WITH THE POSSIBLE exception of the Habsburgs, no royal family ever demonstrated so formidable a talent for marrying to advantage as the Protestant house of Saxe-Coburg. If the Catholic Habsburg emperors in Vienna steadily extended their domain by engaging their archducal sons to heiresses of equal birth, the Coburgs, an impoverished line whose isolated principality in central Germany never rose above the dignity of a grand duchy, began in the nineteenth century to marry above themselves. The Thuringian arrivistes--the "stud farm of Europe," as the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck described Coburg--chose their victims with discrimination and pursued them with tenacity. Occasionally misfortune dogged their ambitions, especially when Leopold of Coburg, married in 1816 to the heiress to the British throne, a year later suddenly found himself a childless widower. Consolation eventually appeared in a daughter of the French king, Louis Philippe, and Leopold lived to see one of their children become Empress of Mexico. In 1831, the Belgians elected Leopold as their ruler, and later one of his numerous nephews secured the hand of the Queen of Portugal. By the middle of the century the Coburgs' genealogical tentacles embraced parts of continental Europe over which the wizened Habsburgs had once held sway. The family's greatest nuptial triumph was the marriage King Leopold of the Belgians arranged in 1840 between another nephew, Prince Albert, and Queen Victoria of England. The Queen's mother had also begun her ascent from Coburg, for she was Leopold's sister. With typical Coburg strategy, years before she had married one of the dissipated sons of King George III of England. Victoria and Albert, destined to become man and wife, were thus first cousins.
The two children had been born within three months of one another in 1819, and Leopold soon began to plot their eventual marriage. Many obstacles, including Victoria's reluctance to marry anyone at all and the distaste of her uncle, King William IV, for the ambitious Coburgs, had to be overcome. The King conveniently died in 1837, advancing Victoria to