HRH Princess Helena (Helena Augusta Victoria; May 25, 1846 –June 9, 1923) was the third daughter and fifth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Princess Helena was born at Buckingham Palace, the official royal residence in London of Queen Victoria. With Princess Helena birth on May 25, 1846, it was the day after her mother’s 27th birthday. Her father, Prince Albert, reported to his brother, Ernst II, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, that Helena “came into this world quite blue, but she is quite well now”.
Princess Helena (right) with her brother Prince Alfred. Helena was Alfred’s favourite sister. Portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.
Prince Albert also said to his brother that the Queen “suffered longer and more than the other times and she will have to remain very quiet to recover. Albert and Victoria chose the names Helena Augusta Victoria. The German nickname for Helena was Helenchen, later shortened to Lenchen, the name by which members of the royal family invariably referred to Helena.
As the daughter of the sovereign, Helena was styled Her Royal Highness The Princess Helena from birth. Helena was baptised on July 25, 1846 at the private chapel at Buckingham Palace. Her godparents were the Prince Friedrich-Wilhelm, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (the husband of Queen’s cousin); Princess Helene, Duchess of Orléans (for whom the Queen’s mother the Duchess of Kent stood proxy); and Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge (the Queen’s aunt).
Helena was a lively and outspoken child, and reacted against brotherly teasing by punching the bully on the nose. Her early talents included drawing. Lady Augusta Stanley, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, commented favourably on the three-year-old Helena’s artwork.
Like her sisters, she could play the piano to a high standard at an early age. Other interests included science and technology, shared by her father Prince Albert, and horseback riding and boating, two of her favourite childhood occupations. However, Helena became a middle daughter following the birth of Princess Louise in 1848, and her abilities were overshadowed by her more artistic sisters.
Death of Prince Albert
Helena’s father, Prince Albert, died on December 14, 1861. The Queen was devastated, and ordered her household, along with her daughters, to move from Windsor to Osborne House, the Queen’s Isle of Wight residence. Helena’s grief was also profound, and she wrote to a friend a month later: “What we have lost nothing can ever replace, and our grief is most, most bitter … I adored Papa, I loved him more than anything on earth, his word was a most sacred law, and he was my help and adviser … These hours were the happiest of my life, and now it is all, all over.”
The Queen relied on her second eldest daughter Princess Alice as an unofficial secretary, but Alice needed an assistant of her own. Though Helena was the next eldest, she was considered unreliable by Victoria because of her inability to go long without bursting into tears. Therefore, Louise was selected to assume the role in her place. Alice was married to Prince Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine in 1862, after which Helena assumed the role—described as the “crutch” of her mother’s old age by one biographer—at her mother’s side. In this role, she carried out minor secretarial tasks, such as writing the Queen’s letters, helping her with political correspondence, and providing her with company.
Princess Helena began an early flirtation with her father’s former librarian, Carl Ruland, following his appointment to the Royal Household on the recommendation of Baron Stockmar in 1859. He was trusted enough to teach German to Helena’s brother, the young Prince of Wales, (future King Edward VII) and was described by the Queen as “useful and able”. When the Queen discovered that Helena had grown romantically attached to a royal servant, he was promptly dismissed back to his native Germany, and he never lost the Queen’s hostility.
Following Ruland’s departure in 1863, the Queen looked for a husband for Helena. However, as a middle child, the prospect of a powerful alliance with a European royal house was low.
Her appearance was also a concern, as by the age of fifteen she was described by her biographer as chunky, dowdy and double-chinned. Furthermore, Victoria insisted that Helena’s future husband had to be prepared to live near the Queen, thus keeping her daughter nearby. Her choice eventually fell on Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg; the match was politically awkward, and caused a severe breach within the royal family.
Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg
Schleswig and Holstein were two territories fought over between Prussia and Denmark during the First and Second Schleswig Wars. In the latter, Prussia and Austria defeated Denmark, but the duchies were claimed by Austria for Prince Christian’s family. However, following the Austro-Prussian War, in which Prussia invaded and occupied the duchies, they became Prussian, but the title Duke of Schleswig-Holstein was still claimed by Prince Christian’s family.
The marriage, therefore, horrified King Christian IX of Denmark’s daughter, Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who exclaimed: “The Duchies belong to Papa.” Alexandra found support in her husband, his brother Prince Alfred, and his second sister, Princess Alice, who openly accused her mother of sacrificing Helena’s happiness for the Queen’s convenience.
Princess Helena and Prince Christian
Alice also argued that it would reduce the already low popularity of her sister, the Crown Princess of Prussia, at the court in Berlin. However, and unexpectedly, the Crown Princess, who had been a personal friend of Christian’s family for many years, ardently supported the proposed alliance.
In September 1865, while visiting Coburg, The Princess Helena met Prince Christian for the first time.
Despite the political controversies and their age difference—he was fifteen years her senior—Prince Christian was 35 and Helena was 21 at the time of her marriage-Helena was happy with Christian and was determined to marry him. As a younger son of a non-reigning duke, the absence of any foreign commitments allowed him to remain permanently in Britain—the Queen’s primary concern—and she declared the marriage would go ahead.
Helena and Christian were actually third cousins in descent from Frederick-Louis, Prince of Wales. Relations between Helena and Alexandra remained strained, and Alexandra was unprepared to accept Christian (who was also a third cousin to Alexandra in descent from King Frederik V of Denmark) as either a cousin or brother-in-law.
The Queen never forgave the Princess of Wales for accusations of possessiveness, and wrote of the Waleses shortly afterwards: “Bertie is most affectionate and kind but Alix [pet name for Alexandra] is by no means what she ought to be. It will be long, if ever, before she regains my confidence.”
Engagement and wedding
The engagement was declared on December 5, 1865, and despite the Prince of Wales’s initial refusal to attend, Princess Alice intervened, and the wedding was a happy occasion.
The Queen allowed the ceremony to take place at Windsor Castle, albeit in the Private Chapel rather than the grander St George’s Chapel on July 5, 1866. The Queen relieved her black mourning dress with a white mourning cap which draped over her back.
Seven days before the wedding, on 29 June 1866, the Queen granted her future son-in-law the style of Royal Highness by Royal Warrant. This Royal Warrant was only valid in the United King, in the North German Confederation where Prince Christian had the style of Highness.
The main participants filed into the chapel to the sound of Beethoven’s Triumphal March, creating a spectacle only marred by the sudden disappearance of Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, who had a sudden gout attack. Christian filed into the chapel with his two supporters, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar and Prince Frederic of Schleswig-Holstein, and Helena was given away by her mother, who escorted her up the aisle with the Prince of Wales and eight bridesmaids.
Christian looked older than he was, and one guest commented that Helena looked as if she was marrying an aged uncle. Indeed, when he was first summoned to Britain, he assumed that the widowed Queen was inspecting him as a new husband for herself rather than as a candidate for one of her daughters. The couple spent the first night of their married life at Osborne House, before honeymooning in Paris, Interlaken and Genoa.
Helena and Christian were devoted to each other, and led a quiet life in comparison to Helena’s sisters. Following their marriage, they took up residence at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, the traditional residence of the Ranger of Windsor Great Park, the honorary position bestowed on Christian by the Queen. When staying in London, they lived at the Belgian Suite in Buckingham Palace.
The couple had six children: Christian Victor in 1867, Albert in 1869, and Helena Victoria and Marie Louise in 1870 and 1872 respectively. Their last two sons died early; Harald died eight days after his birth in 1876, and an unnamed son was stillborn in 1877. Princess Louise, Helena’s sister, commissioned the French sculptor Jules Dalou to sculpt a memorial to Helena’s dead infants.
The Christians were granted a parliamentary annuity of £6,000 a year, which the Queen requested in person. In addition, a dowry of £30,000 was settled upon, and the Queen gave the couple £100,000, which yielded an income of about £4,000 a year. As well as that of Ranger of Windsor Park, Christian was given the honorary position of High Steward of Windsor, and was made a Royal Commissioner for the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, he was often an absentee figurehead at the meetings, instead passing his time playing with his dog Corrie, feeding his numerous pigeons, and embarking on hunting excursions.
Helena, as promised, lived close to the Queen, and both she and Beatrice performed duties for her. Beatrice, whom Victoria had groomed for the main role at her side, carried out the more important duties, and Helena took on the more minor matters that Beatrice did not have time to do. In later years, Helena was assisted by her unmarried daughter, Helena Victoria, to whom the Queen dictated her journal in the last months of her life.