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In profile: The Duke of Edinburgh’s mother Princess Alice

Emma Bowden, PA
·3 min read

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted the extraordinary legacy of his mother, Princess Alice, a deeply religious woman famed for saving a Jewish family from the Holocaust.

A great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice of Battenberg, the eldest child of Prince Louis of Battenberg and his wife Princess Victoria of Hesse, was born in Windsor Castle in 1885.

Born deaf, she became a fluent lip-reader, not just of English but French and German too, and when she fell in love with Philip’s father, Prince Andrew of Greece, she quickly added Greek to her repertoire.

The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice of Greece
The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice of Greece (PA)

Philip’s monocle-wearing father Andrew, a lieutenant-general in the Greek army, was descended from kings of Denmark and Prussia, as well as emperors of Russia.

The couple married in 1903 and had five children, four daughters and their only son, Philip, who was born in the family home, Mon Repos, on Corfu, in 1921.

During the Balkan Wars, Alice worked on the front lines as a nurse in battlefield hospitals, for which she was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

The family faced further tumultuous times. In the early 1920s, Greece was politically unstable and in 1922 the king of Greece, Constantine I, was forced to abdicate.

The family was forced to flee Corfu in December 1922, after Philip’s father was arrested and charged with high treason in the aftermath of the heavy defeat of the Greeks by the Turks.

A baby Philip with his mother, Princess Alice
A baby Philip with his mother, Princess Alice (PA)

King George V sent HMS Calypso and a British secret agent to negotiate his release, collect him and his wife, their four daughters and baby Philip, and take them into exile.

The family settled on the outskirts of Paris in 1923, after which Alice became deeply religious. In 1928 she joined the Greek Orthodox Church and, for the remainder of her life, she usually wore the long grey habit of a nun.

She began to suffer mental health problems and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1930, which led to her being committed to a sanatorium in Switzerland, where she remained for two years.

Once discharged, Alice and her husband drifted apart. In 1937, she was reunited with Andrew and her family at the funeral of her daughter Princess Cecilie, who was killed in a plane crash at the age of 26.

During the Second World War, Alice lived in Athens and worked for the Red Cross, where she organised soup kitchens for orphaned children.

A young Prince Charles and Princess Anne, followed by their grandmother, Princess Alice, in 1955
A young Prince Charles and Princess Anne, followed by their grandmother, Princess Alice, in 1955 (PA)

It was during the Nazi occupation of Greece that she risked death to shelter Jewish widow Rachel Cohen and two of her children at her home, where the family stayed until liberation.

She was recognised by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial as Righteous Among the Nations for her actions, and was posthumously awarded the British Government’s Hero of the Holocaust medal.

Alice returned to the UK in 1947 to attend the wedding of Philip and Princess Elizabeth, and two years later Alice founded the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.

She spent her final two years living in Buckingham Palace before her death in 1969, and was first laid to rest in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

But it was her wish to be interred at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, a Russian orthodox church on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, and her remains were moved there in 1988.