QUEEN VICTORIA’S YOUNGEST SON
Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884) is considered by many to have been the most intelligent and probably the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s four sons. He was the youngest and a strong-willed, attractive character, with an immense thirst for life. He was also, however, the first royal haemophiliac and suffered continual ill health.
After reading this book, I have nothing but admiration for Prince Leopold who bore his illness and his domineering mother with such grace and fortitude. Leopold was born on 7 April 1853 and was the eighth child and youngest son of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. We are told Queen Victoria had misgivings about her youngest son from the moment he was born and wasted no opportunity in telling everyone how ugly she thought he was. For the next few years, Queen Victoria continued to criticise her son and when it became apparent he had a serious medical issue, she tightened her grip on him and wouldn’t let go.
Much has been said about how Queen Victoria expected her unmarried daughters to act as her secretary with the view of keeping one of them by her side until her death, however this is the first time I’ve heard of her grooming Leopold for the same role. Convinced his illness would prevent him from marrying, Queen Victoria limited his choices so he would be completely devoted to her service and it broke my heart learning how cruel she was to him. Every time Leopold tried to break away from her, she would accuse him of being selfish or idle but the reverse was actually the case. Leopold was just as hard working as his father and was probably more like him than any of the other sons.
Zeepvat takes us through Leopold’s childhood and his time in the nursery where he was constantly compared to his older brother, Prince Arthur, who was said to have been a very charming and attractive child. Although those who were close to Leopold found him an affectionate and intelligent child. Despite the comparisons, Leopold and Arthur got along extremely well and Leopold was bereft when the older boy left the nursery to start his more formal education. Intensely lonely, Leopold wasn’t allowed to have companions his own age in case it triggered a bleed and he would be plagued with depression his whole life.
Zeepvat tries to give Queen Victoria the benefit of the doubt by describing her actions as those of an overprotective mother who was determined to curtail her son’s activities to prevent him from suffering. The truth is little was known about haemophilia at that time and she was convinced her son would grow out of it. The Queen’s refusal to let her son live as normal a life as he could though was enormously damaging to his self-esteem and it’s a shame she couldn’t show the same concern for the unsuitable servants she chose for him. As well as putting up with constant periods of illness, poor Leopold was bullied by Archie Brown, the brother of Queen Victoria’s favourite, John Brown, who was put in place to help him. Archie and his fellow Highlanders were able to get away with all sorts of behaviour because they held such favour with Victoria who wouldn’t hear a bad word said against them.
As Leopold grows into manhood, he becomes ever more eager to escape the prison his mother has created for him and he manages to persuade her to let him go to Oxford where he really comes into his own. Surrounded by like-minded people, Leopold really blossoms in his new environment and it is only spoiled by his mother’s constant demands for his attention. As stubborn as his mother, Leopold often lets his temper get the better of him which strains his relationship with his mother to breaking point but he starts to learn how to appeal to her vanity to get his own way. The friends Leopold makes at Oxford hold him in good stead for the future and they all show unswerving loyalty to him when he needs it.
As he gets older, Leopold begins to long for a family of his own and knows it is a further step toward freedom for his domineering mother but it won’t be easy finding a bride who will overlook his health problems. Surprisingly, Queen Victoria takes up the challenge of finding a suitable wife for her son despite the fact she thinks he is making a mistake and will be unsuited to marriage. However, since he is so adamant to marry she must ensure the match is a suitable one. After a few false starts, Leopold finally secures a wife in the shape of Helen of Waldeck and Pyrmont who is at least match for him intellectually. After only two meetings, Helen accepts Leopold’s marriage proposal and the prince is overjoyed.
Zeepvat does a great job of capturing Leopold’s different emotions throughout the book and you find yourself rooting for him when he is searching for a wife even though you know Helen is just around the corner. I would have liked the author to have spent a little more time on Helen and their life as a family, however the couple weren’t destined for a long marriage. The last chapter or so seems rather rushed as we head into the final days of Leopold’s life and it is over before we know it. He’s alive and then he’s not. I felt nothing but sorrow at the loss of this exceptional man who endured physical and emotional pain so bravely.
In regard to the origins of Leopold’s haemophilia, Zeepvat questions the common belief it was caused spontaneously in Queen Victoria and puts forward a theory the gene may have already been present in the female line. Acknowledging it is impossible to prove, Zeepvat backs it up by pointing out the numerous early deaths of many of the males on that side of the Queen’s family. The truth is we will probably never know.