In the late 19th century, the congenital blood disorder hemophilia became known as "The Royal Disease" because of its pervasiveness in Europe's most powerful bloodlines. The royal strain originated in Great Britain, but within three generations it had infected the bloodlines of the ruling monarchies of Spain, Germany and Russia. A breakdown of hemophilia's virulent spread gives insight into the narrow network of suitable mates available to European royalty, and illuminates the numerous familial connections between independent monarchies across the European continent.
Hemophilia is a rare inherited disorder that inhibits the body's ability to form blood clots, resulting from a mutation on the X-chromosome (therefore suffered almost exclusively by men - most often passed from mother to son). Prior to the mid 20th century, the disorder was untreatable. Thus, a hemophiliac who suffered a seemingly insignificant flesh-wound would almost invariably die from massive blood loss.
Most sources trace the origin of the "Royal Disease" to the legendary monarch, Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Victoria gave birth to nine children with her husband and first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Three of their children were afflicted with the disorder -- two of their daughters, Princesses Alice and Beatrice, were carriers for hemophilia, while their second son Prince Leopold, was a hemophiliac. From birth, Leopold suffered from frequent hemorrhages and seizures, and was placed under constant supervision by his cautious mother. But in spite of the world's best medical care, at age 30 Leopold slipped and injured his knee at a Yacht club in Cannes -- he died of a cerebral hemorrhage a few hours later. Prior to his untimely death, Leopold passed the mutation on to his daughter Princess Alice, who married an English Prince, Alexander of Teck. Alice spread the disorder to her son, Prince Rupert, who would die at age 21 of a brain hemorrhage resulting from a car crash.
Though Leopold kept his strain of the disorder within the borders of the British Empire, his siblings would unwittingly spread it across Europe. Victoria's first carrier daughter Beatrice spread the Royal Disease to her son Leopold, who would die during a knee operation at age 32, and to her daughter Princess Eugenie, who would marry the heir to the Spanish throne, Alphonso XIII --introducing the deadly disorder into the Spanish bloodline. Eugenie's hemophiliac sons princes Alfonso and Gonzolo would both die of internal bleeding at ages 31 and 19, resulting from separate minor car accidents.
Victoria's second carrier daughter, Alice, passed the disorder onto her son Prince Friedrich and two of her daughters -- princesses Alix and Irene. Friedrich was diagnosed at age 2 after a cut to his ear bled continuously for three days. He died of a brain hemorrhage a few months later after a fall from a first floor window. Friedrich's sister Alix married Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and injected hemophilia into the Russian bloodline. Alix infected her youngest child Alexis with the deadly disorder, but his life was cut short at age 13, when he and the rest of his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918. Alix's sister Irene married the German prince Albert of Prussia (her first cousin), and thus infected the German bloodline. She passed the disorder on to her son Heinrich, who would die at age four from bleeding caused by a bump to the head.
Hemophilia took its toll on the royal families of Europe, and sparked a frantic search for what Victoria herself called "strong blood", with which the monarch hoped to salvage the royal bloodline. Of all the hemophiliac males who descended from Queen Victoria, none would live past age 32.