Only Three People Understood It: The Prince Consort Who is Dead, a German Professor Who Has Gone Mad, and I Who Have Forgotten All About It

Lord Palmerston? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is an anecdote about a fiendishly complex diplomatic agreement. Negotiating, signing, and comprehending the pact had sent one person to the grave, sent a second to a lunatic asylum, and left a third with memory loss. Are you familiar with this tale?

Quote Investigator: This story is based on a remark ascribed to British statesman Lord Palmerston who died in 1865 about the intricate Schleswig-Holstein Question.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in an 1873 Italian book about political and military events in 1866 titled “Un Po’ Più Di Luce Sugli Eventi Politici E Militari Dell’ Anno 1866” by Alfonso La Marmora. Here is an Italian passage followed by an English translation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

La questione danese, o per meglio dire dello Schleswig-Holstein era talmente complicata e oscura che Lord Palmerston non essendo riuscito diplomaticamente a impedire quella guerra, soleva spiritosamente raccontare, che tre soli individui conoscevano a fondo quella imbrogliata controversia. Uno era il principe Alberto, che disgraziatamente era morto; il secondo un uomo di Stato danese, che era impazzito; il terzo lui, Lord Palmerston, che l’aveva dimenticata.

The Danish question, or better put that of Schleswig-Holstein, was so utterly complicated and obscure that Lord Palmerston, not having been successful in preventing that war through diplomacy, used to quip that only three individuals knew the cause of the tangled dispute. One was Prince Albert, who unfortunately was dead; the second was a Danish official who had gone mad; and the third was he himself, Lord Palmerston, who had forgotten it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1864 George Peacocke employed a partial version of the statement while speaking in the U.K. Parliament in London: 2

The popular theory as regards the Schleswig-Holstein question was that that question had been mastered only by one man, a certain German professor, who went mad in consequence; and the panic appeared to have reached even the Ministerial mind, for when the President of the Board of Trade spoke at Ashton the other day, he frankly told his constituents that he knew nothing about the matter except that we were parties to a treaty.

Also in 1864 the same joke appeared in the pages of “The Saturday Review” of London: 3

The Schleswig-Holstein question has raised a good many cries against a great variety of people, and one of the cries it has raised has been against Professors. It has been said facetiously that only one person ever got to the bottom of the question, and he was a German Professor, who immediately went mad.

In 1873 the Italian book containing a full version of the expression attributed to Palmerston was published as noted previously.

A journal entry dated September 29, 1875 and written by historian Reginald Baliol Brett contained the following: 4

Lord Palmerston used to say of the Schleswig-Holstein question, that only three persons knew the truth about this complicated affair. One was Prince Albert, who unfortunately was dead; the second a Danish statesman, who had gone mad; and the third, he himself, who had forgotten all about it.

In 1891 a volume titled “The Founding of the German Empire by William I: Based Chiefly upon Prussian State Documents” stated the following: 5

He had, indeed, before declared that the Schleswig-Holstein affair was so complicated that only three men had ever understood it: the first was Prince Albert, who was dead; the second a Danish Statesman, who had gone mad; the third Lord Palmerston himself, and he had forgotten all about it.

In 1905 “The American Monthly Review of Reviews” highlighted a different diplomatic affair that was “even worse” than the Schleswig Holstein question: 6

It was Lord Palmerston, if we remember correctly, who once declared that the Schleswig Holstein question had been mastered by only one person,—an erudite German professor, who died shortly afterward in a lunatic asylum. The Austro-Hungarian question is even worse than this. No one has ever yet been known to master it.

In 1907 “The Fortnightly Review” of London printed a concise version: 7

Lord Palmerston was wont to say that only three persons ever understood that question: one was dead, another was mad, and the third—Lord Palmerston himself—had forgotten the explanation.

In 1907 “The History of England during the Reign of Victoria (1837-1901)” stated the following: 8

The leading interest of the year 1863 was what was known as the Schleswig-Holstein question; of which Lord Palmerston is reported to have said that there were only three men in Europe who had ever understood it, of whom one (the prince consort) was dead, another (a Danish statesman) was mad, and the third (he himself) had forgotten it.

In 1916 “Great Victorians: Memories and Personalities” presented a modified version of the statement directly ascribed to Palmerston: 9

The subject in many of its bearings was excruciatingly abstruse, and was thus described by Palmerston himself: “The affair of the Duchies has never been understood by more than three persons. One is a German diplomatist, and he is dead; the second is a Danish professor, who is now in a lunatic asylum; the third is myself, and I have forgotten it.”

In 1919 a book about Bismarck by C. Grant Robertson included this: 10

The labyrinth of the historical legal, and ethical controversies buried in the slag-heaps of four centuries has resulted in a formidable library on Schleswig Holstein. Palmerston said with more wit than accuracy that only three persons in Europe were completely acquainted with the truth, the Prince Consort who was dead, a German professor who was in a lunatic asylum, and himself–and he had forgotten it.

In 1921 the famous biographical writer Lytton Strachey published “Queen Victoria” which contained the following passage with a footnote pointing to Robertson’s work: 11

The complexity of the questions at issue was indescribable. “Only three people,” said Palmerston, “have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

In 1922 a play about Queen Victoria altered the topic of the expression: 12

PALMERSTON: The Irish question will always be with us. Only three people have ever really understood it—Castelreagh who is dead, a German professor who has gone mad, and I who have forgotten.

In conclusion, Lord Palmerston died in 1865 and the earliest match located by QI appeared in 1873. In addition, the phrasing specified by citations has been highly variable. Thus, the evidence supporting this entertaining quotation is not strong. Nevertheless, the statement has been popular, and future researchers may discover superior citations.

Image Notes: Coat of arms for Schleswig Holstein; artist: Jürgen Krause. Map showing Schleswig-Holstein as part of Germany; author: David Liuzzo; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Portrait of Lord Palmerston circa 1855 by Francis Cruikshank; all three images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Jean Natsinas whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Natsinas pointed to the instance in Lytton Strachey’s work. Special thanks to Gregory McNamee, Damien Hall, Wilson Gray, and George Thompson for Italian translation advice; any errors are the responsibility of QI.)


  1. 1873, “Un Po’ Più Di Luce Sugli Eventi Politici E Militari Dell’ Anno 1866” by Alfonso La Marmora, Second Edition, Quote Page 30 and 31, Firenze, G. Barbe`ra. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1864 February 4, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons Sitting, Address to Her Majesty on the Lords Commissioners’ Speech, Speaking: George Peacocke (George Sandford), HC Deb, volume 173, cc74-159. (Accessed on December 31, 2017) link
  3. 1864 February 27, The Saturday Review: Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 17, Professors, Quote Page 249, Column 2, Published at the Office of The Saturday Review, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1908, Extracts from Journals: 1872-1881, by Viscount Reginald Baliol Brett Esher, Printed for private Circulation, Entry dated September 29, 1875, Quote Page 118 and 119, Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1891, The Founding of the German Empire by William I: Based Chiefly Upon Prussian State Documents, Volume 3, Translated by Marshall Livingston Perrin, Assisted by Gamaliel Bradford, Jr., Quote Page 144, Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1905 November, The American Monthly Review of Reviews, Volume 32, Number 5, Section: The Progress of the World, Quote Page 535, The Review of Reviews Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1907 April 1, The Fortnightly Review, Modern England by J. A. R. Marriott, Start Page 669, Quote Page 676, Chapman and Hall, Limited, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1907,The History of England During the Reign of Victoria (1837-1901) by Sidney Low and Lloyd C. Sanders, Volume 12 of 12, [Part of Series: The Political History of England in Twelve Volumes, Edited by William Hunt and Reginald L. Poole], Quote Page 187, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1916, Great Victorians: Memories and Personalities by T. H. S. Escott (Thomas Hay Sweet Escott), Chapter IV: Palmerstoniana, Quote Page 194 and 195, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1919, Bismarck by C. Grant Robertson (Charles Grant Robertson), Quote Page 161, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1921, Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey, Chapter: Widowhood, Quote Page 308, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1922, Queen Victoria: A Play in Seven Episodes by David Carb and Walter Prichard Eaton, Quote Page 32, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link