Books: Piers Brendon meets the best sort of consort: Albert: uncrowned king by Stanley Weintraub
Albert: uncrowned king by Stanley Weintraub, John Murray, pounds 25

It's hard to see how a biographer could find anything new to say about Prince Albert short of suggesting, as Lytton Strachey wanted to, that he was homosexual or (in the spirit of Michael Bloch) that he was a woman. With heroic restraint Professor Stanley Weintraub advances no such proposition. But he must have felt more than usually tempted to embrace novelty, for he has already written a long life of Queen Victoria.

The present book - much better than its error-prone predecessor - is therefore, in his phrase, a "parallel biography". However, almost from the first the lines are intimately entwined.

After a miserable childhood in the dissolute Coburg court, Albert inexplicably emerged as a full-grown Victorian - earnest, diligent, priggish and philoprogenitive. Coburg being, as Bismarck remarked, the royal "stud-farm of Europe", Albert was presented to the wilful young Victoria, who swiftly fell in love with him. She was entranced by his handsome appearance: "such beautiful blue eyes, and exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate moustachios". Albert reciprocated. Writing to Lord Melbourne after her "most gratifying and bewildering" wedding night, Victoria said that she never thought she "could be so loved".

Familiar stuff, but Weintraub does his best to avoid the inevitable overlap by focusing on the character and career of the Consort. He crafts a vivid, gossipy and sometimes irreverent portrait, without the retrospective sycophancy that entreacles so many English royal biographies. And he gives an account of princely industry which is awesome even in recapitulation.

Albert strove to improve working-class housing and to modernise the army. He promoted the arts and sciences. He supported innumerable charities and chaired interminable committees. He was patron of the London Library, Chancellor of Cambridge University and president of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade. Albert not only masterminded the Great Exhibition but checked to see if the objects displayed at the Crystal Palace were correctly labelled. And he oversaw the spending of its profits on the complex of museums, colleges and concert halls in South Kensington, nicknamed Albertopolis.

Despite his efforts, or because of them, the Prince was never really popular. At first derided as an alien fortune-hunter, he was later lampooned (in ribald terms) as the procreator of a race of royal parasites. Albert gave offence by his frigid hauteur (partly a result of shyness about speaking English) and by his obvious boredom with high society. He preferred servants, but even they were churlish: Carlyle referred to "His Serene Highness the Incarnate-Solecism Prince Albert". In 1854 crowds rejoiced outside the Tower of London when it was rumoured that Albert was imprisoned there for treason.

The politicians were also ungracious. Melbourne resented the upright Albert, complaining that "this damned morality will undo us all". Peel, whom the Prince revered, told the cabinet that the royal couple should not be thwarted but managed. Palmerston regarded Albert as an exalted nuisance. Disraeli, suspected by the Prince of harbouring dangerous "democratic tendencies", said that if Albert had survived he would have introduced England to the benefits of absolute rule.

This was characteristic hyperbole. But Weintraub's own conclusion, that a "democratising" Albert "salvaged the Crown as a pillar of the emerging constitutional state", is equally misleading. Far from being above politics, the Prince was a committed Conservative. He thought the monarch must "necessarily be a politician" and had a duty to "watch and control" the government.

Albert's early death in 1861 (from stomach cancer, Weintraub reckons, not typhoid) and Victoria's grief-stricken withdrawal from public life significantly reduced the power of the crown. But during his life-time the Prince learnt to play his cards effectively in the game of whist which is, as Metternich remarked, Britain's unwritten constitution. He made particularly important contributions to foreign policy, perhaps even preventing the country from becoming embroiled in the American Civil War. Albert earned his title of Prince Consort in a way that has been impossible for the present consort.

Actually, Albert had much in common with Prince Philip. He had the unfailing Hanoverian antipathy to his heir, whom he tried unsuccessfully to mould in his own image. He employed the same scatter-gun technique for insulting foreigners: "the Poles are as little deserving of sympathy as the Irish". He loathed the "miserable scribblers" of the press and favoured censorship. He was a victim of "rifle mania" and shot animals for pleasure while campaigning against cruel sports.

He loved the luxurious royal yacht and failed to notice that all non- royal personages on board were consigned to "dog-holes". Both princes appeared once in the gallery of the House of Commons: Albert being warned off by Disraeli, Philip provoking a protest from Enoch Powell.

Precisely because Philip might imitate Albert, courtiers and politicians kept him firmly away from the throne. From the royalist point of view they were right since, even as "a bloody amoeba" (his expression), Philip has damaged the monarchy enough to become the darling of republicans. But Albert himself, much abler and unencumbered by rumours about his private life, was not made King Consort.

As Melbourne sagely advised the disappointed Victoria, if Britons ever got into the way of making their kings they would soon get into the way of unmaking them. So "Albert the Good", as his wife's sobriquet "Queen Albertine" piquantly suggests and as this book entertainingly confirms, had to make do with being sovereign in all but name.