A Brief History of Royals in Disgrace

What do you do with a problem like Prince Andrew, Duke of York? It’s a question the British royal family has been grappling with for years, as the queen’s third-born child, long ridiculed as “Air-Miles Andy” for his lavish lifestyle, became increasingly enmeshed in the sordid saga of Jeffrey Epstein. In 2021, he settled with Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre for a rumored 12-million-plus British pounds, after she sued him for sexual assault. 

Dubbed the “Duke of Disgrace” by some, Prince Andrew has been stripped of his military titles and royal patronages, and is no longer a working royal representing the Crown. Somewhat protected by his status as the queen’s “favorite child,” Prince Andrew is said to be plotting his return to public life.

However, the public continues to clamor for revenge against a royal they consider a national embarrassment. In April, the city of York stripped him of the minor title “Honorary Freedom of York.” However, many in York want his main title, “Duke of York,” removed as well—though this would require an act of Parliament and is beyond even the powers of the queen. 

Although the humiliation and shame brought to the House of Windsor by its prodigal son may seem like a unique blip, Prince Andrew has, in fact, joined the ranks of numerous royals who have faced public ruin. While what is considered disgraceful behavior has fluctuated wildly over time, the appetite for punishment remains. 

For centuries, there was nothing more disgraceful than a royal woman who stepped out on her marriage, thus compromising the royal bloodline. Although many royal men were celebrated for their royal mistresses, royal women often faced permanent disgrace and ruin if they dared stray from their marital beds. 

The extreme punishment of disgraced royal women stretches back to at least the Middle Ages. In 1314, the high-spirited Marguerite and Blanche of Burgundy, daughters-in-law of King Philip IV of France, were accused of having scandalous liaisons with two brothers, Philippe and Gautier d’Aunay. According to historian Alison Weir, author of Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England, the notorious Queen Isabella of England, daughter of King Philip IV of France, was alleged to have outed her careless sister-in-laws’ out-of-wedlock romps, which took place primarily in a Parisian tower called the “Tour de Nesle.”

Blanche and Marguerite both admitted to adultery. Their erasure from public life was swift. The d’Aunay brothers were castrated (their nether regions thrown to dogs) while they were still alive, before being brutally executed. The two sisters had their hair cut short and were both thrown into a dungeon. Marguerite, technically Queen of France upon her husband’s ascension to the throne, died in 1315, while Blanche languished in captivity, her whereabouts barely known. She is believed to have died in 1326. 

Another disgraced royal woman’s legacy would have a far-reaching impact on the English royal family. In 1682, Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle married the dour and cold George of Hanover (the future King George I of England). According to The Imprisoned Princess: The Scandalous Life of Sophia Dorothea of Celle by Catherine Curzon, the outgoing and friendly Sophia Dorothea was unhappy at the dissolute yet stilted Hanoverian court. Her husband was dominated by his mistress, and by 1691, Sophia Dorothea was having her own affair with the dashing Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. 

The reckless lovers wrote hundreds of letters to each other, some of which were intercepted by their enemies. The couple’s most dangerous enemy turned out to be Clara, Countess von Platen, the mistress of Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover. After outing Sophia Dorothea’s affair to the royal family, Curzon writes, Clara brought together four goons who murdered Königsmarck as he left Sophia Dorothea’s apartments. 

A heartbroken Sophia Dorothea’s children were taken from her, and they were raised in a court where her name could not be uttered. She was imprisoned at Ahlden House in what is now Lower Saxony, Germany. To save face, Sophia Dorothea was titled the Duchess of Ahlden and allowed to administrate over the small village, receiving dignitaries and religious figures in her gilded cage, although she was only allowed to walk or ride on a short bit of road. 

“Local tradition among the peasants of Ahlden still hands down the picture of the mysterious great lady of the castle always beautifully dressed, and with diamonds gleaming in her dark hair, galloping up and down the road, followed by an escort of cavalry with drawn swords,” one visitor recalled, per Curzon. 

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