Almost forgotten in history is the name of Queen Victoria’s grandson and heir to the British throne, the handsome Prince Albert Victor, or ‘Eddy’ as his family called him. Eddy had an illustrious future ahead of him, yet by the time of his premature death in 1892, he had disappointed his family, been linked to a sexual scandal and it was even suspected that the prince was the notorious Whitechapel killer, Jack the Ripper.
Every time the idea that Prince Albert Victor is mentioned as being Jack the Ripper, a chorus of disapproval meets the claim. However, as many as there are in this chorus, there are just as many who are nodding vigorously on the sidelines.
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, the future King Edward VII, and his wife Alexandra of Denmark. As grandson to the ruling Queen Victoria, he was therefore heir presumptive to the crown of the United Kingdom.
Prince Eddy’s future was beyond dazzling. He was tall, dark and handsome as well as kind and good-natured. But despite these 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, clearly the favourite son, found himself in the role of ‘carer’ to his elder brother.
Albert Victor, Duke Of Clarence (Eddy) pictured with his brother, the future George V.
Increasingly irritated and concerned by his older son’s apathy, Bertie chaffed Eddy 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.
Absurd though it seemed, it was decided that Eddy should go to Trinity College, Cambridge. But instead of struggling to keep his head above water, the happiest time of his life began. 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,a first cousin of Virginia Woolf and the son of a prominent lawyer, judge and writer, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, 1stBaronet.
Modern historians have been divided on Eddy’s sexuality. Some maintain there is no concrete proof that the prince was anything other than heterosexual but others are not so sure, suggesting he was at least bisexual. What is referred to, delicately and vaguely, are Eddy’s ‘dissipations’ that were far more scandalous than the usual vices of the young men of his class such as drinking, gambling and wild sex. Nobody, least of all his own licentious father, would have raised an eyebrow at a few mistresses or visits to prostitutes along the way.
Two years into university, Eddy was in the limelight over his preference for the “gaieties of London society” and an obsession with a young lady by the name of Lady Churchill. 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 he had developed a taste for expensive clothes. Lady Churchill was given an interview with Victoria and the next thing we hear is Eddy was awarded an honorary degree by the university and detached to the 16thRifles in Malta under the guardianship of Colonel Greville after being lectured severely by his grandmother, his father and his mother.
It was the first time Eddy had been sent off on a foreign duty, evidently as a severe course of discipline, but strangely enough, at the exact same time that Eddy was cooling his heels in Malta after the Lady Churchill affair, James Stephen reportedly had a rather bizarre accident where the horse he was riding shied and backed him into a moving vane of a windmill. In a book written by Peter Harrison on the life of The Duke of Clarence, (Eddy) the suggestion is that Stephen and Eddy had been lovers at Cambridge but when the affair ended, Stephen became morose and depressed. Then when Eddy appeared to have moved on with Lady Churchill, Stephen became unhinged and distraught. It was later discovered that he had become a patient of Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir William Gull, in 1888, who declared Stephen’s brain had been permanently damaged in the accident and he was slowly going mad. This is probably the time to add that letters dated between 1885 and 1886 had surfaced, written from Eddy to his doctor, with details of medicine he was taking for gonorrhoea.
Many, including his grandmother Queen Victoria, who called Eddy “the greatest prize there is”, had prayed that he and his cousin Alexandra of Hesse would marry. But Alexandra rejected her grandmother's suggestion, instead choosing the Tsar of Russia's son, the future Nicholas II, making her the future Empress Alexandra. This one fateful decision meant a very different destiny for her. Instead of dying in the blood-soaked cellar at Ekaterinberg – the fate which met Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra and their five children – she might easily have lived a long, contented life in the splendour of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. To the royal family at the time, Alexandra’s refusal was an unwelcome confirmation of their own secret fears that something was quite ‘wrong’ with Eddy.
It was Bertie himself who, at his witsend over what to do about his wayward heir, insisted Eddy should go on a long tour of the more remote colonies and certainly nowhere near the capitals of Europe. But what exactly was so shocking about Eddy’s shenanigans that put the jaded Bertie into such a panic? Enter Jack the Ripper.
The East End of London had become a vast, densely inhabited working-class district full of dark, narrow courts and alleyways with many lodging houses, small workshops and moist, foggy wharfs. It was packed with street urchins and prostitutes living in reeking, damp dwellings while men in top hats and cloaks meandered the gas-lit alleyways. Even before the brutal murders, a spotlight had been thrown on the abject poverty of east London. Employment in the nearby docks and markets were often casual and seasonal where thousands of men, women and children were ruthlessly exploited, toiling away for long hours for little pay.
A theory has been suggested that Eddy had impregnated one of the murder victims, Annie Crook, 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. Annie was a rather plain Catholic girl, working in a ‘shop’ on Cleveland Street notorious for its brothels, who stated that she had made a clandestine marriage to 23-year-old Eddy and together they had produced a daughter.
It goes on to say that when Queen Victoria heard the Annie story, she was horrified at the possibility of yet another scandal involving Eddy because blackmail was always uppermost in her mind. But the notion of Catholic and Protestant royal blood mixing was probably a cause of greater royal angst than the idea that the heir but one to the throne, should have a lover from a different class. After all, his father, the soon to be King Edwards VII, was believed to have enjoyed playing the field, in particular, the muddy fields populated by the lower classes.
She appealed to her Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to put an end to the liaison and Salisbury ordered a raid on Cleveland Street to apprehend Annie and silence the whole affair. However, they were just a tad too late. It seems embarrassing matters hadn’t been hidden at all. Annie’s friend, Mary Kelly, was spreading the story far and wide, telling the romantic tale of her friend Annie and the Prince and how Annie had been dragged away to hush up the marriage and the birth of little Alice.
With the gossip spreading like wildfire, Salisbury had panicked and enlisted the help of the royal physician, Sir William Gull, to ‘eliminate’ all Mary’s friends who may have listened to the story. Those friends were Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride: all Ripper victims. It’s believed that Catherine Eddowes was just at the wrong place at the wrong time when the Ripper had been disturbed in the process of killing Elizabeth Stride. Finally, Mary Kelly herself had to be eliminated. And rather damningly, once Dr Gull had successfully completed his assignment, the killings miraculously ceased.
But while some are pointing their fingers at Queen Victoria’s physician, other Ripperologists have a different idea. The name that keeps popping up is James Stephen. Jack the Ripper was active in the year 1888, coincidentally the exact year that James Stephen was being treated by Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s private physician for madness.
Now researching this story, and joining all the dots together, bells are clanging madly in my head along with loads of questions. Is there a veiled hint of a cover up here? Why would the royal physician, Sir William Gull, have anything to do with Stephen and his rather odd accident? Had there even been an accident with the windmill vane or had Stephen simply had a meltdown when he heard of his friend’s association with Lady Churchill and begun…let’s say…killing prostitutes? And knowing that both Stephen and Eddy were ‘close’ for years at Cambridge, is it possible that both men could have contracted gonorrhoea, perhaps even syphilis? Is it possible that Eddy was also slowly going mad? And if so, was he ‘mad’, perhaps ‘deranged’ enough, to commit the Ripper murders? One of the first suspected victims, Emma Smith, stated that twomen had attacked her. Is it too impossible to imagine a cover up where reports conveniently surfaced that Eddy was in Balmoral at the time of the murders? Is that why Bertie sent Eddy away in such a panic? Or was it actually Stephen who had been the Ripper, killing women in areas he knew Eddy was known to frequent?
So, was it Eddy, or Stephen or Sir William Gull acting on Victoria’s behalf? Or was it someone entirely different? Nothing will ever be proven and as we know, Jack the Ripper suddenly disappeared without a trace and was never found or heard of again. But for many months afterwards, Eddy was secreted away from the public eye and somewhat miraculously - and suspiciously - the killings ceased.
One year later, things had just begun to settle down and the press had stopped rehashing the grisly details. Then like a bad penny, Eddy’s name popped up again in July 1889 but this time during a raid on a male brothel at 19 Cleveland Street, coincidentally the same street that Annie had once lived. At the time, all homosexual acts between men were illegal, and clients were facing social ostracism, prosecution, and at the worst, two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The scandal implicated high-ranking figures in British Society and top of the list was Eddy’s name once again.
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 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 did 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 should never be permitted to ascend the British throne.
Whether Eddy had actually visited the brothel with his friends or whether he was gay or more than likely, bisexual, is beside the point. The point was Eddy had already been implicated in the Ripper murders and now he was implicated in a homosexual brothel in the same area that the murders had taken place. He had become a huge problem to the royal family.
c1889, Edward, Prince of Wales (and future Edward VII) and his wife Alexandra, Princess of Wales (third from left) and their five children. From left, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence; Maud, Queen of Norway; Louise, the Princess Royal, Duchess of Fife. Front, Prince George (future George V) and Princess Victoria.
Bertie and Alexandra were inundated with anonymous letters until Bertie intervened and swept it all under the royal carpet, although suspicious whispers still persisted. It wasn’t just his son’s sexual preferences that Bertie was concerned about. His son Eddy had become a chain-smoking, aimless layabout and something had to be done. Two months later, Eddy was sent away on a seven-month tour of British India, although court officials stated that the time had already been planned months before.
Strangely enough, Bertie was living through a very similar version of his father’s dilemma and Bertie’s remedy was exactly the same as his fathers had been. What Eddy needed was a wife.
Eddy seemed blissfully unaware that the scandal was breaking news in London. He was writing a letter to his cousin Lord Battenberg pouring out his heart that he was totally in love with his first cousin Alexandra of Hesse and his desire to marry her. Then out of the blue, he received a letter from her. She could not possibly marry Eddy as she had set her mind on marrying someone else: his cousin Nicky, the heir to the Russian throne.
The choice of a bride for Eddy was very limited. His mother ruled out his first cousin Margaret (whose mother was his aunt Vicky in Germany) not only because Margaret was a despised Prussian but also because the marriage to yet another German would not have been at all palatable to the English. What they should have been concentrating on, in my humble opinion, was yet another marriage between first cousins. Eddy was by no means an intellectual gladiator to begin with, so what would be the prediction for his future children? Had they forgotten all about George III?
Nevertheless, his family continued to sift through the German gene pool for a bride, but while they looked, Eddy was doing some searching of his own. He had met Princess Helene d’Orléans, the 19-year-old daughter of Prince Philippe Count of Paris and Infanta Maria Isabel of Spain and he declared he had fallen in love with her.
Eddy had overlooked one major detail when he set his sights on Helene. She was a devout Roman Catholic and as such, a marriage to her would have meant a constitutional forfeiture of Eddy’s claim to the British throne under the Act of Settlement passed by William and Mary in 1701. And his grandmother told him in no uncertain terms that thatwas not going to happen.
It all got a little messy and somewhat desperate sounding when Helene tearfully offered to become an Anglican and Eddy offered to renounce his succession. But it was Helene’s father who had the final say. He would not allow her to convert. In any case, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, had serious objections to the alliance as well and even if the father had agreed, the proposed marriage seemed doomed from the outset.
Helene should have been counting her lucky stars because while Eddy was sprouting undying love to her only weeks after having told Alexandra that he was hopelessly in love with her, Eddy was being treated yet again by several doctors for 'a form of venereal disease' while sending eye-popping graphic letters to Lydia Miller, a former chorus girl from the Gaiety Theatre. Meanwhile he was appealing to his solicitor to help him pay off two other ladies who were demanding money for the return of explicit letters he had also sent to them. It was sounding all too reminiscent of Bertie’s behaviour.
The next name on the list was Princess Mary of Teck, a daughter of Victoria’s first cousin Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, the granddaughter of King George III through his youngest son Adolphus and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Victoria’s father Edward and Adolphus had been brothers and when the baby race was in full swing after the death of their elder brother’s only child and heir, Charlotte during childbirth, Edward had beaten his brothers to both the altar and the nursery.
Eddy and Mary, who chose to be called May, had nothing in common. She wasn’t beautiful, rich or sufficiently royal and if you asked anyone for their opinion, they’d have told you that her family was actually quite embarrassing. May’s father Prince Francis of Teck had humiliating public temper tantrums and her mother was selfish, loud, seventeen stone and known as ‘Fat Mary’. And Mary Adelaide had expensive tastes, choosing the high life of parties, holidays abroad, expensive clothes and loads of food. Hence the name ‘Fat Mary’ I imagine. What Mary Adelaide didn’t have was a rich husband.
At the same time that May and Eddy were getting to know one another, the newspapers came alive again with a story about another Ripper murder in Whitechapel. At 2.15am on Friday 13th November 1891, the body of Frances Coles was discovered, with her throat slashed from ear to ear. A policeman had passed the spot 15 minutes before and was adamant that the body hadn’t been there then. Returning at 2.15am, he heard a man’s urgent footsteps running away and shining his torch into the dim archway, he noticed a figure lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The consensus was that once again the Ripper had been disturbed before he could complete the grizzly crime.
Eddy and May’s engagement early December 1891 took everyone by surprise. On his grandmother’s strong recommendation, Eddy proposed to May, who of course readily accepted, and for the first time in a very long while, things looked like they had turned around for the better. Eddy would have a beautiful wife by his side and with the marriage date set for a rather hasty two months time on 27thFebruary, he would be appointed Viceroy of Ireland. To add to the bubbling cauldron, while the engagement notice was being published in the newspapers, Lydia Miller (the Gaiety Theatre showgirl) committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid.
Quietly in the shadows, while plans progressed for Eddy’s wedding, Eddy’s younger brother George had fallen in love as well. His intention was to marry his 17-year-old first cousin Princess Marie, the daughter of his uncle, Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, but things were not going smoothly. Intricate family squabbles surfaced when Marie’s mother, the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, resented the fact that, as wife of the younger son of the British sovereign, her daughter would have to yield precedence to George’s mother Alexandra, whose father after all had only been a minor prince before being called unexpectedly (and let’s face it luckily) to the throne of Denmark. With her mother so adamantly opposed to the marriage, there was not much Marie could do except turn George down when he proposed to her. Instead, she would marry Ferdinand, the future King of Romania, and the marriage was all set to go ahead on 10th January. George was crushed.
While George licked his wounds, plans were made for 8th January to celebrate both Eddy’s 28th birthday and his engagement with a shooting party at Sandringham organised for the 6thJanuary to precede the birthday party two days later. I can’t imagine George would have felt much like celebrating either events since Marie would be walking down the aisle on 10th, two days after the birthday party.
The weather had been bleak and partway during the day, Eddy felt ill and walked back to the house after lunch. It was the year when influenza was rampant and newspaper reports outlined the progress of the pandemic as millions of people died all over the world. On the morning of his birthday, Eddy struggled downstairs to see his presents but felt too ill to appear at his birthday party that night. The next day the doctors were called.
Within days, Eddy’s condition had worsened and newspaper reporters saw Bertie anxiously pacing up and down in the softly falling snow at Sandringham as he fretted. Shortly afterwards George appeared but by then Eddy was delirious with fever and did not recognise anyone. His fingernails and lips had turned a vivid blue, and he was raving ‘Helene! Helene!’ By 14th January, he was dead.
I wonder what Marie was thinking when she heard the news of Eddy’s death four days after her wedding to Ferdinand? Was she angry that her mother had forced her to marry her second choice? And what was her mother thinking? Was she regretting her … yes, I’m going to say it … haughty decision not to let her daughter marry George? If Marie had gone with her heart, she would be the one marrying George and she would certainly not be ‘yielding precedence’ to Alexandra as her mother had so snootily pointed out. It seems a dreadfully sad twist of fate that Marie would spend the next few years of her marriage in wretched unhappiness, struggling to adjust to life in Romania.
As the terrible news of Eddy’s death was being published in every newspaper in the country, Stephen was reportedly starving himself to death in the asylum. By 3rd February, he was dead as well.
Obviously, we can never know what sort of monarch 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 Alexandra, the girl Eddy had once yearned to marry, might well have died an old lady in the peaceful safety of some English country house instead of a pool of blood in a dank cellar in Ekaterinberg.
Like all ‘lost’ princes, Eddy is one of the fascinating ‘what ifs’ of history.