In a dramatic intimate moment of the first episode of the new season of ‘The Crown’, Prince Philip says to his daughter Princess Anne, “A Battenberg refuses to give in”. Who were the Battenbergs and why did this sentiment apply to recent members of the House of Windsor?
More than just the namesake of a very sweet cake, the Battenbergs were created princes by the Grand Duke of Hesse in 1858, but they made their mark on history in other arenas, from Bulgaria in the 1880s to Great Britain in the early decades of the twentieth century—and then carrying on in Britain, though under an inverted name: Mountbatten (berg being the word for mountain in German). On the surface, this family was just a cadet branch of the second-tier German princely house of Hesse. But in fact, their lineage stretches back to the very earliest days of German history and also to the earliest building blocks of what is today’s Kingdom of Belgium, as dukes of Brabant. The medieval dynasty took its name from the town of Leuven (or Louvain in French), east of Brussels—and even gave its name to an English queen (Adeliza de Louvain, wife of Henry I), and the regenerated dynasty of the Percy earls of Northumberland descended from Adeliza’s brother, Josceline.
In the 20th century, a Battenberg was Queen of Spain, a Battenberg was Queen of Sweden, and one married the cherished daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Beatrice. Possibly the most famous of all was Prince Louis of Battenberg, who changed his name to Mountbatten as a teenager, and rose to become First Sea Lord and last Viceroy of India. He was also uncle and surrogate father to Prince Philip of Greece (who also took Mountbatten as his surname, as his mother’s name, though he was really an Oldenburg)—and thus the inspiration behind the line of dialogue from ‘The Crown’.
This short overview will look at the ancestry of the House of Battenberg, the successes and failures of its earliest members, and some of their current whereabouts, and will also look, as usual, at some of the residences that can be visited by the intrepid tourist: from Schloss Heiligenberg in central Germany to Broadlands in southern England.
We can start with Battenberg Castle itself: although it gave its name to the family, they did not live there. Dominating the centre of the Eder river valley (the same one known to my Church of the Brethren friends and relatives as the birthplace of the denomination), on the borders between Hesse and Westphalia, Battenberg was the seat of powerful medieval counts before they became extinct in the 14th century. It then became property of the Landgraves of Hesse, who rebuilt the ruined castle as a hunting lodge in the 18th century. The coat of arms is very simple, a black and white shield.
What is a Landgrave of Hesse? Hesse is the state at the very centre of Germany, formed in the Middle Ages from the disintegration of the ancient Duchy of Franconia. At first they dominated the Upper Weser river valley, between their capital cities of Kassel and Marburg, but gradually the landgraves (a landgraf is a count of a land or region) expanded their holdings to the south and west, incorporating counties as far as a great bend in the Rhine (the Katzenelnbogen), and establishing a second capital, Darmstadt. It is from the Darmstadt branch that the Battenbergs descend—more on them later.
The House of Hesse originated in the House of Louvain, starting with a certain Giselbert, a count who was given control by the Emperor of the region around the river Meuse / Maas in the mid-9th century. This area was at the time known as Lower Lotharingia (or Lower Lorraine), and gradually evolved into the Duchy of Brabant, with its capital in Brussels. The family’s control of the area was solidified through the marriage in the early 11th century of Lambert of Louvain and Gerberga, daughter of Duke Charles of Lotharingia, one of the last of the Carolingians, the descendants of Charlemagne. The dukes of Brabant gained in power and prestige, marrying regularly into the royal houses of France, England and Germany. The last duke died in 1355, leaving three heiresses, which ultimately led to his large territories being added to the growing conglomerate ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy, and eventually would form the modern nation of Belgium.
A younger son, however, had started a new line, as heir to the large Landgraviate of Thuringia—one of the ancient ‘national’ territories of Germany (like Franconia or Saxony). Heinrich I (d. 1308) lost out on inheriting all of Thuringia, but successfully claimed the westernmost parts, to which he applied the name Hesse, and took the Thuringian title ‘landgrave’, and even its coat-of-arms, the red and white stripey (or ‘barry’) lion on blue. Still today the neighbouring states of Hesse and Thuringia use very nearly identical arms. Centuries later, the Battenbergs would incorporate both the black and white stripes of Battenberg, and the Hessian lion (differenced with a red and white border) in their heraldry.
Like most German princely states, The Landgraviate of Hesse would be divided and subdivided, and different branches would rise and fall in prominence. Probably the most famous Landgrave was Philip ‘the Magnanimous’, one of the most important leaders of the Protestant Reformation, as host of the famous Marburg Colloquy of 1529, where early Lutheran doctrine was hammered out, and one of the leaders of the religious war against the Emperor Charles V. Philip founded the University of Marburg, which is still one of the pre-eminent universities in Germany.
By the time of the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire, the two main branches, Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Darmstadt, were each elevated to higher ranks, the former to the status of an Elector of the Empire (in 1803, just in time to have the whole electoral system abolished), and the latter as a Grand Duchy. The Electorate of Hesse was annexed by Prussia in the 1860s, but the Grand Duchy of Hesse (‘and by Rhine’, to give it is full, slightly odd title) survived as an independent state within the German Empire until all of its princes abdicated in November 1918.
By that point, the ruling dynasty of Hesse-Darmstadt had raised its profile a bit above its rank, through marriages into the royal houses of Great Britain and Russia: Princess Marie of Hesse married Tsar Alexander II in 1841; her nephew Grand Duke Louis IV married Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice, in 1862; and their daughter, Alix, would in turn marry the Russian Tsar Nicholas II in 1894. But one of the Hessian princes, Alexander, did not follow the dynastic rules, and married one of his sister Tsarevna Marie’s ladies-in-waiting, Countess Julia von Hauke, and their offspring would be barred from succeeding to the Grand Ducal throne. This was the birth of the House of Battenberg.
By the 19th century, members of ruling families in Europe were meant to marry only others from the same rank. Julia von Hauke’s family were descended from tradesmen in Mainz, but had risen through the ranks in Russian service. Her father Moritz served as Minister of War in Russian-controlled Poland from 1820, was created a count in 1829, and then hacked to pieces a year later by Polish revolutionaries. Julia’s marriage to Prince Alexander of Hesse was frowned on by the rest of the family and he lost his position in the Russian army. Nevertheless, as was by then normal for marriages of unequal status (known as ‘morganatic’ marriages), the bride and her children were given a title (in this instance by the Grand Duke of Hesse): Battenberg. Originally they were to hold the rank of counts (1851), but by 1858 she and her four (soon to be five) children were raised to the rank of princes and princesses, with the honorific address of ‘Serene Highness’.
Alexander’s family settled in one of the Hesse castles, Heiligenberg, located a few miles south of Darmstadt. A country retreat built in the early 19th century and renovated by Alexander and Julia in the 1850s-60s, Schloß Heiligenberg became one of the favoured meeting places in central Europe for the far-flung relations of the House of Hesse, from Britain to Russia, including the courting couple, Nicholas and Alexandra. This castle was sold by the family in the 1920s, and has become property of the State of Hesse, and variously used as a school, a hospital and most recently a concert and exhibition hall. Nearby the Battenberg Mausoleum still stands tribute to the family that once lived here.
It is with the four sons of Alexander and Julia where our story starts to get really interesting, as the family spread out all across Europe: Louis and Henry in Britain, and Alexander and Franz Joseph in the Balkans. The only daughter, Princess Marie, married a local Hessian count, Gustaf von Erbach-Schönberg, and lived a relatively quiet life. The earliest of the four sons to make his mark was the rather unprepared Alexander, known in the family as ‘Sandro’ (or ‘Drino’), who at age 22 was put forward by his uncle the Tsar as the first Prince of Bulgaria, an Ottoman province that had just been granted self-rule in 1878. At first he played by the rulebook set down by his powerful Russian patron, but by 1883 he craved the popularity of the Bulgarian people and restored a liberal constitution, and was ousted by pro-Russian soldiers in late 1886. He retired to Austria and assumed the name ‘Count von Hartenau’, marrying in 1889 an Austria opera singer, Johanna Loisinger. But when he died a few years later, he was buried in Bulgaria, as a sovereign. His children carried the name von Hartenau into the 20th century, but also the memory of the brief Bulgarian Battenberg dynasty, with the typically Bulgarian names Assen and Tsvetana.
Another potential extension of the Bulgarian story was the youngest of the Battenberg brothers, Franz Joseph, who accompanied his older brother to Bulgaria and served in the army there—as his brother was still unmarried, Franz Joseph was considered the probable heir to the throne, though of course he left when Alexander did. He remained in Balkan circles, however, and in 1897 married the daughter of the ruling Prince of Montenegro, sister of the Queen of Italy. A number of chatterers in diplomatic circles considered the Battenberg princes as ideal candidates for new thrones appearing in south-eastern Europe with the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire—Albania, Rumelia or Crete—as being so well connected by blood to the great royal houses of Europe, but not fully aligned with any. But Franz Joseph and his wife Anna retired instead to Switzerland where he wrote books on economics, and she composed music (apparently very well). He died in 1924, but she lived on until 1971, still using the title Princess of Battenberg, the last person to do so.
In contrast, the eldest brother, Louis, changed his name from Battenberg to Mountbatten, and renounced his princely titles in the summer of 1917, at the urging of King George V in the face of rising anti-German sentiment in Britain (and of course, as is well known, the King changed his own name from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor).
But despite being born in Austria, there was nothing notably un-British about Prince Louis of Battenberg, having served in the British navy since he was a teenager. Adept in three languages (he spoke German with his father, French with his mother, and English with his nanny), he was a natural fit to work in the gathering of information in the various courts and capitals of Europe, and was appointed Director of Naval Intelligence in 1902. Promoted to First Sea Lord in 1912, he was suddenly asked to retire in 1914, again due to anti-German fears in the government and the naval high command. Along with changing his surname in 1917, he was created Marquess of Milford Haven (a Welsh port town in Pembrokeshire). But why just a marquis? Years later his grand-daughter Pamela Hicks wrote in her memoirs that he had been offered a dukedom—more appropriate for a close relative of the King; and his wife, Victoria of Hesse, was a grand-daughter of Victoria—but turned it down, considering he did not have the wealth to support a lifestyle expected of a duke. Indeed, he did not have a lot of money, much of it having been confiscated in Germany during the war or lost in the Russian Revolution, and he sold the family castle at Heiligenberg in 1920, and died only a year later.
Prince Louis’ second son, Lord Louis Mountbatten, has written that one of his life’s enduring motivations was to recover what his father had lost, and remove the dishonour of having been removed from the post of First Sea Lord. And that he did, becoming First Sea Lord in 1954…but only after holding even higher posts. Proving his worth as a sea captain in the early years of the Second World War, he was promoted Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Southeast Asia in 1943, then Viceroy of India in 1947—King George VI’s representative in the transition from colony to independent member of the Commonwealth. Mountbatten (created Earl Mountbatten of Burma in 1947) was criticised for not doing enough to prevent the violence of partition, and he was not very involved in government for several years, before returning to Naval affairs in 1954 as First Sea Lord, then as Chief of the Defence Staff in 1959 in the government of Harold Macmillan.
Lord Mountbatten was successful, but his success was in great part enabled by his talented wife, Edwina Ashley, who not only helped enable his social networking, but also provided the means to pay for it, as one of the chief heirs of the business magnate Sir Ernest Cassel. Through her descent from the Palmerston family, she inherited a sizeable Georgian country house in Hampshire, Broadlands, and a castle on the rugged coastline of western Ireland, Classiebawn.
Broadlands had begun life as the manor house of Romsey Abbey, in the Test river valley north of Southampton. At the dissolution of the monasteries of the 1540s, it was sold to Sir Francis Fleming, then passed by marriage to the Barbe family, until it was sold in 1736 to Henry Temple, 1st Viscount Palmerston. He hired the most fashionable architects and garden designers—Capability Brown, Henry Holland, William Kent—and rebuilt the house as a Palladian Villa and the gardens as a marvel of ‘broad lands’ gently rolling down to the river’s edge. Broadlands served as the country retreat of the 3rd Viscount Palmerston when he was Prime Minster under Queen Victoria. A century later, the Mountbattens made it their main residence and renovated it. It hosted the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for their honeymoon in 1947, and the Prince and Princess of Wales on their honeymoon in 1981. Both matches were arranged, at least in part, by ‘Uncle Dickie’, as Mountbatten was known in family circles. Today it is the residence of the 3rd Earl Mountbatten, Norton Knatchbull, the son of Mountbatten’s elder daughter, Patricia, who died in 2017.
Classiebawn Castle was a summer getaway, near the town of Sligo. Built in the 19th century in baronial style (ie, a style intended to look much older than it was), the land had once belonged to the O’Connor clan, and Mountbatten’s presence there was therefore a living symbol of British imperialism, especially as Sligo is in the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland. Mountbatten’s death in the nearby harbour from a bomb placed by the IRA in August 1979 sent a shockwave through the fabric of Britain in a troubled decade, and a turning point in the lives of the British royal family.
In contrast, the lives of the senior line of the House of Battenberg, now the House of Mountbatten, were much quieter. Both the 2nd and 3rd marquesses of Milford Haven were, unsurprisingly, naval men. The 2nd Marquess had continued his family’s marital tradition by marrying the offspring of another morganatic marriage, this time the Grand Duke Mikhail of Russia and Countess Sophie von Merenberg. His wife, known before her marriage as Countess Nadejda de Torby, brought a bit of glamour and exoticism to the British royal family of the 1920s, and her son, the 3rd Marquess, became one of the leaders of the London socialite scene of the 1950s (and was best man at the wedding of his cousin, Prince Philip of Greece to the Queen in 1947). The 4th Marquis of Milford Haven lives mostly out of the spotlight, and his younger brother, Ivar only made headlines by becoming the first member of the extended royal family to have a same-sex marriage, in September 2018. Also unlike their junior cousins, the Milford Havens have never had the same kind of showy country house on the scale of Broadlands, though recently, the current Marquess and his wife have been impressing the sporting world with their world-class polo club, Great Trippetts, in West Sussex.
Finally the fourth of Alexander and Julia’s sons, Prince Henry of Battenberg, may have done the best in terms of dynastic success, marrying the daughter of Queen Victoria herself, but had the shortest time to enjoy it, dying only ten years later. The Queen agreed to the match on condition that the Prince settle in the UK so that her beloved Beatrice would never leave her side. At the time of his marriage in 1885, Henry (known as ‘Liko’) was created HRH and a Knight of the Garter, and naturalised a British subject. In 1889, he was appointed Governor of Carisbrooke Castle and of the Isle of Wight, but he wanted to do more. Obtaining a post of colonel in the army in 1893, he joined the expedition sent to fight in the Ashanti War in West Africa in 1896, caught malaria, and died before he could reach home. His widow, Princess Beatrice remained her mother’s supporter in her last years, then worked as editor of Victoria’s diaries, and continued to appear in public well into her 70s, dying in 1944, age 87.
Henry and Beatrice are buried in the Battenberg Chapel of St Mildred’s Church in Whippingham on the Isle of Wight. So too are many of their descendants, though not two of their sons, one (Maurice) who is buried in Flanders fields having been killed in the early months of World War I, and the other (Leopold), who despite being a haemophiliac (the disease passed through the female descendants of Queen Victoria), survived his service in the war, only to die in surgery a few years later.
Their older brother Alexander also served in the war, and was one of the first to use the surname Mountbatten in an official manner, getting married in July 1917 as simply Sir Alexander Mountbatten, since his peerage from the King—the Marquessate of Carisbrooke, to commemorate his parents’ connection to the Isle of Wight—had not yet been granted. There was only one Marquess of Carisbrooke, as he had only a daughter, Lady Iris Mountbatten, who moved to California to have a short career as a television actress, then settled in Toronto where she died in 1982.
The only daughter of Henry and Beatrice, Victoria Eugénie (known as ‘Ena’) married the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, in 1906, and went into exile with him in 1931 when the second Spanish Republic was proclaimed. She survived her husband by nearly three decades, dying in Switzerland in 1969. Interestingly, her cousin Alice of Battenberg, widow of Prince Andrew of Greece and mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, also died in 1969. It is Alice who could have inspired the fictional Prince Philip in ‘The Crown’ to utter the line, “A Battenberg refuses to give in”, as someone whose life was full of challenges—notably several Greek revolutions and a lifetime of deafness and misdiagnosed mental illness. Yet she is remembered for the important work she did sheltering Jews in Greece during the Second World War, for which she is recognised as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in Israel. After the war, she stayed in Greece and founded an Orthodox nursing order of nuns known as the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary.
Possibly her greatest trial came in November 1937 when her daughter Cecile, Grand Duchess of Hesse, was killed in an air accident in Ostend, alongside her husband, two sons and his mother. This tragedy all but extinguished the junior branch of the House of Hesse (Darmstadt), but the ancient House of Louvain carries on in the line of Hesse-Kassel and in the Mountbattens of Milford Haven. And cake.
(Images taken from Wikimedia Commons and other online copyright free sources)