Earlier this spring, rumors began to circulate that Queen Elizabeth II’s gift to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle upon their marriage was going to be York Cottage, a house on the grounds of the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk. However, wasn’t the only rumor that started to make the rounds at the time; people also started saying that York Cottage was haunted. Given that many of the estates owned and operated by the Royal Family have tons of ghost stories clinging to them, perhaps this rumor is unsurprising; still, though, many tabloids have been unable to resist asking: Would the Queen really give her grandson and his wife a haunted house as a gift? While we still don’t know whether the Queen has, in fact, bestowed York Cottage upon Meghan and Harry, the history of York Cottage is fascinating all the same — largely because of the people who have lived in it.
Sandringham, where the Queen usually resides from Christmas through February, holds several residences: The main house, which was originally built in 1771; Appleton House, which was gifted to Prince Carl of Denmark and Princess Maude of Wales by her parents, Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, when the couple wed in 1896; Amner Hall, which was built in the 18th century and was gifted to William and Kate when they got married in 2011; and York Cottage, originally called the Bachelor’s Cottage, which was built by Edward VII after his 1863 marriage to Princess Alexandra in order to help with overflow from the main house.
However, what most of the tabloids are reporting as a “haunting” seems to be less about a literal ghost and more about the memory of one of the cottage’s former residents: Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, known to his family as Eddy. Born on Jan. 8, 1864, Eddy was the eldest son of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, then still the Prince and Princess of Wales. (Edward VII didn’t ascend to the throne until 1901.) He was also next in the line of succession after his father — or at least, he would have been, if he hadn’t died shortly after his 28th birthday. Eddy became a victim of an influenza epidemic on Jan. 14, 1892.
But following Eddy’s death, noted the Daily Mail, his presence stuck around the house in which he had lived — by design: His family left his room just as it had been when he was alive. We know this thanks to a letter written by Empress Frederick of Prussia, who was a cousin of the British Royal Family. “All was left just as it was,” the Daily Mail quoted the letter. “[Eddy’s] dressing table with his watch, his brushes and combs and everything. His bed covered with a Union Jack in silk, and his photos and clothes in a glass cupboard.”
With all of his belongings still present and his room preserved, of course there’s the temptation to describe the place as haunted; indeed, that’s what several other tabloids, including the Daily Star and Express, did after the Mail’s piece went live. Still, though — there aren’t really any stories of ghostly occurrences occurring on the property; it just seems to have been metaphorically haunted by Eddy’s memory in the years following his death.
But Eddy himself was also seen as a scandalous figure at the time — and it seems to be this notoriety that today’s tabloids are still latching onto as an “explanation” for why York Cottage might be “haunted”: It’s not just that Eddy died while was still young and never claimed the throne, they claim; it’s that he lived a tumultuous life, as well. As the saying goes, he lived fast, died young, and left a beautiful corpse.
Eddy and his brother, Prince George (later King George V) had a typical royal upbringing for the time, undergoing education by private tutors and spending several years with the Royal Navy. In 1883, their paths diverged somewhat; George stayed with the navy, while Eddy was sent to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. According to royal biography Theo Aronson’s book on the Prince, Eddy spent the period prior to his arrival at Cambridge living in York Cottage — although his education later proved to be somewhat checkered: He bounced around quite a lot, studying at Heidelberg University in German in 1884 and leaving Cambridge entirely in 1885, although he was eventually awarded an honorary degree from Cambridge in 1888.
Then, in 1889, Eddy was implicated in the Cleveland Street Scandal — an event in which a gay male brothel was uncovered by the police, notable for having occurred during a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Rumors that Eddy had visited the brothel have actually never been substantiated — and, I would argue, even if they had, we should be past the point where it’s considered a Big Effing Deal — but his alleged connection to the operation is still one of the biggest talking points about him. (Here’s your reminder that the fact that lots of different sexualities exist — and have existed for all of human history — is not titillating. It’s just that: A fact.)
But wait! There’s more! Eddy was also presented with a number of potential spouses, none of which ended up panning out. Princess Alix of Hesse was the first; she refused his proposal, however, and later married Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Princess Hélène of Orléans was next, but although this one was actually a love match, it, too, fizzled out because she was Roman Catholic. Eventually, a successful match was made: Eddy became engaged to Princess Mary of Teck, known informally as May, in December of 1891. A wedding date was set for February 1892.
Mary of Teck.
Alas, though, Eddy didn’t make it that far. He developed influenza while living at Sandringham in January and died just about a week after his 28th birthday. Mary went on to marry his brother, George, instead, and subsequently became Queen once he ascended in 1910.
Guess what, though? We’re not done yet. Eddy was also later presented as a suspect in the Whitechapel Murders — that is, there’s a theory that he may have been Jack the Ripper. The theory is really thin and not generally taken seriously; it’s built entirely on supposition, with no solid evidence to back any of it up. Still, though, it kind of refuses to die, soooo… here we are.
According to Donald Rumbelow, one of the foremost authorities on the Whitechapel Murders, the theory that Eddy could be Jack the Ripper was first proposed in 1970 by Thomas Stowell in a book called The Criminologist. Stowell source was seemingly the private papers of Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria’s “Physician Extraordinary,” but as Rumbelow points out in his own book, The Complete Jack The Ripper, verifiable details about Eddy’s life were frequently wrong in The Criminologist’s theory — and perhaps most damning, Eddy had alibis for three of the canonical five Whitechapel murders: During the Sept. 30, 1888 “double event” — the night the Ripper killed both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes — the prince was shooting in Scotland; he was also occupied on Nov. 8, when the murder of Mary Jane Kelly occurred: He was at Sandringham from Nov. 3 through the 12 celebrating his father’s birthday. So, uh… so much for that.
(The Complete Jack The Ripper is excellent, by the way; I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the Whitechapel Murders.)
Anyway! The point is that, between his colorful life and the even more colorful rumors about it that may or may not be true, Eddy tabloids have latched onto him as an attractive figure for an alleged haunting. It's interesting to me, though, that all of the coverage of the alleged "haunting" is just as questionable as the coverage of Eddy's life was.
For example, although a lot of the tabloids emphasize how “gloomy” York Cottage is and how much nearly every member of the Royal Family aside from George V seemingly hated it, a letter from Empress Frederick — yes, the same Empress Frederick cited by the Daily Mail — to her daughter, Sophie, written in 1894 actually describes it as quite lovely.
“York Cottage is very small, but most charmingly arranged,” wrote the Empress. “It would quite delight you, and you might take many a hint for your own house.” She toured the kennels, the stables, the “splendid” kitchen garden, the greenhouses, the farm, and “the little technical school where the children of the village are taught to make charming things in wood and iron-work and brass and copper.” Said the Empress, “It is impossible to find an estate in finer order than Uncle Bertie's, plantations, fields, roads, fences and walls, cottages and churches and all, so trim and well cared for.”
What's more, this letter was written the day before the one that the Daily Mail highlighted about Eddy’s room being kept the same as it had been after his death. For the curious, the full quote from that letter reads as follows:
“This morning Uncle and sweet Aunt took me into the room where poor dear Eddy died, all is left just as it was, his dressing table with his watch, his brushes and combs and everything. His bed covered with a ‘Union Jack’ in silk, and his photos and trifles and clothes, etc., in a glass cupboard opposite the bed. This room was his and Georgie's school-room when they were little, and there he died, poor darling. No one is to live in it again.”
So: Is York Cottage actually haunted by the ghost of Prince Eddy? Probably not. Has it seen a lot of history in its time? Heck yes; that’s always going to be the case with a centuries-old building. Ultimately, if the Queen does gift York Cottage to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, I’m sure it will make for a lovely country retreat.
And hey, if they do find themselves getting menaced in the night by a spooky spirit, at least Will and Kate will be right next door.