria’s envy of her eldest daughter’s relationship with Albert is a sticking point for me. When Vicky was 15, Victoria wrote to Queen Augusta of Prussia that she found “no especial pleasure in the company of her elder children,” and added that she was really only happy when Albert was with her. One of Albert’s surviving letters to Victoria during one of their arguments at this time states “It is indeed a pity that you find no consolation in the company of your children… the root of the trouble lies in the mistaken notion that the function of a mother is to be always correcting, scolding, ordering them about and organising their activities.” Surviving accounts from letters recall instances in the months before Vicky’s marriage to Frederick III of Prussia when Victoria told her daughter how she would be glad to be rid of her. It wasn’t until after Vicky was wed and moved away (at 17) that she began to feel bad over how she treated her and she wrote to her daughter daily, leading to Vicky becoming her written confidante for this period of her life. These are just a few examples, but whether they are a result of Victoria simply being too busy with Royal duties or emotionally detached, the effect on the children was the same. Whatever the cause, I stand by my opinion that she left a lot to be desired when it came to parenting.
I think it very difficult to exactly define a ‘good’ mother. Perhaps it is
one who genuinely has her children’s best interests at heart and does her best
for them – which Queen Victoria certainly did. We all say things on the spur of
the moment and at times of stress and, unfortunately, many of Victoria’s
expressions seem to have been taken out of context or seen as the overriding
pattern of her relationship with her children.
That she did not spend much time with them is clearly a myth. Reading her
journals, one sees continual references to them and the time that was spent with
them – far more time than many of her contemporaries or working parents today
spend with their children. Yes, they were often in their lessons, but Victoria
often attended the lessons with them and when their tutors were unwell, she took
over the class herself. “Her
Majesty is a good deal occupied with the little Princess Royal, who begins to
assume companionable qualities,” wrote Albert’s secretary.
Lyttelton who was constantly in the household noted, too, that: “She has
her constantly with her and thinks incessantly about her.” Lord Melbourne also
wrote to the Queen to say he was “..much touched by what your Majesty says of
the Princess Royal, and the delight and comfort which your Majesty finds in her,
as well as by the whole picture which your Majesty draws of your domestic happiness.”
Victoria herself not only wrote that she wished to have the
children with her as much as possible, but also recommended that her uncle, the
King of the Belgians, should do the same for his children. While visiting
Claremont, and later visiting France, the Queen wrote of how deeply she missed
the children; and their tutors and governesses were concerned that they were not
keeping up with their lessons during their cruises and stays in Balmoral and
Osborne because they were always with their parents. The visiting Tsar of Russia
(Nicholas I) was greatly touched by the mutual affection between the parents and
children and by the amount of time the Queen and Prince spent with
them. Interestingly, in the 1840s, the Queen was often lampooned for being more
interested in her children than in anything else! These are but a few minor
examples to show how mistaken some the myths about Victoria really are. In my
forthcoming book, I will be presenting many more to refute the idea that she was
a very ‘bad’ mother.
I certainly look forward to reading your book. Her perceived poor parenting has really been the only area (for me) where my admiration of her dropped significantly. Truthfully, it always bothered me that she just seemed (because of how she was presented, perhaps) as not having a maternal bone in her body. It’s just so opposite of myself that I found it extremely difficult to sympathise or relate to her – and that somewhat tarnished the original shine she held for me. I’d actually love to have my opinion changed on the matter – and while it isn’t yet, I’m 100% open to it.
I hope that my book will show her in a different light :-). Meanwhile, thank you – I have enjoyed this discussion very much.
Thank you to you as well! Sometimes, there’s nothing like a good friendly debate. Please let me know what the title of the book will be (whenever you can) so I can keep my eye out for it.
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