Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wanted their sons to be the new European order of chivalry and wanted to rid themselves of the reputation of the House of Hanover. This they believed was to be the monarchy’s success and so they depended on their four sons.
Prince Leopold was the youngest and 12 years younger than Bertie. He was the most intellectually curious of all the children, and this Victoria recognised:
“His mind and head are far most like his dear father.”
Even though he was a lot like her beloved Albert, Victoria did not warm to him. As with Bertie, she focused on Leopold’s appearance:
“A very common looking child – very plain in the face…clever, but an oddity and not an engaging child. The ugliest and least pleasing of the whole family.”
Sadly, at age 6, Leopold was diagnosed with haemophilia, which he inherited from his mother, although she was not a sufferer. Through her children, haemophilia flowed into the royal bloodlines across Europe and as far as Russia. Leopold’s diagnosis was very hard for Victoria to accept and she punished herself and Leopold for his illness. He became her figure of the ‘saintly suffering invalid’ – a sentiment many understood from reading Charles Dickens, as he had so many of these characters in his stories.
But Leopold was far from the suffering invalid. He was feisty, quick tempered and determined to overcome his illness. When his father died he was almost 9 years old and returned from Europe to a house of mourning. He was informed, by his tutor, that his mother wanted no noise or excitement on his return, and slowly this house became his prison.
Becoming a single mother of 9 children filled Victoria with dread. There were aspects of especially raising her boys that frightened her most and sex, for example was difficult for her to discuss with her sons.
In 1870 Leopold approached his mother about going to university in Oxford as he was desperate to be in an environment where he felt he fitted in. Victoria was furious and did not speak to him for 7 months. He persisted and eventually, begrudgingly, she gave in and he was allowed to go as long as it was for “study and not for amusement”. She insisted he stay in a house in north Oxford with handpicked minders. He was only allowed male visitors, and only if they were of good standing. She really did not want him to enjoy himself.
But Leopold did! He thrived in Oxford, loved university life and was intellectually stimulated. Here he had freedom. It was here too that he met Alice Liddel, a young lady, who as a child, had provided the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alice was the second daughter of Carroll’s dean at Oxford College and it was rumoured that Leopold had fallen in love with her and even considered marriage.
On leaving university as 23, Leopold wanted to find a useful role as far away from mother as possible. Even at his wedding to Princess Helene Friederike of Germany, Victoria stated how embarrassed she was that he was walking with the aid of a stick. As soon as they produced a child, Leopold put himself forward to be governor of Victoria in Australia. He could not get further away from her than the Antipodes.
The queen firmly blocked the request, saying, “His first duty is to me, which he never understood. Sad and suffering as I am, I was made ill by this new and totally unexpected shock”.
But Leopold pleaded, “My brothers have been given appointment after appointment. And though the many sad disappointments of my life have not led me to expect much, it would indeed be bitter to lose this, the last thing I will ever beg of you.”
It is believed that this clash with his mother impacted on his health, and to gain his strength, he went to the south of France to recuperate.
In 1884 he bumped his knee while climbs stairs at the yacht club in Cannes. This caused severe internal bleeding and he had to be carried back to his hotel. It was here that he wrote his last letter to his wife, ending off with an explanation of how the pain prevented him from writing more, and even his signature tailed off. He died that night.
Leopold was only 30 years old, and although Victoria mourned him, she was still frustrated that he had not accepted his life as an invalid. He had been the son she believed most resembled her ‘saintly’ late husband, Albert and this was indeed a terrible loss for the queen.