The Royal Princesses Who Chose A Life of Noble Service and Became Nuns

Sister Elisabeth, the Saint

She was born Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine in 1864 at Darmstadt, Germany. The second daughter of Queen Victoria’s third child, Princess Alice and husband, Grand Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. She was nicknamed Ella.

Family tragedies struct Princess Elisabeth's life. Two of her siblings died young. A brother from hemophilia and a sister from diphtheria that had also killed their mother at the young age of 35.

Upon the death of Princess Alice, the young princesses, Victoria (the future Marchioness of Milford-Haven and the grandmother of Prince Philip), Ella and Alix (who would become Empress Alexandra of Russia) were taken by Queen Victoria to live with her in Windsor Castle.
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine

Ella was by far one of the most beautiful royal princesses in Europe during her time. She attracted many suitors including her first cousin, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, but she chose to marry her true love, Grand Duke Sergei, the son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Her younger sister, Alix, would marry Sergei’s nephew, the future Tsar Nicholas II, in later years.

Elisabeth became Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna after marriage and was deeply attached to charitable works, helping to improve lives of displaced people in the Russian society.

Grand Duchess Elisabeth and her husband, Grand Duke Sergei of Russia

In 1905, her husband was assassinated, they had no children, so Elisabeth decided to consecrate her life to religious and charitable works. She gave up her royal possessions and entered the convent. She founded the Charity of Martha and Mary in the Order of Mercy in Moscow, took her Holy Vow and became a nun. She immersed herself feeding the poor.

In 1918, a day after her sister, Empress Alexandra, brother-in-law Nicholas II and their children and servants, were massacred by the Bolshevics in the mountain of Ekaterinburg, she and other relatives of the emperor were arrested. They were brought to the mountain of Alapeyevsk and were thrown into a mine shaft. As their bodies were piled below, the Bolshevics threw a hand grenade.

Ella as Sister Elizabeth

Sister Elisabeth was heard singing church hymns as piles of smoke from explosion rose into the air. The assassins made sure they were dead by piling grass on top of the shaft and lighted by fire. The royals died from suffocation.

When the advancing White Army arrived in Alapeyevsk, they took the remains of the victims and were buried to the Far East. Sister Elisabeth’s body was brought to Jerusalem and buried at the Church of Mary Magdalene. 

In 1981, the Russian Orthodox church canonized her and the other murdered imperial family members and were recognized as martyrs unfairly killed by the revolutionists.

Princess Alice of Battenberg

She was born privilege, a princess and a scion to one of the most powerful royal families in Europe. Her mother was Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and sister of Princess Ella and Empress Alexandra, her father was Prince Louis of Battenberg, first Sea Lord of England at the outbreak of World War I.

Her parents would soon suffer a humiliation during the war due to anti-German sentiments in England. Prince Louis was forced to give up his post in the Royal Navy and his princely title and was created by his cousin, King George V of England, as the first Marquess of Milford-Haven. He also anglicized his name to Mountbatten.

Alice was the older sister of George Mountbatten, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Louise, Queen Consort of Sweden. In 1905, she married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, son of King George I of Greece and had five children: Princess Margarita, Princess Theodora, Princess Cecille, Princess Sophia and Prince Philip, who would marry the future Queen of England, Elizabeth, in 1947.

Tragedy would soon befall on her family which affected her mental health. In 1917, her brother-in-law, King Constantine I (whose wife, Princess Sophia, was her first cousin through Queen Victoria) was forced to abdicate.

Alice and Andrew, together with other Greek royal family members, were sent into exile but were permitted to return to Greece during the reign of Constantine I’s son, George II. Prince Andrew also served as his nephew’s military commander.

Prince Andrew and Princess Alice with their children

However, in 1922, Greece was defeated by Turkey, many generals were assassinated. Prince Andrew was tried and found guilty of treason for abandoning his post under enemy’s fire. He was condemned to die by firing squad.

But his status as a royal prince allowed him to have a grace period before the execution will be carried out. This gap of days gave Princess Alice an opportunity to seek help from her cousin, King George V of England.

Princess Alice with her only son, Prince Philip

The English king, still grieving the death of his first cousins, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, and his failure to rescue them, determined never to repeat the same mistake on another cousin.

He immediately dispatched a British war ship to Greece to take Andrew and his family out of the country. Prince Philip, who was only 18 months, was safely put on an orange crate while the family was fleeing.

They settled outside Paris and based on Prince Philip’s recollection, they had a happy family life. However, after their daughters married German princes and settled in Germany, cracks in marriage would soon take over that prompted Princess Alice to suffer a nervous breakdown.

Prince Philip with his mother wearing a gray habit of a nun

Unable to handle the humiliation of living under financial support of his rich royal relatives, Prince Andrew left his wife and moved to Monaco and took a mistress. Princess Alice suffered a nervous breakdown.

By 1930, she became delusional and could no longer take care of her young son, Prince Philip, so he was sent to England to live with his grandmother in Kensington Palace.

Princess Alice was put in a mental asylum and was subjected to barbaric experimental treatment of Sigmud Freud, an Austrian neurologist who pioneered psychoanalysis. Princess Alice was diagnosed of having Schizophrenia. She tried to escape from the sanitarium many times but was unsuccessful. Until she was released in 1932.

For five years nothing was heard from her. She lived a nomadic life in Germany. In 1937, one of her daughters, Princess Cecil, was killed in a plane crash with her husband, children and mother-in-law. Princess Alice attended the funeral and it was the first time she saw her husband and children, including the 16 year old Prince Philip.

By then, the future Duke of Edinburgh has identified himself as thoroughly English despite carrying the name Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. He was by then raised by her maternal uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and attended Gordounston College in Scotland.

With her children already secured and a husband who chose a mistress, Princess Alice decided to live in Greece and, just like her aunt, Princess Elisabeth, consecrated her life to religious and charitable works.

Following the wedding of her only son to the future Queen Elizabeth II, Alice founded a nursing order of the Greek Orthodox nuns, The Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, to feed the poor and help take care of the sick. She opened a charity kitchen in Athens and used her influence to secure medical supplies.

She was known to have help a Jewish family, the Cohen, to hide in her apartment when Nazi occupied Greece.

In 1967 when her nephew, King Constantine II, was deposed by the military junta and Greece was once again plunged into chaos, her son, Prince Philip, took her to England for safety. She lived with the royal family in Buckingham Palace.

Before her death in 1969, Princess Alice told her son that she wished to be buried next to her aunt, Sister Elisabeth, at the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem. This was not followed because of political issues and she was buried in the royal crypt at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

It was finally granted in 1988 and her remains were transferred to Jerusalem. Princess Alice was posthumously awarded with Righteous Gentile of all Nations in Israel due to her courage to protect a Jewish family. The award was received by Prince Philip.

He also visited his mother’s grave in 1994 and Prince William in 2018. Despite her status as royal, Princess Alice had no possessions when she died as she had given everything to the charity. But she kept a diamond tiara, a wedding present from her father-in-law, King George I. She gave it to her son in 1947 when he proposed marriage to the future Queen of England.

The tiara was dismantled and made into an engagement ring and a meander tiara as Philip’s gift to his bride. 

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