Marie Louise: The Princess of Nowhere

Marie Louise: The Princess of Nowhere

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Princess Marie Louise was born on August 12, 1872, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her dad – clearly a history buff – named her after Napoleon’s second wife, but the family called her “Louie.”

Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein 1872 - 1956

Her parents, Princess Helena and Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, lived at Queen Victoria’s beck and call. Victoria’s requirements for marrying Helena had been that Christian needed to (a) live in England, and (b) accept the fact that when Victoria said jump, one or both of them needed to ask, “How high?”

Princess Helena of Great Britain and Ireland and Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein
Princess Helena & Prince Christian. Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Surprisingly, Christian was okay with that – and he and Helena had a happy marriage and four surviving kids. That didn’t mean he forgot about his homeland, and he taught his kids German by reading them fairy tales. The family’s tutors also taught Louise literature, dancing, deportment, and French. But her absolute favorite subject was history. I suspect we would have gotten along just fine.

Because her parents were so close to Queen Victoria, Louise spent a lot of time with her grandmother. Once, when Victoria was watching the kids, she sent Helena this reassuring telegram:  “Children very well, but poor little Louise very ugly.” (Memories, 19) Years later, when Louise asked her about this, Victoria simply said it was the truth.

“Children very well, but poor little Louise very ugly.”

Louise inherited her grandmother’s blunt honesty and her deep family loyalty.

She was extremely close to her sister, Helena Victoria (“Thora”), and her cousin, Alix. That cousin would grow up to be the last empress of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna.

Group portrait of Alix and Ella of Hesse and by Rhine, Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, Charlotte of Prussia, and Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein
Back, L to R: Alix & Ella of Hesse and by Rhine. Front, L to R: Louise, Charlotte of Prussia, Thora. Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As kids, Louise played the Joker to Alix’s Batman, teasing her about being too serious. Later, Louise would write this about Alix: “There was a curious atmosphere of fatality about her.” One day, Louise said, “Alix, you always play at being sorrowful: one day the Almighty will send you some real crushing sorrows and then what are you going to do?”

If you know the story of the last Romanovs, that quote will break your heart.

Be Careful What You Wish For

In the fall of 1890, 18-year-old Louise was in Berlin for a cousin’s wedding. There, she met Prince Aribert of Anhalt. When the tall, handsome cavalry officer started paying attention to her, she quickly fell in love.

Prince Aribert of Anhalt 1864-1933

But on that same trip, her parents told her that someone else wanted to propose to her – Prince Ferdinand of Romania. “Hard pass,” said Louise.

So her cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II, decided to step in and make Louise’s dreams come true. Whatever he did worked – Louise and Aribert got engaged on December 6, 1890, mere weeks after their first meeting.

Louise and Aribert got engaged on December 6, mere weeks after their first meeting. Yeah, that’ll end well.

Queen Victoria approved of the match. She wrote to her daughter, “…I am greatly relieved to think that poor Louise Holstein’s prospects will not be blighted. I think it would be a very nice marriage. Aribert is a nice and amiable young man and one may hope that it would be for both their happiness.” (Ramm, 116)

Louise met and passed muster with Aribert’s parents, which isn’t surprising because his father owned pieces of history that must have transfixed Louise. For example, he owned Stettin Castle, the birthplace of Catherine the Great, as well as the dress she wore for her entry into St. Petersburg.

Stettin Castle
Stettin Castle. Image by Dr benway, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Louise and Aribert married at Windsor on July 6, 1891. After a two-month European honeymoon, they settled in Germany – first in his native Dessau, then in Berlin where he was stationed as an officer.

Louise in her wedding dress and veil, holding a large bouquet.
Louise in her wedding dress. Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But the strict German court etiquette was more than Louise could bear. Before she could say “good morning” to her sister-in-law, she had to send her footman to her sister-in-law’s footman to find out if now would be a convenient time for a personal greeting. Once, she once got in trouble for saying hi to a friend who was having lunch. German princesses were not supposed to interrupt gentlemen at lunch.

Another of her supposed transgressions? According to a Canadian newspaper, she once came back from a visit to Britain with a pair of boxing gloves and a punching bag. When she had it set up and started shadowboxing in the palace, her in-laws revolted at this unprincesslike behavior. For what it’s worth, I really hope this story is true.

According to a Canadian newspaper, she once came back from a visit to Britain with a pair of boxing gloves and a punching bag.

Louise, who had grown up in the comparatively casual British court environment, chafed under these restrictions. She only felt free when she traveled, and she wrote lovingly of her trips to Naples, Rome, and Tunis. “Africa is sometimes called the Claw,” she wrote, “and this is true, for when once you have visited that continent you always want to return to it.” (Louise, 50)

Fight or Flight

But there are some problems travel just can’t solve.

Louise and Aribert were strangers. They lived together, but unless they had a dinner party, days would pass without seeing each other. Louise herself later wrote, “I was not wanted, my presence was irksome to him.” (Louise, 88)

Poor Louise didn’t understand why, but she would soon.

Louise and Aribert with a small black dog. She's wearing a striped skirt suit.
Aribert & Louise. Image via the Grand Ladies site.

Increasingly miserable, she lost weight and succumbed to a variety of illnesses: the flu, bronchitis, and pneumonia. According to author John Van der Kiste, that weight loss was actually due to anorexia.

Within the family, there was plenty of gossip about Louise, her seemingly strange ways, and her husband. When her cousin Victoria Melita (“Ducky”) came to stay with her in Berlin in early 1898, the two had a blast. But Ducky’s mom, the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, wasn’t so thrilled about their time together. She wrote, “…to stay eternally with that mad woman of a Louise Aribert only to amuse herself, was not necessary, besides this cousin of yours is known to be cracked and everybody laughs at her and he is an imbecile.” (Mandache, 327)

Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine. She's wearing a pearl necklace, pearl earrings, and a large diamond and pearl tiara.
Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine. Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But here’s the thing. Ducky was another unhappily married woman, so she and Louise had a lot to bond over. Of course they got along. Of course they had fun. All those people supposedly laughing at Louise just didn’t see or understand the stress she was under. Ducky did.

Ducky’s visit lifted her spirits, but it couldn’t fix her health problems. In the summer of 1898, Louise went to visit Queen Victoria, who described her as “very far from well, but not in bad spirits. She is only so weak and everything tires her.” (Ramm, 216)

Watercolor painting of Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. She's wearing a pale blue day dress and heir hair is braided into a bun.
Louise painted by Josefine Swoboda. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In early 1900, nine years after their marriage, it seems Aribert was discovered with another man, possibly a servant. The details are murky – clearly this isn’t something any of the participants wanted publicized. Aribert’s father blamed Louise, claiming she’d refused to have sex with his son.

Angry, ashamed, and confused – but certain she wasn’t to blame – Louise ran.

In her memoir, she tactfully glosses over this incident. She says her doctors suggested she go to the U.S. or Canada for health reasons, to which she said she’d have to check with Queen Victoria first. Aribert flipped his lid because, in his mind, husbands were supposed to be in charge of their wives – not their grandmothers.  Before Louise left, she committed another faux pas – she gave advance notice to the British ambassador in Washington, D.C. but not the German ambassador. This, she says, was the cause of her fight with Aribert.

Prince Aribert of Anhalt wearing a military uniform with a medal hanging beneath the center of his collar.
Prince Aribert. Image by Hofatelier Harlmann, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Both of those versions may be true – they’re not mutually exclusive. Louise’s cousin – and Ducky’s sister, Crown Princess Marie of Romania, wrote to her mom, “I wonder how the Louise Aribert story will end, but I believe he was an awful man to live with and they say that he & his eldest brother…have a horrible vice!” (Mandache, 439)

So even if Louise’s version of the story is true, there was still plenty of gossip about Aribert.

Marie of Romania wearing a high-necked lacy day dress with a pearl  necklace.
Marie of Romania. Image by Eduard Uhlenhuth, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The end result is that Louise left home for North America. She traveled incognito as “Countess von Munsterberg,” visiting New York, Washington, D.C., and Canada. But just as she was about to board a train west to get to Canada’s Pacific coast, she got a telegram – a nastygram, to be exact. Her father-in-law ordered her to get back to Germany, like, yesterday.

But just as she was about to board a train west to get to Canada’s Pacific coast, she got a telegram – a nastygram, to be exact.

Louise wasn’t having it. “Nothing,” she said, “would induce me to do so.”  

An hour later, she got another telegram.

This one was from Queen Victoria: “Tell my granddaughter to come home to me.” (Louise, 89)

You can guess which order Louise obeyed.

Divorce Court

Once she arrived in England, Louise’s parents had more bad news – they’d gotten a letter from Aribert. Here’s how Louise described it the situation in her memoir: “He had written that life with me as his companion was intolerable (I refrain from using the much stronger expression written by him), and he had therefore requested his father to exercise his sovereign right and declare the marriage null and void…he stated that he was a young man and had the right to live his life in his own way.” (Louise, 90)

Newspaper with the headline, "Judicial Separation for a Royal Couple."
Screenshot of the San Francisco Call from 11/4/1900. No known restrictions, via the Library of Congress.

So, long story short, Aribert got his way. His father used a medieval privilege allowing him to pass one-off laws that only applied to family members. So he passed a law annulling Louise’s marriage.

But Louise had been married in England, where German laws weren’t valid, so her father called a divorce lawyer. That lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to read her the list of charges Aribert had thrown at her. They were “of such a nature that he could not insult me by reading them to me.” (Louise, 90)

The one thing he didn’t accuse her of, Louise wrote, was infidelity.

Louise of Schleswig-Holstein wearing a wool coat with a fur collar.
Louise photographed by Bassano. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So what were those charges? Louise’s memoir sheds no light on her husband’s accusations. However, it’s pretty clear this was a character assassination. And newspaper gossip at the time hinted that Louise was a little too fond of cigarettes, brandy, and opium.

It’s likely that her husband accused her of being a drunk and a drug addict. It was no secret that yes, she smoked, and yes, she drank. But then again, so did her uncle, the future King Edward VII. Her crime, it seems, was living the life she wanted, not the life others wanted for her.

Her crime, it seems, was living the life she wanted, not the life others wanted for her.

Luckily for us, the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was in England when all this was going on, so she filled Ducky and Marie in on what was happening to “the mad Louise Aribert.” She wrote, “I have had to hear by the hour the lamentations of Aunt Helena and old Christian has gone off to Germany to attack everybody. Naturally she is the most innocent victim and yet Aunt Helena wont [sic] have her living again with them for nothing in the world. Such odd unpractical people they are.” (Mandache, 436)

Dowager Duchess Marie of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha wearing a formal gown, diamond collier, and tall high diamond tiara.
Marie in 1901, as Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Image from the Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What does this quote tell us? If Helena refused to let Louise live with Aribert and his family, she had a damn good reason. She knew the stress was literally killing her daughter.

That December, Louise and her father went to Berlin, where he handled the legal details for her split.

Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein 1831-1917

They also met with Kaiser Wilhelm II, Louise’s cousin and matchmaker. Did Wilhelm try to convince Louise to stay? Or was he just trying to get to the bottom of why she and Aribert had split? We may never know. What we do know is that there was some hostility there – Louise’s dad, Prince Christian, threatened to go before the German federal council and tell them all why his daughter had left her husband. Faced with a public scandal of epic proportions, Wilhelm agreed that Louise’s marriage should be dissolved.

The annulment was proclaimed in Anhalt on December 10, 1900.

But that didn’t solve the problem for Louise. She believed she was still married according to the laws of the Church of England, and for the rest of her life, acted as such. She never dated or remarried. Louise’s uncle, soon to be King Edward VII, is believed to have said, “Poor Marie Louise, she came back just as she went!” (King, 58)

The implication? Louise’s marriage had never been consummated and she was still a virgin.

King Edward VII is believed to have said, “Poor Marie Louise, she came back just as she went!” The implication? Her marriage had never been consummated and she was still a virgin.

Many years later, in her memoir, Louise took partial responsibility for the collapse of her marriage. She wrote, “I was impetuous and, I fear, often intolerant of the restrictions imposed upon me by what I considered the narrow-minded outlook of those with whom I had to live.” (Louise, 88)

Working Girl

After she left Aribert, Louise moved into a house in London, in South Kensington. And then something strange happened. One day, she was putting away books in her sitting room when her oldest brother, Christian Victor, walked in.

Prince Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein wearing a military uniform. He has a receding hairline and a bushy mustache curling up at the ends.
Louise’s brother, Christian Victor. Image by James Russel & Sons, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He said, “I just came to see that you were all right and happy.” Then he sat down in a chair by the fire, they talked for a few minutes, and then he said she was not to follow him downstairs, that he was happy and everything was all right.

After he left and closed the door behind him, she realized he’d been wearing khaki but not his military medal ribbons. And then she remembered that during the Boer War, British officers were ordered not to wear their medal ribbons, which marked them as high-value targets for the enemy.

During the Boer War, British officers were ordered not to wear their medal ribbons, which marked them as high-value targets for the enemy.

That’s when it finally hit her: Christian Victor had died of enteric fever eighteen months ago in Pretoria. Her sister Thora came over that afternoon, and Louise told her what had happened. Thora, sitting in the same chair, said, “I know he has been here – I can feel it.”

How’s that for a royal ghost story?

Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein in a white evening gown with a pearl necklace.
Louise’s sister, Thora. Unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As a newly separated woman, Louise had a lot of time on her hands. Luckily, her mom knew exactly how to help her give her new life meaning and purpose. After all, Helena was the one who’d founded the Military Nursing Service and helped create a national registry of nurses.

Princess Helena of Great Britain and Ireland 1846-1923

So Helena nudged Louise into helping with her hospital and charity work.

The habit stuck.

For the rest of her life, Louise raised money for hospitals and the arts, chaired committees, visited patients, and founded support organizations. Along with her mom and sister, Louise helped lay the foundation for the modern role of a “working royal.”

Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein in an evening gown with a pearl dog collar, cross necklace, and longer strand of pearls.
An absolutely gorgeous photo of Louise by Lafayette. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As she took on more work and made more appearances, her name showed up in the newspapers frequently. She was referred to as Princess Louise, which confused people because they didn’t know if the papers meant her or her aunt, Princess Louise – Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter. So in 1908, the palace said it would be referring to Louise as “Princess Marie Louise” from here on out.

In 1913, Prince Felix Yusupov visited England for the first time. He went to lunch with Princess Victoria of Battenberg, the older sister of the Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. When Felix said he wanted to enroll at a university in England, Victoria suggested he go talk to Louise – she was the one with friends and contacts in the academic world.

Prince Felix Yusupov wearing a dark suit, white vest and shirt, with a dark tie.
Felix Yusupov painted by R. de San Gallo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So Felix did, and Louise recommended Oxford. He took her advice, and in his memoir, he said that she often came to visit him there as an undergrad. Of course, this was several years before he became world famous as one of the conspirators who murdered Rasputin in 1916. Still…wouldn’t you just love to hear what they talked about during those lunches?

The Great War

When World War I broke out, Louise had no problem deciding between Great Britain and Germany. Although she believed she was legally still married to Aribert, she was British through and through.

Louise moved into Kensington Palace to keep her aunt Beatrice company when her two sons were called up for military duty. She was there to comfort Beatrice when her youngest son, Prince Maurice, was hit by shrapnel and died during the first battle of Ypres on October 27, 1914.

Prince Maurice of Battenberg wearing an elaborately braided military uniform with several medals.
Louise’s cousin, Prince Maurice. Image by Bassano, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Like many royal ladies, Louise wanted to help with the war effort. She set up a 100-bed hospital in Bermondsey and ran it herself for six years, from 1914 to 1920. There, she saw victims of mustard gas die without a word of complaint. It made her all the more determined to do what she could to cheer them up. So when she went to work there, she never wore any sort of uniform – instead, she wore her best dress and hat, which she thought the wounded soldiers would appreciate more.

In 1916, her cousin King George V teased her by saying her husband had done her a solid by kicking her out – what would she have done if she’d been stuck in Berlin with a war going on? Louise said she’d have run away, anything to get back to England. George, still teasing, said he’d have had to intern her. Not missing a beat, Louise replied, “That would have been infinitely preferable to remaining in Germany!” (Louise, 141)

King George V wearing a military uniform with braided shoulder boards, medals, orders, and a sash across his chest.
Louise’s cousin, King George V. Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In 1917, anti-German sentiment in Great Britain was so high that George V changed the name of the royal family from Saxe-Coburg und Gotha to Windsor and ordered the rest of the family to give up and stop using their German titles.

That’s how Louise – formerly a princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, after her father’s title – became the princess of nowhere. Unlike other members of the royal family, Louise and her sister weren’t given new titles.

That’s how Louise – formerly a princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, after her father’s title – became the princess of nowhere.

But why not?

It might have been because neither had heirs to pass them onto. Or it might have been because their dad, from whom their titles descended, was still alive – and retitling them during his lifetime could have been interpreted as a sign of disrespect. In any case, from this point forward, she was formally known as Her Highness Princess Marie Louise…of no place in particular.

The Sound of Silence

One day in the summer of 1918, Louise and her mom and sister had gone to Windsor Castle to have lunch with King George V and Queen Mary.

King George V in a dark suit and Queen Mary in a pale day dress with a pearl necklace and earrings.
George V and Queen Mary. Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

They waited downstairs for longer than usual, and when George finally appeared, one look at his face told them something terrible had happened. Helena asked him what was wrong, and he said he’d just heard that Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and five kids had all been murdered by the Bolsheviks. He was keeping the news out of the press until Alexandra’s sister, Victoria, had been notified.

Louise volunteered to take the horrible news to Victoria, since she was already on her way to Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight. George gave Louise a letter for Victoria, and she left the next day. When she arrived, Louis Mountbatten – Victoria’s husband – came out to meet her on the dock.

Prince Louis Mountbatten, Marquess of Milford Haven, wearing a heavily decorated military uniform with a sash, many medals, a golden chain, and lots of gold braid.
Louis Mountbatten, Marquess of Milford Haven. Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She told him about the terrible letter she had with her, and what it contained. Louis said it would be better if he showed the letter in to Victoria, and Louise agreed.

Later that day, restless and overwhelmed, Victoria suggested she and Louise go out into the garden. Every day for the next three weeks, that’s what they did – worked out their grief in the garden together. She and Victoria never spoke of the Romanov murder again. Later, Victoria wrote her a letter thanking her for just being there and supporting her in silence.

A painting of Victoria Mountbatten dressed in mourning clothes and a black veil.
Louise’s cousin, Victoria Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven. Painting by Philip de László, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In her memoir, Louise wrote, “I have often had to face difficult situations that have needed both tact as well as courage, but never anything so terrible as to inform someone that a much-loved sister and brother-in-law and their five children, had all been murdered.” (Louise, 146)

Living Her Best Life

For almost 40 more years, Louise was a beloved fixture on the British philanthropic scene. One of the organizations she supported for the rest of her life was a nursing home founded by her mother.

The 1912 footage below is labeled as “Princess Louise Opens Extension to Victoria Hospitals” – to me, it looks like she’s there with her mom, Princess Helena (the older woman). What do you guys think?

Here she is in 1920, opening a festival at Walmer Castle to benefit the War Memorial Hospital. We see her giving a speech and shaking hands with the nurses:

And in this clip from 1929, she’s opening a new ward at the King’s College Hospital. You can see her on the left at about 8 seconds in, wearing a big dark coat and holding a bouquet of flowers:

Just a few of the organizations she supported included the Wayfarers’ Trust, the Dockland Settlement, Guide Dogs for the Blind, the British Asthma Association, the British Rheumatic Association, the YMCA Women’s Auxiliary, the United Nations Association, and the Three Arts Club. Her favorite causes were clubs for boys and girls, and the arts.

The arts were a good fit for her – she was passionate about painting, music, and dancing. Enameling was one of her favorite hobbies, and she also painted watercolors that still belong to the royal family today. She had an enameling studio in her Kensington house at Queensbury Place, and often donated her products to charity.

Enameling was one of her favorite hobbies, and she also painted watercolors that still belong to the royal family today.

But her life wasn’t all ballrooms and teacups.

While in Northumberland and County Durham, filling in for her sister at YMCA meetings, one of the activities arranged for her was a visit to a coal mine. When asked if she’d go down into the mine, she said why not? So they put her in a raincoat, helmet, and goggles and took her down to the bottom of the mine. In one spot, she met a miner lying on his back on a ledge, working. Louise asked him if his job was as hard and exhausting as it looked. He said, “Why don’t you see for yourself?” So she did. She crawled up on to the ledge, stretched out, and took the pickax the miner gave her. “Get on with it,” he told her. So she cut a stint of coal, working until the men told her she could stop. When she turned around, she saw them putting the hunks of coal she’d cut into their pockets as souvenirs.

Princess Marie Louise wearing a black lace dress and diamond brooch.
Louise photographed by James Lafayette. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She also learned to drive and had her own car. She once said that if she were younger and a man, she’d have taken up racing. She was said to be the first member of the royal family to smoke in public, the first royal princess to go up in an airplane, and the first to live in a flat. She shocked George V by telling him she sometimes rode the bus – and, if the bus had standing room only, used the hanging strap to hold on.

She was said to be the first member of the royal family to smoke in public, the first royal princess to go up in an airplane, and the first to live in a flat.

In 1925, she visited Ghana, then called the Gold Coast. She arrived 24 hours after the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, had left. Locals thought she must be his wife, and gossiped about why they weren’t traveling together.

Map of Ghana from the 1920s.
Map of the Gold Coast from the British War Office, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

While there, she laid the foundation stone of a hospital, inaugurated a war memorial, and went with the governor on a 1,400-mile tour by car through Ashanti and the Northern Territories. There, she wore pants, lived in a tent, and did the camp cooking herself as she explored the area. In 1926, she published a book of the letters written to her sister on the trip, called Letters from the Gold Coast. She illustrated it with dozens of pictures she’d taken and developed herself.

In 1927, she famously danced with a Pearly King at the annual fundraising dance for the National Association of Street Traders. The Pearly Kings & Queens raise money for charity, and they do it while wearing suits and costumes covered in mother-of-pearl buttons. The first Pearly King, Henry Croft, was a Victorian street sweeper who wore a sequined suit to raise money for charity.

A man and women, both wearing black outfits decorated with thousands of mother-of-pearl buttons sewn on in elaborate decorative patterns.
A Pearly King and Queen. Image by Jack de Nijs / Anefo, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That year, Louise was their guest of honor at the dance, and when she saw John Marriott, the Pearly King of Finsbury, in an outfit with 16,000 pearl buttons, she was fascinated and asked to dance with him. Marriott was nervous, but said that she was so nice that he forgot to be nervous and ended up having a great time. He also liked the fact that she called him “Pearly.”

You can see Louise opening a fair that includes the Pearly Kings and Queens in this video – and we get to hear her voice!

Later, in her memoir, she told lots of small, funny stories about the royal family during the interwar years – nothing political, nothing earth-shaking, just human moments of humor and connection. For example, one time, her sister Thora and Archbishop Lang were both guests of King George V at Balmoral.

One day, King George asked Thora what she was going to do that afternoon. She said she was going to play golf with the archbishop. George V replied, “Oh, I will come and walk with you to hear the Archbishop swear when you beat him!” Louise summed up the anecdote with this line: “History does not relate if His Grace did swear, nor what he said when he had to retrieve his ball from a bunker!”

Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein 1870-1948

See what I mean? There’s nothing political in that anecdote. It won’t change history. But it made me laugh, and it humanizes people who are otherwise just distant names on a page.

In this 1934 British Movietone footage, we see Louise, her sister, and Lang (the Archbishop of Canterbury) as he distributes money on Maundy Thursday.

You might also be familiar with Queen Mary’s Doll House. Louise had a hand in that, too. In 1921 at Easter, she found her mom and sister collecting miniature furnishings for Queen Mary, who wanted to create a dollhouse.

Queen Mary in a sparkling evening gown with her garter armband, sash, and a parure of sapphire and diamond jewels.
Queen Mary (wearing the Cambridge sapphires). Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So Louise asked her architect friend, Sir Edwin Lutyens, to design one. Lutyens liked the idea, and together they took it a step further – they envisioned the project as a sort of time capsule that could document royal life as well as the era’s great painters, writers, and craftsmen.

Edwin Lutyens wearing a dark three-piece suit and small, dark, glasses with circular lenses.
Sir Edwin Lutyens. Image by Lawrence Weaver, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Louise acted as a project manager, writing over 2,000 letters during the course of the project. In the end, she got more than 1,500 writers, artists, and craftsmen to contribute. For example, she asked 170 great British writers to contribute original works for the tiny library in the dollhouse. All the writers she asked said yes except for George Bernhard Shaw, whom she said was “very rude.” (Louise, 157)

All the writers she asked said yes except for George Bernhard Shaw, whom she said was “very rude.”

When it was complete, the dollhouse had miniature artworks, newspapers, wine bottles, the king’s red dispatch boxes, and King George’s Daimlers in the garage – all exact copies of the real things. The house also had electricity, elevators, and running water. When it was complete, it was presented as a gift to Queen Mary. In 1924, when it went on display at Wembley, more than 1.5 million people visited it. Today, the dollhouse is on display at Windsor Castle.

Three stories of a doll house, showing a dining room, salon with a piano and formal portraits, and bedrooms and bathrooms.
Queen Mary’s Doll House. Image by Image by Rob Sangster, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

During these years, Louise and her sister lived in London at Schomberg House. They threw parties, hosted concerts, and continued their philanthropic work. You can see her in this 1938 film reel, watching what appears to be a charity cricket match: Authors vs. Actresses!

When Louise accepted a patronage, it wasn’t in name only. She took her duties seriously, which meant, in many cases, acting like a boss. Someone who served on a charity committee with Louise later said, “She can pull a chattering committee together in less time than anyone I ever saw.”

Louise also indulged her love of history and her Napoleon obsession. Or, as she put it in her memoir: “Most people have a hobby. My hobby is Napoleon.” (Louise, 177)

Napoleon seated on a white charger, his golden cloak flaring around him.
“Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She collected as much Napoleonic memorabilia as she could. On her trips to France, she always kept an eye out for items that had been monogrammed with N and the royal bees, buying them whenever possible. She even visited St. Helena to see the place Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo.

A small L-shaped white house with a French flag flying out front.
Longwood House on St. Helena, Napoleon’s home in exile after Waterloo. Image by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She went to visit his empty tomb, and the governor of the island gave her a cutting from a nearby willow tree – the same willow trees Napoleon had requested to be buried beneath if the British buried him on the island.

A tombstone on a grassy clearing surrounded by metal fencing and lots of trees and plants.
Napoleon’s empty tomb on St. Helena. Image by Kevstan, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

World War II

When World War II broke out, Louise and Thora were already old women – and Thora wasn’t well. The authorities told them to leave London. They didn’t want to be responsible for two old women who lived alone very close to government buildings that were targets for bombings.

So she and Thora rented top-floor apartments from a friend who had a house near Ascot. She wrote about watching the British squadrons fly over Ascot as they left on a bombing run. She would count them, and count them again when they returned to see how many never made it back.

Louise watched the British squadrons fly over Ascot as they left on a bombing run; she would count them, and count them again when they returned to see how many never made it back.

Both she and Thora refused to go down into the bomb shelter at night. As she put it, “We came to the conclusion that we would prefer to go down on top of the remnants of the house, rather than that the house should come down on our remains!”

Thora, she said, slept through all the bombings anyway.

Princess Helena Victoria wearing a glittery black evening gown with two long strands of pearls and pearl earrings.
Louise’s sister, Thora. Image by Lafayette, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

They both made it through the war, although their London home was nearly destroyed and they never went back. Instead, they moved 10 Fitzmaurice Place, a building off Curzon Street that had been designed as a shelter for the royal family if Buckingham Palace had been destroyed.

A huge pile of rubble  beside the shells of bombed out buildings on London's Hallam Street.
Bomb damage on London’s Hallam Street. Image from City of Westminster Archives Centre, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It wasn’t a palace or a gorgeous Georgian mansion – it was just a blocky building reinforced with concrete – but Louise didn’t mind the less-than-royal look, or living on the 4th floor. She had no private secretary or an official lady-in-waiting. No security guards were posted outside their home, and if the phone rang, Louise answered it herself. It was just Louise and Thora and a couple close friends, like a royal version of The Golden Girls.

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number

Until, that is, in 1948, when her beloved sister died. Without her best friend and companion, Louise kept doing what she’d always done: supporting her charities and fulfilling her duties as patron of dozens of cultural organizations.

There are a few stories floating around about how much she loved her gin and tonics. According to author Kenneth Rose, in her later years, she “smoked and drank with evident relish.” (192) It’s said that she got drunk before Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and had to be pulled back from the window of her carriage so she wouldn’t fall out.

Princess Marie Louise in a carriage, looking out at the crowd standing along the street.
Louise included a photo of this moment in her memoir (p 225). What do you think? Does she look tipsy?

Obviously, this isn’t something she brought up in her memoir, but she did give the recipe for an alcoholic pick-me-up she highly recommended. To make it, drop an egg white in a tall glass, then fill the glass with iced champagne and whisk the whole thing to make it frothy. She described this as a stimulant, but booze only ever makes me sleepy, so I’ll probably skip this recipe. If you’ve tried it and liked it, let me know!

As Louise aged, her doctors warned her to slow down. She didn’t listen. I found one story in the London Weekly Dispatch about a charity event she and her doctor attended. He reminded her that she’d promised to go home and go to bed at 10, but it was already 11. “Oh, don’t be such an old woman,” Louise said.

“Oh, don’t be such an old woman,” Louise said to the doctor who wanted her to be home in bed by 10 pm.

She loved having a busy schedule – it kept her young, she said. Every morning, no matter how late she got in the night before, she got up at 7 am. Every night, she put on a formal gown for dinner. At least three nights a week, she was out at a ball or charity function. When someone asked her if she wouldn’t just rather have dinner in bed, she reportedly answered, “No. Never.”

We can catch a glimpse of her in this British Pathé newsreel, attending an opera gala put on for the president of Portugal in 1955. I timed the video to play when she makes her entrance – she’s announced, but only on screen for a second:

And sometimes, when she wasn’t invited, she’d crash an event she wanted to go to because…well, because she could. In October of 1954, she heard her friend, Lady Nutting, would be at a meeting of the Leicestershire branch of the British Red Cross Society. She showed up uninvited and told the group: “So here I am – a gatecrasher.” Her excuse? “My mother was one of the original members of the Red Cross when it was started during the Franco Prussian war,” she said

That’s a pretty good excuse, if you ask me.

Princess Marie Louise sitting next to Lady Nutting at a Red Cross meeting.
Louise at the Red Cross event in Leicestershire. Screenshot of the Leicester Evening Mail for October 20, 1954.

I didn’t expect to find another newspaper story that described a robbery. In 1951, she went out to get some groceries and set her wallet down while giving her order at the counter. Someone stole that wallet, which had £8 in it. No word on whether she ever got it back.

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth II suggested Louise write her memoirs. She refused all offers of help, and ended up using a combination of dictation and transcribing to finish the book, despite her arthritis. She even kept working on it during a trip to Africa in 1955, when she flew over Victoria Falls – recreating a flight she’d taken back in 1928.

In 1955, she realized she’d never launched a ship – one of the few traditional royal duties that had never come her way. So she mentioned this to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and what do you know, he arranged for her to christen a frigate called Leopard on May 23, 1955. It just goes to show…it never hurts to ask!

A long frigate with F37 painted on the side.
HMS Jaguar, from the same class of anti-aircraft frigates as the ship Louise launched. Image by Peter Smith, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At age 83, she broke a rib and injured her leg and went to the south of France to rest and recover. There, she stayed with Count Alfred Potocki, a Polish aristocrat and visited with her cousin, Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain.

When her book came out, she was still recovering from that fall and also had laryngitis. She attended a literary lunch in her honor, and designated her friend, actor Ernest Thesiger, to do the talking for her.

In those memoirs, she wrote the following: “Life is such an adventure, so full of unexpected happenings. Even I, at my age, am thrilled at all that is taking place and the developments of this modern time.“

Book cover of Princess Marie Louise's memoir titled, My Memories of Six Reigns

“Life is such an adventure, so full of unexpected happenings. Even I, at my age, am thrilled at all that is taking place and the developments of this modern time.“

In 1956, the year she published those memoirs, she had been a subject of six British monarchs: Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, King George V, King Edward VIII, King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II.  She encouraged everyone reading her book to stand by the new queen who had devoted her life to public service.

Louise died on December 8, 1956 at age 84 – the oldest living member of the royal family at that time. Ironically, several obituaries called her Queen Victoria’s last surviving granddaughter, but she wasn’t. That honor goes to Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone who died in 1981.

Louise was buried at Frogmore in Windsor Castle’s Great Park – right next to her sister, Thora.

Two raised graves in a grassy park. They are seemingly identical with crosses on top.
Louise and Thora’s graves. Image from FindAGrave.com.

Her funeral drew a crowd, including Pearly Kings and Queens. The newsreel script, as you’ll hear, makes the mistake of calling her Queen Victoria’s last surviving granddaughter:

Traditionally, when we think of a princess, we think of a woman whose main job is to provide her husband with an heir. But Louise shows us there’s an alternate path for princesses – doing work that means something, pursuing hobbies, writing books, and making lasting friends. She had wit, charm, intelligence, kindness, humor, loyalty, and a strong sense of duty. I would have loved to sit down with her, have a gin and tonic, and talk about Napoleon. How about you?

The End

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Sources

Books & Articles

King, Greg. Twilight of Splendor. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007.

Mandache, Diana. Dearest Missy: The correspondence between Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia, Duchess of Edinburgh and of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and her daughter, Marie, Crown Princess of Romania, 1879-1900. Falköping, Sweden : Rosvall, 2011.

Marie Louise, Princess. My Memories of Six Reigns. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc. 1956.

Ramm, Agatha, ed. Beloved and Darling Child: Last Letters between Queen Victoria and Her Eldest Daughter 1886-1901. Wolfeboro Falls, NH: Alan Sutton, 1990.

Rose, Kenneth. Who’s Who in the Royal House of Windsor. New York: Crescent Books, 1985.

Van der Kiste, John. Princess Helena: Queen Victoria’s Third Daughter. South Brent, Devon: A&F Publications, 2015.

Yussupov, Felix. Lost Splendor. New York: Cape, 1953. (read it for free online at the Alexander Palace Time Machine website)

Online Sources

Planning the House.” Royal Collection Trust website.

Newspapers

Belfast Telegraph, Birmingham Daily Post, Leicester Evening Mail, Londonderry Sentinel, The New York Times, Nottingham Evening Post, San Francisco Call, St. John Daily Sun, St. Paul Globe, Toronto Saturday Night, Weekly Dispatch, Western Morning News, Western Daily Press, Westminster Gazette

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