Categories
18th Century Biography French History History Royal History

Marie Antoinette and her Children: The mystery and the history of Louis Charles in the tower. Part 1

Louis Charles mystery Marie Antoinette

On the morning of 11th August 1792, an exhausted and increasingly sweaty royal family sat in the reporters’ box of the National Assembly, a stone’s throw from the Seine in Paris. The night before, the Tuileries (the 16th-century royal palace near the Louvre which had been their residence since they were removed from Versailles in 1789) had been invaded by the people, and a chaotic and brutal battled ensued. The king had been forced to flee the palace and seek refuge with the Assembly.

As debate raged around them over the future of the monarchy, one thing was already clear. The Tuileries was no longer a suitable residence for the royal family, and an alternative must be found urgently. And so it was that on 13th August, Louis, Marie Antoinette and their children were transported to the Temple. This would have come as no great surprise to Marie Antoinette, indeed she had predicted that they would ultimately be moved there several months before it came to pass. But it was nonetheless a frightening development. Marie Antoinette had always disliked the Temple – a complex of buildings including a rather lovely seventeenth-century palace and the far more ominous Tower, a decaying hulk of a building constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Earlier in her life, Marie Antoinette was even said to have suggested to her brother-in-law (then owner of the palace) that the Tower should be knocked down.

The Temple, Marie Antoinette's prison
The Temple Tower

The prospect of life in the Temple was very different to the one they had known in the Tuileries. Though certainly well past its best, and a precipitous step down from Versailles, the Tuileries was at least a royal palace, and while they had been tucked away there, a sort of calm had descended, allowing questions over the exact status of the royal family to be conveniently postponed or half-answered. The family had enjoyed considerable independence in the Tuileries, where there was space to walk outside and to house supporters, and enough leeway for many of the traditions and rites of Versailles to continue in some form or another. Security had even been lax enough to allow the royal party to make its ill-fated escape attempt earlier in the year.

The Temple, it was clear to everyone, was to allow none of this ambiguity. In moving to the Temple, Marie Antoinette and her family were being imprisoned, physically and psychologically. Though their quarters were cramped, damp and cold, there were still touches of luxury in their furnishings, meals continued to be lavish, and the King was allowed his own study. What made the real difference was that the King and Queen were now strictly monitored and controlled by jailers who openly disrespected them, and clearly enjoyed inflicting what Antonia Fraser calls ‘petty humilations’ on them whenever possible. What’s more, any chance of escape, except in the most fervid daydreams of die-hard monarchists and paranoid republicans, had now well and truly passed. Most painful of all for the king and queen must have been the dawning realisation that they were now powerless – locked out of the way whilst their fate, and that of France, was being decided elsewhere.

From now on, events moved rapidly. On 21st September, the National Assembly declared France a republic, and abolished the monarchy – adding new urgency to the question of what should be done with its former monarchs. In October, Louis was separated from his family in preparation for trial. His jailers presented him with a choice – he could be allowed to see his children during this time, or they could be left with Marie Antoinette, but it must be one or the other. They would not be allowed to see both parents. Louis chose to leave the children with their mother, and he would be reunited with his family just one more time, on the night before his execution on 21st January 1793. He bade them a tearful farewell, but promised to see them again the next morning before he was taken away.

Louis was fascinated by history, and had spent much of his life reading history books. Some observers had wondered why, because the king had never seemed to learn much from it. But recently he had been fixated on the story of Charles I of England, and in particular the fearless and noble way he met his own execution. It was said that Charles had secretly worn two overshirts as he stepped onto the scaffold that January morning, so that his people would not see him shiver from cold and think him afraid. Louis was determined that his people should not see him shiver, finding, as he faced his death, a resolution and strength he had so often lacked in life.

This newfound resilience called upon all of Louis’ emotional reserves, so when dawn came, he found himself unable to face the strain of of seeing his family again. He broke his promise. Marie Antoinette and her children waited in the Tower, unaware of what was going on. It was only when they heard drums and a huge cheer echoing round the streets that they knew Louis was dead. Later, some would claim that in that instant Marie Antoinette turned to her son Louis-Charles and said ‘The king is dead, long live the king’, expressing the tradition that monarchy itself never dies – kings come and go, but kingship passes down a divinely-ordained and unbroken ancient line.

The comment seems emotionally out of place, but whether or not Marie Antoinette actually said it, it was true that, with French law forbidding a woman to hold the crown, for those unwilling to accept that monarchy in France was a thing of the past, the seven-year-old Louis Charles had suddenly become King Louis XVII.

Louis Charles, son of Marie Antoinette
Louis Charles, painted in 1792 by Alexander Kucharsky

Louis Charles can’t have remembered much of life before the revolution, and in one way or another conflict had overshadowed his whole life. Portraits of the boy show an angelic and spirited but delicate looking child, and this matches well with the reports of everyone who knew him. He was said to be loyal and loving, and his stubborn pride was certainly forgiveable (indeed, almost a requirement) in a dauphin of France. He was adored by his parents and his sisters, and proved capable of charming even his most implacable enemies. The revolution would severely test the boy, and though he endured numerous terrifying episodes in which he and his family could easily have been killed, he did not emerge unscathed. These experiences seem in particular to have reinforced a pair of key character traits which Marie Antoinette and others had noted despairingly even before the upheavals of 1789. Firstly, Louis Charles had always been easily scared. At Versailles, more often than not it was the sound of dogs that startled him, but by 1793 his nerves had become so frayed that he cowered at almost any disturbance. Secondly, Louis Charles, like many young boys, had a tendency to repeat things that he had heard too freely, adding his own invented details to enhance the telling, without consciously meaning to lie. This it seems was a symptom of a more general desire to please, and to be loved.

This particular combination of character traits, though not exactly unusual in a boy of his age, was to prove disastrous in the new phase of Louis Charles’ life that was now beginning. With his father dead and mistrust and hatred for Marie Antoinette as widespread as ever, it was decided that the boy should be separated from his mother. This was done in June, without warning. When men entered to take him away, Marie Antoinette clung to her son for over an hour, refusing to release him even when her life was threatened. Only when the guards shifted tactic and threatened her daughter did Marie Antoinette finally relent.

Louis Charles now posed a problem for the revolutionary authorities. He was too young to be tried like his father, and he could certainly not be allowed to go into exile, where he would provide the counter-revolutionaries with a potent figurehead. And though the problem of his father had been solved by killing him, doing the same to this cherubic, innocent boy would present a most unpleasant image of the revolution to the world, and could inspire a backlash of monarchist sympathy. So, it seems to have been decided, the only thing to do with Louis Charles was to keep him out of sight of the public and hope that in time he would be forgotten. More deliciously for some, a close, solitary imprisonment even presented the tantalising possibility that Louis Charles might be made to forget himself. The Commune, which oversaw the imprisonment of Louis Charles, spoke explicitly in terms of a ‘re-education’, and the ultimate hope was that the boy should ‘lose the recollection of his royalty’, in the words of Jacques-René Hébert, and become a revolutionary.

The man chosen for this ‘re-education’ would be, in any other circumstances, an unlikely tutor. Antoine Simon was one of life’s failures, making a mess of everything he tried his hand at. Training initially as a shoemaker, nobody was interested in buying his wares, and his cheap tavern by the Seine proved equally disastrous. His luck seemed in when his first wife died and by some miracle he managed to attract another who came with a hefty dowry attached, but this too was soon frittered away. Rather than accepting that his own laziness and lack of business acumen had been the primary cause of the string of failures that riddled his adult life, Simon became increasingly angry and bitter, blaming anyone but himself for keeping him from the success he richly deserved. The Revolution was a gift to Simon, dovetailing nicely with his paranoid conspiracy theories, encouraging him to paint the aristocracy as being responsible for keeping men like him in their lowly stations. Even in the midst of this revolution, dominated by legendary characters and awesome personalities, Simon’s commitment and zeal marked him out, and he was soon noticed by those in authority. Simon was a man who would put the revolution above anything, and would not allow sentiment or affection to prevent him from following orders. Consequently when Jacques-René Hébert and his superiors at the Commune were searching for a man to watch over Louis Charles and break his royal spirit, Simon was a natural choice. One can only imagine Simon’s feelings on discovering his new destiny. He had spent his life railing impotently against the aristocratic Hydra laying waste to his hopes and dreams. Now one of its last remaining heads was his to control – and destroy.

Louis Charles’ re-education could not begin immediately as for the first few days he simply huddled in a corner, weeping uncontrollably, terrified by the slightest noise. Eventually though, things began to settle into a routine, and at least in this early stage, Louis Charles was not treated too badly. He was washed and his clothes were cleaned, he was given toys and sometimes even got to play with the laundry woman’s daughter. He was allowed outside into a small garden for air, and on one of these occasions Louis Charles found the courage to demand of some officials who had come to see him ‘I want to know what law you are using that says I should be separated from my mother… Show me this law, I want to see it!. Louis Charles’ short walk to the garden took him directly past Marie Antoinette’s cell, and if she craned her neck to a certain crack in the wall she could catch the merest glimpse of him as he walked by. Marie Thérèse wrote later that her mother would stand for hours with her eye crammed against that crack, waiting to see her son – ‘it was her sole hope, her sole occupation’.

In these early days of his isolation, there seems to have been some uncertainty about what exactly was to be done with Louis Charles. Simon didn’t like uncertainty, and resolved to clarify the situation. In July he went to the Commune, demanding what their intentions were for the boy. Their answer was clear and unequivocal – ‘We want to get rid of him!’.

From this point on the life of Louis Charles took a far more sinister turn.

Click here for part 2 of this story >>

Categories
20th Century French History Historical Places History Paris

Is Paris Burning: Did a German General save the City of Light?

How German General von Choltitz saved Paris

In February 1943, there was nothing in Stalingrad but the ghost of a city. The scale of the battle that had raged for the past seven months was so unimaginable that it is nearly impossible to talk about it without resorting to empty cliché. There are the figures, of course – 850,000 Axis casualties, 1.1 million Soviet – which make this a strong contender for the title of deadliest battle in human history. But such numbers are incomprehensible in any real sense. The further you sub-divide these overarching statistics, to reveal, for example,the 40,000 Soviet civilians killed in one week of bombing, or the 13,500 Soviet soldiers executed by their own leaders during the fighting, the more you seem to be able to glimpse the hell of the battle.

In November of 1943, a plane flew over Stalingrad carrying Soviet diplomats journeying to meet their British and American counterparts. One passenger, Valentin Berezhkov, recorded what he saw.

We pressed to the windows in silence… First individual houses scattered in the snow came into view, and then a kind of unbelievable chaos began: lumps of walls, boxes of half-ruined buildings, piles of rubble, isolated chimneys… Visible against the snow were the black figures of people…’

Flash forward to Paris on 25th August 1944. Anyone flying over this city on that day would have witnessed a very different scene. Paris is still there. Damaged, certainly, and neglected, but still quintessentially and recognisably herself. From the window of the plane, you can still see barricades, trenches dug into the streets, trees felled on the boulevards. Many buildings are riddled with bullet holes, and the elegant, graceful Grand Palais is smouldering. But the battle has been won in only six days, and though several thousand people died in the fiercest fighting, the contrast between the liberation of Paris and the battle for Stalingrad could hardly be more marked.

This, unsurprisingly, was not part of Hitler’s plan. The Führer had several times issued orders that Paris must not be abandoned without a fight to the death. On 23rd August, he commanded,

The city must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete debris.

Explosives had been primed in strategic and iconic locations around Paris, to ensure that if the Germans were forced to withdraw, they would leave nothing behind.

So why was this plan never carried out – who saved Paris? Since the day of liberation, two divergent versions of what happened in Paris that August have emerged, that go right to the heart of the many myths that flock around Paris and its liberation like moths around candlelight.

General Von Choltitz: Saviour of Paris?
General von Choltitz

The first is, at base, your classic Parisian love story, with an unlikely leading man in the shape of German General Dietrich von Choltitz. Von Choltitz became the governor of Paris on 7th August 1944, and was the man responsible for carrying out Hitler’s orders, even (according to legend) receiving a screaming phone call from the Führer, demanding ‘Brennt Paris?‘ (Is Paris Burning?). There was nothing in von Cholitz’s past to suggest that he would do anything other than follow these orders to the letter. In 1940 and 41 both Sevastopol and Rotterdam were destroyed on von Cholitz’s orders. He apparently had no qualms about executing Resistance fighters in Paris, and, in a conversation secretly recorded whilst he was being held as a prisoner of war, von Choltitz admitted “executing the most difficult order of my life in Russia, (…) liquidation of the Jews. I have executed this order in its entirety nonetheless…”. He also issued the order to burn the Grand Palais on 23rd August 1944.

But on 25th August, von Cholitz surrendered Paris to the Allies, in direct contravention of his orders. None of the explosives had been detonated. And when De Gaulle paraded down the Champs-Élysées, it was through a sea of smiling faces, not the blackened wasteland of Hitler’s directives. So can it be that, at some pivotal moment, von Choltitz simply could not bring himself to carry out his orders, deciding he’d rather betray his leaders and surrender than see Paris destroyed? This is the version of events suggested by von Choltitz’s son, who claimed that his father realised the war was lost, and decided to prevent unnecessary bloodshed and destruction to the city. This idea is tempting, romantic even, but surely wide of the mark. In von Choltitz’s own account, he stated simply

If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane

Moreover, an experienced military man like von Choltitz would have recognised how disastrous Stalingrad had been for all sides, and seen the value in avoiding a repeat of those events.

The alternative version of events refuses to give con Choltitz even this much credit. Resistance member Maurice Kriegel-Valrimont argued in 2004 that von Choltitz wrought us much death and destruction on Paris and its citizens as he could, “and when he ceased to kill them it was because he wasn’t able to do so any longer”. Kriegel-Valrimont shudders at any attempt to paint von Choltitz as the saviour of Paris, and insists that it was Pierre Taittinger, chairman of the municipal council, who convinced him not to detonate the explosives around the city.

Two very different stories then. In one, a hardened Nazi is struck all too late by the futility and insanity of the war he has fought, and adds his name to the long list of Parisian heroes. In the other, the Parisians themselves are solely responsible for throwing off the rule of their alien, resented occupiers, who sought nothing but their destruction right up to the end. The truth must inevitably be found somewhere between the two. Von Choltitz was certainly no romantic hero, and it seems highly unlikely that he sought to ‘save’ Paris for its own sake. More likely, this practical man genuinely did realise that Hitler’s time was coming to an end, and determined to get things over with as quietly and efficiently as possible. But despite the legitimate protestations of many French historians, the fact remains that there must, surely, have been a window of opportunity for von Choltitz to carry out his orders, press that button and set off explosions all over Paris. That button was never pressed – that’s the fact, cold and undeniable, and the legacy of some combination of the actions of both von Choltitz and those Parisians who fought for their city.

So the brilliant, uniform beauty of Paris remained, the City of Light apparently undimmed. But even as De Gaulle marched triumphantly down the Champs-Élysées, and the crackly sound of the Marseillaise once again echoed down the streets after four forbidden years, a process of soul-searching and recrimination was already beginning. There were some deeply unpleasant questions that needed to be asked about the last few years. Why had it taken so long for Paris to shake off its occupiers? Had life in Paris under the Germans been a bit too easy? Most troubling of all – who had collaborated? Deep down, had everyone collaborated? These questions were made all the more uncomfortable by the unavoidable comparisons between still-dazzling Paris and the scenes of devastation in many of the other cities of Europe. German occupation may have ended, but the damage and pain it could inflict on Paris and Parisians had not disappeared with von Choltitz.

I think I feel another post coming on…

Further Reading

Paris

  • Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones Superb, detailed and comprehensive history of the city, from before it was even Paris to modern times.
  • Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey A more social take on the history of Paris, with plenty of evocative detail.

Stalingrad

  • Stalingrad by Antony Beevor As big, clever and moving as popular history gets.
Categories
Games History Popular History

History, with more Jumpy Bits: are video games a new avenue for history?

Assassins Creed 2

There was an article in Literary Review recently, in which DJ Taylor bemoaned the state of publishing and the literary world in general, culminating in the conclusion that

reading a book is, by and large, a more valuable and more rewarding activity than watching a film, laughing at a stand-up comedian or hunkering down over one’s Xbox.*

I’ve never agreed with smug generalisations about reading that seek to cast it as necessarily and automatically more edifying than other activities, and this sort of snobbery is almost always indulged in by people who have very little actual experience of the cultural forms they dismiss.

What’s more, I’ve recently had some experiences whilst hunkered down over one’s Xbox that have made me think we might be on the brink of a whole new way of experiencing video games, like with the use of game hacks like warzone hacks, and, in particular, whole new ways of uniting games with history. Until then, I just enjoyed the bingo games while waiting for the new gaming experience. Anyway, in case you need it, I’ll leave the bingo promotions here.

The game that prompted these thoughts was Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II, in which the player takes on the role of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the titular assassin/heart-throb living in Renaissance Italy. I’ve been playing games for more than 15 years, and I can’t remember playing any that fired my historical imagination like this one. I even played many kinds of game including casino games that can be played at 666Casino, it was fun playing these kind of games but Ubisoft’s Assasin’s Creed II was on a different level. That’s not to say there haven’t been games that dealt very directly with history. There was JFK:Reloaded, for example, the controversial game which challenged players to recreate the official version of events at the Kennedy assassination, and offered a large cash prize to the person that came closest to matching the fatal shots from the window of the Book Depository. There have also been games like the Civilisation series, which, while not directly historical, encouraged players to think about historical processes such as creating societies and building empires. There are also DressUp Games that little girls enjoy and can get a sense of fashion from. But none of these can rival Assassins Creed II’s stab at realising its historical setting, making it more than just a backdrop, but a living, breathing, accurate world

The game includes lush, atmospheric recreations of Florence, San Gimignano, Forlì and Venice. As well as its fictional protagonist, the plot revolves around real world figures, including the Medici family. The player is also frequently provided with pretty detailed historical information, with engaging, often witty details on everything from the social role of prostitutes and doctors and biographies of key Renaissance figures to backgrounds on the different districts of Venice you can explore.

Alright, so these are the historical plus points, and the game also includes an increasingly ridiculous sub-Dan Brown Assassin/Templar plotline, and implausible cameos from Leonardo DaVinci and Machiavelli. كيفية الحصول على المال في الألعاب Some of the dialogue is historically unconvincing, with onlookers occasionally commenting ‘His mental health is questionable!’ as you storm about the streets. There are also interminable, unnecessary Tomb Raider style platform sections, which are a nightmare if you like me were literally born with hams for fists. I am not by any means arguing that Assassins Creed II is historically perfect, or that it goes nearly as far as it could. But it does reveal that games and history could have a future together, and a bright and exciting one at that. Technology has reached the point where both people and locations can be presented with real life in them, and extraordinary amounts of detail. By far my favourite section of the game is early on, when Ezio is still in Florence and the plot has yet to embark on its more outlandish flights of fancy. Here, Florence feels lived in, real. It feels like a place you’ve not been to before but want to learn more about. And the bitter feuds of the Medici family and their enemies seem to simmer all around.

This game got me excited about Renaissance Italy, a period I know very little about. It introduced me to astonishing figures, for example Caterina Sforza, and their stories. وان كارد فوري Gaming, traditionally, has been far more interested in the future than the past, so I can’t help but feel if games like Assassin’s Creed II introduce more people like me to previously familiar parts of history, and make them want to learn more, then that in itself is of great value.

And this could just be the beginning. 8 million people have bought this game around the world – a figure most historians will never come close to achieving. This raises the tantalising possibility that there is a market for historical games, that go a little deeper and rely on the history itself to power their storylines, trusting that history done well and responsibly can create hugely immersive, engaging worlds. Leaving all snobbery aside, can there be any more exciting prospect for anyone who loves history than to wonder around in the worlds of the past, talking to the people that inhabit them? كازينو اون لاين I think the best comparison for where historical games might go is the historical novel, except of course with much more interactivity for the player, and the ability to make your own choices.

So, Mr DJ Taylor, lay off the Xbox for a while and let’s see what it can do, because I’ve got my fingers crossed that a new method not for studying but for enjoying history might be waiting to emerge.

*You may think that starting an anti-snobbery argument by throwing in a quote from Literary Review is in itself a touch snobby. If you think this, you are wrong, and I am better than you.

Categories
19th Century Biography British History Historical Places History London Royal History

Queen Victoria’s Black Sheep: Prince Eddy and the Ripper Rumours, Part 2

Prince Albert Victor 'Eddy'

As we saw in Part 1 of this story, there are many theories on the real identity of Jack the Ripper doing the rounds, which range from the hypothetically plausible to the palpably absurd. Delving a little deeper, it is interesting to note how many of the suspects suggested over the years involve highly respected figures from the very top of Victorian society. Perhaps this should not be entirely surprising, as there is a strong and distinct social element in the Jack the Ripper story and its lasting emotional resonance. The Ripper scandal drew attention to the squalor and abject poverty of the East End of London where the murders took place, and the extreme inequalities that riddled complacent Victorian society. Recently uncovered census records have revealed that in 1881 (7 years before the murders took place) several of the Ripper’s victims were living with husbands and families. Presumably, in the years before 1888, these marriages must have disintegrated, with consequences for the abandoned women that eventually led them into prostitution.

There is a case to be made that part of the outrage over the murders was (and is) prompted not just by the barbarity of the acts themselves, but also by a feeling of shared guilt, that society as a whole could allow fellow human beings to fall so low and be forced into such dangerous and degrading means of survival. In this version of the narrative, it is fitting that many should seek to cast the grandees of Victorian Society in the role of Jack the Ripper. The story seems to work better (and certainly have more moral impact) if the Ripper was socially the polar opposite of his victims, his calculated murders being only an extreme, twisted version of polite society’s cold indifference. This perspective on events has developed over time. Contemporary suspects more often than not lived amongst, and in similar conditions to, their supposed victims, and included many immigrants, and known domestic murderers. As time has passed, however, new information on the always shifting, historically invisible community of Whitechapel has become harder and harder to obtain, necessitating perhaps a shift away from simple homicide on a human, local scale, and towards grand conspiracy theories and elaborate whodunit yarns, with ever more unlikely culprits.

Given this line of investigation, there could be no more perfect candidate for Jack than a royal, and it so happens that the contemporary royal brood had a black sheep who could quite easily be made to fit the bill, and has been the subject of not one but three distinct Ripper theories. Prince Albert Victor (always known as Eddy) was grandson to Queen Victoria and son of Prince Albert Edward, and as such stood to inherit the throne on the death of his father. But somehow, even amongst the Hanoverians (for whom spectacularly fractured and unhappy families were something of a tradition), Eddy seems particularly awkward, never quite fitting the role he was destined to play. He was an odd, listless character. Opinions vary over his lack of intelligence, but the argument is only over its extent not its existence, with assessments ranging from his tutor’s report that his mind was ‘abnormally dormant’, to persistent but unverified rumours that he had learning disabilities. Lack of intelligence was, however, no impediment to a young prince gaining admission to Cambridge, and he was helpfully excused from examinations during his time there from 1883 to 85.

Prince_Albert_Victor,_Duke_of_Clarence_(1864-1892)_by_William_(1829-18_)_and_Daniel_Downey_(18_-1881
Prince Albert Victor (Eddy). What secrets are hidden by that impeccably moustachioed smile?

As he entered adulthood, Eddy found himself in the unusual position of being simultaneously renowned as a ladies man and reviled as a homosexual. In 1889, his name became involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal, in which it emerged that several high-profile figures (including an Equerry to the Prince of Wales) were clients at a male brothel. All homosexual acts between men were illegal at this time, and punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, so these were serious accusations. However, it seems there was no evidence linking Eddy to the establishment, and his name was probably only thrown into the mix to distract attention from those who had actually been involved. Keen to avoid a scandal (having already created quite enough of his own), Eddy’s father stepped in to make the matter go away, effectively ending the investigation into the affair. This ultimately seems to have done more harm than good, the cover-up encouraging gossips to believe that Eddy did in fact have something to hide. Certainly, whispers of homosexuality (which seem to have very little grounding other than this case) have clung to him ever since.

Like his father, it seems Eddy also had dalliances with a string of women, leading to other scandals, including Margery Haddon’s (almost certainly false) claim that he was the father of her son, and subsequent blackmailing by the ‘son’ himself. In 1891, he was also blackmailed by two prostitutes who claimed to be in possession of compromising letters written in his hand. Though these claims, too, are now thought to have been fraudulent, there is little doubt that Eddy had his fair share of amatory adventures, and it is has been widely claimed that at some stage he contracted a venereal disease, possibly gonorrhoea.

The increasingly vexed question of Eddy’s eminent unsuitability to ever assume the crown was abruptly resolved in 1892, when he died, suddenly. The cause of death was officially recorded as influenza, though the shocking timing of his death, aged just 28, has prompted further conspiracy theories that he was poisoned, or pushed off a cliff, or that his death was faked in order to remove him from the succession.

Mix all of these elements together and you have a stew whose peppery aromas would attract any Young Turk looking to make his mark and his fortune on the Jack the Ripper scene. Although there is no evidence of anyone making the connection at the time of the murders, Eddy has subsequently become the linchpin of several theories.

Theory One: The Lone Madman

This theory, originally popularised by Dr Thomas Stowell in 1970, did not name Eddy directly, but there is enough evidence in his explanation to make it clear who he is referring to. According to this account, Eddy was suffering from syphilis, exotically contracted in the West Indies, which drove him mad and set him on the murderous course of Jack the Ripper. The royal family is said to have known that Eddy was the killer from at least the second murder, but did not act until after the fourth, when he was locked away in an asylum. He somehow escaped to murder Mary Jane Kelly, at which point he was re-interred and died of ‘softening of the brain’ in a private mental hospital at Sandringham.

Stowell died shortly after publishing this theory, and his papers were destroyed by his family. This has made many elements of the story impossible to substantiate. More damagingly, official records show that Eddy was not in London on the murder dates (but then, they would do, wouldn’t they?).

The theory was elaborated by Frank Spiering, who claimed to have seen notes of royal physician Sir William Gull, in which he described hypnotising Eddy and watching in horror as he acted out the Ripper murders. When the New York Academy of Medicine, Spiering’s stated source for this material, claimed that it had no such records, Spiering went on to challenge the Queen to throw open the royal archives and publicly reveal the truth about Eddy’s murderous secret. When the royal household said they would gladly allow Spiering access to the archives (as they will to anyone who applies), Spiering stroppily replied that he didn’t want to see the files anyway, so there.

Bunkometer Rating: A theory which, aside from being based on a paper trail which no-one can prove exists, seems to offer no tangible connection between Eddy and the murders, other than that he had a sexually transmitted disease and therefore must have despised all women madly, and killed a string of them. Codswallop.

Theory Two: Eddy As Jack’s Muse

James Kenneth Stephen - Jack the Ripper?
James Kenneth Stephen

Accepting that the idea of Eddy as Jack the Ripper has colander-level water-holding abilities, but unwilling to leave him out of the story entirely, another theory has emerged with Eddy the unlikely inspiration for enough searing sexual jealousy to fuel the fires of history’s most infamous serial killer. This theory, advocated by Michael Harrison, centres around James Kenneth Stephen, a poet, and Eddy’s tutor at Cambridge (as well as cousin of Virginia Woolf).

Stephen was undoubtedly an unusual character, and any hint of being a little bit odd is blood in the water for your second-rate Ripper researcher. It is undeniable that some of Stephen’s poetry did contain a misogynistic streak. Take, for example, his poem In the Backs, which contains the following lines about a woman he comes across and takes an instant disliking to,

…I do not want to see that girl again:
I did not like her: and I should not mind
If she were done away with, killed, or ploughed.
She did not seem to serve a useful end :
And certainly she was not beautiful.

Chilling words, certainly, but is it any more than poetic hyperbole? Harrison certainly seems to think so. According to his version of events, Stephen fell passionately in love with Prince Eddy during his time at Cambridge, and Eddy initially responded to his advances, entering into a sexual relationship. Soon though, Eddy grew tired of Stephen, and took the excuse of his enrolment in the army to end the affair. Less controversially, two years later Stephen suffered a brain injury, as a result of either being hit by an object falling from a moving train, or far more romantically being thrown by his horse into the spinning vane of a windmill. Thus began a period of mental deterioration, culminating, says Harrison, in complete insanity.

Enraged by Eddy’s widely rumoured flings with women, whom he clearly lusted after in a way Stephen had never been able to inspire, Stephen determined to take his revenge on an entire gender by committing the Ripper murders. Precisely why Stephen should pick these East End prostitutes as way of hurting Eddy is not fully explained.

Bunkometer Rating: This theory seems to be based on the apparently groundless belief in Eddy and Stephen’s homosexuality, and yet again relies on an implied and murky, yet clearly direct and unswayable, relationship between sex, madness and the murder of prostitutes. In going to far greater lengths to establish the suspect’s immorality and strangeness than any direct link to the murders, it’s as if the author is suggesting that, in effect, the former proves the latter. Crapola.

Theory Three: The Royal Conspiracy

Everyone likes a conspiracy, and this one is so juicy that it has gained a lot of ground in recent decades, and has frequently been portrayed in television, film and popular books.

Based on the claims of Joseph Gorman, this version of events holds that Eddy secretly married and had a child with a Alice Mary Crook, a Catholic shop assistant (of all things!) in the East End. On hearing of this brewing scandal, the royal family, including Victoria herself, formed an unholy alliance with (you guessed it) the Freemasons to cover up the awful mess. Key figures, including Lord Salisbury and, yet again, royal physician Sir William Gull, masterminded a plot to eliminate everyone who knew about Eddy’s child, and at the same time send a powerful coded message, broadcasting the abiding power of the freemasonry. For some reason, the motley crew stopped short of killing Alice, instead whisking her off to an asylum where Gull conducted experiments on her to make her forget what had happened, and plunge her into lunacy.

Bunkometer Rating: Balderdash! Eddy plays only a supporting role in this one, his accepted profligacy making him a suitable donor of the wild royal oats needed to get this potboiler going. There are several gaping holes here: notably why was Alice not murdered, and how is it that the covering up of this ripe rumour only necessitated the killing of five women, all of them prostitutes? The final nail in the coffin should have been Joseph Gorman’s later admission that he had made the whole thing up, but the rumour is out in the wild now, and seemingly unstoppable.

What all of this seems to suggest is that the British, as affectionate as many of them are towards the royal family, take only a very little prompting to believe that this august and ancient institution has a dark, rotten heart, and a mind programmed entirely differently from our own. The fact that such flimsy theories, contradictory of each other and often of themselves, have gained any currency at all reflect our willingness to see the royals as characters in the vividly painted, infinitely flexible story of history rather than as fellow human beings, operating in a unique but real set of social circumstances. But then, we needn’t have looked to history to highlight that.

Anyone for another Diana enquiry?

Further Reading

Categories
History

Queen Victoria’s Black Sheep: Prince Eddy and the Ripper Rumours, Part 1

Prince Albert Victor 'Eddy'

Jack the Ripper occupies a curious place in the popular consciousness – one that seems utterly divorced from the string of vicious murders (at least 5) he is thought to have committed. Perhaps we’ve grown too used to the idea of serial killers now, too exposed to the archetype of an unhinged misogynist, banishing their demons through clinical mutilation and remorseless murder. This psychological explanation seems to disguise the physical reality, rendering the world safer and more predictable again (unless of course you happen to be a prostitute). It’s a scenario we’ve seen played out countless times in film and television, and in reality, most recently in the 2006 Ipswich murders. So it may be that the image of Jack the Ripper has been softened by time, and fresher memories of other serial killers who have followed him, but it still strikes me as odd that Jack has somehow been absorbed into the myth of ‘Jolly Old London’; his story now, apparently suitable as entertainment, for families of tourists and coachloads of schoolkids.

Of course, another major factor in the air of unreality surrounding Jack is the fact that he was never caught, and, worse, a hundred suspects have been put forward in the intervening years (mostly by hacks looking to flog paperbacks). Whilst some are plausible and revealing (though inevitably inconclusive), a good number of these theories are fantasies of the wildest kind, like overblown kites stitched together out of old bits of claptrap, drivel and hooey, some of which have incomprehensibly caught in the winds of crazy and flown for a while. (Sorry, I’m just having a metaphor sort of a day today).

Several are out-and-out lies, relying on demonstrably forged documents or other falsehoods. Others are nothing but stories, and these can be guiltily enjoyable for their sheer chutzpah. In 1923, a Russian named Alexander Pedachenko was identified as the Ripper in the memoirs of William Le Queux. Le Queux claims to have seen a document, written in French by none other than Rasputin, which named Padachenko, an insane doctor, as the culprit, acting on behalf of the Okhrana (the Secret Police) to discredit Scotland Yard. Sadly, certain facts, most notably the lack of any good evidence pointing to Pedachenko ever having existed, count against this one.

Lewis Carroll. Look at him. Staring evilly. Thinking about doing some more muders, no doubt.

My favourite of all is the theory fingering Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, as the Ripper, which surely takes the cake as the most preposterous of all. Carroll was first suggested as a possible Jack by Richard Wallace, author of Jack the Ripper, Light-Hearted Friend. The theory seems to be based on the received (and largely exaggerated) image of Carroll as a deeply odd man, who formed dubious, intense relationships with women and girls. The clincher in the argument is Wallace’s use of anagrams, which he believe reveal hidden codes in Carroll’s writing, in which he actually confesses to being Jack the Ripper. He takes a passage from Carroll’s Nursery Alice, which reads,

‘So she wandered away, through the wood, carrying the ugly little thing with her. And a great job it was to keep hold of it, it wriggled about so. But at last she found out that the proper way was to keep tight hold of itself foot and its right ear’.

Innocent enough, you might think. But by simply shifting the letters around (oh, and changing some, and leaving others out), Wallace is able to reveal the shocking true meaning behind the passage.

‘She wriggled about so! But at last Dodgson and Bayne found a way to keep hold of the fat little whore. I got a tight hold of her and slit her throat, left ear to right. It was tough, wet, disgusting, too. So weary of it, they threw up – jack the Ripper.’

Absolute bunkum. As Casebook: Jack the Ripper notes, ‘all Wallace really succeeds in demonstrating is that Dodgson used the same alphabet as everyone else in the western world, and that, therefore his words can be rearranged to make other words – including rather rude ones about ripping ladies open’. Several wags have thankfully laid waste to Wallace’s ‘argument’ by finding other devastating examples of hidden Ripper confessions. This sentence from the beginning of Winnie the Pooh,

‘Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now’

would be, in the world of Richard Wallace, enough to condemn AA Milne as a psychopath, with its hidden meaning,

‘Stab red red women! CR is downing whores – AA’

And then there’s this extract from Wallace’s own book,

‘This is my story of Jack the Ripper, the man behind Britain’s worst unsolved murders. It is a story that points to the unlikeliest of suspects: a man who wrote children’s stories. That man is Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of such beloved books as Alice in Wonderland. ‘

which can quite easily be transmogrified into,

‘The truth is this: I, Richard Wallace, stabbed and killed a muted Nicole Brown in cold blood, severing her throat with my trusty shiv’s strokes. I set up Orenthal James Simpson, who is utterly innocent of this murder. P.S. I also wrote Shakespeare‘s sonnets, and a lot of Francis Bacon‘s works too. ‘.

Case closed, I think you’ll agree.

But despite the lunacy of many Ripper theories, it is still interesting to examine why such accusations might attach themselves to certain people. And, in the case of Prince Albert Victor (or ‘Eddy’), Queen Victoria’s grandson, why should three such theories weave around him?

For that story, read Part 2.