Alice Mary Victoria Augusta Pauline 1883-1981, Princess of Great Britain and Ireland and Countess of Athlone, was born at Windsor Castle 25 February 1883, the elder child and only daughter of Prince Leopold George Duncan Albert, first Duke of Albany [qv.], Queen Victoria's fourth and youngest son, and his wife, Princess Helene Friederike Auguste of Waldeck-Pyrmont. Her father died of haemophilia little more than a year after her birth and she was brought up by her mother at Claremont House, near Esher.
In 1904 Princess Alice was married to the younger brother of the future Queen Mary, Prince Alexander of Teck, whose full names were Alexander Augustus Frederick William Alfred George. A serving officer in the British Army, he abandoned his German title in 1917, adopted the family name of Cambridge, and was created Earl of Athlone [qv.].
Princess Alice's lifelong vivacity concealed anxiety and sorrow. Her brother Prince Charles Edward, second Duke of Albany, had at the age of fifteen been taken away from Eton to be brought up in Germany as heir to his uncle, the reigning Duke of Coburg. He entered on his unfortunate inheritance in 1900, became a general in the German Army, fought for his adopted country during Word War I, and was deposed in 1918. In the following year he was stripped of his British dukedom of Albany and later became a fervent supporter of the Nazi regime. These events naturally distressed Princess Alice, whose heart was torn between patriotism and affection for an only brother.
As wife of the governor-general of South Africa in 1923-31 and of Canada in 1940-6, Princess Alice proved a memorable proconsul in her own right: graceful, sympathetic, and perpetually amused. But tragedy struck again in 1928. Her son, Rupert Alexander George Augustus, Viscount Trematon (born 1907), had inherited the haemophilia of his grandfather, Prince Leopold. He died of injuries in a motoring accident from which others might have recovered. A younger son, Maurice Francis George, had died in 1910 before he was six months old. There was also one daughter of the marriage, Lady May Helen Emma Cambridge (born 1906), who married a soldier, (Sir) Henry Abel Smith, governor of Queensland 1958-66.
From marriage until 1923, the Princess and her husband lived in Henry III tower, Windsor Castle. Later they had an apartment in Kensington Palace with a country place at Brantridge Park, Sussex. Lord Athlone's death in 1957 dissolved a partnership of more than half a century but did not deflect his widow from a way of life both industrious and convivial. Well into her tenth decade, she remained an active patron of many institutions; the Royal School of Needlework and the Women's Transport Service (FANY) earned her particular interest. Princess Alice's leisure hours were no less productive, and she would continue to knit even while walking up a mountain at Balmoral.
A sense of adventure as well as of thrift led Princess Alice to travel about London by bus. For many years she similarly crossed the Atlantic each winter in a banana boat, combining her duties as chancellor (1950-71) of the University of the West Indies with a holiday in Jamaica. Several times she revisited South Africa and made the long journey to stay with her son-in-law and daughter in Australia.
Although below middle height, Princess Alice had a patrician presence, with aquiline features, observant eyes, and a stylish sense of fashion. She was an engaging talker and needed little prompting to recall life at Windsor under Queen Victoria, whose unsuspected laughter still rang in the ears of her last surviving granddaughter almost a century later. Not all her memories were benign. She never forgave W. E. Gladstone for having cheated her family of a whole year's civil list when her father died a few days before the start of the fiscal year; or Sir Winston Churchill for filling her drawing-room with pungent cigar smoke during the Quebec conference of 1943. Some of these recollections she confided to an entertaining volume of memoirs, For My Grandchildren (1966). Her views on public affairs were emphatic and not always predictable. When a colonial governor of radical bent expressed his belief in universal suffrage, she replied: Foot, I have never heard such balderdash in my life. Yet she was the first member of the royal family publicly to advocate birth control; and like her cousin King George V, did not harbour a trace of colour prejudice.
Princess Alice, the last surviving member of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert, was also appointed GBE in 1937 and GCVO in 1948. She had many honorary degrees. She died 3 January 1981 at Kensington Palace in her ninety-eighth year. After a funeral service in St George's chapel, Windsor, her remains were buried at Frogmore.
Princess Alice, For My Grandchildren, 1966
Theo Aronson, Princess Alice, 1981
Contributor: Kenneth Rose