Prince Harry’s expected testimony on Tuesday in a phone-hacking case will be the first time in over 130 years that a prominent member of Britain’s royal family is cross-examined in court.
The last time it happened was in 1891, and it didn’t go well for the royal family.
Prince Albert Edward — Queen Victoria’s eldest son, who went on to become King Edward VII in 1901 — testified as a witness in a slander case that centered on a game of baccarat gone wrong at which the prince had been present.
One of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, had been accused of cheating. The prince sided with the accusers, and Mr. Gordon-Cumming lost the case.
A local report from the time, as quoted in The Guardian, said that Edward’s testimony lasted about 20 minutes and that it “wearied him exceedingly, and made him extremely nervous.” The report also stated that he couldn’t sit still. It was unusual then, too, for such a prominent member of the royal family — the future king, no less — to appear in court.
“When a question more pressing, more to the point than usual, was put to him, the prince’s face was observed to flush considerably, and then pale again,” the report read.
Richard Fitzwilliams, a royal commentator, said: “You can see from reading this why it was subsequently decided that this is not something the royal family want. It showed you couldn’t entirely shield even the son of the queen from cross-examination.”
A book that was published in 1899 revealed a letter by Edward in which he denounced the scandal and expressed the “deep pain and annoyance” he suffered because of it.
“A recent trial, which no one deplores more than I do, and which I was powerless to prevent, gave occasion for the press to make most bitter and unjust attacks upon me, knowing I was defenseless,” Edward wrote.
He continued, “The whole matter has now died out, and I think, therefore, that it would be inopportune for me in any public manner to allude again to the painful subject which has brought such a torrent of abuse upon me.”
Edward’s testimony in 1891 was not the first time that the future king appeared in court. Two decades earlier, he testified in the divorce case of Harriet Mordaunt, the wife of an English member of Parliament, who had named Edward as one of her lovers. (Edward denied it in court.) During that trial, Edward seemed to have been in the witness box for only a few minutes, Mr. Fitzwilliams said, and that appearance seemed to have had less of an impact on his reputation.
Edward — known as “Bertie” to the people close to him — had enjoyed a reputation of being a womanizer with a love for playing cards.
There are key differences between Harry’s planned court appearance on Tuesday and Edward’s appearances. Edward was called as a witness both times he appeared in court, while Harry is one of the plaintiffs, meaning he probably knew that cross-examination was in his future.
Furthermore, while Harry is a high-profile member of the royal family, he is no longer a working royal. And he has never been first in line to the throne, unlike Edward, who was the crown prince. Still, if the questions trip Harry up, it could be embarrassing, experts said.
“There won’t be the safety net that he’s had with various interviews,” Mr. Fitzwilliams, the royal commentator, said.
Not all press was unfriendly to Edward in 1891. In an article about the last day of testimony in the baccarat slander case, The New York Times wrote that he was “affable as ever” and “faultlessly dressed.”
Edward was king for only nine years. In 1910, he died of pneumonia, leaving the throne to his son George V.