Alice of Athlone (1883–1981)

views updated

Alice of Athlone (1883–1981)

Princess of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, countess of Athlone, and one of the monarchy's most popular royals. Name variations: Princess Alice; Alice Saxe-Coburg. Born Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline, princess of Great Britain and Ireland and the countess of Athlone, at Windsor Castle, Berkshire, England, on February 25, 1883; died at Kensington Palace, London, on January 3, 1981; daughter of Prince Leopold Albert, duke of Albany (Queen Victoria's fourth and youngest son) and Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont; last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria; great-aunt of Queen Elizabeth II; married Prince Alexander of Teck, earl of Athlone (younger brother of Mary of Teck), in February 1904; children: four, including May Helen Emma (1906–1994, who married Henry Abel Smith); Rupert Alexander George Augustus, Viscount Trematon (1907–1928); Maurice (1910–1910).

Her long life spanned the reigns of six British sovereigns, and she personally attended four coronations; one of the most popular members of the royal family for many decades, she was outspoken, independent and public-spirited, particularly in her role of highly successful fundraiser as chancellor of the University of the West Indies; active in public life until her final months.

On February 25, 1883, Princess Alice was born as Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline, princess of Great Britain and Ireland and the countess of Athlone, at Windsor Castle. Her father Prince Leopold Albert, duke of Albany, was Queen Victoria 's fourth and youngest son and the younger brother of the prince of Wales who would succeed Victoria in 1901 as King Edward VII. Alice's mother was Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont of the small German principality of Waldeck-Pyrmont.

The first of several tragedies in Alice's life struck little more than a year after her birth, when her father died of hemophilia. From this point, the infant princess was raised by her mother at Claremont House, near Esher. In her childhood, Alice rode in the carriage procession for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee of 1897 (in the final years of her extraordinarily long life, Alice would be part of the 1977 Silver Jubilee procession of Queen Elizabeth II ). In Alice's 1966 memoirs, For My Grandchildren, she somewhat idealized the aristocratic world of the 1880s and 1890s, in which she grew up, as a society in which "class distinctions permeated the whole social structure and could be as rigid in the servants hall and in the village as they were in the castle. These distinctions were, however, tempered by gracious manners; and, in general, a courteous consideration for others, alas so rare today, governed the relationship between all ranks of society."

In February 1904, Alice was married to Prince Alexander of Teck, younger brother of the future Queen Mary of Teck . Alexander was a serving officer in the British Army and had—like all members of the reigning British royal family whose family name was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—deep blood and historical ties to the German aristocracy. Not until the third year of World War I, in 1917, would he become the earl of Athlone (with the family name of Cambridge) after abandoning his German title of nobility. For Princess Alice, the familial and personal ruptures brought on by the war were even more traumatic than for her husband. Her cousins, including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia (1872–1918) and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, were on opposite sides of the terrible conflagration. In the early years of the new century, Alice spent extended periods of time at the German court in Berlin and Potsdam. Her brother Prince Charles Edward, duke of Albany, had left Eton at the age of 16 to be brought up in Germany as heir to his uncle, the reigning duke of Coburg. Upon succeeding to his inheritance in 1900, Charles Edward also became a general in the German army and fought for his adopted country in the war. With the German defeat and proclamation of a republic in November 1918, he was deposed and stripped of his title. The following year, he also lost his British title of duke of Albany. Alice's brother became an embittered man who soon succumbed to the siren calls of Adolf Hitler and became a fervent Nazi supporter of the Third Reich. One can only speculate how much grief these events caused Princess Alice, torn as she was between her strong British patriotism and her deep affection for an illstarred only brother.

The postwar era began auspiciously for Princess Alice when her husband was appointed governor-general of South Africa in 1923, a post he held until 1931. She was in no way eclipsed by him, becoming a memorable proconsul in her own right who displayed grace, sympathy, and enthusiasm in the countless public activities that accompanied the governor-generalship. The princess more than compensated for her less than average height with an unmistakably patrician presence. Stylishly dressed, she commanded respect with her aquiline features and intelligent eyes. But all was not carefree during these years. In 1910, her second son died at the age of six months, leaving a daughter born in 1906 and a son born in 1907. In 1928, Princess Alice and Prince Alexander lost their remaining son, Rupert, Viscount Trematon. Due to the hemophilia inherited from his grandfather, Prince Leopold Albert, Rupert died as the result of injuries suffered in an automobile accident. After a period of mourning, Princess Alice reentered the swirl of public life, returning to Britain in 1931 when her husband's term as governor-general ended.

At the start of World War II, Prince Alexander was called upon once more to serve as governor-general, this time of Canada. Starting in the grim year of 1940, Princess Alice served with great distinction as a hostess until this tour of duty ended in 1946. Known as an engaging conversationalist, she enjoyed recounting colorful tales of life at Windsor Castle in the days of Queen Victoria, whose mannerisms she could recall with vivid detail. Alice also remembered incidents that could not, in her mind, be forgiven. One such event was the decision of Prime Minister William Gladstone to deny a substantial royal allowance to Alice's mother in view of the fact that Alice's father had died a few days before the start of a new fiscal year. The decision left the bereaved family in a state of relative penury, and, even after a half-century or longer, Princess Alice would not forgive Gladstone for his "cruelty." During the war years, Alice and

her husband were hosts to a number of highly distinguished Allied visitors to Canada, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Alice never forgave Churchill for his behavior during the 1943 Quebec Conference, when the prime minister filled her drawing room with clouds of pungent cigar smoke.

In 1946, the couple returned to London, where they lived either in an apartment in Kensington Palace or at their country place at Brantridge Park, Sussex. Although a staunch believer in the institution of monarchy and the utility of class distinctions, Alice was, like her cousin King George V, quite free of racial prejudice. Thus, in 1950, she accepted with enthusiasm the job of chancellor of the recently created University of the West Indies. Determined to do more than serve as a figurehead, she quickly set about turning the institution—which in the early 1950s was little more than great hopes and a collection of shacks—into a major educational center for an impoverished island population seeking independence from Great Britain. The princess made numerous trips to the Caribbean, for many years traveling there not by airplane but by commercial freighters ("banana boats"). Back in Britain, she was for two decades an indefatigable and usually irresistible fundraiser for the University of the West Indies. Her advanced years, and the rise of militant politics in the Caribbean, led to her retirement as chancellor in 1971.

After the death of Prince Alexander in 1957, the princess remained active in public life, not only continuing with her educational fund-raising work, but branching out into television interviews and writing. Her 1966 memoirs, For My Grandchildren, became an unexpected bestseller in the British Isles. For decades, she was a familiar sight to Londoners as she left her apartment in the Clock House of Kensington Palace, boarding the public bus on the corner. She would often return on the same bus route carrying a shopping bag. Spry into the ninth decade of her life, it was not until she entered her 90s that the princess began to consider making concessions to her advancing years. Acceding to the wishes of friends, she started using a walking stick, though at first her strategy was to disguise it as an umbrella.

Throughout her long life, Princess Alice retained a strongly independent personality. From her earliest days, she rarely minced words. Unafraid of being ahead of public opinion, she was the first member of the royal family to speak out publicly in favor of birth control. Physically, too, she was quite fearless; in her early years, she developed an intense interest in hunting big game, and once shot a tiger as it sprang at her.

As Princess Alice grew older, she grew more eccentric but also reportedly more lovable. She worked in her garden and exchanged gossip and risqué stories with old friends, and she was popular with Queen Elizabeth II, who telephoned her often to invite her to royal events. On one occasion, Charles, Prince of Wales, her great-great-grandnephew, took her as his date to an opera party with his friends. A woman of great dignity and verve, Princess Alice died in her sleep at her London home, Kensington Palace, on January 3, 1981. The queen received the news "with great sadness," according to a representative for Buckingham Palace. She was the last of the Victorians.


Alice, Princess, Countess of Athlone. For My Grandchildren. London: Evans, 1966.

Aronson, Theo. Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. London: Cassell, 1981.

"At 94, Princess Alice Pursues a Regally Active Life," in The New York Times Biographical Service. November 1976, p. 1503.

"Princess Alice, at London Home; A Grandchild of Queen Victoria," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1981, p. 1.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Alice of Athlone (1883–1981)

Updated About content Print Article