By MICHAEL THORNTON
Behind the Queen’s diamond wedding is the extraordinary untold story of how her marriage was almost scuppered by Philip’s links to one of Hitler’s closest henchmen…
The scene was one of devastation and squalor.
At a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, in the weeks following the death of Hitler and the fall of the Third Reich, a 60-year-old man, crippled by arthritis, stumbled painfully round a rubbish dump.
He scrabbled in the rotting refuse until he discovered an old tin can. Starving, he pulled up grass to add to the thin soup his American captors allowed him for sustenance.
No one looking at him would have believed that this forlorn figure had once been one of the richest and highest-ranking men in Britain, a royal duke, the grandson of Queen Victoria, a Knight of the Garter, and the first cousin of kings and emperors.
Against his own wishes, fate had exiled him to a land where he never chose to live and placed him on the losing side in two World Wars.
Now he was a prisoner, ostracised by his royal relations and branded a traitor to his country.
The tragic history of Prince Charles Edward, to be explored next week in a TV documentary, has a certain ironic relevance to the recent diamond wedding anniversary celebrations of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
Sitting quietly in Westminster Abbey at the service of thanksgiving two weeks ago was a small group of former royal personages with names and faces hardly known to the British public.
Their presence was significant.
It testified to the fact that the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, though a popular fairy tale in the glamour-starved years of post-war austerity and now regarded as a source of stability to Britain’s monarchy, was by no means hailed with rejoicing in royal circles 60 years ago.
In fact, evidence that is still held off-limits in secret archives suggests that it almost never happened at all.
The little group of ex-royals to whom I have referred were described in the media as “Prince Philip’s distant German relations”.
Relations, yes. Distant, no.
They were Philip’s nieces and nephews, the children of his sisters, all three of whom were excluded from receiving invitations to the royal wedding in 1947, owing to the fact that their husbands were German officers, in some cases with strong Nazi connections.
Philip’s youngest sister, Princess Sophie of Hanover, had married Prince Christopher of Hesse-Cassel, who was an SS Colonel attached to Heinrich Himmler’s personal staff and became head of the sinister Forschungsamt – a security service under Hermann Gˆring’s command that carried out surveillance on anti-Nazis.
Prince Charles Edward with Hitler
Sophie and Christopher even named their eldest son Karl Adolf in Hitler’s honour.
Christopher’s brother, Prince Philip of Hesse-Cassel, had joined the National Socialist party in 1930, becoming the Nazi governor of Hesse in 1933, and later acted as the liaison between Hitler and Mussolini.
Our own Prince Philip, who Anglicised his name to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, really had the Germansounding family name of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburgs.
Although his marriage to the young Elizabeth was skilfully promoted and manipulated by Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, and the Princess had been deeply infatuated with the tall, blond, Viking Prince for at least eight years, the match was bitterly opposed at the very highest levels.
Leading the opposition was Philip’s future mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, afterwards the hugely popular Queen Mother.
One of her brothers, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, had been killed at 26 fighting at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Queen Elizabeth had a dislike of Germans, and this had increased through the scenes of destruction she had witnessed during her visits to the blitzed areas of Britain.
Now, here was her daughter, who would one day be monarch, proposing to marry – only two years after the defeat of the Third Reich – a Prince of German blood, whose four sisters had all married Germans and whose brothers-in-law had fought for Hitler.
Queen Elizabeth, who had great shrewdness and a highly-developed sense of expediency, was aware that there was a new, post-war spirit of republicanism in the air.
She thought this marriage – to a man she referred to in private as “The Hun” – was dangerous, and that it risked reminding people that her husband’s family was German in origin, descended from the Hanoverians, and that her own mother-in-law, Queen Mary, was a German Princess.
“Queen Elizabeth opposed the marriage,” said her friend, the Dowager Lady Hardinge of Penshurst.
“She distrusted the Mountbattens, and felt that her daughter ought to marry a British duke. She lobbied against it, and said to me at the time: ‘The trouble is that Philip is so impossibly attractive, and Lilibet (Princess Elizabeth) just cannot see beyond that.'”
In the end, with deep misgivings, the King and Queen gave their consent and the marriage went ahead.
But Philip’s sisters and their husbands were excluded.
The only member of his German family to be invited was his mother, Princess Alice, and even she was requested to divest herself of the sombre grey nun’s habit she had adopted after suffering a nervous
breakdown when her bisexual husband, Prince Andrew of Greece, left her for a mistress in Monte Carlo.
But there was one royal figure whose scandalous life and career perhaps did more than anything else to unite the opposition to Philip’s entry into the Royal Family.
This was his cousin, the British-born Prince Charles Edward.
At the time of Philip’s marriage, Charlie was living in obscurity and utter disgrace, ostracised by all but one of his royal relations and reviled as a traitor to Britain.
The Channel 4 documentary traces the tragic tale of how this man, born into the British Royal Family, was forced against his will into accepting a German dukedom, found himself fighting for theKaiser in World War I, was deprived of all his British titles and branded a “traitor peer” – and then, even more tragically, assisted Hitler’s rise to power and ended his days as a convicted Nazi.
His Royal Highness Prince Leopold Charles Edward, second Duke of Albany, Earl of Clarence and Baron Arklow, was born at Claremont House, Surrey, on July 19, 1884.
He was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson. King George V was his first cousin – as were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II.
“He was a very happy little boy,” says his granddaughter, Victoria Huntington-Whiteley.
But Charlie, as he was known in the family, had a tragic destiny in store for him.
When he was a carefree 14-year-old schoolboy at Eton, his mother, the widowed Duchess of Albany, wrote to him: “Don’t forget work and duty over your pleasures. Don’t be lazy and indolent.
“If my words read hard, understand that they come out of a full heart, full of love and anxiety, to help you become a good man, so that you bring no shame on Papa’s name.”
But while he was still only a boy, his grandmother, Queen Victoria, made a decision that was to ruin his life.
She decreed that Charlie should become Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the German principality from which the Queen’s husband Albert had come.
Charlie’s granddaughter Victoria says: “He didn’t know anything about Germany. He couldn’t even speak the language. He didn’t want to go”.
But Queen Victoria insisted.
And so, at 16, Charles Edward was forced to leave his home and become Carl Eduard, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, with 13 castles in Germany and Austria, hunting lodges, hotels, a power station, tens of thousands of hectares of rich arable farmland in Bavaria and a duchy with an income worth £17million in today’s value.
He was enrolled at Germany’s top military academy by the bombastic Kaiser, who then married off Charlie to his own niece, Victoria, by whom he had three sons and a daughter.
And when, in 1914, war was declared following the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Charlie found himself in the nightmare situation of fighting for the Kaiser against the country of his birth.
In Britain, as the great monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria, the Romanovs of Russia, and finally the Hohenzollerns of Germany – tumbled from power, Charlie’s first cousin, King George V, hastened to dump the German name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and adopted Windsor as the new title of Britain’s royal dynasty. Charlie was left high and dry.
After the war ended in 1918, worse was to follow. George V removed all Charlie’s British titles as well as the status of Royal Highness, and struck his name from the register of the Knights of the Garter. He was declared ‘a traitor peer”.
Germany was now a republic, and Charlie, believing that Communism was responsible, tragically allied himself with the extreme right-wing group led by a charismatic and ranting former army corporal – Adolf Hitler.
By 1933, when Hitler seized power as Chancellor of Germany, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg was among his most fervent supporters.
Charlie returned to Britain in 1936 to attend George V’s funeral, but because he no longer had the right to wear a British uniform, he shockingly wore German military attire, complete with a stormtrooper’s metal helmet.
As president of the newly-formed Anglo-German Fellowship, he tried to engineer personal dealings between his cousin, the new pro-German King Edward VIII, and Hitler.
When Edward’s abdication only 11 months later scuppered that plan, Charlie again found himself out in the cold, treated with icy distance by the new King, George VI, and his dominant and strong-minded consort, Queen Elizabeth, who wanted no part of him.
Hitler made him president of the German Red Cross, in which he presided over the horrific programme of enforced euthanasia, in which some 100,000 mostly disabled people, including children, judged by the Nazis unworthy of life, were murdered. The extent of his involvement in this barbarism was never really established.
When war inevitably came in 1939, Charlie once again found himself on the wrong side.
His three sons were sent to fight for the Germans, and one of them, Prince Hubertus, was killed on the Eastern front.
As the Allies advanced, Hitler, before committing suicide in his crumbling Berlin bunker, sent a telegram to Charlie in Coburg, warning him not to fall into the hands of the Americans.
Yet that is precisely what happened.
In spite of being a cousin of King George VI, he was held in the harshest internment camps.
The one member of the British Royal Family who had always stood by him, his sister Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, flew to Germany with her husband and was horrified to find him starving, “scavenging on a rubbish dump to find a tin to eat from”.
Put on trial as a Nazi, Charlie pleaded not guilty.
He claimed he had acted honourably and did not know of any crimes by the regime. He was not believed.
Though he was exonerated of complicity in actual war crimes, he was judged to have been “an important Nazi”.
His houses and estates were confiscated, and he was almost bankrupted by heavy fines. Only his failing health saved him from remaining in prison.
Now a penniless, convicted criminal, he was given a chauffeur’s cottage in the stables of one of his estates.
“He thought it was wonderful,” relates his granddaughter Victoria.
“He had everything he loved.
“He had his wife, he had pictures, he had his little dog. And it didn’t matter how small, it could have been even one room, he would have been happy not to be in prison any more.”
By this time, Charles Edward had cancer, he was crippled by arthritis and blind in one eye.
He was exiled for ever from Britain and would never be permitted to return to the land it was deemed he had betrayed.
Yet, even in his disgrace, he was unable to let go of his royal birthright.
In 1953 he made one last journey from his house to a cinema in Coburg, to watch a colour film of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey.
His granddaughter Victoria says: “I think he would have cried, seeing all his relations, especially his sister, and he would have thought: ‘So sad I can’t be there with them. It could have been me sitting there, too.’
“And for him, I think that must have been the worst moment.”
The man ordered to leave his homeland as a 16-year-old Eton schoolboy clung on to one last memento he had brought with him from England.
“He always slept in a particular bed, which came from Claremont House. He said it was his little bit of England, as he could never come to England again.”
He died in that bed on March 6, 1954, at the age of 69.
Prince Charles Edward, sometime Duke of Albany, and later, at his grandmother Queen Victoria’s insistence, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, is never mentioned today in the British Royal Family.
He has been airbrushed from the history of the House of Windsor.
Yet his adored sister Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, became one of Britain’s best-loved royals, a game old lady who was the only member of the Queen’s family to travel on public transport.
She made her final appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 1977, at the age of 94, for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, standing in almost the same place as she had as a child, 90 years earlier, for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. She died in 1981.
Elizabeth II has made four State visits to Germany, but Coburg, where her disgraced cousin Charlie reigned as Duke, remains one town she has never entered.
Royals and the Reich By Jonathan Petropoulos
The link between Hitler’s Third Reich and European royalty has gone largely unexplored due to the secrecy surrounding royal families. Now, in Royals and the Reich, Jonathan Petropoulos uses unprecedented access to royal archives to tell the fascinating story of the Princes of Hesse and the important role they played in the Nazi regime.