View Ehrenburg Palace Coburg Germany in a larger map
Pat and I share nothing in common with Queen Victoria of England and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, except this. Nine months after their marriage in 1840, a beautiful baby daughter arrived. Nine months after Pat and I married in 1980, a beautiful baby daughter arrived. Twelve months after the birth of their first child, their second child arrived. Twelve months after the birth of our first child, our second child arrived. Pat and I then gave up on producing children. However, the Queen and her prince were only just starting. By the time Albert met his untimely death from typhoid fever in 1861 at the age of 42, the Queen had given birth to nine of his children. The story of Albert has always fascinated me because, as a Londoner, I have always been aware that my hometown is full of monuments to his memory. To mention but a few, London has The Royal Albert Hall, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, and The Albert Bridge across the River Thames, which was his idea. Then London is also home to many pubs and bars named The Royal Albert or The Prince Albert. Yet the use of this name for watering holes is by no means confined to England. They are now to be found all over the world.
In the spring of 2010, Pat and I took advantage of an opportunity to visit the town of Coburg, where Albert was born in 1819. At the time of his birth, the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was an independent state and Albert was the second son of the Duke. Coburg today is in Bavaria, close to its northern border. The people of Coburg voted to join Bavaria in 1920, shortly after the abdication of the last duke. Coburg today has a population of 42,000 and lies at the foot of a mountain, from the top of which a huge fortress dominates the town. The construction of that fortress began in 1225 and Martin Luther spent six months there in 1530, when he was translating the Bible into German. Down in the town itself, we visited another castle, the Ehrenburg Palace. This building was the site of an 1860 meeting between Queen Victoria and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. I have already written about the Emperor on this website in an item entitled “The Emperor rides the Subway”. Coburg is a picturesque little town sitting astride the Itz River. It is easy to see why Queen Victoria loved it so much that she made six visits here from England. That may appear no big deal today but, before the invention of the airplane and the automobile and before widespread availability of railway tracks, it involved many days of uncomfortably bumping through Europe in a horse drawn carriage. The Queen is reported to have declared that, if she were not who she was, Coburg would have been her real home but that she would always consider it as her second home. That leads us to the question of who was she?
In the middle of the 19th century, Queen Victoria was the head of the largest empire that the world had ever seen and was undoubtedly one of the most powerful persons on earth. Albert was only 20 when he came from Coburg to marry her. He was a minor German prince, not even heir to the Duchy. It was a magnificent match for him. The people of the British Empire were at first highly suspicious of him and suspected him of marrying for prestige or money. By the time of his early death in 1861, he was widely respected throughout the kingdom and was exercising a huge influence for the good on the affairs of state. He is in fact the great great grandfather of the present Queen of England, Elizabeth II.
The name of the British royal house since 1714 had been Hanover. On the 1901 death of his mother Queen Victoria, Albert’s eldest son (who then became King Edward VII) changed the family name to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. However, during World War One, it was deemed prudent to change it once again and the name since then has been Windsor. Therefore, Coburg is a famous word in my native land.
Moving closer to the present time, Coburg would be a great location for a spy thriller by John LeCarre, who has set so many of his greatest novels in Central Europe. During the Cold War (1946-1990), Coburg was surrounded on three sides by communist East Germany. Coburg was situated on a little peninsula of land sticking out into communist territory. In 1946, Coburg was rumored to be the base for a revolt by free Poles against the Russian backed Polish government in Warsaw. Being little more than 200 miles from the Polish frontier, Coburg was one of the nearest cities to Poland in the free world. However, nothing came of the rumor about a revolt.
Finally, Albert is responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree in England and America where, until the middle of the 19th century, the custom was virtually unknown. This had been a strictly German tradition, but Albert installed and decorated a Christmas tree each year at Windsor Castle in England. This innovation was widely reported and very soon everyone in England had their own Christmas tree. The custom then quickly crossed the Atlantic to America. Christmas trees are now to be found all over the world, just like pubs called The Prince Albert. Of all the many memorials to Prince Albert, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree is probably the one which would have given him the most satisfaction and which would have brought back to him happy thoughts of his Coburg childhood.