Queen Victoria’s fourth child was born in the fourth year of her marriage, on August 6, 1844…one can’t help wondering when the poor dear had time to be Queen! But the birth of Prince Alfred Ernest Albert was a welcome occasion: he was the requisite “spare” to his elder brother, the Prince of Wales, an important thing to have in a century when disease would carry off his older sister and father as well as several cousins.
Indeed, “Affie” (as he was known in the family) was close to his big brother Bertie, whom he came to closely resemble in middle age (see photo below). But Affie’s childhood amongst his family was cut short when at age 13 he was enrolled as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, mostly at Prince Albert’s instigation. Victoria was not pleased at losing her son, writing to her daughter Vicky, married the same year, “I assure you, it is much better to have no children than to have them only to give them up! It is too wretched.” But lose him she did, first to the HMS Euryalus (on which he became the first English prince to visit the Cape of Good Hope, and later to long round-the-world trips, during which he was also the first English prince to visit Australia (it is reported that he was offered the throne of Australia, but refused it), India, and Hong Kong.
In 1874 he married the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II, the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna. The marriage was not a successful one, and rumor had it that the chief attraction of the young grand duchess was her enormous dowry. Even so, they managed to have six children (one stillborn) including the future Queen of Romania. For the next twenty years he remained in the Royal Navy, attaining the rank of admiral, though never achieving as high a position as his mother thought he should.
Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t, because in 1893 he inherited the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha from his uncle, Prince Albert’s older brother. His reign did not last long, however, as throat cancer claimed him just seven years later, just a few months before Victoria’s own death.
Affie does not appear to have been a very attractive personality; in addition to his fondness for money, he evidently drank heavily, was possessed of a bad temper and tended to be rather a bore, according to Queen Victoria’s private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby (“The Duke of Edinburgh occupies the chair and talks about himself by the hour. Those who go [to the Billiard Room at Balmoral, the only room the Queen allowed smoking in] are quite exhausted.” Still, one can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him—always “the spare”, overshadowed by his brother and clever elder sisters.