Princess Alice of Battenberg was not just Prince Philip’s mother and Queen Elizabeth II’s mother-in-law. Her life was, time and again, hit by tragedy – yet she was a formidable woman who rose above her misfortune to make a genuinely positive impact on the world.
Little, if any, of this was seen in the first two series of The Crown; Princess Alice was glimpsed only briefly, attending Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding wearing her nun’s habit. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon makes a disparaging remark in passing: “Would you look at the mother? Just out of a sanatorium I heard.”
It’s true that Princess Alice spent time in an asylum, but by the time of her son’s wedding she had been discharged for almost a decade – the Queen Mother’s dialogue therefore highlighting The Crown’s contraction of timelines for the sake of drama, or perhaps simply reflecting the judgemental mindset of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
Here, we look at the astonishing events in Princess Alice’s life glossed over by The Crown and the part she plays in the newly-released third season.
Princess Alice was born on 25th February 1885 in the Tapestry Room at Windsor Castle to Prince Louis of Battenberg and Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. The latter was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who was present at the birth of Princess Alice.
As she grew, Princess Victoria realised that her daughter seemed to be developing slowly; Alice was slow to talk and her pronunciation of words was unclear. Eventually, Princess Alice was diagnosed with congenital deafness by an ear specialist. An even greater obstacle in the 19th century than it would have been today, Princess Alice’s mother encouraged her to overcome her hearing difficulties by learning to lip-read and speak in both English and German.
Her childhood was spent with her Royal siblings Louise, George and Louis (later to become Queen of Sweden, Marquess of Milford Haven and Earl Mountbatten of Burma respectively), splitting their time between Germany, England and Malta. But soon, Princess Alice would be learning to speak Greek as well.
Princess Alice was in London for King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 when she met Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. They married the following year in Germany, following up a civil ceremony on October 6th with both a Lutheran and a Greek Orthodox ceremony on the following day. After marriage, she styled her name after her husband as “Princess Andrew”.
Prince Andrew and Princess Alice lived in Greece until 1917, when much of the Greek Royal Family were exiled and they were forced to live in Switzerland. When Andrew’s father King Constantine returned to the throne in 1920, the family moved back to Greece for a short while until they were once again forced into exile after the end of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. In the 18 years that followed her wedding, Princess Alice gave birth to five children: Princesses Margarita, Theodora, Cecilie, Sophia and – on June 10th 1921, on the kitchen table of her Corfu summer home – Prince Philip.
Living on the outskirts of Paris, Princess Alice displayed her indefatigable philanthropic streak by working in a charity shop for Greek refugees. Over the years she became deeply religious, finally converting to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1928 – a move which coincided roughly with her mental deterioration, marked by a belief that she had developed healing powers and the ability to receive messages from God.
So began one of the darkest periods in the life of Princess Alice; in 1930 she suffered an acute nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, leading to Alice being separated from her family against her will and committed to a sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. Even the illustrious Sigmund Freud was consulted about her condition, determining that her hallucinations had been caused by sexual frustration – bizarrely recommending that her ovaries be X-rayed in order to cure her.
During the two years that Princess Alice stayed at the sanatorium, she was not visited by her family – Prince Andrew’s absence being particularly notable. It was in this period that Prince Philip went to stay with his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in England and, soon after, began attending Gordonstoun School in Scotland. By then, Princess Alice had left the sanatorium and embarked on a nomadic existence across Central Europe, doing as little as possible to draw attention to herself.
Her estrangement came to a bittersweet end in 1937 when her daughter Cecilie, Cecilie’s husband and her two children were killed in a plane crash in Ostend. Princess Alice saw her husband Prince Andrew again for the first time in six years at the funeral – also attended by Prince Philip, Lord Louis Mountbatten and, somewhat alarmingly, Herman Göring. Having reconnected with her family, Princess Alice returned to a humble existence in Athens, where she committed to a life of helping the less fortunate.
During the Second World War, Princess Alice displayed an astonishing strength of character that belied her mental frailty. She stayed in her adoptive country for the duration of the conflict – living in distinctly unregal properties – and worked tirelessly for the Red Cross up to and after the Axis occupation of Athens in 1941. Handing out rations to children in the street, she was warned she was at risk of being hit by gunfire; dryly, she noted, “They tell me that you don’t hear the shot that kills you – and in any case I am deaf. So, why worry about that?”
The Princess organised two shelters for orphaned and stray children, as well as soup kitchens for the starving people of Athens. She set up a circuit of nurses to help take care of the poor, and upon running out of medical supplies flew to Sweden to visit her sister, with an ulterior motive of bringing back medical supplies. Princess Alice further demonstrated her bravery upon the visit of a German General who assumed – because of her German blood – she would be supportive of the occupation. He asked “Is there anything I can do for you?” and received a curt reply: “You can take your troops out of my country.”
The German Army occupied Athens in September 1943 after the downfall of Mussolini, placing the tens of thousands of Greek Jews who had sought refuge there in direct danger – 60,000 were deported to Nazi concentration camps. When Rachel Cohen – the widow of Hamaiki Cohen, who had once assisted King George I of Greece – turned to Princess Alice for help, she did not hesitate to take Rachel and two of her children into her home, protecting them from being captured by the Gestapo. For this, she was posthumously recognised as “Righteous Among Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Institution.
Prince Andrew died before the end of the war – and before there had been an opportunity for him to reunite with Princess Alice. In January 1949 Princess Alice set up the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary – a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns.Yet she continued to play a part in the life of the British Royal Family – returning for Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947, and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
Princess Andrew’s dry, blunt wit is characteristic of another member of the Royal Family – her son, Prince Philip – and Princess Alice retained this sense of humour right up until her death.
It’s perhaps fitting that the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, born at Windsor Castle, should return to the UK as her life draws to a close – even as the intervening period constituted a life so courageous, colourful and at times tragic, unfolding across Europe throughout some of the darkest periods in history.
Her life came to a close on December 5th 1969, but not before she had requested to be buried at the Convent of St Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. Her daughter, Princess George of Hanover, complained this would be too distant a resting place to visit; “Nonsense,” replied Princess Alice. “There’s a perfectly good bus service!”
Get the full story of Princess Alice’s astonishing life by watching The Queen’s Mother in Law on True Royalty TV.
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