2021 - 2022 Modern Volume 19

Princess Alice of Battenberg: The other ‘People’s Princess’

[This portrait shows Princess Alice on yellow parchment. She has only been painted from the shoulders up, but we can see she is wearing a blue dress, as she looks over at the artist.]

By Hannah McCann

When discussing the life of Princess Alice of Battenberg, people often describe it as ‘stranger than fiction’. But that undermines the achievements of a remarkable woman who, despite being born in the presence of her grandmother Queen Victoria and dying in the home of her daughter-in-law Queen Elizabeth II, was immensely humble and spent most of her life poor – as she gave away her possessions to people in need. 

This black and white photograph shows Queen Victoria on the left, against a black background, dressed in her usual black mourning dress but smiling. Princess Alice is in a white dress as a small child on the right. Princess Alice is sitting on her mother’s lap.

Princess Alice was born in 1885. She was deaf from birth and learned to communicate by lip-reading. By the age of eight her lip reading was fluent. She also learnt sign language and she became fluent in English, German, French and later Greek. 

She lived in Greece after she married Prince Andrew, a son of the King of Greece. The couple had five children, and their only son and youngest child was Prince Phillip – later Queen Elizabth’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The family escaped Greece in 1922 when the second Greco-Turkish war broke out. While the family was supposed to be based in Paris, Prince Phillip was sent to boarding school in the UK. Princess Alice, growing increasingly distant from her husband, joined the Greek Orthodox Church in 1928. 

This black-and-white photograph shows Princess Alice, against a white background, with her four daughters as young girls in white dresses. Three are standing around Alice, who is in the middle with the youngest on her lap.  

In 1930, Princess Alice was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was institutionalised. She became a patient of Sigmund Freud, where his ‘treatment’ included X-raying her ovaries to speed up the menopause. Her experience in the sanatorium contributed to life-long health problems. She tried to escape many times and finally fled the sanatorium in the 1930s. 

Heartbreakingly, she was only reunited with her family in 1937 when they all attended the funeral of her daughter, Princess Cecillie, who had died in a plane crash in Belgium. Cecilie, her husband, and her two sons died on their way to her brother-in-law’s wedding in London. This was one of the last times she saw her husband, who had a mistress by this point, as he died in 1944. 

During the Second World War, Alice volunteered for the Red Cross, as she had been a nurse during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. She had also been a nurse in the First World War and was awarded the Red Cross. In WWII, she hid a Jewish friend and her daughter in her home. When she was questioned by the Gestapo she pretended that she couldn’t understand their questions. During the war, Alice had sons-in-law fighting for the Germans as her daughters had married into the German nobility. Princess Sophie was married to an SS officer. Prince Phillip was in the British Royal Navy, fighting for his future father-in-law.

This portrait shows Princess Alice on yellow parchment. She has only been painted from the shoulders up, but we can see she is wearing a blue dress, as she looks over at the artist. 

After the war in 1947, she attended the royal wedding of her son and the future queen. Elizabeth’s engagement ring was made from a jewel from Alice’s tiara. Throughout the 1940’s Alice had sold most of her jewels to help buy food for the poor and fund her religious order. 

In January 1949, Alice founded an order of Greek Orthodox nuns named the Chritian sisterhood of Martha and Mary. They were nursing nuns based on the Greek island of Tinos. Alice withdrew from the world and devoted herself to her convent. In 1953, when she attended Elizabeth’s coronation, she wore the nun’s habit of her order. 

However, after unrest in Greece she moved to Buckingham Palace in 1967 to be with her son, Prince Phillip and her daughter-in-law Queen Elizabeth II. Philip had to send a plane – and a request from the Queen – to convince her to leave. In London, she grew close to her granddaughter Princess Anne. She died in London on 5th December 1969. 

This black-and-white photograph shows an old Princess Alice with her son Prince Philip, walking through a crowd of photographers. Alice is wearing a grey nun’s habit. Both are smiling.

19 years after her death, she was reburied at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, next to her aunt who had also founded a convent. In 1993, Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remeberance Centre) bestowed the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ on Alice. In 2010 the British government named her a ‘Hero of the Holocaust’. `

Princess Alice lived a remarkable life, devoted to helping others despite her royal upbringing. A refugee, and often an outcast, she worked tirelessly to help others in similar situations to herself. The selling of her royal jewels to help the poor epitomises her character. Although the title belongs to another, she was the ‘People’s Princess’ in the most literal sense. 

Further reading: 

Princess Alice (yadvashem.org)

Prince William pays tribute to deaf great grandmother Princess Alice | British Deaf News

The Deaf Princess Who Was Mistreated by Freud and Defied the Nazis | by Ilana Quinn | Oct, 2021 | Medium

More deaf history: 

Deaf History :: BSL Zone

The deaf princess who became a style icon // Queen Alexandra // #DisabilityHistoryMonth [CC] – YouTube

Images:

File:The Four Generations, 1886.jpg – Wikimedia Commons, Gustav Mullins, Wikicommons, Public Domain. 

Princess Alice of Battenberg with her four daughters.jpg, Wikicommons, Public Domain. 

Laszlo – Princess Andrew of Greece.jpg, Philip de László, Wikicommons, Public Domain.

Aankomst prins Philip (Engeland) en zijn moeder bij de kerk, Bestanddeelnr 919-0424.jpg, Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo, Wikicommons, Public Domain.