The matron – HRH Princess Arthur of Connaught – knew that the man had no idea that she was a granddaughter of Edward VII. She later wrote that she considered the six pence to be one of her most valuable possessions.
The princess, whose Christian name was Alexandra, was the eldest daughter of Princess Louise, and the Duke of Fife. Louise’s marriage was not without controversy, and concerns were raised when she became engaged to Alexander Duff, the then 6th Earl of Fife. Louise was fourth in line to the throne, and her children, who would not be born royal, would come to the throne if neither of her elder brothers had issue. A former member of Parliament, Lord Fife was a wealthy landowner, and a great-grandson of King William IV.
In July 1889, Louise and Fife were married in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace in the presence of Queen Victoria, and other members of the royal family. Queen Victoria’s wedding present was the title Duke of Fife for Louise’s new husband.
The newlyweds moved into one of his “more modest and charming residences,” East Sheen Lodge, “a white, ivory-colored mansion,” near Richmond Park. Alexandra was born at East Sheen Lodge on 17 May 1891, a year after Louise’s first child, a stillborn son. A second daughter, Maud, was born in 1893.
Queen Victoria was the chief sponsor at Alexandra’s baptism, which took place at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Place on June 29, 1891. Victoria “stood by the baptismal font, holding the baby in her arms during the main portion of the service.” The infant was baptised Alexandra Victoria Alberta Edwina Louise, and was styled as The Lady Alexandra Duff, but she was always known as Alix
Alix and her younger sister, Maud, “grew up together, inseparable companions in the nursery, in lessons, in play and in travel,” and most of their time was spent at Mar Lodge in Scotland or in Brighton.
As Louise’s health was fragile, it was unlikely that she would bear a son to inherit the dukedom. Thus, in 1900, Victoria recreated the dukedom that would allow for Alix and Maud (and their male descendants) to succeed.
On the occasion of his 60th birthday on 9 November 1905, King Edward VII bestowed the title Princess Royal on his eldest daughter, Louise (the previous title holder, Bertie’s eldest sister, Victoria, had died in 1901), and he created Alix and Maud Princesses with the rank of Highness.
Winters were often spent in Egypt, due to Louise’s poor health; and in December 1911, the family boarded the P&O Delhi for a voyage that included stops at Gibraltar, Tangier, and Egypt. In her privately printed book, Egypt and Khartoum, Alexandra recounted the tragedy that began in the wee hours of December 13, when the Delhi, in a fierce storm, ran aground at Cape Spartel, Morocco. Alix woke up at about one a.m., “with an uncanny feeling which persists in those occasions; there was something strange, ominous, about the whole thing.”
Everyone was ordered to come to the deck. “Quick as lightning I flung a cost over my nightdress, slipped on some shoes and rushed upon deck, “ Alexandra wrote.
The stewards ushered the passengers into the ship’s saloon, serving coffee and biscuits. “We all sat there with our lifebelts until daybreak.... Every few seconds we received awful shocks, as enormous waves crashed up against the sunken side of our ship, making her give sudden lurches which nearly threw us out of our seats.”
The ship was sinking. Alix, who remained with her parents, and her mother’s doctor, wrote that she wasn’t afraid, “only anxious.... I felt all the time that God was with us, and that somehow we would be saved, whatever happened, and I felt that we would be given strength for whatever we were called upon to face.”
The royal party were the last to get into the lifeboats, and they were only a few yards from land when their lifeboat was overcome by fierce waves. Alexandra was struck in the face by one wave, and pulled into the water, and the surf sucked her under the water. “As I was coming up, I was aware of a heavy weight on top of me, and I fought for my life. My breath and strength were failing me fast, and I went down. I felt the water rushing into me through my nose and I was swallowing it in great gulps. This is death, I thought.”
The strong arms of another passenger pulled Alexandra out of the sea. Maud had also washed out into the sea, but she was closer to land, and her parents managed to grab her, and all three waded to the shore, where they waited anxiously for Alexandra. Eventually, everyone began the five-mile walk through blinding rain across Cape Spartel’s rocky coast. All their baggage and jewels were lost. The duke was wearing only a nightshirt, and the princesses were “hampered at every stage by the weight of their wet night-clothes.” Guided by British sailors and local Moors, the party eventually made their way to Cape Spartel’s lighthouse where the found shelter until mules could be brought to bring them to the British Legation at Tangier. The royal party remained at Tangier for several days before continuing on to Egypt.
The trip to Khartoum, where they were to attend the consecration of the cathedral, was canceled after the Duke of Fife, caught a chill, “which rapidly developed, and in ten days he died of pneumonia,” at Aswan on January 29, 1912.
Alexandra succeeded her father, and was now styled as HH The Duchess of Fife. As a granddaughter to one king, and the first cousin to another (George V), Alix was one of Britain’s most eligible royals. But she had inherited her mother’s shyness, “to a marked degree. As a girl she would turn deathly white and shiver from nervousness if being addressed.”
In 1910, Prince Christopher of Greece, who was one of the Princess Royal’s first cousins, was a guest of the Fifes at Mar Lodge in Scotland, where he “conceived a very obvious passion for the daughter of the house.” He assumed, as he wrote his his memoirs, that the marriage “would meet with everyone’s approval,” as Princess Louise’s younger sister, Victoria, “had promised to arrange everything.”
Christopher and Alix “got engaged on the sly,” but waited for four days before speaking to the Duke of Fife, who, as it turned out, “dispelled any illusion” about a marriage between Alix and Prince Christopher.
Three years later, in July 1913, Alix’s engagement to another of her mother’s first cousins was announced. Prince Arthur of Connaught, was the only son of tghe Duke of Connaugh, Queen Victoria’s third son. Born in 1883, Arthur was destined for a military career, following in the footsteps of his highly regarded father. He went to Eton, and passed out at Sandhurst, and entered military service in 1901, where he received a commission in the Seventh Hussars. He later transferred to the Scots Greys. Prince Arthur carried out numerous royal engagements, and served as a personal ADC to King Edward VII and King George V, representing the sovereign at different events. He also served as a Counsellor of State.
In one of the last major royal events before World War I, King George V gave away his niece at her wedding on October 15, 1913 at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Chapel. The bride spoke in a tone “so low that it was almost inaudible.” She wore a bridal gown made from “white satin charmeuse, heavily embroidered with pearls,” and the “veil of tulle [was] richly embroidered with Brussels lace. On her head was a wreath of orange blossoms and heather,” and “ a magnificent rope of pearls” hung around her neck, which was a gift from her mother.
Nearly all of the royal family was present, although no foreign royals were invited, apart from close family members: Queen Maud and King Haakon VII of Norway, and Arthur’s older sister, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden. Grand Duke Michael of Russia and his morganatic wife, Countess Sophie Torby, were also among the royal guests.
The bride was attended by her younger sister, Maud, Princess Mary (George V’s daughter), and Princesses Mary, Helena and May of Teck. Prince Arthur was supported by his father, the duke of Connaught, and the Prince of Wales. A reception followed in the throne room at St James’s Palace, and when the newly-married TRH Prince and Princess Arthur of Connaught left the palace, “the crowd cheered frantically.... and the King and Queen pelting the bride and bridegroom with rice.”
The honeymoon was spent at Waldorf Astoria’s home, Rest Harrow, at Sandwich Bay, which was located next to a golf course, where Prince Arthur was able to indulge in his passion for golf.
Marriage to Prince Arthur brought a great change to Alix’s personality, as she had lost her “shy manner.” During a trip to Madrid in November 1913, the former “timid, embarrassed girl,” who had “come out wonderfully since her marriage.” During her stay with her cousin, Queen Ena of Spain, Alix was “transformed in a smart, merry woman of the world, smoking cigarettes, and dancing the tango.”
London society was, according to a report in The New York Times, was amazed by Alix’s transformation, and predicted that “the wealthy bride will shine radiantly.” Queen Ena and her brother, Prince Alexander of Battenberg, were given credit for Alix’s new confidence.
On August 9, 1914, Alexandra gave birth to the couple’s only child, Alastair Arthur. The little prince was christened on 25 August, in the presence of the King George V and Queen Mary. His godparents included the King, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Queen Alexandra, the Princess Royal, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and the Duke of Connaught. For the first three years of his life, Alastair was styled as HH Prince Alastair of Connaught. When George V issued a letters patent in July 1917 that limited the title of Prince or Princess to the children of the sovereign and the grandchildren of the sovereign in the male line, little Alastair ceased to be a prince. He received a surname – Windsor - and was styled as Earl of Macduff, the secondary title of his mother’s dukedom.
During World War I, Prince Arthur saw active service as a captain in the Scots Greys. The war found Alix taking on new challenges, too. She was very much interested in nursing, and she wrote in her privately printed book, A Nurse’s Story, “... the lives of most people were abruptly and unmistakably changed.” The princess could have been referring to herself as well. Alix wanted to do something more useful than the usual official visits to visit wounded soldiers in hospitals. She became a nurse.
“Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a nurse.... but I never thought there would be the remotest possibility of my dream coming true,” she wrote. “When I married, my dream of being a nurse was further off than ever. Then the war came, and opportunity beckoned.” Prince Arthur was “the first to approve,” and he took his wife to St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington to meet the matron. The princess began her medical training, feeling “very much alone.” She passed her nursing exams, using the name “Nurse Marjorie.”
In 1915, she joined the staff at St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington, where she worked as a fully trained nurse until the war's end. She continued to train at St. Mary's, where she became a state registered nurse in 1919. She received a first prize award for a paper she had written on eclampsia, and she was awarded a certificate of merit at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, where she had specialized in gynecology.
In 1920, Prince Arthur was appointed Governor General of South Africa where he and Alix were immensely popular -- the Princess was active in hospitals, child welfare and maternity work. The couple returned to London three years later, and the princess resumed her nursing career. She worked at University College Hospital and Charing Cross Hospital, where her specialization was surgery, and she was capable of performing minor operations. In July 1925, she received the badge of the Royal Red Cross for her service to the nursing profession.
Prince Arthur died of cancer in 1938. A year later, Alix opened her own nursing home in Bentinck Street, London. She financed the entire operation, including the purchase of the equipment. The Fife Nursing Home was open for more than ten years; it was only until Princess Arthur's health -- she suffered from acute rheumatoid-arthritis --that forced the closure of the nursing home in 1949. The Princess retired to her home in Regent's Park.
The Princess had also served as a Counsellor of State during King George VI's absences abroad. She was also the president and patron of the Royal British Nurses' Association and the patron of the Plaistown Maternity Hospital.
In 1942, Alix’s father-in-law, the Duke of Connaught died, and was succeeded by the Earl of Macduff, who was also heir to his mother’s dukedom. A year later, the 28-year-old Duke died in Ottawa, Canada, where he was the guest of the Governor-General, the Earl of Athlone, and his wife, Princess Alice. Alastair was, according to biographer Theo Aronson, "a pleasant, but utterly vague and feckless young man ... his irresponsibility was such, in fact, that it killed him.”
The cause of death was hypothermia, as the Duke was found dead in his bedroom, lying on the floor, near an open window.
For Alexandra, the death of her only child “was a crushing blow and a great shock.”
Ill-health kept Alix from playing an active role in the final years of her life. Several days after developing pneumonia, HRH Princess Arthur of Connaught, Duchess of Fife, died on 26 February 1959. The heir to the Fife dukedom was Alix’s nephew, James, the son of Princess Maud, who had died in 1945, and her husband, the Earl of Southesk. The princess’s two books, A Nurse’s Story, and Egypt and Khartoum were printed for private circulation by John & Edward Bumpus Ltd, in 1955 and 1956, respectively.
This article was first published in Majesty magazine.