Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

AN Wilson at the opening session of the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival at Chiswick House; Prince Albert: The Man Who saved the Monarchy book cover

AN Wilson is a prolific writer of biographies as well as the author of more than 20 works of fiction and a huge body of work as a journalist. He wrote Resolution, a fictional account of Captain James Cook’s second voyage, and Scandal about the Profumo affair, but the subjects of his biographies also include such towering literary figures as Leo Tolstoy, CS Lewis, Hilaire Belloc and John Betjeman and in the past few years he’s written highly acclaimed books on the Victorians and the Elizabethans. A more erudite speaker you could hardly find, but I’d no idea he was so witty.

In an hour-long talk at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival on his latest book Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, he made jokes about the Duke of Edinburgh, Boris Johnson, Sergeant Wilson, John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army and Tinkerbell, and held his audience effortlessly, with a disarming smile and a dry wit. Wilson argued that Prince Albert was worthy of a book in his own right ‘not just as a companion to my book on Victoria’. Albert was important, he said, ‘because we owe him’.

Developing the constitution

After the four Georges, the monarchy needed saving. Although Albert was very young when he came to England to marry his cousin, ‘he had a very clear idea what his function was going to be’. He’d studied at Bonn University (under the same tutor who later taught Karl Marx) and saw that the monarchy had to be woven into the developing parliamentary system if it was to survive. Queen Victoria didn’t have quite the same vision, but according to Wilson he kept her on track, developing the constitution as ‘a wonderful mix of the power of the executive and symbolism of the monarchy’, because he foresaw that the extension of franchise was inevitable.

I’m pleased that the portrayal of Victoria and Albert we’ve seen in the ITV series Victoria appears to have been accurate. Tom Hughes’ portrayal of Albert is exactly as AN Wilson describes him: a shy boy, who abhorred sexual promiscuity and impropriety and whose best friend throughout his life was his brother, but also an intelligent man who had a vision for the monarchy and for this country.

Cultural debt

Wilson told the audience at the opening night of the Book Festival in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House, that we also owed a great cultural debt to the Prince Consort. He was a patron of the arts and a patron of music. The V&A was originally proposed as just the ‘Albert museum’. We have the Royal Albert Hall because he encouraged the building of symphony halls and we have one of the greatest scientific centres in the world, Imperial College, because he understood the value of modern science. It was because he was voted Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University that science was introduced as an area of study. Once Cambridge deemed science worthy of admission to the curriculum, other universities followed suit. Prince Albert was genuinely interested in how machinery worked – he could have been an engineer or a scientist – and he was also mad about photography. One of the early photographs to be on sale to the public was a photograph he took of the royal family at Osborne House.

Wilson told the audience that Victoria and Albert became personally very rich from the Duchy of Lancaster – from the development of the spa town of Harrogate and the docks on Merseyside, and their ownership of agricultural land in Wales whose coalfields powered the industrial revolution. But Albert was a compassionate Prince; he travelled around the country a lot and met people who worked in factories and mills and schools. As a result, he realised that the working-class lived in squalor and he pioneered model cottages in Kennington with sanitation, flushing toilets and living room – unheard of in the houses of the working class.

The mention of John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army was with reference to his situation vis-à-vis Ian Lavender’s character Private Pike. The youngest member of Warmington On Sea’s Home Guard called Sergeant Wilson ‘Uncle Frank’, though it was clear to the audience that he was far more likely to have been his son. Such quite possibly was the relationship between Albert and his Uncle Leopold, though his paternity was never proven.
The reference to the Duke of Edinbugh was pure name dropping. They met at a function while Wilson was writing the book. The Duke exclaimed ‘not another bloody book about Prince Albert’ and told him that as Albert had only lived a short life, so it only needed to be a short book.

Did you know?

Prince Albert visited Chiswick in June 1844. He was here to attend a banquet for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia at Chiswick House, hosted by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Also there were the King of Saxony and around 700 members of the principal noble families in the country. It was described as ‘one of the most splendid fetes ever given in this country’.