We’re used to seeing the Duke of Kent at Wimbledon and in recent years, the Duchess of Cambridge has become a regular supporter of the tennis played at the All England Club. But rewind nine decades and another royal was a familiar face there. A princess known to her family as Thora regularly cropped up on the Pathe newsreels of the time presenting trophies and cheering on the tennis stars of the day. This granddaughter of Victoria was a good sport and she needed to be for Princess Thora lived first hand the huge changes that transformed the monarchy from Victorian to modern.
Her story began in a rather similar way to many of Victoria’s descendants. She was born on May 3rd 1870 at a family residence, Frogmore House, and given her grandmother’s name as was almost compulsory at the time. Baby Victoria Louise Sophia Augusta Amelia Helena was the third child and first daughter of Princess Helena, Victoria’s third girl. Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein who had been allowed to marry Helena in 1866 on the condition that he lived permanently in Britain. And so Thora grew up in England surrounded by her royal cousins.
And one of those royal cousins led to a pivotal moment in this young princess’s life. Like every other granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Thora was talked about as a potential bride from an early age and the groom that her family had in mind for her was very close at hand. George, second son of the future Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark, was singled out as a possible husband but his own mother was having none of it.
Alexandra never got over the wars over Schleswig-Holstein between Denmark and Prussia – her homeland had lost these battles. Thora’s paternal lineage was always going to be a problem. The then Princess of Wales, still considered a great beauty, was also rather dismissive of Thora’s sharp features, referring to her as ‘Snipe’. She wrote to her son in rather mocking tones about the idea of this particular cousin becoming his wife, saying ‘Well, it would be a pleasure to welcome that ‘’beauty’’ as your bride.’
In the end, Thora stood as a bridesmaid in the Chapel Royal, St James Palace when George married Mary of Teck on July 6th 1893. Thora had just turned 23 and despite the mocking of her aunt still harboured hopes of becoming a royal bride herself. But another mooted suitor, Ernest of Hohenloe-Langenburg, married another of her cousins, Alexandra of Edinburgh, soon afterwards, and as she approached 30 she remained unmarried.
That didn’t stop Thora’s grandmamma, an arch matchmaker, continuing to look for suitable husbands right up until her death. In 1899, Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter about a possible marriage for Thora but this groom, Prince Johannes of Hohenloe-Langenburg, was Catholic and religion was one reason this wedding never took place. Instead, Thora would quietly retire into a single life of companionship to her mother and grandmother.
She spent a tremendous amount of time with Victoria in her last years and helped organize and jot down some of her memoirs and diaries. Those epic writings that would later be edited down with the assistance of the Queen Empress’s youngest daughter, Beatrice. And Thora became involved with several of the organisations supported by her mother, beginning a life of charity work.
That’s not to say she led a sheltered existence. Thora loved sport and being outdoors and she had a particular passion for tennis. In later life, she was often seen at the All England Tennis Championships or at Wimbledon for other tournaments including the Davis Cup where she presented the trophy on more than one occasion. She also loved golf as did her brother, Albert. And she was close to her siblings – when another brother, Christian, died in the Boer War Thora accompanied her mother to South Africa to pay their respects at his graveside.
During the First World War, the princess helped organize concerts to entertain the troops. But in 1917, the ongoing conflict led to a change in her name – at the command of her cousin George, now king. In that year, he renounced all German titles on behalf of himself and his relatives. The name of Schleswig-Holstein which had caused so much unhappiness to George’s mother was lost as part of those changes and the rejected cousin became Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria.
World War Two, meanwhile, would see her lose her home. She had been living with her sister, Marie Louise, at Schomberg House in London but as 1940 dawned it was deemed safer for the princesses to move to the countryside and they left the capital. They would eventually return to London, but their home had been damaged, and they found a new residence in Berkley Square.
But her charity work continued and a surprisingly large amount of footage of the princess survives on newsreels where she can be seen opening hospitals or visiting the sporting events she so loved. She became godmother to the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, a prince called William, at his christening in 1942 and five years later she watched him act as pageboy to the then Princess Elizabeth at her wedding to Prince Philip at Westminster Abbey. It would be Thora’s last major public appearance – she died on March 13th 1948 and was buried at Frogmore. Her story had come full circle.
“I know you of all others would be able to realize what the loss of darling Grandmama is to me,’’ Thora wrote in the weeks following the death of Queen Victoria in response to a letter of condolence. In many ways, the loss of ‘darling grandmama’ altered Thora’s life forever- she began to move from the inner circles of the court to a royal life lived in an increasingly contemporary world. But while it is easy to see Thora as a forgotten Victorian, this princess very much made her way in the world. She found causes that mattered to her and promoted them with gusto. She embraced the many changes life brought to her with spirit, and she ended her days held in high esteem by her family.