Counselling and psychotherapy, History and philosophy

Looking Back: Freud and the British royal family

David Cohen delves into some intriguing and bizarre connections.

18 June 2013

In 1902 an ecstatic Sigmund Freud went to meet the Emperor Franz Josef, the Holy Roman Emperor. Three years after he had published The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud had finally achieved the rank of Professor Extraordinarius. Only a fool would claim to know what Freud was thinking over a century ago, but I shall have a guess at what he wasn’t thinking. As he thanked the Emperor, Freud probably did not imagine he would be involved with two other royals 30 years later, both members of the British royal family – Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, and his aunt, Princess Marie Bonaparte.

Princess Marie was Napoleon’s great grandniece. Her mother died a month after she gave birth; her father left her in the care of her outrageously snobbish grandmother who did not think a Napoleon child should mix with ordinary children. Marie was isolated, unhappy but formidably clever. When Marie was seven, she started filling notebooks with pictures and stories (Bertin, 1982; Bougeron & Bourguignon, 2000; Grosskurth, 1982).

A princess whose family owned the casino at Monte Carlo was highly eligible, so Marie’s father married her off to Prince George of the Hellenes. Marie had already had lovers; George had problems. On their wedding night, he apologised for what their loins had to do, which was to provide heirs for the throne of Greece. George wasn’t interested in women as he had an unusual erotic fixation; he was in love with his uncle Waldemar. His wife could not compete.

Princess Marie took a succession of lovers, including one French Prime Minister. (Prince George does not seem to have minded). Quantity did not make for quality, though: Princess Marie never managed to have a full orgasm. We know so much about her sex life because at heart Marie was an academic. When she realised she had sexual difficulties, she decided to study the female orgasm and, in 1924, using the pseudonym A.E Narjani, she published an extraordinary paper on the anatomical causes of frigidity, partly based on interviews with her acquaintances. One of her friends, a French psychiatrist, Rene Laforgue, told her that she was frigid because her mind was too masculine. He recommended she see Freud.

Princess Marie caught a plane to Vienna and arrived at Freud’s home at 19 Berggasse. She told Freud she had been let down by many men. The 70-year-old analyst warned her that he was ancient and that not everything worked – and he wasn’t referring to his brain, which was still needle-sharp. Princess Marie held his hand as she explained her problems. Freud offered her something he never offered another patient – two-hour long analytic sessions. It was the start of a platonic love affair.

Freud told Princess Marie that her sexual problems were due to the fact she had witnessed the primal scene: she worked out she must have seen her nanny making love. Bonaparte hared off in her Rolls Royce, found the nanny and confirmed Freud had been right. That strengthened their relationship. Knowing she had seen the primal scene did not cure Bonaparte of frigidity, however. In an interesting variation on the Oedipus complex, she wondered if, as the rude rhyme puts it, incest is best. She asked Freud whether she should break the incest taboo and sleep with her son to achieve the elusive orgasm. Freud, fundamentally conservative, advised against. The Princess took his advice (Bertin, 1982).

Freud was very open in his discussions with Princess Marie. It was to her that he wrote that, after years as an analyst, he still had no idea what women wanted.

In the early 1930s Freud was involved with another member of the British royal family – Princess Alice, Prince Philip’s mother. She had married when she was only 20 years old and had four daughters before Philip was born on Corfu in 1920. When he was just three, his father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was court martialled. The Greek army blamed him for losing a battle against the Turks. King George V had to intervene to stop Prince Andrew being executed.  

Soon afterwards, Princess Alice began to behave in a very disturbed manner. She claimed to be in contact with Christ and the Buddha. Her mother was distraught but practical. She consulted a psychiatrist who specialised in shell shock, Thomas Ross, as well as Sir Maurice Craig who treated the future George VI, before he had speech therapy. Both diagnosed schizophrenia and recommended psychoanalysis.

By the end of the 1920s Freud was world famous (Cohen, 2012b; Eade, 2011). Against her will, Princess Alice was sent to the Tegel Clinic in Berlin which was run by Ernst Simmel, a close colleague of Freud’s. Simmel made little progress with a fundamentally hostile patient. Princess Alice was then sent to the asylum at Kreuzlingen which was run by Ludwig Binswanger, another follower of Freud’s. Binswanger also described her condition as paranoid schizophrenia.

Both Simmel and Binswanger consulted Freud. He believed Princess Alice’s religious delusions were the product of sexual frustration and recommended X-raying her ovaries in order to kill off her libido. Princess Alice protested she was sane and repeatedly tried to get out of the asylum. She did not see Prince Philip for some years and wandered round Europe incognito.

Despite his royal connections, Freud was facing financial difficulties in the 1930s Depression that followed the Wall Street crash. His maid, Paula Fichtl, reported that he did not buy new suits as regularly as he did before. Few writers on Freud have made use of her memoirs which reveal, among much else, that he was a natty dresser. Freud’s money problems were due to the poor sales of the publishing house he had founded to publish psychoanalytic books and journals. Marie Bonaparte sent him $2000 to help (Fichtl, 1981).

In the mid-1930s Princess Alice finally left the asylum and returned to Athens where she lived in a modest two-bedroom apartment. She finally founded an order of nursing nuns and did much during the war to help a number of Jews. Either psychoanalysis had helped her, or she had never been that disturbed. It seems very likely that Prince Philip was affected by his mother’s experiences. He survived being abandoned by both his parents and came to the conclusion that, if he had survived without therapy, no one needed it. He told Fiona Bruce in an interview for the BBC that one just had to get on with it, as he had done.

Just after Princess Alice left the asylum, Freud’s friendship with Princess Marie became even closer. Princess Marie and Freud were both devoted dog lovers. At the end of 1936 she sent Freud the book she had just finished writing. He told her it was ‘moving and genuine’ and revealed the ‘analyst’s thirst for truth and knowledge’. The subject of the book was her sick chow.Topsy is a touching and, at times, frankly loopy memoir that tells how the Princess’s dog suffered from cancer. Some chapter headings sound like parodies – ‘Topsy and Shakespeare’, ‘On the Frontiers of Your Species’, and ‘Implorations to the God of the Rays’. As his owner was fabulously rich, Topsy became the first dog to be treated with radiotherapy. Freud translated her book into German and arranged for it to be published by his own publisher (Bonaparte, 1994).

Another test of their friendship occurred when some letters that would harm Freud’s reputation were being offered for sale. Freud had used cocaine for some 20 years from 1884 to around 1904. He had been encouraged to do so by an eccentric ear, nose and throat surgeon, Wilhelm Fliess. Fliess believed the nose controlled all aspects of behaviour. (Fichtl, 1981.)

When Fliess died in 1928, his widow wrote to Freud. She wanted him to return the letters her husband had written to him and she also wanted him to buy back his own letters for a substantial sum. Freud did not have the money, so Marie Bonaparte bought the letters. Freud wanted them destroyed, but the Princess refused. They were of great historical importance, she said. Freud was very annoyed but they made a bargain. She promised not to read the letters and kept her word. They were not published until 1984, 22 years after she died.

In March 1938 Hitler invaded Austria. Jews like Freud were at huge risk. Bonaparte was a key figure in getting him to safety. She arrived in Vienna and parked herself outside Freud’s apartment so the Gestapo would have to get round her to raid his apartment. She wore a blue mink stole wrapped around her shoulders – and was enveloped in ‘clouds of Stephanotis’, a fashionable perfume of the time. White leather gloves and a brown crocodile handbag completed her outfit. (Cohen, 2011; Markel, 2011.)

Escaping from the Nazis cost money – and Freud did not have anything like enough. Bonaparte helped and also arranged for some of Freud’s savings to be smuggled out in the diplomatic pouch belonging to the Greek embassy. Without that nest egg he would not have been able to buy the house in Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead which became his London home. Princess Marie also persuaded a Nazi called Anton Sauerwald to sign the documents Freud and his family needed to leave Nazi-controlled Vienna in June 1938. Sauerwald was flattered because Princess Marie befriended him. The two of them also worked together to remove part of Freud’s library from his home and place the books deep in the bowels of the National Library. There, they survived the war (Cohen, 2012a).

Finally, in June 1938, Freud boarded the train to Paris – and safety. Marie Bonaparte met him, took him to her home and pampered him before putting him on the train to London. She also arranged for his remaining books, his collection of antiquities and the famous analytic couch to be transported to London. They are all in the Freud Museum now.

Princess Marie visited him twice during the last 18 months of life. Their last meeting in August 1939 was a sad taking of leave as Freud knew he was dying. Given this history, it is no accident that when the Freud Museum was opened in London, Princess Alexandra performed the ceremony.

Princess Marie is remembered as a pioneering analyst. Princess Alice has been honoured as one of the righteous Gentiles because, when she went back to Athens, she helped save Jews from the Nazis. The two women met for the last time at the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Princess Alice appeared in a very elegant nun’s outfit; Princess Marie spent much of the ceremony flirting with the future President of France, Francois Mitterand. I can’t helping imagining that Freud would have smiled as he peered down on them from the analytic heavens.

- David Cohen is a psychologist, writer and documentary film maker.  This article is dedicated to the memory of Reuben Cohen (1975–2013), who helped me research Freud.


Bertin, C. (1982) Marie Bonaparte. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Bonaparte, M. (1994). Topsy. New Brunswick, NJ:  Transaction. (Originally published in 1938 in Belgium)
Bougeron, J.P. & Bourguignon, A. (2000). Marie Bonaparte et la psychoanalyse. Paris: Honoré Champion.
Cohen, D. (2011). Freud on coke. London: Cutting Edge Press.
Cohen, D. (2012a). Bringing them up royal. London: Robson Press.
Cohen, D. (2012b). The escape of Sigmund Freud. New York: Overlook Press.
Eade, W. (2011). Young Prince Philip. London: HarperCollins.
Fichtl, P. (1981). La famille Freud au jour le jour. Paris: PUF.
Grosskurth, P. (1982). The shrink princess. New York Review of Books, December.
Markel, H. (2011) An anatomy of addiction. New York: Pantheon.
Narjani, A.E. (1924). Considérations sur les causes anatomiques de la frigidité chez la femme. In M. Bonaparte (1985) Female sexuality. New York: Grove Press.

Much of the research on which this article is based comes from David Cohen’s book Bringing Them Up Royal, published in hardback by Robson Press and as a Kindle by Peach Publishing.