The Middle Child: Helena, Princess of Schleswig-Holstein

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Some of Queen Victoria’s children are burned into history books via their dynastic importance. Others are referenced as mere links between Britain and the continent, becoming the parents of later European rulers who were key to World War I. The middle of these nine children, Princess Helena, was not one such person. To me, she stands out as the child who looks the most like her mother.

Helena was born on May 25, 1846 at Buckingham Palace, her parents’ third daughter and fifth child. Her birth was one of the most difficult her mother endured, which is saying something given the extent to which Victoria loathed pregnancy, childbirth and babies. She was christened that July and given the Duchess of Orleans, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as godparents. She quickly became known by “Lenchen,” a play off of the Germanic version of her name.

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Helena with her brother, Alfred, the sibling with whom she was closest

Helena was described as a confident and outgoing child with keen interests in science, boating and physical activity and considerable talent in music and art. Unfortunately for her, she ended up in a bit of a stereotypical middle child scenario in which she was easily overshadowed by her siblings. She was intelligent, but not as academically inclined as Vicky. She was a good drawer, but not as talented as talented as Louise. And as for her athletic abilities, she was quickly put to shame for her military-inclined brothers.

In 1859, a man named Carl Rutland joined the royal household as a German tutor and Helena became romantically interested in him. Given her age it’s certain it was nothing more than a teenage infatuation, but given his employment by the family until 1863, her attachment grew concerning enough to Victoria for him to be dismissed as a “better safe than sorry” measure.

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When Prince Albert died on December 14, 1861, Helena was 15. The following summer her elder sister, Alice, married Prince Louis of Hesse and moved to Germany, leaving Helena as the eldest unmarried daughter. She stepped into the role of her mother’s lead companion, a thankless job given the mausoleum-like existence that Victoria constructed in her homes. It was an austere, unhappy environment for children, and one which can hardly have helped Helena and her siblings process their beloved father’s death in a productive way.

By the mid-1860s, Victoria began the search for a suitable husband for Helena. The matter was slightly tricky though, for she wasn’t considered a beauty and her mother had already decided whoever the man was he had to be ready to make his home in England so that Helena could remain close to her. She landed on Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, however the choice created the most drama Helena ever caused in her life.

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Christian was 15 years older than Helena, born in Denmark in 1831 – an age gap that was markedly visible, so much so that when he was first invited to the Palace by the Queen he thought she was looking for a second husband not a son-in-law. The two duchies that made up his name, Schleswig and Holstein, were disputed territories between Denmark and Prussia, the latter of which invaded them and won. The tricky part for the British Royal Family was that Vicky was then married to an heir to the Prussian throne and Bertie, the Prince of Wales, had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. The new Princess of Wales was adamant that the land belonged to her father, the King of Denmark, a cause for which she gained the support of her husband, Alice and Alfred.

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As for the couple in question, it’s unknown what Helena thought of all the drama, but she took an immediate liking to Christian and was in favor of the marriage. They met for the first time in September 1865 and by that December their engagement was announced. However, while the relationship moved forward, the extent to which this caused a rift within the family can’t be overstated. Relations between Helena and Alexandra remained cool from then on out, a fact that garnered the latter stiff criticism from Victoria.

The couple married on July 5, 1866 at the private chapel at Windsor Castle. The bride was given away by the Queen and wore a gown of white satin and lace. From there, they departed for a honeymoon in Paris, Genoa and Interlaken.

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They split their time between Cumberland Lodge on the Windsor estate and a suite of rooms within Buckingham Palace when in London, however in comparison to the lifestyles of her sisters, Helena lived quietly and modestly. Her first child, Christian Victor, was born on April 14, 1867 and he is rumored to have been her favorite. He was followed by Albert (b. 1869), Helena Victoria (b. 1870), Marie Louise (b. 1872), Harald (b. 1876) and a stillborn son in 1877. Prince Harald didn’t live long, passing away just eight days after his birth.

While Helena and Christian seem to have had a happy marriage, they weren’t exactly an inspiring duo. Christian was given a handful of notable roles within the royal household so that he could perform official functions, but he generally phoned in the job, delegating tasks to others to remain at home or go hunting. Most of Helena’s time was spent assisting her younger sister, Beatrice, with attending on Victoria, a job that she eventually called upon her daughters to support as well once they were old enough.

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She devoted herself to a number of causes in Britain that do deserve recognition, primarily nursing. She was a firm advocate for female nurses and ensuring they had the proper education and resources. She served as patron for decades, personally signing and handing out certificates to new nurses throughout her career. Other interests included needlework, translations and, notably, women’s rights, which Victoria detested.

In 1900, Helean’s son, Christian Victor, died in Pretoria serving in the Boer War, devastating his parents and grandmother – not only was he his mother’s favorite, but reportedly Victoria viewed him as her favorite grandchild. Only 33 when he died after falling ill with malaria, he was unmarried and buried abroad. The Queen commemorated the loss with a monument at Frogmore House, the family mausoleum.

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The following year it was Victoria who passed away, finally succumbing to poor health and old age while staying at Osborne House. Helena remained devoted to her mother until the end – in fact, Helena’s name was the last written in Victoria’s famously prolific journals. Bertie ascended the throne as King Edward VII, however the new reign did little for Helena who wasn’t close with her brother and still had a tense relationship with Alexandra. She continued to carry out engagements for causes close to her heart and in 1906 she had the opportunity to travel to South Africa to visit her son’s grave.

Later in life, it was Helena’s children who caused her the most headaches. Her younger daughter, Marie Louise (who looked remarkably like Helena in her youth), married Prince Albert of Anhalt in 1891, a match arranged by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The union was miserable thanks to Albert’s homosexuality and, rumor has it, after being found in bed with another man, the marriage was annulled in 1900 by his father. Marie Louise was abroad at the time and when she learned the news she quickly returned to England. She lived another 56 years, remaining unmarried.

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Princess Marie Louise

Her elder daughter, Helena Victoria, never married and spent her time working for the charities and public projects about which she was most interested. One of her last appearances was at the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip during the reign of George VI.

Helena’s younger son, Albert, became the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein in 1921. He served as such for 10 years before dying in 1931 in Germany. In 1900 he fathered an illegitimate daughter with a noblewoman whose identity he never disclosed. The child was placed with Jewish parents and didn’t know her paternity until shortly before Albert’s death. While Albert told his two sisters at some point, it’s highly unlikely that Helena ever knew about her granddaughter.

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And that last part is a shame, for out of four children who reached maturity, none produced legitimate children of their own, a fact which likely caused Helena some sadness in her twilight years.

Helena was widowed in 1917, shortly before the close of World War I. Christian died in London that October at the age of 86.  Helena lived another six years before passing away in London on June 15, 1923. She is buried beside her husband at Frogmore House.

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