As long as there has been a Royal Family on the throne in Britain, so too has there been scandal. Love affairs, illegitimate children, fraud, and murder: the divine right of kings hasn’t stopped our monarchs from dabbling in vices that are all too human. Here are some of the most notorious, shocking, and bizarre scandals in royal history.
1. The Disappearance of King Edward V
When King Edward IV died in 1483, his eldest son Edward was thrust into a world of betrayal, mistrust, and murder. At just 12 years old, the new king found himself at the centre of a battle between two rival families struggling to maintain power over the throne.
Edward’s father had named his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, as Protector while his son remained a minor, but things took a turn for the worst when the Duke of Gloucester escorted the new king to London under the guise of his coronation. Dismissing all of the young king’s entourage before they reached the city, once in London, Richard escorted Edward V and his nine-year-old brother to the Tower of London.
Richard seized the throne for himself, declaring both boys illegitimate, and neither one of the princes was ever seen again. Rumours swirled for years about the boys being shipped off abroad or secreted away in the night, but the grim reality is that they were likely murdered to prevent any potential challenges to Richard III’s reign.
2. The Duke of Cumberland’s locked room murder mystery
When he went to sleep that night, the last thing that the Duke of Cumberland (the fifth son of King George III) expected was to wake up at the centre of a murder-suicide mystery. However, in the early hours of 31st May 1810, that’s exactly what happened.
Having spent the evening at a concert for the benefit of the Royal Society of Musicians, the Duke had already had an excitable evening. Returning home at a little after 12:30am, he swiftly retired to his chambers, where he was rudely awakened just a few hours later by a flurry of blows raining down on him.
While escaping the room, the Duke received a sabre wound to the thigh, but still managed to call out to his page, Neal, who was sleeping next door. When the Duke and Neal (now armed with a poker) returned to his chambers, they found them empty with the sabre abandoned on the floor. The door to another room that had been locked when the Duke had gone to bed that night was now left unlocked, and his valet, John Sellis, was nowhere to be found.
Securing the premises, the Dukes men found Sellis’ bedroom door locked from the inside. Gaining access through another, they found Sellis in his bed - his neck slit open with a razor blade in an apparent suicide.
The Duke himself said that it was unlikely that his attempted murder was perpetrated by Sellis, but it didn’t take long for the rumour mill to take hold and fill in the gaps of the story. Some theorised that the Duke had made moves on Sellis’ wife, while others noted that the anti-Catholic Duke often ridiculed Sellis - a Roman Catholic - for his beliefs. Some believed that Sellis had grown jealous of the Duke’s preferential treatment towards Neal, while others thought that it was the Duke who had attempted to murder Sellis because he had been blackmailing him over a rumoured homosexual love affair with Neal.
3. Elizabeth I. Ruthless ruler, jealous lover?
Despite being known as the ‘Virgin Queen’, salacious rumour and scandal from the Tudor court imply that Queen Elizabeth I had a long string of lovers throughout her life. Perhaps one of the most scandalous of these lovers was Robert Dudley.
The relationship between the queen and her favourite came under scrutiny when Dudley’s wife, Amy, died suddenly in 1560. Found at the bottom of a staircase with a broken neck, rumours swirled as to whether Amy’s death was a tragic accident, suicide, or the result of a murder.
What made the mystery more interesting was that all the staff in the Dudley household were out for the day at the local fair, meaning that no one in the home would witness the cause of her fall, or provide first aid.
Suspicions turned towards Elizabeth as the mastermind behind the ‘accident’ as she had grown weary of having to share Dudley. Rumours vary from Elizabeth hiring assassins to push Amy Dudley down the stairs, to having her poisoned in the weeks leading up to her death. The truth, however, is lost to time.
4. King William II and the errant arrow
Son of William the Conqueror, William II reigned for 13 years before his unexpected death in 1100. While hunting in the New Forest, William was apparently shot through with an arrow by one of his men.
Circumstances around the event are unclear, however, rather than attempt to save the king from his wounds or get him medical care, his men instead all took off, leaving him to die alone in the forest. His body was later found by an arrow maker.
With little reported about the accident, it’s unclear what happened, but most accounts believe that the suspicious death was less accidental, and most likely an assassination. Known for his considerably unchristian vices, his unpredictable temperament, and his rumoured homosexuality, it is not wholly unlikely that William was murdered as part of a larger plot to place his younger brother, Henry, on the throne - a feat that was achieved within days of William’s death.