Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, has garnered himself a reputation for propriety. At his worst, he is dull and responsible for some of the dreariness of his wife’s court. At his best, he can take credit for moving his wife away from the worst qualities of the House of Hanover and helping correct the reputation for gambling, womanizing and excess that defined the reigns of George IV and William IV.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of Albert, though I recognize some of my slant against him has more to do with the benefit of hindsight and, of course, a modern reaction to the more traditional aspects of his relationship with his wife and children. Still…he can come across as proper to the point of ridiculousness and it’s hard not to think there’s some proof in the pudding when you look at Edward VII’s (his son) demons.
Today we’re going to focus a bit on the “why” of Albert, which of course leads us to…armchair psychology. In other words, let’s talk about the mother!
Albert was the younger of two sons born to Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. He was positioned for the lofty role of marrying the UK’s queen thanks to the fact that he stood to inherit nothing from his father – that instead went to his elder brother, Ernest.
As for Louise, she was born on December 21, 1800 to Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and Louise Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Louise Charlotte had once been positioned as a bride for King Gustaf IV Adolf of Sweden, and though the union was celebrated through the court of Stockholm, Empress Catherine II of Russia had other ideas and instead put forth her granddaughter. The following year the Swedish king went the way of Russia and Mecklenburg-Schwerin was bequeathed Wismar as compensation.
On October 21, 1797 Louise Charlotte instead married Augustus, a match made very much against the bride’s will. Whether she knew ahead of time what she was getting into is unclear, but in fact the marriage was physically abusive and horrifically unhappy. Louise Charlotte wanted to leave – in an eerie echo of her daughter’s own marriage later on – but had little recourse to do so. Louise, born three years after the wedding, would be the couple’s only child. Louise Charlotte eventually died on January 1, 1801 from childbirth complications.
Augustus soon remarried to Caroline Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, however that marriage also proved an unhappy one and the couple soon physically separated and no children were born to them. Abuse aside, Augustus wasn’t well positioned for a happy marriage regardless due to his own proclivities, not least of which included appearing before his court in women’s clothing and insisting that he be referred to as “Emilie” in private. Poetry he is believed to have authored alludes to homosexual preferences, however that is only speculation.
In the public sphere, Augustus was a staunch supporter of Napoleon. The two referred to one another as “Cousin” in prolific correspondence, while they met on multiple occasions during the latter’s time as Emperor of the French. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815, Augustus’s position was severely undermined throughout the rest of Europe. He died in Gotha in 1822.
Five years prior, the adolescent Louise made her own match after what could only have been a rather lonely childhood sans siblings or her mother. She was noted to be clever, a quality she likely inherited from her mother, as well as beautiful, which must have come from her father given that Louise Charlotte was repeatedly referred to as “plain” during her life.
So far as we know, Louise entered her marriage optimistically, though Ernest was a well-known philanderer. Perhaps she thought the affairs would end post-wedding, or perhaps she thought they would be handled more discreetly – regardless, they did and were not. As Albert’s biographer, Jules Stewart, wrote:
“Princess Louise had been Ernest’s 16-year-old bride. She was less than half his age, and a lonelier and more miserable existence for a young bride could not have been imagined. Not only did her husband ignore as well as betray her, she was ware that he also coveted the Duchy of Gotha which she had brought to the marriage.”
The couple’s sons were born shortly after the wedding – Ernest on June 21, 1818 and Albert on August 26, 1819. The succession secured, there were no further children and Louise apparently found other solace in men besides her husband. The problem with this was that while Ernest saw no issue with his own infidelity, as was typical for the time, he took great issue with his wife following suit.
In 1824 the extent of her affairs was discovered and Louise was sent from her husband’s court. This included separation from her children, neither of whom she would see again after September of that year. She later wrote:
“Leaving my children was the most painful thing of all … they had whooping cough and said, ‘Mamma cries because she has got to go, now, when we are ill.'”
Also per Stewart:
“There is a story told by the German philologist Max Muller that after her banishment Louise caught a glimpse of her sons only once, when disguised as a peasant woman she slipped into a crowd at harvest festival they were attending. But it is more than likely that neither Albert nor his brother Ernest ever laid eyes on their mother from the day she was driven out of the family home.”
The marriage was officially dissolved on March 31, 1826. Louise set up house in St Wendel with her lover, Lieutenant Count Alexander von Hanstein, who she would eventually marry. Any happiness was short-lived as Louise began to suffer from severe stomach pain. The couple traveled to Paris to consult a reputable doctor, but in August 1831 she collapsed in their home in St Wendel and died at the age of 30.
As for her ex-husband, he remarried to his niece, Marie of Wurttemberg, in December 1832. The match wasn’t a lofty one for Ernest and Marie herself was in her 30s at the time of the marriage, but Ernest was pushing 50 and his reputation preceded him through the courts of the Europe. The couple weren’t close and though they remained married, they would eventually spend most of their time in separate estates. Without children of her own, Marie took solace in adopting a child of “humble” origins.
She was kind to her two stepsons, though a largely forgotten footnote in British history as she absented herself from major milestones in Albert’s life after he married Queen Victoria in 1840.
So, what to make of this? Well, it’s hard not to draw a direct line between Albert losing his mother at the age of just five due to infidelity and his own insistence on moral correctness. His own brother followed the route of their father and was a well-known womanizer, but Albert set himself apart. It’s also worth noting that his moralizing wasn’t focused only on women – he is believed to have been a faithful husband to Victoria – and thus perhaps the over-correction wasn’t directed on Louise so much as his father, or both.
It adds some nuance, as well, to Albert’s reaction when he found out his son, the future Edward VII, had embarked on an affair with an “actress” in 1861.
As for Louise, her remains were eventually interred in Coburg.