Queen Victoria: Irish? Illegitimate?

The circumstances surrounding Victoria’s birth are hardly romantic: the beloved Princess Charlotte of Wales, who was to inherit the British throne, died in childbirth in 1817. Her father, the Prince Regent, later George IV, had no other legitimate offspring, and neither had his brothers. A rather unseemly race to the craddle ensued among the princes, all anxious to sire the child who would carry on the Hanover dynasty into its next generation.

The winner, so to speak, was the Duke of Kent and Strathearn. Like his brothers, he kept mistresses, but, alone among the princes, had no certain illegitimate offspring. The Duke decided to make up for lost time and hastened to marry a suitable bride, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Lo and behold, a little princess, christened Alexandrina Victoria, was born ten months after these nuptials.

The Kents used the services of an Irish officer by the name of John Conroy. After the Duke’s death, which occurred only a few months after Victoria’s birth, Conroy enjoyed a confidential relationship with the Dowager Duchess of Kent and shared in the upbringing of little Drina (who was not yet known as Victoria) at Kensington Palace under the drastic “Kensington system” which consisted in treating her like a china doll and isolating her from other children. Perhaps one of the reasons why Victoria went on to have such a large family


John Conroy, by Henry William Pickersgill

Victoria herself, as an adult, hinted that she had then witnessed improper intimacies between her mother and Conroy, whom she loathed. Still later, she recanted such statements. In any case, she severed contacts with both her mother and Conroy (permanently in his case) upon succeeding to the throne at the age of 18. It is therefore possible that the Dowager Duchess and Conroy had been lovers.

Some have gone much further and asserted that Conroy was in fact Victoria’s father. Why? Mostly based on medical arguments. The ailment that plagued George III, Victoria’s grandfather, and led to its mental illness, is now believed to have been porphyria, and porphyria is rare or non-existent among her descendants, who number in the hundreds.

More convincingly, the hemophilia which Victoria notoriously transmitted to many of her descendants was unknown among her Hanoverian ancestors. So, the reasoning goes, Victoria’s true father would have given her genes that were free of porphyria but, in some kind of deadly trade-off, he would have bequeathed to her a legacy of hemophilia. From there to identifying the mystery father as the dashing Conroy, there is but an easy step.

Well, let’s review the reasoning. For one thing, retrospective medical diagnosis is far from an exact science. Some physicians are hard-pressed enough to diagnose their live patients with the benefit of  21st century tests… George III’s madness may have been a symptom of porphyria, but I can think of many other culprits, in particular gold or lead poisoning, not unusual at the time in the upper classes.

Some descendants of Victoria have been retroactively “diagnosed” with porphyria as well. However, the most recent, and only scientifically documented porphyria sufferer in the House of Windsor was also descended from George III by another line, through which he could have inherited the disease. So the only sure case of porphyria among the British royal family may have nothing to do with Victoria’s genes. The porphyria argument is totally inconclusive one way or the other.

The hemophilia question is better documented. Sadly the disease is hard to mistake, and there is no doubt that it appeared among Victoria’s descendants, and was unknown in her ancestry. However, fingering Conroy as the supposed father doesn’t fly: he would have had to be a carrier himself, which in a male entails lifelong ill health and, in the 19th century, an early death. Conroy died in 1854, at the age of 68, which in itself precludes hemophilia in a 19th century male. His military career is at odds with any possible diagnosis of hemophilia. Also, his known descendants have shown no symptom of the condition. So the likelihood of Conroy being Victoria’s father is very close to nil.

This leaves us with the possibility of some unidentified hemophiliac male who would have been the Duchess of Kent’s lover in the weeks following her marriage. Only problem with this therory: we have not the least shadow of a hint of a beginning of a proof of it.

So I decided to to go back to the basics, just as people would have done in the 19th century, and look at physical resemblances. I found this excellent and obviously likelike portrait of the Duke of Kent, Victoria’s father, at the National Portrait Gallery:


Edward, Duke of Kent, by Sir William Beechey

Now, for Victoria, her painted portraits tend to be idealized images that fail to give us a realistic image of her features. Fortunately she was not shy about being photographed. Here is a daguerrotype of a youthful Victoria, with her elder daughter the Princess Royal:


Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal in 1844

Now if I mentally shave off the Duke of Kent’s whiskers, and add tresses to his bald pate, I simply gaze at Victoria’s face. I see the same prominent, aquilline nose, the same mildly receding chin, the same full cheeks. Only the lips are different, more upturned in the Duke, but overall the resemblance is striking. Any readers more proficient than I with Photoshop are welcome to superimpose the two faces.

Now let us go back in time another generation at look at this profile of George III, father of the Duke of Kent and grandfather of Victoria:


George III, by Allan Ramsay

Again same nose, same jawline, same cheeks. And as a bonus we even have Victoria’s characteristic mouth. It had simply skipped a generation. The conclusion seems unescapable: Victoria was a true Hanover, the daughter of the Duke of Kent, and granddaugher of George III.

So whence the hemophilia? The Duke of Kent was 54 at the time he fathered Victoria, and we know now that genetic defects are more likely with older parents (and not only older mothers.) A mutation may have occurred, with dramatic consequences in this case.

So what about Conroy? Maybe his memory is somewhat to blame for Victoria’s somewhat strained attitude towards her Irish subjects.

And a happy Saint Patrick Day!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email