It’s tough being married to these English queens if you want to be more than a stud. That is the lingering message after the second season of Victoria premiered on PBS.
At the same time, the first two seasons of The Crown have been propelled by the serial frustrations of Prince Philip as he realizes what Elizabeth’s ailing father, George VI, meant when he warned him with ominous simplicity: “The Queen will be your job.”
Now we see Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, discovering that for him, too, her regal majesty is Job One.
The simultaneous appearance of these two family sagas is providing an irresistible study in the contest of wills between two men born to the belief of natural male supremacy and two women who, granted powers unique to them, were both quick to show who was boss in the household—and, in the nation.
So which of these men handles it best?
One of them is, of course, still living. There are clear indications that Prince Philip is less than thrilled by how Peter Morgan has written his role.
Hugo Vickers, a distinguished royal historian, has written a 15,000-world critique of The Crown (The Crown, Truth & Fiction, Zuleika) that is prefaced by this statement:
“The cruelest and most undeserved victim of the series is Prince Philip, portrayed as a fractious, bumptious Jack the Lad, very much the villain…Fiction should help us understand the truth, not pervert it.”
Like Philip, Albert was offered up as a suitable husband from the well established matchmaking machinery of European royalty, in his case from the obscure and virtually insolvent Saxon duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Unlike the first meeting of Philip and Elizabeth, the first meeting of Albert and Victoria, in 1836, when she was 17 and he was 16 didn’t click. She found him boring.
“I dreaded the thought of marrying,” Victoria wrote in her diary. “I was so accustomed to having my own way that I thought it was 10 to 1 that I shouldn’t agree with anybody.”
A year later, in 1837, she became queen at the age of 18. They didn’t meet again until October 1839. This time she recorded: “I stood on the stone steps and I beheld Albert, who was beautiful.” They married in Feb. 10, 1840. The consequences were more profound and far-reaching than they could ever have imagined.
Unlike most of the assorted royals, aristocrats, and courtiers lurking around the apprentice queen, Albert had a sharp intellectual curiosity. He found a tradition-bound palace that was out of tune with the times and the country. Great Britain was the most advanced industrial state in the world and a hotbed of technological innovations. Once he discovered this, Albert himself became a symbol of how far science was transcending religion and superstition in the way people now thought about the world.
Victoria turns Albert’s passion for science into a device to produce tension between him and the queen, as when Albert becomes a champion of Charles Babbage, who in 1834 conceived and built the first computer, a so-called analytical engine.
Babbage was assisted by a remarkable woman mathematician, Lady Lovelace—Ada Byron, the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron (famously labeled as “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”) We see Albert transfixed by Ada’s scientific fluency and word gets back to Victoria that this association is breeding a more compromising form of infatuation. In reprisal she rushes off seeking consolation from her old mentor Lord Melbourne.
This royal tizzy is invented. Daisy Goodwin, the creator and writer of Victoria, is using Albert’s nighttime trips to Babbage’s Royal Statistical Society to seem as shady as Peter Morgan’s rather better documented accounts of Prince Philip’s frequent absences to attend the Thursday Club’s delinquent lunches.
Ada Lady Lovelace certainly had a far finer mind than Victoria. She wrote the first algorithm and was, in effect, the world’s first computer programmer. But Victoria had no inferiority complex in the company of men or women. She encouraged Albert’s engagements with the nation’s finest scientists.
Indeed, as Victoria presided over the zenith of the British Empire, Albert was smart enough to grasp a new feature of that empire that few at first understood. Although Britain initially established the empire with force of arms and later appropriated at low cost the natural resources of many nations, by the mid-19th century it was also exploiting the soft power of technology.
The historian Linda Colley has pointed out that British influence was often strong beyond the technical borders of an empire that already included a quarter of the world’s population: “Argentina was substantially run by the British during the 19th century. Similarly there are ways in which the US remained economically and culturally dependent on the empire for much of the 19th century.”
British engineers pioneered the iron bridge, the steamship, the railway, and took these skills all over the world as industrialization spread.
Albert saw this direct application of science as a benign mission and decided to leave his handprint on history by creating a spectacular celebration of the whole world’s scientific achievements.
In the summer of 1849 it was announced that London would be the site of an exhibition of “Industry of All Nations” that would open on May 1, 1851. In that allotted time, and against persistent opposition, Albert himself masterminded the first world’s fair, the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.
The exhibition building was itself a feat demonstrating a novel union of engineering and architecture to employ the most modern materials. For the first time iron and glass were used on a large scale. This came about as a last-minute change of plan that Albert had the nerve to endorse, moving from an ungainly brick structure to a daring design by Joseph Paxton, who had pioneered far smaller iron and glass conservatories on aristocratic estates.
The exhibition building required 293,655 panes of glass, one third of the annual British output of glass at that time. The logistics were so sophisticated that a pre-fabricated iron section could travel 150 miles by rail and be in place 18 hours after it had been manufactured.
The result became legendary as the Crystal Palace.
But Albert had worn himself out with the effort, coming on top of family duties. For years there had been popular jokes about his own “industry” in the bedroom. Since 1840 he had sired seven children (there were nine altogether). Victoria was a robust woman who carried and delivered children with ease. She enjoyed sex—in a letter discovered only recently she refers to “heavenly lovemaking.”
Victoria and Albert had what amounted to a purpose-designed love nest as far away from the formal rigor of Buckingham Palace as they could get. In 1847 Victoria bought Balmoral, a small castle in Scotland with 17,400 acres. In 1849 the castle was demolished and replaced by a house designed by Albert, with help from an architect and builder, and they added another 6,000 acres for privacy. Albert equipped the bedroom door with a lock to prevent the unwanted intrusion of children.
As well as marital bliss Albert had found a role. He was the quintessential modern man, abreast of all innovations.
However, season two of Victoria begins with him misjudging his powers by keeping from the queen news of a disastrous British military excursion in Afghanistan (surprise!). She makes it clear that she wants no protection from reality. She reads the daily boxes of state papers, interrogates her ministers, rallies the national spirit with a speech commemorating the defeat of Napoleon’s navy at Trafalgar.
After that, the boundaries of Albert’s actions never changed.
His early death from typhoid in 1861 at the age of 42 turned Victoria into an inconsolable widow. Jenna Colman’s vivacious portrait of the young Victoria is hard to reconcile with the grim matronly Victoria of the later years; they truly seem like two different people. And they were: In 1843 Albert gave his queen a portrait of her that has recently surfaced in which she is bare-shouldered and smoldering with bedroom eyes.
When he died she ordered a memorial built to him in Kensington Gardens. It is not something he would have sanctioned. It’s an outrageously kitsch mash-up of idioms ranging from ancient Greece to the high baroque. But my own aversion to it has disappeared over the years, its excess is somehow a statement of boundless love. And this part of Kensington has become known fondly as Albertopolis, a kind of memorial village including buildings like the Royal Albert Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and other monuments and roads named after him or her.
It is highly unlikely that Philip will receive such an excessive display of adoration. For one thing, the queen deserves and will no doubt receive as much adoration when she passes as any monarch has in history. For another, Philip’s history suggests Dean Acheson’s quip about Britain and its empire: that it had lost the empire and not yet found a role.
Philip has never really found a role in a world without empires. Nor has he seemed comfortable with social change.
To journalists who covered him over the years he often came across as dyspeptic and annoyed that he needed to be covered at all. As a result the British press has never warmed to him and he, in return, makes no bones about how he sees them. He told his biographer: “I certainly see the need for a ‘free’ press, but there is a difference between freedom and license, and between the honest pursuit of the truth and the cynical pursuit of thoughtless—even vindictive—sensationalism.”
The internal quotes around “free” are a worry.
In his polemic attacking The Crown Hugo Vickers is fastidious about details: “Lady Churchill’s GBE riband at the wedding is too red and too wide.” Too fastidious, it could be argued. But he has graver quarrels with Morgan, particularly about Prince Philip. In episode nine of the second series the young Philip is a pupil at the notoriously spartan Scottish school, Gordonstoun, in the 1930s and punches a boy, thereby disgracing himself. This causes his pregnant sister, Princess Cecile of Hesse, to fly to Britain to intervene. The airplane crashes and Cecile is killed.
Cecile’s husband was a Nazi and we see a large Nazi presence at the funeral. After the service Philip’s bellicose father, Prince Andrew of Greece, shouts at him: “It’s true, isn’t it boy? You’re the reason we’re all here, burying my favorite child.”
This is a truly loaded scene that suggests the origin of a deep guilt complex carried over into the adult Philip’s life—and his handling of his own son, Prince Charles.
The problem, as Vickers points out, is that when Cecile flew to Britain it was to honor a long-standing commitment to attend the wedding of her brother-in-law, Prince Ludwig of Hesse, not in response to a sudden summons caused by Philip’s behavior. The airplane, flying in fog, hit a factory chimney in France. Vickers quotes a family source saying that his pregnant sister’s death was one of the greatest sadnesses of Philip’s life.
This does seem to be a case of gratuitous dramatic license, bound to cause pain and offense. Citing this and other inventions Vickers concludes that Morgan spent “a considerable part of 20 episodes painting [Philip] in a dismal light.”
Speaking on National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air, Morgan said that in his portrayal of the royal family he had “done them more favors than harm.”
And, to be clear, Philip has given time to good works. He was an early advocate of environmental safeguards and the first president of the World Wildlife Fund and remains president emeritus. And he has certainly mellowed with age, becoming a classic family patriarch on whom the queen can depend for comfort. He just isn’t another Albert. Not as clever, not as nice.