Day in History: 130 years since the birth of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

Since Prince Philip became the oldest-ever British male royal yesterday, it is only appropriate we shall dedicate a post to a woman who was the longest-lived British Princess by blood.

Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone

At her death, Princess Alice was 97 years and 313 days old. Apart from being oldest British Princess by blood, she was also the last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria. The Princess had lived through six reigns: born during the reign of her grandmother, Queen Victoria, she also saw five other Monarchs – Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, and Elizabeth II – on the Throne.

Princess Alice was born on 25 February 1883 as the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, and Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont. Her father was the youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which meant that as male-line granddaughter of the Monarch, Alice was Princess of the United Kingdom from birth.

Alice was baptised in the Private Chapel of Windsor Castle with illustrious individuals as her godparents: Queen Victoria, Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (the German Empress), Victoria, Princess Royal (future German Empress), Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel (the Duchess of Cambridge, and maternal grandmother of Mary of Teck), Princess Helena of Nassau, Princess Pauline of Waldeck and Pyrmont (future Princess of Bentheim and Steinfurt), The Prince of Wales (future Edward VII), King William III of the Netherlands, Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse, and Prince Wilhelm of Wurttemberg (future Wilhelm II).

On 16 November 1903, it was announced that Princess Alice would marry her cousin, His Serene Highness Prince Alexander of Teck, the son of the Duke and Duchess of Teck and great-grandson of George III. The couple married at St. George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle on February 10 of the following year. The couple had three children: May (born 1906), Rupert (born 1907), and Maurice (born 1910). Their youngest son died in infancy, while Rupert would tragically died in a car accident aged just 21 in 1928. May married Henry Abel Smith (later Governor of Queensland) with whom she lived happily for 60 years; they had three children together – Anne, Richard and Elizabeth (all married with issue).

Princess Alice with her children May and Rupert

Princess Alice with her children May and Rupert

Although Prince Alexander was essentially a German Prince (the Duchy of Teck being in Germany), both his and Alice’s loyalty was firmly on the British side during World War I. Alexander was nominated by British Prime Minister of the time, Herbert Asquith, to become the Governor General of Canada; Alexander, however, declined the honour when he was called up for active service with his regiment. The Prince distinguished himself on the battlefields, for which he was later appointed as a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by his brother-in-law, King George V. Alice, who lived in London and Windsor for the duration of the war, devoted herself to charities and helping refugees.

Meanwhile, there was also a change in the couple’s titles. Because of anti-German sentiments, George V issued a Royal Warrant on 14 July 1917, renouncing all foreign titles for himself and all members of the British Royal Family. Although not tied by that warrant (as a member of the extended family), Alexander voluntarily relinquished all of his German styles and titles, becoming just Sir Alexander Cambridge (Cambridge was the title of his grandfather the Duke of Cambridge,  and “Sir” is the automatic honorific of a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order). That meant the couple’s surviving children lost their Princely styles and titles, becoming just Lady May and Lord Rupert. Alice, however, remained a British Princess as a male-line granddaughter of a Monarch (Queen Victoria). Soon after Alexander renounced his foreign styles, titles and honours, George V created him Earl of Athlone (reportedly, the King offered him a Marquessate but Alexander thought “Earl” sounded more English than “Marquise”).

After the end of the war, the Earl of Athlone was appointed a Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, serving in the position from 1924 to 1931. Princess Alice thus became Vicereine of South Africa and accompanied her husband to Cape Town. It was there Alice got acquainted with and became lifelong friend of the notable South African politician Bernhard Friedman, the co-founder of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party.

The Earl and Countess of Athlone

The Earl and Countess of Athlone

The Earl of Athlone’s next appointment came in times of Word War II: in 1940, the hugely popular John Buchan (Canada’s Governor General since 1935) died, leaving the country without a Governor General in the middle of a war. The Monarchy had a huge popularity boost after the Royal Tour of 1939, so it was felt appropriate that Queen Mary’s brother should become the country’s new Governor General.  Alice became a Vicereine for the second time, now of Canada.

Alice and Alexander supported the war effort to the best of their abilities. The Earl saw his position of Governor General as that of an essential link between the two countries (Canada and Britain); in his many speeches he empathised that they were united in their fight against the common enemy, and that the King stood with them in times of trouble. The Vicereine, meanwhile, devoted her efforts to humanitarian efforts and boosting morale among the servicemen  The Vicereine also played hostess to two historic meetings between Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt: the first was in August of 1943 and the second in September of 1944.

After the end of the war, the Earl and Countess of Athlone returned to Britain. While the Earl largely retired from public life,  Princess Alice continued carrying out royal duties on behalf of the Monarchy. The Earl of Athlone died in 1957; his  wife outlived him by nearly 25 years. Alice died 3 January 1981. Her funeral, which took place in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, was attended by all senior members of the Royal Family.


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