FROM time to time the British media is set in a frenzy when private papers figure on the auction circuit, or are re-discovered, appearing to 'prove' yet again that Queen Victoria contracted a secret marriage after the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in 1861. The usual postulated groom is her Highland Servant John Brown, depicted from tabloid newssheet to film screen as a cross between a drunken Scottish Rasputin and a rude, uncultured Caledonian Stud.
Recently such a collection has come on the scene in the form of published extracts of 74 leather-bound gossip-laden diaries of Lewis--'Loulou' to his intimates--Harcourt (1863-1922), 1st Viscount Harcourt, sometime Liberal MP for the Rossendale division of Lancashire. Today Lewis Harcourt's diaries are held in the Bodleian Library, and were the subject of an article by Patrick Jackson in the newly issued The British Diarist (Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 22-30). International interest was engendered by the diary entry for 17 February 1885 where Harcourt averred that Mary Elizabeth, Lady Ponsonby, had told the Home Secretary (i.e., Harcourt's father, Sir William Harcourt 1827-1904) that one Miss Macleod had said that her brother the Revd Dr Norman Macleod (1812-72), chaplain to Queen Victoria 1857-72, had declared on his deathbed that he had conducted a marriage ceremony between John Brown and Queen Victoria. Miss Macleod added that her expiring brother said that he had always repented of his actions.
Harcourt noted that Miss Macleod would be likely to be innocent of concocting such a story, and that because of its source those who heard it would be 'almost inclined to believe it, improbable and disgraceful as it sounds'.
Undoubtedly Mary Ponsonby was in a privileged position to hear and recycle court gossip. She had been a royal Maid of Honour from 1853 and her marriage had brought her closer to the throne. Yet, where the truth of this marriage gossip was concerned she was an unreliable witness. She had agnostical views and was a supporter of radical ideas, behind which lurked republicanism, and the Queen knew it. This was a reason why--despite her husband Henry Ponsonby's position--Mary Ponsonby was not invited to court junketings or to meet royal members of Victoria's extended continental family. This rankled with Mary Ponsonby, and encouraged her tongue as a royal gossip. Her husband, Sir Henry Ponsonby, was the Queen's talented and tactful secretary.
As far as historians are concerned, Harcourt's diary entry is--as John Brown would term it--'cauld kail' (i.e., cold cabbage soup). Yet as the story has a continuing life of its own, how did it arise, and what factual truth might there be in it?
John Brown's life is well documented. He was born at Crathienaird, Crathie parish, Aberdeenshire, on 8 December 1826, the second of the eleven children of tenant farmer John Brown and his wife Margaret Leys. Variously a farm labourer, and ostler's assistant, Brown became a stable boy on Sir Robert Gordon's estate at Balmoral in 1842. On Gordon's death the Royal Family acquired the tenancy and Queen Victoria visited Balmoral for the first time on 8 September 1848. The Queen's earliest mention of Brown is in her Journal entry for 11 September 1849 describing a visit to Dhu Loch, listing the gillies in attendance; by 1851 John Brown took on the permanent role of leader of Queen Victoria's pony on Prince Albert's instigation. The next year the Royal Family bought the 17,400-acre Balmoral for 30,000 guineas, and in 1858 John Brown took Archibald Frazer Macdonald's place as personal gillie to Prince Albert. A 'gillie', by the by, was originally an attendant on a Highland chief, but by the nineteenth century was a sportsman's attendant.
It is well known too, that on Prince Albert's death in 1861, Queen Victoria suffered great distress. During the summer of 1864, concerned at the Queen's permanent brooding and lack of animation, her daughter Princess Alice, wife of Prince Louis IV, Grand-Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, discussed the problem with the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Charles Phipps. …