150th Anniversary of Helena, Duchess of Albany’s Birth

  February 17, 2011 at 12:00 am by

Princess Helena as a young girl

February 17th marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversay of Helena, Duchess of Albany’s birth.

Born Helena Frederica Augusta in 1861 in the capital of Waldeck, Arolsen; Princess Helena was the fifth child and daughter of the reigning Prince of Waldeck-Pyrmont, George Victor, and his wife, Princess Helena (nee, Princess of Nassau). The Princess had seven siblings, six from her parents’ marriage and one from her father’s second marriage to Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg: Princess Sophie, Princess Pauline (The Princess of Bentheim and Steinfurt), Princess Marie (The Crown Princess of Württemberg), Princess Emma (The Queen of the Netherlands), Prince Friedrich (4th Sovereign Prince of Waldeck-Pyrmont), Princess Elisabeth (The Princess of Erbach-Schönberg) and Prince Wolrad.

In unusual precedent for a German princess of her times, Princess Helena received an education to such an extent that her intelligence was later complimented and respected by her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. The Princess’ siblings were also well educated, as was confirmed by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, the Princess’ niece, in her autobiography. The Waldeck-Pyrmont children’s education was largely thanks to their parents’ own intellectual abilities. Helena deeply enjoyed mathematics and philosophy, interests which she carried with her during her life. In another unusual instance, Prince George Victor appointed his daughter to the position of Superintendent of the Waldeck-Pyrmont principality’s infant schools.

Prince Leopold and Princess Helena in late 1881

As she reached a suitable age to be married, Princess Helena, along with two of her sisters, Emma and Pauline, was considered as a second bride for the ageing King of the Netherlands, Willem III. Princess Emma, Helena’s senior by three years, married the King in 1879. Two years later, it was arranged by Princess Helena the Elder and Queen Victoria for their children to meet, with the hopes that a marriage could be arranged. Princess Helena, then aged 20, met Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, then aged 28, soon after. The Duke, the youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had been seeking a bride for several years, but had been rejected time and time again because of his haemophilia. Queen Victoria wanted Leopold to find a suitable, Protestant wife – preferably German – and thought Princess Helena to be a good match for her son, “even though the girl was reputed to be [too] clever.” The couple were engaged by November 1881.

Princess Helena as a bride in 1882

Princess Helena and Prince Leopold were married on April 27th, 1982 at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Helena took on her husband’s title and become Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Albany. Their marriage has the distinction of being the only marriage of Queen Victoria’s children which did not come under any criticism – there was no opposition to the union, other relatives and courts did not scoff at the choice of spouse, nor did the English public disapprove. Following their wedding, the Duke and Duchess lived at Claremont House in Surrey, a wedding gift from the groom’s mother.

Leopold, baby Alice and Helena

In February 1883, two months before their first wedding anniversary, Helena and Leopold became the proud parents of a baby girl – Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline, born on February 25th at Windsor Castle. The infant was christened a month later in Windsor Castle’s Private Chapel, with an array of royal godparents, including three monarchs and three consorts. Prior to and after the birth of Princess Alice, the Duke introduced his wife to his university friends – an assortment of academics who stimulated Helena’s intellect and became life-long friends of hers.

The following year, tragedy struck the Albanys during a time which should have been one of the happiest in their lives. The Duke was sent, on doctor’s orders, to stay in Cannes, France in February 1884. This was in an attempt to alleviate the joint pain he suffered each English winter, caused by his haemophilia. Prince Leopold slipped down a flight of stairs in his hotel on March 27th, and passed away early the following from the effects of the morphine he was given to help his injured knee. Princess Helena was left a widow at 23, with a 13-month old child, five months into her second pregnancy.

The Duchess and her two children, December 1884

The Duchess gave birth to a son, Charles Edward George Albert Leopold, on July 19th, 1884 at Claremont House. The baby immediately inherited his deceased father’s titles and became The Duke of Albany. He was privately christened two weeks after his birth at Claremont, before a public ceremony at Esher Parish Church in December, once again with an assortment of godparents (although not as many or as distinguished as his sister). The family of three continued to live at Claremont House for the remainder of the twentieth century and into the first years of the twenty-first, with Helena prompting her children to always act dutifully and obediently, as to “bring no shame on Papa’s name.”

Princess Helena went the opposite route to her mother-in-law in her years of widowhood. She continued with her charity work, establishing the Deptford Fund in 1894, to assist in finding alternate employment for women who worked in the cattle slaughtering trade (at the time, a dangerous occupation). She was to continue her charity work, mainly involved with hospitals, sponsoring auctions and bazaars to raise funds, until her death.

The Duchess in the late 1890s

Queen Victoria grew to respect her youngest daughter-in-law, even more so after the death of Prince Leopold. The Queen “could not but respect this young woman who had the courage to stand up to her,” as was described of their relationship in John Van Der Kiste’s Queen Victoria’s Children. Helena was unlike the Queen’s own children in the fact that she insisted on confronting the Queen directly, face-to-face, if she took issue with something. Helena’s brothers and sisters-in-law (and occasionally, their respective spouses) all wrote letters to their mother, describing their problems or grievances. One such incident was the Queen’s choosing of her daughter-in-law’s ladies-in-waiting. The Duchess went directly to Queen Victoria, imploring that she should have a say in who was chosen as her attendants. Queen Victoria agreed with her.

In February 1899, Princess Helena’s nephew, the Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the only son of Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, passed away after shooting himself with a revolver. By 1900, heated debate regarding the succession to the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was getting hotter. Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught was technically the heir to the duchy following his elder brother. However, he made it clear he did not wish to relieve himself of his naval career and move to Germany. The next in line therefore was Prince Leopold’s son – sixteen year old Prince Charles Edward. Helena accompanied her son to Germany, staying for a short while to help him settle in before returning to England and her daughter. Shortly after, Charles Edward succeeded the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha throne after the death of his uncle.

The Duchess in her later years

The First World War fourteen years later saw mother and son on opposing sides – Helena was still a British Princess, while Charles Edward had been a German Duke for nine years and eventually chose to side with the German forces. His cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom, removed his Knight of the Garter appointment in 1915; and under the Titles Deprivation Act of 1917, Duke Charles Edward was stripped of all his British titles, and both he and his children lost their rights to be Princes and Princesses of the United Kingdom in 1919.

Even though her late husband was a son of the British monarch, the Albanys were not overly wealthy. Following Prince Leopold’s death, Helena’s dispensation as his widow was cut down to £6500, from the £25000 annual income Leopold had received while he was alive. After 1901, and the accession of her brother-in-law as King Edward VII, it was reported by the London media that they quarrelled over money due to her as his widow.

The Duchess of Albany was visiting her son, now the deposed Duke, at Hinterriss in Tyrol, Austria in the summer-autumn of 1922; when she suffered a heart attack on September 1st and passed away, aged 61. As per her wishes to be buried where she died, the Duchess was buried near the Chapel at Hinterriss. She outlived her husband by thirty-eight years.

The marriage between Princess Helena and Prince Leopold produced two children, eight grandchildren and twenty-one great-grandchildren, including the current King of Sweden:

  • Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone’s three children: Lady May Abel Smith (1906-1994), Rupert Cambridge, Viscount Trematon (1907-1928) and Prince Maurice of Teck (March-September 1910). Lady May Abel Smith was the only one of the Princess’ three children to have offspring – Anne Abel Smith, Col. Richard Abel Smith and Elizabeth Abel Smith.
  • Duke Carl Edward of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’s five children: Johann Leopold, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1906-1972), Princess Sibylla of Sweden (1908-1972), Prince Hubertus (1909-1943), Princess Caroline Mathilde (1912-1983) and Prince Friedrich Josias (1918-1998). Prince Johann Leopold had three children, Princess Caroline and Princes Ernst Leopold and Peter. Princess Sibylla had five children, Princesses Margaretha, Birgitta, Désirée and Christina and King Carl XVI Gustaf. Princess Caroline Mathilde had six children, Counts Bertram and Conradin and Countess Viktoria Adelheid of Castell-Rüdenhausen, and Calma, Dagmar and Peter Schnirring. Prince Friedrich Josias had four children, Princes Andreas and Adrian, and Princesses Claudia and Beatrice Charlotte.

Click here to view the thread about Helena, Duchess of Albany at TRF.

Filed under British Royals, German Royals, Historical Royals
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2 Responses to 150th Anniversary of Helena, Duchess of Albany’s Birth

  1. Quite a moving article. In her busy life she found the time to open my school (now Whitby Community College ) which is celebrating it’s centenary celebration this year.
    The actual date of opening was 25th September 1912.

  2. Pamela Waldock says:

    I find this very interesting as my husband is a direct descendant somewhere along the line to the Waldecks of Germany.
    Never the less I am interested as are my 2 Grandchildren, my Grand daughter has an amazing likeness to Princess Helena, particularly the side on photo of the Princess on her Wedding day. I am going to take a photo of my Granddaughter and put it in the same frame as the one I have printed of Princess Helena.
    She may have inhereited the likeness but certainly we did not inherite any wealth,, what a shame. lol.

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