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The Royal Family's Toxic Time-Bomb

An international hunt for regal remains, spearheaded by Professor John Röhl, has finally uncovered the truth behind the 'purple secret' of the royal family. The amazing story is the subject of a paperback book, which has just been published by Corgi.

John's research has proved that for hundreds of years the royal houses of Europe have had a toxic time-bomb running through their veins. Generations of symptoms, from lameness to blistered skin to mental derangement, can all be traced back to one disease, an inherited disorder called porphyria.

For years, debates about the royal porphyria have raged between medical professionals and historians. As far back as the 1960s, the psychiatrists Macalpine and Hunter claimed that the disease was inextricably linked with the crown of England. They argued that the 'mad' George III had actually been suffering from porphyria, citing the tell-tale symptom of purple urine as proof. This was not enough evidence to convince the eminent physician Geoffrey Dean, however, who promised to "eat my hat" if the authors could prove that porphyria was responsible for the madness of King George. It took a unique partnership between John, who teaches history in EURO, and the two British geneticists Martin Warren and David Hunt, to come up with the proof Dr Dean was so sure didn't exist. John had written a letter to The Guardian to support the porphyria argument. The geneticists spotted the letter, and the three then forged a partnership which saw them hunting down the remains of long-dead royals for a dusting of their DNA. Just a tiny sample of bone marrow could prove conclusively whether the family had porphyria in its blood.

At this stage, John's research pointed towards at least three royals who had almost certainly had porphyria. Queen Victoria's grandchild Charlotte, the sister of Kaiser Wilhelm, was the first to be detected. She wrote in her letters of having terrible pains in the abdomen which wandered around her body, being lame, having blisters all over her face...and of having dark red urine. John found references to similar symptoms in the correspondence of her mother Vicky - Queen Victoria's daughter - and of her daughter Feodora.

The three academics sought permission to open Charlotte's grave. Initially they were told that her remains had been burned by the communists. Then they found her grave, but the German authorities were reluctant to give permission to exhume her.

charlotte's grave
Charlotte's grave when it was first opened; the royal shroud, almost intact, still lay over the coffin

Finally, in 1997, they were allowed to remove the three-tonne slab from her coffin. "There she lay," says John, "with flowers still clutched in her hand." Scraping some bone marrow from her femur, they tested it for porphyria. "She had the disease, beyond a shadow of a doubt," says John, "and the chances of her having it independently from George III are almost impossible." Since this breakthrough, the proof has mounted up. "The Queen's cousin, William of Gloucester, who died in a plane crash in 1972, was clinically diagnosed with the same type of porphyria by three different doctors in three parts of the world", says John. "We're only at the beginning. Only last week, someone wrote to us and gave us permission to examine the heart of James II." As his research continues, the point at which the disease entered into the family can be established. It is currently believed to have originated with Mary Queen of Scots, whose son, James I, described his urine as being "the colour of Alicante wine".

The cover of
John's best-selling book

John's research has profound implications. From a medical perspective, it allows the genealogy of the disease to be traced back for hundreds of years, something which would be impossible in a family less prominent than the royals. It also sheds new light on European history. George III, who was seen as weak and mad, was actually physically ill. The Tsarina Alexandra has been blamed for the downfall of the Russian monarchy. Did porphyria affect her ability to make decisions?

There is a one-in-two chance of any member of the Royal family with the faulty gene passing it on to each offspring. Of that number, around 10% will suffer symptoms. John's research will also alleviate the suffering of future generations of royals - now they are alerted to the risks of the disease they can protect themselves from it. Perhaps he should be awarded a knighthood.

John has just received an award of over £95 000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Board in support of his work on Kaiser Wilhelm II. He retired from the University last week, having worked here since 1964.

professor rohl

Professor John Röhl, - historian and 'detective'.


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Friday 25th June 1999


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