There was no comment from the palace last week when the French magazine Paris Match broke the story that Prince Albert of Monaco had fathered a son, now 21 months old, with an African woman named Nicole Coste. Ten pages of photographs accompanied the article, many of Albert holding little Alexandre at different ages.
While the palace remained stonily silent, the prince's lawyer spoke ominously of developing "a judicial strategy." Nor is this the only paternity claim looming over the 47-year-old bachelor prince. A week after Albert became ruler of Monaco on April 6, an American woman announced that he is the father of her 13-year-old daughter, but she has refused to allow a paternity test.
Despite the furor provoked by revelations of allegedly fathering children out of wedlock, Albert has merely been following a hallowed royal tradition. Until the dour moral strictures of the 19th century, European monarchs were proud of their bastards, who were seen as walking advertisements of royal virility.
In the 17th century, King Henry IV of France raised eight children by various women in the royal nursery along with his six legitimate children, much to the horror of the queen. The king visited his brood frequently but had a hard time keeping the children straight. Aides and visiting ambassadors noted in diaries and letters that he kept a list in his pocket describing the children, detailing their names, ages and mothers.
In the 1670s, the wit George Villiers, speaking of King Charles II of England, quipped that "a king is supposed to be a father to his people, and Charles certainly is father to a good many of them." Charles acknowledged 14 bastards -- nine boys and five girls. So many of his sons were named after him that the king had a hard time remembering which little Charlie had sprung from which royal mistress.
And in the early 18th century, King Augustus the Strong of Saxony was the proud father of a reported 356 illegitimate children. Royal mistresses hoped to bear the king as many children as possible, knowing that each child ensured a lifetime of generous pensions long after the love affair had soured.
Coste finds herself in just such a position. The ardor has turned to ashes, but the former flight attendant claims she is receiving payments from Prince Albert and is living in his Paris apartment until her new house on the Riviera is completed. Moreover, her son could stand to inherit a portion of the $1.6-billion Grimaldi fortune. What he will not inherit is the throne. According to the constitution, if Albert dies without legitimate heirs, the throne passes to his older sister, Princess Caroline, and after her death to her elder son, Prince Andrea.
Though Albert cannot give Alexandre a crown, perhaps he should follow the tradition of Baroque kings and give him a title as a form of paternal acknowledgment. Coste could try the clever strategy used by Nell Gwynn, mistress of Charles II.
Gwynn often recounted to friends how one day in 1676, when the king was visiting, she cried to her 6-year-old son, "Come hither, you little bastard!" When the king scolded her, she said, "I have no better name to call him by." Laughing, Charles replied, "Then I must give him one," and soon after made the boy the earl of Burford and later the duke of St. Albans. The child was given splendid apartments in the palace and a generous allowance. The duke of St. Albans served his country as ambassador to France. Maybe little Alexandre could one day follow a similar path.
Modern monarchs tremble at the faintest whiff of scandal; they are more frightened of the likes of Paris Match than their royal ancestors were of invading Goths, Vandals and Vikings. At the first hint of trouble, palace spokesmen circle their wagons in defense. Tight-lipped and grim-faced, they deny rumors and refuse comment while palace lawyers mutter vague threats of judicial strategies. Today's princes commit the same sins as their more colorful ancestors; they just pretend they don't. Yet somehow hypocritical virtue is always less attractive than publicly professed vice.
The monarchs of past centuries boasted a panache greatly lacking in their modern descendants. Swashbuckling kings strode through life boldly, proud of their virility. Fragrant buxom mistresses, dripping lace and diamonds, offered their wares shamelessly. And palace corridors echoed with the pitter-patter of beloved royal bastards. Perhaps in the near future, the serene pink palace of the royal house of Monaco will resound with the same cheerful echoes.