Royalty and urban legends

British royalty and urban legends

There are many urban legends associated with British royalty. Given that hereditary monarchy is centred on the principles of inheritance, family relationships and legitimacy, it is hardly surprising that most rumours about royals have focused on these three areas.

Context

These stories have little in the way of evidence behind them, but are developed through word of mouth and focused on the popular public identification on a personal level with the people who were the subject of the rumours. In particular the rumours focused on Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and her descendants. Whereas other British monarchs possessed considerable constitutional powers and so were controversial because of the decisions they took, from Victoria on the constitutional emphasis switched to the people rather than the power, with the monarch's role becoming, in Walter Bagehot's phrase, "the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn." The myths all focused on the people, whether Victoria's paternity or that of her husband, the sex-life of her grandson Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, the manner of his death or the marital arrangements of King George V. In addition these rumours appeared in the era of photography, a development which meant that people could see what the Queen and the Royal Family looked like (previously the only images of royalty occurred in paintings that were usually hung in stately homes to which the public did not have admission).

The appearance of popular representation again enabled members of the Royal Family to be seen as people, creating popular interest in their human lives and not just in their constitutional offices. Finally, the nineteenth century witnessed the appearance of public transport through the creation of a railway network, so enabling people to travel further — before the appearance of the railways most people did not travel far from their place of birth during their lifetime — and get access to newspapers, the reading of which was increased through the more widespread availability of education. Access to newspapers, increased literacy, increased travel and the new 'family' concept of monarchy that was central to the appeal of Victoria and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, provided a means by which rumours and myths could be disseminated far more widely than before, with legends developing a national rather than regional or local aspect.

Rumours about Queen Victoria

Succession crisis

Charlotte Augusta of Wales was the only daughter and heir of the Prince Regent (later King George IV). Her death in childbirth in 1817 set off a battle between the Prince Regent's brothers to see who could father a legitimate heir. Some of the brothers had been previously involved in scandals. Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second in line to the throne, was estranged from his wife, Frederica Charlotte of Prussia. The sixth son, Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, had contracted two marriages in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act (as had the Prince Regent before his marriage to Charlotte Augusta's mother). Three brothers, the third, fourth and seventh in line to the throne, William Henry, Duke of Clarence, Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn and Adolph Frederick, Duke of Cambridge all married in 1818. The fifth son, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was already married.

The Duke of Clarence had married Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Though ironically he had been able to father ten illegitimate children, none of his children by his wife survived childhood. The second daughter, Elizabeth, lived the longest, being born on 10 December 1820 and dying on 4 March 1821. The next son to produce an heir was the Duke of Cambridge, whose son George was born on 26 March 1819. He would be displaced two months later by the birth of a daughter to the Duke of Kent and his wife, Viktoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Their first and only child was called Alexandrina Victoria but was known to her family as "Drina". She was born on 24 May 1819, just three days before the son of the Duke of Cumberland, also called George, who consequently was never more than seventh in line to the throne. Both George III and the Duke of Kent died in January of 1820, making the Prince Regent George IV and Drina third in line to the throne after her uncles, the Duke of York and Duke of Clarence (the future William IV). She would ultimately take the throne as Queen Victoria in 1837.

Controversy

Rumours about Victoria's parentage centred on a controversial Irish soldier and adventurer called John Conroy who was her mother's private secretary and the comptroller of her household. The Duchess of Kent was the same age as Conroy, whereas she was nineteen years younger than her husband and the court gossiped openly about their relationship. After the Duke's death Conroy assumed a parental role towards Victoria that she bitterly resented. This caused a near permanent rift between Victoria and her mother, as well as between the Duchess and her brother-in-law, William IV. Conroy expected that when Victoria became queen he would be made her private secretary, but instead one of her first acts as monarch was to dismiss him from her household.

The belief that the Duchess and Conroy were lovers was widespread. When asked by Charles Greville whether he believed they were lovers, the Duke of Wellington replied that he 'supposed so'. The Duke later recounted a story, suspected to have come directly from Victoria. According to him, when Victoria was young she had caught Conroy and the Duchess engaged in what were diplomatically called 'familiarities'. Horrified, she told her governess, Baroness Lehzen, what she had witnessed. Lehzen in turn told her close ally, Madame de Spath, who confronted the Duchess about her behaviour. The Duchess of Kent was furious and promptly dismissed de Spath. She could not, however, dismiss the Baroness, who was protected by George IV and later William IV. Regardless, dismissing de Spath had already strained relations between the Duchess and her daughter, dismissing Lehzen could have created an irreparable breach.

While few doubt the existence of a sexual relationship between the Duchess and Conroy, there is in fact no evidence to prove that he was Victoria's biological father. Two pieces of evidence are sometimes mentioned to suggest that Victoria's father could not have been the Duke of Kent.

  1. The sudden appearance of hæmophilia in the descendents of Victoria. The illness was not known to exist in the royal family before.
  2. The disappearance of porphyria from the descendents of Victoria.

Both arguments are inconclusive. Since hæmophilia is X-linked, in order for a father to transmit it he must have the condition himself, something that is improbable considering that Conroy had been a soldier. Nor is there evidence of hæmophilia in either Conroy's ancestors or descendants. While hæmophilia is usually inherited from the mother, in this case it is possible that it arose from a spontaneous mutation since the Duke of Kent was in his 50's when Victoria was conceived.

With regard to porphyria (which had most notably affected George III), it did indeed continue among descendants of Victoria. One of her granddaughters, Charlotte, Duchess of Saxe-Meiningen, is believed to have suffered from it. In the 1970s, Prince William of Gloucester, who was killed in an aeroplane crash, was reliably diagnosed with variegate porphyria by three different specialists. However William was also descended from Victoria's uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, and could have inherited it from him.

More definitively, childhood descriptions of the young "Drina" remarked on a physical resemblance to some of her father's brothers, notably King George IV. As with other members of the House of Hanover, she was an extremely fat child, and bore no resemblance whatsoever to Conroy, his daughter (who was coincidentally a childhood friend of hers) or any other members of the Conroy family, whether ancestral or contemporary. The belief that Victoria may have been Conroy's daughter has been generally dismissed by historians as an urban legend possessing no credible evidence other than rumour and innuendo, often from sources hostile to the House of Hanover. Only one recent historian has given the claim any credence, an action criticised in book reviews by his peers.

Rumours about Albert, the Prince Consort

Not only did Queen Victoria face rumours about her parentage, but her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha did as well. Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha had married Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg in 1817. In the next two years they had two sons, Ernst (who would succeed to his father's titles) and Albert. After nine years of marriage the couple divorced. While there is no doubt as to her extramarital affairs after the birth of Albert, there is no documentary evidence to suggest the existence of an affair in the early years of the marriage, and no evidence to suggest that Albert's father was anyone other than Ernst. However at the time of his marriage to Victoria there were rumours claiming that his father was a Jewish manservant in the ducal household.

The rumoured illegitimacy of both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert featured occasionally in 19th century political pamphlets and in political attacks by radicals and anti-monarchists.

It has also been suggested that Albert's real father was Prince Leopold, Ernst's brother and the future King of the Belgians. This theory was most recently promoted by journalist Paul Belien.

Rumours about Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence

One legend to evolve concerning royalty surrounded Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale. It alleged that he, the second-in-line to the British throne, was Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer who murdered at least five women in 1888. More convoluted stories suggested that Queen Victoria, the British Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, senior London Metropolitan Police officers and Freemasons arranged the series of murders as part of a conspiracy to cover-up Prince Albert Victor's secret marriage to a working class Roman Catholic woman. The claims are dismissed as fantasy.

Another urban legend, largely confined to the Isle of Wight but linked to the Jack the Ripper rumour, claimed that the Duke, by then supposedly mentally unstable, had in fact been imprisoned in Osborne House, Queen Victoria's old home, and had died there in 1930. This however was demonstrably impossible. From 1903 to 1923 Osborne served as a Royal Navy training college, where two future kings, Edward VIII and George VI trained. From 1923 it served as a museum. How a mad, supposedly dead prince could be hidden on a small island in a building inhabited at different times by hundreds of Navy people (including his own nephews), or from 1923 surrounded by curators of a museum along with its thousands of visitors annually, was never explained.

Rumours about King George V

Few expected Prince George of Wales, as the third-in-line to the British throne, to ever become king. Instead he and everyone else expected that he would have a lifelong career in the Royal Navy. However the sudden death of his elder brother, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, threw his plans into chaos. He went from minor royal to the man destined to succeed his father as king. He returned to public life, was created Duke of York and married his late brother's fianceé, Mary of Teck.

By the time he became King George V in 1910 he was universally respected as a decent family man. A rumour that had spread for twenty years, however, suggested that George was in fact a bigamist who had left his real wife to marry Mary of Teck. In the rumour which spread through Great Britain and Malta, George was supposed to have married the daughter of a British admiral while in Malta.

The rumours became concrete in 1910 when a Paris-based tabloid magazine, Liberator, published a story by Edward Mylius about the King's supposed Maltese wedding. Normally royals don't sue over lies told about them, but in a break with precedent the King decided that in this case he had no choice. The rumours accused him of the crime of bigamy, of breaking the Royal Marriages Act 1772, and questioned both the legal status of the Queen and the legitimacy of all his children.

Mylius was arrested for criminal libel and tried before the Lord Chief Justice of England and a jury. During the trial the claims about the King were shown to be a complete fiction, and Mylius was convicted and jailed for 12 months.

Footnotes

Sources

  • Katherine Hudson, ''A Royal Conflict: Sir John Conroy & the Young Victoria (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994)
  • H. Montgomery Hyde, The Cleveland Street Scandal (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1976)
  • Harold Nicolson, King George V (Pan, 1967)
  • Lytton Strachey, Queen Victoria
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