On August 26, 1819, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born near Coburg, Germany. In 1840, when Albert was just 20 years old, he married Queen Victoria, who reigned over the United Kingdom and Ireland for nearly 65 years—from June 20, 1837 until her death on January 22, 1901.
The couple had nine children together, including King Edward VII, who succeeded his mother on the throne. But their coupling came with more than a few challenges: Because Albert was German, a Protestant, and from an unremarkable state (Bavaria), Parliament wasn't thrilled about the match and was against him becoming the country's prince consort—a title bestowed on the husband of a reigning queen. As such, Albert spent the first 17 years of their marriage being known as His Royal Highness Prince Albert. On June 25, 1857, Queen Victoria granted Albert the official title of Prince Consort.
In honor of what would have been his 200th birthday, here are some things you might not have known about Prince Albert.
1. Prince Albert was the product of an unhappy marriage.
Prince Albert was born on August 26, 1819 at Schloss Rosenau castle, near Coburg, Germany. He was the second son born to Ernest III, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. Though Albert and his older brother, Ernest, were close throughout their lives, their home life was rather dysfunctional. Their father was a strict man who was known to have a number of affairs and is believed to have fathered at least three illegitimate children. The couple separated in 1824, when Albert was just 5 years old, and Louise was then exiled from court. It's believed that she never saw her sons again.
2. Prince Albert's paternity has been questioned by some royal insiders.
Though there's no doubt that Prince Albert's father was a noted philanderer, the strongest evidence that Princess Louise had affairs was based purely on rumors. "The ducal court was not noted for the strictness of its morals," historical biographer Lytton Strachey wrote in 1921's Queen Victoria. "The Duke was a man of gallantry, and it was rumored that the Duchess followed her husband's example. There were scandals: one of the Court Chamberlains, a charming and cultivated man of Jewish extraction, was talked of; at last there was a separation, followed by a divorce."
When Prince Albert was 7 years old, his father filed for divorce from their mother, citing adultery. Because Albert bore a striking resemblance to his mother, some people began to question whether Ernest III was Prince Albert's biological father at all. "People have long speculated about Albert’s paternity, partly because he so strongly resembled his mother, not his father, and because of the fractured nature of his parents’ relationship,” Julia Baird, author of Victoria: The Queen, told RadioTimes.com earlier this year. No evidence has ever surfaced to confirm the rumors (though fans of Victoria will undoubtedly remember that it became a key plot point in the series).
3. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were first cousins.
Albert and Victoria were first cousins who shared a set of grandparents as Albert's father, Duke Ernst of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was the brother of Victoria's mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. The future couple shared some other commonalities: They were born in the same year, just three months apart (Victoria was born on May 24, 1819) and were both delivered by the same woman: Madame Siebold, the royal midwife.
4. Prince Albert first met his future wife when he was just 16 years old.
In May 1836, on Victoria’s 17th birthday, Prince Albert and the future Queen Victoria—then known as Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent—met for the first time when Albert and his brother visited Kensington Palace with their Uncle Leopold. "He is extremely handsome,” Victoria wrote in her diary of the prince. "His hair is about the same color as mine; his eyes are large and blue and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth.”
For years, their families had desired to see the two young royals marry, and it ended up being a happy match. After Albert's departure from Kensington, Victoria wrote to her Uncle Leopold: "How delighted I am with him, and how much I like him in every way. He possesses every quality that could be desired to make me perfectly happy."
One year later, on June 20, 1837, Princess Alexandrina Victoria became Queen Victoria.
5. Queen Victoria had to propose to Prince Albert.
“I dreaded the thought of marrying,” Victoria wrote in her diary. But in October 1839, Albert visited Windsor Castle and saw his cousin, now Queen Victoria, again. As royal rule stipulated that a reigning monarch could not be proposed to, it was Victoria who had to do the asking. So on October 15, 1839, Victoria proposed to Albert; he happily accepted and the couple married on February 10, 1840. Victoria called it "the happiest day of my life."
6. Queen Victoria saved Prince Albert's life in 1841.
In 1841, Prince Albert went ice skating on a lake near Buckingham Palace. “I, standing alone on the bank, said, 'It is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below," Victoria wrote in her diary.
While her lady-in-waiting panicked, Victoria went right to work attempting to pull her husband out of the frigid water. “I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies,” Prince Albert once said. “I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help.”
Luckily for Albert, he emerged from the incident with just a bad cold.
7. Prince Albert and Queen Victoria survived several assassination attempts.
Like many heads of states before and after them, Albert and Victoria were the targets of a number of assassination attempts. In 1840, the royal couple was on a public carriage ride when Edward Oxford shot at the couple. At the time, Victoria was pregnant with her first child, Victoria. Thankfully, no one was hurt. (However, in the 2009 film The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend, Albert gets shot trying to save her.)
Another assassination attempt occurred two years later, and again they were unhurt. However John Francis, the shooter, had attempted to shoot the couple the day before, but failed to fire his pistol. He was detained and sentenced to death for treason. Instead, Victoria commuted his sentence to banishment for life.
The oddest attempt on the couple's life, however, happened in the summer of 1842: A man named Bean, with a very prominent hunched back, fired a pistol loaded with pieces of tobacco pipe. He escaped and managed to evade capture for two weeks (which every hunchback in London was questioned by authorities).
8. Prince Albert helped design Osborne House, a former royal estate on the Isle of Wight.
In the late 1770s, the Blachford family owned the Osborne Estate on the Isle of Wight. In 1843, Albert and Queen Victoria wanted to find a place where they and their children could escape the expectations placed on them when they were in London or Windsor, which is when they found Osborne house.
But the house, as it existed at that time, wasn’t big enough for their large family. Developer Thomas Cubitt suggested that Albert build a new home on the property. The two worked together to design the first phase, the Pavilion, which housed the couple's private rooms and the royal nurseries. They demolished the old house and completed the main wing in 1851.
Later on, Cubitt and Albert created a Swiss cottage for the children and stables for 50 horses. Albert oversaw all of the renovations and new buildings. Victoria died in Osborne House on January 22, 1901. After her death, King Edward VII (Victoria's son and successor) didn’t want the house, so—against his mother's wishes—he donated it to the country, where it remains a part of the English Heritage charity. Today, you can tour part of Albert and Victoria's old quarters, including their private beach.
9. Albert and Victoria regularly exchanged love letters.
In celebration of Prince Albert’s 200th birthday, The Guardian reports that the Royal Collection Trust has made available more than 17,000 documents—including family photos and financial papers—relating to Prince Albert in an online archive. By the end of 2020, they hope to have 23,500 documents digitized. Many of the items have never been published, including letters exchanged between the royals.
On their engagement day, Albert wrote to Victoria:
“How is it that I have deserved so much love, so much affection? I cannot get used to the reality of all that I see and hear, and have to believe that heaven has sent me an angel whose brightness shall illume my life.”
Besides the love letters, the collection also includes a speech Albert made at The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa in which Albert called to abolish slavery, referring to it as “the blackest stain upon civilized Europe."
10. Prince Albert purchased Balmoral Castle.
In 1842, The Queen visited Scotland for the first time and fell in love with the country. In 1848, before Osborne House was finished, Prince Albert decided to lease Balmoral Castle from Lord Aberdeen, sight unseen. Fortunately, when Victoria finally saw the place for the first time, she thought it was “pretty.” In 1852, Albert bought the property. But since the main building was too small for their large family, Albert worked with an architect—this time William Smith—and built a new castle on the property, along with cottages and offices. He also made improvements to the surrounding woodlands and gardens.
In 1856, the project was finished and they demolished the old building. Unlike Osborne, Balmoral stayed in the royal family and is still a private residence for them today (it's typically referred to as Queen Elizabeth II's Scottish "holiday home").
11. Prince Albert saw photography as an “art form.”
In 1842, Prince Albert sat for photographer William Constable for a portrait. The photo still exists and is the earliest surviving photograph of a British royal family member. The Royal Trust Collection archive includes 10,000 photos that Victoria and Albert collected from various photographers. It also includes intimate family portraits, photos of the royal household, and photos of decorative objects. “Together these photographs reflect Prince Albert’s unwavering belief in photography as an art form, and his advocacy of its value as a historical record and a means to share knowledge,” reads the collection’s website.
12. Prince Albert organized the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Inspired by the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, Henry Cole, editor of the Journal of Design and council member of the Society of Arts, wanted to create something similar in England. Through the Society he met Prince Albert and asked him to help organize the event. They wanted the Great Exhibition to be an event for all nations of the world “for the purpose of exhibition of competition and encouragement.”
In Hyde Park in central London, they commissioned a glass and iron conservatory known as the Crystal Palace, which contained the exhibition. Six million people—more than a third of Britain's population at the time—passed through the Palace, including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. They and millions of others saw the world’s first international display of British design and manufacturing, including exhibits dedicated to steam engines, pottery, ironwork, perfumes, and houses. The event was so successful that a financial surplus from the event was used to establish a number of educational and cultural institutions, including the Natural History Museum and Royal Albert Hall.
13. Prince Albert was just 42 years old when he died.
On December 14, 1861, at approximately 10:50 p.m., Prince Albert died at the age of 42. Though the official cause of death was deemed to be typhoid fever, there are other theories as to what actually killed him, including stomach cancer and Crohn's disease.
Whatever the case, Albert seemed to know his days were numbered. Several weeks before his death, Albert reportedly told Victoria: "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 tomorrow … I am sure if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity for life."
14. Victoria spent the rest of her life mourning her late husband.
While Prince Albert's health deteriorated, Queen Victoria attempted to remain optimistic, telling one of Albert's doctors: "My husband won't die, for that would kill me." While Victoria lived for another 40 years following Albert's passing, she never got over his death; she lived out the remaining years of her life in perpetual mourning and always wearing black.