Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Crimean War, Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, stomach cancer, The Trent Affair, Typhoid fever, Victoria the Princess Royal
In 1852, John Camden Neild, an eccentric miser, left Victoria an unexpected legacy, which Albert used to obtain the freehold of Balmoral. As usual, he embarked on an extensive programme of improvements. The same year, he was appointed to several of the offices left vacant by the death of the Duke of Wellington, including the mastership of Trinity House and the colonelcy of the Grenadier Guards. With Wellington’s passing, Albert was able to propose and campaign for modernisation of the army, which was long overdue.
Thinking that the military was unready for war, and that Christian rule was preferable to Islamic rule, Albert counselled a diplomatic solution to conflict between the Russian and Ottoman empires. Palmerston was more bellicose, and favoured a policy that would prevent further Russian expansion. Palmerston was manoeuvred out of the cabinet in December 1853, but at about the same time a Russian fleet attacked the Ottoman fleet at anchor at Sinop. The London press depicted the attack as a criminal massacre, and Palmerston’s popularity surged as Albert’s fell. Within two weeks, Palmerston was re-appointed as a minister. As public outrage at the Russian action continued, false rumours circulated that Albert had been arrested for treason and was being held prisoner in the Tower of London.
By March 1854, Britain and Russia were embroiled in the Crimean War. Albert devised a master plan for winning the war by laying siege to Sevastopol while starving Russia economically, which became the Allied strategy after the Tsar decided to fight a purely defensive war. Early British optimism soon faded as the press reported that British troops were ill-equipped and mismanaged by aged generals using out-of-date tactics and strategy.
The conflict dragged on as the Russians were as poorly prepared as their opponents. The Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, resigned and Palmerston succeeded him. A negotiated settlement eventually put an end to the war with the Treaty of Paris. During the war, Albert arranged the marriage of his fourteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, to Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm of Prussia, though Albert delayed the marriage until Victoria was seventeen. Albert hoped that his daughter and son-in-law would be a liberalising influence in the enlarging but very conservative Prussian state.
Albert promoted many public educational institutions. Chiefly at meetings in connection with these he spoke of the need for better schooling. A collection of his speeches was published in 1857. Recognised as a supporter of education and technological progress, he was invited to speak at scientific meetings, such as the memorable address he delivered as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when it met at Aberdeen in 1859. His espousal of science met with clerical opposition; he and Palmerston unsuccessfully recommended a knighthood for Charles Darwin, after the publication of On the Origin of Species, which was opposed by the Bishop of Oxford.
In August 1859, Albert fell seriously ill with stomach cramps. His steadily worsening medical condition led to a sense of despair. He lost the will to live, says biographer Robert Rhodes James. He had an accidental brush with death during a trip to Coburg in October 1860, when he was driving alone in a carriage drawn by four horses that suddenly bolted. As the horses continued to gallop toward a wagon waiting at a railway crossing, Albert jumped for his life from the carriage. One of the horses was killed in the collision, and Albert was badly shaken, though his only physical injuries were cuts and bruises. He confided in his brother and eldest daughter that he had sensed his time had come.
Victoria’s mother and Albert’s aunt, the Duchess of Kent, died in March 1861, and Victoria was grief-stricken. Albert took on most of the Queen’s duties despite continuing to suffer with chronic stomach trouble. The last public event over which he presided was the opening of the Royal Horticultural Gardens on June 5, 1861. In August, Victoria and Albert visited the Curragh Camp, Ireland, where the Prince of Wales was attending army manoeuvres. At the Curragh, the Prince of Wales was introduced, by his fellow officers, to Nellie Clifden, an Irish actress.
By November, Victoria and Albert had returned to Windsor, and the Prince of Wales had returned to Cambridge, where he was a student. Two of Albert’s young cousins, brothers King Pedro V of Portugal and Prince Ferdinand, died of typhoid fever within five days of each other in early November. On top of this news, Albert was informed that gossip was spreading in gentlemen’s clubs and the foreign press that the Prince of Wales was still involved with Nellie Clifden. Albert and Victoria were horrified by their son’s indiscretion, and feared blackmail, scandal or pregnancy.
Although Albert was ill and at a low ebb, he travelled to Cambridge to see the Prince of Wales on November 25 to discuss his son’s indiscreet affair. In his final weeks Albert suffered from pains in his back and legs.
Also in November 1861, the Trent affair—the forcible removal of Confederate envoys from a British ship by Union forces during the American Civil War—threatened war between the United States and Britain. The British government prepared an ultimatum and readied a military response. Albert was gravely ill but intervened to defuse the crisis. In a few hours, he revised the British demands in a manner that allowed the Lincoln administration to surrender the Confederate commissioners who had been seized from the Trent and to issue a public apology to London without losing face. The key idea, based on a suggestion from The Times, was to give Washington the opportunity to deny it had officially authorised the seizure and thereby apologise for the captain’s mistake.
On December 9, one of Albert’s doctors, William Jenner, diagnosed him with typhoid fever. Albert died at 10:50 p.m. on December14, 1861 in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, in the presence of the Queen and five of their nine children. The contemporary diagnosis was typhoid fever, but modern writers have pointed out that Albert’s ongoing stomach pain, leaving him ill for at least two years before his death, may indicate that a chronic disease, such as Crohn’s disease, kidney failure, or abdominal cancer, was the actual cause of death.