She described her Scottish ex-stable-boy, discreetly, as "my friend and most confidential attendant." But new research indicates that the handsome lad may, scandalously, have been much closer to Queen Victoria. Yes, that Victoria, the one whose puritanical reign inspired the classic wedding-night injunction to brides to "close your eyes and think of England."

The information, disclosed oddly when the nation was observing the queen's 160th birthday two weeks ago, came from Dr. Michael MacDonald, curator of the Museum of Scottish Tartans in Perthshire. According to MacDonald, Victoria and John Brown, her young Scots "gillie" (servant) at Balmoral Castle, became lovers after Prince Albert's death. Worse, they were secretly married some five years later, and she bore him a son who died a recluse in Paris in the 1950s at the age of 90. His sources, MacDonald says, include a witness to the deathbed confession of the minister who supposedly performed the wedding. "The nettle must be grasped," he adds staunchly, though admitting his data require further verification.

The connection between Victoria and the stableboy has been a matter of record since their first meeting at Balmoral. He was then a rude 21-year-old with a weakness for drink, she was the 27-year-old queen—and Albert was very much alive. She eventually brought young John to London as an aide and, when Albert died a year later, Victoria, "after bemoaning her loss, turned to Brown, the only person around"—or so MacDonald claims. Her long retreat from public view gave rise to prurient rumors—and tittering references to her as "Mrs. Brown." John remained her closest companion until his death in 1883 (she outlived him by almost 18 years).

Buckingham Palace—atypically—lost no time stepping on MacDonald's story. "There is not a shred of evidence in the Windsor archives to support these allegations," sniffed a spokesman. But no one denies that Victoria's papers were sanitized of documents on Brown after her death. On taking the throne, her son King Edward VII ordered the destruction of other Brown memorabilia as well. MacDonald will be fleshing out his 10 years of research on the subject in an upcoming book on the Brown-Victoria relationship. He thinks Buckingham Palace should take the modern view. "If it is true," he says, "so what? It happened over a hundred years ago."