Royal Cover-Up as Prince of Wales Shoots Owl (In 1896)
Admittedly it’s not the kind of breaking news and gossip in which the Royalist usually trades, but how could one resist writing about a series of letters and photos sold at auction Tuesday that appear to show that the future King Edward VII shot a protected owl during a shooting party in 1896 and then tried to cover it up.
Rather typical behavior for Edward, I’m afraid, who almost bankrupted the Royalist’s ancestor, Christopher Sykes, by forcing him to throw endless parties for him, and then tipped glasses of brandy over his head by way of thanks. But we won’t let that detail color our reporting of this cold case.
The bizarre sale, by British auction house Sworders, comprised a photograph album bearing the legend “The Wynyard Park Owl and HRH The Prince of Wales.” Inside were photographs of a stuffed owl that the prince apparently shot and a series of letters between a photographer named John Phillips and Edward’s private secretary.
The correspondence provides a fascinating insight into Edward’s legendary and high-handed arrogance.
The unfortunate owl was shot at the English estate of the Marquis of Londonderry, Wynyard Park, by Edward, the leisured eldest son of Queen Victoria, Prince of Wales until her death in 1902.
The photographer, Phillips, who was given the bird, subsequently had it stuffed, and then sent a photograph of the stuffed animal—posing au naturel with a freshly caught mouse—to the Prince of Wales, with a lengthy inscription stating that the prince shot the owl.
It was clearly meant to be a sycophantic gesture, but the jape backfired like a blocked Victorian shotgun.
Although the upper classes still tended to shoot anything that moved, the persecution of wild birds was becoming increasingly unpopular with the public—the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was founded five years later—and the heir to the throne vehemently denied the claim that he had shot the bird.
He even went for the “Shaggy defense” (“It wasn’t me”) and claimed he hadn’t even been at the shoot. That claim’s deniability was presumably somewhat compromised by Phillips having taken a photo of the party, including the prince and his wife, which is included in the album.
Sent to Mr. Applerley, the estate manager at Wynyard, the royal letter reads: “The Prince of Wales is rather annoyed at Mr Phillips sending him a photograph of an owl. HRH desires me to point out that he was not at Wynyard and also to say that he has not shot an owl for the last 25 years. Would you mind very kindly asking Mr Phillips what he means by inventing such a story?”
A mortified Phillips, from Belfast, wrote a groveling apology in response.
It reads: “I am extremely sorry to have caused any dissatisfaction or annoyance to HR Highness the Prince of Wales.
“Indeed I sent the photo thinking it would be a pleasant surprise and that it would meet with HR Highness approval.
“I would never think of doing anything intentionally to cause HR Highness annoyance.”
Edward’s secretary fired back a crystal-clear response: “HRH does not quite understand how he [Phillips] shows his loyalty by inventing something about him.”
The prince doth protest too much, methinks.
The album fetched £2,700, smashing its £600 estimate, which just goes to show that quality royal gossip never truly goes cold.