Our society is still obsessed with ‘purity’ and is shocked that a royal could marry a person of colour

‘He is like a brown John Brown,” says one courtier of Abdul Karim, who was Queen Victoria’s servant and companion in later life, and is the subject of the new Stephen Frears film Victoria & Abdul. And therein lies the real fear about Karim’s place in the Queen’s affections – not that he was foreign, from the empire, from the lower middle classes or much younger than her, but because he was “brown”. The relationship violated Victorian taboos of race and class – and the household and royal family hated Karim. Almost immediately, they wanted him out of the palace.

Any discussion of royalty is pervaded by an obsession with blood purity and unbroken lines of inheritance for both power and genes. Until recently, the fathers of royal brides had to swear their daughters were virgins, and when the law was changed in 2013 to allow girls to succeed to the throne with the same rights as boys, there was a debate over whether adopted children or even those conceived through IVF should be allowed those rights. And the obsession with lines and blood is often couched in notions of racial superiority. The phrase “blue blood” – generally used now to denote royalty – comes from the Spanish sangre azul, meaning someone whose skin was so pale you could see blue veins, differentiating the royals from both the tanned peasants working in the fields and the people of colour who were increasingly part of European society.

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