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Royal Stalkers: Intrusions on the British Royal Family’s Privacy

How much privacy should members of the royal family receive? It is reasonable to argue that the public should have access to the monarchy and its representatives but, in this era of intense scrutiny of public figures, where does the boundary lie between monarchical accessibility and an intrusion of privacy? This boundary has been tested recently by King Charles III and the Princess of Wales's cancer diagnoses. The public have a right to be informed if a member of the royal family has an illness that will prevent them from attending to the more public aspects of their role, but where does that right to information end? And, perhaps more importantly, why do we feel that we have the right to demand explanations in the first place?


For some, the demand for accessibility arises from a desire to keep the monarchy accountable to the public, particularly for its usage of public tax dollars. For others, it stems from a desire to know about the royal family as glamorous and famous public figures – a result of the modern monarchy's embrace of many aspects of celebrity culture. But these demands for monarchical accessibility also have their roots in Queen Victoria's reign, when the British monarchy began its transformation from a purely constitutional to a more populist institution and placed more emphasis on basing its legitimacy in popular support. This popular support was gained in significant part by making monarchy more accessible, both officially, through Victoria's public engagements, and unofficially, through royal media coverage.


The novelty of this level of access to the sovereign quickly came to be perceived as a popular entitlement, and the public expected and demanded continual access to the sovereign through public appearances and news reports about her private life. But while most Britons recognized that this accessibility had its limits and respected the boundaries which protected the royal family's privacy, there was a group of individuals who tested these boundaries.


An oil painting shows Queen Victoria standing with arms folded, her hands lightly gripping a falling rose. Her face is pensive and looks towards the viewer. She wears a champagne colored dress with a dark blue sash.
A painting of Queen Victoria attributed to the Studio of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, c. 1843. Public Domain. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art.

During Queen Victoria's reign, more than 90 individuals attempted to intrude on the privacy of the Queen or the royal family. Today, we would call these intruders "stalkers." Their actions varied from seeking the Queen’s hand in marriage, to attempting to enter royal palaces, to writing harassing letters and petitions. One well-known example is "Boy" Jones, a young lad who entered Buckingham Palace on multiple occasions, and who was essentially kidnapped and forced into the Royal Navy when palace guards struggled to prevent his continual intrusions.


More than 80% of the intruders were found to be "insane," and many were incarcerated in public and private lunatic asylums following their intrusions on the royal family. Surgeons, magistrates, and governing authorities often argued that the intruders were labouring under delusions which caused them to blur the lines between the Queen’s public persona and private life. One intruder who was guilty of blurring these boundaries was Thomas Flower.   


Captain Thomas Flower of the 13th Light Dragoons was one of a number of men who held amorous feelings for the young, virginal queen, and who were referred to in the media as "The Queen's Lovers." Throughout the summer of 1838, Flower frequently expressed his love for the Queen and attempted to present himself as a suitor. Flower demanded entry to Westminster Abbey during the Queen's coronation in June, and attempted to access the royal box at the Royal Opera House when Victoria was in attendance. An article in The Times noted that Flower had also entered Buckingham Palace on two previous occasions and "demand[ed] the hand of Her Majesty in marriage."


On July 9, 1838, Flower again entered the palace. Shortly after midnight, a page discovered Flower in the portrait gallery which led to the Queen's private apartments. Of particular sensation was the fact that Flower was just seven yards from Victoria's bedchamber, and in a place where the Queen herself had been only ten minutes earlier. Flower violently resisted arrest, stating that he wanted to see the Queen and that his intentions towards her were honourable. The Times explained that it took two policemen and two members of the Rifle Brigade to restrain Flower and, even then, "it was necessary to strap his legs and arms."


When Flower appeared before a magistrate at Queen Square Police Office, he stated that he had wanted to see Lady Mary Stopford and had accidentally wandered into the portrait gallery, but many believed Flower was a lunatic. Flower was sentenced to Tothill Fields Prison for three months in want of bail and so that his mental state could be evaluated. While Flower’s brother George explained that his brother had been insane for "some time," the prison surgeon, Mr. Lavies, found Flower to be sane. This was much to the dismay of Home Office officials, who stalwartly believed that Flower needed to be locked away not only for his own sake, but also for the Queen's safety. Since there were no laws preventing stalking or intrusions on royalty, those who intruded on royal privacy had to be prosecuted for other aspects of their offenses, such as vagrancy, theft, assault, or, as in Flower's case, insanity. Consequently, the Home Office was desperate to prove that Flower was insane to ensure he was punished for his actions and kept away from the Queen. Whether because of pressure from the Home Office or new evidence, it seems likely that Lavies changed his original diagnosis, as Flower was admitted as a lunatic to Bethlem Royal Hospital in November 1838, where he remained until his death on January 10, 1846.


Intrusions on royal privacy have continued since Victoria's reign. In 1904, a man was found wandering in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In 1982, Michael Fagan got into Queen Elizabeth II's bedroom. And more recently, on Christmas Day, 2021, an armed man was discovered on the grounds of Windsor Castle. 


While most people do not go to the extreme like Thomas Flower, there are many who wish they could open closed doors in royal palaces, and they turn to the media to do so. Why do so many royal biographies promise an "inside look" at the royal family? Why did Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words cause such a sensation, and Spare unleash such turbulence for the monarchy? These sources provided unprecedented and unparalleled access into the royal family's most private spheres from insiders who have the stories many want to hear. Most would never physically enter the private areas of royal places but, through news outlets, books, social media, and other resources, we can still gain intimate and, sometimes, invasive access to royalty in its most private form. And, as the royal family continue to base their legitimacy in popular support and increasingly utilize aspects of celebrity culture to prove their relevance, they are likely to continue to experience greater demands on and even challenges to their privacy. 


Since Queen Victoria's reign, the royal family have whetted the public's appetites for monarchy by pulling back the veil of royal mystique. But sometimes, as that veil billows in the wind, it exemplifies the conflict between monarchical accessibility and the royal family's right to privacy.


 

Rachel Hamilton is a second-year PhD candidate at Queen's University (Canada), working under the supervision of Sandra den Otter. Her research interests include modern Britain, gender, mental illness, and popular conceptions of monarchy. Her dissertation studies more than 90 individuals who intruded on the privacy of (or "stalked") Queen Victoria and the British royal family throughout the nineteenth century. Rachel completed her MA at Queen's and her undergraduate degree at the University of Prince Edward Island.

 

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