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Monday 10 January 2005

Is He or Isn't He, and Who Cares Anyway?

This is not a column for everyone - especially the faint of heart or mind. Nearly everything about the subject at hand is controversial, and mention of it is virtually guaranteed to garner strong emotion among everyone from scholars and medical professionals to parents and their children. But, as with other hotly debated topics, most people - regardless of their position or opinion - find themselves inexorably drawn to knowing more about it, particularly where it concerns the most famous and important. So, as an avowed impartial observer, I write about male circumcision not to polemicize, but rather to explore its place at the heart of modern and recently historical European monarchies.

At first glance, it may seem a bit strange to some people to even connect European monarchies to a practice that is so readily and directly associated with Judaism, given that the two are almost always mutually exclusive. The truth of the matter is, religion has both everything and nothing to do with circumcision among the European royal families. If anything - at least where royalty is concerned - circumcision frequently has a direct connection to dynasty. For starters, think King Louis XVI of France and Czar Peter III of Russia. Popular history tells us that both monarchs suffered from a medical condition called phimosis, which required circumcision in order to allow them to consummate their respective marriages and produce heirs to their thrones.

In Peter’s case, the story goes that as the young heir to the Russian throne, he was unable to consummate his marriage with his equally young German bride, Catherine. For nearly 10 years, the royal couple failed to produce an heir. Finally, in 1754, Catherine became pregnant, presumably by her husband. The problem was, despite her husband’s obvious attentions to other women, it was widely believed that he could not perform sexually at all due to phimosis. With Catherine pregnant, reportedly by a lover she was encouraged to take by the Empress Elizabeth, something had to be done to remove Peter’s physical obstacle and, accordingly, any doubt that the child was his. Thus, Catherine’s lover reportedly got Peter so drunk he either agreed to or couldn’t defend himself against circumcision and was subsequently able to consummate the marriage.

As for Louis XVI, it seems he, too, found himself unable to consummate his marriage to his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette. For three years, it was believed that the problem was a psychological one - a point that seemed to be verified when, in 1773, the then Dauphin proclaimed conjugal victory. It was a short-lived triumph if there ever was one. Sexual relations between the couple were troublesome and unfruitful, and it wasn’t until 1777 that Marie Antoinette’s brother got to the root of the trouble with Louis and convinced the King to agree to a circumcision for his phimosis. Less than a year later, the Queen was pregnant.

In both cases, it would appear that circumcision not only ensured the future of the monarchy (or so it seemed at the time), but, as a cure to phimosis, it also provided an excellent public excuse as to why both royal couples failed to execute their primary duty in any reasonable amount of time.

The problem is, wherever circumcision is concerned, there is almost always disagreement. And, naturally, the more high-profile the individual, the greater the debate. So as not to forget the other side, it must be said that both Peter’s and Louis’ circumcisions are contested, with most challenges stating that both arguments were fabricated as either political or religious propaganda by either the royal "machines" to assuage rumors or by various religious factions to bolster their own beliefs or discredit an institution. These arguments also apply to more modern claims of royal circumcision and could at least partially explain why most all modern European monarchies are exceedingly tight-lipped about the subject (aside from the fact that it is a most personal subject).

This is certainly the case when you consider the Spanish royal family. If you read my column about Queen "Ena" of Spain, entitled "Britain's Queen of Spain <>," you may have noticed that I mentioned that her son, Prince Alfonso, was discovered to be a hemophiliac during his circumcision. Now, as then, circumcision is not terribly common in Spain, which raises many questions about why Ena and her husband, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, chose to circumcise their son and if that tradition continues in the Spanish royal family today. The answer, at least to me, remains elusive; however, there are various theories that can be made based on what information is available. It is, for instance, widely speculated in Spain that King Juan Carlos is circumcised, as is the custom among males in the Spanish royal family. This information is directly stated in El Rey (Conversaciones Privadas con Don Juan Carlos I de España), a book written by Spanish journalist José Luis de Villalonga who, along with another journalist, had intimate access to and exclusive interviews with the King and his family.

If true (and, from what I understand, it is a disputed point), the question remains - how did the tradition begin among the Catholic Spanish royals? Some claim that, as a preponderance of doctors in Medieval Spain were Jewish, circumcision was practiced on royal males as a matter of course. This information I simply paraphrase from other opinions. Personally, given the complicated history of Spanish/Jewish relations during the Middle Ages, I choose to leave any attempts at either validating or disproving this theory to professional scholars. That said, I personally wonder if the practice of circumcision among the Spanish royals is in any way related to the fact that the Spanish kings, as successors of the royal family of Naples, hold the title of King of Jerusalem.* Even today, Juan Carlos bears this ancient title. Once again, however, I leave this question to others far more qualified in that particular area of history.

From where I stand, I lean toward the theory that Queen Ena - born Princess Victoria Eugénie of Battenberg and the youngest granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria - introduced circumcision to the Spanish royal family. After all, if she introduced the Christmas tree, golf and horse racing to her adopted country, why not circumcision? In all seriousness, however, it’s possible that the tradition, which many people are surprised to learn was introduced into the British royal family by none other than Queen Victoria, was spread to other royal families by her many children and grandchildren. It’s purely speculation on my part and I find little evidence to point that other modern monarchies practice circumcision, but there is little doubt that circumcision has been a part of the British royal family ever since Queen Victoria.

An idealistic woman and a romantic at heart, it probably took little encouraging to convince Queen Victoria that she was descended from none other than the Biblical King David. Certainly, it must have been an idea that was not only utterly attractive, but perhaps appealed to her dynastic sensibilities. At a time when royal subjects the world over were daily reasserting - in words and action - the belief that their monarchs were most certainly not chosen by God, it must have been a way of justifying her and her family’s elevated status. It wasn’t just Victoria, either, who believed in the King David connection. The "British Israel" movement, which stated (among other things) that the British people were descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, was very popular before, during and after Victoria’s reign. In accordance with this belief, Victoria - along with much of the British aristocracy - chose to have her sons circumcised. And the tradition has continued, according to most every account, right up to the modern day.

In fact, it’s incredibly easy to find various sources that cite the current Prince of Wales’ circumcision at Buckingham Palace in 1948 by Rabbi Jacob Snowman, M.D., who was the official Mohel (Jewish ritual circumcision) of the London Jewish community. Interestingly, by most accounts Princes William and Harry were not circumcised as infants, reportedly because the Princess of Wales refused to have it done on her young sons, although some sources claim she did agree to have it done. The opinion is even more divided on whether or not the uncircumcised royal princes were requested by their father to have the procedure after their mother’s death. It has been rumored that Prince Harry agreed and had the procedure only months after Diana’s death, while Prince William refused. Whatever the case, as with most issues regarding the two princes, this is an extremely controversial issue and is unlikely to be affirmatively ascertained one way or another.

With that in mind, I feel it necessary to say that, if you’re like I was, and looking for categorical proof that anyone royal was or is circumcised, I’m afraid it’s a bit like squeezing blood from a turnip. Sure, biographers and journalists will write what they either believe to be true or have heard through the grapevine, but in all reality, it’s highly unlikely that any royal ever did or ever will come right out and say, "I am/am not circumcised." It’s just not done. And who can blame them? At the end of the day, it is truly a personal matter and, in my opinion, I’ve found the history surrounding the use and practice of the tradition among royalty and, accordingly, the impact that practice has had on history, far more interesting than whether someone is or isn’t.

Until next week, 

- Tori Van Orden Martínez 


I want to again thank Jeffrey, whose thoughtful e-mail inspired this column.

*For more on the title of King of Jerusalem, read The Laird o’Thistle’s column entitled, "A Winter’s Grail Tale" -

Author's Note: An April 1, 2005 article on the web site of The Board of Guardians of British Jews indicates that Minister Jacob Levinson, Chief Mohel, performed circumcisions on Princes William and Harry. The article can be found at



Previous Royal Scribe columns can be found in the archive

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This page and its contents are ©2006 Copyright by Geraldine Voost and may not be reproduced without the authors permission. The 'Royal Scribe' column is ©2005 Copyright by Tori Van Orden Martínez who has kindly given permission for it to be displayed on this website.
This page was last updated on: Saturday, 21-Jan-2006 20:20:09 CET