Documentary: The Queen’s Mother in Law
It is a rare royal documentary that moved me to tears, and I certainly did not expect this emotional reaction when I clicked on the YouTube video just to have something to listen to whilst I rested after running errands. I remember Googling Princess Alice of Battenberg and Greece after her brief appearance in The Crown, and briefly scanning her Wiki page. I thought she had a fascinating life, but I forgot all about it pretty much as soon as I closed the page. It was not until I watched the documentary identifying her as the Queen’s mother in law that the impact of the life she lived really hit me. Her name is Princess Alice and I hope more people got to know her story.
First off, a disclaimer. I am not a historian or a royal expert. I have not independently verified the information in the documentary. I also have no affiliation with the makers of the documentary or the uploader. The information being provided here is for educational purposes only.
Princess Alice was born in Windsor Castle on February 25, 1885, the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Despite her congenital deafness, she learned English and German, and later studied French and Greek. In 1903, she married Prince Andrew, the youngest son of the King of Greece. They had four daughters and one son -- Margarita, Theodora, Cecilie, Sophie, and Philip. Philip would grow up to be Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband and consort to Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite her royal roots, Princess Alice lived a life of trials. In 1912, with the advent of the Balkan Wars, Princess Alice left her children and went to the front, where she organised battlefield hospitals and often worked through the night wrapping bandages herself and performing hands on nursing work. In 1922, republican troops entered Athens. Princess Alice’s husband Prince Andrew was arrested, put on trial by a revolutionary court, and sentenced to death. When Prince Andrew was granted a last minute stay of execution (according to one source, at the intervention of King George V), the family fled to live a life in exile in Paris. At this time, Prince Philip was just a baby; he was hidden in an orange crate as the family boarded a British warship to escape Athens.
In Paris, Princess Alice and her family had to live off their wealthy relatives, a fact that hurt the proud Prince Andrew. Princess Alice became increasingly religious and, in 1928, converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. Princess Alice exhibited behaviour that was viewed as ‘religious delusions’. She was eventually persuaded to check in to a clinic in Berlin under Dr. Simmel, who diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia.
At the suggestion of Dr. Sigmund Freud himself, Princess Alice was subjected to an experimental treatment that included concentrated streams of x-rays meant to accelerate menopause and dampen her sexual feelings. There was no evidence that she was consulted about this treatment, that she consented to it, or that it worked. Soon afterwards, Princess Alice declared herself fit and returned to her family.
Princess Victoria, Princess Alice’s mother, disagreed. On May 2, 1930, while the then eight-year-old Prince Philip was out for the day, Princess Alice was forcibly taken into a car, given a powerful sedative, and taken to a sanatorium in Switzerland. There, she would become a prisoner for two and a half years.
From the beginning of her confinement, Princess Alice insisted she was sane. She even tried to escape once. At this time, her husband Prince Andrew had already abandoned her. He moved to the south of France and had mistresses. Prince Andrew and Princess Alice would never divorce but the marriage was over.
While she was at the sanatorium, all four of her daughters married German princes. She was not informed of these marriages as they happened nor was she permitted to attend the weddings. Her youngest child, Prince Philip, now without a present parent, was sent to boarding school in England. On holidays, Prince Philip never knew which relative would take him in. One of the relatives who looked after him was his uncle, Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, who was instrumental in the meeting of Prince Philip and his future wife, the then Princess Elizabeth.
Eventually, Princess Victoria agreed to have her daughter released from the sanatorium. Princess Alice was shocked to learn that it was her mother who had her detained. Princess Alice turned her back on her family and disappeared for five years. She reunited with her family at the funeral of her daughter Cecilie who, along with her husband and three children, were killed in a plane crash in 1937.
By late 1938, the Greek monarchy has been restored to power. Princess Alice returned to Greece and asked her son Philip to join her. By this time, however, Prince Philip already had a promising career in the British navy.
By 1941, Princess Alice found herself living alone in Nazi-occupied Greece. She worked in a soup kitchen until food ran out. Her brother Lord Mountbatten tried to send her food and money, but Princess Alice would simply promptly give them away.
Nazi authorities in Greece started deporting Jews to death camps in 1943. One of the most prominent Jewish families were the Cohens, who happened to be old friends of the Greek royal family. Princess Alice hid the Cohens in her residence for over a year. Once, when the Gestapo came and inquired as to who lived in the house, Princess Alice told them quite honestly that she was deaf, and did not provide an answer.
When the war was over, Princess Alice attended the wedding of her son Prince Philip to Princess Elizabeth. Princess Alice disappeared again, and when she attended the coronation of her daughter in law Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, she was already a nun in somber gray. She had sold off the last of her jewellery collection and used the funds to found the Sisterhood of Martha and Mary in a poor suburb in Athens, where she also built a convent and an orphanage. When the Greek royal family was again expelled from Athens in 1967, Princess Alice went on to live with her son and daughter in law in Buckingham Palace. Princess Alice died in December 5, 1969, at the age of 84. It took about two decades, but Prince Philip was eventually able to honour his mother’s wish to be buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, in a crypt below the church of the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene.
From a brief glimpse of a lady in a nun’s habit in The Crown, the story of Princess Alice has been one of the most fascinating royal tales I have ever come across. When I think of what broke me and led me to tears whilst watching the documentary, it was probably the letter Princess Alice wrote for Prince Philip before she died. She reported wrote, "Be brave, and remember I will never leave you. And you will always find me when you need me most. All my devoted love, your old Mama."