To most people today Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Prince Consort of England, is a shadowy figure remembered, if at all, as Queen Victoria's husband. Helen Rappaport's meticulously researched account of his final days, death, funeral, and their impact on Victoria and her country and Empire, is an excellent reminder of both Albert's role in the monarchy and the changes that came about after his death.
Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was an intelligent and high minded man who had been destined from birth to marry his slightly older cousin Victoria. Despite the arranged nature of their marriage, Victoria and Albert were deeply in love and utterly devoted to each other. Victoria was a highly emotional woman accustomed to having her ever whim accomodated. She was determined to rule as well as reign and within two years of succeeding to the throne had already caused one major political crisis by refusing to accept a change in Government because it meant giving up her own attending ladies. After marrying her in 1840 Albert gradually gained influence over his wife, limiting the effect her frequent emotional storms had on the day to day running of the government and on their growing family. Successive ministers and other politicians came to appreciate and trust his hard work and common sense, and even though he was never really popular in his adopted home due to being thought excessively earnest and rather dull, by 1861 Albert had become an essential cog in national affairs and indeed king in all but name. Rappaport's prologue describing the 1860 Christmas festivities at Windsor and her first chapter ably depict the many ways in which Albert had become indispensable.
Unfortunately Albert was not a healthy man. He suffered from a series of mysterious digestive upsets and incapacitating pain. His tendency to moroseness and depression was amplified by the constant need to keep his wife's jittery emotions soothed, and his workload was increasing and never ending. By late 1861 he was convinced he hadn't long to live, and several deaths in his family and his overreaction to his eldest son Bertie's first illicit love affair just intensified his depression. Even so, Albert was able to do one final bit of good by helping to defuse an international crisis between Britain and the United States, literally rising from his death bed to work on the details. Rappaport's almost minute by minute description of Albert's final decline and illness reveal the hazards of being royal and unhealthy in the nineteenth century. The doctors chosen to attend him had good social connections but apparently little real medical skill, and no one, not even the feisty Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, was able to convince the Queen that other specialists needed to be called in. Victoria at first refused to believe anything was seriously wrong with her husband, and as the seriousness of the situation sank in she became more and more difficult to deal with. It fell to a few servants and his second daughter Princess Alice to nurse Albert through his final days, and when the end came on December 14 Victoria was devastated. Rappaport's account of the announcement of Albert's death, its reception by the country, and the subsequent funeral ceremonies is fascinating. Few had realized how ill the Prince Consort really was, and the nation was shocked when church bells began to toll across the land. Rappaport used newspaper descriptions of the funeral as well as more official sources, helping us better realize the way the British people were shocked and saddened by his death.
The period after Albert's death was a turning point for Britain and its monarchy. Victoria withdrew into a decade long seclusion, and the nation, at first sympathetic, began to resent her absence from public life. As republicanism began to gain favor some of Victoria's advisors and servants attempted to rouse her without success. As Rappaport againly vividly describes, it was not until the Prince of Wales fell seriously ill with typhoid fever in December 1871 that the Queen began to be seen more in public. When her visibility grew so did her popularity, and while she did not fully regain all the influence on government that she had had while her husband was alive, she nevertheless gained in prestige and visible grandeur, being proclaimed Empress of India in 1876 and becoming "Grandmamma of Europe" through the marriages of her nine children and numerous grandchildren. One of her prime obsessions during her widowhood was the setting up of memorials to her beloved husband, and Rappaport provides an excellent chapter called "Albertopolis" to describe their construction. The book ends with a sad little Epilogue describing the Christmas of 1878, which was blighted by the death of Princess Alice from diptheria on the 17th anniversary of her father's passing, and a fascinating final Appendix "What Killed Prince Albert" which reanalyzes his symptoms in the light of modern medical knowledge and presents a convincing diagnosis of what was really wrong with him.
Helen Rappaport made use of the Royal Archives at Windsor and family archives in Germany. She consulted many British national and regional newspapers for contemporary accounts of the Prince's illness, death, and funeral and used a multitude of primary and secondary sources to illuminate not just the effect of Albert's death but also Victorian views on death and mourning, including some fascinating material on mourning jewellery. The extensive footnotes add additional information as well. Rappaport has produced a formidable work of scholarship that is also, despite its somber subject, a delight to read.