The extraordinary reason William’s visiting Israel
Prince Philip’s four sisters who wed Nazis, a gay uncle and his mother who was locked in an asylum: The extraordinary reason William’s making a controversial visit to Israel
- Prince William due to travel to Israel to visit the grave of his great-grandmother
- Princess Alice of Greece was Prince Philip’s mother and his four eccentric sisters
- The family courted controversy for their political views and acquaintances
However praiseworthy the intention, the chances of a British royal doing something useful to ease the conflict in the Middle East are not high. For years, the Foreign Office has advised Buckingham Palace and its inhabitants to steer clear of the irreconcilable conflict, and in particular of Israel.
In the tinderbox atmosphere, anything the royals do is likely to be used either by Arab or by Israeli propagandists.
So why is Prince William off to Israel this weekend? The answer may lie not in a search for world peace, but in a simpler desire — to please a very old man.
For it is in Jerusalem that Prince Philip’s mother, the former Princess Alice of Greece, lies in state. A strange resting place for a princess who was born at Windsor Castle and died in Buckingham Palace — but then she was a strange woman.
So why is Prince William off to Israel this weekend? The answer may lie not in a search for world peace, but in a simpler desire — to please a very old man
Alice, who caused a sensation striding through the Queen’s Coronation dressed as a nun, died peacefully in 1969 at the age of 84. For some years her remains were kept at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
But it had always been her desire to be buried in Israel, near her aunt and mentor Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia, who was interred in a Russian convent there. And in 1988 that wish was finally granted. Alice’s remains were taken from Windsor to the Russian convent of St Mary Magdalene, above the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
Typically, unrest flared up just at that moment and her son, Philip, was prevented from attending the burial, effectively being told to stay away on political grounds. It was not until six years later, in 1994, that he was allowed to pay a visit.
And though devoted to his mother’s memory and a very religious man, Philip has not been back since.
Prince Charles has been — once — to visit his grandmother’s remains, but that was in the wake of attending an Israeli state occasion, the funeral of Shimon Peres, in 2016.
Now comes William’s turn. This weekend he embarks on a five-day visit that will take in Jordan, Israel and Palestine. And on the last morning of the tour he will go from the Mount of Olives above the Old City of Jerusalem to St Mary Magdalene, where he will pay his respects.
Mother and son: Prince Philip and his mother, the former Princess Alice of Greece (left and right)
Whatever the political advantage of this diplomatic mission — and let us hope there is some — William will at least be able to carry his grandfather’s wishes to visit Alice’s grave.
However, this simple gesture will carry much more significance than a mere bow of a head and a word of remembrance. Prince Philip’s relationship with Alice was complex, fraught, often unhappy — but based on a profound love for a mother he could never quite reach.
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It’s something the old Iron Duke has never spoken about. To him, it would probably seem unmanly to confess an adoration for his mother, or to explain the circumstances of his fractured childhood.
Philip was the last of five children born to Prince Andrew of Greece and Alice, the sister of Earl Mountbatten. At the time of his birth — June 10, 1921 — he was sixth in line to the Greek throne, the same ranking held by Prince Harry in this country today.
Sister act: Prince Philip’s elder siblings (from left) Princesses Sophie, Cecilie, Theodora and Margarita
But the Greek royals were on the run — they had left a nation that decided it preferred to be a republic. They escaped the country in a British warship when Philip was 18 months. It was the start of a peripatetic childhood which would see him separated from both his parents at a terribly tender age.
Initially, the young family settled at a small lodge in the smart Parisian suburb of St Cloud. The house was part of a bigger property owned by his aunt, Marie Bonaparte, who was married to Prince George of Greece.
It was not the happiest of sanctuaries for Philip, who lived there with his parents and four sisters. Not least because his uncle and aunt landlords were such an ill-matched couple.
Prince George — who lived across the garden from them — was in love with his own uncle, Prince Waldemar of Denmark, a man ten years his senior, and made no secret of it.
On George’s wedding night his proclivities became clear, as a letter that Philip’s aunt Marie wrote later to her new husband tells us: ‘You took me that night in a short, brutal gesture, as if forcing yourself,’ she noted. ‘You said, “I hate it as much as you do. But we must do it if we want children”.’
Life was no less complicated in Philip’s own small house, but for different reasons. There was almost no money after the flight from Greece — the bills were mostly being paid by rich aunts — and his sisters, one of them barely 13, were on the hunt for rich husbands.
From the outset, Philip’s mother had also been decidedly odd. She suffered chronic deafness, and had started to dabble in spiritual matters, using a glass on a table-top to spell out words she claimed to receive from ‘another place’.
By the time Philip was eight, Alice had started her long plunge into mental disarray. Her deeply religious beliefs became steadily more eccentric and she took to lying on the floor ‘to develop the power conveyed to her from above’, and claimed she was receiving messages from the spirit world about who were the most suitable husbands for the daughters.
In Christmas that year, Alice fled the Paris house and ended up in a hotel in the south of France where she spent most of Christmas Day in the bath. When she returned, according to the biographer Philip Eade, she declared herself to be ‘the bride of Christ’.
Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh
By this stage, she was hearing voices and believed she was having physical relationships with Jesus and other religious figures.
Psychologists called in to look at her diagnosed schizophrenia and suggested Alice had suffered from frustrated sexual desire. Sigmund Freud — who happened to be close to Alice’s sister-in-law Marie — was consulted and prescribed as a cure a savage dose of X-rays to her ovaries ‘to accelerate the menopause’. Alice at this stage was 44.
Little baby: Prince Philip as a toddler
Just before Philip’s ninth birthday, he returned from a walk to discover his mother had disappeared — taken away by doctors against her will to a mental institution. She tried to escape but was sedated with morphine.
It was the end of family life for Philip. His father Prince Andrew, unable to cope with the crisis and fearful of being left in charge of four daughters and a son, fled to the South of France and was rarely seen again.
Within a year, all four of Philip’s sisters had found themselves husbands, ensuring their escape from the traumatic family home, but leaving behind their brother to be looked after by his aunt and uncle.
Philip neither heard from nor saw his mother for many years, yet he retained a fierce affection for her. Other relations stepped in to see him through the remains of his desperate childhood, while he developed a thick skin and a robust attitude to life — helped by his rough-and-tumble British education at Cheam prep school and Gordonstoun.
As he later said ruefully: ‘My mother was ill, my sisters were married, my father was in the South of France. I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.’
While ‘getting on with it’, the prince developed the protective carapace he wears to this day. But as his biographer Philip Eade points out, when asked many years later in which language the multilingual prince had spoken at home, his shirty but tragic response was: ‘What do you mean, at home?’
Duke of Edinburgh attends the wedding of Prince Tomislav of Yugoslavia to Princess Margarita of Baden at Salem Castle in Bodensee, Germany, accompanied by his mother,
Philip thought often about the mother he had lost, all the more poignantly when reports from her institution suggested she never wanted to see her family again.
He learnt that she had leapt from a window at her Swiss sanatorium, carrying a bundle of laundry, and made it to the nearest railway station before being apprehended. There was nothing he could do.
Philip’s relationship with his father was distant. Prince Andrew was living it up on the Cote d’Azur with a mistress, and spent long periods writing a book justifying his shortcomings in an army career which had led to a court martial for failing to lead his men properly in the Greco-Turkish war of 1922.
The two men almost never met again and it was to his mother that Philip’s thoughts constantly returned. But Princess Alice, released from her sanatorium in 1932, had become reclusive, a lonely drifter staying in modest German B&Bs.
Mother and son were not to meet again until tragedy forced them together in 1937. Philip’s sister Cecilie was killed in an air-crash with her two children and when the family congregated at the funeral, Alice turned up.
By now the princess had turned her back on her royal heritage and was living in a two-bed flat in Athens — ‘humble and squalid’ in the opinion of one who visited.
When war broke out two years later, she stayed on in the country. Once again Philip, now serving in the Royal Navy, was kept at arms-length, and any communication with his mother was complicated by the fact that the Nazis had over-run Greece, and each of her four daughters had married Nazis.
Yet, unknown to Philip, Alice was carrying out an heroic and selfless act under the noses of the Germans. She was sheltering a Jewish couple — something that caused her in 1993 to be posthumously declared ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, Israel’s highest honour to a non-Jew.
After the war, Alice became a nun and founded her own order, the Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. She created world headlines with that appearance at the Queen’s 1953 Coronation, striding up the aisle in her nun’s habit.
The Queen, perhaps a little over-awed by this powerful and odd addition to her family, was happy enough to take some of Alice’s jewels to be added to the engagement ring she wears to this day.
In 1967, when once again the Greek nation turned against the monarchy and ejected King Constantine, Alice, left and came to stay at Buckingham Palace. Frail but lucid, she and Philip at last had the chance to be reunited — and the remaining two years of her life gave Philip ‘inexpressible joy’, as one biographer wrote.
Alice’s determination to be buried in Jerusalem went against family advice, including Philip’s. But the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia remained her greatest inspiration, having herself founded a religious order and been created a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Philip was only expressing his concerns that he would not be able to visit her often enough because the British Government did not want any member of the royals trampling around the minefield of Middle-East conflict.
Now, however, the government is letting William go. And his grandfather must be overjoyed.
For in the heat of the Mount of Olives, in a silent church topped by gilded domes, William will be able to pass on one last message from 97-year old Prince Philip to the mother he loved, but never really knew.
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