THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH
Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Ulster and Kent, and Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1844–1900) was the second son and third child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He was born at Windsor Castle on 6th August 1844 and was awarded the duchy of Edinburgh on the occasion of his mother’s birthday on 24th May 1866. In 1893 he succeeded his uncle Ernest as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha after his brother, the Prince of Wales, renounced his claim. In 1862, following the deposition of the unpopular King Otho of Greece, Prince Alfred received an overwhelming majority of the votes cast to succeed him. However, acceptance of the Greek crown by a British prince contravened the terms of the London Protocol of 1830 and so the throne passed instead to Prince William of Denmark (1845–1914), who became King George I of the Hellenes. In 1874 the duke married Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna (1853–1920), daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Together they had four daughters and one son.
A bright young boy, Prince Alfred’s intelligence both delighted and concerned his parents, who worried that the academic waywardness of his elder brother, the future King Edward VII, might prove a bad influence. Consequently he was enlisted into the navy at fourteen – the earliest possible age – and was appointed to the Euralys in August 1858. The prince proved an adept sailor and rose quickly through the ranks, attaining the position of lieutenant in 1863 and passing over the rank of commander to become a captain in 1866. In January 1867 he embarked upon an extensive world tour, visiting South America, the Cape and Australia. The voyage was cut short in Sydney when Fenian sympathiser James O’Farrell made an attempt on the duke’s life on 12th March 1868. Fortunately, the duke survived his wounds and was apparently undeterred, making a brief return to England that summer before pressing on to China, India and Japan later that same year. Rather less skillful at diplomacy than navigation, the duke courted controversy in 1878, when he invited Alexander of Battenberg, an officer in the Russian fleet, aboard the ironclad Sultan, despite escalating military tensions between Russia and the powers of western Europe. However, the storm soon blew over and by June 1893 Alfred had been promoted to admiral of the fleet, a position he retained despite reservations in Westminster over his new German titles.
Alfred’s bride, the Grand Duchess Marie of Russia, captivated the prince’s attentions from a young age. The couple first met at the home of the Battenberg Princes near Jugenheim in 1868, when Marie was only 15 years old. Alfred’s naval career kept them from pursuing a relationship however, and they did not meet again until 1871, again at Schloss Heiligenberg. Here they bonded over a common love of music - Alfred played the violin and Marie the piano - but no engagement was announced. Tsar Alexander, Marie’s father, couldn’t bear to lose his only daughter, while Queen Victoria had reservations over the compatibility of the Romanovs’ Orthodox faith within the British Royal Family. Yet in spite of this the couple were betrothed in July 1871, in all likelihood aided by the remarkable influence Marie was known to hold over her father.
The wedding itself was an extravagant affair, conducted in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on the 23rd January 1874. To appease Queen Victoria’s wishes two separate ceremonies were conducted: the first in Greek Orthodox tradition, and the second following the liturgy of the Church of England. The ceremony was attended by several hundred members of the Russian nobility, as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales and Prince Arthur, the Duke of Edinburgh’s younger brother. The guests were greeted outside the imperial chapel by a platoon of imperial lancers, forming a guard of honour, and the initial ceremony was overseen by four Orthodox clerics, including the Archbishops of St Petersburg and Kiev. The subsequent Anglican ceremony was conducted by the Dean of Westminster, after which the couple signed a page from the register of the Royal Chapel at St. James’, which had been carefully removed from the volume - the book itself deemed too important to travel. Following the double ceremony, Tsar Alexander invited 800 guests to a banquet in Nicholas Hall. The dinner was proceeded by dancing in St George’s Hall, during which time several buildings, including the British embassy in Moscow, where illuminated in honour of the duke and duchess.
DESIGN AND PRESENTATION OF THE PLATEAU
The centerpiece and accompanying candelabra, presented to the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh by the Corporation of the City of London, were designed to celebrate the coming together of the empires of Britain and Russia, as well as to honour the duke and duchess themselves. The centrepiece juxtaposes the figures of Peter the Great and Alfred the Great at either end of the plateau: both icons of national mythology and founders of their respective nations’ navies. Likewise, in the galleys on either side are depicted personifications of the rivers Thames and Neva. In the middle the arms of the two countries meet, with the British and Russian royal standards supported by Tritons, who hold up the figure of Venus, born from the sea. An appropriate figure for a wedding gift. The piece is of course suffuse with maritime imagery, indicative not only of the duke’s naval career but also the duchesses’ lineage, being descended from the founder of the Russian navy.
The plateau was designed by Henry Hugh Armstead (1828–1905) and carried out by Mssrs. Garrard, goldsmiths. Armstead trained initially in his father’s workshop and later at the Government School of Design at Somerset House. He practiced as a silversmith at Hunt and Roskell during the 1850s, chasing sculptural exhibition pieces in the style of Antoine Vechte, the great French silver-chaser who was living in England at the time. During his tenure at Hunt and Roskell Armstead achieved modest acclaim for his works on the Tennyson Cup for Ascot; the Shakespeare Cup, presented to the actor Charles Kean; and the Outram Shield, presented to Lieutenant General Sir James Outram. Dissatisfied, however, with the lack of recognition, Armstead began to focus more intently on sculpture. His work on the Outram Shield brought him to the attentions of George Gilbert Scott, who employed Armstead to design the sculptural parts of the model for the Albert Memorial. When work began on the actual memorial in 1862, Scott engaged Armstead again, this time sculpting the bronze figures of Astronomy, Chemistry, Medicine and Rhetoric, as well as working on the Frieze of Parnassus, which was carved in situ. Thereafter Armstead’s sculptural career continued to soar and he was commissioned for the sculptural decoration of the Colonial Office at Whitehall, as well as the prominent funeral monuments of the Bishop Wilberforce in Winchester Cathedral and Bishop Ollivant in Llandaff Cathedral. In 1879 Armstead was elected as a Royal Academician, and taught enthusiastically at the Academy Schools until near his death.
Armstead’s centerpiece was commissioned shortly after the royal wedding in January 1874, and presented to the duke and duchess on the 11th May 1785. The presentation at Mansion House was hosted by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, and attended by several aldermen and sheriffs of the Corporation, as well as the Russian Ambassador. Thereafter the duke gave a brief speech of thanks, and was entertained by a stately lunch.
THE LATER HISTORY OF THE CENTERPIECE
Following the duchess of Edinburgh’s death in 1920, the centrepiece passed to her third daughter, also named Marie (1875-1938). The younger Marie married Ferdinand, later King of Romania (1865-1927), in 1893, and the pair enjoyed a happy marriage. The Queen Consort, alongside her husband, proved immensely popular with the Romanian people, largely through her charitable temperament and immense practicality. During the Balkan Wars she ran a cholera camp, and later tended to the Allies’ wounded following Romania’s entry into the First World War. The queen remained steadfast during occupation by the Central Powers, and worked hard to keep the spirit of resistance alive. When peace came, she went to Paris to argue on Romania’s behalf to the allied leaders. After Marie the centrepiece passed to her and Ferdinand’s youngest daughter, Princess Ileana (1909–1991). She and her family were forced to flee Romania following her nephew, Michael I’s, forced abdication in 1947, and in 1950 moved to the United States. Here the piece was sold at auction for $2,700 at the Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York in 1955. The centerpiece appeared again at auction in New York at Sotheby’s in 1973, where it was sold from the estate of the late Mrs Eugene A. Noble, fetching $36,000.