The fascinating and tragic story of the women who shaped Prince Philip

The tragic women who shaped Prince Philip: A mother who fled revolution and became a nun, a Nazi sister who named her son after Hitler and a plane crash that ‘profoundly shocked’ the schoolboy prince

  • Duke of Edinburgh, who has died aged 99, was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice
  • His mother Princess Alice of Battenberg was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, meaning Philip was a distant relation of the British royal family
  • Prince Philip was the youngest of five siblings and had four older sisters 
  • Three of the four sisters married German aristocrats who became Nazis

The story of the Duke of Edinburgh’s family is as fascinating as it is tragic. 

Born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, Philip – who passed away peacefully at Windsor Castle this morning aged 99 – was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his wife, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who welcomed her son on the dining table of a villa in Corfu. 

Shortly after Prince Philip’s arrival, the royal family were exiled and, aged just 18 months, the future Duke of Edinburgh was bundled into a makeshift cot – an orange crate – as the family escaped on a British warship. 

Owing to his age, and status as the only son, Philip grew up apart from his sisters, three of whom – Margarita, Cecilie and Sophie – married German aristocrats who became members of the Nazi party. 

Indeed his youngest sister Sophie and her husband Prince Christoph of Hesse were so well regarded they joined Hitler for private lunches and even named their first son in his honour.

Only son: Born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, Philip was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his wife, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who welcomed her son on the dining table of a villa in Corfu. Pictured, Philip and his mother in 1960

Four daughters: Prince Philip was raised separately from his four older sisters, pictured left-right: Sophia, Margarita, Cecilie, known as Cecile, and Theodora. The girls are pictured ahead of the 1922 wedding of Louis Mountbatten and Edwina Ashley, where they were bridesmaids

Royal ties: Princess Alice was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. It means Prince Philip and the Queen were distantly related through their great-great-grandmother

When Prince Philip’s third sister Princess Cecile, then eight months pregnant with her fourth child, was killed in a plane crash in 1937 alongside her family, relatives donned distinctive Nazi uniforms for the funeral. 

Philip broke a 60-year public silence about his family’s Nazi ties in 2006, saying that, like many Germans, they found Hitler’s early attempts to restore Germany’s power and prestige ‘attractive’ but stressed he was never ‘conscious of anybody in the family actually expressing anti-Semitic views’.

Prince Philip’s family 

Born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, Philip was the fifth child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his wife, Princess Alice of Battenberg. He survived his sisters: 

  • Princess Margarita (1905-1981)
  • Princess Theodora (1906–1969)
  • Princess Cecilie (1911- 1937)
  • Princess Sophie (1914-2001)

Philip’s opposition to the Nazis has never been in doubt. He fought valiantly for Britain during the war, seeing action in the Battle of Crete, the Battle of Cape Matapan in Greece and the Allied invasion of Sicily.

However there were questions about his German blood when he and the Queen first met and, unsurprisingly, none of Prince Philip’s sisters were invited to the Queen’s wedding in 1947. 

The German connection was still too shaming, only two years after the end of the war.

The siblings’ mother Princess Alice was largely absent from Prince Philip’s childhood.

She survived revolution and exile, mental breakdown and religious mania, evincing great personal courage to protect a Jewish family during the war – before turning her back on the trappings of royal life to become a nun.

Alice was a loving mother but enforced separation from her young son helped to forge Prince Philip’s self-reliant, sometimes cussedly independent spirit.

Here, a closer look at the women who shaped Prince Philip’s early life…  

His mother, Princess Alice: Queen Victoria’s Greek great-granddaughter born at Windsor Castle who survived revolution, exile and an asylum before becoming a nun

Newlyweds: In 1902, at the Coronation of King Edward VII, Princess Alice fell head over heels in love with Prince Andrew, a younger son of the King of Greece. Pictured, the couple in 1903

Elegant: Alice was congenitally deaf but she could speak clearly. Photographs show how beautiful she was, with her upswept hair and lace gowns. Pictured, circa. 1945

Absent but loving: Alice was a loving mother but enforced separation from her young son helped to forge Prince Philip’s self-reliant, independent spirit. Pictured, in 1957

The Duke of Edinburgh’s mother was born Princess Alice of Battenberg in 1885 at Windsor Castle, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and raised as an English princess, although both her parents – Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine and Prince Louis of Battenberg – were German.

She was one of four siblings. Her sister Louise became Queen of Sweden and her brother was Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, later Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s beloved uncle.

Alice was congenitally deaf but she could speak clearly. Photographs show how beautiful she was, with her upswept hair and lace gowns.

How Princess Alice protected a Jewish family from Nazis during the Holocaust 

Princess Alice of Battenberg was famed for saving a Jewish family from the Holocaust during the Second World War by sheltering them in her Athens home. 

Alfred Haimaki Cohen, head of a prominent family with ties to Greek royalty, sought out the royal as their only hope of refuge from the Nazis. 

By chance Alfred, a prominent member of the community of 8,000 Jewish people in Athens, came across Alice’s lady-in-waiting, and the royal quickly offered the family refuge on the top floor of her house, only yards from Gestapo headquarters.

When the Gestapo became suspicious, Alice made her deafness an excuse for not answering their questions.

Speaking last year, Mr Cohen’s daughter explained she wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the actions of Princess Alice.

Then in 1902, at the Coronation of King Edward VII, she fell head over heels in love with Prince Andrew, a younger son of the King of Greece.

With the advent of the Balkan Wars, Prince Andrew was reinstated in the army, and Princess Alice, assisting at operations and setting up field hospitals, work for which King George V – the current Queen’s grandfather – awarded her the Royal Red Cross in 1913.

By 1914 Alice had four daughters. But in Greece, revolution was brewing, and shortly after Prince Philip was born in 1921, the Greek royal family were exiled.

Aged 18 months, the future Duke of Edinburgh was bundled into a makeshift cot – an orange crate – as the family escaped on a British warship.

They arrived in Paris as refugees, living on handouts from relatives. The strain took its toll on Alice, and her impassioned religious beliefs became steadily more eccentric.

By 1930 she was hearing voices and believed she was having physical relationships with Jesus and other religious figures.

She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and when treatment in a Berlin clinic failed – on the advice of Sigmund Freud her womb was blasted with X-rays to cure her of frustrated sexual desires – she was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium.

On the day she left, the nine-year-old Prince Philip was taken out by his grandmother for a picnic. When he returned, his mother had gone.

She remained a prisoner there for two and a half years.

Although the couple never divorced, Alice was effectively abandoned by her playboy husband Prince Andrew, who went to live on the French Riviera with his mistress. He died in 1944 in Monaco.

Prince Philip was by then homeless, spending boarding school holidays with various relatives, including his uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten.

When Alice was eventually released from the sanatorium in 1932, she became a lonely drifter, staying in modest German B&Bs. Mother and son were not to meet again until tragic circumstances forced them together, reuniting in 1937 at the funeral of Philip’s sister Cécilie, who’d died in a plane crash at the age of 26.

Wedding day: Princess Alice of Battenberg (fifth from left) with her son and daughter-in-law on their wedding day in 1947.  None of Prince Philip’s sisters were invited to the Queen’s wedding in 1947. The German connection was still too shaming, only two years after the end of the war

Alice wanted Philip, now 16, to live with her in Athens (the Greek monarchy having been restored in 1935). But Philip’s future lay in the Royal Navy. And by 1941, Alice was stranded in Nazi-occupied Greece.

Her brother, Lord Mountbatten, sent food parcels – which she gave to the needy. 

Then, for more than a year, she hid a Jewish family on the top floor of her house, only yards from Gestapo headquarters. When the Gestapo became suspicious, Alice made her deafness an excuse for not answering their questions.

After the war, diamonds from Alice’s tiara were reset so Philip had an engagement ring to present to Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen. 

Alice sold the rest of her jewels to found her own religious order, the Christian Sisterhood Of Martha And Mary, in 1949 and built a convent and orphanage in a poor suburb of Athens.

Visit: Princess Alice with the Queen and Princess Anne in London at Christmas 1957

Final days: Princess Alice died at Buckingham Palace in 1969, where she lived for two years as a guest of her son and daughter-in-law. Pictured, mother and son in 1957

How The Crown fictionalised a ‘tell all’ interview with a journalist 

The third series of The Crown claims Princess Alice gave a tell-all interview with the Guardian, stepping in to take the place of publicity shy Princess Anne. 

In the scene Anne feigns a cold and excuses herself from the interview and sends her grandmother (Jane Lapotaire) out into the hallway where journalist John Armstrong (played by Colin Morgan) is waiting.

Princess Alice, the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, proceeds to give the journalists details about her tragic life, including her time spent in mental institutions.

This was all fictionalised, although Princess Alice did live at Buckingham Palace from 1967 until her death in December 1969. 

Seen in The Crown: Jane Lapotaire as Princess Alice in Netflix’s The Crown

When there was a Greek military coup in 1967, Alice refused to budge from Athens until Prince Philip sent a plane, along with a special request from the Queen, to bring her home.

Princess Alice spent her final years living with her son and daughter-in-law the Queen at Buckingham Palace before her death in December 1969 at the age of 84. 

Her final months were fictionalised in the third series of Netflix’s The Crown, with Jane Lapotaire playing the role. The series wrongly suggested she gave a tell-all interview with the Guardian, covering sensitive topics including her mental health condition. 

Shortly before Alice died in 1969, she wrote to her only son, whose childhood had been so scarred by her absence, ‘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.’ 

HIS FOUR SISTERS, MARGARITA, THEODORA, CECILIE AND SOPHIE: THREE MARRIED NAZIS AND ONE DIED IN A TRAGIC PLANE CRASH WHILE EIGHT MONTHS PREGNANT

Margarita, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (1905-1981)

Royal connection: Prince Philip’s oldest sister Princess Margarita (standing) after the birth of Princess Anne (pictured in the Queen’s arms). Also pictured: Lord Mountbatten (left), Andrew Elphinstone, a cousin of the Queen, Alice Countess von Athlone and the Queen Mother

The oldest of Prince Philip’s four sisters was Margarita, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, born in 1905 at the Royal Palace in Athens. 

In 1931 Margarita married Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a German aristocrat who went on to become a Nazi.

Gottfried was a son of Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria through her second son, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and his wife, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia, a daughter of Alexander II of Russia. 

During the Second World War, Prince Gottfried fought for the Germans on the Russian front, where he was badly wounded.

But he turned against the Fuhrer, and was among the aristocratic officers implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944 – which led to Prince Gottfried’s dismissal from the army. 

In 1950 Gottfried succeeded his father as Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. 

The couple had six children together, five of whom survived into adulthood. 

Princess Margarita remained in contact with her brother and visited the UK shortly after the birth of Princess Anne. She died in 1981. 

Theodora, Margravine of Baden (1906–1969)

Young beauty: Princess Theodora of Greece, who was the last of the four sisters to marry

Brotherly love: Prince Philip with his sister Princess Theodora in 1960. She died in 1969

Born in 1906 at Tatoi Palace, the summer residence of the Greek royal family, Theodora was the only one of Philip’s four sisters whose husband wasn’t involved in the Nazi party. 

In August 1931 she married her second cousin Berthold, Margrave of Baden. 

They had three children together: Princess Margarita, who later married Prince Tomislav of Yugoslavia; Prince Maximillian, who married Archduchess Valerie of Austria; and Prince Ludwig, who married Princess Anna Maria Henrietta Eleonora Gobertina of Auersperg-Breunner. 

Theodora died on 16 October 1969 at Büdingen, Germany, having survived her husband by six years. Her mother, Princess Alice, died five weeks later.

Cecilie, Hereditary Grand Duchess of Hesse (1911-1937)


Tragic death: Prince Philip enjoyed a close relationship with his sister Princess Cecilie, known as Princess Cecile by the family. She died in a plane crash in 1937 while eight months pregnant with her fourth child, who was delivered shortly before the crash. Pictured right, with her sons Alexander and Ludwig, who also died in the crash, and daughter Johanna

In The Crown: Cecile’s death features in the penultimate episode of– entitled Paterfamilias – of the second series of The Crown which explores Prince Charles’s unhappy school days at Gordonstoun, interwoven with flashbacks to his father’s time there. She was played by Leonie Beseech, pictured alongside a young Prince Philip, played by Finn Elliot

How The Crown wrongly blamed Prince Philip for the death of his sister Cecile 

Cecile’s death features in the penultimate episode of– entitled Paterfamilias – of the second series of The Crown which explores Prince Charles’s unhappy school days at Gordonstoun, interwoven with flashbacks to his father’s time there.

It is suggested – wrongly – that in November 1937, Philip, then 16, was due to spend half-term with 26-year-old Cecile, married to Grand Duke George Donatus of Hesse.

This arrangement is said to suit his sister, apparently terrified of flying, because it will enable her to avoid travelling to London for a wedding.

But Philip then punches a fellow pupil and as punishment is forced to remain at school during the holiday, leaving Cecile no choice but to accompany her family to London.

Philip rings his sister hoping she will support him. Speaking from a German airport, she tells him she agrees with the head’s decision and says she is now ‘obliged’ to fly to the wedding. The camera then cuts to her boarding the plane.

It is true that Philip travelled to Germany for the funeral. But what happens next in The Crown, say Royal experts, is pure fiction.

Young Philip, played by Finn Elliot, is presented to his mother Princess Alice and father Prince Andrew at the funeral.  His father says: ‘Had it not been for Philip and his indiscipline she would never have taken that flight. It’s true, isn’t it boy? You’re the reason we’re all here burying my favourite child. Get him out of here.’

Prince Philip enjoyed a close relationship with his sister Princess Cecilie, who was born in 1911. 

Known to affectionately as ‘Cecile’ godfather was King George V, the current Queen’s grandfather. 

In 1931, she married Georg Donatus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, her first cousin once removed. 

They are both thought to have joined the Nazi party in May 1937.

A few months later in November Cecile, eight months pregnant with her third child, was killed in a plane crash while flying from Germany to London for a wedding. 

Her plane crashed after hitting a factory chimney in fog near Ostend.

Also killed were her mother, her husband, their sons aged six and four, a lady-in-waiting and the best man.

Firemen found the remains of an infant, prematurely delivered when the plane crashed, lying beside Cecile’s body, suggesting the pilot tried to land because she had begun to give birth.

Prince Philip, then 16, was particularly close to Cecile and being called into his headmaster’s study at Gordonstoun to be told of her death was one of the worst moments of his life.

Years later he wrote: ‘I have the very clearest recollection of the profound shock with which I heard the news of the crash and the death of my sister and her family.’

Cecilie was buried with her husband and three of her children, including her stillborn son, in Darmstadt at the Rosenhöhe, the traditional burial place of the Hesse family.  

Photos from their funeral shows Prince Philip flanked by grieving relatives, all wearing distinctive Nazi uniforms. 

One is clad in the uniform of the Brownshirts; another wears full SS regalia.  

The street in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, is lined with crowds – many giving the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.

Cecile and Georg’s surviving daughter Johanna was adopted by Prince Ludwig and Princess Margaret but died two years later from meningitis. 

Princess Sophie of Hanover (1914-2001)   

Close ties with the Nazis: Although the youngest of four sisters, Sophie was the first to wed, marrying her second cousin-once-removed Prince Christoph of Hesse in 1930, at the age of 16. Prince Christoph was a director in the Third Reich Air Ministry, an SS colonel and the chief of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering’s secret intelligence service – responsible for spying on anti-Nazis. Pictured, Sophie with Philip and her second husband in 1960

Although the youngest of four sisters, Sophie was the first to wed, marrying her second cousin-once-removed Prince Christoph of Hesse in 1930, at the age of 16.  

Son of Prince Frederick Charles of Hesse and Princess Margaret of Prussia, Christoph was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria through her eldest daughter Victoria, Princess Royal, wife of Frederick III, German Emperor. 

Prince Christoph was a director in the Third Reich Air Ministry, an SS colonel and the chief of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering’s secret intelligence service – responsible for spying on anti-Nazis. 

A photo taken in 1935 shows Sophie sitting opposite Hitler at the wedding of Goering and his bride Emmy. In a diary she wrote of a private lunch with Hitler and how she thought he was a ‘charming and seemingly modest man’.

Indeed couple were such devoted Nazis that they named one of their five children Karl Adolf in honour of Hitler. 

Prince Christoph was killed in October 1943 in a plane accident over Italy. Sophie went on to marry Prince George William of Hanover in 1946, and the couple had three children together. 

Princess Sophie remained in contact with her brother and sister-in-law the Queen until her death in 2001 in Munich. She attended the Royal Windsor Horse Show and was godmother to Prince Edward.  

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