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What do we know about Prince Albert? The Royal Albert Hall is named after him. There’s a gold statue of him enthroned inside a Gothic skyrocket in Hyde Park. Queen Victoria mourned him for 40 years. And a certain intimate body piercing bears his name. According to the historians rounded up here by Professor Saul David, he was simply one of the greatest Englishmen there’s ever been. Even though he was German.

In advance of the digitisation that will make 20,000 items available to the general public, including letters, journals and photographs, David sifts the contents of the Royal archive at Windsor Castle. The range of Albert’s projects and passions is quickly revealed. A photographic portrait taken in 1848 shows him as a blue-eyed, blond stunner from “the stud farm of Europe”: the tiny principality of Coburg, which provided handsome spouses for the elite. In marrying the young Queen in 1840, the homesick German prince quickly found “he had no status at all”, in the words of A.N. Wilson. He immediately set about overhauling the Royal finances.

1848 was also the year of revolutions throughout Europe, and Albert obtained a remarkable photograph of a Chartist rally in Kennington, South London, only a few weeks after the event. Thus galvanised, he threw himself into social reform, turning to his next great project, architecture. David visits the remaining examples of his “model homes for families”; raising living standards for the poor would, Albert believed, obviate political unrest. Turning to his own family, he designed an ornate dairy for Windsor and the family’s principal residence, Osborne House. You might think an Italianate villa would be a bizarre style for the Isle of Wight, but yet again, Albert knew best, and it was widely copied.

But his largest project by far was the Great Exhibition of 1851. Its centrepiece, the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, was mocked and even seen as an object of terror — all that glass was sure to fall on visitors and cut them to pieces. Credited with the exhibition’s ultimate success, in 1857 he became Prince Consort, the coveted title which he had all too little time to enjoy. In the archive is the copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, which Victoria read aloud to Albert, with the black marker showing where they’d got to when he died aged 42.

★★★★☆

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