Princess Alice of Battenberg is one of the most compelling new characters in the latest season of “The Crown” – the hit Netflix show that has given the world an insider’s view of the private and public lives of the British royal family over the past century.
Yet despite Alice’s newfound visibility, the 50th anniversary of her death on December 5 was marked by an inauspicious ceremony in East Jerusalem, thousands of miles from her son, grandson and great-grandson in Britain. It was conducted by a small cluster of Russian Orthodox monks and nuns at her crypt, tucked under the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.
After Princess Alice died in 1969, her son, Prince Philip (the husband of Queen Elizabeth II), described his mother’s life as one of “wars, revolutions, separations and tragedies.” A touching story line in season three centers around Philip’s strained relationship with Alice, as she ends her stormy and dramatic life as an eccentric figure at Buckingham Palace, roaming the corridors in a nun’s habit and smoking a cigarette.
Sensitively portrayed by Jane Lapotaire, Alice is also depicted as a confidante and truth-teller to her younger brother Lord Louis Mountbatten – a British naval officer, statesman and father figure to Prince Philip – as he visits her before her death, despairing over Britain’s future. “We Battenbergs have no country,” she informs him. “Our family might have kings and queens in its ranks, but we’re mongrels too. Part-German, part-Greek, part-nowhere at all.”
True to that outlook and the unusual path her life had taken, Alice expressly requested that she be buried in a city she had never visited. Jerusalem’s Church of Mary Magdalene sits in one of the holiest Christian sites, the Garden of Gethsemane – where it is believed Jesus visited with his disciples, and where he was arrested before his crucifixion.
Presiding over the small ceremony earlier this month was Archimandrite Roman Krassovsky, chief of the Russian ecclesiastical mission in Jerusalem. The bearded Russian monk wears long robes and a sparkling cross, boasts perfect American English, and has a friendly demeanor and dry humor that contrasts sharply with his austere appearance.
- Prince Charles to visit Israel, West Bank in first state visit
- The British royal family’s complicated history with Nazi Germany
- How Prince Andrew saved me from Netflix's ‘The Crown’
Born Michael Vadimovich Krassovsky to an expat family who fled Russia during the Russian Revolution, Father Roman attended seminary and lived in a monastery in New York state for 31 years. He was then assigned to Jerusalem in 2012, making him the unlikely caretaker of Alice’s grave and legacy.
Father Roman spoke to Haaretz inside the strikingly detailed church where he served as a tour guide for Alice’s grandson, Prince Charles, in October 2016, and her great-grandson Prince William in June 2018. Charles made a private visit after attending former President Shimon Peres’ funeral, while William came during his official royal visit last year.
The monk perches opposite a glass coffin holding the body of the Russian Orthodox saint Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. Inside, her remains are covered with a white satin and gold leaf-embroidered sheet, matching slippers peeking out of one end.
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine was born in 1864, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and daughter of another British princess named Alice who had married into German royalty. Beautiful and sought-after by many royals, Princess Elisabeth chose to wed Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia. Though “she wasn’t compelled to convert,” Father Roman explains, she chose to leave her Lutheran faith for Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia.
By the time they married in 1884, the Russian Orthodox church had established a substantial presence in Ottoman Palestine, building facilities for Russian pilgrims. The top church official there convinced the Russian royal family to purchase the land on the sacred Mount of Olives.
And so, in 1888, the Church of Mary Magdalene was consecrated with Grand Duchess Elizabeth in attendance, when she made it known she would eventually like to be buried there.
After the assassination of her husband during the Russian revolution of 1905, Elizabeth took religious vows and turned her back on royal life. She sold all of her jewels and possessions, using the money to become abbess of a convent dedicated to tending to the sick and poor of Moscow. “She continued to serve her people, who were not her people by blood but her people by choice. She often said that the Russian people were her people,” Father Roman says. He pauses. “And then her people killed her.”
After Czar Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, Elizabeth and other members of the Russian royal family were taken to Siberia, where Lenin had ordered their deaths. The story of their demise was particularly grisly: They were hit on the head and thrown into a mine shaft, into which grenades were then tossed. Some, but not all, were killed and Elizabeth was reportedly among the survivors. Evidence was found that she “had bandaged some of the wounded,” before succumbing to her wounds and starvation. Her remains were smuggled out of the country and, after a stop in China, were eventually taken to Jerusalem in the early 1920s – in line with Elizabeth’s desire for that to be her final resting place.
Inspired by the life of her murdered aunt, Princess Alice of Battenberg consciously modeled herself after the Russian royal in several ways. When she is first seen in “The Crown,” Alice is pawning off the last of her royal jewels to sustain her charity work while revolutionary forces are taking control in Greece.
After her husband, Andrew, died in 1944, Alice, like Grand Duchess Elizabeth, chose a religious life devoted to charity and service, selling off her valuables and establishing a Greek Orthodox nursing order with the same name as her aunt’s convent: the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. While her biographer said she never took religious orders to become a “real nun,” she wore a nun’s habit and lived among nuns.
After the Greek coup in the spring of 1967, Alice had been spared a cruel fate like her aunt’s when Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II brought her to London’s Buckingham Palace for the last two years of her life.
In one fictionalized scene, she relates her life story to a Guardian journalist – in fact, the entire story line of Alice being used to improve the royal family’s public image never actually happened. The details of her turbulent life are accurate, though.
Born deaf but able to read lips in multiple languages, the beautiful young princess married Prince Andrew of Greece, moving to that country at age 18 and bearing him five children – four girls and Prince Philip.
In “The Crown,” Alice tells the young journalist how she was treated in a (Swiss) sanatorium by Sigmund Freud, who “was not a kind man. I was there for just over two years, and I managed to escape.” Indeed, Alice experienced a nervous breakdown in 1928 and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and sent away by the Greek royal family for treatment. And Freud did supervise her treatment: Believing she was experiencing religious delusions stemming from sexual frustration, he recommended electroshock therapy and that her ovaries be X-rayed to reduce her libido. Alice did make several efforts to “escape” and insisted that she was sane. After she did finally flee, she separated from her husband, distanced herself from her family and wandered Europe in the ’30s.
She reunited with her family after tragedy struck in 1938 when her daughter Cecilie and her family were killed in a plane crash. Cecilie’s funeral, and a young Philip’s fearful reaction to seeing his estranged mother, were shown in the first season of “The Crown.”
Alice’s story has remained in the shadows not only because she was viewed by other royals as odd and eccentric, but because she was intensely private. She destroyed all of her papers and gave away all her possessions, famously owning only three nightgowns upon her death.
The reason most Israelis know Princess Alice is because of her heroism during the Holocaust (acts that go unmentioned in “The Crown”). During the Nazi occupation of Greece, she hid a Jewish family in her small apartment in Athens. Alice used her deafness as a ruse to pretend not to hear the Gestapo when they questioned her at her door. That bravery led to her being posthumously honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as a Righteous Among the Nations.
When Prince William made his trip to Jerusalem last year, Alice’s biographer, Hugh Vickers, said: “I am glad Prince William is learning about this remarkable figure because she really exemplified the best qualities of a princess, which is to look after your people in difficult times. She had no money and nearly starved to death in World War II. She is the one who should be made a saint.”
After her death, it took nearly 20 years for Alice’s wishes to be honored and for her body to be brought to its final resting place next to her aunt.
Prince Philip wasn’t present at that ceremony in 1988. At the time, the British Foreign Office believed a royal visit to East Jerusalem would signal implicit support of the Israeli occupation: Separated from his mother as a boy, Philip was even distanced from her after death.
Six years later, he quietly paid his respects after flying to Israel on a private visit to attend the Yad Vashem ceremony that declared his mother a Righteous Among the Nations.
Father Roman says he personally can relate to the two women’s stories of turmoil, displacement and exile. “I’m a Russian who was born in America,” he says.
His family’s history may not be regal, but it is no less tempestuous than that of Elizabeth or Alice – which may be why he identifies with the displaced royals. His own father was born in St. Petersburg into a noble family; when he was young, he saw his father (Father Roman’s grandfather) shot by the Bolsheviks. His grandfather miraculously survived and the family found refuge in China – until the communists took power there.
Father Roman’s father lived in Taiwan, Bangkok and Hong Kong, before settling in California with other Russian expats, where they formed a community. Roman and his three brothers all became priests in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (a sect formed in the Russian diaspora, distinct from the church in Moscow that was under the yoke of communism).
The fractured history of Russian Orthodoxy still directly affects his job today. Years after the USSR ceased to exist, there are still separate administrations in Jerusalem for the Moscow and diaspora missions (though the two organizations do cooperate).
Father Roman’s adjustment to life in Jerusalem since the move in 2012 has been surprisingly smooth, he says, other than “problems that come with the job” – mainly involving property disputes with the Israeli authorities and managing the three convents and small monastery under his control.
“I’ve got 110 people under me, and 95 of them are nuns – and I became a monk so I don’t have to deal with women!” he laughs. “God has a sense of humor.”
Royal tour guide wasn’t in the job description either, but it is a task Father Roman seems to enjoy. Last year, surrounded by reporters and cameras, he escorted Prince William around the church grounds. Prince Charles’ 2016 pilgrimage, by contrast, was a stealthy affair, only revealed to the public after it happened.
“It was a day trip,” the monk relates. Charles came to Israel “in the morning, went to the Peres funeral, met with President [Reuven] Rivlin and then, on his way back to the airport, stopped here. He brought flowers from his own garden that he put on Elizabeth’s grave – and Alice’s grave.”
Father Roman praises Charles as “a very spiritual man who is very interested in Orthodoxy,” noting that he has frequently gone on spiritual retreats to an island in Greece where “no woman has stepped foot in years.” The Prince of Wales also seemed familiar with the hymns and prayers they said over Alice’s grave, the monk adds, revealing that the prince “puts you at ease and was very inquisitive.”
Father Roman is as sympathetic to the British royals as he is to the legacy of the late Russian nobility. He speaks with genuine pity as he recalls showing Charles the sweeping views of Jerusalem, pointing out landmarks like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. “I looked at him and thought, ‘Wow, you don’t have your own life.’ I mean, here is the future king of England, and he can’t just walk into Jerusalem like anyone else.”
As Father Roman sees it, being a royal is something of a “prison sentence,” with no right to privacy. And “The Crown” only serves to prove his point.
“Would you want your skeletons – all of your family’s worst and most difficult moments – shown on television around the world?” he asks. “I know I wouldn’t.”