Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany: the sickly fourth son of Victoria and Albert

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, was beloved by his mother Queen Victoria, though perhaps too much – an overprotectiveness was foisted on him because of his physical frailties, causing him to chafe under her influence. Here we explore the real Prince Leopold and how his character differs from his portrayal by Harrison Osterfield on new Netflix series The Irregulars

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, c1870. He was the youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

In Netflix’s Sherlock-adjacent spinoff The Irregulars, much of intellectual exposition falls to Leo, the ‘posh dabbler’ of the group. But unbeknownst to the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars (Bea, Jessie, Billy and Spike) for much of the season, he is more formally Prince Leopold, son of the reigning Queen Victoria.

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Leo – ‘the brains’ – is presented as a cosseted youth who finds freedom by sneaking (quite easily it seems) out of the palace to join the gang in their supernatural sleuthing, where he finds begrudging acceptance for his ranging intellect. But what Leo boasts in formal education he seems to lack in physical prowess. The young prince (he is only 17 years old) is depicted as being frail, plagued by illness and prone to injury. And this isn’t far from the truth of the real-life Leopold, though other parts of his characterisation fall wholly on the fictional side.

Here we explore what we know about the real Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, and how his character diverges from the Leo of The Irregulars

Prince Leopold: Facts about his life

Born: 7 April 1853

Died: 28 March 1884 (aged 30)

Spouse: Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont, married 1882

Parents: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Children: Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

Is Prince Leopold a real historical figure?

Very much so. Born in 1853 in Buckingham Palace, Prince Leopold was the eighth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and was created Duke of Albany, Earl of Clarence and Baron Arklow in 1881. But he died young, aged just 30, a tragedy that was deeply lamented by Victoria, who had already lost Prince Albert and another of her children.

What illness did Prince Leopold suffer from?

It was from his mother that Leopold inherited the gene for haemophilia, a condition that hampers the body’s ability to form blood clots. In other words, cuts and bruises could have severe (and possibly fatal) consequences. This is the same illness that afflicted Alexei, the son of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and another of Victoria’s descendants (Alexei’s mother, Alexandra Feodorovna, was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter). As famously frail as the show suggests, Leopold was attended by doctors all his life. He was additionally suspected of suffering from epilepsy.

What was Prince Leopold like?

As in The Irregulars, Leopold proved to be quite the scholar. After much pleading with his mother, at 19 he began attending Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied a variety of subjects and in 1876 was awarded an honorary doctorate in civil law.

While at university he would rub shoulders with the likes of Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, and became president of the chess club. It was also during this time that he was made a member of the Privy Council and inducted into the Freemasons – he was proposed for the latter by his brother Prince Albert Edward, who himself was a Worshipful Master (the most senior mason) in the same Oxford lodge.

Following university and a tour of Europe, Leopold became a patron of the arts; with even minor injuries being such a deadly concern, entering the military was off the cards. The closest he would come is an honorary association with the 72nd regiment, or Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, and as the colonel-in-chief (an entirely ceremonial position) of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Prince Leopold’s relationship with Victoria

It might be easy to imagine Queen Victoria retorting with the acid barb “We are not amused” had her real-life and delicately constituted son actually developed the habit of absconding from the palace to explore the city’s underbelly, but there is no evidence that he went on any secret sojourns.

What we do know is that Victoria bombarded Leopold with restrictions owing to his haemophilia. “Victoria always remained protective of Leopold, much to his irritation, and sometimes he openly defied her out of sheer devilry,” writes John Van der Kiste in our guide to Queen Victoria’s children. “Once, for example, he refused to accompany her on her annual visit to Balmoral, on the grounds that he was always ‘bored’ there.” Through their close proximity, Leopold would become his mother’s unofficial private secretary, the same position that his father Prince Albert had held.

Who did Prince Leopold marry?

Weighed down by his mother’s restrictions, Leopold reasoned that marriage was his best path to independence – a marked departure from his portrayal in The Irregulars. Though he courted widely, his haemophilia made finding a suitable match difficult, prompting his mother to step in and suggest a meeting with Helena, a princess of Waldeck and Pyrmont in the German Second Reich. As in The Irregulars they were to be married; in real history, they wed in Windsor Castle in April 1882. Helena would give birth to two children: Alice (February 1883) and Charles Edward (July 1884).

How did Prince Leopold die?

With some irony, Prince Leopold died while taking a trip for the sake of his health. With winter being a particularly uncomfortable time for him, in February 1884 he took his doctors’ orders and quit wintry Britain for the more clement climes of his home in the French town of Cannes. It was there, on 27 March 1884, that he stumbled and fell, hitting his head.

He died the next day, possibly of a brain haemorrhage exacerbated by his haemophilia. Helena was not with him: she had remained in Britain on account of being pregnant, and their son Charles Edward was born four months after Leopold’s death.

Victoria was distraught at his passing, writing in her diary: “To lose another dear child, far from me, and one who was so gifted, and such a help to me, is too dreadful.”

Kev Lochun is a section editor of HistoryExtra and deputy editor of BBC History Revealed

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021