There is a stream of popular books that plays the ‘what if?’ game with history, usually the history of warfare. What if the Frankish army had camped overnight at a water source instead of marching to Tiberias in heavy armour and in full sun on 4 July 1187? What if it hadn’t rained at Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day, 1415, so that the heavy French cavalry didn’t get bogged down? What if Hitler had immediately pursued the retreating French and British troops to the coast in 1940?
Two major ‘what ifs’ of nineteenth-century European history were closely intertwined with the life of one remarkable man, Ernst Alfred Christian, Freiherr von Stockmar (1787–1863). Trained as a doctor in the tiny and impoverished principality of Coburg, he came to the notice of Prince Leopold, a younger son of the reigning (sort of, as Napoleon had overrun Coburg in 1805) duke, and was hired as a kind of personal secretary. Leopold had joined the Russian (i.e. anti-Napoleon) army at the age of 15, and as part of the retinue of Tsar Alexander I, went to London in 1814. Here he met (legend has it by accident, on the back staircase of a hotel) Princess Charlotte, the young, beautiful, intelligent, impulsive daughter of the notorious Prince Regent and his equally notorious wife, Caroline of Brunswick, and thus heir presumptive to the British throne.
Negotiations were under way to marry Charlotte to the Prince of Orange, but she was already resisting this prospect when the tall, handsome soldier Leopold crossed her path, and in May 1816 the couple were married. Tragically, Charlotte gave birth in November 1817, after 50 hours of labour, to a still-born son, and the next day she died. (The reasons for her death are not clear, and the obstetrician later committed suicide in a house in which he was attending another birth.)
Leopold was devastated, and begged Stockmar never to leave him. More importantly for history, the death of Charlotte left Britain without an heir in the direct line, and led to an unseemly jostle among the elderly royal dukes to put aside (or not) their mistresses and marry German princesses of child-bearing age, which led eventually to Queen Victoria, and the Victorian age. But suppose Charlotte and her son had survived? Would all other matters have continued the same, but in the Charlottian age (less euphonious, apart from anything else)?
One thing that might well have stayed the same was the subsequent name of the royal family, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, because – not at all by coincidence – Queen Victoria married Leopold’s nephew Albert, another younger son from the tiny and impoverished principality of Coburg. This too was a love match, but it was also one that had been planned down to the smallest detail by Leopold (by now king of the new state of Belgium, having previously refused the crown of Greece) and his ally Stockmar.
Prince Albert had been selected for the exalted role, and educated for it; Stockmar had travelled through Europe with the prince on an educational tour, reporting back to Leopold on his character and qualities. Stockmar bore the brunt of the negotiations with the British government, was heavily involved with the reform of the administration of Buckingham Palace and the education of the royal children, and continued to advise on all diplomatic and household matters until the catastrophe of the early and unexpected death of the Prince Consort: ‘An edifice, which, for a great and noble purpose, had been reared, with a devout sense of duty, by twenty years of laborious toil, has been shattered to its very foundations.’ If Prince Albert had lived longer, would the development of the German Empire, and hence the fate of Europe in the twentieth century, been different?
Stockmar himself died two years after the Prince, in 1863; his son published the two volumes of his memoirs, the frank tone of which apparently infuriated Queen Victoria. What is fascinating about these books is their unfashionable emphasis on the effect of individual actors on the course of history. Look at the cheerful way in which Polignac, Charles X’s minister of foreign affairs, was planning to redraw the map of Europe (for example, the House of Orange would give up the Netherlands, and get European Turkey, to be run as a Christian kingdom, instead). Look at the way Princess Lieven, glamorous wife of the Russian ambassador, was able to influence British foreign policy from her boudoir. And look especially at Stockmar, quietly writing memoranda, visiting Whig and Tory leaders in Britain and crowned heads abroad, using argument and persuasion to maintain European peace, and to keep the British Crown as far as possible out of the party politics of his day, as he could see from examples from all over Europe that this was the only way for the monarchy to survive. He was regarded, even by those who opposed him, as the most conscientious, perceptive, rational and disinterested diplomat of his day – and he never held an official post in any government.