As the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip is one of the most well-known members of the British royal family. Yet many people probably aren’t aware of the dark secret lurking in Philip’s past. That’s because the astonishing life of his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is not a plotline covered in The Crown – or anywhere else. Alice’s story was far removed from the entitlements and trappings of royal association, you see, and will almost certainly leave you stunned.
Of course, we know that royals aren’t immune to tragedy – just ask Princes William and Harry. Yet Princess Alice of Battenberg saw more than her fair share. And many of the hardships she faced were brought about by remarkable choices and a unique character that saw the royal live a life largely free from pampered privilege.
Yet Alice’s birth immediately set her apart from regular mortals. That’s because none other than Queen Victoria was in attendance at her delivery. The year was 1885, during Victoria’s legendary reign, and Alice arrived as the monarch’s great-grandchild.
The venue of Alice’s birth was no less prestigious: the Tapestry Room at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England. But she was a child born to German royalty, and due to the mechanics of European nobility she was also deeply entwined with the British monarchy. You see, Alice’s maternal grandmother was Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. Her father was also descended from royalty.
Yes, Alice’s dad was Prince Louis of Battenberg and her mom, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. So the young princess was given six godparents – all of whom were European royalty. Meanwhile, she was christened Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie in April 1885.
Despite her prestigious beginnings, though, young Alice faced immense struggles. She was slow to begin talking, for example, and her mother became concerned about the young girl’s pronunciation. It was then Alice’s grandmother who identified congenital deafness in the child. The young princess was subsequently whisked off to see an ear specialist, who confirmed the condition. Yet Alice successfully learned to speak.
This early experience with a birth defect marked Princess Alice out as an individual who would consistently overcome the odds. In fact, the royal learned to lipread as well as speak in both English and German. The princess also studied French and later began to speak the first language of her husband: Greek.
Alice met Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark at the crowning of King Edward VII in London in 1902. He was the fourth son born of a union between King George I of Greece and Olga Constantinovna of the Russian Romanov dynasty. Alice and Andrew were married in 1903 in Darmstadt, Germany, in what was one of the largest gatherings of European royalty before World War I.
The fact that the wedding of Andrew and Alice attracted such distinction was of little surprise. Between them, after all, the pair were the offspring of royal houses affiliated to Britain, Germany, Greece, Denmark and Russia. Alice then became Princess Andrew, after her husband, and she embarked on her new life as a Greek royal at the tender age of just 18.
Arguably, one of the earliest influences on Alice was her aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. She was the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Upon a trip to Russia, then, the Grand Duchess informed Alice of her plans to begin a religious order of nurses. And in 1909, Elizabeth embraced a more spiritual life that entailed the giving up of many of her possessions. And these lifestyle choices may have left an indelible mark on the young Alice.
Another great impact on Alice’s life in this period was the cataclysmic sequence of events that would lead much of the world into war. Her husband’s homeland of Greece was suffering from great internal strife, you see. This was soon added to by the Balkan Wars – a set of regional conflicts that preceded WWI.
And despite her status, Alice was far from immune to the effects of international events. In fact, as a member of both the British and German royal families, her life was forever changed by the devastating wars that swept across Europe in the early 1900s. For instance, her family was exiled more than once from Greece – where internal political strife had placed members of that country’s royal family in terrible danger.
It was also around this time that Alice proved her mettle as a fearless champion for the protection of those less fortunate than herself. During the Balkan Wars, for instance, she worked as a nurse and even helped set up field hospitals to help the wounded. And as a result of her actions, King George V granted Alice the Royal Red Cross in 1913.
Yet the political strife afflicting the continent took its toll on Alice’s royal relatives too. In 1918, for example, the Bolsheviks murdered two of her aunts in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The Grand Duke of Hesse – Prince Andrew’s uncle – was also deposed as a result of Germany’s defeat at the end of World War I.
In Greece itself, the situation was far from stable. King Constantine I – Alice’s brother-in-law – had decided upon a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of the Great War. That was even though the Greek government led by Eleftherios Venizelos had favored the Allies in the battle against the Central Powers. So in 1917 the Greek royal family’s situation became untenable, and many of the members fled to Switzerland in exile.
King Constantine was actually restored in 1920 – but that return was short-lived. After Greece’s defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, a so-called Revolutionary Committee staged a coup, and the royal family was exiled once again. Yet Prince Andrew had led the Second Army Corps during the war, and he was considered partly culpable in the defeat of the Greek army. And many generals and ministers in power at the time of the war had already been shot.
So the early 1920s were a perilous time for Alice, her husband and their five children. Yes, five children. Four daughters had been born to the couple between 1905 and 1914, and seven years later the couple finally received a son, Philip. He was born in the family villa of Mon Repos in Corfu. However, not long after the arrival of the future husband of the Queen of England, the family were banished from Greece.
The family were in fact taken from Greece on board HMS Calypso under the protection of Commander Gerald Talbot – the British naval attaché. They finally settled in Saint-Cloud, just outside Paris, France, in a small home that Princess George of Greece and Denmark had loaned them.
Once again, Alice set about helping those less fortunate than herself. She began working in a charity shop dedicated to the support of fellow Greek refugees, for instance. And her faith, which had always played a big part in her life, grew stronger. Then, in 1928, Alice converted to the Greek Orthodox Church from the Anglican faith in which she had been confirmed many years before.
Soon after, Alice, by her own claims, began receiving divine messages. She also stated that she possessed healing powers. But after suffering a serious nervous breakdown, the princess was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1930. The ruling was later confirmed at a sanatorium in Berlin. As a result, Alice was removed against her will from her family. Her son, Philip, was just a young boy at the time.
After Alice’s diagnosis, she was forcibly sent to Ludwig Binswanger’s sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland. At the time, the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was also a patient. And none other than Sigmund Freud was consulted on her health. The famous psychoanalyst apparently believed that Alice’s condition was down to sexual frustration. According to a piece in The Psychologist in 2013, author David Cohen claimed that Freud had even suggested “X-raying her ovaries in order to kill off her libido.”
Alice remained in the sanatorium for two years, and her marriage to Prince Andrew drifted to a point of no return. And upon her release, the princess broke contact with the whole family – apart from her mother. During her time away, though, Alice’s daughters had all married German princes. Prince Philip had also gone to live with his uncles in England, where he was later to meet the future queen.
Alice then led somewhat of a quiet life in Central Europe. In fact, she was only reunited with her family upon the death of her third daughter, Cecilie, in a plane crash in 1937. It was at the funeral that Alice saw her husband for the first time in six years. In 1938 she moved into a two-bedroom flat in Athens and began working with the poor of the city.
The princess later took up residence in her brother-in-law’s three-story house during World War II – a cataclysmic event that once again placed members of the royal family in danger. Alice was also in the unenviable position of having two sons-in-law fighting for the Germans, and a son, Philip, enrolled in the British Royal Navy.
For the duration of the war, the majority of the Greek royal family was exiled in South Africa. Yet Alice stayed in Athens – determined to help local people. As well as working for the Red Cross, she organized soup kitchens and shelters for lost and orphaned children.
Alice also flew to Sweden to bring back valuable medical supplies. To do so, she claimed that the reason for her trip was to visit her sister, Louise, who was married to the Swedish Crown Prince. But her benevolent actions didn’t end there.
The Germans conquered Greece in 1941 and then occupied Athens two years later. The ruling force incorrectly assumed that Alice was a German sympathizer due to her having two sons-in-law in that country’s military. Apparently, a general once even asked her if anything could be done for her. And according to Hugo Vickers’ book Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece, she barked back, “You can take your troops out of my country.” And from around 1943, Alice began sheltering a Jewish widow.
In fact, the princess protected Rachel Cohen and two of her children for the rest of the war. In 1944 the Allies finally liberated Athens – freeing the city’s remaining Jews from the threat of the Holocaust. Yet the Greek capital remained unsafe following the war for both Jews and gentiles alike.
Harold Macmillan, the future Prime Minister of the U.K., visited Athens soon after the city’s release from German hands and reported on Alice’s condition. He stated that he had found her “living in humble, not to say somewhat squalid conditions.” In a letter to her son, Philip, Alice herself described how she had been surviving on just bread and butter for the week before the Allies recaptured the city.
But in late 1944 Communist guerrillas began fighting the British occupying forces for control of Athens. And, to the exasperation of many, Alice refused to follow the curfew bestowed upon the city’s citizens. Instead, she walked the streets insisting on helping those less fortunate than herself – providing food to those in need.
And when the British explained to Alice that she could be hit by a stray bullet at any moment, her response was befitting of her character. According to Hugo Vickers’ aforementioned book, she responded, “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?”
Yet tragedy continued for Alice, as her husband, Prince Andrew, died of heart failure in December 1944. The couple had not seen each other since the beginning of World War II – as Andrew had become essentially stuck in German-conquered France since the conflict began. Alice soldiered on, though, and in 1947 she was traveling to London to celebrate a far happier event: the marriage of her only son, Philip, to Princess Elizabeth, the heir presumptive to the throne of the United Kingdom.
Yet, as we have seen, Alice’s life was one of serious hardship and tragedy – despite her royal blood. And at the wedding of her only son, her surviving daughters could not attend due to the nationality of their husbands and the anti-German sentiment of the time.
By this time, though, Alice had founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns. It was based upon the convent started by Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna – Alice’s aunt – all those years ago in Russia. Interestingly, to viewers of the popular Netflix series The Crown, Alice is portrayed under this guise – as the founder of the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary – in episode four of season three.
But Alice’s lifestyle choices continued to flummox her relations. Her mother, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, was forever left non-plussed by her daughter’s actions. In Hugo Vickers’ book Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece, Victoria said, “What can you say of a nun who smokes and plays canasta?”
Within a few years, though, Alice’s son was elevated to the title of Duke of Edinburgh when his wife rose to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. And Alice was in attendance at the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – returning once more to Athens after the ceremony. She finally left Greece for the last time after a coup in 1967 that ushered in a seven-year-long dictatorship in the country.
Alice died in December 1969 at the age of 84. She passed away in Buckingham Palace, where she had lived with her son and daughter-in-law for the previous two years. Born in Windsor Castle and ending her days in another famous royal household, Alice had been anything but conventional for a royal princess.
Alice died with no possessions, as she had given everything away. She was initially buried in the Royal Crypt found at St George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle – her birthplace. Yet Alice had expressed a sincere wish to be buried in Gethsemane, in the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. And it was here that her remains were placed in August 1988.
In 1994 Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, the Yad Vashem, honored Princess Alice for her courageous actions harboring Jews during WWII. She was declared “Righteous Amongst Nations” – an honorary title for non-Jews who performed acts of heroism in protecting Jews during the Holocaust. Both her sole surviving daughter, Princess George of Hanover, and son, Prince Philip, attended the ceremony.
And it is Alice’s son’s words spoken at the event that perhaps best sum up the life of this remarkable woman. Philip said, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action [protecting Rachel Cohen] was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.” Yes, it was a fitting epitaph for this most unconventional of royal princesses.
What else is there to say about Prince Philip? Well, the Queen and Prince Philip boast, believe it or not, the longest-lasting marriage in British royal history, as they’ve been wed for 70 years. And although they keep the details of their personal life hidden from the press as well as they can, they’ve always seemed happy together. To mark the 70-year point of their relationship, then, the Queen had a special gift to give to her husband.
Then-Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey in 1947. And at the time, it hadn’t been that long since World War II had ravaged London, so the wedding was a reasonably sedate affair by royal standards. Elizabeth even used ration coupons to buy her wedding gown and fixed her makeup for the day by herself.
Meanwhile, although Philip had to give up his Danish and Greek royal titles before the wedding, he gained several British ones instead. By the time he was wed to Elizabeth, he bore the titles His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich. Elizabeth, for her part, became Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh as soon as she married Philip.
But the wedding hadn’t been greeted with universal approval. That’s because Philip was a Greek; far worse, he also had links to Germany. What’s more, three of the husbands of his sisters were outright Nazis. And while Philip was more or less estranged from his family, which had been completely torn apart by war, 40 percent of the British public thought that the marriage should not go ahead, according to a newspaper survey.
But go ahead it did, after which Elizabeth and Philip settled down at Clarence House. Then, one year later, their first child, Charles, was born; Anne also arrived in 1950. However, 1952 saw the moment that Elizabeth had been preparing for for most of her life. That year, while she was visiting Kenya, her father King George VI died, meaning she would return to England as queen.
And Elizabeth’s sudden higher status apparently put a strain on the marriage. After all, she was now not only Philip’s wife but his monarch as well. Philip was also said to have been angry to learn that the royal house would remain the House of Windsor instead of Mountbatten. The biography Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage reports him as saying, “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children.”
Furthermore, there was at least one recorded spat between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in their earlier days – but no one will ever see it. In 1954 an Australian film crew caught the Queen on camera furiously hurling tennis equipment at her fleeing husband. Shortly afterwards, her press secretary approached the cameramen and ordered the footage destroyed. They complied.
Elizabeth had two more children as her reign continued: Prince Andrew in 1960 and Prince Edward in 1964. And although she was living through immensely turbulent times, the Queen seemingly did a good job of ruling. Her popularity among both her subjects and among other heads of state remained high, for one. But, gradually, the media began to intrude more and more into her and Philip’s private lives, along with those of the other royals.
Indeed, before too long, there came a time when no cameraman would likely ever agree to destroy incriminating royal footage. And the media ate up every royal scandal that came their way. Many of these involved Charles, the now-grown oldest son of Elizabeth and Philip. The publicity surrounding his marriage and divorce to Lady Diana Spencer may have caused some consternation for the royal family.
But the Queen herself was good at keeping her private life just that. And even as three of her four children ended up with broken marriages, hers remained strong. So, in 1997 she and Philip celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years,” the Queen said of her husband in a speech at London’s Banqueting House, Whitehall.
Finally, in 2017, the Queen and Prince Philip reached their 70-year anniversary – the platinum one. And, by all accounts, the couple celebrated the occasion quietly, with none of the excitement – or the controversy – that had met their original marriage. However, the Queen did grant her husband a special present to commemorate their long-lasting union.
“Her Majesty has appointed His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh to be a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO),” the official Royal Family Twitter account announced to the world on November 20, 2017. “Awards in the Royal Victorian Order are made personally by the Queen for services to the Sovereign.”
Well, it’s fair to say that 70 years of marriage to a queen counts as “services to the Sovereign.” And that particular appointment makes Prince Philip the only living person in the U.K. to have all four of the awards known as “chivalry breast stars.” The last person to have had so many was Lord Mountbatten, Philip’s late uncle.
The other three honors that Philip holds are “Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter” (KG), “Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle” (KT) and “Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (GBE). For their 60th anniversary back in 2007, the Queen also gave Prince Philip the award of the Royal Victorian Chain.
However, no regular folks – and certainly no press – were invited to witness the party held for the anniversary at Windsor Castle. Instead, the Queen and Prince Philip’s friends and close family members – including Prince William, Kate Middleton and Prince Harry – were present. Reportedly, the party was a very luxurious affair, with a extravagant banquet and entertainment after dinner.
But the U.K. did do a few special things to celebrate the occasion. At Westminster Abbey, the place where the Queen and Prince Philip married, a complex sequence of bells were sounded in tribute for over three hours. Many officials of the country also offered their congratulations via Twitter, including U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
“Congratulations to The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh as they celebrate their platinum wedding anniversary,” May’s Twitter account posted on November 20. “They have devoted their lives to the service of the U.K. and the Commonwealth – my best wishes to them both on this special occasion.”
The Queen and the Duke also released some new photographs of themselves, taken specially for the occasion. In the images, the Queen is seen wearing a yellow gold brooch with rubies that stand out against her white dress. This brooch, known as the “Scarab” brooch, was an expensive gift from Prince Philip to his wife in 1966.
But the Queen and Prince Philip are both beginning to advance in age now. They’ve already outlived most other British royals; the Queen has in fact long outlasted her father, King George VI, who died aged 56. And their marriage, too, has outlasted most royal marriages. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who possessed arguably one of the most enduring royal love stories, only had 21 years as husband and wife before he died.
At the moment, then, Prince Philip and the Queen are stewarding the newer generation of royals into one day taking their places. Prince William will take the throne after Prince Charles does, and Charles himself will become monarch after the Queen eventually passes away. Such is the way of royalty. Hopefully, though, the Queen and the Duke still have a good few years of happiness ahead of them.