03 January 2021

A Long-Lived Princess: Alice of Albany

from Canada national Archives via Wikimedia Commons
Having another grandchild was not generally an extraordinary moment for Queen Victoria, who already had 33 when a new little princess arrived at Windsor Castle on Feb. 25, 1883. Indeed a grandson had been born there just six weeks earlier, but this new little girl, named Alice after her aunt who had died in 1878, was unexpected: Queen Victoria had assumed that the baby's father could not have children due to his health. More amazingly, Victoria, who often called babies ugly and froglike, thought the new baby was beautiful.

Princess Alice of Albany was born just 10 months after her father Prince Leopold Duke of Albany married Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont. The youngest of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's four sons, Leopold had grown up overprotected and on a much shorter leash than his older brothers. Victoria thought him and handsome and clever but she fretted that any activity could lead to his death. He was the first member of her family to exhibit the dreaded hemophilia that would come to haunt the Russian Imperial Family, the Spanish Royal Family and other royal families through Victoria's daughters and granddaughters. Victoria thought fathering a child would prove too rigorous for him, but Leopold and his bride proved her wrong. By the end of 1883, Helena was expecting again, but Leopold's health was troublesome. On the advice of his doctors, he decided to escape the British climate as he had done many times before. With one young infant and an advancing pregnancy, Helena opted to stay home while Leopold traveled to Cannes. In late March, the prince slipped on the stairs, banging his knee and his head. Injuries which would be mere annoyances for most people proved deadly for him: unable to stop internal bleeding he died in less than 24 hours.  

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Baby Alice was 13 months old. Her little brother, Prince Charles Edward was born four months later and became Duke of Albany upon his birth. The widowed Helena was 23, but determined to take a strong role in her children's upbringing. (Her sister Emma was widowed a few years later and left to raise her daughter Wilhelmina, who had become Queen of the Netherlands at age 10. See my posts Abdicating Queens and End of the Queen Streak.) Helena's efforts to raise her children as "good Englishmen"--even sending Charlie to Eton--were thwarted when her son was selected as the heir to his uncle, Prince Alfred the Duke of Saxe Coburg and Gotha, who had himself inherited it from his Uncle Ernst, older brother of Prince Albert. It was heartbreaking for the family to have to uproot and move to Germany where the teenaged Charles Edward could now learn to be a "good German." The family was separated permanently when Helena and Alice returned to live in England in 1903, believing that the 19-year-old Duke was well-established. The pain of their separation grew even more during the first World War, when Charles Edward fought on the German side and had his English rights and titles revoked even after the German Revolution of November 1918 forced him to abdicate his ducal role. As Alice would later write in her 1966 memoirs, For My Grandchildren, the war "shattered" her brother's life as "he was denounced in Germany for being English and in England for being German." By World War II, he was nationality was clear: he was a full-fledged Nazi. Despite Alice's pleas on his behalf, his American captors would not release him. At his trial, he was exonerated of crimes against humanity (which saved his life) but was order to undergo de-nazification and fined to the point of near bankruptcy.

As for Alice, she lived a decidedly British life -- though not without further tragedies. Shortly before her 20th birthday, she married the dashing Prince Alexander of Teck, a member of a morganatic branch of the Hessian Grand Ducal Family which had been granted titles by the King of Wurttemberg. Alexander's mother was Queen Victoria's popular cousin, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, the youngest grandchild of King George III. More importantly, Alexander or Alge as he was affectionately known, was the brother of the Princess of Wales, better known to us today as Queen Mary. Therefore, Alice's children were first cousins of King Edward VIII and King George VI and Alice herself was a beloved aunt to Queen Elizabeth II.

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Alice and Alge's three children (May, Rupert and Maurice) were born as Princess and Princes of Teck in 1906, 1907, and 1910. Unfortunately, as the daughter of hemophiliac (see Unofficial Royalty's information about hemophilia), Alice was a carrier of the gene, which she passed to her sons. Maurice died as an infant. Rupert died of otherwise survivable injuries following an auto accident in France when he was 20. He was buried at Frogmore, Windsor. Having lived with the knowledge that their son could die for any small injury at any time, Alice and Alge were nonetheless devastated even more so because they were in South Africa and unable to attend his funeral during an age when even air flight could not have brought them to England quickly enough. 

In 1917, when all of the extended British Royal Family relinquished their German styles and titles, Alice as a male-line granddaughter of British monarch remained a royal highness and princess, but her husband and children no longer had princely rank and changed their surname to Cambridge. A British Army officer on active duty in the war, Alge was simply Sir Alexander Cambridge for a few months until his brother-in-law King George V created him 1st Earl of Athlone and Viscount Trematon. From then on, his wife was styled as HRH Princess Alice Countess of Athlone.

Alice traveled widely on behalf of the Crown throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America during the early years of her marriage. Later, Alge served as Governor General of South Africa from 1924 to 1930 and Governor General of Canada from 1940 to 1946. During both appointments, Alice was a popular and active vicereine. In Canada, she was particularly busy helping the many displaced royal cousins who had fled to Canada ahead of Nazi invasions. Her three grandchildren, like many other British youngsters, also came to Canada. They and their mother stayed with Alice and Alge. So did Alice's cousin Queen Wilhelmina's daughter then-Crown Princess Juliana and her children, who had fled The Netherlands ahead of the Nazi invasion. 

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After the war, Alice and Alge returned to Britain to take up residence again at their Kensington Palace apartment and their country home Brantridge in West Sussex. Like other British princesses, she remained actively engaged with honorary military appointments, university chancellorships, and charitably patronages at home and in the Commonwealth. Alge passed away in 1957 at Kensington Palace. His widow maintained an unofficial role in the British Royal Family as a kind of protocol advisor and participated in major public royal events including the Trooping the Color balcony appearances. Privately, she was often seen around the Kensington neighborhood to attend church and visit the shops.

When she passed away on January 3, 1981 seven weeks shy of her 98th birthday, she was not only the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria but the oldest surviving member of the British Royal Family. She has since been surpassed by two of her nephews' wives, The Queen Mother and Princess Alice The Duchess of Gloucester, as well as by The Duke of Edinburgh, but they all married into the family. She remains the oldest person born as a British Royal. The first person who could surpass her is Queen Elizabeth II, who will not reach the same age until April 2024.

For more about Princess Alice, Countess of Albany:
Birth of Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone on European Royal History
Dear Leopold's Child on History of Royal Women
Frankness and Candour on History of Royal Women
Princess Alice, Countess of Albany on Unofficial Royalty

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