10 Bizarre Royal Conspiracy Theories

From secret love children to political assassinations to accusations of vampirism, the British royal family has been the subject of many bizarre conspiracy theories over the course of its history.
The British royal family has been dogged by conspiracy theories for more than 1000 years.
The British royal family has been dogged by conspiracy theories for more than 1000 years. / dvan/E+/Getty Images

British history is chock full of extraordinary tales and rumors about the private lives of the royal family. In recent decades, the rumor mill has been turning faster than ever, with strange and salacious stories dogging the royals from one week to the next—including bizarre conspiracies about Princess Diana’s death and speculation that Princess of Wales Kate Middleton and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle used surrogates during their pregnancies.

But this love of royal gossip and scandal is nothing new. In fact, given the family’s more than 1000 years of history (King Charles III is the 33rd-great-grandson of the medieval king Alfred the Great, after all) perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that wild tales and conspiracy theories about the royals have circulated since the days of the Norman Conquest. Starting way back in 1066, here’s a timeline of the strangest.

William the Conqueror died in battle.

King William I
King William I. / Fine Art/GettyImages

The Norman ruler William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned King William I of England on Christmas morning 1066, following his victory at the Battle of Hastings two months earlier. During the battle, there were rumors that William had actually been killed in the fighting—but in reality, although the Norman forces’ first assault was a disastrous failure, the future king survived, and reportedly rode up and down the battlefield with his helmet removed to show that he was indeed able to fight on.

William II was killed by his brother.

The death of William Rufus, 1100. Artist: Dupre
A depiction of the death of William II. / Print Collector/GettyImages

William II was one of the sons of William the Conqueror and succeeded him to the English throne in 1087. His uncompromising leadership style didn’t make him all too popular with the English people, and during his reign, William earned a reputation as something of a tyrant. That wasn’t helped by the fact that he had problems with his Norman barons, who wanted his brother, Robert, to rule both England and Normandy and plotted to overthrow William. William II also confiscated the lands his younger brother Henry had been left by their father, leading to a long and bitter fallout; and had a noticeably fractious relationship with the church, which ended with his Archbishop of Canterbury fleeing into exile and seeking the assistance of the pope. So it’s no wonder that rumors of a conspiratorial plot emerged after William’s untimely death during a hunting expedition in England’s New Forest in August 1100.

The usual account of William’s death claims that a stray arrow—said to have been fired by one of the men on the hunt, Walter Tirel—struck William square in the chest. The king then fell from his horse and died on the ground a few moments later, the apparent victim of a tragic accident. Fearing the obvious repercussions of the mishap, Tirel later fled to France and never to returned to England, which some historians consider clear evidence of his involvement in the king’s death.

What remains less clear, however, is whether it was an accident at all. A theory emerged claiming that Tirel was no mere huntsman, but an assassin—perhaps hired by William’s brother, Henry, to murder the king so he could secure the throne for himself. William had no children, so Henry was next in line to the throne; he was also a member of the hunting party but left almost immediately after his brother died, returning to London to be crowned as soon as possible—all of which fanned the flames of his rumored involvement in William’s supposed assassination. At his coronation, Henry gave an address in which he reportedly promised to correct many of the unpopular policies his brother had pursued.

Richard the Lionheart and the king of France were lovers.

Richard I
Richard I. / Print Collector/GettyImages

While his father Henry II was still on the throne, the future king Richard I reportedly developed such a close friendship with the young French king, Philip II, that some have come to consider it an intense romantic infatuation. In the words of Henry II’s chronicler and confidant Roger of Howden, after an uneasy peace was brokered between Philip and Henry—who had been preparing to go to war in 1187— Richard “remained with the king of France,” and the two men routinely “ate from the same plate,” while at night “the bed did not separate them.” Howden noted that “there grew so great an affection” between Richard and Philip that Henry was “much alarmed, and afraid of what the future might hold in store.”

Howden’s words have led to the modern idea that the two kings were (in their youth at least) passionate secret lovers. But historians have argued that Philip and Richard’s relationship was not unusual for that era, and that Howden’s description of it was meant to show how close the two were politically—a fact that worried Henry a great deal.

Henry VIII’s will was doctored after his death.

Full-Length Portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger
King Henry VIII. / Fine Art/GettyImages

Around a month before his January 1547 death, Henry VIII made a series of final amendments to his will. The document was already an immensely powerful one, and would go on to have important repercussions for his family, his successors, the royal court, and the country and the monarchy as a whole. But as significant as the will would prove to be, there are some that believe these last-minute amendments were not Henry’s own, but the product of a reformist conspiracy within his inner circle to alter the course of England forever.

With his health already beginning to fail and his young son Edward still quite young, Henry had earlier outlined a series of executors and advisors in his will whom he requested form a so-called “regency council” to rule in Edward’s stead, if he were to die while his son was still too young to rule on his own. When this potential outcome slowly became reality, Henry removed a handful of names from this prospective council in the amendments to his will. Among the people he removed were the Bishop of Winchester and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Both were known anti-reformists, more keen to align England with Catholic theology than to the changes Henry had made to the church during his reign.

Historians have long debated whether these changes were Henry’s own, or whether reformist figures in his court saw the king’s ailing health as an opportunity to exert their influence and increase their hold on the country. If that was indeed the case, there are question marks over whether the amendments were forged, or whether they reformers took advantage of the dying king’s insensibility and slowly manipulated him against members of his court in his final days.

Elizabeth I was a man.

Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland, c1588.
Queen Elizabeth I. / Print Collector/GettyImages

She never married, and never had any children. She was quick-witted, astute, and had excellent financial instincts. And she was an extraordinarily driven leader—even going so far as to coolheadedly order the imprisonment and eventual execution of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Therefore, according to some rather misogynistic conspiracy theorists, at least, Queen Elizabeth I was secretly a man.

Those who believe this fantastic tale will have you believe that Elizabeth actually died of a fever in childhood, and that her quick-thinking governess secretly replaced the princess with a boy who looked like her in order to avoid the infamous wrath of her father, Henry VIII. This myth has endured for centuries despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, perhaps because Dracula author Bram Stoker featured it in his 1910 book, Famous Imposters.

James I was poisoned (possibly by a hostile foreign power).

James I
James I. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Various rumors dogged James I of England (and VI of Scotland) his entire royal life, but none proved more conspiratorial, or as widely circulated, than the bizarre details surrounding his death.

According to contemporary records, James died in 1625 of a “tertian ague,” or a “violent intermittent fever,” thought to be at least in part related to kidney issues he was suffering from at the time. Much to the exasperation of his royal physicians, however, James disliked many of the standard curative treatments they were suggesting, and instead began taking medicines prepared by one of his personal advisors, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. When the king subsequently died, rumors of Villiers’s involvement in his death quickly began to make the rounds at court. The whispers eventually led to the publication of a scurrilous pamphlet, The Forerunner of Revenge, in which the author, a Scottish Catholic physician named George Eglisham, accused the duke of foul play.

How true this devastating accusation actually was has remained a source of debate ever since. But as if the potential murder of a king weren’t scandalous enough, some historians have since claimed that a wide-ranging international conspiracy lay behind Eglisham’s writing, too. In the 2015 book The Murder of King James I, historians Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell outlined a theory that the pamphlet was part of a disinformation campaign partly overseen by the Catholic Spanish Crown from the Spanish Netherlands to sow distrust among the British people and to undermine Villiers, who had been using his position to actively turn English opinion against Spain.

Queen Victoria’s grandson was Jack the Ripper.

Prince Albert Victor
Prince Albert Victor. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The identity of Jack the Ripper is one of contemporary history’s most enduring mysteries. Among the names attached to the case over the 150 years or so since the Whitechapel murders of 1888 are those of several famous figures, including the renowned London artist Walter Sickert, the royal physician Sir William Gull, and even the children’s author Lewis Carroll. Of all the potential Ripper suspects, however, perhaps the most illustrious is Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale—the grandson of the reigning monarch at the time of the killings, Queen Victoria, and second in line to succeed her on the throne.

Albert was 24 at the time of the murders. His supposed involvement in the case emerged in the early 1970s, when a doctor who knew the daughter of the physician to the royal family claimed that one of the royals had contracted syphilis from a sex worker while abroad. The royal was never named, but details made it clear that the rumors referred to Albert. According to the theory, when the disease later ravaged his brain, he killed a number of women of the night as revenge.

Queen Victoria sanctioned the Jack the Ripper murders.

Queen Victoria In Ceremonial Robes At Her Golden Jubilee
Queen Victoria. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Another version of this conspiracy theory claims that Albert fathered an illegitimate child with a Catholic shopgirl in London. In an attempt to ensure the child’s legitimacy and its rightful claim to the throne, the story goes that Albert secretly wed the girl—and the murders were ultimately the work of the British Establishment, sanctioned by the queen herself, in a bloody attempt to cover up the scandal and avoid a Catholic sitting on the throne.

Although the story that Albert was the Ripper has endured for decades and remains a popular theory among several high-profile writers and Ripper fanatics, today it’s mostly dismissed as fantasy: Albert wasn’t even in London when some of the murders occurred, and there’s no evidence the royal family had anything to do with the sex workers’ slayings.

Princess Margaret had a secret love child (and she wasn’t the only one).

Princess Margaret Countess of Snowdon
Princess Margaret. / Les Lee/GettyImages

Rumors of royal love children are by no means a thing of the past, and if modern conspiracy theorists are to be believed, there is more than one unacknowledged member of the royal bloodline alive today. One of the most scandalous theories of recent years claims that then-Prince Charles and Princess Diana conceived a daughter via IVF in 1980, a full two years before the birth of Prince William; the girl was allegedly born by a surrogate the following year, without the royals’ consent or knowledge: The doctor behind the IVF supposedly went rogue, implanting the royal embryo in his own (unsuspecting) wife. Needless to say, there aren’t many who believe this wild theory.

Of all the members of the royals whose love lives have come under scrutiny in recent decades, however, Princess Margaret—the glamorous and unruly younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II—is perhaps the subject of more romantic rumors and conspiracy theories than any other.

Margaret married photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, but after the births of their two children—David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowden, and Lady Sarah Chatto—the couple’s marriage began to falter, and the newspapers were soon filled with stories of their rumored infidelities. (They divorced in 1978.) Among Margaret’s many supposed beaus around this time were Mick Jagger, Peter Sellers, Warren Beatty, and Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Horne. If at least one conspiracy theory is to be believed, however, Margaret had a secret child as the result of one of her earliest of public romances, Peter Townsend (which featured heavily on Netflix’s The Crown).

Townsend was a married RAF officer working as an equerry in the royal household when he and Princess Margaret met in the late 1940s. In 1952, he divorced his wife and later proposed to Margaret. The pair was secretly engaged for a time (because she wasn’t 25, she needed the queen’s permission to marry, which Elizabeth didn’t grant), though they eventually went public. But the princess ultimately called off their engagement in October 1955, at least in part because marrying a divorced man required her to give up her place in the line of succession as well as her royal income and privileges. Before coming to that decision, though—according to the theory—Margaret secretly gave birth to her and Townsend’s child in early 1955. The child was then raised by a family in Kenya, far away from press scrutiny.

As tantalizing a story as this is, however, the dates don’t match up: Townsend and Margaret didn’t see each other for two years after he was sent to Brussels in 1953. Not only that, the princess’s public engagements around the supposed time of the child’s birth are well documented—there are no signs of the princess being pregnant or recovering from pregnancy.

Charles III is a vampire.

Prince of Wales
King Charles III. / WPA Pool/GettyImages

The present king has faced rumors his entire life, from claims he has fathered a secret child with Queen Camilla to questions over the paternity of his youngest son, Prince Harry. Of all the rumors the king has been dogged by, however, one is far more bizarre than the others: Conspiracy theories will have you believe that Charles III, as a distant descendant of Vlad the Impaler, is secretly a vampire.

Vlad the Impaler was indeed partly the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and (no pun intended) King Charles is indeed his blood relative: Through his great-grandmother, Mary of Teck, consort of George V, Charles is Vlad’s great-grandson, 16 times removed. The family ties are certainly there, and Charles is still related to the remaining Romanian royal lineage to this day—yet, alas, this conspiracy theory falls down on the fact that, well, vampires aren’t real, are they?

Read More Stories About the Royal Family: