17 June 2017

The Mountbatten Star Tiara

Penny Knatchbull wears the Mountbatten Star Tiara on her wedding day (Central Press/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the Mountbatten family announced the passing of its matriarch: Patricia Knatchbull, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma. The elder daughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten was descended from the British and German royal families, with more family connections to the royal and imperial families of Sweden, Greece, and Russia. Today, to continue our celebration of her life, we're focusing on an interesting family heirloom: Patricia's wedding tiara.

Princess Victoria with her grandmother, Queen Victoria, and her daughter, Princess Alice, ca. 1880s

The diamond and pearl star tiara is actually the second of two similar tiaras owned by the family. The first belonged to Patricia Mountbatten's grandmother, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine. When Princess Victoria married Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884, she received a major haul of jewelry from her royal relatives. Her maternal grandmother and namesake, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, gave Princess Victoria a pair of hairpins that featured diamond stars set with a central pearl.

Princess Alice wears a star tiara -- and a star bracelet -- on her wedding day, 1903

Princess Victoria had these diamond stars incorporated into a star tiara, which was an extremely fashionable accessory at the time. It seems that this star tiara was the same one that Princess Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice of Battenberg, wore to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1903. In the photo above, the stars are just visible over the orange blossoms in Alice's hair. This appears to be one of the only photographs of the original star tiara.

Sadly, that star tiara no longer exists. Princess Victoria (who became the Marchioness of Milford Haven when the Battenbergs renounced their German titles in 1917) was visiting one of her sisters, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, when World War I began. She left the star tiara, along with the rest of the jewels, in Russia. She wasn’t alone in her belief that Russia would be a safe place to leave the gems — her cousin, Queen Marie of Romania, also sent her jewels to Russia for safe-keeping during the war. But both collections were lost after the Bolsheviks took over, and neither the Romanian nor the Battenberg jewels have ever been seen again.

Patricia Mountbatten wears the Mountbatten Star Tiara on her wedding day

And that brings us to the point where today’s tiara enters the story. Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll (Princess Victoria's aunt and godmother) decided that her niece needed a replacement sparkler after her other jewels had been lost. She gave this star tiara to Victoria, complete with diamond and pearl stars that looked just like the original jewels given to her by Queen Victoria in 1884.

To help distinguish between the two nearly identical tiaras, I call the first "the Battenberg Star Tiara," reflecting the family's title before the war, and the second "the Mountbatten Star Tiara," for their name after 1917. The new tiara was the most important jewel that Princess Victoria had left after the war. When her younger son, Lord Louis Mountbatten, married Edwina Ashley in 1922, Victoria gave him the new star tiara to present to his bride as a wedding gift.

Patricia Mountbatten wears the tiara on her wedding day

Alterations were made to the piece in the 1930s, as Louis and Edwina's stars ascended. Edwina was photographed in the tiara by Cecil Beaton for Vogue in 1937. But she also generously passed the piece along to other women in her family. Several Mountbatten ladies have worn the sparkler as a wedding tiara, including her elder daughter, Patricia (whose 1946 wedding we covered here earlier this week), as well as Patricia's daughter-in-law, Penelope, and her granddaughter, Alexandra.

Today, Penny and Alexandra are the two Mountbatten women who primarily wear the tiara. Because of the Mountbatten's extensive royal connections, they're often on the invitation list for major royal events, both in Britain and abroad. Penny donned the star tiara in 1996 for the fiftieth birthday celebrations of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. Alexandra reportedly wore the tiara during the wedding celebrations for Hereditary Grand Duke Guillaume of Luxembourg in 2012.

We most recently saw the tiara in public during Alexandra's wedding last summer. It's wonderful that, even though they auctioned off Edwina’s fabulous diamond tiara a decade ago, the family has managed to keep this tiara in their collection. But there’s been drama in recent years.  Patricia's eldest son, Norton (who will begin using the title of Earl Mountbatten of Burma after his mother's funeral), and his wife, Penny, have been estranged for some time. The next generation has also had its issues, including stru with addiction. Here’s hoping that, even after Patricia's death, the Mountbattens will be able to hang on to this version of their star tiara for a while longer.

Note: This is an expanded and updated version of an earlier post, with new text and images.