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Educating Alfred: Caught Between Britain and Coburg

Aidan Jones | King's College London

In January 1867 Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, informed his mother that he wished to visit Australia. Believing that the global voyage would do her wayward son good, and aware of Australia’s importance in the British Empire, Victoria agreed.

A lithograph of Prince Alfred created by an unknown artist.
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg and Gotha ('The Royal Navy. Our Sailor Prince'), published by Frederick Arnold, after Unknown artist, lithograph, published in the Hornet 17 April 1872. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Fast forward nearly two years and Alfred may have regretted his decision after being forced to endure another tedious speech by an official welcoming him to the territory he was visiting. The territory in question was Victoria and the speaker was the Mayor of Melbourne, who urged his guests to drink a toast for their royal visitor: ‘A fine old English gentleman.’ However, the speech was interrupted by the arrival of a large contingent from Melbourne’s German musical society, Der Liedertafel. They had come to serenade Alfred, who, as well as being Duke of Edinburgh, was also Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Despite their arrival having been anticipated and announced in advance, the mayor appeared in little rush to conclude his speech. On being informed about the plight of the German choristers who were standing outside and bearing blazing pine torches above their heads, the twenty-three-year-old prince leaned across and loudly requested, ‘Cut it short, Mr. Mayor…the Germans are burning their fingers.’ Jolted by the royal command, the mayor duly obliged, allowing Alfred to leave the table and join the German singers where he addressed them in fluent German.

That Alfred, the first member of the Royal Family to visit Australia, should be serenaded by Melbourne’s German community is not unusual. Ever since his uncle’s, Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, wedding to the Baden-born princess, Alexandrine, in 1842, the ducal couple had remained childless. Fortunately for the duke, his younger brother, Victoria’s husband Albert [known as the prince consort], did not have similar problems.

The royal couple had agreed the day before their engagement announcement that should they have a second son, he would one day inherit his uncle’s diminutive Thuringian duchy. Therefore, when the queen was safely delivered of a prince, named Alfred, on the 7th of August 1844, his destiny had been mapped out. When imparting the joyous news to his sibling that he was once again a father, the prince consort remarked that ‘the little one shall from his first youth, be taught to love the dear small country to which he belongs, in every respect, as does his papa.’ One could be forgiven for thinking that the prince consort was referring to Britain. After all, Alfred occupied the linchpin position of being second in line to the British throne, after his eldest brother, the prince of Wales. But the country the prince consort meant was, in fact, the 700-odd square mile German duchy.

A photograph of Prince Alfred with his brother, the Prince of Wales.
Prince Alfred with his elder brother, the Prince of Wales, and their tutor Mr. Gibbs. © Ian Shapiro Private Collection

Despite being brought up since birth for his eventual destiny, in 1855, the young prince announced to his parents that he wished to enter the Royal Navy. After much soul-searching and sceptical thought, the queen and prince consort decided they could not stand in the way of their son’s spontaneous wish. Alfred’s ambition to join the navy fitted neatly into the prince consort’s plan to naturalise the monarchy. Not only would life in the service keep Alfred from being idle and allow him to see the world, hence his extra European venture to Australia, but, perhaps most importantly, it would distance him from his immoral uncle and acted as a convenient counterweight against the visible Coburg destiny that awaited the prince. If the royal couple proved willing to allow Alfred to embark on a professional seafaring career, in Coburg, Uncle Ernest was not amused. He viewed his nephew’s desire for a naval career with misgivings and exclaimed that life aboard a ship of war would make Alfred disinclined to succeed to the tranquil atmosphere of landlocked German duchies.

Luckily for Alfred, his parents did not listen to Ernest’s forebodings and in 1858 the prince entered the prestigious blue jackets service. However, the plan backfired and for Alfred, his identity as Britain’s sailor prince became all-consuming. After passing his special entrance examination in mid-1858 the prince was appointed a naval cadet aboard HMS Euryalus. It was while on this vessel that Alfred excitedly wrote to his Aunt Alexandrine in April 1859 informing her that he had visited Morocco, Malta, Tunis, Syria, and Jerusalem. This was followed in the summer of 1860 by his first formal solo overseas visit to South Africa.

Between 1858-1863 Alfred had been immersed in his seafaring profession and played the part of Britain’s sailor prince to perfection. He was able to enjoy the relative freedom of life as a midshipman, partake in the hyper-masculine environment of life at sea and reap the rewards for his representational duties as his mother’s roving ambassador, which for Alfred was hunting. However, in early 1864 the prince shocked his mother and uncle with a sudden revelation that he wished to remain in the navy and not make use of his right of succession in Coburg. Uncle Ernest’s long-held concern had come true.

On being informed of her son’s explosive news, the queen was quick to deflect blame for Alfred’s change of heart. It was, she observed, the fault of his being in the company of British seaman which had made him one-sidedly British. Her solution: to germanise him. The queen requested that her eldest daughter Vicky, the Prussian Crown Princess, abstain from frantic adoration of the navy and all British feelings when corresponding with her brother. Then, perhaps surprisingly given the queen’s reputation for being a domestic tyrant, Victoria did something unusual: she informed her uncle, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, that she would not pressure her son, for fear that like most teenagers when told to do something they do the opposite.

Alfred’s surprise announcement had been made just as the time was arriving for him to travel to Germany for educational purposes. In his memoirs, Ernest explained that he felt he had a right to intervene in the education of his nephew, because of his ducal destiny, and ever since the death of the prince consort in December 1861 he bombarded the queen with letters requesting that his successor receive a traditional German princely education. For this to happen, the duke declared that Alfred must abandon his maritime career and begin his studies at a German university. Believing that the position of a British prince was very different from the job of a German duke, Ernest felt that a German institution, with its focus on subjects such as law and philosophy, would be the most appropriate place for his nephew to study. But Victoria knew her own mind and rejected Ernest’s entreaties, aware that allowing her son to attend a German university risked offending British sensitivities. National interests overrode dynastic. Eventually, it was agreed that Alfred would first attend Edinburgh University, the same institution as the Prince of Wales, with a focus on topics ranging from languages and natural sciences. This would then be complemented by a vigorous German educational undertaking at Bonn, the same institution that shaped the prince consort’s mind, where he would be geared towards subjects such as political economy.

Alfred’s time at Edinburgh proved a success, where as well as performing various ceremonial duties that did wonders for the monarchy’s reputation in Scotland, the prince attended lectures, such as the one provided by Cosmo Innes about English and Continental Constitutional history. It was during his seven-month Scottish period of study (November 1863 – April 1864) that the prince threatened the dynastic edifice when he privately declared he did not consider himself cut out to be Duke of Coburg. Suddenly Alfred’s term at the University of Bonn now acquired an added importance. It would, Victoria hoped, allow her son to make a carefully considered decision about his future by highlighting the positive features of life in the German states and prove of great benefit for his general education.

In the event, Victoria’s wait-and-see attitude worked, for, after a while, no more was heard of Alfred’s resistance to his dynastic fate. Evidently, Alfred’s concerns had been eased when his mother arranged a compromise. In exchange for being allowed to continue seafaring after his lieutenant’s examination, Alfred would spend a couple of terms at Bonn where he would be educated for his dynastic destiny in Coburg. Alfred’s position as Britain’s sailor prince was cemented when he gained promotion to the rank of lieutenant in early 1863 and captain in 1866. Then, after his return from his 1867-1871 global voyage that included Australia, a full four years elapsed before in 1875 he resumed his duties at sea and another three before he was appointed rear-admiral. Promoted to vice-admiral in November 1882, he had command of the Channel Squadron, and in March 1886 he became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, before rising to admiral in October 1887.

But, after twenty-nine years immersed in his naval career Alfred’s dynastic fate caught up with him, when, in August 1893, his uncle died after a short illness. At the age of forty-nine, Alfred was Duke of Coburg. Yet, it was not just a family member Alfred was burying as he walked behind the late duke’s coffin. He was also saying goodbye to his British identity. He was tepidly welcomed by his new subjects whose national sensibility was offended that an English Duke and Admiral should be the Regent of a German state. To cast off his dual identity it was with great sorrow that this British prince, with his British tastes and habits, relinquished the annuity of £15,000 granted him in 1866, resigned his membership of the Privy Council, and withdrew his right to sit or speak in the House of Lords. However, after seven years as a German duke, it was Alfred’s love of the taste of alcohol and the effects of throat cancer that would result in his death at the relatively young age of fifty-five.

Royal education was often a state-political affair, but in Alfred’s case, it was compounded by his split identities. This conflict between personal, national, and dynastic required a delicate balancing act to be performed by all members of the royal network and those courtiers and individuals that surrounded the prince. And, as this article reveals, the national-dynastic identity conflict that formed an essential aspect of Prince Alfred’s educational path was not always an easy path to walk. Indeed, it was not limited to his upbringing, as Alfred’s marriage to Alexander II’s daughter, Russia’s Grand Duchess Marie, revealed in 1874. But that’s a story for another time.


Further Reading:

  • Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I. (London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964)

  • John van der Kiste, Alfred, Queen Victoria’s Second Son, 1844-1900 (Sutton, 2013)

  • Steve Harris, Prince & the Assassin: Australia's First Royal Tour & Portent of World Terror: Australia's First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror (Melbourne Books, 2017)

  • T.A. Heathcote, The British Admirals of the Fleet, 1734-1995, A Biographical Dictionary (Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books, 2002)

Aidan Jones is currently a doctoral research student at King’s College London. His research focuses on Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and later reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and the dynastic politics and diplomacy of Victorian England.


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