Tattoos have a distinguished royal history

It’s hard to cause a stir with a tattoo these days. When even Felicity Kendal has one, the game is over

Most newspapers and magazines have some dark secrets in their archives. The Daily Mail’s headline from 1934 comes to mind: “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”, though I suppose that isn’t exactly a secret. A better example is one I came across while working at Country Life years ago. I heard a rumour that there was an “At Home with Hitler” feature lurking among the bound copies, and assumed it must be a myth. But there it was, and it made fascinating reading: the Führer showing the writer around his lovely home, the Berghof, in 1936. It was a graphic illustration of what we already knew, that the British aristocracy — which regards Country Life as its bible — had a soft spot for fascism.

It has now emerged that our upper classes had a fetish for something else they would probably prefer to keep secret: tattoos. A friend who works for Country Life has sent me a feature he unearthed from 1900, which celebrates this unexpected fact.

It relates how “one of the most popular Masters of Foxhounds in England” had “tally-ho!” tattooed on his forearm along with a fox’s head and brush and a hunting crop. According to the article this was “much admired”. It also reveals that Army officers would have their regimental badges tattooed on their chests, that there was a “well-known MP” who had a “locomotive engine” tattooed on his arm, and that the nobility would “engrave” their bodies with everything from family crests to “a partridge coming down the wind”. And this fashion went all the way to the top — not only did the Dukes of Clarence and York have dragons on their arms, the future Edward VII got himself a nice little Jerusalem cross. And not that little, actually.

We all know what the Victorians got up to on the body piercing front — a tradition which Radio 4’s Evan Davis is said to uphold — but this tattooing craze is a revelation. Not least because, until recently, we associated tats with football hooligans, sailors of low rank and prisoners. To have a spider’s web spreading up your neck was a tried and tested method of ensuring you didn’t have to work.

But then along came David Beckham. In 1999, he created headlines by having his children’s names tattooed on him. After that, attitudes began to change. How quaint our surprise now seems that Pamela Anderson had barbed wire tattooed on her bicep. As a cricket fan, I remember almost fainting when I first saw Kevin Pietersen’s tattoos. But the other day when I saw Jade Dernbach in action with his much more extensive “sleeve tats”, I found myself not reaching for the smelling salts but admiring the artwork.

It must be frustrating being a sportsman or a pop star and finding that no one cares if you are covered in tattoos. It was rather sweet to see all those young women at Royal Ascot this week with theirs, trying to cause a stir and be noticed, only to find that no one minded. When even Felicity Kendal has one, the game is over.

The only tattoos that have any impact these days are those on intimate parts of the body that are heard about but not seen; or the discreet ones on the ankles of well-spoken women who like to hint at their bohemian inclinations. I still can’t look at a photograph of Samantha Cameron without thinking: “Yeah, we know, we know. You little saucepot.”