The mark of true royal breeding in late 19th century Europe was to be considered a descendant of Queen Victoria. As her children and grandchildren married into European royal houses, the blood of Victoria’s line entered many royal and noble lines. Unfortunatelythat blood sometimes carried what was called ‘Victoria’s Curse’: haemophilia. This inherited genetic condition was often called ‘The Royal Disease’ because of its prevalence among Victoria’s descendants. This article, adapted from a chapter in my book, The British Monarchy Miscellany’, describes the disease and lists the individuals it affected descended from Queen Victoria.
What is Haemophilia?
Haemophilia is an inherited genetic disorder preventing the blood to clot properly when blood vessels are broken, so that persons affected experience longer and potentially fatal bleeds. It was first mentioned in ancient times and began to be diagnosed medically in the 19th century. No cure exists for haemophilia but the condition can be controlled today with infusions of missing clotting factors via blood or plasma transfusions, given either as prophylaxis or after injuries. Before these infusions began to be used in the 1960s haemophilia sufferers usually died as a result of uncontrolled internal bleeding after falls and traumas.
There are two types of haemophilia: Haemophilia A, the most common, which affects 80% of all sufferers; and Haemophilia B, a rarer form which affects only 20% of haemophilia sufferers. In two-thirds of all haemophilia cases the condition is inherited, but in one-third of haemophilia sufferers the condition is the result of spontaneous genetic mutation at conception by non-carrier parents.
Haemophilia is found in both males and females, however due to the position of the faulty gene causing the disease in the human chromosome only males show symptoms of haemophilia. Females generally are carriers only and it is extremely rare to find females showing symptoms of haemophilia. Because of genetic transmission mechanisms, female carriers can transmit the faulty gene to children of either gender, though the transmission is not automatic: some children will inherit the faulty gene whilst others will not, with no established pattern of transmission. Male carriers, on the other hand, exhibit automatic transmission patterns: all female children of male carriers inherit the faulty gene, but no male children of male carriers ever inherit the disease.
Origin in the British Royal Family
Haemophilia in the British Royal family first appeared in Queen Victoria’s family. It is thought that the genetic mutation causing haemophilia generated spontaneously either at Victoria’s conception in 1818 or at the conception of her mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, in 1785. Victoire had two children from a previous marriage before conceiving Victoria with her second husband. Although neither them nor any of their descendants ever showed signs of haemophilia it is possible that the mutation could have started with her and was transmitted to her third child only, Victoria. It is more likely however that the faulty gene arose at Queen Victoria’s own conception since research suggests that children born to older parents have a higher chance of developing spontaneous mutations for haemophilia: Victoria's mother was 32 at the time, and her father was 51.
Research in 2009 on the remains of Tsarevich Alexei of Russia—a great-grandson of Queen Victoria—showed that British Royal Family members carried the genetic mutation for Haemophilia B, the rarer form of haemophilia which affects only 0.002% of the human population.
Queen Victoria, as a female carrier, transmitted haemophilia randomly to three of her nine children: her third-born, Princess Alice; her eighth-born, Prince Leopold; and her last child, Princess Beatrice. They in turn transmitted haemophilia to some of their children, and so forth. The following list gives details about all of Queen Victoria’s descendants who were either carriers or sufferers of haemophilia.
ROYAL FAMILY MEMBERS WHO WERE
CARRIERS OR SUFFERERS OF HAEMOPHILIA
THE LINE OF PRINCESS ALICE:
Princess Alice (1843-1878), Third Child of Queen Victoria
Princess Alice married Grand Duke Louis of Hesse in 1862, and transmitted haemophilia to three of her seven children. Her early death at age 35 was caused by diphtheria and was not related to haemophilia.
Prince Friedrich of Hesse (1870-1873)
Fifth child of Princess Alice. Little ‘Frittie’, as he was nicknamed in the family, was diagnosed with haemophilia as a baby. He died of internal bleeding at the age of two when he fell 20 feet off a window while playing with his elder brother Ernest. He was the first member of Queen Victoria’s family to die from the disease.
Princess Irene of Hesse (1866- 1953)
Third child of Princess Alice. Irene was a carrier of haemophilia. In 1888 she married her first cousin Prince Henry of Prussia (son of Queen Victoria’s eldest child, Vicky, and brother to German Kaiser Wilhem II). She transmitted haemophilia to two of their three children, as noted below.
Prince Heinrich of Prussia (1900-1904)
Third child of Princess Irene. Also diagnosed with haemophilia when as baby like his uncle Frittie, Heinrich suffered the same fate. At the age of four he fell off a table while playing, hitting his head on the floor. The injury was not serious but he quickly developed a haemophiliac brain haemorrhage and died the day after. His mother was greatly affected by his death.
Prince Waldemar of Prussia (1889-1945)
First child of Princess Irene. Despite his condition Prince Waldermar managed to live a normal life until his 50s. He lived in Bavaria and married at the age of 30 though no children were born for fear they would be sufferers also. He died of a haemophilia attack in 1945 at the end of the Second World War when blood could not be found for a needed transfusion, because American troops had diverted all medical resources, including blood, to treat survivors of liberated concentration camps in the area. He was 56, and the last descendant of Queen Victoria to die of haemophilia.
Princess Alix of Hesse, later Empress Alexandra of Russia (1872-1918)
Sixth child of Princess Alice. Alix was a carrier of haemophilia and famously transmitted the disease to the Russian Imperial Family after marrying Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1894. She passed the disease to her only son, Alexei (see below). It is not clear if any of her four daughters became carriers since they were all murdered during the Russian Revolution before marrying and having children themselves. Some DNA research done on their remains in 2009, however, seems to indicate that one of them at least was a carrier.
Tsarevich Alexei of Russia (1904-1918)
Fifth child of Empress Alexandra of Russia. A known sufferer of haemophilia since he was a baby, Alexei’s condition was a closely guarded secret in Russia for fear that the news would further de-stabilize the Romanov dynasty at a time when it was attacked from all sides. Alexei suffered several haemophilia attacks, haematomas and bruises whilst growing up, and on one occasion was even given the last rites when there seemed to be no hope of recovery. During one of these episodes he was supposedly healed by his mother’s mystic confessor, the monk Grigori Rasputin. This led Alexandra and Tsar Nicholas II to put great reliance on him, which in turn made the Imperial Family even more unpopular. Alexei survived all his haemophiliac attacks until the age of 13 when he was murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution along with his parents and sisters.
There are no known descendants of Princess Alice alive today who are either carriers or sufferers of haemophilia. The last known carrier, Princess Irene of Hesse, died in 1953.
THE LINE OF PRINCE LEOPOLD:
Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884), Eighth Child of Queen Victoria
As the first male of Queen Victoria’s children to inherit the disease, Leopold was the first Royal Family member to show signs of haemophilia when he was a baby in 1853-54, and the first to be diagnosed with the disease. His mother, anxious about his safety, became incredibly protective of him (especially after his father died in 1861) but Leopold rebelled as an adult and determined to live a full life despite the limitations imposed by his condition. He attended university, travelled through Europe and North America, and married and fathered children. He unfortunately, however, died of the disease at age 31, the second member of the family to perish from it. Whilst holidaying in the south of France for his health he slipped and fell on a staircase, injured his head, and died of a brain haemorrhage the day later.
Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone (1883-1981)
First child of Prince Leopold. Alice married Prince Alexander of Teck (a brother of Queen Mary, spouse of King George V) in 1904 and transmitted haemophilia to at least one of her three children. It is unclear if her third child, Prince Maurice, was a sufferer of haemophilia because he died at the age of 5 months of ill-health unrelated to the condition.
Prince Rupert of Teck, Viscount Trematon (1907-1928)
Second child of Princess Alice. Like his grandfather, Rupert refused to allow haemophilia to limit his life. He attended university, was a keen hunter who shot wild game in Africa, and even served as a train engine fireman during the General Strike of 1926. He died of a brain haemorrhage at age 20 after suffering a minor skull fracture in a car accident near Lyon, France. He never married.
There are no known descendants of Prince Leopold alive today who are either carriers or sufferers of haemophilia. The last known carrier, Princess Alice of Albany, died in 1981.
THE LINE OF PRINCESS BEATRICE:
Princess Beatrice (1857-1844), Ninth Child of Queen Victoria
Ninth child of Queen Victoria. After marrying Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885 Princess Beatrice transmitted haemophilia to at least two of her four children. It is unclear if her fourth child, Prince Maurice, who died in battle during World War I at the age of 23, was a sufferer of haemophilia. The fact that he was allowed to serve in combat, however, makes it highly unlikely that he was a known sufferer of the disease.
Prince Leopold of Battenberg, Lord Leopold Mountbatten (1889-1922)
Third child of Princess Beatrice. In a tragic twist of fate, Leopold was named after his haemophiliac uncle who had died five years before his birth, and he also inherited the same disease. He managed to live a normal life, even serving in World War I in a non-combat role, but died at the age of 33 from haemophilia complications following a leg operation. He never married.
Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, Queen of Spain (1887-1969)
Second child of Princess Beatrice. Nicknamed Ena in the family, she married King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906 and transmitted haemophilia to at least two of their six children, including the heir to the throne. Although she had no control over it, her transmission of the disease to the Spanish Royal Family was one of the reasons her husband became estranged from her.
Alfonso, Prince of Asturias (1907-1938)
First son of Queen Victoria Eugenie. Alfonso was heir to the Spanish throne before the monarchy was abolished in 1931, and became the second European crown prince to suffer from haemophilia after his second cousin Alexei of Russia. Some say that had the Spanish monarchy not been abolished he would have been deposed from the succession because of his condition, but that is speculation. In any case, while in exile in 1933 he renounced his succession rights to marry a Cuban commoner whom he divorced in 1937. He remarried that same year to another Cuban commoner whom he also divorced a year later. He died afterwards in September 1938 of internal bleeding after he drove a car into a telephone booth in Miami, Florida. He had no children from either of his wives.
Infante Gonzalo of Spain (1914-1934)
Sixth child of Queen Victoria Eugenie. Although a haemophilia sufferer, Gonzalo led an active life, even enrolling as a private in the Spanish Army engineering corps. He died at age 20 of internal bleeding following a minor car accident in Austria, in a vehicle driven by his elder sister Beatriz. He never married.
There are no known descendants of Princess Beatrice alive today who are either carriers or sufferers of haemophilia. The last known carrier, Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain, died in 1969. There is a very small chance that the disease might still be present in some female descendants of Queen Victoria Eugenie who are descended exclusively through a female line. To date, however, no such descendants have been known publicly as carriers of the disease.