Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, later Victoria Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven (Victoria Alberta Elisabeth Mathilde Marie; 5 April 1863 – 24 September 1950) was the eldest daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine (1837–1892) and his first wife Princess Alice of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1843–1878).
Her mother died while her brother and sisters were still young, which placed her in an early position of responsibility over her siblings. She married her father's first cousin, Prince Louis of Battenberg, an officer in the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, in a love match and lived most of her married life in various parts of Europe at her husband's naval posts and visiting her many royal relations.
During World War I, she and her husband abandoned their German titles and adopted the British-sounding surname of Mountbatten, which was simply a translation into English of the German "Battenberg", and two of her sisters who had married into the Russian royal family were murdered by communist revolutionaries. She was perceived by her family as liberal in outlook, straightforward, practical and bright.
During the Prussian invasion of Hesse in June 1866, she was sent to England, along with her sister Ella, to live with her grandmother until hostilities were ended by the absorption of Hesse-Kassel (or Hesse-Cassel) and parts of Hesse-Darmstadt into Prussia. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she remembered the military hospitals set up in the palace grounds, helping in the soup kitchens with her mother, being burned on the arm by hot soup, and the intense cold of the winter. In 1872, Victoria's eighteen-month-old brother, 'Frittie' was diagnosed with haemophilia. The diagnosis came as a shock to the royal families of Europe; it had been twenty years since Queen Victoria had given birth to her haemophiliac son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, and it was the first indication that the bleeding disorder in the royal family was hereditary. The following year, 'Frittie' fell from a window onto stone steps and died. It was the first of many family tragedies to beset Victoria.
In 1878, Victoria contracted diphtheria. Ella was swiftly moved out of their room; she was the only member of the family to escape the disease. For days her mother nursed Victoria and the other members of the family; Victoria's sister, Marie, died. Just as the family seemed to have recovered, Victoria's mother fell ill. She died on 14 December, the anniversary of Prince Albert's death. As the eldest child, Victoria partly assumed the role of mother to the younger children and of companion to her father. She later wrote, "My mother's death was an irreparable loss ... My childhood ended with her death, for I became the eldest and most responsible.
After a brief postponement because of the death of the Duke of Albany, Victoria married Prince Louis on 30 April 1884 at Darmstadt. Her father did not approve of the match; in his view Prince Louis had little money, and would deprive him of his daughter's company, as the couple would naturally live abroad in Britain. However, Victoria was of an independent mind and took little notice of her father's displeasure. Remarkably, Victoria's father secretly married the same evening his untitled mistress, Alexandrine de Kolemine, the former wife of the Russian chargé d'affaires in Darmstadt. His marriage to a divorced commoner shocked the assembled royalty of Europe and through diplomatic and family pressure Victoria's father was forced to seek an annulment of his own marriage.
Over the next few years, Victoria had four children:
|Alice||25 February 1885||5 December 1969||Married 1903, to Prince Andrew of Greece; had issue. Mother of the Duke of Edinburgh.|
|Louise||13 July 1889||2 March 1965||Married 1923, to King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden (making this his second marriage); one stillborn daughter.|
|George||6 November 1892||8 April 1938||Married 1916, to Countess Nadejda Mikhailovna de Torby; had issue.|
|Louis||25 June 1900||27 August 1979||Married 1922, to Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley; had issue.|
They lived in a succession of houses at Chichester, Sussex, Walton-on-Thames, and Schloss Heiligenberg, Jugenheim. When Prince Louis was serving with the Mediterranean fleet, she spent some winters in Malta. In 1887, she contracted typhoid but, after being nursed through her illness by her husband, was sufficiently recovered by June to attend Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee celebrations in London. She was interested in science and drew a detailed geological map of Malta and also participated in archaeological digs both there and in Germany. In leather-bound volumes she kept meticulous records of books she had read, which reveal a wide range of interests, including socialist philosophy.
She personally taught her own children and exposed them to new ideas and inventions. She gave lessons to her younger son, Louis, until he was ten years of age. He said of her in 1968 that she was "a walking encyclopedia. All through her life she stored up knowledge on all sorts of subjects, and she had the great gift of being able to make it all interesting when she taught it to me. She was completely methodical; we had time-tables for each subject, and I had to do preparation, and so forth. She taught me to enjoy working hard, and to be thorough. She was outspoken and open-minded to a degree quite unusual in members of the Royal Family. And she was also entirely free from prejudice about politics or colour and things of that kind.
In 1906, she flew in a Zeppelin airship, and even more daringly later flew in a biplane even though it was "not made to carry passengers, and we perched securely attached on a little stool holding on to the flyer's back. Up until 1914, Victoria regularly visited her relatives abroad in both Germany and Russia, including her two sisters who had married into the Russian royal family: Ella, who had married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, and Alix, who had married the Tsar, Nicholas II of Russia. Victoria was one of Alix's relatives who tried to persuade her away from the influence of Rasputin. On the outbreak of war between Germany and Britain in 1914, Victoria and her daughter, Louise, were in Russia at Yekaterinburg. By train and steamer, they travelled to St Petersburg and from there through Tornio to Stockholm. They sailed from Bergen, Norway, on "the last ship" back to Britain.
Prince Louis was forced to resign from the navy at the start of the war when his German origins became an embarrassment, and the couple retired for the war years to Kent House on the Isle of Wight, which Victoria had been given by her aunt Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. Victoria blamed her husband's forced resignation on the Government "who few greatly respect or trust". She distrusted the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, because she thought him unreliable—he had once borrowed a book and failed to return it. Continued public hostility to Germany led King George V of the United Kingdom to renounce his German titles, and at the same time on 14 July 1917 Prince Louis and Victoria renounced theirs, assuming an anglicised version of Battenberg—Mountbatten—as their surname. Three days later Louis was re-enobled by the King as Marquess of Milford Haven. During the war, Victoria's two sisters, Alix, Tsarina of Russia and Ella, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia, were murdered in the Russian revolution, and her brother, Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse, was deposed. On her last visit to Russia in 1914, Victoria had driven past the very house in Yekaterinburg where her sister, Alix, was murdered. Alix's body was never recovered during Victoria's lifetime, but eventually, in January 1921, after a long and convoluted journey, the body of her sister, Ella, was interred in Jerusalem in Victoria's presence.
Later that year, Victoria's husband died in London. After meeting her at the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly, he complained of feeling unwell and Victoria persuaded him to rest in a room they had booked in the club annexe. She called a doctor, who prescribed some medication and Victoria went out to fill the prescription at a nearby pharmacist's. When she came back, Louis was dead. On her widowhood, three years after the end of the war, Victoria moved into a grace-and-favour residence at Kensington Palace and, in the words of her biographer, "became a central matriarchal figure in the lives of Europe's surviving royalty". In 1930, her eldest daughter, Alice, suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed as schizophrenic. In the following decade Victoria was largely responsible for her grandson Philip's education and upbringing during his parents' separation and his mother's institutionalisation. Prince Philip recalled, "I liked my grandmother very much and she was always helpful. She was very good with children ... she took the practical approach to them. She treated them in the right way – the right combination of the rational and the emotional.
In 1937, Victoria's brother, Ernest Louis, died and soon afterwards her widowed sister-in-law, nephew, granddaughter and two of her great-grandchildren all died in an air crash at Ostend. Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark, had married Victoria's nephew (Ernest Louis's son), George Donatus of Hesse. They and their two young sons, Louis and Alexander, were all killed. Cecilie was pregnant at the time and the stillborn child was found among the remains. Cecilie's youngest child, Johanna, who was not on the plane, was adopted by her uncle Prince Louis of Hesse and by Rhine but the little girl only survived her parents and older brothers by eighteen months, dying in 1939 of meningitis.
Further tragedy soon followed when Victoria's son, George, died of bone cancer the following year. Her granddaughter, Lady Pamela Hicks, remembered her grandmother's tears. In World War II Victoria was bombed out of Kensington Palace, and spent some time at Windsor Castle with King George VI. Her surviving son, Louis, and two of her grandsons served in the Royal Navy, while her German relations fought with the opposing forces. She spent most of her time reading and worrying about her children; her daughter, Alice, remained in occupied Greece and was unable to communicate with her mother for 4 years at the height of the war. After the Allied victory, her son, Louis, was offered the post of Viceroy of India, but she was deeply opposed to his accepting, knowing that the position would be dangerous and difficult. He accepted anyway.
She fell ill with bronchitis (she had smoked since the age of sixteen) at her son Louis's home at Broadlands, Hampshire in the summer of 1950. Saying "it is better to die at home", Victoria moved back to Kensington Palace, where she died. She was buried four days later in the grounds of St. Mildred's Church, Whippingham on the Isle of Wight.
With the help of her lady-in-waiting, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Victoria wrote an unpublished memoir, held in the Mountbatten archive at the University of Southampton, which remains an interesting source for royal historians. A selection of Queen Victoria's letters to Victoria have been published with a commentary by Richard Hough and an introduction by Victoria's granddaughter, Patricia Mountbatten.
Victoria's son remembered her fondly: "My mother was very quick on the uptake, very talkative, very aggressive and argumentative. With her marvellous brain she sharpened people's wits". Her granddaughter thought her "formidable, but never intimidating ... a supremely honest woman, full of commonsense and modesty. Victoria wrote her own typically forthright epitaph at the end of her life in letters to and conversation with her son: "What will live in history is the good work done by the individual & that has nothing to do with rank or title ... I never thought I would be known only as your mother. You're so well known now and no one knows about me, and I don't want them to.