Prince Eddy and the Blackguards
Society reserves a spotlight for them unlike any it shines on other celebrities: they are the royal House of Windsor – famous, powerful, fabulously wealthy, revered, scorned, romanticized, vilified, and even taken for granted. Their gaudy, moving spectacle has played out alongside the entire 20th century – and continues into the 21st. In this year-long feature, we’ll examine the lives of the men and women whose stories comprise a Year with the Windsors.
The British monarchy in the 20th century has two almost-kings in its history, two men who didn’t take their appointed turns to rule what we now know as the House of Windsor. We shall deal with the second of these two men, Edward the Duke of Windsor, later in the year, but first we turn our attention to the strange story of his uncle, Prince Albert Victor, who was the eldest son of King Edward VII and would have succeeded him in 1910.
Albert Victor – known to his family, the press, and the nation
as “Prince Eddy” – was born in 1864, the eldest son of the
heir to Victoria, Edward the Prince of Wales. He and his
brother Prince George became inseparable as boys and
were educated together by Canon Hugh Dalton, a handsome 31-year-old curate chosen by the Queen herself. Dalton provided both Queen Victoria and the Prince and Princess of Wales with daily progress reports, repeatedly noting the differences in their temperaments. Prince George could be a handful, sly, arrogant, and vicious, whereas Prince Eddy was sweet and docile – and very much attached to his one year-younger brother. Dalton claimed they complemented each other: Eddy moderated George’s sharper tendencies, and George motivated Eddy to pay attention and apply himself. Their tutor reported that “the mutual influence of their
characters on one another (totally different as they are in many ways) is very beneficial. Difficult as the education of Prince Albert Victor is now, it would be doubly or trebly so if Prince George were to leave him.”
That separation was avoided by sending the two boys to the training ship HMS Britannia, moored at Dartmouth. They shared a private cabin but ate, played, and trained with the 200 or so other cadets on board, with Dalton appointed ship’s chaplain to keep his usual watch over them. On the Britannia the boys learned the rudiments of seamanship, how to curse and sneak liquor, and how to smoke, but Dalton seems to have been largely ineffective at teaching them anything else. When their time aboard the Britannia ended, they were transferred to the Bacchante, to be midshipmen on a voyage around the world which began with a trip to Gibraltar in 1879, again with Dalton installed to continue their non-nautical studies. The boys were in their early teens, and it was noted by all that Eddy was taller and thinner than George, more shy and reserved.
The boy’s-adventure atmosphere of the Britannia had little place on a working ship like the Bacchante. The princes learned to clamber the riggings, to handle themselves in all weathers, to assist in gunnery exercises. The experience would make a lifelong sailor out of Prince George. Its effect on Prince Eddy seems to have been negligible.
The Bacchante cruise eventually ended, and after a brief six-month interlude in Lausanne to improve their French, the young princes were finally separated in 1883. George was posted elsewhere at sea to continue his naval career; Eddy was to be sent in the autumn to Trinity College, Cambridge. So he and a group of close friends (all male) spent the summer in a picturesque cottage on the royal Sandringham estate, engaged in a leisurely program of study designed to prepare them for the rigors of university learning. At Sandringham Eddy was still under Dalton’s supervision, but he also had a new and remarkable tutor in the person of J. K. Stephen. Like his cousin Virginia Woolf, Stephen was scintillatingly intelligent, complexly passionate, and high-strung. The days at Sandringham were full of shooting and hiking and football and perhaps some studying. To the Reverend Dalton’s now-familiar carping (“This weakness of brain, this feebleness and lack of power to grasp almost anything put before him” and so forth) Stephen eventually added his own, remarking that the prince hardly knew the meaning of the verb ‘to read.’
This was hardly the most promising material that had ever been sent to Cambridge, but then, everyone involved knew that it didn’t really matter: the prince only audited the few courses he attended, and he was never obliged to take his exams. Instead, the two years he spent at Cambridge were for him the distilled pleasures of college life without any of the pressures. He had the long conversations, the late nights carousing, the lazy spring days wandering one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, the camaraderie of close friends, without any of the fretting over tuition bills, room and board, or grades – little wonder he recalled the time with such pure fondness. There was only one thing he had in common with even the lowliest of his college peers: his impending adulthood, looming to break the idyll.
Romantic allures were a different story. His father had been an epic adulterer, so this is perhaps not surprising. Over the years Prince Eddy had moved from one amour to another, falling in and out of infatuation as easily and democratically as his father had – the ladies in question ranged from the commoner Sybil Erskine, to the faux-royal ‘princess’ Helene, Catholic daughter of a Bourbon pretender to the French throne (in an eerie glimpse of things to come, Eddy at one point offered to abdicate his right to the throne in order to marry this woman he loved), to Princess Alix of Hesse, whom he lost to Nicholas, the handsome young tsarevitch of Russia. In order to facilitate Prince Eddy’s entrance into the House of Lords, Queen Victoria in 1890 created him Duke of Clarence and Avondale – a fanciful choice on her part which drew its share of criticism (‘The only Duke of Clarence who is known to history,’ one such critic put it, ‘is the numbskull who was deservedly drowned in a butt of malmsey’ – and his portfolio of royal activities was increased: it was increasingly imperative that he get married.
The bride-hunt finally stopped on Princess May of Teck, the daughter of Duchess ‘Fat Mary’ of Teck, a granddaughter of George III. Princess May (who would be known to the British public as Princess Mary) had all the qualities thought most beneficial to the aimless and dissolute prince: she was upright, intelligent, circumspect, and grounded. In addition she met with Victoria’s approval, and the 70-year-old Queen had become a shrewd judge of character. Prince Eddy dutifully resigned himself to propose. May’s family was impoverished (biographer Kenneth Rose refers to them, snidely but correctly, as “professional poor relations”), her own prospects were limited, and Prince Eddy was extremely amiable and good-looking – she accepted, and an 1892 wedding date was set.
Eddy spent the Christmas holiday at Sandringham in 1891, but after a day of hunting he felt unwell and retired to his rooms. He grew sicker – on Christmas Day he managed only a feeble glance at his gathered presents before returning to bed – and by the time Princess May arrived early in the new year, it was clear he had become the highest-profile victim of the massive influenza pandemic then gripping England and Europe. There was no medical treatment at the time other than hoping the afflicted person’s constitution would rally. Eddy’s didn’t, and he died on 14 January 1892, sending a stunned nation into mourning and causing a brief dynastic scramble in his own family.
The Prince was laid to rest at Windsor Castle, and his younger brother George came reluctantly to the throne. The world moved on into the calamitous 20th century, and history seemed to forget Eddy for about half a century. Then all hell broke loose.
There was the Cleveland Street affair, for instance. In 1889, a scandal erupted when a telegraph boy (one of a cadre of poorly-paid, somewhat raffish youths employed to deliver messages all over London – the bike messengers of their day) confessed that he and several of his fellow telegraph boys augmented their incomes by performing homosexual acts with various gentlemen at 19 Cleveland Street. What might have been merely a sordid police investigation became national news in the same way Oscar Wilde’s libel action did six years later: by involving a celebrity. The celebrity in this case was Lord Arthur Somerset, a major in the Royal Horse Guards and an equerry to the Prince of Wales. Lord Arthur had been a regular patron of the Cleveland Street brothel, and when the scandal broke, he left the country. Somerset’s lawyer, Arthur Newton, hinted to investigators that if the investigation was pursued too vigorously, he would divulge the name of a celebrity – and Cleveland Street client – far greater than Somerset:“PAV.”
Prince Eddy was on a grand tour of India when the scandal broke, and rumors were circulating that this trip’s main purpose was to keep him out of the country until the furor settled down (this wasn’t true, the trip had been planned for months – indeed, as Superintendent to the Stables of the Prince of Wales, Arthur Somerset had helped to plan it) The New York Times fanned a story that the palace would arrange an accident for Prince Eddy in India:
The most popular idea is that he will be killed in a tiger hunt, but runaway horses or a fractious elephant might serve as well. What this really mirrors is a public awakening to the fact that this stupid, perverse boy has become a man and has only two highly precious lives between him and the English throne and is an utter blackguard and ruffian.
The Prince of Wales was thunderstruck at the news that his stable-master, a bluff military man, might be involved in such an affair, and all his efforts to clear his friend look in hindsight like efforts to protect his son. Somerset himself wrote ominously to a friend, “Nothing will ever make me divulge anything I know even if I were arrested.” Researchers found that not only were key sections of some participants’ correspondence missing, but so too was the bulk of Prince Eddy’s documentary life, either lost or destroyed. It typically takes far less provocation than this to bring conspiracy theorists swarming like nightjars, and they did not disappoint. They had the germ of their idea in that Times screed: the palace knew of Prince Eddy’s homosexual indiscretions and would do anything to prevent them from becoming public – even inter them with his bones.
There was no chance of that, of course, especially in later, more scandal-friendly times. In the last half-century, Prince Eddy’s links to Cleveland Street have gone from nonexistent, from one solicitor’s half-threatening insinuation, to accepted fact: dozens of Windsor histories mention it with a knowing wink, and Theo Aronson’s 1996 book Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld famously laid out all the particulars of the scandal that never was. One might think that such posthumous infamy would be the worst scandal that could befall a dead prince. But in the case of Prince Eddy, the conspiracy theorists were only getting warmed up. In 1970 an article by eighty-five-year-old Dr. Thomas Stowell appeared in the specialty journal Criminologist. It was titled ‘Jack the Ripper – A Solution?’ and it elaborately profiled its suspect – named ‘S.’ – as a crazed berserker killing Whitechapel prostitutes in a syphilis-induced madness, with royal authorities (especially the royal physician Sir William Gull) vainly trying to clean up after him and keep the whole thing quiet. The details of Stowell’s article made it clear who ‘S.’ was supposed to be, and newspapers all over the world ran with the idea that the grandson of Queen Victoria was the Victorian era’s most notorious killer.
There was never any factual support for Stowell’s idea: court circulars were immediately unearthed showing that Prince Eddy had been at the Queen’s Balmoral estate at the times of all the Ripper murders. But shortly after his article appeared, Stowell did two things that guaranteed it would get mentioned forever: he hurriedly recanted it, and then he died.
To conspiracy theorists, that’s like Zapruder footage. First, ‘they’ forced Stowell to write a letter denying his own article (he signed it ‘a loyalist – and a royalist’), then ‘they’ killed him for all the bother he’d been. These shadowy ‘theys’ would presumably have been the sons and grandsons of the ‘theys’ who had Prince Eddy killed (and called it ‘influenza’) rather than have a prostitute-ripping maniac ascend to the throne. Perhaps innocently, Stowell had depicted the most palatially intriguing of all palace intrigues. If ‘they’ could cover up the fact that a sweet-natured royal dimwit was actually a ferocious serial killer, it would be small potatoes for ‘them’ to falsify a few court circulars and bribe everybody at Balmoral to say Prince Eddy had been there while he was off bloodletting in London. In conspiracy theorist circles (one doesn’t like to imagine their social gatherings – I presume, at least, that nobody touches the food) the more facts are lined up against an idea, the more likely that idea must be. At least half a dozen movies, plays, and TV productions have featured poor Prince Eddy as their Big Reveal, hunched over an eviscerated doxy, blood splattered all over his pale, goggled-eyed face, as Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Abberline or Johnny Depp yells out, “Good God, it’s the Prince!”
The recovery of reputation has been slow and is ongoing. Michael Harrison in his book Clarence and Andrew Cook in his recent biography Prince Eddy have led the way, insisting that as bad as these two posthumous slurs on the prince’s character are, the worst one by far was done in the young man’s lifetime, by the Reverend Dalton and others tasked with his education, who might well have been blaming the victim of their own incompetence. His later champions point out that Prince Eddy wrote cogent, engaging letters, could manage at least a bit in three languages, and was judged by politicians and palace officials as competent to represent the Crown. Foremost among these palace officials was Queen Victoria herself, who had no patience with idiots despite having gestated her fair share of them – she always liked Prince Eddy and respected him enough to allow him to change her mind about something on more than one occasion.
Harrison, Cook, and their like paint a picture of an accessible, affable, easy-going prince, incompatible with rote learning but all the more mentally flexible for that – not an idiot by any means, shy, earnest, and more perceptive than he’s usually given credit for being. They speculate – and it’s a pleasant speculation – on how much stronger he might have become with a woman like Queen Mary at his side. They picture the crowning of King Edward VIII in 1910 and the world he might have seen, and perhaps changed.
As it was, England and the world would have to wait a quarter of a century for its equally-problematic Edward VIII. And in the meantime, Prince Eddy’s sudden death ended his younger brother’s blissful naval career and thrust him headlong into the family business. Prince George succeeded King Edward VII as King George V, and he inherited a country – and a world – on the brink of catastrophe.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.