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The stories of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters: Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein

In the winter of 1900, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein fled in a panic from Cumberland Lodge, clutching an alarming telegram. Arriving at Windsor Castle, she frantically explained to her mother, Queen Victoria, that the Duke of Anhalt had tersely demanded that her daughter, Marie Louise, should return at once to the Duchy to face divorce proceedings on the grounds that she had ‘neglected her marital duties’ and made her husband’s life ‘intolerable’.

256px-Princess_Marie_Louise_of_Schleswig-Holstein

Princess Marie-Louise of Schleswig-Holstein found great support in the home of her grandmother, Queen Victoria, when her own life took a traumatic turn

In an age when divorce was viewed as taboo, Queen Victoria was far less shocked than might have been expected, for, with her talent for observation and her insistence on being kept fully informed of every detail of her granddaughters’ lives, she had long been aware that all was not well in Marie Louise’s marriage. Even at the time of her engagement almost eight years earlier, the Queen had been surprised at the speed of events, as Marie Louise had known Prince Aribert for little more than four weeks when she accepted his proposal, and within eight months they were married.

At the time, English journalists had hinted that there was something ‘not quite right’ about ‘the youthful lover’, but from the moment that eighteen-year-old Marie Louise first met him at a family wedding in Berlin, Aribert had seemed the epitome of an ideal prince; and, flattered by his attention, she ‘fell completely under his charm – in others words, fell in love’ as she later wrote in her memoirs.

The wedding took place in St George’s Chapel in Windsor in July 1892, and, throughout the celebrations Marie Louise appeared to be delighted by her groom, and eagerly looking forward to her new life in Germany. Once the festivities were over, however, and she accompanied Aribert back to Dessau, it did not take long for her to realise that she had made an unfortunate mistake. The attention with which he had flattered her throughout their courtship, was transformed into cold indifference as he made no secret of the fact that he preferred the company of his fellow officers to that of his wife.

As he often disappeared for weeks at a time, Marie Louise was left alone in the sleepy German duchy, stifled by the numerous restrictions and protocols that governed every area of her life. Not permitted to go out unaccompanied, she could not even speak directly to a friend or member of the family without first following the formality of sending a lady-in-waiting to approach a footman, who would then deliver the message to the footman of the person with whom she wished to speak.

The contrast between life in Anhalt and in England was all the more striking for Marie Louise due to the relative freedom and simplicity in which she had been raised. She was born Franziska Josepha Louise Augusta Marie Christina Helena  on August 12th 1872, the fouth child of Victoria’s third daughter, Princess Helena, and her husband, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Throughout her childhood, she, her sister and brothers had been encouraged to spend much time outdoors, where their father taught them gardening and horticulture, and where a footman arranged cricket matches with the local children. Dressed in hand-me-down clothes, Marie Louise had often participated in her mother’s charitable endeavours and had enjoyed the company of the numerous cousins who came to visit Queen Victoria at Windsor. When her parents embarked on a series of travels, Marie Louise had been left in her grandmother’s care, and a bond developed between them that would never be broken.

It was clear from an early age, that Marie Louise was a free spirit and, like many other members of her family, a gifted artist. Confined in Anhalt’s capital, Dessau, her natural enthusiasms were stifled, and, even when her husband was home, he made no effort to conceal that he actually resented her presence in his household. “I was not wanted,” she wrote later, “my presence was irksome to him, and we were two complete strangers living under the same roof.”

Unsurprisingly, Marie Louise seized every opportunity of escaping from the duchy, enjoying several foreign tours with various cousins, and pursuing her interests in art and foreign travel. Inevitably, though, she was compelled to return to Dessau, where, due to the stress of the ‘intolerable restrictions’ and her unhappy marriage, she became increasingly thin and prone to a myriad of minor ailments.

Matters came to a head in the autumn of 1900 when the South African War created such intense anti-British feeling in Germany that every Boer victory was celebrated and every British defeat was greeted with jubilation. That October, Marie Louise’s elder brother, Prince Christian Victor, who had earned a reputation as a noble and courageous soldier, contracted malaria and died while on active service in Pretoria.

For the sake of her health and her sanity, Marie Louise sought Aribert’s and Queen Victoria’s permission to embark on a tour of the United States and Canada and, since neither raised any objections, she spent the early winter in New York, Washington and Ottawa. It was there, while staying at the home of the Governor of Canada, Lord Minto, that she first heard of the alarming telegram which her mother received from her father-in-law, the Duke of Anhalt.

Queen Victoria, however, was not prepared to allow her granddaughter to suffer the humiliation of being summoned back to Dessau, and immediately dispatched a telegram to Lord Minto: “Tell my granddaughter to come home to me.”

Once back in England, Marie Louise was horrified to discover the extent of the unfounded and ‘obscene’ accusations that had been made against her, but it was widely believed that the real cause of the Duke’s anger, was the fact that, during her absence, Aribert had been caught in the midst of homosexual relationship with a servant. Thanks to Queen Victoria’s intervention, the marriage was eventually quietly annulled but, believing that the vows she had made were permanently binding, Marie Louise never remarried and continued to wear her wedding ring to the end of her life.

Cubs_meet_Princess_Marie_Louise_in_1919

Princess Marie-Louise meeting cubs in 1919. After the end of her marriage, she devoted herself to good causes and charity work and became well loved for her hard work and kindness

Despite the stress and anguish of these experiences, Marie Louise went on to enjoy a fruitful and full life. Acquiring rooms for herself in London, she created a small studio for making jewellery, and became a much-respected and loved patron of the arts. Often she was to be found in the homes of the poor, unpretentiously learning about their lives and establishing schemes to alleviate their sufferings.

She established the ‘Princess Club’ for the workers of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey, providing ante-natal care for expectant mothers, organising home visits from district nurses, and running groups of brownies, guides and scouts. When the First World War broke out, she converted the club into a hospital with one hundred beds, and “…took especial care when visiting my wounded friends to put on my smartest dress and hat, and the men thoroughly appreciated the compliment paid them.”

Between her numerous philanthropic activities, she still found time for travel, journeying throughout Europe and making an extensive tour of Africa; and, returning to England, she remained very close to her family, particularly her elder sister, Princess Victoria.

Marie Louise lived to see the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and three years later, she wrote her exquisite and touching autobiography, My Memories of Six Reigns. Within months of its publication, she died peacefully at her home in Berkeley Square, and was interred with her sister and parents at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore.

Christina Croft is the author of Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters 1860 – 1918 and Queen Victoria’s Grandsons 1860 – 1918

Photo credit: Alexander Bassano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and By NodsterBlack (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Aly Ale

    Princess Marie of Edinburgh, more commonly known as Marie of Romania (Marie Alexandra Victoria; 29 October 1875 – 18 July 1938), was the last Queen consort of Romania as the wife of King Ferdinand I.
    Born into the British royal family, she was titled Princess Marie of Edinburgh at birth. Her parents were Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh- the son of Queen Victoria and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. She was born at her parents’ residence, Eastwell Manor in Kent, on 29 October 1875, at 10:30 a.m., in the presence of her father. Her birth was celebrated by firing the Park and Tower guns. She was named Marie Alexandra Victoria, after her mother and grandmothers, but she was informally known as “Missy”.The Duke of Edinburgh wrote that his daughter “promises to be as fine a child as her brother and gives every evidence of finely developed lungs and did so before she was fairly in the world.”As a grandchild of the reigning British monarch in the male line, Marie was formally styled “Her Royal Highness Princess Marie of Edinburgh” from birth.Marie’s early years were spent in Kent, Malta and Coburg. After refusing a proposal from her cousin, the future King George V, she was chosen as the future wife of Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I, in 1892. Marie was Crown Princess between 1893 and 1914, and became immediately popular with the Romanian people. Marie had controlled her weak-willed husband even before his ascension in 1914, prompting a Canadian newspaper to state that “few royal consorts have wielded greater influence than did Queen Marie during the reign of her husband”.
    After the outbreak of World War I, Marie urged Ferdinand to ally himself with the Triple Entente and declare war on Germany, which he eventually did in 1916. During the early stages of fighting, Bucharest was occupied by the Central Powers and Marie, Ferdinand and their five children took refuge in Moldavia. There, she and her three daughters acted as nurses in military hospitals, caring for soldiers who were wounded or afflicted by cholera. On 1 December 1918, the province of Transylvania, following Bessarabia and Bukovina, united with the Old Kingdom. Marie, now Queen consort of Greater Romania, attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where she campaigned for international recognition of the enlarged Romania. In 1922, she and Ferdinand were crowned in a specially-built cathedral in the ancient city of Alba Iulia, in an elaborate ceremony which mirrored their status as queen and king of a united state.
    As queen, she was very popular, both in Romania and abroad. In 1926, Marie and two of her children undertook a diplomatic tour of the United States. They were received enthusiastically by the people and visited several cities before returning to Romania. There, Marie found that Ferdinand was gravely ill and he died a few months later. Now queen dowager, Marie refused to be part of the regency council which reigned over the country under the minority of her grandson, King Michael. In 1930, Marie’s eldest son Carol, who had waived his rights to succession, deposed his son and usurped the throne, becoming King Carol II. He removed Marie from the political scene and strived to crush her popularity. As a result, Marie moved away from Bucharest and spent the rest of her life either in the countryside, or at her home by the Black Sea. In 1937, she became ill with cirrhosis and died the following year.
    Following Romania’s transition to a Socialist Republic, the monarchy was excoriated by communist officials. Several biographies of the royal family described Marie either as a drunkard or as a promiscuous woman, referring to her many alleged affairs and to orgies she had supposedly organised before and during the war. In the years preceding the Romanian Revolution of 1989, Marie’s popularity recovered and she was offered as a model of patriotism to the population. Marie is primarily remembered for her work as a nurse, but is also known for her extensive writing, including her critically acclaimed autobiography.

    • Cristiano

      Thank you for this very accurate profile! It’s really interesting!

      • Aly Ale

        Thank you !History is my passion!And since Romanian history is a piece of British history make me more interested to research and learn more about this two countries that i love-one for being the country where i was born, the other being the country i live

    • Ian Digby

      Marie was also the first reigning monarch to declare her allegiance to the Baha’i Faith, an act of considerable personal courage and of enormous significance to the followers of that Faith.

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