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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY THIRTY ONE Albert, Some Samba and Jussi Bjorling

Today into Coburg – of which Queen Victoria said: “If I were not who I am, this would have been my real home, but I shall always consider it my second one” - coburg being the birthplace of her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It's very strange to be pedalling in to Albert's home town. I have spent almost all my life close by the Albertopolis, his generative legacy. Strange, too, for the Race Marshal who has spent all her life close by. The incredible value of his creation is evidenced simply as a list. When he built it, on land bought with the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (which he and Henry Cole organised), it comprised the: Imperial College London Natural History Museum Royal Albert Hall Royal College of Art Royal College of Music Royal Geographical Society Royal Institute of Navigation Science Museum Victoria and Albert Museum City & Guilds College Geological Museum Royal College of Science Royal School of Mines Royal College of Organists Royal School of Naval Architecture Royal School of Needlework Imperial Institute

And we can add the Ismaili Centre, the lovely building opposite the V&A All too soon it included the Albert Memorial. Apparently Queen Victoria intended that it should sit, not in isolation in Kensington Gardens, but on top of the Albert Hall - but too heavy for that span.

Schloss Rosenau

None of the buildings in Albertopolis match this extraordinary house. Albert was born here, in Schloss Rosenau, in 1819, two years after Karl Friedrich Schinkel had reconstructed the original medieval house in Gothic Revival style - stepped gables, Gothic windows, small balconies and coats of arms, with half of the ground floor made into an enormous grey marble hall. One sadness is that the tower had been topped with a Welsche Haube, an onion helmet/dome, which Schinkel replaced with crenellation in keeping with the stepped gables. Perhaps in anticipation of what was to come, Schinkel redesigned the park as an English garden, complete with orangery. It was quite something to have Schinkel redesign your house. As eminent as, say, Edwin Lutyens would be a century later, he generally operated on the grand scale. Just as Lutyens designed the imperial part of Delhi, so Schinkel oversaw the conversion of Berlin into a worthy capitol after the defeat of Napoleon. The story of why he became an architect is quite touching. After a visit to Italy, he decided that he would spend his life as a painter. But then, a decade later, he had a Damascene de-conversion when he saw Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer, and so, discouraged, took up architecture instead. Albert was born into this Schinkel house in 1817. The midwife attending, Charlotte von Siebold, had come highly recommended from having been midwife a few months before to Albert's future wife.

Albert's mother, Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, was daughter to one of the grandest of German families. She was not, however, a great mother: she spent Albert's early childhood at war with her husband, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, fell in love with the Count of Pölzig and Beiersdorf and was exiled from Court. She did marry her Count but she died soon after from cancer at the age of thirty. Victoria's own mother was sister to Albert's father. Being cousins, and that being how it was then, talk of their eventual marriage started at least as early as 1821, an idea much promoted by their joint uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, after Victoria became heir presumptive to the English throne.

King Leopold arranged for his sister, Victoria's mother, to come to Coburg to meet Albert. The young Victoria seems to have been smitten, writing to Uncle Leopold to thank him: "for the prospect of great happiness you have contributed to giving me, in the person of dear Albert ... He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy." And so it was. Perhaps out of respect, the town of Coburg was not bombed in the war. Nor was the Albert Hall – but for a different reason: German pilots used its unique shape as a navigation aid when finding their targets over London. So Coburg has beautiful Renaissance buildings and - hanging over it on the hill, beautiful at night in its floodlighting - a medieval castle where Luther did yet more of his translation of the New Testament. It is not completely pristine: while we didn't bomb the town itself, the US Army fought through it and shelled the castle. Briefly, Coburg had a very unhappy record during the Nazi era. Hitler was here early leading several hundred Stormtroopers on a march that degenerated into street battles with communist opposition. In 1929, Coburg voted the Nazis in with an absolute majority – the first town in Germany to do, and they were first in making Hitler an honorary citizen. I won't catalogue their treatment of the town's Jewish population: violent persecution of the town's 430 Jews began as early as 1933 and the Jewish community was not re-established after the war. Given that many of the Americans fighting through Bavaria gave their lives for a moral principle, it's odd that the man who disitnguished individual moral principles from successful state action came from an Ashkenazi family from Coburg. Hans Morgenthau was born 1904 and, having moved to America and risen in the State Department under George Kennan, shaped the world of international relations after the war with his concept of political realism:

The statesman must think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power among other powers. The popular mind, unaware of the fine distinctions of the statesman's thinking, reasons more often than not in the simple moralistic and legalistic terms of absolute good and absolute evil."

Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states …. The individual may say for himself: "Let justice be done, even if the world must perish", but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care …. While the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of that moral principle get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. The war generation is long gone. These days, Coburg boasts a Doll Museum that houses Barbie's grandmother and, if that wasn't enough, is now famous throughout Germany as the Capitol of Samba - an annual festival attracting samba drummers from all round the world. And, if you like to dance, they have an annual waltz festival: Lutheran Coburg gave Johann Strauss the Younger and his future third wife refuge in 1887 when the Catholic Church forbade his divorce from his second wife. He lived there for the rest of his life and there he wrote Roses from the South. So, possibly by popular request, here is that Dutch marvel, André Rieu, performing Roses from the South - Samba bands in Coburg - And this footage from a drone flying over Victoria's second home -

And here to celebrate a wonderful few days for the Harries family is Jussi Bjorling singing Tonerna -

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