Friday, February 15, 2013

Mysteries and Secrets: Queen Victoria, her physician Sir James Reid, and John Brown

by Stephanie Cowell

The story behind the genesis of this biography of the Victorian physician Sir James Reid who died in 1923 is almost as fascinating as the story itself.  The physician’s grandson inherited Sir James’ home of Ellon Castle in Aberdeenshire.  And his wife, on a cleaning spree one day, peered into a dark cupboard. Among the dusty albums was a large cash box containing forty small pocket diaries written in neat tiny handwriting which proved to be a meticulous daily account of Sir James’ life as he worked with his most famous royal patient and her family.  Michaela Reid read the diaries and pored through the dusty scrap albums to write her biography ASK SIR JAMES.  But she was never able to study the medical diaries and something called the Green Memo Book because they were burned for the sake of discretion by Sir James’ son.

What secrets did those ashes contain? 

The Queen and John Brown
James Reid, Queen Victoria's Scottish personal physician for the last 20 years of her life, became her intimate friend and counselor as well and steered her through many muddles and crises. He lived daily with her extraordinary extended family, seeing the more human, humble, and lonely side of the widow. So possessive was she of him that when he married her lady-in-waiting, she hardly allowed him the time to do so. When she knighted him, she first noticed his bald spot. He may have earned the bald spot in service to her.

James Reid knew her well, and likely knew the truth about her relationship to her Scottish servant, the burly, earthy and whiskey-drinking John Brown to whom she became close in her widowhood. Was the real truth committed to the fire to conceal it? Sir James was as a discreet a man as he was a gifted physician.

Sir James Reid
When Edward VII became King he gave Reid the task of retrieving letters about John Brown for which the King was being blackmailed. They were letters written by Victoria, over three hundred of them which Reid called “most compromising.”

In January 1901 when Victoria died, the care of the body was Reid’s until the coffin was sealed. He adhered to the burial instructions and placed in the coffin many mementos from her family and friends. Among them was “the plain gold wedding ring which had belonged to the mother of my dear valued servant and friend J. Brown which I have worn constantly since his death, a coloured profile Photograph in a leather case of my faithful friend J. Brown, his gift to me—with some of his hair laid with it…” Reid wrapped these things in paper and covered them with Queen Alexandra's flowers so that they could not be seen by the family.

John Brown

 A rumor remains that John Brown married his sovereign secretly who bore him one to three children. The Queen's daughters joked that Brown was "Mama's lover” and the Earl of Derby noted in his diary that Brown and Victoria slept in adjoining rooms. But surely the Queen would not have taken a lover or remarried while she had her late husband Albert’s hot shaving water brought in each day of the more than forty years of her widowhood!

Victoria needed a strong man on whom she could depend. There are many kinds of love. This was an unusual relationship, to be sure, so beautifully portrayed in the film Mrs. Brown.

A letter from the Queen was discovered in the Suffolk Record Office by Bendor Grosvenor, a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, while writing a thesis on Disraeli's government. It is address to Lord Cranbrook who was Victoria’s close friend and compared the loss of John Brown to the loss of her husband Albert. Brown had died suddenly and the Queen poured out her grief without restraint.

Though many secrets are revealed in this fascinating biography, the most personal of them we can only guess. The deepest privacy of the old Queen was kept forever by her faithful physician-in-ordinary.

Billy Connolly and Judi Dench in MRS. BROWN

Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell writes about English history and historic people in the arts. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart (which debuted as an opera/play in NYC this past December) and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is


  1. I enjoyed the movie Mrs. Brown; too bad the deeper secrets were burned.I hope Queen Victoria found solace in that friendship.

  2. My opinion matters not at all...but I hope they were happy and well. We ought not be shocked or scandalised in any way if Her Majesty did marry Brown. However, there was a crown to protect!


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