Was Queen Victoria A Bastard?

It is difficult to imagine a more formidable woman, in any age, than Queen Victoria. Empress of India and grandmother to Europe, she was fecund (nine children, 35 grandchildren, including monarchs of Russia, Germany, Spain and Greece) and formal (to the end of her days, she allowed her physician to examine her only by asking questions at a distance). In 1901, when she at last died after reigning for 64 years, a familiar world seemed to pass away. Henry James, the American novelist, mused, "We all feel a bit motherless today."

Now comes a mind-bending possibility: that Victoria was illegitimate, the product of an illicit liaison. The suggestion--made by two British brothers, both respected academics. in a new book breaks new historical ground. In England, it would mean Elizabeth II should not be on the throne. (The 41-year-old Prince Ernst of Hanover, a socialite descended from Victoria's father's brother, should be.) Although the book, "Queen Victoria's Gene," isn't due out until later this month, it's already causing a stir. The authors, the BBC noted last week, have asked questions "that once would have landed them in the Tower of London."

The key to this mystery lies, literally, in the royal DNA. Why, ask coauthors Malcolm Potts, an embryologist at Berkeley, and William Potts, a zoologist at Britain's Lancaster University, did the interlocking European ruling families' history of hemophilia begin with Victoria? There is no question one of Victoria's sons, and later descendants, had hemophilia. Her husband, Albert, didn't have it, so the gene had to come from Victoria. Where did she get it? Previous genealogical work unearthed by the Pottses, but never published, rules out any of Victoria's forerunners. That leaves only a spontaneous mutuation--a one-in-50,000 chance--or Victoria is the daughter of someone other than the Duke of Kent.

Circumstances tend to argue for an unknown lover. Duke Edward, Victoria's purported father. was a dissolute 50-year-old whose own mistress of 27 years bore him no children. He married Victoria's mother with the explicit mission to produce an heir to the throne. At the time, Duke Edward wrote to a friend: "I hope I shall have the energy to do my duty." Did he? Maybe not, and perhaps his wife slept with a more energetic man.

The implications of the duchess's colossally unlucky choice of a hemophiliac lover are breathtaking. Consider the Bolshevik revolution. Czar Nicholas II's wife, Alexandra, was Victoria's granddaughter, and she transmitted hemophilia to their heir. The little boy's pain drove Alexandra to Rasputin, the diabolical monk who could calm the boy--but whose dark power at court weakened the family at the worst possible time. No hemophilia, no Rasputin. So no Rasputin, no revolution? It is an overly simple theory, but "a plausible case can be made," says Malcolm Potts.

There is only one way to settle the illegitimacy question--DNA tests of Victoria's tissue and that of a paternal ancestor. "Dig up Queen Victoria?" a royal spokeswoman asked incredulously last week. But the palace may not need to cooperate. "Somebody might produce hair from the Duke of Kent and Victoria," says William Potts. If combed out with its roots, hair can sometimes provide the tissue for DNA testing. The bluebloods of Europe may be more badly mottled than anyone thought.

Queen Victoria was the mother European royalty. Had she been illegitimate as a new study charges, power would have passed through the Duke of Cumberland.