Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone

by Susan Flantzer

Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone; Photo: Wikipedia

January 3, 1981 saw the end of an era.  On that day the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria and the longest lived person of the Blood Royal of the British Royal Family died at the age of 97, one month short of her 98th birthday.  Princess Alice of Albany, Countess of Athlone had lived through six reigns: Queen Victoria (grandmother), King Edward VII (uncle), King George V (first cousin and brother-in-law), King Edward VIII (first cousin once removed and nephew by marriage), King George VI (first cousin once removed and nephew by marriage) and Queen Elizabeth II (first cousin twice removed and great-niece by marriage).  Princess Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline was born on February 25, 1883 at Windsor Castle.  Her parents were Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, and Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont.

YouTube: Princess Alice’s memories of her grandmother Queen Victoria

Alice had one brother:

  • Prince Charles Edward, Duke of Albany (19 July 1884 – 6 March 1954) later last reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, married Princess Victoria Adelaide of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg; had issue including Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who is the mother of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden

Prince Leopold was the only one of Queen Victoria’s four sons to have hemophilia and the first of the nine hemophiliacs among Queen Victoria’s descendants.  Hemophilia is transmitted on the X chromosome and it is a recessive trait.  Women have XX chromosomes and men have XY chromosomes.  Each person gets one chromosome from each parent. A woman has XX chromosomes so she can only pass an X chromosome onto her children.  A man has XY and can pass either chromosome on, so the father determines the child’s gender.  If the father passes the X, it’s a girl and if the father passes the Y, it’s a boy.  The daughter of a hemophiliac will always be a carrier because her father can only pass on an X chromosome with hemophilia on it.  However, a hemophiliac’s sons will not have hemophilia because the hemophiliac father will pass on a Y chromosome and his wife will pass on a healthy X chromosome (unless she is a hemophilia carrier).  Therefore, all of Prince Leopold’s daughters would be hemophilia carriers and all of his sons would bear no trace of the disease.  The only way for a female to be a hemophiliac is for her to be the daughter of a carrier and a hemophiliac.  For more detailed information on hemophilia in Queen Victoria’s family, see Unofficial Royalty: Hemophilia.

Leopold had some difficulty in finding a bride, but not because of his hemophilia, but rather his mild epilepsy.  Although hemophilia has severe genetic implications, not much was known about it at that time.  Epilepsy was considered a social stigma and it was not unusual for families to hide away epileptic relatives.  Finally, a marriage was arranged by Leopold’s mother and his eldest sister.  On April 27, 1882, Leopold married Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont.  Unfortunately, Leopold and Helena’s marriage was short-lived.  In early 1884, Leopold’s doctors recommended that he spend the winter in Cannes, France, which he had done before.  At the time, Helena was expecting her second child.  On March 27, 1884, Leopold slipped and fell on the staircase at Villa Nevada, the private home where he was staying in Cannes.  He injured his knee and hit his head, and died early in the morning of March 28, 1884 apparently of a cerebral hemorrhage, the injuries having been exacerbated by his hemophilia. He was 31 years old.

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany; Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone by Hills & Saunders albumen cabinet card, 1883 NPG Ax5552 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany; Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, by Hills & Saunders, albumen cabinet card, 1883. NPG Ax5552 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Four months after Leopold’s death, Helena gave birth to a son, Charles Edward. Charles Edward became Duke of Albany at birth (his father’s title) and in 1900 succeeded his uncle Alfred as the last reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.  During World War I, he was deprived of his British titles due to his taking up arms against his native country.  After World War II, Charles Edward was imprisoned due to his Nazi sympathies and was heavily fined and almost bankrupted.  Charles Edward’s grandson, King Carl XVI Gustaf, sits upon the throne of Sweden.

Alice and Charles Edward were brought up by their widowed mother at Claremont House near Esher in Surrey, England.  Alice’s childhood was full of visits to her many relations throughout Europe.  In addition to her over forty first cousins from her father’s side of the family, Alice was also a first cousin of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.  Alice’s maternal aunt, Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont, had married King Willem III of the Netherlands, and their daughter Wilhelmina succeeded her father on the Dutch throne at the age of ten in 1890.

 

In November of 1903, Alice became engaged to Prince Alexander of Teck, called Alge by his family and friends. Alge was the youngest of four children of Prince Francis, Duke of Teck,  and Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge,  a granddaughter of King George III and first cousin of Queen Victoria.   At the time of his marriage, Alge’s sister Mary was the Princess of Wales, having married the future King George V in 1893.  Alice and Alge were married at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on February 10, 1904.  Many royal relations attended including Alice’s cousin Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.  Alice’s brother escorted her down the aisle where her uncle, King Edward VII, waited to give her away.  Lady Violet Greville commented, “Unlike most royal brides, this bride looked the picture of happiness.”

The couple had three children:

  • Lady May Cambridge, born Princess May of Teck (23 January 1906 – 29 May 1994), 1931 married Henry Abel Smith, had issue
  • Rupert Cambridge, Viscount Trematon, born Prince Rupert of Teck (24 August 1907 – 15 April 1928), hemophiliac, died from injuries received in a car accident
  • Prince Maurice of Teck (29 March 1910 – 14 September 1910), died in infancy

Princess Alice with her children May and Rupert in 1908 or 1909; Photo: Wikipedia

Due to anti-German sentiment during World War I, King George V issued Letters Patents on July 17, 1917 “declaring that the name Windsor is to be borne by his royal house and family and relinquishing the use of all German titles and dignities.” Alge relinquished the title Prince of Teck in the Kingdom of Württemberg and the style Serene Highness.  His two surviving children also lost their Württemberg titles and styles.  Princess Alice relinquished her titles of Princess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Duchess of Saxony which she had inherited from her father and through her grandfather Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.  However, Alice remained a Princess of Great Britain and Ireland and a Royal Highness in her own right because she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria in the male line.  The Teck family adopted the surname Cambridge (Alge’s eldest brother Adolphus became the 1st Marquess of Cambridge) and for several months Alge’s style was Sir Alexander Cambridge.  On November 7, 1917, King George V created him Earl of Athlone and Viscount Trematon.  Alge’s son Rupert used his father’s secondary title as a courtesy title and his daughter May was styled Lady May Cambridge.  Alice was then styled Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.

After World War I, Alice became one of the most widely traveled members of the royal family, visiting Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malaya, Singapore, Siam (now Thailand), South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Uganda, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, the West Indies, Canada, and the United States.  From 1924-1930, Alge was Governor-General of South Africa and from 1940-1946, he was the Governor General of Canada.   Alice was very active in charities during her time in both South Africa and Canada.  In 1966, Alice published For My Grandchildren, a memoir describing her life, duties, and travels.

Princess Alice and the Earl of Athlone at the Opening of Parliament in 1946; Photo: Wikipedia

On April 1, 1928 while they were serving in South Africa, Alge and Alice received the news that Rupert, their hemophiliac son had been in a car accident in France.  Rupert had been driving with two of his friends when the car skidded and crashed into a tree.  One of his friends died due to injuries and the other was only slightly injured.  At first, Rupert also did not seem to be seriously injured.  However, after being in the hospital for several days, he began to hemorrhage from the ear due to a slight fracture of the skull.  The bleeding was arrested and Rupert seemed to be improving, but it did not last.  On April 15, 1928, 20-year-old Rupert died from an injury he probably would have recovered from had he not been a hemophiliac.  Rupert’s funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, but his parents, who were too far away in South Africa, were unable to attend.  King George V, Queen Mary, the Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family attended the funeral.  Rupert was buried at the Royal Burial Grounds at Frogmore in Windsor, England.  Rupert’s death, following the death of his brother Maurice in 1910, meant that the title of Earl of Athlone would become extinct when his father died.

Upon Alge’s retirement as Governor-General of Canada, Alge and Alice took up residence in a grace and favor apartment in Kensington Palace.  Alge died on January 16, 1957 at Kensington Palace at the age of 82.  After a funeral with full military honors, Alge was buried at the Royal Burial Grounds at Frogmore in Windsor, England.

Alice was frequently consulted on matters of royal protocol as she was the oldest surviving member of the royal family.  There is a story at the time of Princess Anne’s first marriage in 1973 when Alice refused to ride in the carriage procession to Westminster Abbey saying it was not fitting for a princess of her rank.  She traveled by car instead.  Alice was a familiar sight in the neighborhood around Kensington Palace.  Each Sunday she would walk to the local church, St. Mary Abbots Church, and could frequently be seen at the local shops.  Alice also could be seen riding on London buses.  During Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Princess Alice proudly wore her Silver Jubilee Medal on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

In 1978, Princess Alice had a fall, hurt her shoulder, and had to be hospitalized for several days.  Although she did recover, this marked the beginning of the deterioration of her health.  Members of the royal family visited her regularly including the Queen, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Princess Alice the Duchess of Gloucester, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and various Dutch, Swedish, and German princesses.  The Queen Mother once remarked that she had been kept waiting while Princess Alice “put a little powder on her face and had her hair attended to.”  Alice’s physical condition continued to weaken.  She said that if she could not walk, she would die.  By the end of 1980, she could no longer walk.  Princess Alice of Albany died peacefully in her sleep on January 3, 1981 at Kensington Palace.

Princess Alice’s funeral was held at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on January 8, 1981.  Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British Royal Family attended along with many other royals including King Olav of Norway, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, former Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and her brother’s son Prince Friedrich of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Princess Alice was buried beside her husband and son at the Royal Burial Grounds at Frogmore in Windsor, England.

Recommended books about Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone
For My Grandchildren: Some Reminiscences of Her Royal Highness Princess Alice, by Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone (1966)
Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, by Theo Aronson (1981)