|Queen Mary and nurse Princess Mary|
Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons
However, Mary was not the only royal lady to devote herself to nursing. In fact, once Florence Nightingale standardized and professionalized nursing in the 1850s, princesses and queens flocked to be of service during war time. Queen Victoria was a great admirer of Nightingale and of nurses. In 1883, she created the Royal Order of the Red Cross (like a knighthood) to honor trained nurses of exceptional competency and devotion—Nightingale was the first recipient. Initially intended only for British nurses, Victoria altered the criteria so that she could present it to her granddaughter, Crown Princess Sophie of Greece, who had worked tirelessly to nurse the wounded during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Sophie was the first of more than a dozen royals to receive the honor.
Sophie, encouraged by her mother, the Dowager Empress of Germany, brought English nurses to Greece to train Greek nurses. She acquired a recently constructed military school and converted it into a hospital. When she wasn’t working at the hospital, she was overseeing the final examinations of the nursing students. Her compassion was readily apparent, even extending to treating the enemy, her proud grandmother noted.
|Ileana of Romania in national dress.|
From US Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
In one of these, she graphically described her experience as a war nurse: “Bed beside bed they lie there. . .I bend over suffering faces, clasp outstretched hands, ray my fingers upon heated brows, gaze into dying eyes. . .A groping hand was stretched out toward me; I took it in mine, whispering words of comfort; bending low toward the parched lips that were murmuring something that at first I could not understand. The man had no face, no eyes; all was swathed in blood-stained cloths.”
Their maternal aunt, the widowed and childless Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, gave away all of her possessions, became a nun and devoted her life to nursing and orphanages. Like most of the Russian imperial family she was killed during the revolution (she was thrown into a pit and bombarded with grenades) and was later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
|Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece,|
mother of the Duke of Edinburgh,
before her nursing days
via Wikimedia Commons
One of the most dedicated of royal nurses, Eleonore of Reuss-Kostritz, made a career of nursing. A minor German princess, her first claim to fame was as a nurse in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War. Under fire several times, she was even decorated for service. She continued nursing after marrying the Tsar of Bulgaria when she was 48, taking over the hospital his mother had started as well as step-mothering his four children. The Tsar had a poor reputation internationally, but his wife, who had earned the unofficial title “The Royal Nurse,” was hailed as a selfless heroine. “My mission in life,” she said, “is to utilize my rank and wealth for the benefit of the less fortunate.”
It was a sentiment undoubtedly felt by many princesses throughout history, but the princesses of the era stretching from the Crimean War in the 1850s to World War II in the 1940s, put the concept of noblesse oblige to work amidst the most difficult of circumstances.
Like Queen Marie, each of them might have written, “I got accustomed to face every horror, to front every epidemic, to hear each cry of distress, to look into the face of Death without shuddering, and bravely to contemplate the most ghastly sights.”