Prince William somberly laid a wreath on the grave of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice, before praying with a Russian Orthodox priest at the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, in what was the most personal and emotional stop on his Middle East tour.
Greeted by church bells as he entered the compound, the Duke of Cambridge asked several questions about the history of the church and his family’s connection to the site as he was guided by Father Archimandrite Roman – the head of the Russian Orthodox mission in Jerusalem that administers the site.
From the church balcony, Father Roman pointed out what would be William’s final three stops in Jerusalem: the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif), the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Church of Mary Magdalene (aka Church of Maria Magdalena) also contains several convents, and William was greeted at the church by a convent abbess with a loaf of bread and a cellar of salt, in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
After touring the church, he descended to lay flowers on the tomb of his ancestor, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. He continued on to the crypt of Princess Alice of Battenberg, where he laid a second wreath and prayed as Father Roman chanted a prayer for “the repose of Alice’s soul and the preservation of her memory.”
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Before he departed, Father Roman presented the prince with gifts for his family: For William, a wooden cross from the 19th century; a glass royal Easter egg for his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; and wooden Easter eggs and small wooden crosses for his three children, “so that each of them can have a cross from Jerusalem in their room,” the priest explained.
“I think he was touched,” Father Roman said after the prince left, walking through the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the site mentioned in the New Testament as where Jesus prayed and slept the night before his crucifixion.
“This is something that is very personal for him, I’m sure,” Father Roman added. “To visit his family in such a holy place. With everything else, all the official parts of the trip, this was a half hour for some personal peace.”
Before visiting the church, the prince had enjoyed the breathtaking views of Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of Olives. Dressed in a beige linen suit, shirt, tie and sunglasses, William spent 20 minutes standing on a viewing point looking out over the sunbathed city, marveling at the sight below.
After the church visit, he proceeded on to the Western Wall, where he said a prayer at one of Judaism’s holiest sites. He was accompanied by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch during his visit to the Kotel.
Both William’s father, Charles, and his grandfather, Philip, have previously paid private visits to Princess Alice’s tomb at the Church of Mary Magdalene. Charles, Prince of Wales, went there after attending former President Shimon Peres’ funeral in 2016, and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited his mother’s grave in 1994.
Princess Alice, the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was born in 1885 at Windsor Castle, England, and had a long, eventful and difficult life. Deaf from birth, she was still able to speak and function fully. She fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, marrying him a year later in 1903, and bore him five children ‒ four daughters and one son. The son was Philip, who would later marry Britain’s Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth.
Earlier on his Israel tour, Prince William visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial center, which recognized Alice as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1993. She had protected a Greek-Jewish family when Athens was occupied by the Nazis in 1943. (The British government also named her a Hero of the Holocaust in 2010.)
Alongside her good deeds, however, Alice struggled with her mental health. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1930 and was subjected to some of the more tortuous treatments for mental illness at the time, being sent to sanatoriums by a Greek royal family ashamed of her affliction.
Philip grew up in boarding schools, far from his confined mother and essentially abandoned by his father. He was taken under the wing of Alice’s younger brother, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Prince William is believed to have named his third child, Louis (born on April 23), in Mountbatten’s honor.
As she grew older, Princess Alice became extremely devout and took religious vows following her husband’s death in 1944.
She was not only a nun: In 1949, she established an order of Greek Orthodox nuns – the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary – and retreated to live a quiet life on a hamlet north of Athens for many years.
In 1967, following a coup in Greece, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II facilitated her return to England. She moved into Buckingham Palace in London, but died two years later in December 1969, at age 84.
She made it known before her death that her wish was to be buried at the church where her aunt, the abovementioned Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, had been laid to rest.
Elizabeth – also a royal figure who became a nun and founded a convent – was arrested and then killed by Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918. She has been canonized as a saint and a martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church.
It took time for Alice’s wish to join her aunt to be granted. The matter was complicated, given that she was Greek Orthodox, she had been buried in a grave belonging to the Church of England, and the place she wished to be laid to rest was a Russian Orthodox church.
But in August 1988, Alice’s remains were transferred from a chapel adjacent to Windsor Castle to Jerusalem. They were reinterred in the crypt at the Church of Mary Magdalene, where her son, grandson and now her great-grandson have all paid their respects.
The Associated Press contributed to this report