One of the key collections in the Archives at the University of Southampton is that of Earl Mountbatten of Burma. His official papers are well known, covering his long naval career, his role as last Viceroy of India, and later, at the Admiralty and Ministry of Defence – but the archive also includes personal papers relating to his early life; a remarkable and extensive collection of family photographs; and archives of the German branch of the Battenberg family.
Mountbatten’s mother was Princess Victoria Alberta Elisabeth Mathilde Marie of Hesse, the eldest daughter of Ludwig IV, grand duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and his first wife Princess Alice – second daughter of Queen Victoria. His father was Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg, the son of Prince Alexander of Hesse. Victoria and Louis were first cousins in a large and close family – Victoria tells many anecdotes of her childhood in her recollections, and she describes a happy and affectionate home-life in the ‘New Palace’ at Darmstadt. There were frequent trips to relatives in Germany, Prussia, and England: often there was sea-bathing at Osborne in the summer. During a long stay in England in 1871/2:
“We were all at Balmoral first, while Uncle Bertie* and his family were at Abergeldie and we children saw a great deal of each other. Unfortunately all the children of both families contracted whooping cough there and I remember a dismal November at the top of Buckingham Palace shut away, coughing my head off.” [*Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII]
When they were over the worst of the illness there was plenty of fun to be had:
“We found in the former nurseries strange sorts of bicycles with saddles, and adorned with horses’ heads and tails, which had belonged to our uncles and on which we careered down the corridor…”
All the young cousins then moved to Windsor: “and we were a very merry party of children. Our wild romps in the great corridor… were often interrupted by one of the pages bringing a message from the Queen that she would not have so much noise…”
“There were lovely corners and curtains behind which one could hide and leap out in the dark. Outside the Queen’s room there was always a table with lemonade and water and a side dish of biscuits which we used to pilfer secretly.”
These were happy years for Victoria. Tragedy struck the family at the end of 1878, when both her mother and youngest sister Marie died from diphtheria – Victoria was just 15. She wrote:
“My mother’s death was an irreparable loss to us all and left a great gap in our lives… My childhood ended with her death, for I became the eldest and most responsible of her orphaned children.”
The early loss of their mother caused Queen Victoria to take a special interest in the children – and the Queen was to become very fond of Prince Louis too – although:
“Grandmama was at first not very pleased at our engagement as she wished me, as the eldest, to continue looking after the younger ones and keeping my father company… However she consented to the engagement on condition we did not marry until the following year.”
They married at the palace in Darmstadt on 30 April 1884.
This photograph shows Victoria with her sisters in 1885: from left to right: ‘Ella’ (Elisabeth), the wife of Grand Duke Serge of Russia; Victoria; Irene, who married Prince Henry of Prussia in 1888; and Alix, who became the Tsarina, wife of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, in 1889.
Victoria made many summer visits to her sisters in Russia. When Serge was assassinated in Moscow in 1905 by an anarchist’s bomb – thrown at close quarters into his carriage – Victoria went to Ella immediately to offer support. In the summer of 1914, as the political situation deteriorated, she set off on her usual trip to Moscow, travelling first to Perm and from there on a tour of the Ural Mountains, stopping off twice at Ekaterinburg; but this trip was destined to be cut short. Alix called them back to St Petersburg as the outbreak of war threatened. They arrived on the evening of 4th August, the day that England declared war. Alix helped them to make hurried preparations and they took a special train to the Russian frontier at Tornio, making their escape via Finland, Sweden and Norway. From Bergen they sailed on “the last ship” back to England. Victoria writes:
“I little dreamt that it was the last time I should ever see my sisters again.”
Her written reminiscences end in 1914. She explains to the reader:
“I intend to finish these recollections with the outbreak of the Great War as I find it unnecessarily depressing to go through the experiences of that time during the second Great War. Anyhow my children were sufficiently grown up by then to have recollections of their own to take the place of mine.”
So she seems to have written these recollections during WWII, for the benefit of her four children:
This photo of the Battenberg family was taken c. 1902. Princess Victoria is seated in the middle, with Prince Louis Francis on her lap. On her left sits her husband Prince Louis Alexander, and on her right, her eldest daughter, Princess Alice. Prince George (dressed in a white sailor suit) sits in front of his father while Princess Louise sits on the floor. Louis was born on 25th June 1900 at Frogmore House, Windsor – and was christened Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas of Battenberg on 17th July that year. He was Queen Victoria’s last godson – she held him at the christening – and baby Louis knocked her spectacles off her nose.
Victoria died in 1950 after a long life. By that time she was a grandmother and great grandmother. Her biographer states: “she remained throughout her life a determined, stalwart figure, given to progressive ideas and with an interest in socialism and philosophy.” Mountbatten remembers her remarkable intelligence and quickness; that she was talkative and forthright, very well read, and with a phenomenal memory – her family felt her death acutely.
The reminiscences of Victoria, first Marchioness of Milford Haven, form part of the Archive of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, MS 62 MB21.