4. Victoria’s Secret
Were they lovers or were they not? That is the intriguing and titillating question asked about strait-laced Queen Victoria and her manservant, John Brown. Bereaved by the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, when she was 42 with nine children and an empire to rule, Victoria found solace and comfort in the company of her Scottish servant at Balmoral Castle.
As the years went by, John and Victoria would forge such a bond that when Brown died, Victoria told her sister-in-law, “You have your husband—your support, but I have no strong arm now.” John was her confidante, and there is no doubt that Victoria loved him, the “best, the truest heart that ever beat.” Such a tender and intimate relationship between a queen and a commoner would have raised eyebrows even today. But did it go beyond affection to something more sexual?
For 130 years, rumors have persisted that John and Victoria were secretly married. There are hints of a cover-up: Victoria’s diaries suspiciously retained only few references to Brown after her daughter Beatrice was through editing them. Brown’s own diaries had been destroyed. The manuscript of the memoirs the queen wrote about him was also destroyed.
After Victoria died, her doctor, Sir James Reid, bought off a blackmailer who was harassing King Edward VII with 300 letters, which Reid described as “most compromising.” They were correspondence between the queen and the manager of the Balmoral estate, who had a dislike for Brown. Sir James himself once came upon John and Victoria in a suggestive situation.
Controversial evidence has surfaced in the diaries of a politician named Lewis Harcourt, who wrote in 1885 of a Reverend Norman Macleod of Barony Church in Glasgow, who “confessed . . . on his death bed that he had married the Queen to John Brown, and added that he had always bitterly regretted it.” It is hard to dismiss the respectable Harcourt as a gossip—he served in Liberal governments and retired with a peerage in 1916.
We may never know the true relationship between the queen and her servant. When she died, Victoria clasped a photograph of John Brown in her hand as she lay in her coffin. Among the mementos of Prince Albert and her children surrounding the body were a lock of Brown’s hair and his handkerchief. And on Victoria’s finger, as her last request, was Brown’s mother’s wedding ring. We leave the reader to judge.