Helene Friederike Auguste was born in Arolsen, capital of Waldeck principality, in Germany, on 17 February 1861, and was the fourth surviving daughter of George Victor, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, and Helena of Nassau.
Helena was originally considered as a suitable wife for William III of the Netherlands but he eventually married her sister, Emma. Helena was then encouraged to meet Leopold, Duke of Albany, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, and they became engaged in November 1881.
On 27 April 1882, Leopold and Helena married in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, and took up residence at Claremont House. Tragically, the couple’s marriage only lasted two years as Leopold suffered from haemophilia and took a fatal fall in Cannes while Helena was pregnant with their second child, Charles Edward.
After becoming a widow, Helena devoted herself to raising her children and her considerable charity work which engendered a great deal of respect from her mother-in-law. While in Germany, Helena’s father had made her superintendent of infant schools, responsible for devising the curriculum, and Helena was considered an intellectual who excelled at mathematics and philosophy. When Helena arrived in England, Leopold introduced her to his Oxford friends and they became lifelong acquaintances.
In 1899, Helena founded the Albany Institute which soon expanded into a community and performance centre with the theatre venue known as the Albany Empire. The theatre was destroyed in 1978 but a new one was reopened in 1982 by Diana, Princess of Wales.
Helena and her children continued to live at Claremont House, however Charles Edward inherited the title of Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha upon the death of his uncle, Alfred, in 1899 and he left to take up residence there. During the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Edward found himself fighting on the side of Germany, and was subsequently stripped of his British titles. Helena’s daughter, Alice, married Alexander Cambridge, 1st Earl of Athlone, who was the brother of Mary of Teck.
In 1901, Helena became close to Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, who had previously been married to Hannah, only child of the Jewish banker Baron Mayer de Rothschild, and there was speculation the couple would marry. However, the wedding never took place as there were rumours Rosebery was also bisexual and had been linked to Francis Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig, a son of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry.
Helena died on 1 September 1922 of a heart attack in Hinterriss in Tyrol, Austria, while visiting her son. Through her son, Helena is the great-grandmother of Carl XVI Gustav, the current King of Sweden.