Skip to main content
Updated date:

Helena, Duchess of Albany: Determined to Make the World a Better Place

Princess Helena, Duchess of Albany is a great example of a princess that history overlooks.

Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont, Duchess of Albany (1861-1922).

Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont, Duchess of Albany (1861-1922).

Princess of Waldeck and Pyrmont

Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont (1861-1922) was the daughter of George Victor (1831-1893,) Sovereign Prince of the Principality of Waldeck and Pyrmont (in today’s Hesse and Lower Saxony, Germany) and Princess Helena of Nassau (1831-1888.) By the 17th February 1861, baby Helena’s arrival at Arolson Castle, they’d been married for eight years and had four daughters.

Helena, as she would be known in Britain, was a Serene Highness. She was christened Helene Friederike Auguste. The family was related to the British royals through George II’s daughter Anne, Princess Royal, Princess of Orange (1709-1759.)

Understanding the importance of negotiating perfect inter-royal marriages, Mother Helena kept a keen eye on the marriage market and, in modern terms, networked to build relationships with prominent European royal houses that through marriage would raise the prestige and fortune of the Waldeck-Pyrmonts. The children were raised in the Lutheran faith by a liberally minded clergyman. Helena was intelligent, excelled at mathematics and philosophy and had a strong sense of duty.

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884). Queen Victoria's youngest son's life was curtailed by health issues.

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884). Queen Victoria's youngest son's life was curtailed by health issues.

Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany's Hunt for a Wife

In 1881, twenty-year-old Helena first met Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany (1853-1884,) the youngest son of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-1861) when he paid a visit to his brother in law Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine (1837-1893.) The meeting was arranged by a matchmaking Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia and Princess Royal (1840-1901,) Leopold’s eldest sister.

Leopold suffered from hemophilia and mild epilepsy. He was frustrated by Queen Victoria’s insistence that he was too ill to embrace life. Marriage appeared to him to be the perfect route to independence. Although his hemophilia was known, it was the epilepsy, more understood than hemophilia then, that made potential brides shy away from him. Epilepsy carried an unfortunate stigma similar to the one mental illness does today. It was not an obstacle for Helena.

In November 1881 Leopold and Helena became engaged. He was ecstatic and extolled her virtues in a letter to Ludwig IV. Queen Victoria grew fond of Helena and was impressed by her intellect which matched Leopold’s.

Claremont House in Esher, Surrey circa 1860. The Duke and Duchess of Albany's first and last marital home.

Claremont House in Esher, Surrey circa 1860. The Duke and Duchess of Albany's first and last marital home.

One Royal Wedding, One Royal Death

Sovereign Prince George Viktor and Willem III, King of the Netherlands (1817-1890) walked Helena down the aisle at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor on the 27th April 1882. Helena’s dress was a gift from her sister, Queen Emma of the Netherlands (1858-1934.) It was made from white satin adorned with orange blossom and myrtle. A generous number of British and European royals, Maharajahs, ambassadors and members of the royal household attended the wedding. The service went well and featured a newly composed wedding march. A banquet followed.

Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Albany (a raise in status for Helena who was previously a serene highness) spent their honeymoon at their marital home, Claremont House in Surrey, once the residence of the spirited but tragic Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817) and her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, later the King of the Belgians (1790-1865.)

At the time of the wedding, they were unaware that Helena’s sister Marie was dying from complications after childbirth. She passed away on the 30th April and Helena went into official mourning as soon as she was informed.

Young Royal Widow Finds a Purpose

On the 25th February 1883, a daughter Alice was born to the couple. Helena fell pregnant again and the future seemed bright. Catastrophically, Leopold tripped over and bled to death on the 28th March 1884 whilst holidaying in Cannes. Leopold Charles Edward, his son and Duke of Albany from birth, was born posthumously on the 19th July 1884.

Helena was a single parent to two children and had enjoyed less than two years as a wife. She was far from her birthplace and family. Helena must have been overwhelmed by her circumstances but she acted with admirable dignity. There were no tales of her misbehaving or eschewing duty.

Helena, Alice and Leopold, known as Charlie, remained at Claremont House. She dedicated her time to them and charitable work, including the establishment of The Albany, a theatre and arts centre which still thrives (Covid permitting) through the Deptford Fund for dockworkers in Deptford, London. For more information on The Albany, see their website's history page.

In 1888 she lost her mother who was aged fifty seven. Helena senior had suffered from declining health for the last decade of her life. George Viktor remarried and had another son named Wolrod. George Viktor passed away in 1893, aged sixty one.

It was rumoured in 1901 that the former British Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929) expressed an interest in marrying Helena but this came to nothing.

After decades working on behalf of disadvantaged people in her adopted country, Helena died on the 1st September 1922 from a heart attack whilst visiting Charlie in Hinteriss in the Tyrol, Austria. She was only sixty one years old. She was buried at the Friedhof Callenberg. Her son was laid to rest there in 1954.

Helena's life was a mixture of smiles and sorrows and above all else, of duty.

Princess Alice of Albany, later the Countess of Athlone. (1883-1981).

Princess Alice of Albany, later the Countess of Athlone. (1883-1981).

Helena's Children's Mixed Fortunes

In 1904 Princess Alice married Prince Alexander of Teck (1874-1957,) Queen Mary’s brother. They became the Earl and Countess of Athlone in 1917 when Germanic titles were discarded. Hemophilia caused tragedy in their lives too, taking two sons, Maurice and Rupert. Their daughter May went on to have three children, her son did not have the disease. Alice was a much-loved royal and for a time she held the record as the longest ever living royal, dying aged ninety-seven in 1981. The Queen Mother (1900-2002) surpassed her record in 1997.

Charlie fell from grace. He became Karl Eduard, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1900 when his uncle Prince Alfred (1844-1900) died. His only son Alfred had predeceased him in 1899. Queen Victoria and Helena believed that this role was a wonderful opportunity for Charlie but as his life played out his reputation darkened. Under the overbearing influence of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1857-1942) he fought for Germany during the First World War, lost his British titles in 1917 and when Helena died in 1922 he was not permitted to inherit his childhood home Claremont House. It left royal ownership after one hundred and sixteen years.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie/Karl Eduard was a prominent Brown Shirt and Nazi. He was imprisoned and tried as a war criminal at the conclusion of World War Two. He was fined heavily by the allies, almost bankrupted, and retired quietly to live out his final years in a schloss that he still owned. His grandson King Carl XVI Gustaf (b.1946) has ruled Sweden since the 15th September 1973.

Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. (1884-1954).

Charles Edward, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. (1884-1954).

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Related Articles