The royal wedding of then Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten on November 20th, 1947 at the Westminster Abbey in London was a festive day marked by grand celebrations.
Contemporary British newspapers gushed about every aspect of the wedding, from the hundreds of gifts sent to the young couple by well-wishers—the young princess was sent eighty pairs of nylons and a mink coat and silver from Canada—to the mysterious design of her gown.
It was the first time a royal wedding had been broadcasted in England. Anticipation was building in a dramatic fashion. The New York Times reported Londoners were equally thrilled about the event:
London is not going to sleep tonight. At least that is the impression given by many, many thousands who thronged around Buckingham Palace. They all but mobbed the members of the royal family who went to Westminster Abbey this afternoon for a wedding rehearsal.
Among the royal relatives attending the wedding was Alice of Battenberg, Philip’s mother. Because of his sisters’ dubious marital connections to Nazi Germany, Princess Alice was the only member of Philip’s immediate family to attend his wedding.
At the time, she was wearing a simple dress and hat. However, this was not her usual attire, as would be made clear at Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation, where Alice sported a modest grey habit.
The mystery surrounding Princess Alice was immense. Many wondered why a woman born into a twentieth-century fairy-tale would trade her jewels and fame for a quiet life in a Greek Orthodox convent.
Newspapers from around the British Commonwealth also marveled at the contrast between the pomp of the coronation ceremony and the appearance of an elderly nun.
Considering the hardships endured by Alice throughout much of her life, it is not difficult to understand why she exchanged her former royal lifestyle for the strength provided by her faith.
Princess Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie of Battenberg — yes, that was her full name — was born at Windsor Castle to parents Prince Louis of Battenberg and Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. During Princess Alice’s birth at the castle, her namesake and great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, was present.
Alice’s childhood wasn’t easy. When she was a young girl, she was diagnosed as congenitally deaf. According to her relatives, her mother treated her daughter’s disability with a “tough love” approach bordering on cruelty. She told family members not to repeat words or phrases when Alice didn’t understand them, forcing the young princess to learn to lip-read.
By age eighteen, Alice was able to speak and lip-read in English, German and French. She would later learn Greek.
In 1902 at the coronation of King Edward VII, Alice fell in love with the amusing Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, the son of the King of Greece. Her niece said Alice was taken by his witty, charming demeanor — a characteristic that would arguably be passed down to their son.
The young couple’s 1903 wedding was widely documented, especially since the wedding guests included some of the most famous royals in Europe. Princess Alice wore “white crepe de chine, with orange blossoms, and a bodice of Point de Venise lace.” The New York Times reported in great detail:
The wedding party, whose dresses and uniforms made a very effective spectacle, assembled at 3:30 o’clock in the old castle, and then crossed the castle yard to the castle church. Prince George of Greece with Princess Victoria led the procession, and they were followed by the Grand Duke of Hesse, with the Czarina; the Czar, with Queen Alexandra; the members of the Greek royal family, and finally Prince Louis of Battenberg, with his daughters the Princesses Alice and Louise.
Marriage and Crisis
After settling in Greece, the newlyweds welcomed four daughters in quick succession. Princess Alice eagerly accepted her role in the Greek monarchy and became wildly popular with the Greek public, despite the population’s increasingly anti-monarchist leanings.
During the bloody First Balkan War, Princess Alice left the palace to organize several field hospitals. She was horrified by the profound violence and loss of life she witnessed on the battlefields. Nevertheless, she committed herself to the care of wounded soldiers as she bandaged limbs and stayed up through the early hours of the morning in increasingly primitive conditions.
Unfortunately, the First Balkan War marked the beginning of a period of suffering in Princess Alice’s life. Greece was undergoing a period of great political upheaval, with anti-monarchist feelings rising to the surface.
Shortly after Prince Philip’s birth in 1921 — he was delivered on a kitchen table in Princess Alice’s country home — the royal family were forced to flee Greece in the wake of revolutionary activities. Prince Andrew was facing execution, so the family seized the opportunity to travel to Paris. Apparently, young Prince Philip had to travel in an orange crate as the family used Danish passports.
The stress of an uncertain future and being forced to rely on wealthy relatives took a tole on Alice’s mental health. Her deafness — which often made her fear she was being made fun of in large groups added to her feelings of isolation. Her husband was also growing distant.
Perhaps to cope with her growing despair, Princess Alice suddenly converted to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1928. However, she started displaying signs of delusion, telling her family she possessed a photograph signed by Jesus Christ. Alice’s mother wrote in 1930 she believed her daughter was experiencing “anemia of the brain from too much contemplation.”
After she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Alice’s family persuaded her to leave her son for a temporary stay at a clinic outside Berlin.
There, the famous neurologist Sigmund Freud took a keen interest in her case, since some of her delusions were sexual in nature. Against her will, he ordered that her ovaries be blasted with X-rays to bring on early menopause. She was then kept prisoner at a Swiss sanatorium for two years and prevented from seeing her children for much of this time.
When she was finally released, she experienced homelessness. She lived in different German inns before finally returning to Greece, the land she had come to love.
During her recovery, Alice’s once beloved husband abandoned her to live with his mistress on the French Riviera.
Alice never had any other recorded relationships and seemed devoted to her marriage, but her husband was described as a “playboy” who left her during her time of need. The two lived separate lives until Prince Andrew’s death.
A Resilient Legacy
After leaving the sanatorium, Princess Alice devoted the rest of her life to her Christian faith and charitable service. She regularly volunteered in soup kitchens with the Red Cross to aid those stricken with poverty. Although she wanted then sixteen-year-old Philip to live with her in Athens, the rest of the family encouraged him to pursue a naval career.
During the Second World War when Nazi Germany occupied Greece, Princess Alice sheltered a Jewish family in her apartment. Rachel and Tilde Cohen — old family friends of the Greek royal family — stayed with Princess Alice when the Nazis began their vicious search and detainment of Greek Jews.
In an encounter with members of the Gestapo who had become suspicious of Princess Alice, she outwitted them by pretending she couldn’t understand what they were saying. For this, she became one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor specially given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Alice later sold her possessions to fund her religious order, the “Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary,” which was dedicated to helping the sick and poor of Greece. She took vows of celibacy and poverty.
She also became known for her unassuming grey habit — a far cry from the glittering gowns and ornate hairstyles of her youth. From her humble appearance, it would have been hard to believe the elderly nun was from one of the most powerful royal families on earth.
Princess Alice spent the last two years of her life at Buckingham Palace, growing particularly close to her granddaughter Princess Anne. She died in 1969.
Despite her many hardships, Princess Alice left an enduring legacy.
While facing poverty, homelessness, exile, and abandonment by her husband, she continually found solace in her faith and extended unconditional love to those who needed it.
She was mistreated as a person with a disability and mental illness, but became one of the most admired women of her time. Because of her courage, faith and service in the face of immense suffering, her memory endures.