Queen Victoria and John Brown: the controversial relationship between sovereign and servant
How did John Brown become Queen Victoria’s favourite Highland servant, why was he so disliked by some but admired by others, and is there any foundation to the rumours about their personal connection?
John Brown (1826-83) was born near in Crathie, a village close to Balmoral. He entered royal service as a young man soon after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert acquired Balmoral Castle, their Highland property. He worked for the Queen for more than 30 years, his presence in her household sometimes leading to controversy and speculation that their relationship went beyond that of employer and servant.
John Brown: key dates & facts
Born: 8 December 1826 (Crathie, Aberdeenshire)
Died: 27 March 1883 (Windsor Castle)
Parents: John and Margaret (nee Leys) Brown
What was John Brown’s background, childhood and early life like, and how did he enter royal employment?
John Brown was born into a farming family at Crathie, near Balmoral, the second of eleven children. His father was a former schoolmaster who later took up farming. Once John the younger was old enough to find a job, he worked at a local coaching inn looking after guests’ horses, then as a pony herder on the Balmoral estate leased by Sir Robert Gordon, who lived there until his death in 1847. He retained his post after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert leased the property. In September 1849, Albert decided that for safety reasons they needed someone to ride on the box of their carriage on some of their more narrow mountain journeys, and Brown was chosen as one of the youngest and sturdiest of the servants.
What duties did his role in the royal household involve?
Within two years he was also asked to lead Queen Victoria’s pony on their Highland expeditions. He was conscientious, hardworking, always ready to do anything, and Albert admired his "transparent honesty and straightforward, independent character". Other responsibilities included brewing the pot of tea that she took on picnics. She once told him he had given her the best cup she ever tasted, and he told her it should have been, as he put "a grand nip o’ whisky in it". The fact that Albert had always spoken and thought so highly of Brown meant that he remained high in her estimation after Albert, by then Prince Consort, died at Windsor Castle in 1861.
In October 1863 the queen was returning from a carriage ride to Balmoral one evening when the driver, who was drunk, lost his way in the darkness and took the vehicle over some very rough ground. It overturned with the passengers inside, but Brown had had the foresight to leap clear once he saw an accident was about to happen. He rescued the queen and her ladies, cut the traces to release the frightened horses, and sent the driver on foot to fetch some ponies for them to ride back. The queen was badly shaken, bruised and had to have her head bandaged. Without his intervention her injuries would undoubtedly have been more severe.
Why did Brown's closeness to Queen Victoria become so scandalous, and is there any truth in some of the more colourful rumours about them?
The presence of Brown soon threatened to become a liability to the queen. In June 1866 he was thought responsible for delaying her return from Balmoral to London during a ministerial crisis. A few months later, a Swiss newspaper reported that she had cancelled appointments as she was expecting a child by Brown, to whom she had been morganatically married for "a long time". The British minister at Berne lodged a formal complaint against the newspaper for spreading misinformation, which only exacerbated the gossip. The British press, even the more radical journals, showed great restraint in ignoring the story. Rumours persisted that Brown had a hold on the queen because he had been endowed with unique psychic powers, and that she used him as a spiritualist medium to contact Albert in the spirit world. While newspapers may have ignored the speculation, some satirical journals, especially Punch and the short-lived Tomahawk, a Victorian forerunner of Private Eye, published lampoons and cartoons making fun of them.
Some modern historians have suggested that in a more modern age, people might have accepted a widowed queen taking a lover, but for her to have done so would undoubtedly have embarrassed or distressed members of her own family. However, a liaison with a man who was socially inferior but without any political ambitions would have been preferable to an aristocrat or a member of a foreign royal family, who might have attempted to exert political influence over her. The generally accepted theory is that Queen Victoria – who had lost her father when she was only a few months old, and her husband when both were in their early forties – always desperately needed a strong supportive male figure in her life. Over the years, some researchers have claimed that the queen and her servant had a morganatic marriage and had a child, usually on the flimsiest of evidence from people who accepted unsubstantiated gossip as a case of ‘no smoke without fire’. Brown never married, although he was fond of his nephews and nieces.
What was Brown’s attitude towards Queen Victoria? Was it a normal servant-employer relationship, or did he try to take liberties that might have been considered unacceptable?
Most of Queen Victoria’s staff were slightly in awe of her, or at least feared her explosive temper if anybody tried to thwart her, although they generally managed to learn how to manage her with a suitable degree of tact. Brown was the exception, and could be very rude to her on occasion. If he disapproved of her clothing, he would ask coldly, "What’s this you've got on today?" He was once heard scolding her as he fastened the cloak under her bonnet, "Hoots then, woman, can you not hold your head up?" When she complained about a sketching table that she disliked, he told her to stop, "for I cannot make one for you".
More like this
Victoria seems to have accepted Brown's brusque, plain-speaking manner as a refreshing change from the obsequiousness of others, perhaps amused that someone dared to speak to her so forcefully, while she apparently never attempted to answer him back. Flattery was not part of his nature, but he regularly assured her of his devotion, saying she would "never have an honester servant" than him. In 1872 he acquitted himself well when a man pointed an unloaded pistol at her while she was on a carriage drive and came within inches of her face. Brown swiftly grabbed the man and held him until the police could come and arrest him.
How well did Brown get on with Queen Victoria’s family and others around her?
Most of them hated him for his uncouth manner, and the fact that she granted him privileges denied to them. When she was unwell in the summer of 1871, he had unrestricted access to her bedroom as he lifted her from her bed to her couch (something her sons were forbidden to do), while delivering her orders to the household in his customary tactless manner. The Prince of Wales was furious that she always accepted Brown’s judgment, saying there was "no male head" in the family after her husband’s death. His sister Alice, later Grand Duchess of Hesse, complained that he alone could discuss anything he wanted with her, "while we, her children, are restricted to speak on only those matters which may not excite her or which she chooses to talk about". On one visit to Balmoral their brother Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, pointedly shook hands with everyone on arrival except Brown, as they had previously had their differences.
The prime minister William Gladstone once tried at a dinner party to explain to her in detail why he believed she was mistaken about something. Seeing how annoyed she was becoming, Brown tapped him sharply on the shoulder, telling him "You’ve said enough". He always got on well with Victoria's private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, who admired his honesty and fearlessness, and sometimes covered up for him when he was absent from duty after sleeping off one dram too many.
- Find out more | ‘Dumpy’ dowager or vibrant beauty: what did Queen Victoria really look like, and how tall was she?
Did John Brown ever retire, or did he die in service?
In later years he suffered from erysipelas, perhaps caused partly by heavy drinking. In March 1883 Brown caught a severe chill which rapidly worsened, sank into a coma and died without regaining consciousness.
Victoria told Ponsonby that she felt "utterly crushed" after Brown’s death. To the end of her life, she wore his mother’s wedding ring that he had given her. Before her death, she asked her physician Sir James Reid to ensure that he would secretly place her favourite photograph of Brown and a lock of his hair inside her coffin with her before it was sealed, wishes that he faithfully carried out.
- Read more | The final days and death of Queen Victoria
John Van der Kiste has written extensively on British and European royal biography from the later Stuarts to the early 20th century. His forthcoming books are William IV: The last Hanoverian monarch and Queen Victoria’s daughters-in-law.