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Princesses on the wards: Royal women and nursing


Royal ladies have always aided the sick. In 1148, Queen Matilda founded the Royal Hospital and Collegiate Church of St Katharine by the Tower and reserved the choice of master to all the queens of England who would follow her. Since then, royal women have patronised, endowed and founded – but their place was certainly not caring for the sick and wounded in a hospital ward. In peacetime it was not considered appropriate for them to nurse. However, war was instrumental in changing that perspective.

As the men flocked to war, European queens and princesses wanted to ‘do their bit’ for their country. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as conflicts broke out all over the continent, they volunteered as Red Cross nurses. This they believed was an entirely appropriate activity in which they could contribute. Through wars and revolutions they were not afraid to roll up their sleeves, work in the wards and help in the operating theatre. These experiences were similar to those of thousands of others and yet they were shared by a group of dedicated royal ladies who wanted to go that extra mile.

It was not always as easy as they had expected, as one young woman recalled:

I can remember well the half-sick feeling which I at first experienced from the horror of the wounds and the smell of the blood ... This became a constant sensation during the hours when the men were first received and their wounds dressed; but it was always offset by excitement, by intense interest in the poor fellows themselves, and by the natural desire to relieve their suffering.

This sensation was probably felt even more acutely by women brought up in a palace, although I suspect that few princesses went as far as the Duke of Rutland’s daughter Lady Diana Manners, who before volunteering went down to the kitchen of her parents’ London home and saw an animal gutted, ‘to prepare me for operations’.

For princesses accustomed to a life of luxury and privilege, nursing was a revelation. It gave them a sense of freedom and liberation which in ordinary circumstances, when they were strictly chaperoned, they could never experience. Most of them had hardly ever travelled overnight without a maid to help them undress. Nevertheless they did not hesitate to volunteer for work in front-line hospitals.

In Russia, Greece, Spain, Romania, Belgium and Britain, Empress Alexandra of Russia; Queen Marie of Romania; Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent; and Princess Alice of Greece (mother of the Duke of Edinburgh) were among the many royal women who set an example of service and duty well beyond that considered necessary at the time. None requested any privileges, they wanted to be treated the same as everyone else. They became the human face of royalty.

For some, donning a nurse’s uniform was simply good propaganda. For others it was more than a symbolic gesture, it involved real hospital work, unaccustomed physical effort and mental activity. In most cases they were unable to devote all their time to nursing – they had other duties to perform, especially in the case of the higher-ranking ladies, but whatever time they could spare was used to the best of their ability.

Many of these ladies were awarded the Royal Red Cross. The medal was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1883 for women of the Military Nursing Service who had shown exceptional devotion and competency in the performance of their nursing duties, or for exceptional acts of bravery and devotion while on duty. The gold cross is edged with red enamel and had the words ‘Faith, Hope, Charity’ engraved on the arms with the date, 1883. The queen’s head appeared in relief in the centre with the Imperial crown and cipher on the reverse. The dark blue ribbon, edged in red, was worn tied in a bow on the left shoulder. Among the early recipients were the queen’s daughters: the Crown Princess of Prussia, Princess Christian and Princess Beatrice; her daughters-in-law the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Connaught; and her cousin the Duchess of Teck (mother of the future Queen Mary). Others were awarded a Red Cross Medal from their own, or another foreign country.

The Red Cross was at the heart of nursing work. The International Committee for the Relief of Military Wounded was formed in 1863 and owed its existence to Swiss-born Henri Dunant. His book A Memory of Solferino, published at his own expense the previous year, gave a vivid description of the 1859 battle and the suffering he witnessed on the battlefield afterwards. His account shocked Europe: ‘At the beginning of the century,’ wrote The Times, ‘the hospitals which followed armies in the field, or which remained to mark the site of some battlefield after the armies had passed on, were little better than charnel houses.’ Dunant called for: ‘some sacred international principles, sanctioned by convention, which, once signed and ratified would serve as the basis for the creation of societies for the aid of the wounded in the different European countries.’

The result was the Geneva International Conference, which discussed measures to help the wounded on the battlefield and to protect neutral medical services and field hospitals. The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field was drafted and approved, and in 1867 the First International Conference of the Red Cross was held. Their emblem, a red cross against a white background (the reverse of the Swiss flag), ‘was to be accepted as the universal emblem for all medical people and places, whether on a flag or as an armband’.

Royal women both faced difficulties and achieved successes while carving out a worthwhile role in nursing. They were all born royal and not all of them were fully trained nurses, but each of them made a positive contribution to alleviating suffering.

Extracted from Princesses on the Wards by Coryne Hall

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