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150 Years After His Death, Prince Albert Remains Uncelebrated

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In the history of royal anniversaries, the one tomorrow - of the death of Prince Albert on 14 December - seems to have evoked as little interest as ever in the UK, despite this being its 150th year. As a historian and writer I've always wondered why we pay so little attention to the life and achievements of the man who devoted over 20 years of unstinting duty to the nation, as husband and Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. Despite her concerted campaign to impose blanket memorialisation of him across the country for decades after his death, he has always languished in his wife's imposing shadow.

When Prince Albert died at Windsor at the age of only 42, Victoria retreated into a state of relentless, catatonic grief that crippled and disempowered her as a woman. As the years went by, it tainted her popularity as queen, turning the public against the monarchy and prompting calls for her abdication.

Researching my new book - Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy - I was surprised that so little had been said about the country's response to Albert's death. No one had expected it, the official bulletins on Albert saying little to suggest how seriously ill he was. All the papers had gone to press when he died at 10.50pm on Saturday 14, with only a few special broadsheets in London carrying the news the following morning.

The nation awoke to the mournful sound of bells tolling the news across the country, as people made their way to church. On Monday, 16 December, the full impact of the death of the man who had been king in all but name began to sink in, with acres of newspaper space devoted to eulogistic obituaries, surrounded in thick black borders, all of them now lauding a man whom few had liked and even fewer had understood.

For the British people Albert's death was nothing less than a national calamity of biblical proportions. Churches were festooned with black crape, shops were shuttered, steamers on the Thames stood idle, flags were at half-mast, theatres closed and commerce in the city at a standstill. Everywhere the blinds of private houses were drawn down, the brass plates on doors surrounded in black, and mirrors and lamps covered. Omnibus drivers tied scraps of crape to their whips; in the countryside even the beehives were draped in black, as part of the age-old superstition of telling the bees of a death in the family.

Everyone, from the highest in the land to the poorest cottager, donned some form of mourning, even if only a black armband. Across Britain the mourning warehouses were besieged with desperate customers anxious to put themselves and their children into mourning. Stationers' shops selling cartes de visite of the royal family were packed, with copies of the last photographs of Albert selling at wildly inflated prices.

With Christmas only 10 days away the government was anxious that the funeral should be held as soon as possible, to allow the public to recover in time still to enjoy the festive season. Accounts of the funeral across the press were exhaustive and heartbreaking in their detail. But few people today realise that it was held in private - at St George's Chapel, Windsor. There was no lying in state at Whitehall to allow people to pay their last respects and the ceremony itself was attended by an all-male congregation. Queen Victoria did not go - she was far too traumatised and could not face it, and Victorian funeral convention generally excluded women, for fear they might break down.

Even though she did not see Albert's coffin lowered into the crypt, Victoria had at least wanted to stay at Windsor until it was all over. Instead, she was bullied by the royal doctors (out of a totally bogus 'fear of infection') into going to Osborne, her house on the Isle of Wight. The chief mourners on her behalf at the funeral were two of her four sons: Bertie, Prince of Wales aged 20 and his 11-year-old brother Arthur - poignant shades of William and Harry at the funeral of Princess Diana. There are further echoes of that other, tragic royal death: then - as in 1997 - people were distraught at the sudden and unexpected loss of Prince Albert; his death, like Diana's, felt like losing a member of their own family. But worse, they all dreaded its impact on their monarch: 'How will the Queen bear it?,' they all asked.

Christmas 1861 was an unutterably sad and bleak one in Britain. for the royal family the date 14 December became talismanic thereafter, even more so when Victoria and Albert's second daughter, Alice, died of diphtheria 17 years later, on the very same day as her father.