Victoria's Dark Secrets

Curious Chapbooks & Hysterical Histories

Chapter 3


Although Queen Victoria was the last of the Hanovers, she was also half Coburg. Her mother, Victoria, was the daughter of Francis, Duke of Saxe-Coburg in the Thuringia province of Germany. The heir of Francis was Ernest I, whose second son, Albert, married Queen Victoria. Therefore, Victoria and Albert together founded a new dynasty in England, that of the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha (the territory of Gotha was added after the successful conclusion of the Napoleonic wars).

Until the time of Francis, the Coburgs were minor German potentates. Albert was considered penniless when he crossed the channel to marry Victoria. The long history of European wars had not benefited the family especially. Districts such as Saalfield had been taken away from them, while areas such as Gotha had been added with no real change taking place in the family fortune. Nevertheless, what the family did not gain in wars, it acquired through lucrative marriages. Although arguably Prince Albert made the most brilliant marriage of any Coburg, the family fortune--and misfortune--began when Albert's Uncle Ferdinand married the Hungarian heiress Antoinette Kohary in 1816. The father of the bride was so pleased with the match that he bequeathed all his worldly possessions to his daughter, thereby disinheriting all the rest of the clan. According to Theo Aronson, this rash act prompted one disaffected relative, a Hungarian monk, to place a blood curse upon the entire Coburg family. Aronson writes:
Having studied up his Manuale Exorcisorum, he positioned himself in a churchyard at midnight and there pronounced a curse. 'Then verily shall I pray to the Lord Almighty to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of the Coburg line (171).'

Thus began the curse of the Coburgs.

Consequently, the Coburgs tended to die prematurely. Duke Ernest's daughter, Victoire, died in childbirth in 1857 while in exile as the wife of the deposed Duc de Nemours. In 1899 the young Prince Alfred, heir to the duchy, shot himself to alleviate his suffering from tuberculosis aggravated by venereal disease (Weintraub, 599). Some lived to make disastrous political alliances: Queen Victoria's grandson, Charlie, son of the sickly Prince Leopold, succeeded to the duchy only to become a Nazi under Hitler (600-601).

Typhoid was a particular scourge of the family. Prince Ferdinand and King Pedro of Portugal were the son and grandson of the Ferdinand who changed his name to Coburg-Kohary. Both died of typhoid, along with the heir to the throne, in 1861. Lady Elizabeth Longford comments that "The King was only 25 and like a son to Prince Albert. Like him, he had the Coburg melancholy (292)." Concerning these deaths, Queen Victoria wrote on August 20, 1861:
What an awful misfortune this is! How the hand of death seems bent on pursuing that poor dear family, once so prosperous. Poor Ferdinand so proud of his children--of his five sons--now the eldest and most distinguished, the head of the family, gone and also another of fifteen, and the youngest still ill (Hibbert, 121)!

Prince Albert himself died young on December 14, 1861, officially of typhoid fever. His was a long, protracted decline, yet the royal doctors, Clark and Jenner, repeatedly gave hopeful prognoses, encouraging Albert to leave his sick bed and walk around Windsor Castle. Oddly enough, neither doctor was able to recognize Albert's symptoms as typhoid, even though William Jenner was a noted pathologist who had recently distinguished the germs of typhus and typhoid (Longford, 290). While the doctors kept issuing cheerful bulletins of the Prince Consort's health, Albert kept walking the cold stone halls of the castle like a pale ghost. According to Lady Elizabeth Longford, "After wandering about the passages, occasionally rattling at a door-handle, he at last decided to settle in the Blue Room--the King's Room where both George IV and William IV died (Longford, 297)." Albert died there as well.

Ten years later, Albert's son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, nearly died on the same day. The Prince of Wales had contracted his illness in November while shooting pheasant at the estate of his friend, the Earl of Londesborough, near Scarborough. Once more, Sir William Jenner was in charge. And once more, the good doctor was confident that there were "no unfavorable symptoms (Weintraub, 370)." Then on December 14, 1871, The Prince's fever reached 104 degrees on the very anniversary of his father's death (Weintraub, 371). Just the day before, the Pall Mall Gazette had written: "As long as the world lasts there will be superstition in it, and however foolish the feeling, there is real anxiety about tomorrow (Weintraub, 370)." Bertie pulled through, due mainly to the exertions of a new physician. Dr. William Gull was knighted for his success and later became indispensable to the royal family. His name has lived on in history due to his dubious involvement in the Whitechapel crimes of Jack the Ripper.

Although Bertie should pass by his brush with death on the fateful fourteenth, his sister Alice did not. The third oldest of Victoria and Albert's children, Princess Alice died the Grand Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt on December 14, 1878, while nursing her family through a bout of diphtheria. Queen Victoria recorded in her journal on that day, "That this dear, talented, distinguished, tenderhearted, noble-minded, sweet child, who behaved so admirably during her father's illness, and afterwards, in supporting me, and helping me in every possible way, should be called back to her father on this very anniversary, seems almost incredible, and most mysterious (Hibbert, 254-255)!" For ever after, the date of the fourteenth, no matter which month, was a day of dread for the Queen. It was a time which brought home the awful feeling that the dead are not completely dead, but have some power still to exert a force upon the living.


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