16 April 2022

Prince Leopold and His Legacy

Young Leopold and Queen Victoria

In the history of royal hemophilia, Prince Leopold was patient zero. His mother, Queen Victoria, longed to wrap in cotton wool and keep him safely near her where she could always keep an eye on him especially after his father Prince Albert died when Leopold was just eight years old. Unlike his brothers, Leopold was not permitted a military career and went instead to university at Christ Church, Oxford. After traveling in Europe, the United States and Canada, where his sister Princess Louise's husband was Governor General, Leopold longed for his own overseas appointment. Victoria would not permit it, keeping him instead as an unofficial secretary for herself, as she had done with most of his five sisters. 

Leopold wanted to be independent and pushed against his mother's restraints. Although he was created Duke of Albany at age 28, tt seemed marriage might be the only true path to escaping Victoria's smothering attention. Even here, though, he was thwarted. Several British brides were rejected and he had trouble settling on a foreign princess until his matchmaking oldest sister Victoria Princess Royal suggested Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont, whose sister was married to the King of the Netherlands. Both the Queen and Leopold found the lovely and well-educated Helena to be pleasing. Perhaps more importantly, Helena was willing to marry a man whose very life could be in danger every time he banged his knee or bumped his head.

The couple married in April 1882 and were soon able to surprise the Queen with Helena's pregnancy. Although Victoria had presumed that fatherhood was not a real possibility for him, the birth of little Princess Alice of Albany nine months after the wedding proved something of a miracle. By the end of that year, they shared the news that Helena was expecting yet again. The happy couple were delighted with their growing family, but Leopold's health concerns, which also included a mild form of epilepsy, were not improving. As had happened before, his doctors advised him to seek a warmer climate as a refuge from the British winter which caused great pain in his joints. With Helena's advancing pregnancy, she stayed behind with their baby daughter while her husband traveled to Cannes.

The Duke & Duchess of Albany
photo by John Thomson via Wikimedia Commons

Leopold stayed at a private home called Villa Nevada. It seemed a safe enough place for the young man, but his hemophilia could make almost any accident deadly. His nephew, Prince Friedrich of Hesse, had died a decade earlier when the toddler suffered an accidental fall while playing with his brother. The warmth of the south of France could not protect Leopold from an accidental slip on the stairs. After banging his knee and his head, the 30-year-old prince knew the routine. Although he had no external injuries, he went immediately to lie down in hopes of thwarting any potential internal bleeding. Since hemophilia prevented his blood from clotting, his condition rapidly deteriorated. By the next morning, he had bled to death from an apparent cerebral hemorrhage.

Queen Victoria had tried to keep Prince Leopold close to her. She was devastated to lose him so far away. Princess Helena, a widow at 23, carried on with resiliency. Their son, Prince Charles Edward, the new Duke of Albany was born four months later. Helena earned Queen Victoria's great admiration and respect as the young woman focused not just on her own children but also on endeavors related to the arts and health care. She survived Leopold by nearly four decades, passing away after a heart attack in her early sixties.

Prince Charles Edward was selected as the heir to Saxe-Coburg, the princely inheritance of his grandfather Prince Albert's family. This separated him as a teenager from his mother and sister in England. When the first World War came, it also put him on the "wrong side". As a result the Albany title has been abeyance for over a century although he has many descendants alive today, including the King of Sweden and his sisters.

Princess Alice of Albany with her children
May and Rupert
photo by Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons
Hemophilia, however, did not leave the Albany family tree with Leopold's death. Since it is carried on the X gene, it always passes from a hemophiliac father to any daughter he might have. Since Princess Alice inherited a healthy X gene from her mother, she did not suffer the condition herself - women rarely do since they would have to inherit it from both parents. She married Prince Alexander of Teck, brother of Queen Mary. In the great re-titling of 1917 to rid the British royals of German names and titles, Alexander was created Earl of Athlone with the surname Cambridge. The couple and their children remained close friends of their royal relatives on the throne. Their second son, Maurice died as an infant so it is not clear whether she passed the hemophilia gene to him. Their first son, Rupert Viscount Trematon definitely inherited the condition that had caused Princess Alice to grow up without her father. 

Just before his 21st birthday, Rupert and two friends crashed their car into a tree in France. One friend died quickly while the other survived. Rupert was rushed to hospital with a small skull fracture. It took two weeks for him to bleed to death from cerebral hemorrhage, the same kind of bleed that had killed his grandfather. 

Leopold's legacy carries on in the descendants of Alice's daughter Lady May, who married Sir Henry Abel-Smith, and the Saxe-Coburg family. The boy who Queen Victoria tried so hard to keep close to home now has dozens of descendants scattered across Europe.