The Story of Battenberg’s
Swellendam’s Royal Mystery
Battenberg Guesthouse is hailing its name from one of the most fascinating and mysterious families in Swellendam’s history: the Battenbergs.
Ever since Jean Henri Battenberg and his pretty wife Matthea first set foot in Swellendam in the 1850’s they held a strange allure for the local people and very soon rumours were rife that they were actually related to the German royal house of Hesse, some of whose members carried the name of Battenberg. It was speculated that Jean Henri was a member of the house of Hesse, who then married a commoner of Dutch descent, Matthea, resulting in his family disowning him and leading to their emigration to South Africa.
For all practical purposes, however, Jean Henri Battenberg was a simple carpenter and cabinetmaker by trade and was known to produce solid wooden furniture (some of it still in use today) while his wife was well known for the delicious soetkoekies she baked. Even though Jean Henri was responsible for the designs of extensions to the famous Dutch Reformed Church of Swellendam, he and his wife did not really mix with the townsfolk and few of the locals knew them well enough to get more than a glimpse of their background. Yet something about this quiet Dutch speaking couple sparked the imagination of the town’s people. Maybe it was because Matthea Battenberg was a strikingly beautiful woman who dressed really well, often decked out in what appeared to be expensive jewellery, including one golden necklace that “glittered with diamonds with a set of earrings to match”. It was often the case that European immigrants with fine jewellery had blue blood. Added to that was the knowledge that it was common practice for European royal families to ‘post’ their more scandalous relations to remote parts of the world – a winning recipe for gossip.
What added the final fuel to the fire of speculation, however, was the visit of their son, Henry Battenberg (then 17), to the true blue royal Prince Louis von Battenberg (then 27) on board a British battleship in 1881 while it was in the harbour in Simon’s Town. Prince Louis was the grandson of the Grand Duke Louis II of Hesse, but became a British subject and enjoyed a successful naval career. (He eventually renounced the name of Battenberg and changed it to Mountbatten due to anti-German sentiments in Britain.) It appears as if he welcomed the visit from his South African namesake and took an interest in his education. Why would the prince have acknowledged Henry Battenberg if they were not related? Later in his life, Henri also told people that a signet ring he had was a present from the prince of Bulgaria, providing yet another piece of this intricate puzzle.
Matthea Battenberg died in 1888 and Jean Henri in 1892. Both were buried in Swellendam without a tombstone marking their graves. Shortly after the sale of their effects, their son Henri left Swellendam. Sadly, the truth regarding the Battenberg’s ancestry was taken with them to the grave. Old Battenberg was a prominent Freemason, the last remaining member of the Lodge ‘La Bella Alliance’ at the time of his death. This former Freemason lodge is located right next to Battenberg Guesthouse today. Some of his old Freemason regalia as well as old papers and documents which could possibly have shed some light on their origins were discovered in Battenberg house loft in the 1890’s, but were unfortunately destroyed by the owner as these were in German and of no apparent value.
And so the mystery continues …