In June 2022, Princess Märtha Louise, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant and fourth in line to the Norwegian throne, announced her engagement to controversial spiritual healer and shaman Durek Verrett.
Backlash against the couple at home has been focused in part on their controversial beliefs in alternative therapies, with Verrett saying he has been labeled a modern-day Rasputin. Märtha Louise, who claims to communicate with angels and has become a motivational speaker and healer alongside Verrett, appeased critics within Norway and her own family when, in 2019, she agreed to stop using her royal title while promoting the New Age business ventures she has started with Verrett. That same year, Verrett’s latest book was dropped from publication by its Norwegian publisher due to what they identified as unproven claims, including the false assertion that “children get cancer because they’re unhappy.”
Märtha Louise is far from the first royal to be criticized for an interest in spirituality beyond the realm of the state-sponsored church. For centuries, European monarchs and their families, purportedly divinely ordained by God himself, were expected to be perfect representatives of the Christian Church. Royals who have dared to explore Eastern religions, astrology, mysticism, and occultism have been mocked and even imprisoned for their unorthodox beliefs.
During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, women throughout Europe turned to witchcraft to gain agency outside of the patriarchal Catholic Church by directly imploring the spirit world for help and guidance. This included many noblewomen, among them the legendary 16th-century ruler Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France—a follower of Nostradamus—who is said to have consumed potions and consulted sorcerers in her quest for an heir. Catherine was brave in her attempts. Only about a century before, powerful, independent royal women in both France and England had been accused of witchcraft by their enemies in an attempt to neutralize or destroy them. Sometimes they succeeded.
According to Gemma Hollman’s Royal Witches: Witchcraft and the Nobility in Fifteenth-Century England, in 1419 the formidable dowager Queen Joan of Navarre was accused of “using witchcraft” in an attempt to kill her stepson Henry V. Although Joan denied the claims, she was under the shadow of her father, who, years before, had been accused of attempting to harm the French dauphin “using evil magic.” Joan’s lands and fortune were stripped from her.
Far greater consequences awaited Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, the wife and former mistress of Humphrey, the younger brother of King Henry V. Around 1441, Eleanor was charged with heresy and sorcery. She was accused of using image magic to kill King Henry VI. According to Hollman, Eleanor admitted to using magical figures in love rituals. She also admitted that she had taken potions made by the mysterious Margery Jourdemaine, known as “the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” which were supposed to help her seduce Humphrey. However, Eleanor denied claims that she had used effigies in an attempt to kill the young King Henry VI. Her protestations were dismissed though, and she was convicted in 1441, forced to divorce her beloved husband, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Jourdemaine was burned at the stake.
Not all royal sorcerers met such a dark fate. Dr. John Dee, the famed astrologist, alchemist, scientist, and esoteric thinker, was a celebrated figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. According to The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir, Elizabeth was introduced to the polymath Dee by her beloved friend Robert Dudley. The future queen delighted in Dee’s brilliance and looked to him for wisdom regarding everything from comets to dream interpretations and puzzles.