As soon as Victoria set eyes on the imported princeling, `erotic lightning struck'. A new biography investigates Albert, the man of `appalling virtue'
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Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha has long been a source both of mystery and suspicion to the British public. One reason is that as Prince Consort he remained, despite his own most earnest endeavours, uncompromisingly foreign. A second is that he seemed too good to be true. In the words of one later observer, "His virtue was, indeed, appalling; not a single vice redeemed it."

In Albert: Uncrowned King (John Murray pounds 25), Stanley Weintraub, the American scholar of Victorian England, seeks to redeem it, not so much by pointing to vices - the Prince does indeed seem to have had few - but by giving his virtue a political context. We also get some inkling of what drove him: not just a desperate wish to transcend his allotted role as imported royal stud, but also a murkily disturbed family past. Weintraub presents a more restlessly ambitious figure than previously portrayed, while at the same time destroying the myth of Victoria-and-Albert as a single entity, and giving the male half the primacy it deserves.

Weintraub's Albert is honest and honourable, though capable of low cunning - quite prepared, for instance, to gossip about the marital infidelity of a difficult Foreign Secretary, in order to undermine him. His wife, on the other hand, appears here as moody, erratic, depressive and often lazy - a Queen who, without the steadying wisdom of "that most perfect of human beings my adored Husband" (as she was wont to call him), might have finished off the British monarchy for good. Weintraub's Victoria has, however, the saving grace of a refreshingly passionate nature. Thus, this book also succeeds as a love story: the more remarkable because it describes a marriage brought about largely for pragmatic reasons.

As Weintraub reminds us, Prince Albert's origins - like those of his descendant and fellow consort, Philip - combined elevated bloodlines with political insignificance. Albert's lowly status as a younger son from a minor German principality meant that his suitability as a match for the future Queen of England depended on three things: his religion (Protestant princelings willing to move to London were in short supply), his character (a cuckolded Queen was something to avoid) and his ability to sire heirs.

Though his suitability on the first ground was established, there was nervousness about the others. Lord Melbourne, in particular, worried about the young prince's reported "indifference about ladies". "A little dangerous, that's all it is," he explained, perhaps meaning, not that Albert might be gay, but that it was better for a royal consort to sow his wild oats before marriage, rather than after it.

Indeed, if heredity was to be any guide on this score, British concern should have been extreme. Albert's father was a notorious philanderer who divorced Albert's mother when she responded in kind, and an elder son - chip off the old block - contracted syphilis. Luckily Albert differed spectacularly from his closest relatives and grew up a model for the era later identified with his wife. Where others of his class lost money at cards and in brothels, Albert studied, went for long mountain walks, and argued with religious leaders about early Etruscan art.

What did the future hold for a "superfluous son in a statelet of little consequence" - yet a man of high sensibility? Mentors of the Saxe-Coburg- Gothas were in no doubt, and from childhood he was trained up accordingly: Weintraub gives a fascinating account of the icily clinical preparation of the teenage suitor for a hoped-for match which, if clinched, amounted in Euro-royal terms to hitting the jackpot.

The question was whether Victoria would agree. Though she liked him well enough at an initial meeting before she acceded in 1837, Albert remained one of many possibilities. However, he had certain advantages: in particular, the influential sponsorship of King Leopold of the Belgians, who regarded the whole tribe of European royalty as if it were a gigantic breeding stable. In 1839 intense negotiations produced another Saxe-Coburg-Gotha pilgrimage to the Court of St James.

In an atmosphere of international excitement, the mentors fretted about whether Albert was enough of a flirt. He had, Leopold's doctor friend Baron Stockmar ruefully acknowledged, "more success with men than with women", in whose company he showed, alas, "too little empressement". They need not have worried. In this respect, Victoria made up for her German cousin's deficiency. The author gives a vivid description of how, against a backcloth of statesmen holding their breath, diplomatic necessity became magically romantic.

Until she set eyes on him Victoria remained grumpy. Then, as Albert ascended the great staircase at Windsor Castle, "erotic lightning struck". Five days later the English Queen proposed (a contemporary lampoon shows her tickling him under the chin). "Oh! to feel I was and am, loved by such an Angel as Albert was too great a delight to describe!" she recorded. "In body and soul ever your slave," politely concluded the prince in his first love letter, accurately describing his new status.

How much did he reciprocate her feelings? What for her was - or felt like - a heartfelt choice, for him was the crowning of a three-year ambition, planned with Teutonic precision. It is hard to believe that his own emotions did not include the prosaic sense of a career goal accomplished. The personal prospect, in any case, was ominous. "She's lovely, she is rich," went a cruel ballad, "But they tell me when I marry her / That she will wear the britsch." So it must surely have seemed - indeed, Albert's difficulty with the English language, dislike of English food, and lack of social ease in the company of England's xenophobic aristocrats would have been cause for acute unhappiness had not his marriage, fuelled by Victoria's consuming adoration, turned out an astonishing success.

The key, as Weintraub pleasantly put it, was Victoria's "Hanoverian libido". Any notion that Victoria was a prude is dispelled by this jovial book. She loved sex, couldn't get enough of it, and didn't care who knew. Things went right from the start. Hours after the marriage consummation, we find her eagerly telling the Prime Minister about her "most gratifying and bewildering night". She wrote later of loving "to be clasped and held tight in the sacred Hours of Night". When they had been married for four years, and Albert had to return to Coburg for his father's funeral, she told Leopold that "I have never been separated from him for even one night and the thought of such separation is quite dreadful". (Contrary, however, to the popular belief that the upper classes always sleep naked, Weintraub reveals that Albert required more than regal hugs to keep him warm. According to Victoria, the Consort accompanied her to bed "in long white drawers, which enclosed his feet, as well as his legs" - a kind of 19th-century baby-gro).

In time, sex became the source of many of her woes: nine children in 17 years bloated her body and brought on a pattern of post-natal depressions. But her ardour never dimmed. "Oh, doctor, can I have no more fun in bed?", the Queen was reported to have said, when told that the only effective form of birth control was abstinence.

"It is you who have entirely formed me," Victoria told her husband. At first, with no official place in the Constitution, Albert stood meekly by with an ink blotter as she signed documents. Rapidly, however, he came to influence her decisions and quietly take over her functions. As confinements and their gruelling aftermath absorbed her time and energy, her dependence became total. Sometimes the Queen's storms of anger tried him to the limit; ever self-controlled, he wondered if it would be best to slink away "like a schoolboy who has had a dressing-down from his mother and goes off snubbed", or to fight back. Eventually, he fixed on repeated assurances of undying love as the most effective palliative.

Elderly politicians thrice Albert's age soon discovered the value, when seeking the Queen's opinion on anything, of going to the Prince first. It was not just that she listened to him, when she would listen to nobody else. It also became apparent that while the Queen would push matters of state aside, the Prince kept himself unfailingly well-informed of them. Weintraub quotes Charles Greville, in 1845, commenting that Albert was "really discharging the functions of the Sovereign. He is King to all intents and purposes."

Albert also acquired a sphere of social concern separate from those of the government or even his wife, and generally of a worthily reformist nature. Weintraub shows that in contemporary terms the Consort's views were more Lib-Dem than New Labour: he believed in tax-and-spend and economic redistribution in favour of the poor. "Surely," he wrote in 1848 to Lord John Russell, who was dragging his feet, "this is not the moment for the taxpayer to economise on the working-classes."

His special enthusiasm, however, was for the white heat of the industrial revolution. He was a moderniser, obsessed - at a time when the English upper classes cared only for hunting foxes - with science, engineering, manufacturing, and new technology. In a fascinating chapter, Weintraub shows how far the idea for an "Industry of All Nations" exhibition was not just his brainchild, but his creation as well.

"And this is the man submitting his plan," went a nursery rhyme, "To the Prince who approved, and said it was good, That a Palace of Glass should be built in the grass, ... The fine Crystal Palace the Prince has built." Six million people visited the 1851 Great Exhibition, applying 270 gallons of eau de cologne to hide the smell of their sweat. Albert was to be seen there practically every day. Charlotte Bronte went five times; George Eliot contrasted the Prince's "noble, genial intelligent expression" with the dour pudginess of his wife. In retrospect, the huge structure and its contents - a Germanic display of British cosmopolitan greatness - marked a turning-point in the nation's self-perception.

Afterwards, the Consort's reputation soared. But the old hostility came back when Albert - more knowledgeable about central European affairs than most of the Foreign Office - pressed his doubts about a growing quarrel with the Tsar. While some grumbled that he was a Russian agent, red-faced earls sneered at what they saw as his insufferable priggery. "They call him slow," said a sympathetic letter to The Times, "because he does not gamble, does not use offensive language, and does not keep an opera dancer." Yet his practical interest in the welfare of his adopted country remained omnivorous. It was Albert who helped to woo the French by smoking cigars with Napoleon III; and Albert who personally designed the ultimate patriotic accolade, an iron medal for bravery known as the Victoria Cross.

If Weintraub's account of the Consort's dabblings in state affairs is generally complimentary, his picture of him as a paterfamilias is more mixed. In many ways Albert appears a better parent than his wife. He played with his children, chided Victoria for merely scolding then, and it was he, not she, who lectured his daughters on the facts of life. He had an affectionate relationship with his eldest daughter Vicky, tragically married off to the son of the Prussian Crown Prince, and later the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II. With Bertie, the future Edward VII, on the other hand, he was as hopelessly inadequate as the Queen, the more so because of his heavy-handed concern to bring about a moral improvement.

Albert's death in 1861, aged 41, from an illness which doctors identified as typhus, but which Weintraub plausibly suggests was stomach cancer, left Victoria a widow for almost as long as her husband had lived. She never recovered, and the author argues that the British Throne never has either. The mid-century flourishing of the monarchy was largely Albert's doing, and Victoria's retreat into self- indulgent mourning stripped the Crown of most of its surviving influence at a time when the tide of democracy was rising. When, six years late, Walter Bagehot defined the royal role for future generations, he limited it to the rights to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.

What would Albert have made of his descendants' reigns? Weintraub maintains that he would have deplored the present-day "glamorous, ornamental, impotent Crown", and found it intolerably constraining. Yet he also credits the modern "corporate" constitutional monarchy as Albert's invention. Certainly, British royalty's 20th-century identification with the public good, and reputation for political balance, owes more to the Consort's yearning for a role than to anything bestowed by his Hanoverian wife or her predecessors.

The problem a royal figure poses for the biographer is how to build the plot: royalty does not necessarily have an aim, and can frequently be the mere spectator of events. Weintraub shows Albert as a happy exception - an activist "uncrowned king" who made the constructive best of the opportunities presented - and the narrative gallops along. Though largely put together from previously published material (and frustratingly spare in its reference notes), this book is written with scholarship, sensitivity and verve by an author who know his period well, capturing both a sympathetic personality, and the character of an age.

`Albert: Uncrowned King' by Stanley Weintraub is published by John Murray at pounds 25. Ben Pimlott is the author of `The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II' (HarperCollins pounds 20)