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The Princess of the Wight

This summer the Island marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Island’s unique resident royal, Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Queen Victoria. The event is being marked by an exhibition in the Carisbrooke Castle Museum which she founded in 1898.

Princess Beatrice lived most of her long life from 1857 to 1944 at Osborne House and later at Carisbrooke Castle. She once gloriously married and now lies entombed with her husband in Whippingham Church.

On the 14th of April 1857 cannon roared from the walls of the Tower of London to announce the birth at Buckingham Palace of the ninth and last child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Beatrice was born into the most fabulous court in the world, the symbolic centre of the world’s greatest empire.

Beatrice was brought up largely at Osborne where her parents had designed a perfect modern education. She learned to ride, swim and studied nature, gardening and household management in the Swiss Cottage in the palace grounds. She learned to paint, the skills of needlework, and to compose music.

In 1861 when Beatrice was just four years old her adoring father died of typhoid. Victoria changed overnight from a confident spirited mother into a grieving recluse. Osborne changed from a happy family home into a sort of mausoleum where Albert’s things remained untouched. For the last forty years of her reign Victoria was in a permanent state of mourning and Beatrice her constant companion.

Between 1857 and 1882 all of Beatrice’s older brothers and sisters married. In 1882 Beatrice was 25 years old, left living alone with her grieving mother. Victoria needed Beatrice as a personal companion.

Beatrice & Henry

Beatrice knew and accepted her duty but in 1884, on a trip to Germany she met and fell in love with the dashing Prince Henry Maurice of Battenburg who was a year her junior. Prince Henry proposed and Beatrice accepted. Victoria was concerned that she would lose her daughter but Henry agreed to come and live at Osborne.

The wedding that took place at Whippingham Church in 1885 was the greatest royal occasion that the Island ever witnessed. 200 guests from London including ambassadors and politicians who were brought by special train to take their seats at the church. Prince Henry, wearing the white uniform of a captain of the Prussian Cuirassiers, arrived at East Cowes to a roar of cannon and an ecstatic public welcome. The streets from East Cowes to the church were lined by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in crimson tunics and tartan kilts.

A procession of fourteen carriages left Osborne House. The royal route was decorated with flags hung on masts, triumphal arches and stands for the crowds to get a view. A boarded footway and canopy led from the churchyard gate to the church door, with additional seating built outside.

Inside the church the floor had been covered in crimson cloth and oriental rugs. “exquisite flowers were everywhere” reported The Illustrated London News.

Just eight Islanders made it into the church for this state occasion. In place of the vicar were the Lord Chamberlain, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Winchester and the Dean of Windsor. In place of the local choir was the choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
The royal family took their seats to the sound of Handel’s March from the Occasional Overture. Then, at 1pm, the Wedding March sounded and Princess Beatrice advanced along the aisle accompanied by ten royal bridesmaids dressed in ivory gowns. Beatrice wore a beautiful dress of white satin trimmed with lace, decorated with orange blossom, myrtle and heather, her veil was emblazoned with diamonds.

With the service complete the wedding party returned to Osborne through the cheering crowds. Two large boarded reception marquees had been built either side of the palace. One was reserved for the guests of “royal blood” and the other was for the rest. Back at the church there was no such decorum. The excited crowds rushed in to seize any momentos of the great occasion.

Beatrice and Henry settled to happy married life at Osborne. Over the next five years she gave birth to Alexander, Victoria Eugenie, Leopold and Maurice.
Prince Henry became the Honorary Colonel of the local territorial regiment, the IW Rifles, a job he took seriously. Items of his uniform and the fine sword he presented to the regiment can be seen in the exhibition. In 1889 he became Governor and Captain of the Island, but the problem for Henry was that these were now largely ceremonial roles.

The soldier in him yearned for action and he finally received a posting to fight in the Fourth Ashanti War (1894-1896) in modern Ghana. In January 1896 Henry died of malaria and in February he was interred at Whippingham Church where he had married just ten years before.

The Princess Becomes Governor

The widowed Beatrice, now 38 years old, did not retreat into seclusion like her mother. In 1897 she took over her husband's offices of Governor of the Isle of Wight and Captain and also supported a concert to raise funds for the relief of a famine in India. In 1898 she opened a memorial museum to Henry in the gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle. It is from this small beginning that the Island’s museums and archaeological services were to evolve.

After her mother died at Osborne in 1901 Beatrice’s life at the centre of court ended. Her brother “Bertie”, the new King Edward VII (1901-1910) closed Osborne. Beatrice was left with Osborne and Albert Cottages off York Avenue in East Cowes.

Governess Beatrice took an active part in Island life, supporting the great pageant of Island History at Carisbrooke Castle in 1907. In 1911, on the succession of “my dear nephew King George V” she issued all the Island’s schoolchildren with coronation medals.

In 1913 the Governor’s rooms at Carisbrooke Castle became vacant. Beatrice decided to take up her right to residence, sold her property in East Cowes and moved in after making some alterations, such as adding a bathroom, as life at the castle remained rather primitive. For the next twenty-five years her royal standard flew over the keep when she was in residence, which was most of the time, particularly in summer.
The following year, 1914, her three sons went to war. Her youngest, Maurice was quickly killed in action. Thus Beatrice shared the grief of a generation of European motherhood. I can see now why her personal church, St Nicholas in the Castle, became the church where all the Island’s First World War dead are particularly commemorated, their names inscribed in stone around the walls of the chapel.

Her other sons survived the war but Leopold suffered from the family illness of haemophilia and he died in 1922. Princess Beatrice was no stranger to personal tragedy.

The period that Beatrice lived at Carisbrooke (1913-1938) is still remembered by some living Islanders. According to Kathleen Pritchard “She always attended St Mary’s (Carisbrooke) church for matins on Sunday mornings.
As she and her lady in waiting entered the church the congregation stood and sang the national anthem. During the final hymn the Sunday School children would leave the church and wait in the porch for her to emerge. We usually had small bunches of flowers to give which we had picked in Priory Fields"
(now Carisbrooke Park Estate).

"Her Royal Highness always spent time talking to us and the rest of the congregation and when it was time for her to leave from the lych-gate we children would run and wave her off and she in turn would wave and call out 'Goodbye children, see you next week'”.

Beatrice gave the church an antique processional cross and supported the fundraising for the church hall and a school room. She also supported the local scouts and guides, nursing organisations, art and needlework guilds. She gave her own paintings as prizes in local fetes.

On her 80th birthday in 1937 the Islanders reciprocated with gifts including a 1603 chamber organ. The following summer was the last one she spent at Carisbrooke. After that she was taken care of on the Mainland. She died on a country estate on October 26th 1944.

Beatrice's Final Wishes

Following the end of the Second World War in August 1945 her final wishes were granted. In bright September sunshine her coffin was carried by three motor torpedo boats through the fleet at Portsmouth and the Spithead. Four bluejackets stood at each corner of the coffin, rifles reversed, heads down. As the little flotilla passed, the ships' companies of the Royal Navy paraded on their decks beneath half raised colours.

The last of Victoria’s children was heading home.
The coffin arrived at East Cowes for a very private service at Whippingham church. Only her son Alexander and his wife were present. At the end of the service he stepped forward to sprinkle lavender, picked from the garden of Gethsemane, onto Beatrice’s coffin next to that of her husband Henry. Then the tomb was sealed with the inscription “Till death us do join”.

Alexander, Marquess of Carisbrooke, was interred with his parents in 1960. As he had no son, his title died with him. However, through her daughter Victoria Eugenie, Beatrice’s great grandson Juan Carlos restored the Spanish monarchy in 1975.

The locations of Beatrice’s turbulent life are all preserved, the active royal palaces, the conserved museum of Osborne. The current exhibition takes place in the very rooms where Beatrice once lived. The exhibition of Princess Beatrice at Carisbrooke Castle Museum runs through the summer to October. For more information contact the museum on 523112 or
To read previous “Island Stories” go to the website and click on “Features”.