The life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is one of hardship, philanthropy and intrigue amid the instability of the first half of the 20th century.
Princess Alice of Battenberg was born at Windsor Castle on February 25,1885, in the presence of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. She was the eldest child of Prince Louis of Battenberg and his wife, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. Her itinerant childhood was split between London, Malta, and Germany. After her mother noticed that Alice’s speech was not progressing as expected, she was diagnosed with congenital deafness by an ear specialist. Despite this, she learned to speak multiple languages fluently as well as mastering lip-reading. She maintained close contact with the British Royal Family throughout her adolescence and was a bridesmaid at the future King George V’s wedding.
While attending the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, Alice met Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark whom she would marry a year later in Germany, aged 18, as featured in the Princess Alice of Battenberg documentary, The Queen’s Mother in Law. The wedding drew guests from Europe’s foremost royal houses owing to the couple’s extensive familial ties. The first of Princess Alice of Battenberg’s children arrived in 1905 with the birth of Princess Margarita. The couple had four more children with Prince Philip being their youngest and only son.
The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 saw Alice assisting with surgeries on wounded soldiers as well as setting up field hospitals, but the conflict would ultimately precipitate the advent of World War I. The Allied force’s frustration with Greece’s neutral stance during the conflict led to the shelling of Athens by French forces in 1916. Alice and her children were forced to take shelter in the palace cellars and later fled to Switzerland with her brother-in-law, King Constantine I, who abdicated in 1917. The family briefly returned to Greece, settling in Corfu, following the King’s reinstatement in 1920, but again faced exile following defeat in the Greco-Turkish War. The revolutionary committee who took power following the conflict arrested Alice’s husband, Prince Andrew, who had served as a commander, but unlike other prominent figures who faced execution, Andrew and his family were permitted to leave Greece on HMS Calypso under British protection.
The family eventually settled in a small house on the outskirts of Paris, and it was during this period that Alice's religious convictions intensified. After converting to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1928, psychological disturbances started to emerge. She began experiencing religious delusions, claiming she was in contact with Christ. After being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, she was forcibly taken to the sanatorium of Ludwig Binswanger, a protégée of Sigmund Freud, in Switzerland. Despite her protestations of sanity, she remained at the institution for two years and became estranged from her family. It was during this period that her son, Prince Philip, began his education in Britain and had little contact with his mother for the rest of his youth. Following her release after two years, she drifted around Central Europe and only resumed contact with her family following the tragic death of her daughter Cecilie, son-in-law and two grandchildren in an air accident in 1937.
Princess Alice had been working with the poor of Athens since 1938, living alone in a two-bedroom flat. At the dawn of World War II in 1941, she was joined by her sister-in-law, Princess Nicholas of Greece, and lived a spartan existence while working for the Red Cross. In the face of the mass deportation of Greek Jews to the Nazi concentration camps, Alice provided refuge to the Jewish widow Rachel Cohen and her two children after a promise of assistance by King George I of Greece to her husband in 1913. Following the liberation of Athens in October 1944, Alice was informed of her estranged husband’s death from heart failure in the Hotel Metropole in Monte Carlo.
In April 1947, Alice returned to Britain for the wedding of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth - her engagement ring incorporated jewels from Alice’s personal collection. Then in 1949, she founded the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary near Athens, dedicated to helping the ill and needy. The project was ultimately abandoned due to a lack of applicants willing to undertake sisterhood training. While attending Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, her long grey dress and flowing headpiece drew attention for its unmistakable similarity to her typical nun’s attire. Alice remained in Greece until the military coup of 1967 forced her away one last time. Increasingly frail, she returned to the country of her birth having been invited to take permanent residence at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Her final years were spent among the peace and grandeur of the palace until her death on 5 December 1969. Princess Alice of Battenberg’s funeral took place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, before her remains were moved to the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem as she had requested. Her great-grandson, Prince William, visited the site in 2018, and Alice’s story will one day surely fascinate his daughter, Princess Charlotte. Emblematic of the authenticity she displayed throughout her life, she left behind no possessions.