Royal upbringing in Edwardian era



The [British] royal family had not been that concerned by the wars of the 1860s and 1870s when children found they were on different sides. All those wars, however, had been relatively minor. This would change after 1910. The events of that decade prompt an unanswerable question: if Kaiser Wilhelm had not felt embittered about his English mother, would he have tried to stop Germany declaring war on Britain?

By 1910, Princess Victoria’s husband, Louis of Battenberg, was an admiral in the British Navy. Victoria was unusual in many ways. When she and Louis moved to London as his naval career demanded, they lived in a small flat in St Ermin’s Mansions in Westminster and then took an unexceptional house in Eccleston Square. Edward VII had no idea that they had a limited income and could not understand why they chose to live in a square where ‘only pianists lived’. They were allowed, however, a key which let them into the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Victoria sent her children to local dancing classes and Alice attended a small private school. Victoria did not rely on nannies much and was very close to her children; she made them feel valued, which does not mean she was uncritical.

Princess Victoria of Hesse and Rhyne

Princess Victoria of Hesse and Rhyne

Victoria was worried when in 1902 her eldest daughter Alice fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. They were too young, she felt. She swallowed her doubts, however, and the couple married a year later at Darmstadt. After the civil ceremony, there were two religious ones as Andrew was Greek Orthodox and Alice was Lutheran. We have seen that Leopold chose to be King of the Belgians rather than of the Greeks. Rejected, the Greeks turned to minor Danish nobility, who descended from the multi-titled Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. ‘The Greeks never quite accepted their new monarchs, who tended to look down on their subjects, though. It did not help that King George I of the Hellenes spoke Greek with an accent that was abominable, just as George I’s English accent had been.

Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark with family

Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark with family

Unlike his father and his four brothers, Andrew at least spoke Greek well and decided to enter the Greek army. Alice too learned Greek and, after a few years, was completely fluent — a real achievement since she was deaf and had to lip-read. Princess Marie Bonaparte visited Athens in 1907 and described Alice as ‘a beautiful blonde English woman with ample flesh, smiles a lot and says little since she is deaf’.

Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark by Philip de László, 1922. Private collection of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark by Philip de László, 1922. Private collection of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

The marriage between Alice and Andrew began well; they had two daughters. After they had been married five years, Alice visited Russia for a royal wedding. It would mark a turning point in her life. Her aunt, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, was setting up a religious order of nurses and, to prepare herself for a more spiritual life, began giving away all her possessions. Most of Ella’s relatives treated her as an eccentric, but Alice did not. Her aunt’s religious fervour made a great impression on her.

When he came to the throne in 1910, George V faced personal pressures. His youngest son, John, has been largely forgotten, though Stephen Poliakoff made a film about him. John’s fate affected the royal family more than they cared to admit. In 1909, when he was four years old, he had an epileptic seizure. It frightened the family, who decided not to let him attend his father’s Coronation.

Prince John (the lost prince) with his devoted nanny Charlotte 'Lala' Bill

Prince John (the lost prince) with his devoted nanny Charlotte ‘Lala’ Bill

Prince John’s epilepsy became very difficult to cope with and his parents sent him to live at Wood Farm on the Sandringham estate. There, he was looked after by Lalla Bill, who had wanted to thrash David, and also cared for by a coachman from Windsor Castle (Thomas Haverly took John on outings and sometimes to the `big house’ at Sandringham). In between fits, John seems to have been normal, as photos show him riding a bicycle. Once he had been eased out from the royal circle, he was the first royal child since Prince William in 1694 to have a close friend who was not an aristocrat. At Wood Farm, he spent much time with Winifred Thomas, a Yorkshire girl who suffered from chronic asthma and had been sent to the country, where the air was much cleaner. The two sick children went on walks together and worked on a small garden John had been given to look after. When John was very ill, Winifred sat by his bed, as Lalla Bill read to both of them.

King George V & Queen Mary with their six children

King George V & Queen Mary with their six children

When she was older, ‘Winifred remembered John was excited when her father, who was a sergeant in the army, came to Wood Farm; John was delighted to meet ‘a real, live soldier’. This makes it clear that neither of his brothers who were serving in the forces ever bothered to visit Wood Farm. David himself mentions John only once and noted that his parents only went to visit him at most twice a year. To be fair to Mary of Teck, Winifred remembered her as a loving and interested mother, who spent much time with her son but she may have been being tactful about the woman who was then her Queen. Nothing seemed to help John, however, and his seizures became more severe and more frequent. Of Mary’s children, one stammered and was clearly pathologically nervous and one had epilepsy. The royal family seems to have turned to neurologists and psychiatrists for help.

from ‘Bringing Them Up Royal’ by David Cohen

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