The following is an excerpt from a new book, “An Unusual Journey Through Royal History,” by Victoria Martínez, which features 18 essays on a variety of royal history-related subjects spanning a thousand years. This is the first part of the chapter entitled: An “Illustrated” Royal History.
The last Anglo-Saxon king of England lay dead on a battlefield near Hastings, an arrow through his eye. William the Bastard of Normandy was now William the Conqueror of England.
William’s next, most immediate problem was to positively confirm that the corpse before him did indeed belong to his vanquished rival, Harold II – a task made difficult by the dead man’s disfigured face. The solution came in the shape of Edith Swan Neck, King Harold’s longtime mistress, who identified her dead lover by the words “Edith and England” tattooed on his chest, just one of several such illustrations on his body.
While not all stories of royal tattoos are quite so dramatic, just the concept of “royal tattoos” can seem incongruous to our modern perceptions of royalty. After all, it was only in the late 1990s that Zara Philips, daughter of Britain’s Princess Anne, caused a media sensation simply for having her tongue pierced. Relatively speaking, it should probably come as a far greater surprise that the supposedly prim and proper Victorian era was high season for tattooing among royalty and the aristocracy.
King Edward VII helped pioneer the fashion in Britain when, as Prince of Wales, he had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm during a visit to Jerusalem in 1862. Twenty years later, his sons – Prince Eddy, the ill-fated heir to the throne, and Prince George, the future George V – both had dragons tattooed on their arms during a visit to Japan. Before returning home, they stopped in Jerusalem to be further illustrated by the same artist who had tattooed their father.
Queen Victoria may or may not have been amused upon learning about her grandsons’ new body art, but their mother, Alexandra, Princess of Wales, reportedly was most certainly not amused when she was told incorrectly that the tattoos were on their faces, not their arms. Despite her undoubted horror at imagining the tattooed faces of her sons, Alexandra probably had nothing against more discreet tattoos, even among the women of her set.
Lady Randolph Spencer Churchill (née Jennie Jerome), the American heiress, society beauty, and mother of Winston Churchill, circulated quite freely among the Wales’ social circle sporting a tattoo of a snake around her left wrist. A well-placed bracelet hid the tattoo when it didn’t tickle her fancy. Her son Winston followed suit and had an anchor tattooed on his forearm, à la Popeye. Even Alexandra’s sister-in-law, Queen Olga of Greece (1851-1926) – Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s paternal grandmother – reportedly had a tattoo.
Still more royals outside Britain were getting “inked” around the same time. Another of Queen Victoria’s grandsons, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, had a tattoo, as did George V’s cousin, Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Actually, royal tattoos were common in Russia long before Britain caught on – it seems Peter the Great (1689-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1796) both had tattoos.
To read the rest of An “Illustrated” Royal History, download a copy of “An Unusual Journey Through Royal History” by Victoria Martínez, available for Kindle, Nook and other eReaders at the links below (you don’t even need an e-reader since both Kindle and Nook can be downloaded on most devices for free).
Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/An-Unusual-Journey-through-Royal-History/Victoria-Martinez/e/2940012509307
Who Dares Wins Publishing: http://www.whodareswinspublishing.com/UnusualHistory.html