Royals

Royals and the Spirit World

Throughout history, royals who have explored Eastern religions, astrology, mysticism, and occultism have been mocked and even imprisoned for their beliefs.
Royals and the Spirit World
Illustration by Vanity Fair; Photos from Getty Images.

In June 2022, Princess Märtha Louise, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant and fourth in line to the Norwegian throne, announced her engagement to controversial spiritual healer and shaman Durek Verrett.

Backlash against the couple at home has been focused in part on their controversial beliefs in alternative therapies, with Verrett saying he has been labeled a modern-day Rasputin. Märtha Louise, who claims to communicate with angels and has become a motivational speaker and healer alongside Verrett, appeased critics within Norway and her own family when, in 2019, she agreed to stop using her royal title while promoting the New Age business ventures she has started with Verrett. That same year, Verrett’s latest book was dropped from publication by its Norwegian publisher due to what they identified as unproven claims, including the false assertion that “children get cancer because they’re unhappy.”

Märtha Louise is far from the first royal to be criticized for an interest in spirituality beyond the realm of the state-sponsored church. For centuries, European monarchs and their families, purportedly divinely ordained by God himself, were expected to be perfect representatives of the Christian Church. Royals who have dared to explore Eastern religions, astrology, mysticism, and occultism have been mocked and even imprisoned for their unorthodox beliefs.

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, women throughout Europe turned to witchcraft to gain agency outside of the patriarchal Catholic Church by directly imploring the spirit world for help and guidance. This included many noblewomen, among them the legendary 16th-century ruler Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France—a follower of Nostradamus—who is said to have consumed potions and consulted sorcerers in her quest for an heir. Catherine was brave in her attempts. Only about a century before, powerful, independent royal women in both France and England had been accused of witchcraft by their enemies in an attempt to neutralize or destroy them. Sometimes they succeeded.

According to Gemma Hollman’s Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England, in 1419 the formidable dowager Queen Joan of Navarre was accused of “using witchcraft” in an attempt to kill her stepson Henry V. Although Joan denied the claims, she was under the shadow of her father, who, years before, had been accused of attempting to harm the French dauphin “using evil magic.” Joan’s lands and fortune were stripped from her.

Far greater consequences awaited Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, the wife and former mistress of Humphrey, the younger brother of King Henry V. Around 1441, Eleanor was charged with heresy and sorcery. She was accused of using image magic to kill King Henry VI. According to Hollman, Eleanor admitted to using magical figures in love rituals. She also admitted that she had taken potions made by the mysterious Margery Jourdemaine, known as “the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” which were supposed to help her seduce Humphrey. However, Eleanor denied claims that she had used effigies in an attempt to kill the young King Henry VI. Her protestations were dismissed though, and she was convicted in 1441, forced to divorce her beloved husband, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Jourdemaine was burned at the stake.

Not all royal sorcerers met such a dark fate. Dr. John Dee, the famed astrologist, alchemist, scientist, and esoteric thinker, was a celebrated figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. According to The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir, Elizabeth was introduced to the polymath Dee by her beloved friend Robert Dudley. The future queen delighted in Dee’s brilliance and looked to him for wisdom regarding everything from comets to dream interpretations and puzzles.

When it came time to plan her coronation, Dee was chosen to consult the stars and pick an auspicious date: January 15, 1559. The queen often visited Dee at his home and laboratory at Mortlake, and respected his visions of exploration enough to send her ships to the new world. According to J.H. Brennan’s Whisperers: The Secret History of the Spirit World, Dee was also sent on mysterious continental missions for the crown under the code name “007.”

Elizabeth’s admiration and support for him apparently lasted until her final days. “On the day of her death, the queen visited Dee’s Mortlake home and demanded to see his ‘magic glass,’” Brennan writes. “Dee complied, but the courtiers, lacking the clairvoyant faculties necessary to make the device work, found it more amusing than impressive.”

More than two centuries later, another purported conduit to the spirit world would gain enormous power at the English court. According to Brennan, after her husband Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861, Queen Victoria held seances in an attempt to contact him. Brennan writes that a medium channeling Albert told the queen that she would always be able to speak to Albert through “the boy who used to carry [Albert’s] gun at Balmoral.” This boy was the plainspoken Highlander John Brown, who became Queen Victoria’s close companion and personal servant until his death in 1883. Brennan believes that Victoria spoke to Albert through Brown and that she even wrote a monograph on Brown that was scrapped by disturbed members of the royal household.

Despite these claims, Victoria’s true connection to spiritualism has never been fully confirmed. According to Helen Rappaport, author of Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Elizabeth Longford, considered Queen Victoria’s most authoritative biographer, claims there is no compelling case that Victoria was interested in occultism. But Rappaport notes that this may be due to Princess Beatrice’s censorship of her mother’s journal and letters after her death in 1901. Moreover, the queen’s letters to John Brown were destroyed.

As Rappaport writes, it was important for the firm to keep the image of Queen Victoria as unadventurous and religiously traditional as possible, even in death. “[Randall Davidson, Dean of Winchester] was determined, like other establishment figures and members of the royal family, to ensure that Victoria’s reputation both personally and as head of the Church of England should not be sullied by the survival of any references to fringe religious practices in her writings,” she writes.

According to Rappaport, 20 years after Brown died, the queen’s doctor, Sir James Reid, with the help of the royal family, purchased and destroyed letters written by Victoria regarding her “interest in communicating with the other world through Brown.” Rappaport writes that more anecdotal evidence is supplied by statesman Benjamin Disraeli on his deathbed. He declined to receive the queen because, “She would only ask me to take a message to Albert.”

Ultimately it was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Empress Alexandra of Russia, whose spiritual quest would lead to the family’s destruction. The deeply religious Alexandra, who converted to Russian Orthodoxy in order to marry Nicholas II, sought out mystics for guidance, much like many of her fellow aristocrats in St. Petersburg and Moscow. As Robert K. Massie writes in Nicholas and Alexandra:

This upper layer of society, bored with the old church routines of traditional Orthodoxy, looked for meaning and sensation in the occult. Amid an atmosphere of decadence…mediums and clairvoyants flourished. Grand dukes and princes gathered around tables, the curtains drawn behind their backs, to hold seances and try feverishly to communicate with the other world. There were table-rappings in darkened rooms where strange voices were said to speak and the tables themselves were declared to have risen and floated in the air.

In 1905, the empress, desperate to save her son and heir Alexei from the death grip of hemophilia, was introduced to Grigori Rasputin, the latest “holy man” of the moment in fashionable circles. Born to a poor family in Siberia, Rasputin ingratiated himself with the wide-eyed czar and czarina, referring to them as the parents of Russian peasants, “Batiushka and Matushka.”

Alexandra quickly came to believe that Rasputin was able to heal young Alexei. The boy’s tutor, Pierre Gilliard, who theorized Rasputin was a “clever cheat,” as Massie notes, wrote, years later, “Rasputin’s presence in the palace was intimately connected with the prince’s illness. She [Alexandra] believed that she had no choice. Rasputin was the intermediary between her and God. Her own prayers went unanswered but his seemed to be.”

According to contemporary reports, Alexei’s bleeding and suffering during hemophilia attacks seemed to ease when Rasputin was there or praying for him. “There is no doubt about [ Rasputin’s healing powers],” Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, Nicholas’s sister, recalled. “I saw those miraculous effects with my own eyes and that more than once.”

Massie writes that scientists have long tried to uncover how Rasputin helped or appeared to help Alexei. It was reported that Rasputin took lessons in hypnotism, and his daughter Maria Rasputin’s description of Rasputin with Alexei certainly sound like hypnotic sessions:

The power, the nervous force that emanated from my father’s eyes…from his whole being impregnated with willpower, from his mind concentrated on one desire…[were] transmitted to the child—a particularly nervous and impressionable subject—and…galvanized him. At first through the stream of emotion and later through the power of confidence, the child’s nervous system reacted, the envelope of the blood vessels contracted, the hemorrhage ceased.

Lustful and power-hungry, Rasputin was soon hated for his dissolute personal life and involvement in affairs of the state. Nicholas and Alexandra were scorned for falling under his spell, and the empress was also falsely accused of sexual improprieties by her political enemies. Rasputin was dropped by the fashionable aristocrats who had feted him and became a detested figure throughout the Russian Empire. Shortly before his murder by Russian nobles in 1916, he wrote an eerily prescient letter to the czar, which points to clairvoyance or a good deal of common sense:

Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Gregory has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death then no one of your family, that is to say, none of your children or relations will remain alive for more than two years. They will be killed by the Russian people.

In the modern age, royals besides Princess Märtha Louise have also claimed spiritual gifts and clairvoyant-like abilities. According to Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, Princess Diana believed she “had lived before” and was a “wise old thing.” She also believed departed loved ones watched over her. “I’d never discuss it with anyone, they would all think I’m, you know?” she told Andrew Morton, author of Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words. “I used the word ‘psychic’ to my policemen a couple of times and they have freaked out.”

Diana also had a deep interest in New Age philosophies and fringe healing practices. “A garrulous procession of astrologers, psychics, palm readers, and graphologists toted their charts and crystal balls into Kensington Palace,” Brown writes.

Sally Morgan, Diana’s former psychic, has claimed that Prince Harry contacted her years after his mother’s death, both for a reading and answers regarding his mother’s untimely death.  

Prince Charles is also spiritually curious—a seeker “at the edges of the Anglican faith,” according to Sally Bedell Smith, author of Prince Charles. But this did not endear him to his first wife. “He would read Laurens van der Post or Jung to me,” Princess Diana told Andrew Morton of their 1981 Balmoral honeymoon period. “Bear in mind I hadn’t a clue about psychic powers or anything, but I knew there was something in me that hadn’t been awoken yet and I didn’t think this was going to help!”

The prince’s admiration for Van der Post—a South African teacher and clairvoyant—stretches back decades, and has influenced his environmentalism and his belief in a personal, spiritual connection with nature. These interests are so pronounced that poet Kathleen Raine nicknamed Charles her “philosopher king.” According to Smith, over the years Charles professed an interest in faith healing, parapsychology, and dream interpretation. Smith writes:

A favorite healer was Ted Fricker, who impressed the prince with his accounts of communication with the spiritual “other world.”…One evanescent influence in the prince’s life at the end of the 1970s was Zoe Sallis, an Anglo-Indian actress in her late thirties who had been the mistress of film director John Huston. She was a Buddhist proselytizer who browbeat the prince’s advisers until Charles agreed to meet her…. Sallis encouraged Charles to believe in reincarnation, with its progress of the soul from past lives into new lives based on the quality of one’s moral and spiritual path. Charles saw no incompatibility between the transmigration of souls and his Christian beliefs.

According to Smith, palace officials were at one point frustrated by what they call the prince’s “guru problem.” His progressive religious attitudes and interest in Islam, Hinduism, and Catholicism have also reportedly angered the Anglican Church.

But change will likely come when the Prince of Wales becomes king, bringing the crown more in line with around 40% of the British population that is not Christian. He has stated his desire to be “Defender of Faith” rather than “defender of the Faith,” according to Smith.

“[I am] one of those people who searches,” Charles once said on his spiritual quest. “I am interested in pursuing a path if I can find it through the thickets.” In many ways, Prince Charles has been much more open about his spiritual journey than most royals, who, afraid of bucking tradition, seem to have kept their true beliefs to themselves. Princess Märtha Louise has taken this a step further, choosing to focus on her inner spirit rather than the outer trappings of royalty. Who knows how her new role as hybrid princess and wellness guru will pan out? Perhaps the clairvoyant princess already knows.

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