Society scandal which really didn’t amuse Queen Victoria
By Mike Pryce »
IT was an event that rocked Victorian society to the core.
The marriage of Prince Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh, godson of Queen Victoria, to Lady Anne Blanche Coventry in the fashionable St Peter’s church, Eaton Square, London, in 1898 was as controversial as it was unusual.
Eyebrows were raised all around and not only because the groom was bankrupt. It was also the first time an Indian prince had married an English noblewoman. Prince Victor was the eldest son of the last Maharajah of Lahore and Lady Anne was the youngest daughter of the 9th Earl of Coventry, elder statesman of Worcestershire’s great landowning family – the Coventrys of Croome Court.
Despite his title as head of the Royal House of the Punjab, to which he had succeeded on the death of his father five years before, the groom was seriously short of cash, continually needing to sell off the family silver to survive. But Prince Victor never let a few financial misfortunes at the gambling tables of Europe cramp his style and his wedding day was no exception according to author Peter Bance in a sumptuous new book about the Duleep Singh dynasty called Sovereign, Squire and Rebel (Coronet House, £29.99).
He says: ”It was a lavish affair.
Invitations had been sent to every family of note. The ceremony was held at St Peter’s, Eaton Square, where so many fashionable weddings of the day took place.
The church was besieged by sightseers and those interested in the Coventry family and that of the prince.”
Gifts included a statuette of herself from Queen Victoria and afterwards the reception was held at Lord Coventry’s town residence in Balfour Place, where high society gathered to toast the couple. Afterwards they left for a honeymoon cruise to the East with the intention of visiting India – but they were not allowed to disembark which was an embarrassment that might have raised alarm bells with Lady Anne over exactly the sort of man she had married.
She probably already knew that eight years before, Prince Victor had tried to marry an American, Miss J Turnure, the daughter of a wealthy banker, but, after the prince was declared bankrupt, his potential father-in-law soon put a stop to the romance and the short engagement was broken off – at which point Prince Victor successfully rekindled an earlier affection he had formed for Lady Anne, whom he had first met through her brother at Cambridge.
However, being strapped for the readies was one thing, but being banned from your homeland where you were ostensibly head of a royal house, was quite another. After all, Lady Anne was well-liked by her peers. A popular figure in Worcestershire society, she was a skilled horsewoman, an enthusiastic rider to hounds and a supporter of charitable causes.
Prince Victor’s immediate family history was rather less balmy. He was the grandson of the legendary one-eyed Lion-of-the-Punjab Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who through force of arms and the power of his personality turned the Punjab into one of the most powerful independent kingdoms on the Indian sub-continent and a thorn in the advancement of the British Empire. After the Sikh wars against the British, Ranjit’s son Maharajah Dulip Singh was effectively exiled to Britain, where paradoxically he became an instant favourite of Queen Victoria and moved effortlessly among the highest echelons of society.
He turned Elveden Hall on the Norfolk-Suffolk border into country mansion and the first of his six children, Prince Victor, was born in 1866.
But Dulip Singh’s lavish lifestyle coupled with continual battles with the British government to increase his pension, as had been agreed by treaty, began to cause financial problems and these were to blight the life of his firstborn, too, although Prince Victor hardly helped himself by continuing to enjoy the high life, especially at the gambling tables, where he began incurring heavy debts.
In 1890, eight years before his marriage to Lady Anne, he had been taken to court after failing to pay a £16 bill for stationery despite allegedly “living in a sumptuous manner, keeping several male servants, being a member of two leading clubs, owning a private Hansom cab, being looked upon as a leading member of society and reputedly a rich man”.
By the late 1890s his debts stood at a staggering £17,721, more than three times his yearly allowance from the British government at the time.
The man who was to marry the English rose from Croome Court was described in the Worcester Herald as “having an olive complexion, not darker than an Italian”. Not tall to start with, he piled on weight and soon began to look “extremely wide”.
A fellow traveller on their honeymoon cruise described Prince Victor as “more English than the English and although his appearance is strange, he is rather a good sort really – if you do not happen to be his creditor”.
Returning from their honeymoon, the couple were invited to a ball by Queen Victoria, who afterwards called Princess Victor – as Lady Anne had chosen to style herself – to a private audience in Buckingham Palace.
There, the elderly monarch delivered a chilling message to the young bride – that she must never have any children with the prince, thus effectively ending the lineage of the exile for the security of the British Empire.
Also she was told she must live abroad with her husband.
The “happy but odd couple”, as they were described, never did have a family, although they continued to live in England for several years and often returned to Worcestershire for society events, particularly the annual Croome Hunt hunt ball.
Princess Victor, being a keen breeder of hounds, attended all the fashionable dog shows and owned several racehorses, one of which ran in the 1908 Derby.
Eventually adhering to the late Queen’s wishes, they did move to Paris, where Prince Victor died in 1918 at the age of 52.
He was buried, rather appropriately, high on a hillside overlooking Monte Carlo and its gambling casinos. His wife, who was only eight years younger, lasted rather longer.
The former Lady Anne Blanche Coventry eventually died in 1956, aged 82. By that time her family home Croome Court had long been sold and the headlines she caused more than half a century before, had been forgotten by all but the obituary writers.
ARTICLE FROM THE WORCESTER NEWS, 3RD AUGUST 2009