Born Princess Helena and the third daughter of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein (1846-1923) controversially married her impoverished German Prince in 1866 despite strong opposition from the Danish-born Princess of Wales, Alexandra, who insisted the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein belonged to the country of her birth. History would thwart both princesses when Prussia invaded and annexed both territories.
Princess Helena was born and christened at Buckingham Palace. Prince Albert devised a private system of educating his royal children – male and female – with the aid of his mentor Baron Stockmar that was as rigorous as it was draconian. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Princess Helena professed herself distraught writing ‘our grief is most, most bitter…his word was a most sacred law and he was my help and advisor’.
This slightly overwrought, sentimental tone may have been a manifestation of her mother The Queen’s cult of mourning and deifying the patriarch of the family. Prince Albert never made a secret that his eldest daughter the Crown Princess Frederick was his favourite. In the year of her father’s death, Princess Helena formed a passion for Prince Albert’s German librarian Carl Rutland. When The Queen found out she sent Rutland back from whence he came and set Princess Helena to work as her secretary.
Queen Victoria’s daughters Princess Alice and Princess Louise partially escaped their mother’s influence by marrying. Princess Helena was not so fortunate. Because Prince Christian was relatively poor, a condition for the marriage was that he would come and live in England close to Queen Victoria’s court. To add insult to injury, it was Princess Beatrice the youngest sister who served as The Queen’s principal secretary. Princess Christian as she was now titled was given the less taxing tasks of deputy.
Despite being at the beck and call of Queen Victoria, Princess Christian did pursue a career in patronising worthy causes; some of which did not meet with her mother’s approval. She advocated women’s rights. was President of the Royal British Nurses’ Association and was a founder member of the Red Cross. Princess Christian was also the founding president of the Royal School of Needlework. She undertook more public duties deputising for her mother than all of her female siblings including standing in at Court Drawing Rooms at St James’s Palace.
Princess Christian was not a conventionally pretty woman but her alliance with the Prince – who was fifteen-years her senior – was apparently a happy one. They were devoted to one another and in 1916 Prince and Princess Christian were the first British royal couple to celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary. Relations between Prince Christian and Princess Alexandra always remained strained however and after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, Prince and Princess Christian were seldom welcomed to Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle or Sandringham for private family occasions.
Prince and Princess Christian lived in apartments at Buckingham Palace when in London and at Cumberland Lodge in Richmond Park whenever they had the opportunity to escape official duties. In Queen Victoria’s diaries, she refers to Princess Christian’s hypochondria. It later transpired that the Princess never enjoyed robust health and allegedly took opium and laudanum for chronic arthritis. Perhaps this contributed to her devotion to the nursing profession. When Princess Alexandra became queen she dealt Princess Christian the cruellest blow by insisting on replacing her as the patron of the Royal British Nurses’ Association.
Prince Christian died in 1917, a year after Kaiser Wilhelm II (with whom Britain was at war) had sent a telegram of congratulations to he and the Princess for their Golden Wedding anniversary. Despite repeated attempts to evict the widowed Princess Christian, she lived on at Cumberland Lodge and in Schomberg House on Pall Mall (a magnificent Carolean mansion whose façade still stands). Princess Christian is buried in the Royal Mausoleum in Frogmore on the Windsor estate.