Queen Victoria was one of the most important monarchs in British history, and many people assume all of her brood led charmed lives. When it comes to her youngest son Prince Leopold, however, nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment he was born, Leopold was in grave danger—and it didn’t stop until his tragic, untimely end.
Of all Queen Victoria’s children, many historians consider her youngest son Prince Leopold the sharpest and the most interesting of the young royals. Although Leopold never saw the British throne—he never even saw his 31st year—his life and legacy is full of intrigue, drama, and a danger that was at the very heart of the British monarchy.
The eighth child and second-youngest heir of the reigning Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, little Leopold came into the world as something of a medical marvel. Victoria, understandably sick of childbirth, had decided to use the new-fangled substance chloroform to help her ease the pains of labor this time around. As it happened, this was a huge deal.
See, according to the Church, women were supposed to suffer in childbirth, and if they interrupted this "natural" way of things, there might be divine consequences. Well, Leopold came into the world happy and seemingly healthy, and the palace must have breathed a sigh of relief. However, this didn’t last long—the other shoe was about to drop.
Victorian ideas of parenting are a lot different than our own today, but the royal household of Queen Victoria was bizarre by any standards. Victoria famously despised both childbearing and large parts of child-rearing, and with a large brood of nine children running around, Leopold was often forgotten. Oh, and that wasn’t all.
Queen Victoria didn’t just hate giving birth in general, there are signs that she hated giving birth to Prince Leopold specifically. The monarch may have suffered from postpartum depression after his birth, and in one letter directly afterward, Leopold’s father Albert complains about Victoria’s "continuance of hysterics". Not a great entry into the world…and this didn’t get better.
Victoria played firm favorites when it came to her children, and Leopold didn’t stand a chance. Her most beloved son was his next-oldest brother Prince Arthur, and it wasn’t even a competition. Sailing right over Leopold, Victoria told her husband Prince Albert that of all her children, Arthur was "dearer than any of the others put together".
Ouch. Only if you think this can’t get worse for Leopold, just wait.
From a young age, Leopold was quite a sickly boy, and his parents called him the "child of anxiety". He often suffered from indigestion, and no matter how much the palace fed him, he remained rail-thin and weak. Then, as the toddler started moving around, he would bruise easily and suffer major injuries at the smallest fall.
Victoria and Albert searched for answers, and came to a disturbing conclusion.
Although Victoria ruled over a massive (super colonial) empire, there was an incredibly dark secret at the center of her family. Victoria was a carrier of the genetic disease hemophilia, which prevents blood from clotting properly. Well, you guessed it, she passed it right on to Leopold. Suddenly, the prince’s dangerous falls and sickly disposition made all too much sense.
While Victoria led a normal life, the same wouldn’t be true for poor Leopold.
Unfortunately for little Prince Leopold, the dangerous effects of hemophilia manifest in men, not women, and it was soon very clear that the princeling was in fatal danger at all moments of the day. Victoria worried constantly about his internal bleeding, and nobody believed he would survive into adulthood. Plus, there was another issue entirely…
As if hemophilia weren’t enough, some of Leopold’s medical attendants believed that the prince also suffered from epilepsy, although it was thankfully somewhat milder than his hemophilia symptoms. This, too, was a family curse: Half a century later, Prince Leopold’s great-nephew Prince John would infamously endure awful effects from epilepsy, too.
It was stressful for everyone in Leopold’s family, and, uh, they didn’t handle it well.
Leopold was necessarily an extremely delicate boy, but his childhood was harsh and hard. Queen Victoria kept him practically under lock and key, and from the moment he could crawl, he had a whole team of doctors constantly checking up on him and making sure the young royal didn’t have a hair out of place. Still, this couldn’t save him from tragedy.
In 1861, when Leopold was eight years old, his father Prince Albert passed. Albert was only 42 when the grim reaper came knocking, and his passing threw Queen Victoria into a notorious state of mourning. She constantly dressed in black, left Albert’s bedroom in pristine condition in case his ghost came back, and earned the nickname "The Widow of Windsor".
In short, Leopold’s already bizarre, macabre life turned even more so.
Despite his tensions with his mother, Prince Leopold looked eerily like Queen Victoria, right down to his wide, heavy-lidded eyes, the set of his small mouth, and his oval face. He also had Victoria’s light hair. Nonetheless, his illness prevented him from taking on her healthy girth, and he remained knobbly and slim for his entire life.
Because of his sickness, Leopold’s mother strictly forbade him from entering any military service, excepting some honorary positions that were merely symbolic. This was despite the fact that most of his brothers went into some kind of service throughout their lives, a fact that likely humiliated the young Victorian man. So, something had to give.
In response to his physical limitations, Leopold started exploring the capabilities of his mind. To the surprise of many, he was darn good at it. To be fair, the prince had the best tutors royalty could buy, but no less than the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson noted the boy’s quick mind and immense capacity for learning. But that didn’t mean Leopold was a good little prince, oh no.
As Leopold developed into a teenager, he also took on some classic adolescent surliness, particularly when it came to Queen Victoria’s overprotective watch over him. He would often grow irritated at her coddling, and when this happened, he would defy the Queen of England, as one historian puts it, "out of sheer devilry". One of his more defiant acts was quite the doozy.
In one such case, a spoiled Prince Leopold decided one day that he was always "bored" at the famed and enormous Balmoral castle, and refused to accompany his mommy dearest there for their usual annual vacation. Wow Leopold, I honestly can’t relate to this at all. Still, soon enough Leopold was coming up with a new way to rebel.
Ever the teacher’s pet, Leopold decided that it was time to kick his studiousness into high gear, and he begged and pleaded with Queen Victoria to let him attend the University of Oxford out in the world. Victoria finally relented when he was 19, and Leopold got a tiny taste of what independence felt like. After that, there was simply no going back.
Still feeling constrained by his mother’s watchful eye, Leopold went to drastic measures to win his full freedom. He decided that getting married was his only hope of getting out from mommy’s skirts, and he began looking around Europe for a royal bride. As a prince of England, Leopold should obviously have no trouble at all finding a wife…right?
Unfortunately for Leopold, word had got out about his debilitating illness, and he wasn’t exactly the most eligible bachelor. As a result, he went through a painful number of "options," including the heiress Daisy Maynard and Princess Frederica of Hanover, but all of them rejected him for one reason or another. Then, wouldn’t you know it, his mother stepped in.
Queen Victoria watched from the sidelines as her baby got busted up in the game of love, until she simply couldn’t take it anymore. She soon "suggested" that Leopold meet up with Princess Helena, the daughter of a German prince and one of Leopold’s distant cousins. Well, as it turned out, Queen Victoria knew what the heck she was doing.
Although German princesses had a bad reputation in England for being frigid and distant, Helena was the exact opposite, and loved being "among the people". Or at least that’s how an approving and smug Victoria once put it. It probably didn’t hurt that Helena was pretty easy on the eyes, too—but there was one reason she was absolutely perfect for Leopold.
Princess Helena was unusually, even astonishingly educated for a woman of her time, and she could go toe-to-toe even with the heady Leopold. Indeed, many of her circle knew her as an "intellectual," and she actually liked solving math problems and talking about philosophy. In other words, Prince Leopold didn’t stand a dang chance.
To say Leopold was head over heels for Helena is an understatement, even if he was pretty desperate to get himself a bride, any bride, at this point. The Prince was so enamored, he introduced Helena to his academic circle of friends from Oxford. Obviously, Helena impressed them mightily, because she continued lifelong friendships with the group.
With a pedigree and a personality like that, Leopold jumped right into matrimony with Helena, marrying her on April 27, 1882, when he was 29 years old and she was just 21. The wedding was a royal fairy tale: Helena’s train was a full six yards long and embroidered in silver, and the Archbishop of Canterbury performed the service. There was, however, one big snag.
As a sickly, younger son, Leopold wasn’t built for public displays of, well, anything. So while reports from the day of his wedding relay how clear and confident Princess Helena sounded in her replies, Leopold seemed to mumble his way through the service with "not so distinctly audible" answers. You can take the shy boy out of the library…
Unlike so many royal marriages before and after him—looking at you King Henry VIII and Charles and Diana—Prince Leopold somehow snagged himself happy nuptials just like his mother and father had. By all accounts, it was an incredibly blissful marriage, with the pair complementing each other and with Leopold winning his freedom at last. Within a year, though, Leopold’s life changed again.
Let’s just say that Leopold and his new wife were very happy. In 1883, Helena was pregnant and eventually gave birth to Leopold’s first child, Princess Alice. Yet even this joy had its twisted side. As with every hemophiliac, Leopold had passed on his hemophilia to his young daughter. Although she wouldn’t suffer half as much as her father, she was one of the infamous royal carriers of the disease.
Despite the risks, Leopold and Princess Helena were determined to grow their family, and by 1884, Helena was pregnant again. Both the prince and his wife were in their prime and foresaw a bright, long future together raising little royals for Grandma Victoria. However, Leopold’s body had a different plan in store for him.
As Leopold approached his 30th birthday, his hemophilia began to cause him more and more problems. In particular, the damp, chilly winters of England were painful on his joints; a common issue with people who suffer from illness. Accordingly, his doctors urged him to leave his newly pregnant wife and go to Cannes for the winter. It was supposed to help him—but it would be his undoing.
With such a big family, Leopold wasn’t necessarily close with all of his siblings, but he certainly spent a lot of time with Princess Louise, who was Queen Victoria’s sixth child and only five years older than Leopold. As it happened, though, Louise was the troublemaker in the family, and when Leopold was still a child, she set him a particularly bad example…
One of the biggest historical theories surrounding Princess Louise is that she had once fallen in love with Leopold’s tutor, the attentive Walter Stirling. Some even believe she bore Stirling a love child in 1867, who was immediately secreted away to be raised by a civilian couple. Leopold was only 14 years old at the time…but he already knew which side he was on.
If you need more proof that Leopold was a bad boy dressed up like a geeky guy, let it be known that when Queen Victoria (understandably) dismissed Walter Stirling from royal service, Leopold still kept up a secret correspondence with the man, quenching his thirst for knowledge while defying his controlling mother at the same time.
In an alternate universe, Leopold might have been married to a much different bride than Helena—and one who had a strange claim to fame. According to reports, the young Prince was completely enamored with Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with some even suggesting that he named his daughter Alice after her. Yet there is a more tragic version of events.
Some historians argue that Leopold’s long-lost love wasn’t Alice Liddell at all, but rather her younger sister Edith, who was closer to his age. In this interpretation, the focus on Alice is just a smokescreen for Leopold’s undying devotion to Edith. The question then remains: Why didn’t he marry Edith after all, if she was his true love? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is heartbreaking.
In 1876, when Edith was still just 22 and Prince Leopold was mired in his failing quest to find a bride, the young Liddell daughter perished from a fatal bout of either measles or peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdomen. In a touching proof of his affection for the girl, Leopold acted as a pallbearer at her funeral.
Although Queen Victoria started out terrified of Leopold’s illness, she had a hidden agenda. As the years wore on, some historians think she began to actually enjoy how much it made Leopold depend on her and others, and how it kept him by her side for whenever she wanted him. Which might be why she gave him a strange promotion.
When Leopold was a young adult, he became Queen Victoria’s personal secretary, an unofficial position that his father Prince Albert had mostly held before his untimely passing. In some ways, Leopold’s fastidious mind was perfect for the position, though it also forced him to get involved with court intrigues—something he was less interested in.
Leopold was a smarty-pants and a true nerd, so you can bet his time at Oxford was some of the best years of his life. He had the friends to prove it, too: While there, he rubbed elbows and clinked glasses with literary celebrities like Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin, and Lewis Carroll. He also got up to some more unsavory activities…
While attending Oxford, Leopold discovered some of the nation’s biggest secrets. It was around this time that his older brother Albert Edward, AKA the future King of England, inducted him into the notorious secret society the Freemasons. Leopold was no lowly rank and file, either; after all, Albert Edward was a Worshipful Master, and the most senior member at the Oxford location.
Leopold traveled to Cannes in February of 1884, posting up at his very comfortable "Villa Nevada" residence. He had been there for a month when disaster struck. While in his villa on March 27, he slipped and fell, much as we’ve all done from time to time. The prince hit his knee and banged his head up…but this was no small fall.
People had told Prince Leopold all his life that the tiniest of bruises and bang-ups could leave him severely injured or worse—and for good reason. This fall was devastating to the royal, and his condition worsened over the coming hours, until in the early morning of March 28, the prince never woke up. The culprit behind his untimely end was gruesome.
Prince Leopold was so delicate that even this mundane slip and hitting of his head apparently turned into a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Victoria’s youngest son had survived so much up until this point and even made it into a happy marriage and his first child, but his luck had finally run out. In his tragic wake, he left destruction.
When Victoria heard of Leopold’s passing, her reaction was utterly heartbreaking. She had already suffered the loss of her dear Prince Albert, as well as Leopold’s older sister Alice, and she was beside herself with grief and loneliness. As she wrote in her journal, "To lose another dear child, far from me, & one who was so gifted, & such a help to me, is too dreadful!"
And then there was his grieving wife…
Poor Princess Helena had to brave the world without Leopold, even as she was still pregnant with his child. That summer, she gave birth to a son, Charles Edward, who would never know his father. By a huge stroke of luck, Leopold didn’t pass on his hemophilia to his son…but that didn’t mean his family was safe.
Leopold truly may have been cursed. In the years after his passing, his children and his wife suffered heart-rending fates. First, his daughter Alice did pass her hemophilia onto her elder son Rupert, who passed at the age of 20 in a car accident—an event that his illness surely made worse. Yet Leopold’s own son did more damage to his name.
Growing up without a father figure is difficult, and little Charles Edward definitely needed some guidance in his life. Although he didn’t have hemophilia, Leopold’s estranged son turned into a Nazi sympathizer, fighting on the German side in both WWI and WWII before the English government stripped him of his titles for his participation.
In 1954, Charles Edward passed while living in poverty.
To the best of our knowledge, Leopold was the first male royal in the British line to suffer from hemophilia, but he wasn’t the last. The story of its legacy is infamous. One of Victoria’s granddaughters was Princess Alix of Hesse, who was likewise a carrier of hemophilia and who became Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Tsarina of Russia. Yep, this is going nowhere good…
See, just like Victoria did with Leopold, Alexandra ended up passing on her hemophilia to her first-born son, Alexei. Alexei’s hemophilia was so severe, the Tsarina grew desperate. She sought the help of the dark holy man Rasputin to save Queen Victoria’s great-grandson. This, as we now know, was one of the matches that lit the Russian revolution and eventually toppled the Russian Royal family.
The Netflix series The Irregulars, which follows a group of street urchins in Victorian England as they help out Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, features a fictionalized version of Prince Leopold as one of the main characters. In the show, "Leo" chafes at his mother’s control of his illness, and seeks out adventures of his own. But now you know the whole story.
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