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’.
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.
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