The other Queen mother: She spent two years in an asylum, then became a nun. A new documentary explores the unconventional life of the Queen’s mother-in-law, Princess Alice
22:09 GMT, 17 August 2012
Look closely at newsreels of the Coronation, and you might glimpse the solitary, upright figure of a nun in grey habit and veil, walking behind the procession.
Seated with the Royal Family, her unworldly simplicity set her apart. But how many people today would recognise Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece… the Queen’s mother-in-law
She survived revolution and exile, mental breakdown and religious mania, evincing great personal courage to protect a Jewish family during the war – before turning her back on the trappings of royal life to become a nun.
Prince Philip with his mother Princess Alice of Greece in 1957
Alice was a loving mother but enforced separation from her young son helped to forge Prince Philip’s self-reliant, sometimes cussedly independent spirit. Now, a Channel 4 documentary, The Queen’s Mother In Law, featuring previously unseen footage and interviews with Alice’s nieces – Prince Philip’s cousins – tells the forgotten story of the Queen’s most unconventional relative.
She was born Princess Alice of Battenberg in 1885 at Windsor Castle, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and raised as an English princess, although both her parents were German.
Alice was congenitally deaf but she could speak clearly. Photographs show how beautiful she was, with her upswept hair and lace gowns.
Then in 1902, at the Coronation of King Edward VII, she fell head over heels in love with Prince Andrew, a younger son of the King of Greece. As her niece, Lady Pamela Hicks, explains, ‘She was absolutely dotty about him. Really, deeply in love.’
Mother and son in younger times in 1924
/08/16/article-2189197-0C86606900000578-239_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”Shortly before Alice died in 1969, she wrote to her only son, whose childhood had been so scarred by her absence” class=”blkBorder” />
Shortly before Alice died in 1969, she wrote to her only son, whose childhood had been so scarred by her absence
Alice wanted Philip, now 16, to live with her in Athens (the Greek monarchy having been restored in 1935). But Philip’s future lay in the Royal Navy. And by 1941, Alice was stranded in Nazi-occupied Greece.
Her brother, Lord Mountbatten, sent food parcels – which she gave to the needy. Then, for more than a year, she hid a Jewish family on the top floor of her house, only yards from Gestapo headquarters. When the Gestapo became suspicious, Alice made her deafness an excuse for not answering their questions.
When she was posthumously honoured as Righteous Among The Nations – the highest Israeli honour to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust – Prince Philip said, ‘She would have considered it a natural reaction to fellow beings in distress.’
After the war, diamonds from Alice’s tiara were reset so Philip had an engagement ring to present to Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen. Alice sold the rest of her jewels to found her own religious order, the Christian Sisterhood Of Martha And Mary, in 1949 and built a convent and orphanage in a poor suburb of Athens. Her family was sceptical.
Countess Mountbatten says, ‘I remember my grandmother [Alice’s mother] saying, “Whoever heard of an abbess who smoked and played canasta”’
When there was a Greek military coup in 1967, Alice refused to budge from Athens until Prince Philip sent a plane, along with a special request from the Queen, to bring her home.
The Queen gave her mother-in-law a room in Buckingham Palace. Prince Philip’s biographer Gyles Brandreth says, ‘They say you could always tell when she was coming along the corridor because of the whiff of Woodbines in the air. The idea of the Duke of Edinburgh’s mum, dressed as a nun, sucking on her Woodbine… it’s wonderful!’
Shortly before Alice died in 1969, she wrote to her only son, whose childhood had been so scarred by her absence, ‘Dearest Philip, Be brave, and remember I will never leave you, and you will always find me when you need me most. All my devoted love, your old Mama.’
The Queen’s Mother In Law, Tuesday, 9pm, Channel 4.