In an age when we are all used to seeing paparazzi photos of Prince Harry staggering out of Boujis with a blonde girlfriend, the time when the House of Windsor was regarded as the model family, its members paragons of sanity and virtue, seems like ancient history. Yet even during the days when people instinctively stood for the national anthem in concert halls and cinemas, the Firm had its secrets. Never mind the Merry Monarch and the dissolute Prince Regent: the story of the royal family since Victoria presents a glorious spectacle of madness, badness and sheer disgrace.
Queen Victoria’s own morals were conservative, so rumours of a romance with her Scottish manservant, John Brown, after the death of her beloved Albert in 1861, were probably inflated. Her offspring, however, showed rather less self-control. Of Victoria’s nine children, her favourite was probably Beatrice, the youngest, towards whom she harboured an affection that bordered on the pathological. When Beatrice announced her engagement in 1884, Victoria was so incensed that she refused to speak to her daughter for seven months.
Her sixth child, Princess Louise, was alleged to have had affairs with her equerry and her mother’s secretary, Lord Stamfordham, as well as with the sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm and his assistant, Alfred Gilbert, the architect Edwin Lutyens, and an unnamed music master. But then Louise was hardly a conventional royal. Obsessed with physical fitness, she warned her mocking family that she would outlive them all; on foreign tours, meanwhile, she insisted on travelling as “Mrs Campbell” to avoid detection.
But it was Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, who really raised the bar for royal misbehaviour. Any list of his conquests must inevitably be selective, but they probably began with Nellie Clifton, an actress who was smuggled into his tent while he was on army manoeuvres in Ireland in 1861. His later mistresses included the actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt, the Countess of Warwick and Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie.
When Edward died in 1910 – his mistress, Alice Keppel, by his bedside – and was succeeded by his much more conservative son, George V, the age of royal dissolution appeared to be over. Had his eldest son, Albert Victor, known as “Eddy”, not died young, however, even greater scandal could have attached itself to the Windsor name. In 1889, the 25-year-old prince was caught up in the Cleveland Street scandal, which began when police raided a London male brothel. Under questioning, the rent boys revealed the names of their aristocratic clients, among them the prince’s equerry, Lord Arthur Somerset – and, some claimed, the prince himself. Worried government ministers discussed how to handle the rumours, while Edward tried to intervene in the investigation. In the end, nothing was proved. But given the ferocity of public hostility towards homosexuality at that time, perhaps the royal family had a lucky escape when Eddy died of influenza three years later, his name remembered only in bizarre conspiracy theories that he was Jack the Ripper.
But Eddy was not the only one of Victoria’s grandchildren whose life contradicted her stern moral edicts. His cousin Alfred, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, caught syphilis as a young Guards officer, was rumoured to have contracted a secret marriage, and shot himself in 1899.
Meanwhile, Alfred’s sister, Victoria Melita, known as “Ducky”, enjoyed a splendidly eventful life. She was unhappily married to Prince Ernst of Hesse, from whom she told her relatives that “No boy was safe, from the stable hands to the kitchen help”. As soon as Queen Victoria had died, therefore, her namesake promptly divorced Prince Ernst and married her childhood love, Grand Duke Kirill of Russia. After the revolution in 1917 they fled to Brittany, but Kirill proved unfaithful, too, and a devastated Victoria Melita died of a stroke.
While his cousins were enjoying these turbulent affairs, George V was busy tending to his stamp collection and making sure his trousers were creased at the sides, not front and back. But blood would out, it seemed, and while the affairs of George’s son, Edward VIII, are well known, even the king who gave up his throne for love could not compete with his brother, George, Duke of Kent. Although George married Princess Marina of Greece in 1934, a union that produced the current Duke and Prince of Kent, he conducted a string of affairs both before and after his wedding, with men as well as women. His lovers included the American cabaret artiste Florence Mills, the heiress Poppy Baring, the singer Jessie Matthews and Margaret, Duchess of Argyll (who was later to find infamy with the “headless man” photographs that featured in her divorce case). Among the men, George was alleged to have had an affair with Noël Coward, as well as Jorge Ferrara, the bisexual son of the Argentine ambassador, whom he joined in a ménage à trois with the American socialite Kiki Preston, a drug addict who was nicknamed “the girl with the silver syringe”.
What the present Queen makes of her family’s recent past can only be imagined. But it is intriguing to reflect that in almost all of the cases here, the full truth did not emerge until years after the subjects were dead. If the same pattern holds, then we can look forward to some splendid revelations in the years to come – though surely not even Prince Harry can manage to fill Prince George of Kent’s mighty boots.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is “White Heat: a History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties” (Abacus, £12.99)