Just Who Was Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha?

Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, played a significant role in British royalty and held the title from 1893 until his passing in 1900. Born as Alfred Ernest Albert on 6 August 1844, he was the second son and fourth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This article delves into Alfred’s life, his naval career, his marriage to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, and his succession as the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Early Life and Lineage

Prince Alfred, known affectionately as Affie, was born on 6 August 1844 at Windsor Castle. As the second son, he held the title, Duke of Edinburgh, following his elder brother, the Prince of Wales. Baptized by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Windsor Castle’s Private Chapel on 6 September 1844, Alfred’s godparents included notable figures such as Prince George of Cambridge and the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Entering the Royal Navy: A Chosen Path

At the age of 12 in 1856, Alfred expressed a strong desire to join the Royal Navy, and his wish was granted. He underwent a special entrance examination in July 1858 and became a naval cadet aboard HMS Euryalus at the age of 14. In July 1860, while on the ship, he visited the Cape Colony, leaving a favourable impression on both the locals and native chiefs. Alfred even participated in a successful hunt, resulting in the abundant harvest of game animals.

In 1862, Alfred was chosen as the successor to King Otto of Greece upon his abdication. However, due to the British government’s opposition, plans for Alfred to ascend the Greek throne were blocked. Undeterred, Alfred remained in the navy and steadily climbed the ranks, becoming a captain and commanding the frigate HMS Galatea, where he displayed exceptional fleet management skills.

Duke of Edinburgh: Honors and Voyages

On 24 May 1866, Alfred received prestigious titles, including Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Ulster, and Earl of Kent, during the Queen’s Birthday Honors. He was granted an annuity of £15,000 by Parliament and took his seat in the House of Lords on 8 June. In the subsequent year, Alfred embarked on a notable voyage around the world aboard the HMS Galatea, commencing from Plymouth on 24 January 1867. During this expedition, he visited various destinations, including the Cape of Good Hope, Tristan da Cunha, and several Australian cities, where he was warmly welcomed.

Alfred’s visit to Australia marked a significant moment as the first member of the royal family to set foot on the continent. Throughout his five-month stay, he toured Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Tasmania, receiving enthusiastic receptions. The establishment of institutions like Prince Alfred College, The Alfred Hospital, and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in his honour further demonstrated the impact of his visit.

In Sydney, tragedy struck when Alfred was shot during a picnic by Henry James O’Farrell. Thankfully, Alfred recovered after receiving care from skilled nurses trained by Florence Nightingale. The incident led to the construction of the memorial Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, demonstrating the community’s gratitude for his recovery.

Alfred’s voyages extended to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Japan, where he became the first European prince to visit these countries. His journey also took him to India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Hong Kong, where he was warmly received. The native rulers of India hosted grand receptions to honour Alfred during his three-month stay. In Ceylon, he attended a reception organized by Charles Henry de Soysa, the wealthiest man in Ceylon, who renamed his private residence Alfred House in honour of the occasion.

Marriage and Family Life

During a visit to his sister Princess Alice in August 1868, Alfred met Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, who was only fourteen years old at the time. They tied the knot on 23 January 1874 at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Their marriage, though not entirely harmonious, endured for twenty-five years until their son, Alfred, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, faced a scandal and tragically took his own life.

Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: A Lasting Legacy

Just Who Was Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha?
Image: Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1844-1900) | National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alfred succeeded his uncle, Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on 22 August 1893. As the reigning duke, he relinquished his British allowance and positions in the House of Lords and the Privy Council. However, he retained an annuity of £10,000, which allowed him to maintain Clarence House in London as his residence. Initially regarded with scepticism as a “foreigner,” Alfred gradually won the hearts of his subjects and left a positive impression on the duchy.

Alfred’s reign as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha ended with his demise on 30 July 1900. He passed away from throat cancer in a lodge near Schloss Rosenau, the ducal summer residence. His final resting place is the family mausoleum in the Friedhof am Glockenberg in Coburg. The succession to the ducal throne passed to his nephew, Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany.

Alfred’s contributions to the Royal Navy, his extensive voyages, and his dedication to the role of Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha have left an indelible mark on British and German history. Institutions named in his honour stand as testaments to his impacts, such as Prince Alfred College, The Alfred Hospital, and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, will forever be remembered as a prominent figure in the annals of royalty.

*Feature Image: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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