In public, the Victorians were some of the stuffiest, snobbiest, most repressed people in history. Behind closed doors, it was a different story. Just look no further than Queen Victoria's scandalous family. From shameful secrets and vicious feuds to debaucherous affairs and cutting remarks, no one lived the Victorian Era's contradictions like the royal family itself.
One of Queen Victoria’s nicknames was the “Grandmother of Europe” because so many of her big brood made advantageous marriages with monarchies all across the continent. If you were a royal in the 20th century, chances are you were related to Queen Victoria. But as we’ll see, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing…
When Victoria was a child, all the royal heirs croaked one by one, most of them from heartbreaking ends. In just four short years, three of Victoria’s cousins perished, then her father and her grandfather passed within a week of each other. By 1830, 11-year-old Victoria was next in line for the throne. And more misfortune was just around the corner.
Victoria called her childhood “melancholy”—but it was even darker than that. Her mother, Duchess Victoria of Kent, was notoriously controlling, and developed the “Kensington System” to raise her daughter. This system forced Victoria to isolate herself from playmates and family alike, rendering her dependent on mommy dearest. As we’ll see, this did not end well.
Many historians attribute the stereotypical morality of the Victorian era to Victoria’s mother, and the duchess was obsessed with keeping Victoria “pure.” Since King William had illegitimate children, the duchess thought he was “an oversexed oaf” and even denied the king of England the opportunity to see his niece. Is it any wonder Victoria became so maladjusted?
As twisted as her childhood was, there was a more sinister figure in the young Victoria’s life: Her mother’s confidante, Sir John Conroy. William IV nicknamed Conroy “King John” for his outsized influence, and he helped the duchess come up with Victoria’s punishing Kensington system. But that’s just the beginning of the nightmare.
According to palace rumors from the time, Conroy wasn’t just the Duchess of Kent’s confidante; he was also her lover. Here Victoria’s mother was preaching chastity and Christian values, but in her off-hours, she might have been bonking the help. For her part, Victoria disliked both of them—but she would get her brutal revenge in the end.
When she was 16 years old, Victoria’s family started making plans to marry her off. There were two rivals for her royal heart: Prince Alexander of the Netherlands, who King William IV backed, and Prince Albert, who her maternal uncle King Leopold I of Belgium supported. But when Victoria saw Albert, all bets were off.
It was clear to everyone that Victoria was immediately smitten with Albert, but her private diaries go into very personal detail. The future monarch was a lovestruck teenager, writing that Albert was “extremely handsome…his eyes are large and blue, and he has a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth.” As for Prince Alexander? He was “very plain.” Better luck next time, bud.
King William IV passed less than a month after Victoria turned 18, turning little Victoria into a Queen of the United Kingdom. According to Victoria herself, she found out the news while she was still in her dressing gown. England would never be the same again—but if William had been a scandalous ruler, just wait for what Victoria had in store...
Even after becoming queen, Victoria waited three years before tying the knot—but she was over the moon when she finally did. Her personal diary spared no detail when it came to her wedding night. As she writes about their union: “I NEVER, NEVER spent such an evening!!! MY DEAREST DEAREST DEAR Albert…He clasped me in his arms, & we kissed each other again & again.” The girl had it bad, and I think we can all imagine what came next.
Well, actually, we don’t have to imagine: Victoria found out she was pregnant mere weeks after her wedding. Her reaction was not what you might expect. She was actually furious, writing to her grandmother, “It is spoiling my happiness; I have always hated the idea, and I prayed God night and day for me to be left free for at least six months.” But then it got even more chilling.
In the same letter to her grandmother, Victoria confesses that if she ended up having a “nasty girl,” she would drown the babe. Um, let’s just sit down and think this one through Vicky. But keep in mind, she was in her twenties at the time, and knew the fatal risks of childbirth. Sadly, this didn’t get any better…
Astonishingly, Albert and Victoria had a whopping nine children together: Victoria, Albert, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold, and Beatrice. All of these children survived into adulthood, a huge feat for the time. However, these princes and princesses didn't exactly lead a charmed life—they had their cold and overbearing mother to thank for that.
Just ask her eldest, Princess Victoria...
Princess Victoria came into the world on November 21, 1840. Only, this was bad news. Victoria wasn't the only one who was disappointed when she popped out a girl. Heck, even the attending doctor was bummed, saying sadly to the queen, “Oh Madame, it’s a girl!” Not a good start to what was supposed to be a charmed royal life, and as we’ll see, the bad times only continued.
In 1851, Victoria—who was, yep, still 11 years old—met the 19-year-old Prince Frederick William for the first time at The Great Exhibition in London. Grossly enough, the pre-teen and the grown man got along “very well,” with our quick, eager-to-please little Vicky showing off her fluent German, conversing with Frederick in his native tongue while he could only speak a few words of English.
This started one of the greatest predatory—uh, I mean stirring, romances of the Victorian era.
On January 25, 1858, Frederick and Vicky finally got married, with the bride wearing a flouncing Honiton lace confection complete with an enormous three-yard train and delicate wreaths of orange and myrtle blossoms. Once the staunchly English ceremony was over, however, Vicky whisked herself off to Berlin—and it was there her real troubles started.
Frederick and Vicky were young, in love, and probably raring to kick-start a blissful honeymoon period. Fate, however, had more bitter plans in store. After years of sniping between Great Britain and Prussia, the German court fully despised Vicky, and she endured open insults from many members of Frederick’s extensive family. And as the years went on, this nightmare only went from bad to worse.
As a 17-year-old bride, Vicky was nothing if not dutiful, and less than a year into her marriage, the teenager was pregnant. The Prussian court couldn’t take that away from her, and Vicky started nesting up a storm in preparation for the heir on the way. In late January 1859, she went into labor—and then the nightmare started.
When Vicky caught sight of her son, her relief turned into a profound sense of despair. Throughout the excruciating birth, the baby—who Vicky named Wilhelm—had suffered nerve damage around his shoulder, and had possibly even experienced a lack of oxygen to his brain for an incredible 10 minutes. Vicky’s response was heartbreaking.
Vicky couldn’t stand the thought of announcing to the horrible Prussian court that she had somehow failed in her first task of motherhood. Instead, she and Frederick lied about little Wilhelm’s true condition, keeping it secret. Vicky only told her own parents after four long months, when it was clear Wilhelm would never get better.
At the time, it must have seemed like the worst thing that would ever happen to her. Yet as we’ll see, she would be very, very wrong.
As Wilhelm grew up, Vicky showed some disturbing tendencies. Vicky was desperate for her son to be “normal,” and insisted that he learn to ride a horse perfectly, even though his arm made it nearly impossible to balance. As Wilhelm later recalled, “The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother.” Oh, but she didn’t stop there.
Because of his nerve damage, Wilhelm’s head tended to tilt to one side, and Vicky couldn’t have that, either. She put her eldest child through extremely painful electroshock therapy in a misguided attempt to “correct” the imbalance. Then, when it failed to work to her satisfaction, she moved on to even more drastic measures.
Perhaps the most vile thing Vicky came up with to “cure” her son was to give him “animal baths,” a straight-up barbaric procedure where Wilhelm dunked his withered arm into a squelchy tub of animal entrails on a regular basis. Unlike electroshock therapy, this method doesn’t even seem to have a clear reason behind it, unless that reason is “gross me out as much as possible.”
But her son was just one of Victoria's problems...
Just as Vicky’s husband Frederick came close to his rightful throne, his health started to decline, and he began to experience a strange hoarseness in his throat. By November 1887, he couldn’t even speak. Eventually, doctors diagnosed him with a malignant tumor and urged him to remove it through surgery. His response was surprising.
Despite the fact that removing the tumor was Frederick’s only chance for survival, both he and Vicky refused any treatment. As you can imagine, that didn't pay off.
On March 9, 1888, Frederick’s father William finally passed, officially anointing Vicky and her husband as the Empress and Emperor. Yet it was a beginning that was also an end: Fredrick was so far gone at this point and the Grim Reaper so close, Vicky admitted that they were really just "shadows ready to be replaced” by her son Wilhelm. The end may have been near, but Vicky still went out fighting.
In the end, Vicky and Frederick ruled for a meager 99 days. Frederick conserved every breath and every ounce of his energy, but he still passed on June 15, 1888, just months after his father. His passing made way at last for Wilhelm to become Emperor in his own right—and he immediately dealt his mother a heartbreaking betrayal.
It’s safe to say that Vicky and Wilhelm never saw eye to eye, but the new Emperor spent no time hiding his displeasure. As soon as he took the crown, Wilhelm let his army loose on the imperial residence and ransacked his parents’ private rooms, looking for anything that might incriminate him, them, or the country.
Of course, thanks to Vicky’s quick thinking, we already know he found nothing; it was all in Windsor Castle. Yet that didn’t mean Wilhelm didn’t punish her in other ways.
With Frederick gone, Vicky was now merely a Dowager Empress, and Wilhelm made darn sure she didn’t forget her demotion. He kicked her out of the palace and kept her almost entirely excluded from society, even passing her over for traditional dowager duties like becoming a patron of the German Red Cross.
By 1898, Vicky’s own health failed her, and she was suffering from terminal cancer. But she had one scandalous dying wish. Terrified once more that her son would use her private letters against her, she spirited her more recent messages back to England again via a complicated cloak-and-dagger operation and a willing godson, right before succumbing to cancer. The GOAT, people.
The thing is, Vicky may have had a very good reason to hide her letters from Wilhelm. Some of her missives were so scathing, they’re impossible to forget. In one she wrote to her parents when Wilhelm was young, Vicky confessed, "He is really smart for his age...if only he didn't have that unfortunate arm, I would be so proud of him.” Yikes, Vicks.
So, Queen Victoria's eldest child was a piece of work. What about her next daughter, Princess Alice? Well, unfortunately, Alice might have the most tragic story of all Victoria's children...
Princess Alice was born on April 25, 1843, at Buckingham Palace, the third child and second daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But her birth was not a happy occasion. After the queen’s second-born son Albert Edward, the public was eagerly awaiting another boy. When that didn’t happen, the disappointment was palpable; the Privy Council even sent a letter to her father giving "congratulation and condolence."
With a start like that, is it any wonder Alice ended up where she did?
Alice had the rare opportunity to marry for love; to Prince Louis of Hesse, a minor German noble. However, the timing couldn't have been worse: Both Alice's grandmother and father passed in the preceding months. Exhibiting that famous British stiff upper lip, Queen Victoria insisted that the ceremony go on even after Prince Albert passed. So, against all odds, the wedding happened on July 1, 1862—but by the time it was over, Alice probably wished it had been canceled.
Everybody—and I do mean everybody—thought Princess Alice’s nuptials were miserable. Queen Victoria called it “more of a funeral than a wedding,” while the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson said, “it was the saddest day that I can remember.” The whole miserable thing was all over by 4 pm. Yet before the night wound down, Queen Victoria managed to give her daughter one messed-up parting gift.
Long after Alice’s marriage, Queen Victoria simply couldn’t let her daughter go or allow her to be happy—so instead, she sniped. Indeed, every year that passed grew harder, making it clear to the queen that Alice was content, having ever more children, and was less likely to visit England on any given month. But if Victoria wanted to see Alice sad, she should have been careful what she wished for.
On October 7, 1870, Alice gave birth to her second son and fifth child, Frederich, AKA “Frittie.” Although the new baby was Alice’s firm favorite, there was something seriously wrong from the beginning. See, Grandma Victoria was a carrier for the genetic disorder hemophilia, which seriously prevents blood clotting in male children, and she had passed it right down to Alice and then to little Frittie.
The so-called “royal disease,” which was currently plaguing the British family, was nothing less than certain doom at the time; it would go on to kill Alice’s brother Leopold in 1884. Naturally, then, everyone feared the worst for the princeling Friedrich—and when the end came, it was so much more devastating than anyone could have predicted.
On May 29, 1873, little Frittie fell 20 feet after hanging out of a window in his home. The fall might have fatally hurt even a healthy child, but the sickly prince had no chance at all. Although the boy woke up after the tumble, the best doctors in the land couldn’t stymie his internal bleeding, and his end followed swiftly. Alice’s response was gut wrenching.
Alice never, ever got over the loss of her beloved son, and we have a letter from her that indicates just how much anguish she was in. Two months after the fall, she wrote to her mother and confessed, "I am glad you have a little coloured picture of my darling. I feel lower and sadder than ever and miss him so much, so continually.”
Little did she realize, this loss was nothing compared to what was coming...
November 1878 cast a dark cloud over the royal household of Hesse. Early in the month, Alice’s oldest girl Victoria took ill with a sore, stiff neck. The reality was terrifying. The next morning, the doctor took one look at her and diagnosed the girl with diphtheria, a bacterial infection that was often fatal in the Victorian era. Within days, Alice’s house turned into a mausoleum.
Alice avoided becoming infected at first, but almost no one else in her family was so lucky. Four of her children—Alix, Marie, Irene, and Ernest—and even her husband fell ill within days of Victoria showing symptoms. A nurse to her bones, Alice tried her best to tend to everyone, but an immense shock was just around the corner.
On November 15, Alice’s youngest daughter Marie, who was only four years old, fell severely ill. The staff, certain that the girl didn’t have long to live, called the Grand Duchess to her bedside. Alice arrived to an absolute horror. Before she could even make it, Marie had choked, and now her body was already turning cold. Alice’s knee-jerk reaction…could have been better.
Although Alice confessed to Queen Victoria that “the pain is beyond words” when it came to losing Marie, she decided to keep the girl’s passing from the rest of her children in the hopes that it wouldn’t dampen their spirits while they were fighting an infection. In her head, it was the best decision—but it would end up being her downfall.
After pretending Marie was alive for weeks on end, Alice finally gave in, confessing the truth to her favorite son Ernest in early December. His response was soul-crushing. The little boy couldn’t believe it at the beginning, and when the reality dawned on him, he broke down into jagged sobs. Unable to see her son in pain, Alice made a fatal error.
Before this point, Alice put her whole household under strict “no contact” orders. She had even sent her daughter Elisabeth away from the house entirely so she wouldn’t get sick. In this one moment, however, she couldn’t help comforting her infected son, and gave him a kiss to ease his pain. It would be one of the last things she ever did.
Alice spent her last days on Earth in ironic placidity. When her sister Vicky visited a few days after her confession to Ernest, it raised Alice’s spirits, and she corresponded with her mother with a “hint of resumed cheerfulness.” Little did Alice know, the infection had already moved through her body at a rapid pace. When it surfaced, it would be with a vengeance.
On Saturday, December 14, Alice fell incredibly ill with diphtheria, so much so that she barely survived for a few more hours. At 2:30 am, she spoke her heartbreaking last words, whispering “Dear papa” before losing consciousness and never waking up again. At 8:30 am, she gave her last breath. So ended the most tragic figure in Victoria's household.
But while not all of Victoria's kids had it so rough—some, like Princess Louise, found the time to rebel.
Princess Louise entered the world on March 18, 1848, and even from her first breaths, it was clear that she would be a troublemaker. You see, 1848 kicked off Europe's tumultuous "Age of Revolutions"—and it seemed that the year's rebelliousness would come through in little Princess Louise. When Queen Victoria gave birth to her fourth daughter, she immediately knew that Louise would be “something peculiar.” She was right.
As Louise grew older, scandalous rumors spread throughout England. Apparently, Princess Louise had fallen in love with a highly inappropriate young man: her younger brother's tutor, the commoner Robinson Duckworth. And Duckworth's class status wasn't the only thing that counted against him. He was also a Reverend...and he was 14 years older than young Princess Louise.
Queen Victoria was no fool. She could see what was going on between her daughter and the Reverend. It didn't take long for her to "dismiss" the renowned tutor from the royal palace. With that, Victoria probably thought she'd wrested control of the situation. But Louise's love life would throw many more curveballs at the queen.
Louise connected with many men during her lifetime and the gossip never seemed to cease. According to sources, she also carried out affairs with one of the Queen’s later personal secretaries, along with the famed architect, Edward Lutyens. Louise was a wildly liberal woman, though she preferred to keep her affairs a secret. However, the royal family concerned themselves with concealing even greater things than affairs.
It's easy to see why men fell all over themselves for Louise. The princess was absolutely gorgeous. With her pale skin, dark hair, and slender figure, Louise was the Victorian Era's idea of a jaw-dropping beauty. To this day, she is often called Queen Victoria's most stunning daughter.
In the 1860s, Queen Victoria's doctor adopted a little boy named Henry Locock. It sounds like a dull fact—but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout his life, Henry claimed that he was no regular adoptee, but the illegitimate son of Princess Louise and her lover Walter Stirling. To this day, no one knows if Locock was telling the truth because the royal family has barred two of the family's attempts to get DNA tested.
Louise dealt with bitter conflicts throughout her family, not just from her mother. Louise's sisters were terribly jealous of their beautiful, rebellious sibling, and their relationship suffered. Louise did, however, get along with her sister Beatrice's husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg—perhaps too well...
Louise didn’t care what people thought about her, and she didn’t care much for appearances. She did not hide her friendship with Henry, and since their bond was out in the open, rumors abounded that they were lovers. No one knows the truth about their potential love affair, but when Henry passed in 1896, Louise remarked that “he was almost the greatest friend I had—I, too, miss him more than I can say.”
What helped the rumors about Louise and Henry was that Louise was not getting along well with her husband upon their return to England. They often lived separately for long periods, and Louise preferred the company of other men. What went wrong between Louise and the husband that she specifically chose? Strap in.
One of the most circulated rumors about Louise was that her husband was in fact gay. Louise didn’t seem to mind her husband’s sexuality, many of these royal marriages are of convenience anyway. What she did mind, however, was his night prowling. Apparently, Louise tried to stop Campbell from going cruising during the nights by closing off the windows to their apartment.
Some habits never quit, and there was one that Louise simply wouldn’t give up. At the time of her passing, she still owed a shop-keeper 15 shillings for smokes (that's about 300 dollars today!). As a sign that she knew her strict mother wouldn't approve of her bad habit, Louise hid her smoking from Queen Victoria, even when Louise was a fully grown adult.
Louise's obsession with exercise and health food seems to have made up for her love of smokes. After proclaiming that she would "outlive" everyone who made fun of her fitness regime, Louise came pretty close to keeping her word. She passed at the very old age of 91 years old on December 3, 1939.
Between the rebellious Louise, the distant Alice, and the disappointing Vicky, did Queen Victoria like any of her children? This is where Beatrice, the baby of the family, comes in.
It’s not a cliché to say that Beatrice was special—it’s just the truth. While both Victoria and Albert had been more stern than doting on their other children, they went gaga over their baby Beatrice. Victoria, who normally despised babies and thought they were ugly, called her "a pretty, plump and flourishing child.” Meanwhile, Prince Albert, who was usually only interested in his children when he could have scientific debates with them, was delighted to find the girl intelligent.
Yet as Beatrice soon found out, their love was a double-edged sword.
Although Victoria froze out most of her other children after her beloved Prince Albert passed, Beatrice received the dubious honor of being one of the queen’s few confidants and comforts. The consequences of this were truly creepy. One account describes how the queen would pull Beatrice out of her bed and "lay there sleepless, clasping to her child” while the queen was “wrapped in the nightclothes of a man who would wear them no more.”
Queen Victoria was giving out some real Gothic, Miss Havisham vibes, so it’s no surprise Beatrice grew up mightily messed up.
At first, Victoria’s dependence on her daughter, who she nicknamed “Baby,” flattered and delighted the young girl; wherever Victoria was, Beatrice was often there too. When one of her sisters got married, Beatrice even declared after the wedding, "I don't like weddings at all. I shall never be married. I shall stay with my mother." Unfortunately, this turned out to be a tragic premonition.
When Beatrice came to marrying age, Victoria and the rest of Beatrice’s family made a deeply unsettling suggestion: Beatrice should marry her recently deceased sister’s widower, Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Yes, you read that right: Beatrice’s oldest sister Alice had passed just a year before, and everyone wanted her to marry Alice’s grieving husband. And their reasons for this harebrained plot were even more deranged.
According to the infinite wisdom of the British royal family, Beatrice marrying Louis was the perfect solution to a multitude of problems. After all, the late Alice had left behind a brood of young children, and the queen thought Beatrice could act as a substitute mother for them. You know, since what did Beatrice care about finding her own love or happiness? Except there was one glaring issue.
It was literally against the law for a woman to marry her sister’s widower—and although the family tried mightily to change that law, they didn’t succeed and their “brilliant” plan got foiled. Unfortunately, Beatrice had even more love disasters to come.
While attending a wedding, Prince Henry of Battenberg caught Beatrice’s eye. They spent the wedding together talking, dancing, and becoming more intimate. When Beatrice came back home, she made her mother’s jaw drop. She told—not asked—Queen Victoria that she was going to marry Prince Henry, no matter what she thought about it. Victoria’s answer was infamous.
Everybody in the family knew the queen was going to be incensed at the thought of her Baby leaving her side, but nobody could have predicted just how upset she got. The monarch’s immediate response was cold, cruel silence—as in, she literally said nothing. And then she continued saying nothing, refusing to speak to Beatrice for seven months on end, and only writing notes to her if she needed to communicate something.
And when she did finally speak, she threw Beatrice for a loop.
After more than half a year, Victoria deigned to talk face-to-face with her rebellious daughter. She gave her a horrible ultimatum. Victoria declared she would permit Beatrice to marry Prince Henry…but only on the condition that the couple do the very unconventional thing and move in with her after the wedding. That way, she could always have Beatrice under her thumb.
With few other options, Beatrice agreed. It would eventually end in tears.
Prince Henry was something of a strapping strongman, and women couldn’t fail to notice his good looks. And, well, the prince noticed them right back. Remember the rumors about him and Louise? Those were just the tip of the iceberg. When Henry attended the raucous Ajaccio carnival one year, word got back to Beatrice that he was keeping “low company”—draw conclusions where you will from that one.
This led Beatrice to do something supremely cringey.
Princess Beatrice was many things, but chill cool-girl wife was not one of them. After hearing about her husband’s escapades, she dispatched one of her own Royal Navy officers to tail Henry and keep an eye on him, making sure he didn’t get into any more unsavory situations. There was officially trouble in paradise—and more storm clouds were on the horizon.
In December of 1895, Beatrice waved goodbye to her beloved Henry as he went off to fight for queen and country. It really couldn’t have gone worse. Within weeks, Henry contracted a bad case of malaria, and his superiors sent their precious cargo home to recover. Tragically, Henry would never make it. A much darker fate was in store for him.
After receiving news that her husband was on sick leave from fighting, Princess Beatrice—likely heaving a huge sigh of relief—made her way over to Madeira to await his boat from Africa. She was in for a very rude awakening. A telegram arrived instead of her husband, informing her that Henry had passed just two days earlier. The aftermath was hideous.
After learning through yet another gloomy telegram that she would never see Prince Henry again, Beatrice was more than heartbroken. Matching her own mother in grief, she left court entirely for a month so she could mourn alone, and when Queen Victoria did see her, the monarch noted, “She is so piteous in her misery.”
Beatrice’s grief also began to affect her children, as her neglect made them grow frustrated and rebellious. They caused her no end of trouble—then one of them caused her pain like no other.
WWI only began in late July of 1914, but Beatrice's son Prince Maurice was killed in action before the year was even up, perishing from a shell explosion while leading his men across a ridge. He was barely 23 years old. Beatrice was completely shattered by the news, and all but withdrew from public court life after losing her youngest son. And the hits kept coming.
We now know that Queen Victoria and her brood spawned the infamous “Royal Disease,” the dangerous and often fatal blood-clotting disorder hemophilia, that spread all across Europe. Famously, Tsarevich Alexei Romanov received this gene. Queen Victoria was a carrier, and so too was Beatrice—though she came to this realization the hard way. In 1922, her son Leopold, a hemophiliac whose blood couldn’t clot properly, lost his life at the age of 32 after surgery.
In the end, Beatrice endured long past so many of the people she loved; she even outlived her nephew King George V, and publicly laid wreaths in memory of him. She only passed on October 26, 1944, at the ripe old age of 87. In yet another mystical coincidence throughout her life, this was just one day before the 30th anniversary of her son Maurice’s passing.
Poor Beatrice, Victoria's baby, didn't get to have much fun in her life. Did any of Victoria's children? Oh wait, one definitely did. You probably know him as King Edward VII, but back in Victoria's day, people called him something else: "Dirty Bertie."
The future King Edward VII was born on November 9, 1841, in the lavish Buckingham Palace (where else?). His parents called him Albert Edward, but quickly took to calling him "Bertie." With one older sister, Bertie was the eldest son and therefore heir to the throne of England from the moment he was born. Those are some incredibly big shoes to fill—so it's no wonder he went a little crazy.
Edward's older sister Victoria was a brilliant little student—the prince...not so much. He desperately wanted to impress his parents, but he just wasn't cut out for the studious life. His tutors noted that while his academic abilities were lacking, the boy was nevertheless overflowing with charm—a trait that would serve him for his entire life.
But Victoria and Prince Albert weren't interested in charm. They looked at their son and saw a failure—and it was only a matter of time before Bertie cracked under the pressure.
In 1861, Edward's folks sent him to Germany on a diplomatic trip—but not really. They had an ulterior motive. Edward VII was now nearly 20 years old—it was long past time to find him a wife. When he showed up in Germany, wouldn't you know it, the woman his parents wanted him to marry happened to be there at the exact same time! Her name was Princess Alexandra of Denmark, or "Alix."
The pair hit it off—but poor Alix had no idea what she was getting herself into...
You see, not long before traveling to Germany, Edward had taken another trip—this time to Ireland. Determined to get him some army experience, his parents sent him to live with the men in the barracks, but he got a whole lot more than he bargained for. In Ireland, while Edward was staying with an army troop, he met actress Nellie Clifden; the first in a long, long line of mistresses.
But you know what they say: You never forget your first.
Edward's fellow cadets in Ireland were all too happy to enable the rebellious prince's dalliance. They allowed Nellie Clifden to hide out in their barracks for three days while she and Edward had their fun. So the story goes, Edward lost his virginity to Clifden during those three days—all notably before he met Princess Alexandra.
At 19 years old, Prince Bertie was having the time of his life—but it was all about to come crashing down.
Edward's parents were furious when they discovered his secret. Prince Albert was already ill when he traveled to Ireland to tear his son a new one. The two of them apparently took a long walk in the rain together, and it did not go well. Not only did Albert's stern words do nothing to curb his son's womanizing (as we'll soon see), the pouring rain didn't do his health any favors. Albert passed from his illness just two short weeks after his talk with his son.
Edward was only 20 years old when he lost his father—but that was just the start of the nightmare.
Queen Victoria had never been fond of young Bertie, but that was mostly just because she thought he was a screw-up. When Prince Albert passed, Victoria outright blamed her son. While she once found him embarrassing, now she despised him. She ever wrote to her eldest daughter, "I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder."
Between his grief over his father's passing and his mother's hatred, you'd think maybe this was the time where our Edward VII finally decided to smarten up and fly straight. But then you'd be seriously underestimating England's Playboy Prince.
Just over a year after his father's passing, Edward did at least one thing his departed dad wanted: He married Alexandra of Denmark at Windsor Castle on March 10, 1863. He was 21 years old, and she was 18. But the thing about Edward is, he looked at his wedding vows more like guidelines than actual rules. There was no wedding ring on earth that was going to keep Edward VII tied to one woman.
In fact, not even his father's final wishes could stop Edward from sleeping around.
By all accounts, Edward and Alexandra's marriage was a happy one—but that's only because Alexandra put up with Edward's most scandalous habit: Edward was womanizing even before he met Alix, and he continued to take mistresses for their entire marriage. No one knows the exact number, but historians have tied at least 55 women to the Playboy Prince.
Fifty. Five. And those are just the ones we know about. Now take a guess: Do you think some of those affairs got Edward in hot water?
It was around this time that King Edward VII of England gained his most infamous nickname: Dirty Bertie. Not exactly the name you'd expect from a Victorian prince—but as you'll see, our Bertie more than lived up to the name.
Despite his countless affairs, Edward never once acknowledged a single illegitimate child. Now, based just on the law of numbers, either he was the least fertile man alive, or he was lying. Our money is on the latter—and we've got the evidence to back it up.
In 1864, Lady Susan Vane-Tempest lost her husband. In her grief, she fell into the arms of none other than our guy Edward. Now, we get it: By all accounts, Edward was one heck of a charmer—but after a few years, this secret couple had a problem. A letter to Edward from one of Susan's confidantes in 1871 said that "the crisis was due within two or three months," a not-so-well-veiled allusion to Susan's pregnancy.
This is one of the first credible accounts of one of Edward's love-children—but sadly, this particular story has a tragic ending.
Lady Susan Vane-Tempest gave birth to Edward's alleged child in late 1871, but the infant's fate remains a mystery. Whether by choice or coercion, Susan never mentioned the child, and she took the secret to her grave when she passed in 1875 at just 36 years old. In the end, Lady Susan Vane-Tempest and her child were just a sad footnote on the long list of Edward's conquests.
But while Edward's affair with Lady Vane-Tempest ended tragically, it stayed almost entirely out of the papers. We can't say that about this next affair.
Edward VII lived in his mother's bad books, and a wild scandal in 1869 didn't help matters. Sir Charles Mordaunt, a Member of Parliament, planned to divorce his wife. OK, people get divorced all the time. The problem here was, he threatened to name none other than Dirty Bertie as a co-respondent in the suit. Basically, that means it was Edward's fault he was getting divorced.
Any guesses as to why Mordaunt blamed Edward?
As suspicious spouses are wont to do, Sir Charles started snooping around before he did anything drastic—and that's when he made a disturbing discovery. He jimmied open his wife's writing desk and found pages of letters from the Prince of Wales. While Edward was normally pretty good at keeping his affairs on the down-low, it seems he just couldn't resist writing love letters to his mistresses.
Now, the letters Mordaunt found were saucy, but they didn't actually prove Edward was sleeping with his wife. His next discovery was a lot more damning, though.
Gossip at the time claimed that Mordaunt came home early one day only to find his wife and the Prince alone in the house together. Once again, he didn't actually catch them in bed together, but this is the Victorian era we're talking about. Finding a man and a woman alone together was about as scandalous as it gets.
Understandably, Mordaunt was furious—but even still, most people would say his reaction went way too far.
According to the rumors of the day, Mordaunt found Edward and his wife lounging around with two white ponies. After Mordaunt kicked the prince out, his anger apparently hadn't subsided, and he had to take his rage out on something. He allegedly shot both of the ponies and made his wife watch. And you wonder why this poor woman strayed?
To this point, Edward had mostly done a good job of keeping his dalliances out of the papers, but there was nothing he could do this time.
In the end, Mordaunt didn't end up naming Edward as co-respondent in his divorce suit, but he didn't have to. He still managed to prove in open court that the prince had visited the Mordaunts' manor while Charles was away. The courts didn't find Edward legally responsible for anything, but the damage to his reputation was enough.
Edward's dirty laundry was out in public for all to see—but compared to the tragic fate of the Lady Mordaunt, I'd say Edward got off easy.
Pretty much any time a woman was put on trial for anything, the defense always played the same card: Hysteria. Lady Mordaunt was no different. Her lawyers claimed insanity as a defense for her adultery, and while it worked, the plea destroyed her life forever. While Edward was free to continue gallivanting across Europe, sleeping with anything that moved, Lady Mordaunt spent the rest of her life hidden from sight in a series of private cottages.
Eventually, her family moved her to a lunatic asylum, before she finally passed in utter obscurity. Unfortunately, the women who slept with Edward VII kept on meeting sad fates, but here's the thing: Despite his faults, Edward VII was...kind of an amazing guy?
Those around Edward couldn't help but remark that the prince, despite having the bluest blood possible, treated everybody with dignity and respect, no matter their class or color. On a trip to India, his letters home show that the racism he found in the country sickened him: "Because a man has a black face and a different religion from our own, there is no reason why he should be treated as a brute."
Today, that's just baseline human decency, but in the heyday of the British Empire, that kind of talk was pretty much unheard of. It's easy to write Edward VII off as a hedonistic womanizer, but there was a lot more to him than met the eye.
Edward managed to keep his affairs out of the papers for a few years after the Mordaunt scandal, but it was only a matter of time before he started turning heads once again. In 1877, he went to the theater and fell head over heels for one of the actresses. Her name was Lillie Langtry, and he had to have her. The fact that she had a husband never came into the equation.
What followed would prove one of the most intense affairs of Edward's life.
After Langtry entranced him on stage, Edward quickly engineered a meet-cute. He showed up at a dinner party she was attending and arranged it so that he sat right next to her. As was the custom, the host sat her husband at the complete opposite end of the table. The consummate charmer, Edward and Langtry hit it off immediately.
It was only a matter of time before they ended up in bed together.
While Edward and Langtry were the talk of the town—the queen's son and a famous actress was quite a story—their affair burned out relatively quickly, at least by Edward's standards. They kept up their not-so-secret tryst for about three years, until Langtry hit Edward with a shocker: She was pregnant. That's where their affair ended for good.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Edward knocked up his mistress then abandoned her. Pretty scummy move, right? Well, actually, the truth is a lot more complicated than that.
Though it's impossible to know for sure, most historians believe Edward was not the father of Langtry's child. Apparently, he wasn't the only one who liked to play the field. And while Edward and Lillie's physical relationship ended when she became pregnant, this wasn't some dramatic falling out. The prince and the starlet remained on good terms for the rest of their lives, and Edward even continued to support Lillie financially for years.
It seems like, despite everything, Edward was genuinely a pretty decent guy at his core. Everyone could see it—except for his mother...
Now might be a good time to wonder: How did Edward find the time to have all of these crazy affairs? He was, after all, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of England. Didn't he have, you know, stuff to do? Well, to be perfectly honest: Not really. As we've said, Victoria thought her son was a complete and abject failure, and she didn't trust him to take part in any matters of state.
Aside from the occasional public appearance, Prince Bertie didn't really have much of anything to do—so it's little wonder he found some...interesting ways to spend his time.
Throughout the 1880s and 90s, Edward didn't spend that much time in England. Probably something to do with the fact that his own mother couldn't even stand to look at him. Edward wanted an escape, and he found it in Parisian bawdy houses, where he soon became something of a legend. If you thought Edward's English affairs were crazy, just wait 'til you hear what he got up to in the City of Love.
Edward likely patronized every high-class cathouse in Paris, but his favorite by far was the infamous Le Chabanais. He visited so often, he actually had his own room, complete with his coat of arms over the bed and an extravagant copper bathtub with a massive half-woman-half-swan figurehead. Years later, Salvador Dali actually bought said tub for 112,000 francs.
Le Chabanais quickly became a home-away-from-home for the Playboy Prince—and let's just say, he got real comfortable there.
Thanks to Edward VII, Le Chabanais contained one of the most infamous pieces of furniture in history: The Siège D'Amour, or love chair. Made from only the finest wood and upholstery, Edward's love seat looks...bizarre. It doesn't look like it would be particularly comfortable to sit in, but that's because it wasn't designed for sitting.
Yes, this is exactly what you're thinking: Edward VII had a naughty chair.
Women were Edward's biggest vice, but he had plenty more to go around. Second on the list was probably food, and by the 1880s, Edward had a huge waistline to match his appetite. His enormous belly started to interfere with his...earthly desires. So, he had Louis Soubrier, a famous cabinetmaker, design the Siège D'Amour so he could still enjoy the fruits of the bawdy house—sometimes several at once—despite his considerable girth.
Still, think the Victorian era was all prim and proper? And somehow, we've still just scratched the surface of Edward VII's debauchery. With this guy, there's always another crazy story...
If you frequented the Parisian nightlife in the 1880s and 90s, you were bound to bump into Edward VII sooner or later. While he loved Le Chabanais and his Siège D'Amour, he knew that variety was the spice of life. He also enjoyed the city's nightclubs, especially the legendary Moulin Rouge, where he'd frequently appear with a new French socialite or actress on his arm every week. Compared to the grim and depressing London, where the shadow of his mother and her perpetual mourning hung over him like a stormcloud, it's little wonder Edward spent so much time in Paris.
But, life can't be all naughty chairs and burlesque shows—despite what it seems like, Edward actually had a huge family to take care of back home.
It might shock you to hear it, but all this time Edward had been living it up in Paris, he actually had a whole brood of kids back in England. Apparently, his constant affairs didn't keep Edward VII from his marital duties. Despite his infidelity, Edward and his wife Alix (remember her?) had six children together, starting with the eldest, Prince Albert Victor.
In fact, even with his truly wild escapades over in Paris, Edward had a surprisingly tender family life.
What can we say, Victorians were weird? By all accounts, Princess Alexandra was totally fine with her husband's womanizing. She even welcomed several of his mistresses into their home and acknowledged them in public. While it's entirely possible she buried her resentment deep down—these are Victorians we're talking about, after all—every account seems to show that Alix was totally fine with it.
Honestly, Edward sounds pretty exhausting, maybe it was just easier for her? Either way, they stayed close even at the height of Edward's trips to Paris—but that doesn't mean their life at home was entirely happy.
Edward and Alexandra had six children—but one of them was taken away far, far too soon. Their sixth and final child, Prince Alexander John, passed just a day after he was born. The loss devastated the couple, and they never conceived again. According to reports of that sad day, Edward personally laid their boy in his tiny casket "with tears rolling down his cheeks."
Losing Alexander was an incalculable loss, but sadly, that wasn't the end of their heartbreak.
It seems like Edward never grew out of his "problem child" roots, so what happened when he had a problem child of his own? His eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, was next in line to the throne after Edward. It seems like the young prince took after his daddy, because when Albert Victor grew into a young man, rumors started swirling all around him too.
From wild affairs to male prostitution scandals to rumors that he was secretly Jack the Ripper, Prince Albert Victor managed to be nearly as scandalous as dear old dad—until the day tragedy struck.
Prince Albert Victor was only 27 years old and in the prime of his life when the Influenza Pandemic of 1889-92 ravaged England. Pandemics can prey upon rich and poor alike, and the strapping young prince fell victim to the disease. He passed from pneumonia on January 14, 1892, and Edward's heartbreaking letters reveal just how devastated he was.
Though the relationship between Edward and Queen Victoria had always been strained, the loss of Albert Victor at least brought them together for a time. In the days following Albert's passing, Edward wrote to his mother, "To lose our eldest son is one of those calamities one can never really get over...[I would] have given my life for him, as I put no value on mine."
For once, Edward and Victoria seemed to agree on something...
After the loss of his son, Edward seemingly put his womanizing aside for a time—but no amount of tragedy could get Edward to keep it in his pants for long. A few years later, he met Alice Keppel, a woman 26 years his senior. Even at 56 years old, Edward was still the same old scoundrel, and Keppel quickly became his mistress.
As we all know, Edward had had countless affairs by this point—but there was something special about Alice Keppel.
Keppel had at least one thing going for her in Edward's eyes: She was married, and clearly, the Prince was into that kind of thing. He started frequently visiting her at her home at 30 Portman Square. Her husband, for what it's worth, "conveniently" went out on the town whenever these visits occurred.
It must have been an awkward situation, to be sure, but at the very least, being Edward's mistress came with certain...advantages.
Edward tended to treat the women who shared his bed extremely well—often long after their affairs ended. He couldn't just flat out give Alice Keppel money from the Privy Purse, but instead, Edward gave her shares in a rubber company. She earned a cool £50,000 out of the deal—about $7.5 million today. Not too shabby.
Even her poor cuckolded husband got something out of the arrangement: Edward found him a new job with a way better salary. Hey, if it works for you, who am I to judge?
Lady Randolph Churchill, known as Jennie to her friends, was no stranger to scandal. The same gossips who dished on Edward's many affairs had nearly as many stories about Jennie. It was only a matter of time before the two of them crossed paths. I would point out that Churchill was very much a married woman, but you and I both know that didn't really matter much.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The gentleman husband comes home, only to find his wife alone in the company of the Prince of Wales. It happened with Sir Charles Mordaunt, and it happened with Lord Randolph. But that's not the only similarity. As with the Lady Mordaunt, Edward couldn't help but write Lady Randolph Churchill secret letters—and these ones were steamy.
First of all, Edward called Jennie "ma chere," and she affectionately called him "tum tum" in these letters. But that's not the scandalous part...
With the Victorians, you have to read between the lines. While a lot of them were freaks in the sheets, Edward especially, they would never be so bold as to be explicit in writing. That's why Edward's letters to Lady Randolph Churchill might not seem so crazy. So he would sometimes ask to visit her for "Japanese tea" and "entertainments," what's so wild about that?
Well, when you realize what he meant by "Japanese tea," you'll understand.
Edward definitely wasn't talking about green tea. For he and Jennie, "Japanese Tea" meant that she would serve him tea wearing nothing but a loose-fitting kimono. Three guesses as to what he meant by "entertainments."
Dirty Bertie was the Prince of Wales for a long, long time. Queen Victoria was nothing if not resilient. But even Victoria couldn't live forever, and on January 22, 1901, she passed at 81 years old. Now, at the ripe old age of 60, the Playboy Prince finally became King Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India.
Victoria's worst fear had come true. Though their relationship had somewhat softened over the decades, she never quite got around to believing in her son. She spent her life assuming he'd make a terrible king—but Edward VII was full of surprises.
Edward VII's coronation went about exactly as you would expect: He invited several of his mistresses to attend, and even made sure the event organizers set aside a specific pew for "the King's special ladies." What, did you think becoming the King of England would change him? He just moved onto newer nicknames.
Dirty Bertie became "King Edward the Caresser" (a play on King Edward the Confessor), and our boy pretty much continued on with business as usual.
Queen Victoria never forgave her son for her husband's passing—so she couldn't see what was right in front of her: Scandals or not, Edward was one of the most popular men in England. The nation rejoiced when he became king. English writer J.B. Priestley even went as far as to call him "the most popular king England had known since the earlier 1660s."
And he did the people proud too: In the end, Victoria was wrong about her screw-up of a son.
As king, Edward finally earned a nickname that didn't sound seedy: People called him the Uncle of Europe because he was related to nearly every single monarch on the continent. He was a breath of fresh air after so many years of Victoria's stern and stuffy rule—but sadly, it didn't last long. Remember all those 10-course meals and stogies? Yeah, I think you can see where this is going...
Edward VII wasn't yet 70 years old, but his lifestyle had finally caught up to him. His health continued to get worse and worse, but contrary to what his mother believed, Edward took his role as king extremely seriously. On May 6, 1910, he suffered several heart attacks. His doctors tried to urge him to his bed, but he refused, saying, "No, I shall not give in; I shall go on; I shall work to the end."
And he did just that, because while he didn't realize it, the end was nigh.
Before long, Edward was too weak to stand. In a heartbreaking moment, his son George (the future King George V), tried to lift his spirits. George told him that his horse had won at Kempton Park earlier that afternoon. Edward faintly replied, "Yes, I have heard of it. I am very glad." Those were the last words he'd ever say.
Dirty Bertie. The Playboy Prince. King Edward VII. He passed on that night at 11:30 pm. He was 68 years old.
Queen Alexandra took over after Edward VII passed. She refused to allow anyone to move him for days after, though she allowed small groups of people to enter his room to pay respects. Finally, on May 11, she had her attendants dress Edward in his uniform and place him in a massive, custom-made coffin. Three days after that, she finally moved his body to the throne room to lay in state.
Strangely, Alexandra noted that Edward's body, now eight days cold, was still "wonderfully preserved." Good, I guess?
We can't leave Edward without one final scandal. Edward would have it no other way! Many of Edward's mistresses wanted to say goodbye—but most of them did it with a lot more tact than Alice Keppel. When she heard that Edward was not long for this world, she dropped everything and ran to Buckingham Palace. When she arrived, she demanded entry, allegedly waving a letter from the king himself.
The guards relented and allowed Keppel inside—though I'm sure they would soon regret that decision.
Queen Alexandra handled her husband's end with dignity and grace. Keppel? Not so much. Completely unable to control herself, Keppel made such a scene that even the infinitely patient Alexandra had had enough. The Queen muttered, "Get that woman away," and had her guards lead Keppel out. Hey, what can we say, Edward had a certain effect on the ladies!
That was the end of Alice Keppel's time in the upper echelons of English society. Shockingly, Edward VII's son, the new King George V, didn't feel like having his dad's old mistress around and did not invite her to his new court. Now that's a Victorian soap opera for you! But of course, we have to finish with the Widow of Windsor herself...
When Victoria became queen, she didn’t forget about the people who helped her—and she certainly didn’t forget about the people who hurt her. The moment she accepted the crown, she did the Christian thing and used her power for revenge; she had her nemesis John Conroy “banned from her presence.” Heck yeah, Victoria.
Everybody knows today about Victoria’s love for Albert, but history tends to forget the illicit man in her life. In the 1860s, Victoria started really relying on her Scottish manservant John Brown. The press had a field day, printing “slanderous” rumors that they had a secret marriage and calling Victoria “Mrs. Brown.” But the actual evidence is more scandalous than "slanderous"…
Victoria heaped praise on Brown both publicly and privately, and when Brown passed in 1883, she devoted much of her time to writing a biography on him. Oh, never heard of it? That’s because its contents were so juicy, she destroyed them. Her private secretary read a draft and demanded she wipe it out or risk confirming the romance rumors. Oh, but that’s not all.
On the surface, Victoria’s funeral was a tribute to Albert. But in private, it was something else entirely. Though She had Albert’s dressing gown beside her, her body concealed a dirty little secret. In her left hand, carefully hidden from her children via a bouquet of flowers, Victoria clasped a lock of John Brown’s hair and a photograph of her strapping Scotsman. Vicky, you naughty girl.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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