With the recent news that the mortal remains of Her Late Majesty Queen Mother Helen of Romania are to be brought from Lausanne, Switzerland to Romania, in October, to be reinterred in the New Metropolitan Cathedral at Curtea de Argeș, alongside her son King Michael, I feel the time is right to examine the life of the Greek-born Queen Mother.
Part 1-Childhood into Womanhood.
Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark was born in Athens on 2 May 1896, the third child of Crown Prince Constantine and his wife Sophie (a daughter of the German Emperor, Frederick III). The Greek royal family-a misnomer if ever there was one, as not one member possessed Greek blood-were unusually close and were presided over by Helen’s paternal grandfather, King George I of the Hellenes and his Russian-born wife, Queen Olga. George (born Prince Wilhelm of Denmark and second son of the future King Christian IX) had been ‘imported’ from his native Copenhagen, some thirty-three years earlier, to occupy the vacant Hellenic throne at the request of the Great Powers of France, Great Britain and Russia. ‘Willi’ hated pomp and ceremony and liked nothing better than to walk the streets of Athens, often stopping to talk to his subjects. Unsurprisingly, the Greek Court soon gained the reputation of being the most democratic in Europe.
Helen’s childhood was spent at the newly-constructed Crown Prince’s Palace in Athens. The ‘clannish’ household had some strange habits; lunch was served at 11am while dinner was eaten at 3pm prompt. Each Tuesday, all of the royal family dined together at the home of Prince Nicholas, while on a Thursday it was the turn of the Crown Prince to act as host. As Queen Olga was devout, she ensured that her eldest granddaughter received religious instruction according to the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church. Helen was also required to attend Sunday service in her grandmother’s private chapel at the Royal Palace (during Holy Week and Easter attendance was on a daily basis). This was followed by a stroll through the Royal Gardens in the company of the King and Queen and other family members. Furthermore, from a young age, the Princess was driven in an open carriage, accompanied by liveried footmen, through the streets of Athens, the Evzone sentries ‘presenting arms’ as she passed through the palace gates. Although such excursions may have brought Helen some pleasure, the exercise was also designed to instil a sense of royal dignity in the child, for the tall, elegant and dutiful Crown Princess Sophie was a stickler for protocol and good manners. This extended to instructing her eldest daughter on how to return military salutes and acknowledge the greetings of bystanders.
Yet, the emphasis was also on fun: Summer afternoons were invariably spent swimming with her siblings and cousins at Phaleron or learning to ride under the instruction of an English groom. However, as with all the royal children of her generation, the warm summer months were spent at the royal family’s country residence at Tatoi, a wooded estate some 27 kilometres north of the Greek capital. The estate was far from Greek in character and reflected the heritage of both the King and Queen. The main residence was modelled on the Gothic Cottage at Peterhof Palace, on Russia’s Baltic coast, while the estate also boasted a Danish dairy overseen by a Danish manager. The cattle producing the milk also came from King George’s homeland. However, Helen was more impressed by the roar of the stags in the nearby mountains or the annual feudal feasts attended by local people in native dress to celebrate Queen Olga’s birthday. The Princess also delighted in joining her grandfather for his anniversary festivities. These invariably involved sailing on the royal yacht to a different port each year, where the royal party would then disembark to attend a celebratory Te Deum service at the local church, followed by a reception hosted by the Mayor at the local Town Hall.
War and tragedy also pervaded Helen’s childhood. The Greek nation had fought hard to obtain its independence from Ottoman rule and the King and his advisors were determined to maintain the status quo. As early as 1897, the Greeks had engaged Turkish forces over the future status of the island of Crete which, although under Ottoman rule, had a Christian majority desirous of union with Greece. This contretemps ended in a heavy defeat for Greece. Then, in 1912, there were further clashes with the Turks in the Balkans, over Ottoman oppression of the Christian section of the population in Thrace and Macedonia. Helen’s father was Commander-in-Chief of the Greek military and she could only look on helplessly as he headed northwards to lead his troops into battle against the Ottoman forces. Following a prolonged but successful campaign, Constantine entered Salonika, on 10 November, at the head of his troops. He was joined there, two days later, by a proud and joyful King George, who decided he would take up residence there for a while in a villa overlooking the Gulf of Thermai.
In the spring of 1913, the King was on the cusp of celebrating his Golden Jubilee and contemplating abdicating his throne in favour of Helen’s father. However, on the afternoon of 18 March, while strolling along a street in Salonika, he was shot at close range from behind, the bullet piercing his heart. King George was immediately rushed to a nearby military hospital, where his son, Prince Nicholas (the local Military Governor), arrived to find him lying lifeless on a bed in a private room. Helen’s father, Constantine, happened to be at army headquarters in Janina, and on receiving news of his father’s death, he immediately returned to Athens, as King, to take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution. He then travelled to Salonika in the royal yacht to bring back the late king’s body for burial.
For Helen, the death of her beloved grandfather came as a great shock and it is not difficult to imagine her distress as she watched the late King being laid to rest at Tatoi on 30 March. As a sixteen-year-old, she was sufficiently mature to realise that her family’s life would now change, as the responsibility for the future of Greece lay firmly on the shoulders of her father, aided of course by her mother, Queen Sophie. Following his recent military successes, King Constantine was hailed as ‘Son of the Eagle’ and initially enjoyed a high approval rating.
However, unlike his father, the new King distrusted the Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. Following the outbreak of the First World War, in the summer of 1914, the two clashed. Constantine was adamant that Greece should remain neutral, while Venizelos wished to enter the war on the side of the Entente powers (France, Great Britain and Russia). It was a difficult time for Helen as her father (who had once served in the German Imperial Guard) and German-born mother (who was also a sister of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II) were now both accused of being pro-German and face open hostility from many of their subjects for their failure to back the Entente cause. Indeed, such were the pressures on the King, that in the summer of 1915, he succumbed to pneumonia and, for a time, his life was in grave danger from blood poisoning following surgery to remove two ribs. Helen did what she could to comfort her mother who was beset by rumours that she had stabbed her husband during a violent argument over his failure to side with Germany. Then, in October, the King dismissed Venizelos and appointed the seasoned politician Alexandros Zaimis to succeed him as Prime Minister. Yet, for Helen and her family, worse was to follow. On 14 July, 1916 the royal estate at Tatoi was set ablaze by arsonists intent on eliminating the King and his family. Constantine and Sophie (and their youngest child Katherine) were minutes from being consumed by the fire as they fled from the flames. Eighteen people-mostly loyal estate workers-perished in the blaze which also engulfed the King’s residence.
As December dawned, French and British forces landed near Athens. The French government, in particular, were now intent on unseating the King, taking control of the capital and reinstalling Venizelos (who had established a pro-Entente National Defence Government in Salonika in direct opposition to Zaimis’ neutral government) at the centre of power in Athens. To help achieve this, on 1 December, French ships in Piraeus harbour bombarded the Greek capital for three hours. As shrapnel rained down on the adjoining Royal Gardens, Helen, her mother and other family members sought shelter in the Palace basement. However, the Athenians remained stoical and so the French forces imposed a blockade on the city in an attempt to weaken Greek resolve.
In March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated after bread riots broke out in Petrograd and the majority of the military garrison mutinied and stormed the Winter Palace. This ‘revolution’ proved a severe blow for the beleaguered Greek royal family who had close family links to the Romanovs. However, for Helen, the greatest worry was the whereabouts and safety of her Russian grandmother Queen Olga, who had earlier returned to her homeland to set up a military hospital at Pavlovsk.
By May, the Entente powers had gained control of most of Greece, including the rail network. The French now sent an envoy, Charles Jonnart, who was tasked with issuing an ultimatum to King Constantine: abdicate or Entente forces will destroy Athens. Constantine could not face further bloodshed and realised that if he did not comply, Greece would be plunged into a civil war between royalists and supporters of Venizelos. He informed a shocked Helen and Queen Sophie of his decision to go. Fortunately, the monarchy was not to be abolished as an agreement was reached with Jonnart whereby Constantine’s second son, Alexander, would be accede as King pro tem.
However, as Helen prepared to depart Athens with her parents and siblings for exile in Switzerland, word of the King’s departure spread like wildfire through Athens and thousands of Constantine’s subjects besieged the Palace in a touching display of loyalty, for they were determined that their King should not leave. After an overnight stand-off, by indulging in a little deceit, involving the use of decoy cars, the royals finally managed to flee the palace. A heartbroken Constantine and his family departed Greece on 14 June from the little East Coast fishing village of Oropos. The new King, 23-year-old Alexander, cut a forlorn figure as he waved off his nearest and dearest. The young monarch was subsequently prohibited from having any contact with his family.
Helen and her family travelled via Italy and crossed the frontier into Switzerland at Chiasso. To her consternation, crowds subjected her parents to jeers and taunts, while in Lugano, ex-King Constantine was forced to seek shelter in the Lloyd Hotel after being recognised and attacked in the street. He later returned to his quarters at the Palace Hotel under police protection. Helen’s family later moved to Zurich where they were joined by Prince Nicholas and Prince Andrew, their wives and children. For Helen this was fortuitous as she was close to all of her Greek cousins, particularly 14-year-old Princess Olga. However, life was not easy: money was tight and, in such a confined environment, petty family squabbles were not infrequent. The royalties were also subject to endless petty humiliations, including the censorship of correspondence. Worse still, the family’s sense of isolation was intensified when former friends openly snubbed Helen’s parents even, on occasion departing a room when they entered. Nor did it help that the international (pro-Entente) press remained hostile and had taken to describing the little group as ‘discarded royalty’ who were ‘hard-up’ and could not pay their hotel bills. Queen Sophie was allegedly even reduced to selling some jewels. Unsurprisingly, Helen’s father’s health suffered and he was fortunate indeed to recover from an attack of pleurisy.
The family were temporarily uplifted by the arrival of Queen Olga in July of 1918. Although this proud Romanov Grand Duchess had survived the revolution (unlike the former Tsar Nicholas who, on 17 July, was murdered along with his immediate family in the basement of a house in Ekaterinburg in the Urals), Helen was horrified to learn that the Dowager Queen-who was ‘a ghost of her old self’-had lived for many months on dry bread soaked in oil at her home at Pavlovsk. The marriage, on 1 February 1920, of her Uncle, Prince Christopher to the rich American heiress Mrs Nancy Leeds (the widow of William Leeds the American “Tin Plate King”) at the Russian Orthodox Church at Vevey was another highlight. But just around the corner further tragedy awaited…
In early October 1920, King Alexander (whose wife Aspasia was four months pregnant) was bitten by a monkey while walking in the gardens at Tatoi. Sepsis sent in and a frantic Queen Sophie (currently in Lucerne) asked permission to travel to Greece to be with her son. Venizelos denied her entry but indicated that Queen Olga could come in her stead. Sadly, rough seas meant that the Dowager Queen arrived in Athens only hours after the King’s death on 25 October. Helen was distraught when she received the news of her brother’s premature death. Her grief was compounded by the fact that neither she nor any of her family were allowed to return to Greece for the funeral on 29 October. Queen Olga represented the family.
In November, Eleutherios Venizelos was defeated in the general election and fled into exile. Soon newspaper reporters were besieging Helen and her family with the news that the fickle Athenians were calling for Constantine’s return. Helen was anxious for both of her parents who were pale of complexion and racked with sorrow. How would they cope with returning to Tatoi which was filled with so many memories of Alexander? Meanwhile, Constantine insisted on a plebiscite to reaffirm his position as monarch and this was held on 5 December. Nearly one million people voted in favour of his return, with just over ten thousand against. Helen was delighted for her father whom she joined aboard the ship Averon at Venice, on 15 December, to sail home to Athens.
The royal family landed in Greece on 19 December. King Constantine’s subjects went wild with enthusiasm. The royal carriage was besieged with cheering well-wishers as it made its was slowly through the streets to the Palace where all of the extended royal family later appeared on the terrace. Yet, for Helen-as for the others-the return was bittersweet. The fact of Alexander’s absence was suddenly brought home, particularly when she observed the grief-stricken face of her mother. Aged 24, Helen also realised that the time had come to settle down and make a suitable marriage. As a tall and attractive brunette with an excellent royal pedigree there was no shortage of suitable candidates. But whom would she settle on?