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Postcards from Russia: Earl Mountbatten of Burma and his Romanov cousins

On 25 June 1900, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg – born Princess Victoria of Hesse – gave birth to a son at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park, the erstwhile residence of Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, until her death in 1861. Princess Louis of Battenberg had been the firstborn child of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, who gave birth to her at Windsor Castle on 5 April 1863, in the Tapestry Room overlooking the soaring Long Walk. Princess Alix, now Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, had written privately to a close friend, Magarethe von Fabrice: ‘Am daily expecting the news from Frogmore...’ (cit., ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, Alix an Gretchen: Briefe der Zarin Alexandra Feodorovna aus den Jahren 1891-1914 an Freiin Magarete von Fabrice, 90). 

Princess Louis of Battenberg as she became known on her marriage to Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884, was mother to two daughters and two sons – Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, Louise, future Queen consort of Sweden, George, 2nd Marquess of Milford-Haven and Louis, her last child, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Links with imperial Russia came through Princess Louis, whose two younger sisters, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ and Princess Alix had married into the Russian Imperial House of Romanov, Princess Elisabeth marrying Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and Princess Alix marrying the young Tsar Nicholas II in 1894. The new born Prince Louis would come to share a close association with his Russian cousins, despite the vast distance. Proof of this exists in the post which the teenage Prince Louis received from his Russian imperial relations, in the form of exquisite Christmas and Easter cards, all written in English.

His birth at Frogmore represented something of a full circle regarding the Hesse and Battenberg families, ending back at Windsor, where Princess Alice had given birth to her baby daughter, Princess Victoria, later Princess Louis of Battenberg. The birth of Prince Louis was announced in the Court Circular under the heading for news from Windsor Castle. He was christened in the Drawing Room at Frogmore on 17 July 1900 by the Dean of Windsor and photographed in the arms of his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, at just three weeks old. The Queen was in residence at Windsor Castle at this point and was his only godmother, requesting specifically that he also have the name ‘Albert’ added to his baptismal names, a wish that had become something of an established rule in the Queen’s family, on the birth of a royal (male) child.

The Queen’s desire that this name should be added was revealed directly to Princess Louis in a letter, a mere four days before the christening at Frogmore: ‘There is one thing which would give me great pleasure if you and Ludwig approved of it, viz. if you would add the name Albert to the 4 others…’ (Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 148). It was almost as if by adding the name of Prince Albert, the Queen may have fulfilled some kind of inner wish for Prince Albert to play some kind of role or function in the lives of the many grandchildren he had never known. His inclusion in their baptismal names, ensured surely, that they would not forget him, even if they never met him. The Queen had written similarly to Princess Louis prior to the birth, as ever viewing any family event through the prism of her own experiences: ‘I am very anxious and hope that the expected little one may bear my name of whatever sex it may be – as it will be born where your dear Gt GdMama lived and under the shadow as it were of the Castle…’ (Ibid, 147). Unsurprisingly, the Queen’s wish was granted; the baby Prince Louis was, after all, the youngest son of one of her favourite grandchildren.

The baby prince of Battenberg – the surname not being altered to Mountbatten until 1917 in the wave of anti-German hysteria as a result of the First World War, when Prince Louis of Battenberg was given the additional titles of Marquess of Milford Haven, Earl of Medina and Viscount Alderney – was christened Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas. With natural humour, the baby prince managed to knock off the spectacles which the elderly Queen was wearing and also get his hand tangled in the lace veil, which she wore in the photograph made of her holding him (Mountbatten, Eighty Years in Pictures, 9).

The baby’s elder brother Prince George assumed the title of Earl of Medina, whilst the baby prince would become known as Lord Louis Mountbatten. But all this lay seventeen years ahead, far from the Drawing Room at Frogmore House.

This was the main Drawing Room which had been used by the Duchess of Kent, which had formerly been a Dining Room in Queen Charlotte’s Day (Frogmore House and The Royal Mausoleum, Royal Collection Enterprises, 28). The room is elegantly furnished in the French style of decoration, in a colour scheme of grey, gold and silver, a notable feature being the glass Regency chandeliers and the splendid portraits of Queen Victoria’s Coburg and Belgian relations. The christening in a way, summons up one of the very last gatherings of a family event in Queen Victoria’s family, at the very end of the Queen’s reign; the Queen died at Osborne House on 22 January 1901.

The name Nicholas was an important one, alongside Louis of course, for his father, Prince Louis and Francis (another Battenberg name for the brother of Prince Louis of Battenberg, known fondly as ‘Franzjos’) and Albert Victor. Nicholas stood for Tsar Nicholas II, who was married to his aunt Alix, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, Russian Empress for four years at the time of his birth. It had been suggested that he would, in fact, be called Nicholas, but he instead came to be known as ‘Dickie’ to distinguish him in the family from the Tsar, a name which always stuck (Ibid). Tsar Nicholas II also was one of the baby’s godfathers and was represented by proxy, by Prince Louis of Battenberg. His other godfather was Prince Francis Joseph of Battenberg (‘Franzjos’), represented by Lord Edward Clinton. Tsarina Alexandra wrote to her friend in Russia, Princess Bariatinsky: ‘To-morrow is the Christening…’

To piece together some of the ‘Russian holidays’ which Lord Louis enjoyed with his relations, I have used the excellent resource, ‘Mountbatten, Eighty Years in Pictures’, for which Earl Mountbatten of Burma himself wrote the foreword and personally selected the photographs. This provides such fascinating snapshots as Lord Louis on his first pony ride at Illinskoe, the country estate outside Moscow of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and Grand Duchess Elisabeth, on his first holiday in Russia, in 1901. The young Lord Louis saw Grand Duke Sergei for the last time at the Darmstadt wedding of his sister, Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andrew of Greece, in 1903. Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated the following year in Moscow.

The Darmstadt connections were, of course, strong, being the home of his mother as the daughter of Grand Duke of Hesse and also his father, as a German Prince of Battenberg. Photographs fill the albums of the Hesse and Battenberg relations of Lord Louis, including of course, family groups, such as the photograph of the young Louis, together with his Hessian cousin, Princess Elizabeth, the only daughter of his uncle, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse, taken in the magical playhouse built in the grounds at Wolfsgarten, the Hessian summer hunting lodge; a playhouse which still exists and to which no adult, royal or otherwise, could gain admission.

The five-year-old Lord Louis is pictured with his German teddy bear ‘Sonnenbein’ at the family’s London residence in Cadogan Square, Knightsbridge, a name which could be from a mispronunciation of ‘Sonnenschein’ [Sunshine] or simply be strangely what it says, ‘Sun Bone’. There are numerous photographs made at Schloss Heiligenberg, the beautiful Battenberg home near Darmstadt, where Prince Louis of Battenberg, his father, had grown up, and where the young Lord Louis learnt to ride and toboggan (Ibid, 15). He was visiting Wolfsgarten in 1906, when his uncle, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig took him up in an airship.

Two years later, we can see in the albums that he went to Russia, to visit his Romanov cousins. First, he visited his aunt, Grand Duchess Elisabeth ‘Ella’, and rather fascinatingly; he was housed – aged eight – in the nursery of the Nicholas Palace, which overlooked the famous Kolokol Bell (Ibid, 27). The trip continued in St. Petersburg, where the Battenberg family stayed in the palace of Grand Duke Sergei, known as the Beloselsky Belozersky. They spent time at the glorious imperial residence of Peterhof, where they spent a week with the Tsar and his family. A snapshot of Lord Louis with one of the Grand Duchesses, almost certainly Grand Duchess Tatiana, was taken during this time, in the park at Peterhof.

In 1909, the Russian imperial yacht Standart sailed to Kiel en route to England, bound for the Cowes Regatta. Group photographs again abound. Lord Louis was also in Germany for the Russian imperial visit to Schloss Friedberg in 1910; private pictures in the personal albums of Tsar Nicholas II and his family also document this German visit, including pictures of the young Tsarevich Alexei in the pavilion of the neighbouring village to Wolfsgarten, where the imperial train came in – and of the fourth daughter, Grand Duchess Anastasia in an adult’s hat and coat for a ride in a motor-car (Prince Michael of Greece, Nicholas and Alexandra, the Family Albums, 102-3).

All this forged the beginnings for a deep bond with his cousins, which later led to post for Lord Louis from far-distant, imperial Russia. These Easter and Christmas greetings were mostly written on postcards typical for the period, with markings in Russian or French, from the four Grand Duchesses. This correspondence continued until at least 1916; Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna wrote to Tsar Nicholas II on 12 February 1916: ‘Dickie & the cadets of his team are not to go straight to sea after [E]aster, but to the engineering college at Kegham (Plymouth) first. The best 26 or 30 of them will go to sea in June, & as his place in the term [i.e. team] is about 15th always, he hopes to be one of the lot. Of course he is disappointed at the delay, but I feel selfishly grateful for it…’ (ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 386).

A month later, she wrote to the Tsar: ‘Dicky walks on crutches, he broke his leg some time ago toboganning [sic]. He spends [E]aster with his parents at Kent House. Easter falls [i.e. finds them] together this year…’ (Ibid, 426).

This reference to a broken leg is important. Lord Louis broke his leg a short time before his final examinations and had to take them in hospital (Mountbatten, Eighty Years in Pictures, 48). Kent House refers to the house on the Isle of Wight which belonged to Prince and Princess Louis of Battenberg.

Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna wrote a postcard to Dicky as he convalesced with his broken leg in 1916; there must have surely been more. In this surviving (and selected) postcard, the Tsarina wished her Battenberg nephew a happy Easter and then went on: ‘So sorry you have still to walk on crutches and can imagine how it bores you. Cousins are well, have many lessons, work in the hospitals, visit the wounded. Work in the snow – cut ice with the sailors. Alexei plays quite well now on the balalaika. A kiss from yr. old Auntie Alix’ (Ibid, 37). The correspondence also included a postcard in shaky handwriting (in English) from the six-year-old Tsarevich Alexei, who sent his English cousin, Lord Louis, a postcard in 1910. (His English tutor was Charles Sydney Gibbes, who had taught his sisters, the Grand Duchesses).

There are other examples signed collectively from either the five imperial children or the four Grand Duchesses; with a couple of more short letter-like postcards from Grand Duchess Tatiana and a touching little postcard from the nine-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia to Lord Louis in 1910, which bears evidence of pencil lines to make her handwriting straight. These postcards date from 1910, 1911, 1915 and finally, 1916 and importantly, they are all written in English.

Lord Louis Mountbatten – as he became in 1917 – had to experience the news of the death of his Russian cousins of whom he was so fond, when they were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on 16/17 July 1918; Lord Louis made a ten day visit to the Western Front in July 1918. Lord Louis had been especially fond of the third imperial daughter, Grand Duchess Marie, who was a remarkably beautiful child and whose magnificent blue eyes had been known as ‘Marie’s saucers’ by her cousins (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 155). He never forgot Grand Duchess Marie and had promised himself that he would marry her when they were both older. At the time of the publication of the book of Mountbatten, Eighty Years in Pictures (1979), Earl Mountbatten of Burma was recorded as ‘still keep[ing] a picture of her in his bedroom’ (Ibid, 31).

It was a remnant of those long ago childhood holidays in a lost, imperial Russia and to a youthful love. Tragically, as history would prove, both would be murdered.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.