Princess Alice of Battenburg

Has anyone else been watching this season’s THE CROWN on Netflix?  I am spellbound by this remarkably well-made, historical drama.  From the stunningly beautiful and lavish set designs to the dramatic vistas and landscapes, the authentically-detailed period costumes, and, of course, the remarkable portrayals of each of the Royal family by such a talented cast, it’s very difficult to not get caught up in every nuance, image and monologue.  Some people may call this nothing more than a glorified soap opera, but it is so believable, so well made, I had to do some fact checking.  Is this historically accurate or has it been infused with ‘artistic license’

Not having any more information about the Royals than most people (supermarket tabloids, banner headlines on search engines), I’ve been intrigued by such a parade of complex individuals who’ve occupied the rooms of the palace and 10 Downing Street at one time or another.  One such person was the recent episode which introduced us to Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, brilliantly played by Jane Lapotaire.  But a nun?  Living in a down-trodden community in Greece? Looking for charitable donations?  I needed to know more . . .

Victoria “Alice” Elizabeth Julia  Marie was born on February 25, 1885 at the home of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in Windsor Castle to German parents, Prince Louis of Battenburg and Princess Victoria of Hesse.  Alice’s father was an officer in the Royal Navy, and as a result, the family lived in, not only London, but Germany and Malta.  The eldest of four, Alice’s mother was very concerned by Alice’s lack of development.  Alice was slow in learning to speak and had trouble pronouncing words.  Through her aunt’s intervention, Alice was later diagnosed with congenital deafness.  Once diagnosed, Alice quickly learned to lip read and became proficient in English, German, French and Greek.

Princess Alice and her husband, Prince Andrew
(1903)

She was a stunning beauty and grew to be one of the loveliest young women in Royalty.  At the coronation of King Edward VII, Alice met her future husband, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.  On October 6, 1903, she 18 and he 21, this handsome couple were married and moved to Greece where Andrew became a commissioned officer in the Greek army.  The marriage was marred from the beginning.  Little did Alice know of Prince Andrew’s bisexuality or extravagant lifestyle.  Regardless, the pair would go on to have five children, four daughters and one son. The youngest, Philip, born in 1921, six years after their youngest daughter.

As with most young, wealthy princesses, Alice had little or nothing to do but attend social gatherings.  On a trip to Russia in 1908 to attend the wedding of her husband’s niece, Alice became intrigued about plans to create a religious order of nurses.  When Alice returned to Greece, she found the country in political turmoil.  The turmoil escalated into war and the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912.  Alice quickly threw herself into helping the wounded soldiers by organizing field hospitals.  During this time Prince Andrew’s father was assassinated by a Greek anarchist so the family was forced to flee in exile to Switzerland.

Alice with her first two children, Margarita and Theodora, c. 1910

Just a short two years later saw the outbreak of WWI which caused horrific tragedy to Alice’s family back in Germany, most of whom were murdered.  The family had to give up all of their privileges, positions and titles, as well as their name.  From “Battenberg”, they were now known as “Mountbatten”.  With the end of WWI and the fall of the German empire, the Mountbattens returned to Greece, but once again war broke out in Greece only two years later and Prince Andrew, who was commander of the Military, was banished from the country.  This time the family fled to Paris.

After all this turmoil, tragedy and disruption in their lives, it’s no wonder that Alice turned to religion.  She converted to the Greek Orthodox faith.  Her philandering husband didn’t help Alice’s now fragile state of mind.  With all she had been through, Alice began thinking she had special healing powers and was receiving messages from God.  The couple became estranged. Now diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Alice, aged 45, was forced to move into a sanatorium in Switzerland, where she lived for two years.

Alice tried many times, unsuccessfully, to escape from the sanatorium.  Under the care of many psychiatrists, including Dr. Sigmund Freud, Alice was forced to undergo invasive treatments to “cure her of frustrated sexual desires” which was Freud’s diagnosis.  Dr. Freud concluded that Alice was suffering from unsatisfied sexual frustration.  Her son, Philip, was just nine years old when his mother was taken from him.  Prince Andrew had no desire to raise his son.  He, in fact, ran away with a mistress to the French Riviera.  Young Philip was raised by other members of his family in England, living and being educated in exclusive boarding schools.  During this time, Alice’s daughters all married German prince’s and moved to Germany.  Alice did not attend any of the weddings.

When Alice was finally released from the sanatorium in 1932, she found herself alone.  With nowhere to go, she drifted throughout Germany for years.  The death of her daughter and her daughter’s family in a plane crash in 1937 was the first time in seven years Alice saw her husband.  It was at that time she reunited with the rest of her children and family.  Alice then returned to Greece to continue her charity work.  She wanted her son, Philip, to come with her, but he had a future with the Royal Navy.  When the second World War broke out, Alice’s family was split between Germany and England.  Her son and British family members were on the Allied side, while her daughters and in-laws were on the German side.

In 1941 the Nazis took over Greece.  Although many fled, Alice remained and became an activist, hiding as many Jews as possible in her home, smuggling in medical supplies and doing whatever charity work she could find.  In 1944 when the war was over, Athens was liberated but nothing changed in Greece.  The British were now fighting the Communists for control.  With no food, most people living in squalid conditions, Alice continued putting her life on the line with her dangerous acts of charity.

In 1947 Alice did get the opportunity to leave Greece to attend the wedding of her son, Philip, to Princess Elizabeth.  Her visit was short lived, however, because she wanted to return to Greece where she organized a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns, modeled after the one she had witnessed in Russia many years before, known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.  By June of 1953, Alice was now clothed only in the simple grey habit worn by many Greek Orthodox nuns, which she wore to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

The military junta in 1967 forced Prince Philip to send for his mother.  Alice returned to London to live out her years with her son, Prince Philip, and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, at Buckingham Palace.  Now quite frail and deaf, but alert and cognizant, she continued to smoke and play canasta.  Then, on December 5, 1969, at the age of 84, with every one of her belongings given away at her request, Princess Alice of Battenberg died.

This remarkable woman endured more than most.  It’s sad to me that so few have even heard her name, never mind her incredible story.  I wonder if any of us could have lived through the terrors of wars, family members killed and murdered, a husband who betrayed her and children who seemingly left her completely on her own.  The British government named Princess Alice “Hero of the Holocaust” for her services during the Jewish Massacre, and in 1994 she was honored by Israel as ‘Righteous among the Nations’.

As fascinating as the episode on The Crown was, it barely scratches the surface of the dramatic life this woman has lived.  Were there some artistic liberties taken for the script?  Yes, of course.  But I don’t think it was necessary.  A remarkable story of a remarkable woman.  Thank you Netflix!

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References:  Crowns, Tiaras, Coronets, Famous People, Wikipedia, CNN, Elle,

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