The British Royal family’s “circumcision tradition”

Further sightings of a persistent urban myth

The following is an update to Robert Darby and John Cozijn, The British Royal Family’s Circumcision Tradition: Genesis and Evolution of a Contemporary Legend. Sage Open, 16 October 2013. As Darby and Cozijn report:

Since this article was published we have made several further sightings of the royal family circumcision legend and related myths that we would like to bring to readers’ attention. None of them affects our argument or conclusions, and only one (not involving Queen Victoria) predates the first edition of Kolatch’s Jewish Book of Why (1981), leaving that as the earliest manifestation of the Victoria story yet identified. If any readers encounter an earlier appearance we would love to hear from them.

The earliest post-Kolatch sighting is in a rather unlikely place: a sexually explicit text on the foreskin and circumcision practices by “Bud Berkeley” and Joe Tiffenbach, first published in 1983. Relying on the semi-pornographic fictions of Allen Edwardes, especially his fantasy “history” of the British in India ** (Edwardes 1966), they attribute the fashion for circumcision among the upper classes to their military service in India, but then add the familiar reference to British royalty, which “circumcised its male heirs using the finest Mohel (Jewish circumciser) to be found in all of London. Yes, the rich and the famous were shedding their foreskins in the most romantic of ways. Then came Queen Victoria.” (Berkeley 1983, 31-33; 1993, 68) It is not clear from this account whether Berkeley thinks Victoria introduced or merely followed the practice (probably the latter), and the most likely source is a garbled recollection of Kolatch or a story encountered in conversation. Berkeley goes on to make the (entirely valid) point that circumcision was generalized in late Victorian Britain as a means of discouraging childhood masturbation.

Then there is Dr Terri Hamilton, who in Skin Flutes and Velvet Gloves (2002) writes: “Following the preference of Queen Victoria, male members of the royal family tend to be circumcised” (Hamilton 2002, 234) – a rather vague expression probably deriving from internet sources: as we reported, by 2002 the legend was quite widely diffused. In response to our post-publication inquiries, Marcie Jones gave Hamilton as the most likely source for her own claim that circumcision was introduced into the royal family by Victoria’s doctor, but since then she has deleted the entire conversation from her Facebook account, so perhaps she is not so sure.

Interestingly, Hamilton repeats a couple of other myths involving royal penises. First she retells the old chestnut about Louis XVI, though manages to get her kings mixed up: “The French King Louis XIV, known for his licentious nature and vigorous sexual appetite, was said to have suffered from phimosis …. To relieve the condition, [he] was reportedly circumcised at age 22, following which the procedure became fashionable among European aristocracy for generations.” (Hamilton 2002, 233). As Androutsos has shown, poor old Louis XVI had anything but a vigorous sexual appetite; and while he probably did experience a degree of phimosis it was certainly not treated by circumcision.

Hamilton (2002, 299-300) also embellishes the “Prince Albert” piercing legend, writing that it was so named because the Prince Consort wore such a ring “to retract his foreskin (preventing the build-up of smegma) to keep his member ‘sweet-smelling’” so as not to offend his wife. As already pointed out, the original story is an urban myth invented in the 1970s. Hamilton’s explanatory gloss here is so inherently implausible that it could have been dismissed after a moment’s thought or a little fieldwork: as anybody who has seen one in situ can report, the PA piercing has no effect at all on whether the foreskin is worn retracted or forward. Many men who get PAs these days keep them hidden under their foreskin, thus allowing them to surprise sexual partners at the appropriate moment. The Prince Albert legend, in its many variations, derives its plausibility from the myth that Queen Victoria did not like sex. As Darby (2005) pointed out in reply to a post on H-Histsex, the truth is quite the reverse.

Finally, it is of interest that a quite different version of the story was presented by that master of pseudo-sexual anthropology, Allen Edwardes, who writes in his Erotica Judaica: “When Elizabeth II had Prince Charles deprepucized by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie in 1948, an aeon of English circumcisiophobia was officially ended. Routine became the rule.” (Edwardes 1967, 217) Just about everything in these two sentences is wrong: rabbis do not normally perform circumcisions; Charles was not circumcised by Brodie; and the late 1940s marked the end of routine circumcision in Britain, not the beginning. The fact that Edwardes (writing in 1967) does not mention Queen Victoria and rather implies that it was Elizabeth II who introduced circumcision to the royal family further strengthens our case that the myth developed after the circumcision of Prince Charles, out of stories circulating orally within the Anglo-American Jewish communities, and only coalesced into its present forms in the 1990s.

** The grain of truth in Edwardes’ account is that British soldiers captured by Sultan Tipu and other Muslim rulers during the frontier wars of the 1780s were often forcibly circumcised and kept as slaves, much to their horror and dismay. For details see Colley 2002 and Darby 2003.


Berkeley, Bud and Joe Tiffenbach (1983). Foreskin: Its Past, Its Present and Its Future. No place of publication or publisher.

Berkeley, Bud (1993). Foreskin: A Closer Look. Boston: Alyson Publications

Colley, Linda (2002). Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600–1850. London: Jonathan Cape.

Darby, Robert (2003). Captivity and Captivation: Gullivers in Brobdingnag. Eighteenth Century Life 27 (3).

Darby, Robert (2005). Comment on post, “Prince Albert revisited”, 13 October 2005. H-Histsex Discussion logs:

Edwardes, Allen (1966). The Rape of India: A Biography of Robert Clive and a Sexual History of the Conquest of Hindustan. New York: Julian Press.

Edwardes, Allen (1967). Erotica Judaica. New York: Julian Press.

Hamilton, Terri (2002). Skin Flutes and Velvet Gloves. New York: St Martin’s Press.

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