Next month marks the 70th wedding anniversary of Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh and, as such, we’ll cover all that brought about the original 1947 pairing. But ahead of that I thought it was fitting that there was a post on Prince Philip’s parents, particularly since his origin story isn’t particularly well-known. His lineage is unique in the context of the British Royal Family and his entry into the House of Windsor was perhaps the most dramatic in its history, quite a bit of which had to do with his parents and siblings.
So, who were they? His father was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his mother was Princess Alice of Battenberg. A couple years ago a guest at Buckingham Palace remarked that, like Philip, they were also Greek, to which he responded that he actually didn’t have a drop of Greek blood. That started a question in the papers as to whether that was true and the answer is, well yes, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that given the styling of his father’s name.
Andrew was legally a Greek prince and he was born in Athens, but he possessed no Greek heritage and his family didn’t consider itself Greek. His father was King George I of Greece, who arrived in Athens for the first time at the age of 17 in 1863. He was its lawful king, but he was selected out of a group of European princes to succeed Otto I after his deposition in 1862. He was in fact a Danish prince, the son of Christian IX and his wife, Louise of Hesse-Kassel.
The year he ascended the Greek throne his sister, Alexandra, married Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII. A few years later, his younger sister, Dagmar, would marry the future Tsar of Russia. As such, Greece suddenly had familial ties with major European powers, a fact which enhanced George’s hold on the throne and would later on complicate his family’s place in the country. More on that [hot] mess can be found here.
In 1867 George married Princess Olga of Russia and between 1868 and 1888, the couple had eight children. Their eldest son, Constantine (“Tino”), succeeded his father after George’s assassination in 1913 and married Queen Victoria’s Prussian granddaughter, Sophie. Andrew was George’s and Olga’s seventh child, born in 1882. He was so small as a newborn that he apparently spent his few days in a cigar box and was fed via toothpick, however he was eventually transferred to a proper wet-nurse and grew into a tall and athletic adult – indeed, there is a strong resemblance between Andrew and Philip.
The adage George raised his children with was, “You must never forget that you are foreigners in this country, but you must make them forget it.” It was a humbling motto, but one his offspring took to heart, particularly Andrew, who became the most “Greek” of all of his siblings, refusing to speak anything else at home, though he was also fluent in English, French, Danish and German. George and Olga implemented a strict and austere upbringing on their children – the royal palace was spartan and uncomfortable. The family shared one bathroom where it wasn’t shocking to see the odd cockroach. Every summer they decamped to Denmark to visit their Danish grandparents and cousins, which usually their aunt, the Princess of Wales, and her children. There were also regular trips to Russia to see their other aunt, now Tsarina Marie Feodorovna, and for Olga to visit her own family.
Andrew’s education emphasized military training and in 1902 he passed a rigorous examination that led to his entrance into the calvary. This same year he met his future wife, Princess Alice of Battenberg.
Alice was born on February 25, 1885 at Windsor Castle in the presence of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Her mother was Victoria of Hesse, eldest daughter of Queen Victoria’s third daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, while her father was Prince Louis of Battenberg, related to Alice’s husband, the Grand Duke. The young Battenberg couple made their home primarily in England, but they were regular visitors of Germany. They went on to have three more children, Louise, George and Louis between the years 1889 and 1900.
Alice’s childhood, a great deal of which was spent with Queen Victoria, was marked by her nearly complete deafness. Though the condition improved as she grew older, she was forced to become adept at reading lips, reaching at such a skill level that acquaintances rarely knew there was an issue. Her situation was also helped by the fact that she was markedly beautiful with long blond hair and large brown eyes. Her great-uncle, the Prince of Wales, reportedly said, “No throne is too good for her.”
She met Andrew in June 1902 at Buckingham Palace when the descendants of Queen Victoria convened for coronation of her eldest son, Edward VII. To the 17-year-old Alice, the 20-year-old Andrew was “a Greek God,” and though the coronation was delayed thanks to the new King’s health, the young couple found enough time to quickly fall in love and become privately engaged.
The next month Alice returned to Germany with her family and Andrew continued on with his naval career, the two keeping in touch via letter. They were reunited in London in August when Edward VII was finally crowned and after Andrew returned from another naval expedition over the autumn and winter, the King agreed to their engagement and it was made official in May 1903.
The wedding that October was held in Darmstadt in Hesse and included both a Protestant and a Greek Orthodox ceremony. Unfortunately the latter was marred by the Greek priest’s beard since Alice had a hard time reading his lips – when he asked if she had promised her hand to someone else she said “yes” and when he asked if she freely consented to the marriage she said “no.”
Immediately after the wedding, they moved to Greece, living in a suite of apartments in the royal palace in Athens. Their first child, Margarita, was born on April 18, 1905, and a second daughter, Theodora, was born on May 30, 1906. Uprisings in Greece began in 1907, with the Royal Family drawing a considerable portion of public anger. In 1909, Andrew and his brothers were forced to give up their military posts, though Andrew was able to resume his career in 1912 when Greece went to war with Turkey. Alice occupied herself with nursing, a professions very much championed by her grandmother, Princess Alice, in Hesse and her aunt, Ella, who had married Grand Duke Serge of Russia.
After victory helped ensure the short-term stay of the Royal Family, George announced in March 1913 that he planned to abdicate that October in favor of his son, Tino. Before that could happen, he was assassinated walking through the streets of Salonika, and Tino and his wife, Sophie, became the new king and queen. Europe entered World War I the following year and Tino decided to keep Greece neutral due to their recent military activity and financial necessity. Unfortunately, Sophie’s Prussian heritage (she was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sister) and Tino’s failure to back Great Britain did nothing to help their reputation with their traditional allies.
Alice, meanwhile, gave birth to two more daughters – Cecilie on June 22, 1911 and Sophie on June 26, 1914. Her own family was put in a similarly awkward – though less dangerous – position in Britain. Strong anti-German feeling was spreading through England and George V, then the second monarch of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, changed his “name” to that of Windsor in 1917. Similar measures were taken for members of the family who used German titles – thus Alice’s parents, the Prince and Princess of Battenberg, became the Marquess and Marchioness of Milford Haven.
In 1917, Tino gave way to foreign pressure for the good of the country and abdicated in favor of his second son, Alexander, because his eldest son, George, was considered too pro-German. The rest of the family, including Andrew, Alice and their children, were forced into exile, with most ending up in Switzerland. For the next three years Alexander served as king against his will until he grew ill from a monkey bite and died in 1920. His younger brother, Paul, was offered the throne, but he refused in deference to the rights of his still living father and older brother. After a general election that dismayed the rest of Europe, Tino was voted back into power and with him came the rest of the family.
When Andrew and Alice returned to Athens, Alice was pregnant for the fifth time. The couple took up residence at Mon Repos on Corfu where Alice gave birth to her youngest child and only son, Philip, on June 10, 1921.
The restoration, however, was short-lived. Andrew’s military career meant that he missed his son’s birth and was away from his family for the next several months. Placed at the head of a division of the army, Andrew traveled with Tino for Smyrna where they hailed upon arrival as the first two Christian princes to set foot in the city since the Crusades. The expedition ended in disaster for Andrew who was checked for insubordination and given three months’ leave during which time he returned to Corfu and finally met his son.
He returned to Smyrna before the new year, but the military campaign was doomed and was the death knell of Tino’s reign. He was once again forced to abdicate on September 27, 1922. He and his wife moved to Italy where he died, heartbroken, on January 11, 1923.
Alice, meanwhile, had spent the past year introducing her son to his British family. In September 1921, when he was still only an infant, she took him with her to England for her father’s funeral and he was able to meet all her siblings and mother. The following year she traveled with all five of her children for her brother Louis (“Dickie”) Mountbatten (the anglicized version of “Battenberg”) to Lady Edwina Ashley. The ceremony, on July 18, 1922 included all four of her daughters as bridesmaids.
When they returned to Corfu they found Andrew and the family of seven was essentially held under house arrest. A formal inquiry began into the military disaster in Smyrna for which Andrew was forced to travel to Athens to testify. Originally told he only needed to be there for two days, he was kept under strict guard for two weeks before he smuggled a note to Alice that said it was likely he would now be one of the accused instead of just a witness. By November, other accused men were charged with high treason with all expecting to be executed. The British Ambassador stationed there, however, made it clear that unless clemency was shown all diplomatic relations would be broken – Andrew, after all, was a first cousin to George V and his trial was due to begin in December.
On December 2, Andrew was found guilty and on December 3, he met Alice on a British cruise liner that would carry him out of Greece for good. While he had escaped with his life, he was still banished. They sailed to Corfu to gather their children and from there traveled to southern Italy. Years later, Sophie remarked that she could still smell the fires that burned in all the fireplaces as the eldest girls destroyed all of the family’s letters and documents.
In Italy the family traveled to Rome so that Andrew and Alice could thank the Pope for his part in helping to secure their release. The British Ambassador there helped facilitate their safe passage into France and they arrived in Paris on December 8. Pausing there for a few days, they finally slipped into Britain unnoticed on December 17. George V and his government were iffy about the idea of Greek exiles showing up, particularly given the Royal Family’s unpopularity since World War I. George met with Andrew, but the visit was kept private. The family spent Christmas at Kensington Palace with Alice’s mother, Victoria, and in January, Andrew and Alice sailed for New York, leaving behind their two eldest daughters in London and their two youngest daughters and Philip in Paris with their uncle, Prince George of Greece.
After two months in the United States, taking in New York, Washington, D.C. and Palm Beach, they decided to officially move to France – England was out of the question due to the public and political hostility and tension. They settled in the Parisian suburb of Saint Cloud. Alice spent her days volunteering at a charity boutique that sold Greek goods, while Andrew wrote a book that attempted to defend himself against the last disastrous military campaign. Neither, obviously, had any experience with holding a paying job or had many marketable skills.
The children were sent away for the summers, with Philip spending significant swathes of time in England at the home of Dickie and Edwina. The shock of the family’s banishment and the fear over not knowing whether Andrew would be executed severely frayed Alice’s nerves – that, combined with Andrew’s growing resentment and boredom from inactivity, helped to damage the couple’s marriage. In 1925 Alice apparently fell in love with a married Englishman whose name isn’t known – the affair was emotional, not physical, and her strong moral code ensured nothing too improper occurred.
Unfortunately what became clear is that Alice was suffering from a prolonged nervous breakdown. While it’s impossible to offer a medical diagnosis, biographers point to signs throughout her life that may offer clues that she suffered from bipolar disorder or another form of chemical depression. Certainly the zeal with which she threw herself into nursing the decade before could be viewed as “manic” energy.” How her symptoms mostly manifested themselves, however, was renewed religious fervor. In 1928 she converted to Greek Orthodoxy, the religion of her husband and children.
By 1929, she began to exhibit other strange behavior. She became convinced that her hands had healing power and that she was getting messages from a higher power about potential husbands for her daughters. By the end of the year she had stopped speaking to her family. That Christmas, she left with a maid for a hotel on the French Riviera for peace and quiet, but when she returned in January 1930, she told her family that she was a bride of Christ and a saint. Her mother, Victoria, visited shortly afterwards and became alarmed by her daughter’s behavior. Alice was taken to a psychoanalyst who diagnosed her with paranoid schizophrenia.
She spent a few months at a hospital receiving treatments, before returning to her family that April. The family, with Victoria, traveled to Darmstadt to visit Victoria’s brother’s family and, while there, Victoria arranged for a doctor to come and spirit her daughter away to a mental hospital. When Alice protested – the rest of the family was gone – he injected her with morphium-scopolamine to sedate her and took her to the sanitorium on Lake Constance against her will.
Alice was admitted on May 2, 1930, from which point on family life was over. She and Andrew saw each other fleetingly and never divorced, but the marriage was done. He closed their home in St Cloud and spent his time moving between Paris, Monte Carlo and Germany, while Philip was effectively raised by the age of nine onward by Alice’s mother and siblings.
As for their daughters, the eldest, Margarita, married Prince Gottfried of Hohenlohe-Langenburg on 20 April 1931 in Langenburg, Germany. Four months later, Theodora married Berthold, Margrave of Baden. Earlier in the year, in February, Cecilie married Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, while the youngest of the bunch, Sophie, married Prince Christoph of Hesse in December 1930.
Philip, seven years younger than Sophie, was essentially left without parents or siblings in the quick span of a year. He spent some time at Kensington Palace with his grandmother, Victoria, however her neighbor, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, didn’t care for the inclusion of a child in the building, and it was decided that he should be moved to Alice’s eldest brother, George, the Marquess of Milford Haven. It was George who acted as Philip’s guardian until he reached 16 in 1937.
Between 1930 and 1932, Philip was taken to visit Alice on a handful of occasions and wrote to her, however between 1932 and 1937, they never saw one another or spoke. Years later Philip told a biographer:
“It’s simply what happened. The family broke up. My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the South of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.”
On another occasion, an interviewer asked him what language he had spoken at home. He responded: “What do you mean ‘at home’?”
In 1932, Alice was relocated after doctors believed that the sanatorium was having a detrimental impact on her health – she ended up in Tyrol. Victoria visited in December and was told that her daughter had no interest in a relationship with her family, who she still believed had betrayed her. Unfortunately this included her five children.
This continued unabated until Cecilie and her husband, Georg, were killed in a helicopter crash with two of their young children. Cecilie was heavily pregnant with her fourth – based on the wreckage which included a newborn corpse, it’s believed that the accident may have been caused by a combination of bad weather and Cecilie going into premature labor. The only survivor of the nuclear family was the third child, Johanna, who had been deemed too young to join – she would eventually die two years later of meningitis.
The funeral was held in Darmstadt and for the first time in seven years the family was reunited, including Andrew and Alice who hadn’t seen each other since Alice’s committal. Just two years out from World War II, Darmstadt was decorated with swastikas – indeed, Cecilie and her husband were both Nazis and the broader royal families of Europe with ties to Germany (which was most of them) all had to deal with offshoots who had taken up with Hitler’s party. Alice reportedly hoped that the reunion with her husband would help mend the marriage, but separate lives resumed after the funeral.
While Cecilie’s death was a deep blow to the family, particularly to Andrew and Philip, the shock of it appeared to have a positive impact on Alice’s mental health and she was on the mend from then on out.
In January 1938, Andrew traveled back to Athens for a small reunion of the Greek Royal Family, marking his first time back in the country since their departure in 1922. He brought with him Philip, Margarita and Theodora for the wedding of Crown Prince Paul, the youngest son of the old king, Tino. The Greek monarchy had been restored in 1935 and Tino’s eldest son became George II. Childless, George’s heir was always his brother, who married Princess Frederica of Hanover, a granddaughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The restoration and the marriage opened up the doors of Greece once more to Andrew, Alice and their family, but 16 years had also passed. Their surviving daughters were all married and settled with children in Germany, and Philip was established in Britain, having been educated in Scotland and spending his holidays primarily in England. Nevertheless, the childlessness of George II meant that Andrew and Philip were fairly high up in the line of succession and the question was posed as World War II loomed whether Philip’s place was in Greece since legally he was a prince of the realm.
Luckily, in light of hindsight, both Philip’s British relations and George II agreed that Philip’s place was in Britain. He continued his career with the British Navy and it was in 1939 that he met the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth for the first time, the eldest daughter and heir of King George VI.
Alice, meanwhile, chose to live in Athens once again and during the war she worked with the Red Cross as a nurse and devoted herself to caring for the poor and sick. When Germany invaded Athens, she helped hide Greek Jews, including a widow and two of her children. Like the rest of the city, she was affected by the rations and increasing poverty – later on when the city was liberated in 1944 she acknowledged that she was down to bread and water and had gone several months without eating meat. There is one anecdote from after the British entered when they tried to get Alice to stop her habit of walking through the streets to distribute rations to the poor on the grounds that she might be shot – she responded, “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?”
Andrew found himself trapped in Vichy France at the start of the war, completely cut off from communicating with Philip as a British naval officer. Theodora’s and Sophie’s husbands were both Nazis and fought for Germany, splitting the family geographically and politically until 1945. Unfortunately Andrew didn’t live long enough to see it – he died in Monte Carlo on December 3, 1944, not having seen his wife or son in five years. His body was eventually re-interred in Greece after the war.
When Philip and Elizabeth became engaged and married in 1947, Alice returned to England for their wedding at Westminster Abbey that November. After it, she went back to Greece and founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha. She took a number of tours abroad to help fundraise and began wearing a grey and white nun’s habit, which baffled her mother. Victoria finally passed away at her home in Kensington Palace in September 1950.
While she attended Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, she continued to live in Greece through the 1950s and much of the 1960s. It was until 1967 that she finally accepted an invitation from Philip to come join him and his family at Buckingham Palace that she left her home, allowing her son to look after her. She lived in London for the next two years, getting to know her four British grandchildren, Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward, before finally passing away on December 5, 1969. She was initially buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, but per her wishes, her remains were eventually moved to the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The ceremony was attended by her two remaining children, Philip and Sophie.