When Peter Morgan was plotting the Crown’s third season, he pored over the real-life events, characters, and cultural milestones that affected the British monarchy between 1964 and 1977. Amidst the reams of research sprung one fascinating character “beyond what any scriptwriter could come up with”—Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg.
An eccentric and mysterious royal, Alice was born inside Windsor Castle into unfathomable privilege. A great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece in 1903 and was lavished with gifts from foreign dignitaries—most notably receiving a present from the czar and czarina of Russia that would be worth roughly over $14 million if adjusted for today’s inflation. (The gift was reportedly a tiara, which was dismantled by Prince Philip and a jeweler to make Queen Elizabeth II’s engagement ring.) But the wedding marked the height of her life’s extravagance. “In the course of her life, virtually every point of stability was overthrown,” wrote biographer Hugo Vickers.
The following decade, Alice and her husband were forced into exile after the Greek royal family was deposed in 1917. The couple had five children—four of whom were daughters. Alice, “indignant at her husband’s treatment, vowed that their son, Philip, would never receive the same treatment, and he was sent to school in England,” the New York Times reported. In 1930, the princess reportedly suffered a religious crisis that caused her to be separated from her family—including Philip, who was not yet 10, and placed in a sanatorium in Switzerland. The princess was diagnosed with schizophrenia and reportedly exposed to primitive medical treatments, including having her ovaries X-rayed as a means to end her libido. The princess reportedly did not reunite with Philip until 1937, at the funeral of her daughter—and Philip’s sister—Cecilie, who died with her husband and two children in an air accident. (The tragedy was referenced in the Crown’s season two episode “Paterfamilias.”)
After she was released, per the New York Times, the princess “founded the monastic society of Martha and Mary, which aimed at training sisters to take care of poor children and the sick. As Mother-Superior Alice-Elizabeth, she raised funds to buy two houses, one to house convalescents and the other to train nurses.” When World War II began, the princess returned to Greece to work for the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross. But the war divided her family—three of her daughters married prominent Nazi supporters, while her son, Philip, fought in the British Royal Navy. The princess herself sheltered persecuted Jews in her Athens home during the Holocaust, and was posthumously honored with the Righteous Among the Nations.
In 1967, she moved into Buckingham Palace with Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, as depicted in The Crown’s episode “Bubbikins.” When Alice died in 1969, she had reportedly given away all of her possessions. A note that she left to her son read, “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.”
Peter Morgan said he was astonished by Princess Alice’s life. “We know that she was a nun, that she set up her own religious order, and either she sold her own precious, as it were, jewelry and royal mementos, to fund this convent in Athens. Then she came to stay at Buckingham Palace. There were rumors and anecdotes about the Buckingham Palace corridor smelling of Woodbine—a brand of tobacco, which is really associated with working-class men. It turns out that the tobacco she smoked was from all the British servicemen that she had nursed as a nun in the war. She’s been deaf since infancy and fell into a depression.” Marveling at her story, Morgan said, “She’s just the most extraordinary character.”
Season three’s episode “Bubbikins” pairs Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) with her granddaughter Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) as unlikely conspirators, navigating the palace as the royal family films an ill-advised documentary. In brainstorming Alice and Anne’s unlikely pairing, Morgan said he thought to himself, “Well, who else is tucked away as an unrecognized royal asset in the family? It’s Princess Anne, so I thought there’s a natural sympathy and an alliance between the grandmother and granddaughter. I felt like it was the right episode to introduce Anne in.” As for whether the princesses had a bond as close as the one depicted in The Crown, Morgan admitted, “The degree of the closeness, I think, is what I would call taking license or working with the imagination. I think all the dots that I’m joining together with my fiction are based in absolute solid fact and accuracy and truth.”
Last year, the late Princess Alice received another kind of homage when Prince William ended his tour of the Middle East by visiting his great-grandmother’s tomb in east Jerusalem.
“I am glad Prince William is learning about this remarkable figure because she really exemplified the best qualities of a princess, which is to look after your people in difficult times,” Vickers said at the time. “She had no money and nearly starved to death in World War II. She is the one who should be made a saint.”
In 1994, when the princess was posthumously honored with the Righteous Among the Nations, Prince Philip said said of his mother, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress.”
More Great Stories About The Crown and Royalty From Vanity Fair
— Margaret and Lord Snowdon’s doomed romance
— When the Queen met Jackie and JFK
— Prince Philip’s rumored affair with a Russian ballerina
— The scandal that rocked Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage
— Take a look at the “less sexy, more studied” season ahead
— From the Archive: Why happily ever after was never in the cards for Princess Margaret
— From the Archive: How Charles and Camilla got together at last
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