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A black and white photograph of Queen Victoria on a horse with John Brown

The biggest royal scandals of Queen Victoria’s reign

Image: Queen Victoria and John Brown at Balmoral, 1863. Photograph by G. W. Wilson | Public Domain

Queen Victoria and her family: austere, repressed, and rather dry? Not a bit of it. The royal household was actually embroiled in juicy scandals that featured forbidden love, illegal gambling and an illicit lair of lust.

The ‘Mrs Brown’ scandal

One of the most enduring enigmas of Queen Victoria’s reign involves her close friendship with her Scottish servant, John Brown. The brusque, no-nonsense Brown played an essential part in helping Victoria adjust to life after the early death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. But was there more to it than mere platonic friendship?

Heated gossip certainly swirled around the pair. John Brown’s shockingly informal manner with the Queen, and his high-handed, even rude way around other royals, seemed to suggest his closeness with Victoria was, in the words of one contemporary insider, ‘contrary to etiquette and even decency’.

The monarch wrote passionately about Brown in letters and private diaries, praising his ‘tender, warm heart’, his ‘fearless uprightness’ and his ‘strong, powerful arm’. A Swiss newspaper even reported that Victoria had married her servant and was carrying his child. Nothing was ever conclusively proven, however, and the truth of their scandalous friendship has been debated ever since.

The Lady Flora Hastings rumours

Long before the John Brown chapter of her life, Queen Victoria found herself mired in a very different kind of scandal. It involved Lady Flora Hastings, lady-in-waiting to Victoria’s mother, who in 1839 presented herself to the Queen’s doctor with abdominal pain and swelling.

She was thought to be pregnant, an assumption that was initially kept under wraps since she wasn’t married. However, rumours did start to spread, with the approval of Victoria herself. Lady Flora had been part of the royal household during Victoria’s upbringing, when the young heir to the throne was subjected to a strict system of rules and regulations that left her isolated and unhappy. The Queen still harboured a grudge against Lady Flora because of her association with this bleak time in her life. Worse still, Victoria suspected that the father of the illegitimate child was a much-hated guardian from her childhood, Sir John Conroy, whom the Queen dubbed a ‘monster and demon incarnate’.

In fact, Lady Flora was not pregnant: she was very ill with cancer and died soon after. Conroy and others spearheaded a press campaign to slam the Queen and her ‘fellow conspirators’ for smearing and defaming Lady Flora. It dented the young Queen’s popularity, and Victoria would long feel guilt over the whole affair.

The Cleveland Street scandal

One of the most sordid scandals connected with the royals unfolded in 1889 when a teenage Post Office messenger boy was investigated on suspicion of theft after he was discovered to be in possession of 14 shillings. The truth was rather more jaw dropping: the lad confessed he’d earnt that money as a sex worker at a male brothel located in Cleveland Street in central London. This was a startling situation, since homosexuality between men was punishable by years behind bars.

Overseen by DI Frederick Abberline, best known as the man who’d tried to snare Jack the Ripper, the Cleveland Street investigation led to some boys being given surprisingly light sentences. There was press speculation that the ‘indescribably loathsome scandal in Cleveland Street’ was being swept under the carpet to protect some high-ranking visitors to the house.

One VIP linked to the brothel was Lord Henry Arthur Somerset, head of the stables for Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales (who later said ‘I won't believe it, any more than I should if they accused the Archbishop of Canterbury’). A news report suggested there were other punters who were ‘more distinguished and more highly placed’ – perhaps including the Queen’s own grandson, Prince Albert Victor.

Rumours ran rampant, especially in the foreign press, with one US newspaper describing Albert Victor as a ‘vile wretch’ and a ‘stupid, perverse boy’. However, his

involvement with the brothel was never proven, and he would die of natural causes just a few years later.

The Royal Baccarat scandal

Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII, was a notorious playboy and hedonist. His passions included food, women and gambling, with the latter landing him in very hot water in 1891. The scandal stemmed from a game of baccarat that took place during a party at the country home of a shipping millionaire.

One of the players was Sir William Gordon-Cumming, another infamous playboy who was once described as ‘possibly the most handsome man in London, and certainly the rudest’.

Gordon-Cumming was alleged to have cheated during the baccarat game – an accusation he angrily denied. An agreement was made that the other players would say nothing of this grave offence if Gordon-Cumming signed a declaration promising to ‘never to play cards again as long as I live’.

However, much to Gordon-Cumming’s annoyance, the story did leak out to become the subject of much high society gossip. Gordon-Cumming decided to sue several of the baccarat players for slander. The trial was a media circus, with the future king appearing in the witness box and society ladies watching events through opera glasses. Edward was clearly nervous, described by one journalist as ‘decidedly fidgety’ and almost inaudible when he gave his account of the baccarat game.

Gordon-Cumming lost the case. In the words of a newspaper, he was ‘condemned by the verdict of the jury to social extinction’. However, the public was largely sympathetic to Gordon-Cumming, and resented Edward for his part in the whole ugly affair. The prince became deeply unpopular for a time and was even booed at Ascot that same month.