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Prince Leopold

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, April 8, 2020


Illustration of Prince Leopold by Jim GodfreyPrince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, studied at Christ Church in the 1870’s, and has been romantically linked with Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland


Early Life and Health

Prince Leopold George Duncan Albert was born at Buckingham Palace on 7 April 1853, the eighth child and youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. During her labour Victoria had chosen to use chloroform as pain relief, a new and rather controversial practice, though this did much to popularise its use. Leopold was named after Victoria’s favourite uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium, and was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Private Chapel of Buckingham Palace on 28 June 1853.

Although originally intended for a career in the British Navy, it soon became apparent during Leopold’s childhood that he suffered from haemophilia (inherited on his mother’s side), a rare condition that affects the blood’s ability to clot and can cause prolonged bleeding, sometimes with fatal consequences. He may also have had a mild form of epilepsy. As he grew older he became more and more prone to painful bruising and his joints would lock when he fell, rendering him incapable of moving. It meant that his childhood was a rather lonely one, as he was forbidden from playing with his siblings.

Due to his ill health Leopold was a constant source of anxiety to Victoria. She tended to be overprotective towards him, and he spent much of his childhood fighting against this. In fact Leopold was a lively and spirited child, with a great sense of adventure. He was also very bright, like his father, whose artistic tastes he shared. At the age of nineteen he asked to study at Oxford, something his mother was initially very reluctant to allow. She eventually relented, but set severe restrictions on how he was to behave.

In 1872 he entered Christ Church, where he studied a number of subjects, living with his tutor at Wykeham House in St Giles. He became president of the University Chess Club and made friends with such celebrities as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde. He left university in 1876 without graduating, but with an honorary doctorate in civil law.

It is often speculated that during his time at Christ Church Leopold was romantically involved with Alice Liddell. Whilst it is true that Leopold was a regular guest at the Deanery, and that Mrs Liddell had high ambitions for her daughters (she was known in Oxford as ‘the Kingfisher’!), Queen Victoria would never have permitted her son to marry a commoner. In fact, Leopold married a German princess, (Helena, daughter of Wilhelm II of Württemberg) but when, in 1883 they had a daughter, he named her Alice. He also stood as godfather to Alice Liddell’s second son, Leopold, born a few weeks earlier. He was also a pall-bearer at the funeral of Edith Liddell in 1876.

After Oxford, Leopold became a patron of the arts and literature, and a trustee of the British Museum. He also served as an unofficial secretary to his mother. On 24 May 1881 Victoria conferred on him the titles of Duke of Albany, Earl of Clarence and Baron Arklow. In appearance, Leopold was described as …’rather small in stature… very slender, and animated in his movements, with a slight stoop forward when he walks. He looks eminently like an Englishman, and bears the marks of geniality in his face and manners.’


Prince Leopold's legacy

In February 1884, Leopold travelled to Cannes on the orders of his doctors, to mitigate the joint pain that he was suffering (he had always found the English winters difficult). On 27 March, while staying at a friend’s residence, the 'Villa Nevada', Leopold slipped and fell on a staircase, injuring his knee and hitting his head. He died in the early hours of the next morning, at the age of just thirty-one, apparently from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was buried in the Albert Memorial Chapel at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Leopold’s son, Prince Charles Edward George Albert Leopold, was born four months later, on 19 July 1884, and succeeded him as second Duke of Albany. During WWI, he fought on the German side and was deprived of his British titles. Following WWII, he was imprisoned for his Nazi sympathies. Charles Edward's grandson, King Carl XVI Gustaf, is the current King of Sweden.


In the Cathedral, a fine marble bust of Leopold by F. J. Williamson (Victoria’s favourite sculptor) is in the Chapel of Remembrance, and his godson’s name, Leopold Reginald Hargreaves, appears on the WW1 memorial in the Porch.