Of the 41 monarchs of England since the arrival of William the Conqueror, only 7 have been women. But stop and think of the 41 figures on that list: how many do you feel any real connection with, how many produce an emotional response when you picture them? And, crucially, how many do you have any genuine respect for?
When you whittle things down this way, the list starts looking decidedly feminine. There are very few monarchs who can match the imaginative appeal of Elizabeth I and Victoria; none who seem so absolutely inseparable from their age. The majority of our male kings seem to run together into a blur of degeneracy or mediocrity, and frequently both. Perhaps precisely because of the essential masculinity of the role, many of our Queens seem to have worked much harder, given much more and left a far more unique legacy. Heck, to use a phrase borrowed (worryingly) from my parents, they just had more spunk.
In 2002, the BBC conducted a poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons‘. There are three monarchs in the top twenty – Alfred the Great, Elizabeth I and Victoria. So it seems, despite the fact that still only a puny one in five of our elected officials in the House of Commons is female, when it comes to strength, leadership and respectability, the monarchy has had no better, more lastingly memorable and characteristic representatives than Elizabeth and Victoria.
So what if many of the features that made Queen Victoria remarkable and rejuvenating were owed not to her connection to the ancient royal bloodline, but to her disconnection from it? What if Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, was not her real father? And what if Victoria’s troublesome genetic legacy is the smoking gun that can prove it?
This claim has been made most forcefully by the formidable Victorian specialist A.N Wilson, but questions have also been raised by those with a far more intimate connection to the subject. After watching the film of Alan Bennet’s The Madness of King George, which graphically depicted George III’s torments whilst suffering with porphyria, Princess Margaret is said to have wondered aloud, ‘Isn’t it hereditary?’.
She was of course right. Acute porphyria is now often attributed as the cause of George’s ‘madness’, triggering the famous discoloured urine, flatulence, constipation, colic, itchy skin, seizures and anxiety. This diagnosis suggests that the king may not have been mad at all; rather the incessant discomfort, severe pain and nervous exhaustion caused by porphyria may have literally driven him to distraction, creating the impression of a man who had lost his mind and all connection to reality. It is extremely rare for men to exhibit such extreme symptoms of porphyria, leading some researchers to speculate that it may have been caused by exposure to arsenic. An examination of a sample of George’s hair found traces of arsenic at 300 times the toxic level, likely as a result of the arsenic-laden James’ powders medicine the king is known to have been given.
It may well be that George inherited the disease from Mary Queen of Scots and her son James I, both of whom are recorded as suffering from complaints that tally well with the symptoms of porphyria. From this point on, porphyria seems to have been prevalent amongst the royals, with George only its most high profile sufferer. Prevalent, that is, until Victoria, after whom the disease mysteriously vanished from the royal family.
So goes the theory. Although it is often stated that after Victoria there is no evidence of porphyria in the line, at least two of her descendants seem to have shown signs of the condition. The remains of her granddaughter, Charlotte, Duchess of Saxe-Meiningen, have recently been examined and revealed a high likelihood that she suffered from porphyria, together with her daughter, who committed suicide in 1945, after a lifetime of health problems. Prince William of Gloucester, who died in a plane crash in the 1970s, was reliably diagnosed with the disease by three separate specialists, though he was also descended from Victoria’s uncle, the Duke of Cambridge, and might have inherited it from him.
This evidence is not enough to entirely quash the idea that the run of porphyria in the the royal family ended with Victoria, but it certainly introduces enough doubt to stop anyone getting too carried away with the idea that Victoria was illegitimate. There is, however, another genetic mystery which is harder to dismiss.
While porphyria is said to have stopped with Victoria, another disease is said to have started. Victoria was a known carrier of haemophilia, and certainly passed it on to two of her daughters and her son, Prince Leopold. What’s strange is that there is no known incidence of haemophilia in the royal family before this time, and, unlike porphyria, male carriers always suffer the disease, which would at the time have been very difficult to conceal. Research conducted at the Royal Society of Medicine through seventeen generations of ancestors on Victoria’s mother’s side has revealed no evidence of the disease.
This leaves only two options: either Victoria acquired haemophilia through a spontaneous genetic mutation, or the Duke of Kent was not her father. Although genetic mutation accounts for around 33% of all cases of haemophilia, the chances of it occurring in any one generation are between 1 in 25,000 and 1 in 100,000. And it must be admitted that the alternative explanation has several points in its favour. The marriage between Edward, Duke of Kent, and Victoria’s mother Victoire, Princess of Leiningen, was by no stretch of the imagination a happy one. Neither spoke each other’s language for a start, and by the time of the marriage, when Edward was in his 50s, he was, to put it politely, past his physical prime. There were also persistent and widespread rumours about Victoire and her secretary Sir John Conroy. Victoria seems to have openly loathed Conroy, which many (including the august Duke of Wellington) supposed was the result of her certain knowledge of his affair with her mother. Some went so far as to suggest that Victoria had inadvertantly stumbled across the couple in what would now be called a compromising situation.
There are problems with this theory – Conroy was a soldier, a career which would surely have been made next to impossible by haemophilia, and none of his descendants showed signs of the disease. But the tantalising possibility remains that Victoire’s infidelity may not have stopped with Conroy, and Victoria was the result. The implications of this are far-reaching – not only did this furtive coupling create one of our most iconic monarchs, but in successive generations it spread the disease throughout the royal houses of Europe; to Alfonso, Prince of Asturias and Infante Gonzalo of Spain, and to Alexei, Tsarevich of Russia. His mother’s desperate search for a cure, of course, brought the profoundly unpopular Rasputin to a position of royal influence, adding fuel to the revolutionary fires.
All this, of course, is speculation, and highly controversial speculation at that. The evidence from porphyria is at best questionable, and far more unlikely events have happened in history than spontaneous genetic mutation. On the balance of the evidence available, it has to be said there’s no reason to abandon the official line that the Duke of Kent was indeed the true father of Victoria. But the alternative remains appealing, partly because deep down everyone loves a good bit of gossip, and partly because of the light it sheds on the true nature of royalty and the vicissitudes of history. Could it be that Victoire got bored one afternoon, summoned some unknown haemophiliac lover to her bedchamber and engaged in a little nookie that changed the course of history forever? Probably not. But the mystery remains, and there’s something gloriously, wickedly subversive in it that serves as a refreshing antidote to all the grand history we so often have shoved down our throats.
- The Victorians by A.N. Wilson A masterly overview of the Victorian period, which includes Wilson’s controversial claims about Victoria herself.