|There are hundreds of urban legends about royals – in history, on the internet, in common parlance, they abound everywhere. You must have come across them, I know you have. Whether you’ve been talking to a friend, reading the paper or just using extravagant analogies, we’ve all come across comments comparing people to the sadistic Caligula, the evil Lucrezia Borgia, or the gluttonous Henry VIII.
Sometimes, we assume the legend is true. It’s usually not out of ignorance but, rather, because a story becomes part of popular culture or modern folklore. As the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire and, in some instances of royal history, that’s quite accurate. In a few instances, however, the politics of an era, its social mores, and the power of folklore create an image which subsequent scholarly research shows to be quite untrue. Sometimes, all that’s needed is time to bring hidden documents to light. And sometimes, it was all a lot of rubbish to begin with, but the rumour caught fire anyway. Modern research has shown some of these rumours to be the result of some political, cultural, or social need; but it’s still too late, the legend has caught hold of the popular mind.Human nature is such that we revel – almost guiltily – in the titillating and salacious. How many of you have sometimes given a quick peek at a particularly juicy tabloid story? How many of you have occasionally grinned at the embarrassment of some popular actor whom you’ve thought was an over-rated, arrogant buffoon? I know I have.
Take that barely sublimated feel of vicarious superiority, combine it with an elemental appreciation of seeing the mighty fall, and perhaps you’ll see why certain myths take hold in the popular imagination. Go one step further and combine that natural, human response with today’s increasingly short attention span – and what do you get? A stewing pot of half-formed beliefs that have just enough truth to withstand a cursory, gossipy conversation but little else.
It’s the perfect laboratory for an urban legend, where a controversial fact becomes “true” simply by virtue of being repeated long enough. In short, people have just enough knowledge to get the wrong idea, and then they repeat that misconceptions to others who, in turn …..
Well, I think it’s time to discuss some of those commonly repeatedly rumours. Just because something has been repeated over the centuries as the gospel truth doesn’t mean that it is, in fact, true. By the same token, just because something has been repeated ad nauseaum doesn’t mean it’s false.
This week’s column will focus on a few of those popular myths from Lucrezia Borgia and Napoleon, to the “Prince Albert” piercing, Anne Boleyn, Jack the Ripper and the royal prince, Richard III, and Hungary’s Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. I’ll avoid some of the truly obvious ones, so that I may discuss some of the more controversial or popularly misunderstood urban legends. A few of the royals discussed below will be analysed in greater detail in subsequent columns but they still warrant inclusion on this list. If you have a special curiosity about someone on this list and would like to see their life explored in depth, please let me know. In the meantime, let’s get down to details.
In each of the following instances, I’ve tried to give a simple one line summation about the urban legend in question. Sometimes, the reference will be immediately obvious to one reader but it won’t be to another. So, I’ll be as basic as possible. Following the summation, I’ll explain the “Status” of the legend; in other words, if it’s true, false, in controversy or some variant in between. Then, I’ll give a brief historical explanation about the context surrounding the story and why it should be treated as true, false or up for debate.
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Legend: Prince Eddy, Queen Victoria’s grandson and second in line to the British throne, was “Jack the Ripper.“
Explanation: Prince Albert Victor, the son of The Prince of Wales, was popularly known as “Prince Eddy.” He was named Duke of Clarence in 1891 and would probably have succeeded his father as King had he not died of the flu during the epidemic of 1891-1892. There were unconfirmed rumours that the Prince was slightly retarded but it’s safest to say that he was simply rather slow and not particularly bright.
Rumours concerning the Prince and “Jack the Ripper” had existed at the time of the investigation into the Whitechapel murders, but they really took off after 1970. That was when Dr. Thomas Stowell published an article in a criminal journal claiming to have solved the mystery. Stowell relied on papers left by Sir William Gull who was Queen Victoria’s physician. Sir William had apparently treated Prince Eddy for syphilis, a condition that slowly eats away at the brain. Dr. Stowell’s article never explicitly names the killer as Prince Eddy but, rather, calls him “S.” The person is easily recognizable as the Prince. Stowell’s theory is that the killer had syphilis, went mad and committed the murders. Stowell’s argument has been disproved on a number of different levels but so have all subsequent attempts to link Prince Eddy to “Jack the Ripper.”
Quite simply, the Prince had unbreakable alibis for many of the key dates. In fact, Eddy was not even in England on the day of two murders. Court circulars and royal records show that he was in Scotland, at a large house party where he was seen by hundreds of witnesses, shooting grouse with Prince Henry of Battenberg. He also had strong alibis on the dates of several other murders. See, http://www.casebook.org/suspects/eddy.html.
For those interested in the subject of Prince Eddy, the late, great historian and royal biographer, Theo Aronson, wrote an excellent discussion of his life and the “Jack the Ripper” legend in “Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld” (1995)(out-of-print but available used).
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Legend: The Queen Mother, consort to King George VI and mother to Queen Elizabeth II, used artificial insemination to conceive her children.
Status: Controversial, unresolved, but most probably false and highly unlikely.
Explanation:This legend has its roots in Kitty Kelley’s 1997 book, The Royals. Kelley quotes an “unnamed royal family friend” as her source for the claim that the Queen Mother resorted to “manual fertilization.” Since then, stories of “turkey basters” have become urban legend. It’s one which, in my opinion, is highly unlikely.
Although artificial insemination has existed, in some form or another, since the 1700s, it’s highly unlikely that a man as shy, reserved and private as King George VI would have agreed to the sorts of intrusions required for success. One may argue that kings have done a lot less for an heir, but this King truly lacked the sort of ruthless, brash personality for such actions.
Another strike against the book is that royal insiders were quite unwilling to assist Ms. Kelley with her research. And, arguably, it shows: a large numbers of reviews that found her allegations to be “unsubstantiated.” Ms. Kelley has repeatedly claimed she leaves no rock unturned in her research, but the shrill, extraordinarily nasty tone of the allegations in this book really leave one to wonder if she just had an axe to grind. The book is a compendium of every possible royal urban legend in existence, and the evidence for the claims flimsy beyond belief.
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Legend: Kitty Kelley’s book on the British Royal Family was banned in the UK
Explanation: Kitty Kelley’s book has never been published in the UK, leading many conspiracy theorists to allege that it was banned. The story has now risen to the level of urban legend but it is completely untrue. Britain’s tough libel laws differ greatly from those in the US and would certainly have led to a large verdict against Ms. Kelley and the publisher. As a result, neither was willing to take the risk of releasing the book in Britain. At no time did the Royal Family ban the book.
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Legend: Napoleon was poisoned to death
Explanation: The exiled Emperor died on the island of St. Helena in 1821 after a lingering decline and a final period of intense stomach pains. Rumours spread that the British had killed Napoleon to get rid of a thorn in their side and to end any political influence which he might still have. To counter these allegations, British military doctors on St. Helena performed an autopsy and found evidence of stomach cancer, which was given as the cause of his death.
In the 1960s, new tests found abnormally high levels of arsenic in his hair and suspicions were raised anew that the Emperor had been murdered. For the longest time, the two main suspects were the British or a close aide of Napoleon’s, the Comte de Montholon. According to some, the Comte murdered Napoleon under directions from the British. This theory was recently disproved by new tests on Napoleon’s hairs which suggested that he had been exposed to arsenic over a long period of time, as opposed to simply his brief exile on St. Helena. The results were interpreted as “clearing” the British. “British ‘cleared’ of Napoleon’s murder,” (October 29, 2002) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2371187.stm
Be that as it may, questions still remain over the arsenic and why Napoleon’s hair showed such high levels. Some possibilities involve arsenic being used in 19th century hair restorer, to create certain colours for wallpaper, or in other innocuous products. Others continue to insist that Napoleon was murdered. One of these is the President of the International Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider, who strongly rejects the claim that Napoleon died of cancer. (For his analysis of the situation, see http://perso.club-internet.fr/ameliefr/E-Conference2.html)
Personally, I think there are plenty of innocuous reasons for the arsenic findings and do not believe Napoleon was murdered. Nonetheless, the matter is unresolved and open to debate.
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Legend: Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, had 6 fingers on one hand
Status: Unproven and almost certainly false.
Explanation:Folklore has always given Anne six fingers but there is no real evidence to support the claim. The rumour can be attributed to Henry VIII himself who repeatedly charged his wife with witchcraft when he’d tired of her and wanted to end the marriage. George Wyatt, grandson of Thomas Wyatt and one of Anne’s very few friendly biographers, stated she had a “double nail” on one of her fingers. http://tinyurl.com/5hm3n A misshapen nail is much more likely than a separate sixth finger, particularly as any deformation was seen in the Tudor era as a mark of disease or even God’s disfavor. It’s unlikely that Henry VIII would have wanted the mother of his children to be thus marred. http://fine-eyes.net/anneboleyn/myths.html In short, the myth should be discounted as false.
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Legend: Champagne glasses were created after being modeled on Marie-Antoinette’s breasts.
Explanation: There are various different versions of this story but the most familiar involves Marie-Antoinette who was said to have champagne glasses made out of molds of her breasts so courtiers could drink to her health from them. The second most prevalent story involves Madame du Pompadour. The mistress of King Louis XV supposedly had the saucer-shaped coupe glasses commissioned for her lover who supposedly greatly admired her breasts. In all cases, however, the story is false since the coupe was invented far before any of these ladies were born.http://www.snopes.com/business/origins/champagne.asp
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Legend: Prince George, the Prince Regent and future King George IV, was a bigamist.
Explanation: Prince George, the eldest son of King George III, and known as “Prinny” was already married when he was forced into his ill-fated, unhappy marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. Legend has it that he fell in love at first sight with Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow, whom he saw standing on the stairs of the Opera House in 1784. Whether it was love at first sight or not, one thing became clear: the Prince was deeply enamoured. He pursued her for quite a while but Mrs. Fitzherbert was an extremely religious woman and refused to become someone’s mistress, even if that “someone” was the future King of England.
The Prince was not used to being rejected or not getting his own way. To show Maria how serious he was, he attempted “suicide,” but he made sure he had a doctor on hand just in case. Prinny wanted to make a grand gesture and get his way, not to actually end his life, which he enjoyed far too much. Maria was terrified but she agreed to marry the Prince.
On December 15, 1785, the two were secretly married. The marriage was valid under canonical and ecclesiastical laws. However, it was illegal under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 which required the monarch’s consent before any member of the royal family could get married. Here, the King had never agreed and it would have been out of the question to ask him since he did not approve of Mrs. Fitzherbert.
There was another, equally important, reason why the Prince’s marriage was kept secret. Under the Act of Settlement of 1689, the Prince automatically forfeited his right of the succession by marrying a Roman Catholic.
The marriage was one of the worst kept secrets in society but the couple were so discreet that most people looked the other way, with the exception of older segments of high society and Beau Brummell, the Prince’s close friend and society’s arbiter. The couple spent most of their time in Brighton where Prinny was building and furnishing Brighton Pavilion. Mrs. Fitzherbert had a home in the Old Steine with a secret passageway into the Pavilion; she also had a home in London, close to the Prince. Both homes were purchased and furnished by the Prince. Never good with money in the first place, the Prince was racking up huge debts in this period, close to £1,000,000. It was a huge sum in those days, the equivalent to something like £80,000,000 today. http://www.eh.net/ehresources/howmuch/poundq.php
The Prince was running out of money and neither his father nor anyone else was willing to help him. The King, who was increasingly tired of his extravagant, scandalous son, finally agreed to pay the Prince’s debts if he got married. The King’s choice: his niece, Caroline of Brunswick. The King knew full well about the Prince’s secret marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert; who didn’t? However, as noted above, it was illegal under the terms of the Royal Marriages Act.
Prinny and Mrs. Fitzherbert separated briefly when he married Caroline in 1795. Since the Prince had never been officially married to Maria, he didn’t need to obtain a divorce. After his daughter was born, the Prince renewed his pursuit of Mrs. Fitzherbert. She, always the good Catholic, asked for the Pope’s guidance. In 1800, Pope Pius VII reaffirmed the validity of their marriage. Even Princess Caroline agreed; she considered Mrs. Fitzherbert “the Prince’s true wife.”
The couple got back together and stayed together for almost a decade. They separated permanently when the Regency was declared in 1811, and they remained apart even when Prinny became King in 1820. However, Maria was well-taken care of: she received a yearly stipend from the royal family until her death in 1837 at the age of 81, long after Prinny’s death in 1830. She was considered by many to be the King’s widow and his one real love. In fact, his dying wish was to be buried with a miniature of her face, a wish that was granted.
For a fun, richly anecdotal, but also well-balanced, biography of Prinny, you might want to try Saul David’s “Prince of Pleasure: The Prince of Wales and the Making of the Regency,” (1999). For a complex discussion of Maria and her marriage to the Prince, you can try James Munson, “Maria Fitzherbert: The Secret Wife of George IV” (2002).
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Legend: Lucrezia Borgia was murderess who engaged in incestuous affairs with her father and brother.
Explanation: Few woman have a reputation like Lucrezia Borgia. Over the centuries, she’s become a symbol of sexually depraved evil, a Mata Hari capable of murder and incest, who discarded husbands and lovers alike, or a cold blooded killer who doled out a fatal dose of poison from a cunning ring or necklace. Her very name is associated with poisonings and sex, but the truth is very far from the legend. Modern scholarship has shown Lucrezia to be a rather unfortunate young woman who was the victim of her mad brother’s sociopathy and her father’s ruthless ambition.
Lucrezia was born in 1480 into the mighty Borgia family. It had its roots in Spain but it really dominated the Italian political landscape. The family was headed by her father Rodrigo, the future Pope Alexander VI. Her mother was not married to Rodrigo but was merely one of his mistresses. She bore him four children, including Lucrezia’s infamous older brother, Cesare, and another brother, Juan. In 1492, Cardinal Rodrigo became Pope. The first whiff of scandal around the Borgias arose when the new Pope installed a young mistress in the palace next to St. Peters and visited her openly. It wouldn’t be the last scandal associated with the Borgias.
As for Lucrezia, she’d already been engaged to two Spanish nobles before the age of eleven. Her father had broken each engagement because he had higher aspirations, aspirations that were fulfilled when he got Lucrezia betrothed in 1493, at the age of thirteen. The candidate was Giovanni Sforza, an aristocrat whose family ruled Milan. It was not a happy marriage, even though the marital contract explicitly said that no consummation could take place for a year. Sforza was a weak man who tried to play political games against the Borgias, and lost. Rodrigo Borgia was not someone you wanted as an enemy, so Sforza fled Rome fearing for his life.
In 1497, the Pope filed divorce papers on Lucrezia’s behalf, and that’s when the problems began. Sforza was pressed to sign the divorce papers, specifically one attesting to non-consummation of the marriage by reason of his impotence. Sforza was well-known to have fathered several illegitimate children and the allegation about his virility infuriated him. He retaliated with the claim that the Pope wanted the divorce because he wanted his lovely daughter all to himself.
The accusation stuck, then and throughout history. The Borgias were feared and hated in Rome, and more than one powerful noble was eager to believe that the Pope was having incestuous relations with his daughter who was 18 by then. Eventually, the charge came to encompass not only the Pope but also Lucrezia’s brothers, Cesare and Juan.
One of the reasons was the political atmosphere of the times. The Borgias were seen as a corrupt family, but people were unwilling to target them openly due to Cesare’s hotheaded, murderous nature or her father’s vindictiveness and might. Lucrezia was an easier target for rumours. She was also a young, beautiful, blonde woman, so people took delicious glee at the thought that she might be having sex with her father. Over time, the rumours were taken as the gospel truth.
Another reason for the rumours is that the Borgias were an unusually close family, something which wasn’t easily understood at the time. It certainly bewildered Sforza who found the Borgias’ ostentatious display of closeness to be incomprehensible. Michael Mallet, The Borgias: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Family (1987). Lucrezia’s brothers may have been divided by rivalry and jealousy, but they both loved her very deeply. So did her father, although not in an incestuous way. Lucrezia, in turn, seems to have been driven by a deep compulsion to please her family in all matters, no matter what she felt inside or how questionable their activities. Thus, when Cesare insisted on including Lucrezia in some of his vicious “sports” — such as shooting unarmed criminals from the balcony of the Vatican with a cross-bow — Lucrezia sighed and followed his “request.”
Cesare hurt her reputation in other ways too. When her lover, a young Spaniard, was found murdered, it was universally assumed that Cesare had done it a fit of incestuous jealousy. When Lucrezia’s other brother, Juan Borgia, was murdered and his body fished out of the river, no-one suspected Cesare (although he was indeed the killer) but people whispered that Lucrezia was inhumanly cold and unaffected.
In reality, she’d been devastated by the news and it ended her one attempt at extricating herself from her family’s web. Lucrezia had fled to a convent soon after her father had filed the Sforza divorce papers. She allegedly wanted to take the cloth and become a nun. She was so determined that she refused to leave no matter how much her father blustered. Her beloved brother’s death ended all that. Lucrezia quietly returned to the Borgia fold and resigned herself to her fate. Before the ink on the divorce papers was dry, she’d been married off again. This time, her husband was the Duke of Biseglie, a member of the Neapolitan ruling family. Their marriage was a happy one until the Duke’s family fell from power. Then, Cesare murdered him too.
Cesare died at the age of 30, far before his sister, but the damage to her reputation had already been done. He, more than any one else, was the cause of her legend as a vicious murderess. The reality is that Lucrezia was neither a monster, nor a vacuous blonde but a woman with limited options in her time. She tried her best to resist her family’s machinations but she simply lacked the power to do so.
As one commentator put it, a “study of Lucrezia’s life in view of her popular image makes the peril of taking ‘popular knowledge’ as fact extraordinarily clear. Lucrezia Borgia was a woman who has been shamefully and undeservedly maligned for centuries and whose few champions have been only very moderately successful in setting the record straight. It is, indeed, a cruel irony that this woman, who was the least awful of her clan, has received a reputation as being among its worst.” Marguerite Wolf, http://www.dragonrest.net/histories/lucrezia.html
For a truly stellar analysis of Lucrezia, her fascinating life and family, and her very different later years, I suggest Sarah Bradford’s “Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy” (2004)
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Legend: “The Blood Countess,” Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Bathory, took baths in the blood of virgins in order to keep her youth and beauty.
Status: False, although many of the Countess’ other infamous deeds are true.
Explanation: Erzsébet (or Elizabeth) Bathory was a Hungarian countess, who was born around 1561 into one of the richest, most powerful Protestant noble families in Mittel Europa or Middle Europe. Her maternal uncle was the King of Poland, Stephan Bathory (1533-1585). Some of her cousins were Princes of Transylvania and one of them even made a grand marriage into the Habsburg Imperial family. Her other relatives included a cardinal and the Prime Minister of Hungary.
Madness supposedly passed through the Bathory veins. Many of her relatives had a dark side: one uncle was supposedly addicted to rituals and worship in honor of Satan; her aunt Klara was a well-known bi-sexual and lesbian who enjoyed witchcraft and torturing servants; and Elizabeth’s brother, Stephan, was an infamous lecher and drunkard around whom no female woman or child was safe. Elizabeth’s uncle, King Stephen, was no exception to the list because his savagery in battle has often been cited as evidence of the family’s derangement.
Elizabeth was reportedly stunning beyond belief, one of the most beautiful women of the era, with legendary paleness, jet black hair and rather “mad eyes.” She was married to a Hungarian noble, Count Ferencz Nasdasdy, at the age of 15. The Count was frequently away on military campaigns against the Turks, leaving Elizabeth alone in castle on a lonely mountaintop in the Carpathians. She soon got bored and tried to devise ways in which to keep herself entertained.
She found it in torture. Numerous historic reports showed that Elizabeth had a veritable passion for torture, which was directed at both her servants and at peasants within her fiefdom. Elizabeth began with the servants, punishing them mercilessly for the slightest infraction, actual or imagined. It was historically common for aristocrats to brutally beat their servants, even to the point of death but Elizabeth took it much further than an occasional disciplinary matter. On some occasions, she whipped the servants until they bled to death; on others, she would put a naked servant girl outside, covered in honey, for the animals and insects to devour. She sewed up the mouth of a girl that talked too much, while burning the genitalia of others. By some accounts, she even invented the horrific torture device, the Iron Maiden. She also developed the “art” of freezing a girl to death during the winter by pouring water over her naked body until it hardened and she was unable to move. And when Elizabeth was merely in a bad mood, she used branding irons, razors, pincers and torches.
When the Count died in 1604, Elizabeth got even worse. It is at this point that the legend takes on overtones of the vampire stories. According to legend, one day, a servant girl accidentally pulled too hard when brushing the Countess’ hair and Elizabeth slapped her so hard that she drew blood. The blood fell on her own hand, instantly transforming it into the freshness of youth. Elizabeth, vain and proud about her legendary beauty, was convinced she’d found the secret of youth. She ordered her servants to cut up the young maid and drain her blood into a big vat. Elizabeth bathed in it to keep her entire body young and continued to kill young peasants for years thereafter in order to keep her beauty.
That’s the legend but is it true? There is little evidence for the claims, some of which may have arisen out of political conflicts of the time pitting various powerful families against each other, as well as Protestant versus Catholic.
A more likely explanation of the legend is that Elizabeth was covered in blood from her love of torturing victims. Her personal log put the number of her victims as high as 650 but there are questions about that document. A few recent historians have argued that Elizabeth’s victims probably numbered two or three hundred but nothing as high as 650. Whatever the case, reports of Elizabeth being virtually covered in blood probably stemmed from the viciousness of her torture methods, not from any wish to bathe in blood itself.
Since her death, her legend has grown. In fact, it’s often hard to separate fact from fiction. A review of modern scholarship leads me to believe that Elizabeth never drank blood or bathed in it. Some extremely well-respected historians have argued that the allegations against her must be seen in the political landscape of the time and that her “legend” was embellished for political reasons. One theory which has been brought forward stems from her status as a rich widow who was a prey for powerful men. The theory alleges that Elizabeth’s political machinations could have resulted in the confiscation of her properties by the Emperor. Her relatives, which included Count Thorzo who eventually brought her to justice, preferred to keep her rich inheritance for themselves.
I’m a firm believer that events must be read in the political context of the times, so I find the latter theory not wholly implausible. The “political context” theory has gone a long way towards explaining away some of the things in the Dracula legend. Vlad the Impaler, the Prince upon whom the legend is based, has been the subject of more than a few historical embellishments. If any thing, it was Elizabeth Bathory who was the real inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel, not Vlad.
Still, there is only so far one can go with the “political context” theory, at least when it comes to the Countess who truly was a monster beyond belief. She may not have taken “baths in the blood of virgins” or drank their blood, but her other actions gave ample credence to the subsequent legends. For one thing, it is undisputed that Elizabeth killed hundred of people, making her one of the biggest serial killers in all of history. For another, Elizabeth did, indeed, rip out pieces of her victim’s flesh with her teeth. Not to eat it, necessarily, but simply as part of her peculiar sociopathy and madness. Equally true is the fact that she tortured people to such a point that she was frequently covered in blood, hence the legend that she “bathed in blood.” Lastly, there is no doubt whatsoever that Elizabeth took the brutal disciplinary tactics of the age to new, sadomasochistic levels and thoroughly reveled in each new, heinous method of inflicting pain.
Sources: Valentine Penrose’s “Erzsébet Báthory, La Comtesse Sanglante,” translated in English as The Bloody Countess: The Crimes of Elizabeth Bathory (1996)(my note: very detailed, researched account but not recommended, because of a genuinely peculiar style of writing which overwhelms the facts and is far from the professional approach by most normal historians. The author’s style seems to be an attempt to recreate a surrealist, artistic text. Only the very patient can get passed the style to the historical fact underneath); Tony Thorne, Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elisabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess (1998)(my note: an excellent account of the Countess’s life which attempts to place it in a historical context and which does not quickly accept some of the myths surrounding her); Raymond T. McNally, Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania(1987)(my note: although Mr. McNally is the foremost expert in this area, his book should not be considered for anything other than the most basic facts about Elizabeth Bathory’s life. Some of his allegations have been proven to be dubious because he simply goes too far. On the other hand, the book he co-authored with Radu R. Florescu on Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and his Times (1990) is truly excellent. It places the Prince in a historical context and debunks many of the legends, which have arisen around him.) Also consulted: The True Crime Library, at www.crimelibrary.com; The Mad Monarchs site, at http://tinyurl.com/62jud.
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Legend: The “Prince Albert” genital piercing and ring was named after Queen Victoria’s husband.
Explanation: The “Prince Albert” is a form of male, genital piercing in which a metal ring is placed through the foreskin and into the urethra. The practice has become associated with Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, who allegedly wore a ring attached to his penis which was then strapped to his thigh. The reason usually given is the clothing styles of the day. The strapping prevented any unseemly bulges, while keeping the smooth line of the tight trousers that were fashionable at the time.
There are no contemporary accounts of the Prince having such a “dressing ring” but that is not surprising. The Victorians – particularly the royal couple – were famed for their prudishness. In public, at least. After all, this was a society that insisted on table legs being covered up lest people get improperly aroused. Furthermore, after Victoria’s death, her daughter ripped out and destroyed large portions of Victoria’s diaries out of fear that something “untoward” and improper would be revealed. The same mindset would definitely have applied to such intimate practices as genital piercing. In short, it’s not utterly impossible that Prince Albert had a “dressing ring” but it hasn’t been proven either.
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Legend: Richard III killed the two princes in the tower
Status: Controversial, unproven and still the subject of much debate.
Explanation: Richard III had been vilified by historians and Shakespeare alike. One of the “crimes” for which he has received the greatest infamy was the death of his two, young nephews. The young princes were Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, sons of King Edward IV and his Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.
Their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, came after them in the line of succession. Richard III dealt with that problem through an act of parliament which declared the two princes illegitimate. Although the parliamentary decree might seem unjustified, there were a few questions about their parents’ marriage and, specifically, whether a precontract to another woman would have rendered it invalid. Nonetheless, “bastardy” was not an automatic bar to succession; it could be remedied by law, and bastards had a history of inheriting lands and titles. In short, the young princes arguably had an unqualified right of succession to the British throne, a right that was much stronger than their uncle.
Richard was undeterred. The parliamentary decree had “officially” resolved the princes’ role in the succession and paved the way for his own rule. In 1483, he placed the young princes in the Tower of London, which was, at the time, a palace as well as a prison. Eventually, the princes just disappeared from sight.
Their fate is unknown. It’s been speculated that they died at a young age, that they escaped and lived their lives abroad, or that Richard simply had them killed. The English author, Sir Thomas More, wrote that they’d been murdered and buried at the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. In 1674, the skeletal remains of two small bodies were found at the bottom of a staircase in the Tower of London. The bones seemed to date to the late 15th century. They are the best evidence for the claim that the princes were murdered, as opposed to the other possibilities put forward to explain their disappearance.
History has placed the blame for the young princes’ death on Richard III but is it justified? Some historians (and Shakespeare himself) have argued that Richard killed the young princes. The theory is that Richard III had an insecure grasp on the monarchy and that the Princes were a threat to Richard so long as they were alive.
However, there is another equally plausible candidate for the role of villain. Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who became King Henry VII and the father of Henry VIII. Henry Tudor succeeded to the throne in 1485, after defeating Richard in the Battle of Bosworth. Henry’s right to the throne was arguably shakier than Richard’s because it derived from right of conquest on the battlefield. Furthermore, he was a ruthless man who hadn’t hesitated to kill other potential rivals for the throne. Why not two little boys who had been hidden away over the preceding two years and who had the strongest claim of all?
Finally, Henry VII did not hesitate to use the young princes’ family to legitimize his claim. He married their sister, Elizabeth of York, to add the patina of a blood right. However, Elizabeth’s right to inherit the throne depending on both her brothers being dead. As a result, Henry ordered one of his nobles act on his behalf and kill the young princes soon after he ascended the throne.
Or so the theory goes. In reality, there is no proof of Henry’s guilt; any more than there is of Richard’s. We probably will never know what happened to the young princes, or who killed them.
Nonetheless, people should be cautioned at accepting the popular historical image of Richard III. Shakespeare’s play went out of its way to demonize the late King and the mud has stuck to this day. Yet, both the play and some contemporary accounts need to be placed in the context of the times. Shakespeare wrote the play around 1591, less than a decade after the Tudors had come to power, when the wounds of the longstanding “War of the Roses” were still fresh. Furthermore, Shakespeare depended on royal patronage for his livelihood; it would not have been politically wise to write something showing Richard III in a positive or well-balanced light. In short, both his play and the commentary of other contemporary writers need to be taken with a grain of salt.
That’s not to say that Richard was a saint. Far from it. However, history is rarely black or white, particularly at the highest levels of power. Richard III did many terrible things but killing the two princes in the tower may not be one of them.
Sources: Michael Hicks, Richard III (2003)(an excellent, balanced portrait that strips away the propaganda by both Richard III’s apologists and his detractors); Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower (1995)(makes a strong case that Richard III was guilty of the young princes’ death but isn’t very willing to consider other theories or suspects.)