Kings, Crosses, and How to Disappoint your Mother
Glad Salutations, Los Angeles. I, Astor, hailing from the halls of Speakeasy Tattoo, have the honor to be your obedient servant in a felicitous jaunt to Jolly Old England. Fetch your tea and slippers, have a biscuit, and relax as we discuss the salacious personal lives of Victorian royalty.
Queen Victoria was a funny old girl. Despite her grim, severe reputation, there is ample evidence to suggest she was a creature who quite enjoyed all the carnal pleasures to which she had access. She was physically active, had a strong constitution, and every year for his birthday and their wedding anniversary, she would purchase for her consort, Prince Albert, statues and art filled with luxuriant nudes. Her love for him was epic and consuming, and between them, they had nine children. Far from the modern concept of the prudish Victorian, Victoria herself was quite dedicated to physical intimacy. However, she did not much care for its results.
Reportedly, Her Majesty strongly disliked child bearing, child birth, and the restrictions upon her personal freedom and independence that motherhood conferred. Though she realized the political advantages of being seen as a maternal figure, and the frank necessity of establishing a royal heir, she did at one point ask Prince Albert if indeed there was any way they could continue to be physically intimate without there being a danger of her falling pregnant. Prince Albert did not feel it was appropriate to tell her about the existence of condoms, which were in those days made of sheep intestine, tied on with a ribbon, and had to be soaked in water for several hours before use, to render them pliable. This was not the reason for Albert’s hesitance, though. At the time, condoms were not primarily sold as a contraceptive, but as protection against the transmission of disease. If it got out that His Highness was using condoms, then the assumption would be that the Queen had some form of STI, and that simply would not do. Because, while Victoria could privately enjoy a full range of pleasures and ecstasies, there was still an evangelical morality she was expected to embody publicly. So, she was stuck with her children. And, she was obliged to enforce that same morality upon them, as well.
These were the circumstances of Albert Edward’s upbringing. Called “Bertie” by his family, this young prince was heir apparent to the throne for sixty entire years, from his birth, until the death of his mother in 1901. As such, he’d been subjected to a thorough education in all matters academic, with tutors, professors, and governors working to ensure he was prepared to be every bit the monarch that his mother was. Throughout his young life, he was not an exemplary nor diligent student. His parents were not particularly pleased with his lack of studiousness, and it seemed he was not best pleased by their expectations, either, as it was only when he escaped them to attend university that he found joy in his studies for the first time. He attended both Cambridge and Oxford, though it seemed what he really wanted to do was join the British Army. Victoria was absolutely against the idea. He was given the courtesy title of colonel, but it wasn’t enough for him, as he’d wanted to earn a proper rank through service and examination. He was so committed to this idea that in 1861 he travelled to Curragh Camp in Ireland to watch the Grenadier Guards do military maneuvers. And it was there that he truly learned how to disappoint his parents.
He was, at this point, nineteen. He was well liked by all who knew him, and was regarded as both genial and sweet. He was also a sexual novice, and while he was at that army camp, his school chum, Charles Wynn-Carrington, 1st Marquess of Lincolnshire, arranged to have an actress, Nellie Clifden, secretly transported into Bertie’s bed so that he might have a different sort of education. They spent three non-consecutive nights together, and when Bertie’s parents learned of the affair, they were horrified. Prince Albert, already ill with what they at the time called “one of the low fevers” but was likely either Typhus or Crohn’s, travelled to Cambridge to give his son a reprimand. They talked it out while on a walk in the rain, which was probably cinematic, but was definitely not good for His Highness’s health. Not even two weeks after his last recorded tryst with Nellie Clifden, Bertie was whisked off to Germany. He was told he was going to watch more military maneuvers, but the true purpose of the trip was so the young Prince could meet Princess Alexandra of Denmark, whom Bertie’s parents had decided he’d marry. And, just two months after that, Prince Albert was dead.
Queen Victoria blamed Bertie for his father’s death. She would grieve for the next forty solid years, sleeping with her husband’s nightshirt in her arms, and wearing mourning attire until her own passing. Thoroughly disgusted by Bertie’s behavior, she claimed that Albert had died of a broken heart, and wrote to family to say that she could not bear to look at her son “without a shudder”. Consequently, she arranged to have him shipped off to the Middle East for a long, and importantly far-away, tour.
On paper, the purpose of the trip was to broker an agreement with Mohamed Sa’id Pasha of Egypt regarding trade through the recently-built Suez Canal and defense against French interests thereto. Perhaps he did that. I’m not interested in trade negotiations from 160 years ago. The important thing is, while Albert Edward was in the Holy Land, he got a tattoo. He had, after all, already alienated his mother, so what was one more thing? It was a Jerusalem Cross, on his forearm, more or less the same size and position as we might expect for a nineteen year old’s first ink today, but it made him perhaps the earliest English royal to have body art (that we know of). He certainly wasn’t the first to get a tattoo to commemorate a trip to Jerusalem— pilgrimage tattoos were fairly popular until Pope Adrian I outlawed the practice in the year 787— and he wasn’t the last English monarch to get tattooed, either.
Bertie did marry Princess Alexandra, in the end, and they had six children over the next eight years. Unlike his own parents, Bertie did not dissuade his children from participating in military life. His two eldest sons, Albert Victor and George, though seventeen and sixteen respectively, were serving as midshipmen aboard the HMS Bacchante in 1881 when the ship made port in Japan. The young princes were given leave from their ship, in order to meet with Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and to tour about Japan for as long as they were able. Very much impressed with what they saw there, the two brothers tried to immerse themselves in the culture as much as possible. This included learning to eat with chopsticks, and also, getting tattooed in the Japanese style.
Of course, many of the sailors with whom they were serving on the Bacchante would have been tattooed. But, the young princes were enchanted by the Japanese style, and though Emperor Meiji had forbidden the practice years earlier, he allowed an artist to go to the princes’ rooms, and do the work. According to George’s diary, Albert Victor’s design was a pair of storks, while George himself got a tiger on one arm, and a dragon on the other. He wrote elaborately on the beauty of the work, and his surprise that it did not hurt overly much.
I do not know whether Victoria was not amused by these tattoos, but it is interesting to think that from 1901, two consecutive British monarchs had tattoos— first when Bertie ascended to the throne and became Edward VII, and then when George succeeded him as George V. Much scholarship at this time was being devoted to the notion that tattoos were symptomatic of a psychologically criminal character, but Bertie apparently did not care about that. He got his ink, and then he went home and married a princess, which is as fairytale an ending as there can be. As far as we know, none of the core royal family have any tattoos, today. But, perhaps they should think about it, in honor of old Bertie.