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Queen Victoria (Browne)

CHAPTER XI: Albert the Good


The year 1861 was a black year for the Queen. On March 15th her mother, the Duchess of Kent, died. She had been living for some time at Frogmore, a pleasant house in the Windsor Home Park, and here in the mausoleum erected by her daughter her statue is to be seen.

She was sincerely loved by every member of her household, and her loss was felt as one affecting the whole nation. In the words of Disraeli: "She who reigns over us has elected, amid all the splendour of empire, to establish her life on the principle of domestic love. It is this, it is the remembrance and consciousness of this, which now sincerely saddens the public spirit, and permits a nation to bear its heartfelt sympathy to the foot of a bereaved throne, and to whisper solace to a royal heart."

The death of the Queen's' mother came as a great shock to the Prince Consort. The Queen was, for a time, utterly unable to transact any business, and this added to his already heavy burden of cares and responsibilities.

In the following November the King of Portugal died. The Prince had loved him like a son, and this fresh disaster told so severely upon his health that he began to suffer much from sleeplessness. The strain of almost ceaseless work for many years was gradually wearing him out.

He had never been afraid of death, and not long before his last illness he had said to his wife: "I do not cling to life. You do; but I set no store by it. If I knew that those I love were well cared for, I should be quite ready to die to-morrow. . . . I am sure, if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once, I should not struggle for life."

On the 1st of December the Queen felt anxious and depressed. Her husband grew worse and could not take food without considerable difficulty, and this made him very weak and irritable.

The physicians in attendance were now obliged to tell her that the illness was low fever, but that the patient himself was not to know of this. The Ministers became alarmed at his state, and when the news of his illness became public there was the greatest and most universal anxiety for news.

In spite of slight improvements from time to time, the Prince showed no power of fighting the disease, and on the evening of the 14th December he passed gently away.

It is no exaggeration to say that the death of the Queen's beloved husband saddened every home in the land; it was a sorrow felt equally by the highest and the lowest. He died in the fulness of his manhood, leaving her whom he had loved and guarded so tenderly to reign in lonely splendour.

In the dedication of Idylls of the King to the memory of Prince Albert, Tennyson, the poet-laureate, wrote:

Break not, O woman's-heart, but still endure;
Break not, for thou art Royal, but endure,
Remembering all the beauty of that star
Which shone so close beside Thee that ye made
One light together, but has past and leaves
The Crown a lonely splendour.

When one looks over the vista of years which have passed since that mournful day, it is with sadness mingled with regret. For it is too true that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country."

'Albert the Good' was, like many other great men, in advance of his times, and not until he was dead did the nation as a whole realize the blank he had left behind him.

Even so late as 1854 Greville writes in his Diary of the extraordinary attacks which were made upon the Prince in the public Press. Letter after letter, he noted, appeared "full of the bitterest abuse and all sorts of lies. . . . The charges against him are principally to this effect, that he has been in the habit of meddling improperly in public affairs, and has used his influence to promote objects of his own and the interests of his own family at the expense of the interests of this country; that he is German and not English in his sentiments and principles; that he corresponds with foreign princes and with British Ministers abroad without the knowledge of the Government, and that he thwarts the foreign policy of the Ministers when it does not coincide with his own ideas and purposes." And again: "It was currently reported in the Midland and Northern counties, and actually stated in a Scotch paper, that Prince Albert had been committed to the Tower, and there were people found credulous and foolish enough to believe it."

        But English gratitude is always such
To hate the hand which doth oblige too much.

These words of Daniel Defoe help to explain something of the attitude of a part of the nation toward the Prince in his lifetime.

He had given his life in the service of his wife and his adopted country, but he was a 'foreigner,' and the insular Briton, brought up in the blissful belief that "one Englishman was as good as three Frenchmen," could not and would not overcome his distrust of one who had not been, like himself, so singularly blessed in his nationality.

But Time has its revenges, and the services of Prince Albert will "smell sweet and blossom in the dust" long after the very names of once famous lights of the Victorian era have been forgotten.

His home life was singularly sweet and happy, and a great contrast to that of some of his wife's predecessors upon the English throne. The Queen, writing to her Uncle Leopold in this the twenty-first year of their marriage, says: "Very few can say with me that their husband at the end of twenty-one years is not only full of the friendship, kindness, and affection which a truly happy marriage brings with it, but the same tender love of the very first days of our marriage!"

The Prince, in a letter to a friend, rejoiced that their marriage "still continues green and fresh and throws out vigorous roots, from which I can, with gratitude to God, acknowledge that much good will yet be engendered for the world."

The finest tribute to the Prince Consort's memory is to be found in the Dedication written by Lord Tennyson to his Idylls of the King:

These to His Memory—since he held them dear,
Perchance as finding there unconsciously
Some image of himself—I dedicate,
I dedicate, I consecrate with tears—
These Idylls.

Like Arthur, 'the flower of kings,' he was a man of ideals, above petty jealousies and small ambitions:

Hereafter, thro' all times, Albert the Good.

The Idylls produced such a deep impression upon the Prince that he wrote to the author, asking him to inscribe his name in the volume. The book remained always a great favourite with him, and Princess Frederick William was engaged upon a series of pictures illustrating her favourite passages at the time of his death.

An enumeration of the varied activities of Prince Albert during his lifetime would need a volume. His position was always a difficult one and was seldom made easier by the section of the Press which singled him out as a target for its poisoned arrows. Only a strong sense of duty and an unwavering belief in his wife's love could have sustained him through the many dark hours of tribulation and sorrow. He rose early all the year round, and prepared drafts of answers to the Queen's Ministers, wrote letters and had cleared off a considerable amount of work before many men would have thought of beginning the day's tasks.

THE ALBERT MEMORIAL

No article of any importance in the newspapers or magazines escaped his attention. Every one appealed to him for help or advice, and none asked in vain. His wide knowledge and judgment were freely used by the Queen's statesmen, and the day proved all too short for the endless amount of work which had to be done.

In spite of increasing burdens and poor health he was always in good spirits. "At breakfast and at luncheon, and also at our family dinners, he sat at the top of the table, and kept us all enlivened by his interesting conversation, by his charming anecdotes, and droll stories without end of his childhood, of people at Coburg, of our good people in Scotland, which he would repeat with a wonderful power of mimicry, and at which he would himself laugh most heartily. Then he would at other times entertain us with his talk about the most interesting and important topics of the present and of former days, on which it was ever a pleasure to hear him speak."[10]

[Footnote 10: Queen Victoria's Journal.]

His rule in life was to make his position entirely a part of the Queen's, "to place all his time and powers at her command." Every speech which he made in public was carefully considered beforehand, and then written out and committed to memory. As he had to speak in a foreign tongue, he considered this precaution absolutely necessary. At the same time it often made him feel shy and nervous when speaking before strangers, and this sometimes gave to those who did not know him a mistaken impression of coldness and reserve.

His sympathy with the working classes was sincere and practical. He was convinced that "any real improvement must be the result of the exertion of the working people themselves." He was President of the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, and never lost an opportunity of pointing out that, to quote his own words, "the Royal Family are not merely living upon the earnings of the people (as these publications try to represent) without caring for the poor labourers, but that they are anxious about their welfare, and ready to co-operate in any scheme for the amelioration of their condition. We may possess these feelings, and yet the mass of the people may be ignorant of it, because they have never heard it expressed to them, or seen any tangible proof of it."

His grasp of detail and knowledge of home and foreign political affairs astonished every one who met him, ministers and ambassadors alike. His writing-table and that of the Queen stood side by side in their sitting-room, and here they used to work together, every dispatch which left their hands being the joint work of both. The Prince corrected and revised everything carefully before it received the Queen's signature. Considering the small amount of time at his disposal, it was remarkable how much he was able to read, and read thoroughly, both with the Queen and by himself. "Not many, but much," was his principle, and every book read was carefully noted in his diary.

Even to the last he exerted his influence in the cause of peace. The American Civil War broke out in 1861, and Great Britain declared her neutrality. But an incident, known as 'The Trent Affair,' nearly brought about a declaration of war.

The Southern States, or 'Confederates,' as they were usually called, sent two commissioners to Europe on board the British mail steamer Trent. The Trent was fired upon and boarded by a Federal officer, who arrested the commissioners.

This was regarded as an insult to our flag, as it was a breach of international law to attack the ship of a neutral power. The Government therefore decided to demand redress, and a dispatch, worded by Palmerston, was forwarded to the Queen for her signature.

The Prince realized at once that if the dispatch were forwarded as it was written it would lead to open war between the Northern States and our country, and he suggested certain alterations to the Queen, who agreed to them. A more courteously worded message was sent, and the Northern States at once agreed to liberate the commissioners and offered an ample apology.






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