Is the name Franziska Josepha Louise Augusta Marie Christina Helena of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg too much to trip off your tongue? Let’s just call her Louie, like her family did.
Princess Louie was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her mother was Princess Helena, the third daughter of Queen Victoria, and her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. She had four siblings, three of whom lived to adulthood. Born in 1872 at Cumberland House, Windsor, she spent most of her childhood in close physical proximity to her grandmother the Queen.
Like women of her class, she was educated privately and traveled with her family as they made their seasonal rounds between households. Also, like women of her social milieu, she spent much time in charitable endeavors and was encouraged to think of service to others as central to her mission in life. It was fun childhood, with lots of time spent outdoors and an enormous family nearby. It was also a privileged and sequestered existence.
You could assume Louie would marry and live out a conventional life, but her journey took a strange turn. In 1891, she became engaged to a man she had known for only four weeks, Prince Aribert Joseph Alexander of Anhalt, a Duke of a sovereign duchy in the German empire. From her accounts, the Prince was charming and flattering and attentive, all the things the Princess wanted in a husband. The wedding was grand, held in St. George’s Chapel with the royal family in attendance.
The couple moved to the duchy, and immediately the fairytale fell apart. The Prince dropped all pretense of charm and was cold and uninterested in spending time with her. The duchy was strange and inhospitable to her as well. Louie escaped when she could, visiting her many cousins who lived on the continent and returning to her mother when possible. The couple may have spent their lives living separately if not for a couple of events.
In 1900 the Boer War in South Africa created a frenzy of anti-British sentiment in the duchy, and the foreign-born Princess was the brunt of much of it. With her grandmother’s permission, Louie embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada. While in Ottawa, she received word from her mother. Louie’s father-in-law wanted her to return to the duchy immediately. Her husband wanted a divorce, based on the grounds that she had ‘neglected her marital duties’ and made his life ‘intolerable’.
At times like these, it is a benefit to have a grandmother who is one of the most powerful women in the world. Queen Victoria was not going to have her grandchild return to Germany in shame and face what, in her view, were unfounded and cruel allegations. Always well-informed, the Queen knew of the distant and cold relationship between the couple. She also knew that there had been rumors that Prince Aribert was homosexual or bisexual and had no interest in his wife. She told Louie to return to England.
Many machinations occurred behind the scenes but eventually, the marriage was annulled. Louie could have disappeared into obscurity at that point, but she was a resilient and creative personality. She still considered the bonds of marriage to be forever, so she did not remarry. However, she did establish a jewelry studio in London, actively support the arts, and start what was to become the Princess Club.
The Princess Club provided ante-natal care to mothers, including home nursing visits. Louie also took a keen interest in the Girl Guides, and made it part of the Club’s portfolio. The Club was converted to a hospital during the First World War. In the old school royal way, she organized visits from her well-heeled and connected friends. She made sure they dressed to the nines when visiting the patients, as to pay the suffering “the highest compliment”.
Louie remained an active member of the extended British royal family and required jewels for many events. The Cartier Indian Tiara was made for her at some point in the years following her divorce. Densely loaded with pearls, diamonds, and sapphires, it’s a substantial piece. There are some Indian elements, but the jewel is definitely from Cartier and is not of Indian provenance. Louie would eventually leave it to her godson, Prince Richard of Gloucester, who is the current Duke. Other pieces of her jewelry pop up on current royal family members now and then, such as the Marie-Louise Diamond Sunray Brooch, which the Duchess of Cornwall recently wore to the premiere of “No Time to Die”.
Princess Louie died in 1956. Her book, My Memories of Six Reigns, was published shortly before her death, and it’s a great royal read. The indomitable Louie was buried with her sister and parents at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore.