It was 1880 and a new boy started at Eton half way through the school year. Prince Victor was the son of His Highness the Maharajah Duleep Singh. He was enrolled in Manor House (A.C. James) and was in the same year as the young boy who would later become the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.
Duleep Singh had been crowned Maharajah at the age of six but since then the Punjab had been annexed by the British and, as a result, in 1849 under the third Treaty of Lahore, both the young Maharajah and the Koh-i-Noor diamond were sent to England.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert entertained the young Maharajah and his party at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight and she quickly became very fond of her new guests. She was swift to insist on good behaviour from her courtiers: “With regard to the Young Maharajah. The Queen wishes to observe to Lord Aberdeen that he should be treated as a Prince in whom the Queen took an interest and we accordingly treated him just as we do all Princes…”
Throughout the later decades of her reign, Queen Victoria thoroughly enjoyed his company and in later years included him and his family in both her private and public life. She wrote after one visit, “I take quite a maternal interest in him.” She also paid time and attention to the young Maharajah’s education. A tour around England was organized to inspire the young Maharajah to settle down to an English country life and it was repeated to the Queen that he was “one of the most charming young men.” Queen Victoria wrote that he “sat next to me at a dinner dressed in his beautiful clothes and wonderful pearls and emeralds.” He was also a favourite with Prince Albert as well as the royal children.
After his marriage in 1864, he was delighted to welcome his new born son into the world in 1867 and to present him to to Queen Victoria who wanted to organise the christening “I have never beheld a lovelier child… I named him Victor Albert… the Dean of Windsor performed the service…”
Born just a few weeks apart, Prince Victor and the young boy from Highclere who would go on to spend much of his life in Egypt soon become firm friends. They equally and consistently performed towards the bottom of most subject classes and both were also slightly different from the consensus of pupils at Eton by reason of health or background. They also both would both take every opportunity to slip away to various racecourses.
Prince Victor’s father, however, soon found himself in ever increasingly perilous financial circumstances. The funds to support his family were always a source of political debate and in due course he had no choice but to put up for sale his home, the magnificent Elveden Hall which Queen Victoria had encouraged him to buy. Over time all the contents were also sold.
In India the Sikhs cherished the memory of the Lion of the Punjab and thought the treatment of his son who had been transported and transposed to England did not esteem their long history and culture. The Punjab was an important province of the Sikh Empire, and its annexation by the British was a major blow to the Sikhs.
However, the family was in England but gained from the interest and protection of Queen Victoria. The 5th Earl and Prince Victor as well as their respective siblings remained firm friends throughout their lives, the Earl even franking his friend’s life at various points. Throughout their lives they travelled together, enjoyed the famous shooting weekends at Highclere as well spending Christmas with one another.
The 5th Earl offered travel, houses and friendship to Prince Victor in various times of need especially after the early death of The Maharajah Duleep Singh in 1893. In turn, Prince Victor was the 5th Earl’s best man and, in due course, godfather to his first son, Henry George Alfred Marius Victor Francis, born on November 7th. 1899. The other godparents were Mr. Alfred de Rothschild, Mrs. (Marie) Wombwell, Lord (Francis) Ashburton and the baby’s aunt, Lady Burghclere.
This was such a fascinating world to write and research for the book, “The Earl & The Pharaoh”. So many remarkable people, such extraordinary stories and a part of the Earl’s life which I never expected to find. Prejudices and censure obviously just simply did not play a part in the 5th Earl’s life. Instead, it was about kindness and curiosity and of course Tutankhamen in the fictional time of Downton Abbey.