In conversations with numerous folks via Instagram after the second season of The Crown, I realized that a lot of people do not know that Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was a remarkable woman. I know that she was officially titled Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, but I shall proceed by calling her by HER ACTUAL NAME (you can dive more into royal titles and naming conventions here). If you watched The Crown, then you know that his mother was basically presented as a whackadoodle old bat who wore a nun’s habit. And it was EMBARRASSING for all. Nein I say!
Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and was born to Prince Louis of Battenberg and his wife Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine in 1885. After noticing difficulty with her speech, Alice was diagnosed with congenital deafness. With the support of her mother, she learned to lip-read and speak both English and German. She also studied French and later learned Greek.
In 1902 she was in London for the coronation of King Edward VII. There she met and quickly fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark who was the fourth son of King George I and Queen Olga of Greece. By 1903 they were married and she took the title of “Princess Andrew.” Their wedding was one of the greatest gatherings of royal descendants of Queen Victoria and Queen Christian IX of Denmark prior to the outbreak of World War I. Between the two of them they were closely related to the ruling royal houses of Russia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany, and Greece.
Prince and Princess Andrew lived in Greece and had five children: Princess Margarita, Princess Theodora, Princess Cecilie (of the tragic plane crash depicted in the second season of The Crown), Princess Sophie, and Prince Philip. Please note that not only is he the baby of the family, but also the long-awaited son. Not to armchair psychologist too much over here, but this explains numerous facets of his behavior (in my never humble but totally unqualified opinion that no one asked for).
Ah to be young, beautiful, wealthy, royal, and white in early twentieth century Europe.
The Balkan Wars started in 1912 and World War I was right around the river bend. Greece was a hot mess during that time. You can read about it yourself here. During the Balkan Wars, Princess Alice was a nurse, and she set up field hospitals and assisted with operations. Royally speaking, there were abdications, exiles, restorations, and further exiles for the Greek royal family. Most of the family sheltered in Switzerland during the political upheavals, going back and forth to Greece. Prince Andrew was arrested after a revolution and banished from Greece. He and Princess Alice fled Greece with their family aboard a British cruiser.
The family lived in exile in Paris (what a nightmare, huh?) during which time Alice became deeply religious and eventually joined the Greek Orthodox Church in 1928. Soon after, she stated that she had healing powers and was receiving divine messages. In 1930, she suffered a significant nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly after. She saw several doctors, but was eventually forced into a sanatorium in Switzerland. Her physician, Dr. Ludwig Binswanger consulted Sigmund Freud over her condition. He recommended “X-raying her ovaries to kill off her libido” as it was believed at the time that delusions were the result of sexual frustration. Um…
Princess Alice repeatedly tried to leave the asylum and asserted her sanity. This part of the story is so awful and it really highlights how completely bitchy the comments about her by the British royal family were. During this time, she drifted apart from her husband, and missed the weddings of two of her daughters. Prince Philip was sent to England to stay with British family members. This included the scheming Lord Mountbatten, better known as “Uncle Dickie.” He is played in The Crown by the endlessly handsome Greg Wise who had the good sense to marry Emma Thompson in real life.
Back to Princess Alice. She remained institutionalized for two years before she was released. She lived incognito for several years, and severed all ties with her family (except her mother) until 1936.
Her daughter Cecilie, her son-in-law, and their children died in the Ostend plane crash in 1937. The funeral is where she saw Prince Andrew for the first time in six years. Also, in case you weren’t completely sure of how big of a Nazi Cecilie’s husband was, Hermann Göring attended their funeral.
Alice stayed in contact with her family after the funeral, but moved to Athens in 1938 to work with the poor.
World War II erupted which put Princess Alice in a conflicting situation. Her sons-in-law were fighting for the Germans, but her son (Philip) was serving in the British Royal Navy. The majority of the Greek royal family remained exiled in South Africa, but she and her sister-in-law, Princess Nicholas of Greece, stayed in Athens. During the war, she organized soup kitchens for the starving Greek populace, worked for the Red Cross, and flew to Sweden on medical missions to bring back supplies while on the pretense of visiting her sister. She organized shelters for orphaned children and developed a nursing circuit for poor neighborhoods. She completely devoted her life to helping others.
While the occupying Germans assumed she was on their side, she told them “You can take your troops out of my country” when she was asked by a German general if there was anything they could do for her. Sassy. In 1943, the Germans fully occupied Athens after the fall of Mussolini.
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Greek Jews had already been deported to concentration camps, with only 2,000 surviving after liberation. Athens was a city of refuge for those who remained in Greece. Haimaki Cohen had aided King George I of Greece (Alice’s father-in-law) in 1913. In return, the King told Cohen that if he ever needed any service the King could perform, then he would offer it. Cohen’s son remembered this offer, and during the Nazi occupation, he appealed to Princess Alice for help. As one of only two remaining members of the royal family in Greece, Princess Alice honored the promise and saved them. She hid Cohen’s widow Rachel and two of her five children from the Nazi invaders.
Despite living in “somewhat squalid” conditions and having nothing more than bread and small rations of butter for months, she kept the family alive and safe. After Athens was liberated in 1944, she hoped to be reunited with her husband. Unfortunately, she learned that he had died shortly after the liberation. They had not seen each other since 1939.
Despite ongoing fighting between Communist guerrillas and the British for control of Athens, Princess Alice continued her work providing rations to policemen and children. Much to the dismay of the British, she disobeyed the curfew and continued her work helping the people of Greece. When she was warned of the danger of being shot by a stray bullet, she said, “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?” Zing!
She traveled to England in 1947 to attend the wedding of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. Some of her remaining jewels were used for the engagement ring.
I’ll take one too, please. Her daughters were not invited to the wedding due to their Nazi connections and the overwhelming anti-German sentiment in England FOR GOOD REASON. In 1949, she founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox Nuns, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. It was modeled after the convent of her aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (sister of Empress Alexandra) had founded in Russia. She had visited her aunt in 1908 and had attended the laying of the foundation stone for her new church. A bit of full circle happening here.
In 1952 she returned to England to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. She again wore her nun’s habit and it was a THING for the family. THE HORROR.
Princess Alice was invited to reside permanently with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace after another coup in Greece. While she was psychically frail, she was mentally lucid in her later years. She asked to be buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (near her aunt). When her daughter complained about the distance to the future grave, she replied, “Nonsense, there’s a perfectly good bus service!” She reminds me very much of my own Mamaw who has no time for your whining.
She died on December 5, 1969, and her remains were transferred from Windsor Castle to the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
In 1994, she was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” in Jerusalem for her protection of the Cohen Family. Prince Philip attended and stated, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action 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.” If only everyone felt that way. In 2010, she was posthumously named a Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.
Philip’s visit to his mother’s grave in 1994 was complicated due to the British Empire’s history with Palestine. Prince Charles also secretly visited her grave in 2016.
Alice: Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers (I read this several years ago and highly recommend it)
“Princess Alice of Battenberg”
“Princess Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andreas of Greece“