With royal succession in the news, I find myself reminded of the life of Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest child. Princess Beatrice was born in the middle of the 19th century, commonly regarded as the Victorian Age because of the towering presence of Queen Victoria who reigned for nearly 64 years, from 1837 to 1901.
Most heads of the surviving royal families of Europe are descended from Victoria and her husband Albert whom she married in 1840. This was a deliberate policy, supported and encouraged by the Queen; she thought, falsely as it turned out, that a Europe linked by royal households related to one another would be a Europe less likely to go to war. As a consequence inherited diseases such as haemophilia were passed from cousin to cousin, who from Spain in the west to Russia in the east took to their sick beds or expired. And in 1914 the cousins and the countries they ruled went to war. But this was all in the future when Victoria married Albert. Together they produced nine children before Albert, worn out and plagued by typhoid, died on 14 December 1861.
Their nine children were Victoria (the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany), Edward or Bertie (who became King Edward VII), Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice. I have long been interested in Princess Beatrice, the youngest child, the daughter who was expected to stay alongside her grieving mother in the bleak years after the death of Albert, who was expected to have no life of her own, but who, in the end, did stage a minor rebellion, and married a German prince and established her own dynasty.
Beatrice Mary Victoria Feodore was born on 14 April 1857 as sepoys employed by the East India Company prepared to mutiny in India. She died in October 1944 as German flying bombs and rockets fell on London. She lived through a lot, but for her first 28 years her life was dominated by her mother, the Queen Empress, and, more particularly, by a court which rejected any diminution of the grief felt by the monarch (and her children, but especially by the Queen) occasioned by the death of the Prince Consort, whose bed sheets were changed daily as if he was still alive.
Victoria wanted a daughter who was stolid and reliable, who was happy to stay at home looking after her mother, who was not interested in racy novels and other distractions, and who did not care for marriage and raising her own family. In the 19th century marriage was, for rich and poor alike, often the only way a woman could establish her independence. Then in 1884 Beatrice met Prince Henry of Battenberg who, with his drooping moustaches and glittering uniform, was admired by many. Beatrice fell for him and, amazingly, Henry fell for dull old Beatrice and after surmounting the fierce opposition of the Queen they married in 1885. The couple had four children: Alexander (who later became the Marquis of Carisbrooke), Victoria Eugenie (known as Ena, who later became the Queen of Spain), Leopold and Maurice. Queen Victoria grew to be very fond of her Battenberg son-in-law, and she was not reluctant to declare that Beatrice’s and Henry’s four children were her favourite grandchildren (and she had many of them).
Henry, however, grew restive in the restrictive atmosphere of Osborne House, Windsor Castle and Balmoral. Beatrice continued to act as her mother’s secretary; being married had not changed her duties and obligations as far as her mother was concerned. Henry was left with little to do, or so he felt. Eventually the Queen and Princess allowed him to join a British expedition to Ashanti Land in West Africa in 1896, one of Victoria’s now largely forgotten ‘little wars’. A bad decision as it turned out, as Henry caught malaria and died, rather ingloriously, on the boat going back to England. His body was pickled and brought back home. After a grand and solemn funeral the body was laid to rest in St Mildred’s Churchyard, on the Isle of Wight.
Beatrice was naturally very upset. Before the age of 40 she had become, like her mother, a young widow. Five years later, on 22 January 1901, her mother Queen Victoria died. The Victorian Age had lasted for so long that courtiers had to search high and low to find anyone who had a personal recollection of the last coronation, that of King William IV in 1831. After Victoria’s death Beatrice became chiefly responsible for editing her mother’s letters and journals, giving herself the right to bowdlerise the correspondence, removing material which might prove embarrassing to the Royal Family, or which might call into question the carefully nurtured image of Victoria that had been cultivated by Beatrice and her siblings and sycophantically inclined journalists and biographers.
As a mere sister of the new King (Edward VII) Beatrice was relegated in the royal pecking order. Bereft of her husband and mother, Beatrice still had a growing family to care for. But her family life did not remain free from tragedy and trauma. In 1906 Ena, then aged 18, married King Alfonso of Spain. Alfonso had been born King in 1886, as his father had died while his mother was expecting. When he was born the midwives cut the cord and curtseyed at the same time. Alfonso’s marriage to Ena was controversial in Spain and in Britain, as it necessitated Ena abandoning the Church of England, and embracing Roman Catholicism. Not really surprising when Ena was on the verge of marrying ‘His Most Catholic Majesty’. The wedding went ahead, in spite of the objections of Protestants, but the marriage almost became one of the shortest on record. As the wedding party, together with horses and carriages, made its way back to the Royal Palace in Madrid from the church where the wedding had taken place, an anarchist threw a bomb at the carriage containing the newly married couple. The couple survived but emerged covered with the blood of dead and wounded soldiers and passers-by and horses. Ena reacted with a calmness some found rather unnerving but she was horrified when, a short time afterwards, her husband started to dunk his sandwiches in his tea during the wedding breakfast. Delayed reaction perhaps, but the marriage was doomed to be an unhappy union. Ena became the grandmother of the present King of Spain.
Further tragedy followed in 1914 when, following the declaration of war against Germany, all three of Beatrice’s sons joined the British Army. Maurice, Beatrice’s youngest son and Queen Victoria’s youngest grandchild, was commissioned into the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, but he was killed in action near Ypres on 27 October 1914. Soon afterwards two cousins, once or twice removed, were killed fighting on the German side. Queen Victoria’s dream of a Europe united by the blood ties of its royal households was being rapidly dismantled, as the fighting continued. And in 1922 Prince Leopold died. Leopold had inherited the haemophilia which had led to the early demise of his uncle, also called Prince Leopold. Like his uncle he was weakly and lived in the ‘shadow of death’; he served in the army during the Great War but was never allowed to serve near the Front Line. Beatrice lived on until 1944, seen by some as a relic of the Victorian era.
Researchers interested in Princess Beatrice and her family should be directed to the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle. But there are also many documents at The National Archives, searchable via Discovery, which researchers may decide to consult. There are many photographs of the Princess in COPY 1, sometimes accompanied by her husband and one or more of her children. Congratulatory messages to Beatrice and Henry, on the occasion of their marriage in 1885, are in HO 45. Papers relating to her funeral, and papers concerning proposed alterations to her bedroom at Kensington Palace, are in HO 144. Records relating to the attempted assassination of Queen Ena and King Alfonso, and relating also to Ena’s predicament after Spain became a republic in 1931, are in HO 144 and FO 371. Prince Leopold’s record of service is in WO 339/8686. Princes Alexander, Leopold and Maurice are all on the First World War campaign medal. There is a photograph of Prince Maurice, and a long and detailed obituary, in the Roll of Honour kept in the Library at The National Archives.
Numerous books have been written about Princess Beatrice. The most recent biography ‘The last Princess’, subtitled ‘The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria’s Youngest Daughter’, by Matthew Dennison (Weidenfield & Nicholson) is a comprehensive account of her life.