In an October 2006 “Tooth and Claw” episode of BBC-TV’s hit science-fiction series Doctor Who, Britain’s Queen Victoria pays a visit, in 1879, to Torchwood House, in Scotland. Torchwood, which contains an observatory, was the scene of many a lively discussion about the mysteries of the heavens between Victoria’s open-minded husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861, and the house’s eccentric owner, Sir George MacLeish, who was fascinated by both the sciences and local folklore.
In the Doctor Who episode, a giant werewolf tries to wrest the throne from Victoria but is thwarted by the young and personable Doctor Who. But only apparently! The Doctor (a “Time Lord” who regularly saves our planet from disaster) tells the Queen she’s actually been rescued by the spirit of her late husband, who has intervened from the beyond. Victoria had already told the viewing audience that Prince Albert was intensely interested in all aspects of paranormal phenomena.
In devising this episode, the creators of Doctor Who are merely giving fresh expression to a lingering belief among Britons that Queen Victoria was deeply intrigued by the occult and that, after Albert’s death, she made desperate efforts to contact his spirit in the afterworld—and succeeded. These persistent rumors include the untoward insinuation that, through the agency of mediumship, Albert’s spirit was able to enter the soul of Victoria’s Scottish personal servant John Brown, thereby giving the Queen license to have an affair with Brown.
Is there any truth to this sinister scuttlebutt, which in the eyes of many casts an unwarranted occult shadow over the memory of a monarch who demonstrated, through-out her 64-year-long reign, many noble qualities and who passionately loved her foreign-born Prince Consort husband?
Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, as she was christened in 1819 (she died in 1901), presided over an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity for Great Britain and its empire. The British Empire no longer exists; since the end of World War II, the apparatus of imperialism has been largely swept into the dustbin of history. But Britons in the nineteenth century looked with pride on their empire, which spanned every continent, and upon which, they were fond of saying, “the sun never sets.” The empire reached its greatest extent seventeen years after the death of Victoria, who had been proclaimed “Empress of India” in 1877, and whose long and stable reign played an indispensable role in holding it together.
Victoria’s reign saw Britain’s industrial revolution make Britain a world leader in trade and commerce. This wasn’t accomplished without a struggle. It took fierce battles in parliament to abolish child labor abuses and to ensure minimally tolerable work standards for key sectors of the population. All this came about without actual revolution or major civic upheavals; Britain’s increasingly sophisticated system of parliamentary democracy, along with self-help organizations created by the workers themselves, managed to anticipate and ward off the more important of the crises. Britain’s Royal Navy—bigger than the next three biggest navies in the world put together—kept Britain safe from foreign invasion and gave it a logistical advantage in overseas conflicts. The social and political stability engendered by these factors encouraged an efflorescence of literary genius in Great Britain which included writers like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Anthony Trollope, and many more.
The enlightened stability of Queen Victoria’s long reign (1837-1901), including, not infrequently, her advice to her ministers (the queen herself had no ultimate power), helped make all this possible.
It seemed unlikely Victoria would succeed. She came to the throne when she was only 18 and, though she was clever and well-educated, it was a daunting task for her to suddenly have to contend on an equal footing not only with her own government but with all the leading powers of the day. Most historians agree that the young Queen would have succeeded only with the greatest of difficulty if it hadn’t been for her husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha (a tiny principality in Germany), a foreigner, imported from the continent, whom she married in 1840 when both were 21 (she was three months older).
This was an arranged, dynastic marriage; Albert himself was part of a ruling dynasty. But, as the movie Young Victoria, released in 2009, glowingly (and more or less accurately) portrays, it was a loving marriage, particularly for Queen Victoria, who had a keen appreciation of male physical beauty (she also preferred whiskey to milk or cream in her tea and loved sleeping in). Victoria confided to her journal:
“Albert really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios and light but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist; my heart is quite going.”
Lytton Strachey, writing in Eminent Victorians in 1911, wasn’t sure that Albert reciprocated these feelings:
“Affection, gratitude, the natural reactions to the unqualified devotion of a lively young cousin who was also a queen—such feelings possessed him, but the ardours of reciprocal passion were not his.”
Though “Victorianism” has become a code word for sexual propriety, Victoria and Albert seem to have pushed the envelope of that propriety. Victoria was constantly pregnant, and the loving couple introduced nine children into the world, all of whom survived to adulthood. The intelligent, talented, and hard-working Prince Albert took on an increasingly wide range of public functions. The Great Exhibition of the Art and Industry of All Nations, taking place in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and now regarded as the world’s first trade fair, owed much of its success to his ideas, enthusiasm, and leadership.
When Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42 (officially of typhoid fever, but modern research indicates it may have been stomach cancer), Victoria was crushed. So was the British populace, who realized how much Albert had given to Great Britain, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli summed up the general feeling when he wrote in his journal, “With Prince Albert we have buried our Sovereign. This German Prince has governed England for 21 years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our Kings have ever shown.” Victoria reigned for 40 more years, but so great was her mourning for her husband that she neglected many of her duties, including public appearances, until the late 1860s, and wore black for the rest of her life.
There had been hints in Victoria’s early life of a morbid fascination with death; this obsession came to full bloom shortly after Albert’s death. In Victoria: An Intimate Biography, biographer Stanley Weintraub writes: “For years she would sleep with his nightshirt in her arms. Every night thereafter [his death], she knelt at Albert’s side of their bed before she put her head on her own pillow . . . . Her precious cast of Albert’s hand, made in happier days, would be kept in their bedroom, near her. In each of their homes, his dressing room or study would be kept as it had been, even to the changing of linens, the daily replacement of towels and nightclothes, and—in the dressing rooms—the bringing of hot water for shaving each morning, and a scouring of the unused chamber pot. Yet each room would continue to be used in some way by Victoria.”
Author Michael Harrison provides a broader perspective: “. . . in Victoria’s stage-managed pretense that her dead husband was still a member of the household there was something so primitive that one was reminded of the elaborate domestic furnishings of Egyptian and Etruscan tombs: as elaborate an attempt to keep the dead ‘alive’—and as patently useless.”
The “table-tappng” Spiritualism of the U.S.’s Fox sisters had leapt across the Atlantic in 1851; ever since, there had been intense interest in England and France in communicating with the dead. The court of Queen Victoria was not immune from such influences. Two years after Albert’s death, rumors flew that Victoria had summoned to Windsor Castle the Hinckley, Leicestershire-born medium Robert James Lees.
Lees was only 14 at the time; he would later become a scholar, philanthropist, and friend of prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli. He had given evidence of psychic abilities from an early age, reportedly seeing a kilted Highlander sitting by his bed when he was three. When he was 13 or 14 (in 1862 or 1863), he conducted a séance at which he was said to have received, through an unidentified spirit guide, a message from Prince Albert.
Elizabeth Longford continues the story in Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed: “James Burns, editor of The Medium and Daybreak, put a paragraph in his paper describing the séance and dispatched it to the widowed Queen. She decided to test the boy’s bona fides by sending two Court officials incognito to the next séance. Lees again went under control [subjected himself to spirit guides], greeted the courtiers by their true titles, gave them the highest Masonic handshake and asked what Queen Victoria wanted. ‘She wants a name,’ they replied. Young Lees wrote down the secret pet-name with which the Prince Consort always signed letters to his wife, returning it to her in a sealed envelope.”
An article in The Two Worlds for August 1949 declares: “This led to a series of séances given to Queen Victoria at which Prince Albert gave convincing evidence of his identity, and his continued interest in the Queen and of this country. This led to a request to remain permanently at the court in order that the Prince Consort might be regularly communicated with concerning matters of state. Acting under the advice of his chief control, the request was declined, but John Brown, a young ghillie on the Balmoral staff, was named as a suitable substitute. Lees was however allowed to give séances to her Majesty in exceptional circumstances and did so.”
The “ young ghillie from Balmoral” (“ghillie” is from gille, the Gaelic word for servant) was quickly dispatched from the royal residence in Balmoral, Scotland, to Windsor Castle. John Brown remained in the Queen’s personal service for 20 years, until his death in 1883 at age 56. Longford writes that “except when too ‘bashful’ to receive messages from the spirit or any other world, [he] acted as the Queen’s medium until he died.”
Supposedly, Robert James Lees remained in the picture. Longford provides the traditional account: “Robert Lees is said to have stood in for Brown on several of these occasions [the séances], also being summoned shortly before the Queen’s death, when she kissed his hand at parting. Because of the stigma attaching to Spiritualism, Lees observed the utmost secrecy, corresponding with Queen Victoria only by courtier. Nothing of his royal connection (which is said to have included Queen Alexandra) emerged until he died in 1931. Then his daughter, Miss Eva Lees, told the story for the first time in the press. It has been retold in the course of 30 years to psychical researchers and writers including the present author [Longford] who heard it from Miss Lees in 1962. By way of tangible evidence, Miss Lees states that in her possession are half-a-dozen envelopes bearing the royal cypher which contained letters from Queen Victoria and other Royalties. Miss Lees also allowed the author to see a copy of her father’s first and best-known book, Through the Mists, bound in crimson morocco with the royal cypher stamped in gold on the cover—alleged to be a gift from Queen Victoria.”
Over the course of 20 years, Victoria and Brown became very close. He was given additional duties, many of which brought him into daily private contact with the Queen. Victoria was intensely fond of Brown—though we will likely never know the full extent of her true feelings for him, since, it appears, one of her children (possibly her youngest daughter, Beatrice, or, more likely, her son Albert when he ascended to the throne as Edward VII in 1901) destroyed most references to Brown in Victoria’s diaries.
Over the course of his life in England, rumors abounded regarding John Brown’s friendship with Queen Victoria. The sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm, who did a bust of Brown at Balmoral, is reported to have heard that the Queen had “got it into her head that somehow the Prince’s spirit had passed into Brown and four years after her widowhood, being very unhappy, allowed him all privileges.” Elizabeth Longford insists this was only hearsay. Longford believes such rumors were sparked and fanned into flame by a British press frantically in search of readers. Longford reports that, for example, “In August 1867 a satirical magazine, Tinsley’s, wrote that ‘their queen had gone mad—Brown was her keeper; had gone spiritualist—Brown was her medium; had gone wrong—Brown was her lover.’ ” Longford asserts this is sheer fabrication.
Biographer Elizabeth Longford raises real doubts as to whether any séances with Robert James Lees ever actually took place. Regarding the secret pet-name for Albert that Lees’s spirit guides released to Victoria’s ambassadorial courtiers as proof that Albert was being channeled, Longford maintains that no such pet-name existed, and that Albert always signed his private letters to Victoria “A” or “Albert.” Longford further asserts, regarding the Masonic handshake with which Lees greeted the courtiers, that Albert was never a Freemason and that Victoria had little else but contempt for Freemasonry. Longford also does not believe that the possession, by Lees’s daughter Eva, of letters purportedly sent by Victoria to her father are proof (because they are embossed with the royal cipher) that the séances with Robert James Lees ever took place. Longford says the letters (four, not half-a-dozen) contained only acknowledgements from the secretaries to the four royal recipients, who were the Duchess of York, Princess Henry of Batten-burg, the Princess of Wales—and Queen Victoria.
If the Prince Albert’s-spirit-channeling séances with Lees ever did take place, they have been the subject of a cover-up so massive as to be of truly regal proportions. This is just as true of any séances conducted by Brown in which he became the new vehicle for Albert’s spirit to the extent that he could have a more-than-Platonic relationship with Victoria. The only thing we know for sure is that the 130-year-old rumors of Queen Victoria’s uncanny love triangle that strayed into the afterworld have not lost their power (the Doctor Who episode is proof) to titillate us all.