July 2018 marked the centenary of the execution of the Romanovs by the Bolsheviks, one of the most haunting footnotes of the First World War. But for the Empress Alexandra at least, destiny could have been very different. Instead of dying in the blood-soaked cellar at Ekaterinberg – the fate which met Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children – she might easily have lived a long, contented life in the splendour of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The future tsar was not the first man who wanted Alicky of Hesse, as she was known as a girl, to become his wife. That distinction belongs to another young and handsome prince, a prince who is now largely forgotten.
His formal name was Prince Albert Victor, later the Duke of Clarence, but he was always called ‘Eddy’ by his family. Born in 1864, he was the elder son of Edward (Bertie), Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII, and his wife Alexandra of Denmark; grandson to the ruling Queen Victoria, and therefore heir presumptive to the crown of the United Kingdom. At this time, the British empire was at its spectacular zenith and the British ruled in territories across the world; Prince Eddy’s future was beyond dazzling. Besides which, he was tall, dark and handsome as well as kind and good-natured. Many, including his grandmother Queen Victoria, prayed that Eddy and his cousin Alicky would marry. But Alicky turned Prince Eddy down, flatly rejecting what the queen, her nose out of joint, called “the greatest prize there is”. Why on earth would the ungrateful girl do that? What exactly was wrong with Eddy?
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To the royal family, Alicky’s refusal was unwelcome confirmation of their own secret fears that there was indeed quite a lot ‘wrong’ with Eddy. Despite his positive characteristics, the prince was exceptionally languid and lethargic, showing precious little interest in anything at all, beyond shooting birds out of the sky. The prince’s childhood tutor had despaired of being able to educate Eddy to the standard necessary for his position in life. When Eddy and his younger brother George were sent as midshipmen on a three-year voyage round the world to broaden their horizons, both literally and metaphorically, there seemed to be little effect on sleepy Eddy.
George, their father Edward’s clear favourite, had found himself in the role of ‘carer’ to his elder brother. The Prince of Wales, increasingly irritated and concerned by his older son’s apathy, chaffed him mercilessly. Even the doting Alexandra – who infantilised all her five surviving children, still calling them by childish names when they were full-grown adults – began to worry, though she put his lethargy down to having grown too tall too fast. But the unspoken consensus gradually took hold that the heir presumptive just wasn’t up to the mark and hopelessly unworthy of the stratospheric position he must one day hold.
This is all the more tragic because, in the light of modern knowledge, it is most likely that Prince Eddy simply had learning difficulties; one historian believes that he may also have suffered from a mild form of childhood epilepsy which would explain his apathy and problems with concentration. Sadly, Eddy himself probably intuited the general view of his inadequacies. So, as he grew towards adulthood, a boy who was destined to be one of the most famous people in the world had little sense of self-esteem.
Absurd though it may have seemed, it was decided that Eddy should go to university, though it was wisely decreed he would not have to sit any examinations. His time at Trinity College, Cambridge, was among the happiest of his life. Freed from the claustrophobic royal cocoon, he began to blossom. His new tutor was James Kenneth ‘Jem’ Stephen, a charismatic academic and poet, just a few years older than Eddy himself. Stephen seems to have realised very quickly that the prince was far from stupid, and that his fine human qualities of kindness and empathy for others were strong foundations for a successful constitutional monarch. The young tutor worked hard to nurture Eddy’s potential, stretching his mind through literature and poetry and, above all, by simply soaking up the company of clever people, who were far removed from the philistine, ‘hunting and shooting’ milieu the prince had inhabited until then. For the first time, Eddy was encouraged to see some value in himself and to get his first hazy impressions of his own identity. It was an intense friendship; whether or not it ever became a physical relationship can’t be known, but there were certainly quite a few gay men in the sophisticated, liberal circles in which Eddy now found himself.
The question of sexuality
By this point, the prince had grown into an extremely handsome young man. Luckily for him, he had inherited the looks of his beautiful mother rather than the bulbous-features of his father’s family. He had a long swan-like neck, a full-lipped, sensual mouth and was what we’d now call a fashion victim. For Eddy, with his fragile sense of self-worth, this was yet another way of validating himself and he seems to have embraced it vigorously.
Modern historians have been divided on Eddy’s sexuality. Some maintain there is no concrete proof that the prince was anything other than heterosexual. Whilst this can’t be denied, there is much to suggest that he was at least bisexual. What are referred to, delicately and vaguely, by earlier authors as Eddy’s “dissipations” must have been something far more scandalous from the usual vices of the young men of his class; drink, gambling and heterosexual sex. Nobody, least of all his own licentious father, would have raised an eyebrow at a few mistresses or visits to prostitutes. Yet it was Bertie himself who, at his wits’ end over what to do about his wayward heir, at one point insisted Eddy should go on a long tour of the more remote colonies and certainly nowhere near the sybaritic capitals of Europe. What exactly was so shocking about Eddy’s shenanigans that put the jaded Bertie into such a panic? Even Queen Victoria herself seems somehow to have caught wind of her grandson’s peccadilloes. “I ask again,” bleated her private secretary. “Who is it tells the Queen these things?”
The trouble with Eddy came to a head with the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which the existence of a male brothel in London frequented by the aristocracy exploded in the press. Eddy was rumoured to have been one of its clients. Down the decades, forests of newsprint have been devoured by writers competing to prove that either there was some sort of establishment cover-up over Eddy’s presence or, conversely, that he never went there at all. From our enlightened viewpoint in the 21st century, it is difficult to care either way but, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country where they do things differently. Though Eddy’s name was kept out of the British press, the scandal was serious enough for the New York Times to opine that the dissolute Prince Albert Victor would never be permitted to ascend the British throne.
Was Prince Eddy Jack the Ripper?
It was this louche reputation which, ludicrously, put him at the centre of the obsession with the identity and motivation of ‘Jack The Ripper’ during the 1970s. As a tall ‘toff’ had been seen in the vicinity of one of the murders, might it have been Eddy? This theory was floated despite the provable fact he had been at Balmoral on the night in question.
Yet another theory suggested that the prince had impregnated one of the murder victims, that she was going to spill the beans and that the establishment, in order to protect the monarchy, ordered her killing and that of all the other women in whom she had confided. Poor Eddy; the relatively few people who know his name today probably only do so in relation to these ‘penny-dreadful’ tales. He is the ‘black sheep’ prince. A sad epitaph for a kind, considerate young man who, whatever his faults, was still loved by his family and liked by nearly everyone who knew him.
One of the saddest things about the short life of Prince Eddy was that it ended just as things appeared to be looking up. After Alicky had spurned him, he had fallen in love with Princess Hélène of Orléans, whose father was a pretender to the French throne, but her Catholicism put paid to the match and Eddy had reverted to his ‘tomcat’ ways. His so-called career as an army officer had been lacklustre and his parents had no idea what to do with him.
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In late 1891, they more or less ordered him to marry Mary of Teck, a minor princess within the British royal family whom he scarcely knew. The reserved, bookish ‘May’, as she was known, seemed an unlikely spouse but, in the queen’s view, she was just the right girl to steady Eddy. To everyone’s surprise, they appeared to hit it off and the wedding was planned for February 1892. In those same weeks, the government suggested that he should become Viceroy of Ireland, which was a purely ceremonial role, but a goodwill gesture to attempt to cool the tensions in the area.
All at once, Eddy was to have a new bride and a new purpose in life. His father had arranged a meeting with the relevant politicians for the third week of January 1892 to discuss the plan further. But by that time Eddy would be dead. On 7 January, the day before his 28th birthday, he caught a cold which turned into flu and Eddy missed his own party. The flu turned in pneumonia and, to the horror of his family, he was dead within the week, just one victim of the influenza outbreak that killed many thousands that terrible winter.
Bertie, Prince of Wales, the father who had teased him so mercilessly, wept throughout the funeral and it’s said that he kept Eddy’s picture above his bed for the rest of his life. Followingthe morbid example of Queen Victoria, his clinging mother Alexandra kept the room in which he died as a permanent shrine; his hairbrushes and shaving things all ready, a fire burning in the grate. His fiancée Princess May became a ‘widow’ before she had become a wife (though, after a decent interval, she was ‘passed on’ to his younger brother George and became the austere, iconic Queen Mary). And the great mass of the people, shocked and saddened at a young life cut short, mourned their lost prince. Bells tolled across Britain. Shops and theatres closed. The expected tributes were paid. But the view of many in the establishment, the view that history has endorsed, is that the death of Prince Eddy was a lucky break that paved the way for the younger brother, who was perhaps gruff and uninspiring, but a far safer pair of hands.
It is difficult to think of any other royal of recent times whose reputation has been so comprehensively and unfairly ‘trashed’ as that of the great-uncle of our present Queen. Whatever files are kept on him in the Royal Archives, a private family resource, appear to be firmly closed to most researchers. Even in death, he somehow seems a man apart; his tomb in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, splendid though it is, lies in a space to the rear of the main church, separate from where the rest of his family lies. Few of the tourists who shuffle past it probably have any idea who he was.
Obviously we can never know what sort of monarch that Eddy might have been. Yet his own father, who came to the throne in 1901 with the lowest of expectations, turned out to be the highly successful King Edward VII. Might not Eddy, far from being a ‘waste of space’, have repeated that pattern? In an age when the personalities of monarchs mattered more than they do now, who’s to say what emollient effect his decent, good-hearted character might have had on the international stage in the tense years leading up to the Great War? It’s certainly hard to imagine that he would ever have turned his back on the plight of the Romanovs, as his brother King George V arguably did. And Alicky, the girl Eddy had once yearned to marry, might well have died an old lady in the peaceful safety of some English country house.
Like all ‘lost’ princes, Eddy is one of the fascinating ‘what ifs’ of history. But instead of the tired old trope of ‘what a blessing’ that he never lived to sit upon the British throne, perhaps history should rather be saying ‘what a shame’.
Alan Robert Clark is the author of the historical novel The Prince of Mirrors (Fairlight Books, 2018), available now.