Philip’s Grandmother: Victoria of Hesse, Marchioness of Milford Haven

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There was consternation when Princess Elizabeth announced her engagement to Prince Philip in 1947 due to his German relations. All of his sisters were married to German men, three of whom had Nazi connections, while his father was a member of the Greek royal family which had been ousted between the world wars. In short, he was foreign, but he also had strong ties to the British Royal Family. His mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg, who had been born at Windsor Castle, named for her grandmother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, third child of Queen Victoria.

When the first Princess Alice died in 1878 – the first of the Queen’s children to do so – Victoria took up the mantle of offering her grandchildren motherly guidance. They spent considerable time in England and Scotland in their youths, and while two of the siblings would marry Russians, three of them married cousins from the extended BRF. The eldest, Victoria, who would become Philip’s grandmother, was one such sibling.

Victoria was born on April 5, 1863 at Windsor Castle less than a year after her parents’ marriage when Alice traveled to the UK for an extended visit to attend the wedding of the future Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. She was Queen Victoria’s fourth grandchild and would eventually make up the generation of the monarch’s “senior” grandchildren, those closer in age to their younger aunts and uncles than some of their first cousins.

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Louis and Alice with Victoria and Ella in 1866

Her early years were spent in Hesse where she shared a room with her younger sister, Ella, and watched her mother champion the cause of nursing through the wars with Prussia of the 1860s and 1870s. By her adolescence she had lost a brother to hemophilia and a sister from diptheria, an outbreak of which cost her her mother at the age of 15. Later, she wrote: “My mother’s death was an irreparable loss … My childhood ended with her death, for I became the eldest and most responsible.”

It was a cruel twist of fate considering that Alice had been put in the same position at the age of 18 when Prince Albert died in 1861. Victoria became responsible for three younger sisters, Ella, Irene and Alix, as well as a younger brother, Ernest, who was expected to inherit the duchy when their father died.

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Irene, Victoria, Ella & Alix

She was well-acquainted with a cousin from the Hessian side of her family, Prince Louis of Battenberg, in her youth. He, too, grew his own British ties thanks to Princess Alice and he joined the British Royal Navy as an adolescent, becoming a naturalized British citizen at the age of 14 in 1868. He later became acquainted with the Prince and Princess of Wales, even accompanying the former when he traveled to India in 1875-6, and then served his younger brother, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. By the winter of 1882, he took a temporary leave to visit his family in Darmstadt, where he and Victoria became re-acquainted.

By this time Victoria was approaching her 19th birthday and some sort of relationship developed over the course of the next several months and they were engaged the following summer. That September, the Queen appointed Louis on her yacht, HMY Victoria and Albert and on April 30, 1884, he and the Princess were married in Darmstadt in her presence.

Rather amazingly, particularly since the Queen was in residence, Victoria’s father, the Duke, chose that same evening to marry his mistress, Countess Alexandrine Hutten-Czapsk. The union shocked the Hessian people and enraged his family, particularly his in-laws. Perhaps thinking that his daughter’s wedding would overshadow the event, the reaction was so fierce that he would eventually be forced to seek an annulment.

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Within nine months of the wedding, Victoria gave birth to her eldest child, christened Alice after her mother. The couple, who spoke English to one another, lived primarily in England, but occasionally in Germany. Victoria also accompanied Louis to Malta when he was stationed in the Mediterranean, which not-so-ironically is where Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth would spent the first years of the marriage in the late 1940s and early 1950s thanks to Philip’s naval career.

In 1889, a second daughter, Louise, was born and in 1892, a son, George. Victoria was a devoted mother who taught her children herself. Always an avid reader, she had a keen interest in science, particularly geology and archaeology. Her youngest son would later say that she was “a walking encyclopedia. All through her life she stored up knowledge on all sorts of subjects, and she had the great gift of being able to make it all interesting when she taught it to me. She was completely methodical; we had time-tables for each subject, and I had to do preparation, and so forth. She taught me to enjoy working hard, and to be thorough. She was outspoken and open-minded to a degree quite unusual in members of the Royal Family. And she was also entirely free from prejudice about politics or colour and things of that kind.”

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Victoria is second from the right in the back row

In 1900 she gave birth to her fourth and last child, another son, Louis. Notably, in a time when her siblings and cousins were giving birth every one to two years, Victoria’s children spanned 15 years.

Up until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Victoria frequently visited her family in Germany, as well as her sisters, Alix and Ella, in Russia. Indeed, she was one of the many people close to the Tsarina of Russia who pleaded with her to stop associating with Rasputin and questioned the hold he had over her. When the war broke out, Victoria was in Yekaterinburg with her daughter, Louise, before hightailing it back to England via Sweden and Norway.

But despite their British citizenship and residency, Louis and Victoria were considered German, a fact not helped by their last name, Battenberg. Indeed, the BRF, itself, was known as the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha thanks to descent from Prince Albert. Suddenly, the family’s close association with its German heritage, dating back to the 18th century when George I had arrived in England from Hanover, became something of an embarrassment. Louis was forced to resign his position in the Navy and the couple retired to Kent House on the Isle of Wight, which belonged to Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.

On July 14, 1917 George V formally changed the name of his House to that of Windsor and renounced his German titles. Louis and Victoria followed suit and similarly assumed an anglicized version of their name, Mountbatten (ring a bell?). In November of that year Louis was made Marquess of Milford Haven and Victoria became known as Marchioness. At the time of name change, Louis was staying with his son, George, and wrote in the guest book, “Arrived Prince Hyde, Departed Lord Jekyll.”

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But within days of the name change, Victoria’s younger sisters, Ella and Alix, were assassinated during the Russian revolution. While Ella’s body would be recovered four years later and interred, Alix’s wasn’t discovered in Victoria’s lifetime. Indeed, decades later, one of Prince Philip’s most memorable quotes is him saying that he would love to visit Russia, “although the bastards murdered half my family.”

Financially, the war hit the Mountbatten family hard. Louis was forced to renounce his financial ties to Russia and sell a German castle he had inherited from his father. In 1919, they had to let go of Kent House and they moved back to London. It was there, in September 1921, where Louis suddenly caught ill and died from the influenza outbreak. His funeral was held in Westminster Abbey and his body buried on the Isle of Wight.

After his death, Victoria moved to grace and favor apartments in Kensington Palace. By this time, her children were all grown and married and she spent most of her time worrying about them. In 1903, Alice had married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and had five children, the youngest of whom, born in 1921, was her only son, Philip. In 1930, Alice, who suffered from mental health issues, had a breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. From that point on, Victoria assumed responsibility for her grandson’s education, ensuring he was schooled in the UK and had strong ties with the BRF.

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Princess Alice

Her daughter, Louise, had several attachments over the 1910s and 1920s, the most notable of which was with a Scottish poet named Alexander Stuart-Hill, to whom she became engaged. Initially her parents approved of the match, however as the relationship progressed, Louis had to sit his daughter down and explain that Stuart-Hill was a homosexual and the marriage wouldn’t be successful. The engagement was duly broken. Five years later, in 1923, she married Crown Prince Gustav Adolf of Sweden, the widower of her cousin, Margaret of Connaught (daughter of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Arthur). In 1950 she became queen consort of Sweden and passed away in 1965 in Stockholm.

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Queen Louise of Sweden

George married Countess Nadejda Mikhailovna de Torby in 1916, who, though she had Russian heritage, was born and raised in France. They resided in London and had two children together. He died in 1935 of bone marrow cancer and the Queen later called him one of the most brilliant men she had ever known.

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Prince George of Mountbatten

Louis, the youngest of the bunch, is probably the most recognizable, which is remarkable given the careers of his elder sisters. After World War II he became the last Viceroy of India and would later became an important father figure to the current Prince of Wales. He was assassinated in 1979 by the IRA, an event which devastated Prince Charles and has the rather morose legacy of bonding his great-nephew to Lady Diana Spencer at the start of their relationship in 1980.

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Prince Louis of Mountbatten

He was married Lady Edwina Ashley and had two daughter, Patrica and Pamela, both of whom have been close to the Queen and the current BRF.

In 1947, Victoria was there to see her grandson, Philip, marry George VI’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, at Westminster Abbey. She also had the chance to meet her great-grandson, Prince Charles, and great-granddaughter, Princess Anne. In the summer of 1950, the year Anne was born, she fell ill with bronchitis and died that September at her home in Kensington Palace. She is buried alongside her husband on the Isle of Wight.

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Victoria is sitting to the left of Princess Elizabeth for Prince Charles’s christening in 1948

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