This Victorian princess bride had a reason to look forlorn. For unbeknownst to her at the time, despite the eerie nature of this photo, she was about to enter into a marriage that would doom her to spinsterhood. Perhaps it was her uncle, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward Vll, who summed up her predicament best once she’d returned to her grandmother’s realm in 1900 after her short lived, disastrous marital sojourn in Germany. Marlene Koenig quotes him in her genealogical masterpiece, Queen Victoria’s Descendants, as declaring of his niece, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein, thusly: “Ach, poor Louise, she has returned as she went-a virgin.”
Born at Cumberland Lodge on the Windsor Castle estate in 1872, Marie Louise’s mother was the high strung and often depressed fifth child of Queen Victoria, Princess Helena, and her disturbingly eccentric, much older, one eyed husband, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Determined to hold onto her younger daughters as an emotional substitute for the husband who’d died prematurely, Victoria was only willing to allow them to marry if they agreed to live with their neurotic mater along with their husbands and families for the rest of her life. This greatly reduced their marital prospects, as the only princes on the continent willing to contract marriages that would force them to be saddled for an indeterminate time to Europe’s most notoriously bereaved royal widow were such whose penury and lowly status were desperate enough to make being Queen Victoria’s virtually imprisoned son-in-law seem worthwhile.
In 1865 Helena settled for the penniless Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, who was 15 years her senior. While out hunting with his brother-in-law, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, one day early in his marriage, Christian’s sight became irreparably impaired when Arthur accidentally shot one of his eyes out. This necessitated Christian wearing a myriad of glass eyes for the rest of his life. Far from being put out by this, he developed an absolute fascination with glass eyes, and began collecting and wearing different colored eyes depending on his mood and preference. Unfortunately, he didn’t stop there. David Randall writes in Royal Follies: A Chronicle of Royal Misbehavior that Prince Christian’s favorite means of entertaining dinner guests was to have a display case full of fake eye specimens brought to the table where he’d show them off, then manually pop out the eye he was wearing at the moment and replace it with one in the case.
Perhaps it was in an effort to rescue herself from these nauseating family dinners that the elder of his two daughters, Princess Marie Louise, jumped at her first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm ll’s, proposal that she marry Prince Aribert of Anhalt, the fourth son of Frederick l, Duke of Anhalt, in 1891. Queen Victoria consented to the match, and they were wed in July of that year at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Like most arranged royal marriages of the time, the bride and groom entered into holy matrimony barely knowing each other. The religiously conservative Marie Louise certainly had no idea what she was in for when her new husband whisked her away to his father’s German duchy.
As Edward Vll’s lamenting of his niece’s post marital virginity quoted at the beginning of this post indicates, had Marie Louise hoped Aribert would deflower her on their wedding night, that hope went unfulfilled that evening, throughout their honeymoon, and for the duration of their union. While unwilling to spend his wife’s petals, Prince von Anhalt certainly wasn’t shy when it came to spending his bride’s dowry. According to Elizabeth Longford in Louisa, Lady-in-Waiting, by 1900 Aribert had blown through it all. It was also that year that Marlene Koenig indicates her husband was caught having sex with a manservant. Whether or not it was Princess Marie Louise who caught him, word certainly got round to her fast. Perhaps she then realized why Aribert was so fond of vacationing, presumably without her, on the island of Capri. Robert Aldrich writes in The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy, that Capri at that time was a watering hole privately notorious among the European elite for its underage male prostitutes specializing in catering to wealthy gay pedophiles.
Like Countess Olenska in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Princess Marie Louise fled to New York, traveling incognito, according to the November 14,1900 New York Times article, Royal Couple Separated, as the Countess von Munsterberg. She next made her way to Canada where she learned her father, father-in-law and Kaiser Wilhelm ll had agreed to annul her marriage. Believing their separation would be permanent, and not wishing to draw attention to the real reason for their estrangement, especially following on the heals of the Oscar Wilde trial in London, and the Eulenberg trials in Berlin, these men decided both to end the marriage and spread the fiction that it had been dissolved because of a new law promulgating marriages within the Anhalt ducal house. None of them, however, thought to consult Marie Louise, for if they had they would’ve learned that she didn’t wish to terminate her marriage.
As she explains in her autobiography, Memories of Six Reigns, she took literally the passage in the Bible stating that not only was Christian marriage indissoluble, but remarriage after divorce, or an annulment in her case, was tantamount to adultery, which was a mortal sin Princess Marie Louise believed would send her to hell. Choosing salvation over a second marriage where she’d at least have sex, Marie Louise resigned herself to spending the rest of her life as a virgin spinster. Upon hearing of her granddaughter’s plight, Queen Victoria immediately sent her a telegram requesting she return home to Windsor so her grandmother could comfort her, which Marie Louise promptly did. Needless to write, she expressed fury toward her former husband in her memoir, and one can surmise remained bitter toward him till her dying day.
Nonetheless, she devoted her remaining years, which was quite a while, to charitable works including founding the Girl’s Club in Bermmomdsey, which served as a hospital during the First World War; raising money for the nursing home named after her mother in Windsor; becoming the patron of, as well as giving her name to, a regiment of Boy Scouts, and inspiring the creation of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a grandiose and still renown toy house that celebrated the work of British master craftsmen. She also attended all official Royal Family occasions for the rest of her days. Princess Marie Louise died in 1956 at age 87 as one of the longest lived of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren.
Her former husband, for presumably vastly different reasons, also never remarried. He briefly served as regent of his duchy for his nephew at the end of World War l just before he and his family were overthrown and Germany declared a republic. He died in 1936. It’s rumored that at the time of his demise he was planning to remarry. Fortunately for his prospective second wife, fate intervened.