On 25 May 1846, Queen Victoria gave birth to her fifth child and third daughter; Princess Helena. It was announced “with happiness” that the Princess was delivered at five minutes to 3 o’clock. Her father Prince Albert later wrote to his brother Ernst that, “she came into this world rather blue, but she is quite well now.” The new addition to the family soon became known as Helenchen – the German diminutive of Helena – which was later shortened to Lenchen. Helena was christened on 25 July at Buckingham Palace. In her youth, she was known to be a “placid, even-tempered” child. She grew up sports appealed more to her than schoolwork. She longed to lead a life outdoors.
When Helena was 11 years old, her elder sister The Princess Royal married Prince Frederick William of Prussia, the future Emperor Frederick III. Helena was one of her bridesmaids, alongside her other sisters Alice and Louise. Her mother was most disappointed in her plain looks, even if it did not bother the young Helena. Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, “Lenchen’s features are again now so very large and long that it spoils her looks.”
One of Helena’s earliest surviving letters dates from the time that the family was in mourning for Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Helena was 14 years old when her grandmother died in 1861. She wrote that the death of her grandmother “was a very sudden and unexpected blow for us, and we feel it very deeply. Mama is I am thankful to say pretty well, but she is still very upset and feels the loss terribly; how could we expect it otherwise, the loss of a dear fond parent is a loss which can never be repaired, and day by day Mama feels more the indescribable blank it has made in our family circle.” Little did she know that she would suffer a similar loss by the end of the year. On 14 December 1861, Prince Albert died. Lady Augusta Bruce – a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria – wrote, “Poor Princess Helena could not bear it. The doctors did not like her to be near her father, poor lamb; I did not know what to do with her.” Helena wrote to her friend Emily Maude, “Oh Emily if you knew the anguish of my heart. Sometimes, when I think of all I have lost, and that I shall never see in this world again, that dear adored Papa. When I think that all my life will be spent without Papa.”
Nevertheless, life went on with dear Papa and the following year on 7 April, Helena was confirmed at Osborne. It was not the day of celebration that it should have been, but Helena took her confirmation seriously and wrote to Emily, “It has been one of the most important stages of my life. I am no longer a child, a great responsibility lies on me. May God help me.” On 1 July, her sister Alice married Prince Louis of Hesse and Helena was now the eldest daughter left at home, and she became her mother’s secretary and companion. It was an exhausting task, and Helena wrote to Emily, “I hope you forgave me for not having answered you sooner, but I have had to do so much for dear Mama, that it was impossible.” In the autumn of 1862, Helena was among those who greeted Princess Alexandra of Denmark who had come to spend a few days with Queen Victoria. Helena and Alexandra – who would marry the Prince of Wales the following year – formed a good friendship.
By the time Helena turned 18, she had begun attending public engagement – starting with an appearance at the opening of the Royal Albert Infirmary at Bishop’s Waltham in November 1865. Her age also raised the question of her future marriage. Several suitors were considered, but Queen Victoria was adamant that Helena should remain in England and so a husband would have to be found who would be willing to do that. Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg came pretty close to fulfilling Queen Victoria’s conditions and when Helena met Prince Christian – who was not only 15 years older than her but also looked much older – she was attracted to him. Not everyone in the family was quite so pleased with Prince Christian, but Queen Victoria would not allow their attitude to deflect her.
On 5 July 1866, Helena and Christian were married in the private chapel at Windsor. Helena was escorted down the aisle by Queen Victoria herself, followed by her brothers and sisters. Helena wore a white satin dress decorated with Honiton lace. Her dress and train were trimmed with knots of orange blossom, myrtle and ivy. She wore a veil with a pattern of myrtle, ivy and rose. Eight days after the wedding, the newlyweds embarked on the royal yacht Victoria and Albert to sail to France.
After their return from their honeymoon, they settled at Frogmore House in Windsor and Helena was particularly glad to be making her home in England. She wrote to Emily, “There is such a feeling of happiness after a long journey of returning to one’s house, and I feel deeply the blessing of not having to exchange my own house for one in a foreign land.” Just ten months after the wedding, Helena gave birth to her first child, a son named Christian Victor. Another son named Albert was born in 1869, followed by daughters named Helena Victoria in 1870 and Marie Louise in 1872. She brought the children up simply, and Christian was a caring father. Queen Victoria was soon complaining of Helena being too easily offended and touchy. Helena’s health was undoubtedly keeping her down, she suffered from rheumatism, and she was often exhausted.
In 1876, Helena’s sons were sent to a local school, and she insisted that they should receive no special treatment. They followed up their education at Wellington College and Charterhouse respectively. In 1876, Helena gave birth to a son named Harald but tragically, he died eight days later. Christian informed Queen Victoria with a telegram. “Our darling little boy was taken from us this morning. Lenchen bears up pretty well.”A year later, Helena gave birth to her last child – an unnamed stillborn son. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal, “Poor Lenchen kept asking if it was alive, which I much feared it would not be. Alas! Alas! It had never breathed. Too sad, and such a splendid child.”1