‘A supremely honest woman, full of courage’. Those words, written about Queen Victoria’s second granddaughter, perhaps sum her up better than anything else.Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine lived through many tragedies but never gave up.
This princess who called Queen Victoria grandmamma and who herself became grandmother to one of the most influential royals of the 20th and 21st century remained strong and ambitious through the many challenges that life threw at her. But her tale is strewn with sadness and can be told through nine significant losses….
- Her mother, Princess Alice
Victoria Alberta Elisabeth Mathilde Marie, born on April 5th 1863 at Windsor Castle, grew up very close to her mother, Princess Alice. Queen Victoria’s third child had married Prince Louis of Hesse and by Rhine and after her birth little Victoria moved to the family home of Darmstadt where a happy childhood unfolded.
But in 1878 tragedy struck. Victoria, then 15, caught diptheria and soon nearly all her siblings were affected and their devoted mother nursed them all. But as the young princess recovered, her beloved mama also developed the illness and died on December 14th 1878, the anniversary of the death of her own father, Prince Albert. Victoria, a teenager, had lost her mother.
- Her late childhood
That change led to another loss for Princess Victoria for as the eldest daughter of the family she had to step into the place left empty by the death of Alice. Victoria took on much of the care of her siblings as well as helping her father, now Grand Duke of Hesse, with court events and public occasions.
Victoria later spoke of the huge impact the death of Alice had on her and her youth saying ‘My mother’s death was an irreparable loss. My childhood ended with her death…’
- Her wedding day, twice over
Despite the early sadnesses she encountered, Victoria grew into a spirited and independent young woman. And like several of Queen Victoria’s other granddaughters, she managed to escape the matchmaking of ‘dearest grandmamma’ and marry for love. But her dream romance didn’t exactly end in a dream wedding.
Princess Victoria had met her cousin Prince Louis of Batternberg at family gatherings and in 1883 they announced their engagement. But the death of Victoria’s maternal uncle, Prince Leopold, in March 1884 delayed their wedding. They finally got to say ‘I do’ on April 30th 1884 despite the disapproval of the bride’s father. Victoria’s dad then took the spotlight off the happy couple by shocking society and marrying his mistress. The wedding was a long way from a fairytale.
- Her beloved sisters
Despite the sadness of her late childhood, Victoria settled down to a happy family life with Louis and their four children. And she became known for her love of education, developing learning programmes at home for her daughters and sons, as well as for her sense of adventure. This granddaughter of Queen Victoria took a trip in a Zeppelin and a biplane years before anyone else and she loved to travel which was handy as two of her sisters had married into the Russian Royal Family and Victoria made several trips to see them. But World War One was about to deal her another brutal loss.
Both those sisters were murdered in the Russian Revolution. The youngest of her siblings to survive childhood, Alix, had married the Tsar and on July 17th 1918 they – along with their five children – were shot dead in a house at Yekatarinburg which Victoria had driven past as she had left Russia for the last time. The following day her other sister, Elizabeth, was murdered as the revolution swept through the country. Victoria’s losses at this time were immeasurable.
- Her title
The Great War had already changed her life beyond anything she might have imagined. Her husband. Louis, had served in the Royal Navy but had to resign as the conflict took hold because he was German. And then, in 1917, King George V decided that he and all his royal relations would lose their German honours. Which meant Victoria was without a title.
Not long afterwards, George created Louis Marquess of Milford Haven meaning this granddaughter of Queen Victoria became a marchioness. And she got a new surname to boot – the German Battenberg was changed to the English Mountbatten. In middle age, Victoria had lost one identity and found another.
- Her husband
The new Marquess didn’t get to enjoy his title for that long. In 1921, Louis and Victoria were in Jerusalem to witness the reburial of the remains of her sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Throughout that summer, Louis was kept busy and in September that year he met his wife for lunch in Piccadilly but was clearly unwell and a doctor was called.
The Milford Havens had been married for 37 years and had remained devoted to one another. Victoria left her husband to go to a chemists to get medicine prescribed for him and came back to find him dead. The Dowager Marchioness had lost the one person who had been a constant through most of her adult life.
- Her daughter’s health
It meant Victoria stood alone to watch their second daughter, Louise, marry the Crown Prince of Sweden – she would eventually become that country’s queen. And it also meant that Victoria was on her own when her eldest child, Alice, became seriously ill. And by 1930, she was having to deal with some very difficult consequences of this.
Alice had married Prince Andrew of Greece and had lived through tumultuous times as that country’s monarchy wobbled and then fell. In 1930, Alice was admitted to a sanatorium as she began to show signs of very serious mental health issues. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her youngest child, a certain prince called Philip, was just nine at the time and he went to live with his grandmother who took on his care and education. The loss of her daughter’s health led to this granddaughter of queen regnant Victoria shaping the character of the boy who would become consort to Britain’s next queen regnant – for Philip is now The Duke of Edinburgh.
- Her granddaughter
Prince Philip described his grandmother as practical but all her resources were called on in 1937 when another unspeakable tragedy hit the family. Philip’s sister, Victoria’s granddaughter Cecilie, was killed in a plane crash. On that day, Victoria also lost two of her great grandchildren and Cecilie’s unborn child.
What’s more, Victoria had to help Cecilie’s mother Alice cope with the dreadful loss. The huge gap left in the family by the deaths of so many loved ones was a burden for all of them and another deep tragedy for Victoria.
- Her eldest son
Having helped her own daughter bury a child, Victoria had to face the same agony herself. Just months after the death of Cecilie and her children, Victoria lost her eldest son.
George, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven was 45 when he died of bone cancer on April 8th 1938 just days after his mother’s birthday.
- But one thing she never lost…
Despite a life weighted with tragedy, sadness and difficulties, Victoria never lost her spirit of adventure or her determination or her cool, calm and collected attitude to life. She loved education and was determined that her children would excel. Throughout her life she remained passionate about reading, discovering and learning.
And her rational and determined manner has perhaps shaped the Royal Family of today more than we give her credit for. Her youngest son, Louis, became Lord Mountbatten and had a huge influence on many members of the House of Windsor including Prince Charles who has often spoken fondly and warmly of the importance he places on what he learned from his great uncle. But it is perhaps worth remembering that at a formative time in his life when his own mother was ill, it was the kind but ambitious outlook of Victoria that surrounded Prince Philip. This granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who died on September 24th 1950 and who is buried on the Isle of Wight, has a legacy that is still underpinning royalty today.