February 25, 2012

Queen Victoria married John Brown, her Scottish groom, and bore him a secret daughter

As the Queen advances indefatigably into the year-long festivities for her Diamond Jubilee, thoughts inevitably turn to the last British sovereign who survived to celebrate 60 years on the throne.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 marked the refulgent patriotic zenith of the British Empire. Standing less than 5ft tall, but nevertheless a towering colossus throughout the world, the iconic Queen Empress gave her name to an age that produced an empire measuring some 40 million square kilometres, with 387 million subjects.

It was an age characterised by extreme sexual repression, strait-laced morality and invincible ignorance. Victoria flatly refused to allow her government to legislate against lesbianism, not because she approved of it, but because she regarded it as a physical impossibility.

The old lady, whose best-known utterance was ‘We are not amused’, went to her grave labelled as the ultimate prude.

But now an astonishing article, published this month in The Oldie magazine, seeks to explode this greatest of all royal myths.

It claims that after the untimely death of her husband, Albert, the Prince Consort, Victoria sought sexual solace with her uncouth, arrogant and heavy-drinking Highland ghillie, John Brown. It further alleges that the Queen secretly married Brown in a clandestine ceremony and then bore him a child.

The Queen with her uncouth, arrogant and heavy-drinking
Highland ghillie, John Brown who she secretly married 
The 82-year-old historian, John Julius (2nd Viscount) Norwich, son of the legendary society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, is cited as a source for this story.

Lord Norwich, it appears, remembers his friend, the late historian Sir Steven Runciman, telling him that while he was researching in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, he chanced upon the marriage certificate of Queen Victoria and John Brown.

Runciman was a pre-eminent expert on the Crusades and the Byzantine Empire. According to this very tall tale, he showed the certificate to the late Queen Mother.

Without a word, she was said to have taken the document and burned it — so that it could never cause any damage to the image of the Royal Family. Runciman also revealed that he knew Queen Victoria’s great-grandson, the painter Prince Henry of Hesse, who was confronted at one of his post-war exhibitions in New York by an elderly lady who announced: ‘I think we are related.’

She proceeded to confide that her name was Jean Brown and that she was the daughter of Queen Victoria and John Brown.

‘Presumably she had been shipped across to America at a very early age and had lain doggo for more than 80 years,’ concluded Lord Norwich, who surprisingly does not appear to find it at all strange that this lady, who might have earned a small fortune from her alleged antecedents, then obligingly went back to lying doggo and was never heard of again.

How much if any, of this ought  we to believe? The first thing to say  is that The Oldie’s story is very, very old indeed.

Rumours of this supposed liaison, marriage and pregnancy have been around for almost 150 years. In some of the numerous permutations of what clearly started out as republican and anti-monarchist propaganda, there was not just one secret child, but three.

An alleged ‘son’ of the Queen by Brown died in Paris as a 90-year-old recluse. And a second ‘daughter’, Louise Brown, was also ‘sent to live in Paris’, where, according to John Stuart, who was formerly employed by the royal bankers, Coutts & Co., she was sent £250, ‘paid once a quarter’.

Stuart added: ‘The money was debited in the account marked “His Royal Highness Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales”.

‘At the time I thought she must have been one of King Edward VII’s children from the wrong side of the blanket,’ he said — and indeed, she well may have been. ‘But what could have happened was that the King ordered the payments to continue after his death in 1910, to prevent a scandal involving his mother.’

But if that were the case, would Edward VII, a serial adulterer, who ordered all his private papers, and those of his long-suffering wife, Queen Alexandra, to be destroyed after their deaths, have been careless enough to leave a document lying around in the Royal Archives proving that his mother made a scandalous m├ęsalliance with a foul-mouthed Highland drunkard?

Then we have to consider the reliability of the original source of  this story.

Albeit a respected historian, Sir Steven Runciman was one of the Queen Mother’s ‘knitting circle’ of elderly gay bachelors — a notorious eccentric and supremely mischievous.

One of his earlier pranks was to drip burning candle-wax onto the bald patch of the outraged Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, who was seated below him. While studying at Cambridge, he was one of Cecil Beaton’s first models, who photographed him with a budgerigar on his finger.

A friend of the Soviet spy Guy Burgess — never a recommendation of trustworthiness — Runciman dabbled in the occult, read Tarot cards for the King of Egypt and confessed in old age that he fancied the idea of marrying an elderly Spanish duchess so that he might become known as a ‘dowager duke’.

Lord Norwich evidently regards him as a credible witness. I have to confess that I do not.

Burning documents was not in the Queen Mother’s nature. Though it may be true that some of her more outspoken comments were concealed from the public — a 1940 letter in which she referred to her despised sister-in-law, the Duchess of Windsor, as ‘the lowest of the low’, vanished from circulation for a time — such censorship came from hands other than her own.

In old age, she blithely left an earth-shaking correspondence between herself and Diana, Princess of Wales, discussing her break-up from Prince Charles, lying around in a chaise-longue, a fire-stool and plastic bags. It was Princess Margaret who took it upon herself, in her mother’s absence, to destroy the inflammatory cache.

But there is one aspect of the outrageous claims about Queen Victoria that has undeniable truth.Possibly as a result of some hormonal imbalance, Queen Victoria possessed a voracious sexual appetite bordering on nymphomania.

Her chosen husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, was a sensitive and somewhat effeminate 18-year-old virgin when Victoria surveyed his shapely legs in sexy skin-tight breeches.

Suspected of latent homosexuality, Albert, on being asked why he  had never sown his wild oats with women, replied: ‘That species of vice disgusts me.’

But the Queen, three months his senior, was determined to marry him, and proposed after a courtship of only four days.

From their marriage night onwards, Victoria was the sexual aggressor and pursuer of the two. So appalled and unnerved did Albert become by his wife’s daily and nightly onslaughts that he took to cowering behind the locked door of his bedroom.

The frustrated Victoria, in  pursuit of her conjugal rights, hammered on it loudly from outside, screaming in German: ‘Open this door! I am the Queen!’

After years of being a royal breeding stud, Albert was forced to invent and install a bedside switch to activate mechanical locks on the bedroom door so that their nine children, all still minors, would not come in and catch their parents in flagrante.

After the birth of their youngest child, Princess Beatrice, in 1857, Victoria’s doctor, Sir James Reid, gave her a stern warning against attempting any further pregnancies. The 38-year-old Queen was devastated. She had described her sex life with Albert as ‘heavenly love-making’. ‘Oh Sir James!’ she wailed. ‘Am I not to have any more fun in bed?’

When four years later, Albert succumbed to typhoid fever at the age of only 42, he was no longer the slim, attractive Adonis of his youth, but fat, bald and prematurely middle-aged. Courtiers speculated that the sexual athletics imposed upon him by his wife had worn him out both in body and spirit.

When, to combat Victoria’s deepening melancholia, John Brown was brought south from his post as Albert’s ghillie at Balmoral to become her personal groom at Osborne, her house on the Isle of Wight, he immediately adopted a bullying and familiar manner with her that astonished courtiers and caused the Queen’s daughters to refer to him as ‘Mama’s lover’.

He encouraged her to drink whisky with him. Begg’s Best was their preferred tipple. She was soon referring to the hirsute Highlander as ‘fascinating Johnny Brown’, and the shocked Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Derby, recorded that they slept in adjoining rooms ‘contrary to etiquette and even decency’. The first anti-Brown propaganda, claiming that he was the Queen’s ‘morganatic husband’ (married but with the stipulation that he would have no claim on any title), appeared in pamphlets circulated by the Scottish socialist republican nationalist Alexander Robertson.

The story of the Queen’s alleged marriage also surfaced in the late 19th-century diaries of the Liberal politician Lewis Harcourt, which claimed that one of the Queen’s chaplains, the Reverend Norman Macleod, had made a deathbed confession, repenting his action in presiding over Victoria’s marriage to Brown.

But this proved to be the merest hearsay. Harcourt was only nine years old at the time of Macleod’s death.

Victoria began to address Brown as ‘Darling’ in her letters to him, and it was claimed that during a trip to Loch Ordie, ‘Hochmagandy’ — the old Scottish word for sexual intercourse — had taken place.

But suggestions that a child was born nine months later in Switzerland are untenable. Victoria was already aged 46 by the time that Brown attained his ascendancy. A pregnancy at that age in Victorian times was unthinkable and also extremely dangerous.

A medical examination of Queen Victoria’s body after her death revealed that for some years she had suffered a ventral hernia, which had damaged the walls of the abdomen, and a prolapse of the uterus, which would have made sexual intercourse not only uncomfortable but difficult, and child-bearing out of the question.

Victoria’s secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, commented that Brown was ‘certainly a favourite, but he is only a servant and nothing more — and what I suppose began as a joke has been perverted into a libel’.

But the republican Press  now referred to Victoria as ‘Mrs Brown’, and later, after her  elevation as Empress of India,  as ‘the Empress Brown’.

It was only Brown’s courageous action in foiling an assassination attempt on the Queen in 1872 that changed public opinion, converted him into a national hero and restored Victoria to popularity.

After Brown’s death in 1883 from a severe form of the skin complaint erysipelas, at the age of 56, Victoria showed that her appetite for masculine attention had not diminished.

In 1887, she replaced Brown with a low-caste, uneducated and exploitative Indian, Abdul Karim, whom she called ‘The Munshi’.

He rose from waiting on  her at table to become her ‘Indian Secretary’.

She gave him three houses: a cottage at Windsor, a bungalow on the Isle of Wight and a lovely house at Balmoral, all of which he filled with his penniless Indian relations at the British taxpayer’s expense.

On Victoria’s own death in 1901, at the age of 81, she was buried with Prince Albert’s dressing-gown and a plaster-cast of his hand, a lock of John Brown’s hair, a photograph of Brown clasped in her hand, several of his letters and a ring belonging to his mother.

There is a pathos and a poignancy about Victoria’s desperate dependence on the burly and bullying Brown. It highlights, more than anything else in her long reign, the daunting and unbearable loneliness of sovereignty.

Like Victoria, our Queen also came to the throne young, and has had a loyal and steadfast husband to support her.

The fact that she has coped with more strength and better judgment with the pressures of what her mother called ‘the great and lonely station to which she has been called’, is a measure of the respect and affection in which she is held, and with which this year’s Diamond Jubilee is being celebrated by the nation.