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Not so steady Eddy

In the latest in his series on ‘eminent’ Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers a useless royal prince embroiled in sexual scandal... Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence

24 March, 2020 — By Neil Titley

Prince Albert Victor

IN 2018, when the royal family were debating which dukedom to confer upon Prince Harry, the title of “Duke of Clarence” was considered. Then, having considered the lives of the previous holders, the idea was dropped swiftly.

As Shakespeare noted, one duke had been drowned in a butt of malmsey wine; another had become an Obergruppenführer in the German Nazi Party; while a third had been suspected of being Jack the Ripper.

However, despite several Hollywood films claiming the opposite, the latter duke, better known as Prince Eddy (1864-1892), was not the “Ripper” culprit. He had a watertight alibi that during the evening of one of the murders he was dining with his grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Few people could have been born with more advantage – Prince Albert Victor was the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and therefore second in line to inheriting what Victoria herself described as “the greatest position there is” – the British throne.

Unfortunately he was also an unusually stupid boy. In the normal royal fashion he was sent at the age of 13 to train in the Royal Navy where his captain euphemistically reported “the abnormally dormant condition of his mental powers’. Rather optimistically, Eddy went on to Trinity College, Cambridge where his academic performance was predictably awful. He left with an honorary degree.

Moving across to the British Army, he proved to be an even worse soldier than he had been a scholar or sailor. The Army commander, the Duke of Cambridge, was astounded at just how obtuse the prince was.

The Duke, an old veteran, once questioned Prince Eddy about the Crimean War. He discovered that Eddy had never even heard of it.

If society was unimpressed by Eddy, Eddy was even less impressed by his position and birthright. He told a friend: “I would chuck it all up for five thousand a year”.

The only field where Eddy proved adept was debauchery. He was reported as “indulging in every form of vice and dissipation”.

Although a matter of historical dispute, it seems that at the Hundred Guineas in Portland Place (a transvestite club), Eddy’s nickname was “Victoria”. Letters to his doctor in 1886 detailed his medical intake for gonorrhoea discharge.

While such details remained secret at the time, the incident that really shocked Victorian society was the Cleveland Street Scandal. In July 1889 a telegraph boy at the main General Post Office in the City was found in possession of an unusually large amount of money. Suspected of theft, he confessed that he had earned it at a homosexual brothel in Cleveland Street, off Tottenham Court Road.

The police were called in and arrested a further four telegraph boys, including one who made a statement implicating two members of the House of Lords, saying that they were frequent visitors to the brothel. Even more disastrously, it appeared that Prince Eddy also frequented Cleveland Street.

In a flurry of cover-up, mostly orchestrated by the prime minister Lord Salisbury, the arrest warrants were delayed until their lordships had escaped to France. The Prince of Wales decided that his son, the errant Eddy, should leave the country on an extended royal tour of India… or anywhere else sufficiently remote.

Having weathered the storm – at least publicly – Eddy returned to Britain in 1890.

With discretion still low on his list of priorities, he then twice had to be extracted from compromising entanglements with girls from the Gaiety Theatre chorus line (one of whom, Lydia Miller, committed suicide by swallowing carbolic acid). It was alleged that the prince had requested she give up her theatrical career on his behalf, and that the authorities sought to suppress the case by making the inquest private and refusing access to the depositions. Similar to the Cleveland Street scandal, only overseas newspapers printed the prince’s name in relation to the case.

It was decided that the best way of coping with Eddy was to marry him off.

The first two choices fell through – Princess Alix of Hesse turned him down and went on to marry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (and to die in front of a revolutionary firing squad), while the wildly unsuitable Catholic Princess Helene d’Orleans married the Italian Duke of Aosta and became a fanatical Mussolini supporter.

The third possibility, Princess May of Teck, did not know Eddy and had no particular objection to marrying him. A very speedy engagement was planned in case she did get to know him.

However, in 1891 before the nuptials could take place, Eddy died aged 28 from a cocktail of illnesses including influenza, gonorrhoea and syphilis.

As several contemporaries commented, Eddy’s greatest contribution to the British Imperial Crown was to die. Most of the documentation on his life vanished – the Royal Archives announced later that “unfortunately his file has not survived”.

His younger brother George succeeded not only to Eddy’s inheritance but also to his intended bride, May of Teck. In due course they became the well-respected King George V and Queen Mary.

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details visit www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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