Princess Helena, born Helena Augusta Victoria, was the fifth child and third daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She was born on May 25, 1846 at Buckingham Palace in what was reported to be a difficult birth for her mother but, fortunately, both mother and daughter recovered quickly. A vivacious and candid child, Helena was nicknamed “Lenchen” by her German father, who she mirrored in her interests and talents. Helena shared her father’s love for science and technology and was also skilled in other areas, such as drawing, the piano, horseback riding, and boating. Although Helena was a middle daughter in her large family and was often overshadowed by her sisters, she was perfectly capable of standing up for herself. In one occasion during her younger years, when her brother was teasing her, she reacted by punching him in the nose. As for her more intimate relations with her brothers and sisters, Helena was very close with her older brother, Prince Alfred, and the two would remain each other’s favorite siblings. Her siblings were:
- Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901) married: Frederick III, Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia - had issue
- Edward VII, King of the U.K. (1841-1910) married: Princess Alexandra of Denmark - had issue
- Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse (1843-1878) married: Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse - had issue
- Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1844-1900) married: Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia - had issue
- Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (1848-1939) married: John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll - no issue
- Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn (1850-1942) married: Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia - had issue
- Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884) married: Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont - had issue
- Princess Beatrice (1857-1944) married: Prince Henry of Battenberg - had issue
Helena was often overlooked when compared to the rest of her sisters. She was seen as being not as attractive, intellectual, or talented when contrasted against Queen Victoria’s other daughters. Instead, she was known as a practical and physically sturdy girl who enjoyed the outdoors and the natural world. Her physical makeup concealed her hidden fragility, which became evident during her father’s death in 1861. The loss hit the fifteen year old Helena deeply, just as it did her mother, and she was so affected by Albert’s death that unlike her sisters, she was unable take over her grieving mother’s royal duties. But when her older sister, Alice, who acted as their mother’s unofficial secretary after their father’s death, married in 1862 and left home, the role of Queen Victoria’s support system fell to Helena. Once the Queen decided that her youngest daughter, Beatrice, would be her companion in her old age, she focused on finding a suitable spouse for Helena, who she described rather harshly as, “…most useful and active and clever and amiable… [but who] does not improve in looks and has great difficulty with her figure and her want of calm, quiet, graceful manners.” Helena had already had a previous flirtation with her father’s former librarian, Carl Ruland, but when the Queen discovered her daughter’s interest in a royal servant, she wasted no time in sending him back to his homeland of Germany.
|Princess Helena and her fiancée, Prince |
Christian of Schleswig-Holstein
It was rather difficult for Queen Victoria to find a proper husband for Helena, unlike her other daughters. As a middle child, Helena’s value was lesser than that of her siblings and her appearance, described as “chunky, dowdy, and double-chinned”, didn’t help her appeal. Her mother didn’t make things any easier by limiting her choices to a husband who would have to live near the Queen, as Victoria wanted her daughters close by. Eventually, the Queen decided on Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, a German noble of Danish descent who was fifteen years Helena's senior. The match as not viewed favorably in political terms. Prince Christian's home of Schleswig and Holstein had been fought over by Prussia and Denmark during the First and Second Schleswig Wars, the latter of which resulted in Prussia and Austria defeating Denmark. After this, Austria claimed the duchies for Prince Christian’s family – the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. But just a few years after this, Prussia invaded and snatched up the duchies in the Austro-Prussian War, making them Prussian territories. However, Prussia allowed the title of the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein to remain in Prince Christian’s family.
|Princess Helena of her wedding day|
Therefore, the match caused a rift in the royal family, as some members – such as Princess Alexandra of Wales, the daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and the wife of Helena’s older brother, the future Edward VII – were outraged with what she saw as a political betrayal. The horrified Alexandra, who maintained that the duchies belonged to her father, was supported by her husband and Princess Alice. They all bluntly accused Queen Victoria of trading Helena’s future happiness for her own expediency, as it would hurt the already poor popularity of Helena’s oldest sister, Victoria, the Crown Princess of Prussia, at the German court in Berlin. Queen Victoria’s sons, Prince Alfred and Prince George, also sided with Alexandra but the Crown Princess of Prussia herself, Victoria, chose to support her mother, as she had been a close friend of Prince Christian’s family for some time. With all this bickering and controversy, no one seemed to notice that Helena was actually quite happy with the match and wanted to marry Christian. Thus, the engagement was declared in late 1865, despite the fact that relations between Helena and her mother with Alexandra would be strained for the rest of their lives. When Alexandra’s husband and Helena’s oldest brother, Prince Albert Edward, refused to attend the wedding, he was eventually convinced by Princess Alice to put aside his grievances and come. Against all odds, the ceremony on July 5, 1866 at Windsor Castle was a happy occasion. Prince Christian was said to look older than he really was, making it appear to guests as though Helena was marrying an aged uncle (indeed, when Christian was first called to England by the Queen, he assumed she wanted to evaluate him as a candidate for a new husband for herself rather than for her younger daughter). Helena, who was twenty at the time, wore a gown of rich white satin decorated with deep flounces of Honiton lace, which was detailed with a design of roses, ivy, and myrtle. Her headpiece was made up of orange blossom and myrtle and the veil was also made of Honiton lace. Her mother gifted her with a necklace, earrings, and a brooch of opals and diamonds to wear as well. With her union to the thirty-five year old Prince Christian (who was also her third cousin), Helena became a Princess of Schleswig-Holstein.
|The Wedding of Princess Helena & Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein|
(Christian Karl Magnussen, 1866)
Even with their age difference, Helena and Christian had a happy marriage. They lived a quiet life at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park and had six children, four of which survived infancy (two sons and two daughters):
- Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein (1867 – 1900) died unmarried and without issue in the Boer War
- Albert, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein (1869 – 1931) never married, had one illegitimate daughter
- Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (1870 – 1948) died unmarried and without issue
- Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein (1872 – 1956) married: Prince Aribert of Anhalt – no issue
- Prince Frederick of Schleswig-Holstein (1872) died in infancy at eight days old
- Unnamed stillborn son (1877)
|The four surviving children of Princess Helena|
& Prince Christian
As promised, Helena and her family lived close to the Queen and she continued to perform royal tasks for her as her unofficial secretary along with her sister, Beatrice. Helena took on minor duties while Beatrice, as their mother’s main companion, was in charge of more serious jobs. When Helena grew older, she was helped by her own daughter, Helena Victoria, who remained unmarried her whole life. Helena’s health had never been the best and once she married and became a mother, she began to rely on drugs like opium and laudanum, which she subsequently became addicted to. Queen Victoria dismissed the idea that her daughter was sickly and believed that she was nothing more than a hypochondriac supported by a permissive husband. While some of her sickness may have been imagined, she certainly did have some tangible ailments. In 1870, she fell ill with severe rheumatism and joint pains. The next year, she had congestion in her lungs, which grew so serious that her family feared for her life and sent her to France to recover. Perhaps it was her concern with her personal health that inspired Helena to take a robust interest in nursing. She became President of the British Nurses’ Association when it was founded in 1887 and heavily encouraged nurse registration, a controversial topic with nurses, as it was opposed by leading nursing figures such as Florence Nightingale (who also happened to be a friend of Helena’s sister, Princess Alice).
(Heinrich von Angeli, 1875)
Helena was also a strong proponent of needlework and became the first president of the Royal School of Needlework when it opened in 1872. She was interested in helping the poor and needy, especially children, and hosted free dinners for their benefit at the Windsor Guildhall. All of her charitable efforts made her extremely well liked by the people, and, according to one contemporary author, “the poor of Windsor worshiped her.” Surprisingly for a royal woman of the time, Helena supported the cause for women’s rights, which irritated her mother, as the Queen detested the idea of equality for women. The first two years of the twentieth century were quite sorrowful for Helena, as her eldest and favorite son, Prince Christian Victor, died in late 1900 while serving in the Boer War. The following year, her mother passed away. She was succeeded by Helena’s oldest brother, Edward VII, who was not close with any of his sisters during his adult years (except Princess Louise) while his wife and Queen, Alexandra, continued to have a very poor relationship with Helena due to the whole marriage dispute. Therefore, Helena and her husband remained out of the spotlight of the royal court but continued to be firm supporters of the monarchy. Edward VII reigned for only nine years before dying and was succeeded by his son, George V, in 1910. Four years later, World War I began.
Helena supported the war effort by focusing entirely on her nursing activities. Her only surviving son, Albert, fought for Prussia during the conflict but refused to fight against his mother’s country in battle. Shortly before the war ended, Prince Christian died at the age of eighty-six on October 28, 1917. Helena survived her husband by six years before dying herself on June 9, 1923 at the age of seventy-seven. She received a grand funeral from her nephew, George V, and was first buried in the Royal Vault at St. George’s before being reburied at the Royal Burial Ground in Frogmore five years later. Helena’s surviving son, Prince Albert, eventually became the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein and the Head of the House of Oldenburg. He never married and had no legitimate children, although he did have an illegitimate daughter with an unknown woman of noble birth. This illegitimate daughter, Valerie Marie, had two childless marriages and tragically took her life in an apparent suicide, making herself Helena’s final descendant. Although Helena’s companion and eldest daughter, Helena Victoria, never married or had children, her youngest daughter, Princess Marie Louise did marry to Prince Aribert of Anhalt. However, the marriage was very unhappy and childless, for it is possible that Prince Aribert was a homosexual and was supposedly caught in bed with a servant by either his wife or his father. The marriage was annulled after nine years and Helena, who would never remarry or have children, focused on concentrating her time on charities and patronage of the arts for the rest of her life.