Congratulations & Condolences: Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse

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And so we pick up with yet another of Queen Victoria’s children: Princess Alice, her third child and second daughter. Alice is less famous than her two elder siblings, Vicky and Bertie (aka Empress Frederick of Germany and Edward VII), but that fact doesn’t necessarily align with her dynastic importance.

Have you ever heard it said the Queen and Prince Philip are cousins? Well, they are, albeit distantly. Queen Elizabeth is descended from Queen Victoria through her son, Edward VII, while Philip is descended from her via Alice. Alice’s eldest daughter, Victoria of Hesse, married Prince Louis of Battenberg and her eldest daughter, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is Philip’s mother. So, there you go.

But the most famous of Alice’s children is her second-to-youngest daughter, Alix of Hesse, who, in 1894, married Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. They and their four children would be murdered during the 1917 revolution that abolished the Russian monarchy, a horrifying act that shook Europe to its core and devastated the British Royal Family. The family ties in that particular case were doubly intertwined since Nicholas II’s mother was the younger sister of Alexandra of Denmark, George V’s mother. Personally, I think a great case study for how incestuous Europe’s ruling families had become by the early 20th century is best captured in the below photo of Nicholas II & George V. Guess which one is which (hint: the Hanoverian eyes will give it away).

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Anywho, Alice. Before all of that came the rather quaint-in-comparison domesticity in which she grew up. Alice was born on April 25, 1843 at Buckingham Palace during a turning point in her parents’ marriage. Like many royal unions before them, it took Queen Victoria and Prince Albert a few years to find their footing, particularly given the fact that, unlike most other 19th century marriages, wife outranked husband. As the couple negotiated the public and private sphere, the nursery of Alice’s two elder siblings became a symbolic battleground over who would rule it and what that meant.

Luckily for Alice, the dust had settled by her birth. There is no record of what her parents thought of her gender, but the Privy Council did see fit to write Albert, “congratulations and condolences,” on the birth of another daughter. Even so, Victoria wrote to her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium, while convalescing from childbirth that:

“Our little baby, who I really am proud of, for she is so very forward for her age, is to be called Alice, an old English name, and the other names are Maud (another old English name and the same as Matilda) and Mary, as she was born on Aunt Gloucester’s birthday.”

Perhaps, but Alice was also the favorite female name of Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s former Prime Minister, and given how unusual it was within the RF at the time, I have a feeling the latter played a far larger role in its choice.

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Bertie, Alice and Vicky

Apparently she also grew into a very fat baby, for Queen Victoria referred to her as “good, fat Alice,” while Albert called her, “Fatima.” Though the Queen loathed babies, she also spent a relatively good amount of time with her own, believing children grew up best when they were around their parents as much as possible. In Albert, Alice also found a kindred spirit, though it would be Vicky who always remained his favorite child. But like Albert, Alice grew up to be sensitive, philanthropic and concerned with the public duties associated with responsible monarchy.

Within a few years of her birth, her parents purchased two properties that would remain incredibly important for the remainder of Victoria’s reign: Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. For Albert, this meant not only a respite from court and the uncomfortable Buckingham Palace, but a way to be surrounded by a nature, which was more reminiscent of his own childhood. The children were given a fairly middle-class existence – they dressed simply, took their lessons, learned household tasks, completed chores and were exposed to lower-class families via the tenants who lived on the estates.

Alice, in particular, took an interest in how these families lived, what their concerns were and was genuinely interested in caregiving. It was indication of her work in adulthood. It was this instinct that also bonded Alice to her brother, Bertie, who struggled with the educational plans put in place for him by his father and his German adviser, Baron Stockmar. As Bertie struggled and chafed in the family atmosphere, it was Alice who often took it upon herself to look after him.

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Vicky and Alice

But she was also a still a child and she and her siblings got into a fair number of scrapes amusing themselves inside the Palace. Alice and Vicky were both known for being emotional, occasionally vain and slightly  bossy. In one ancedote reported by Alice’s biographer, Christina Croft:

“In spite of her somewhat self-righteous indignation, Alice was equally capable of misbehaving. One afternoon, she and Vicky noticed a maid black-leading the fire grate and, under teh pretext of learning how it was done, asked her to give them the polish. Rather than applying it to the grate, they seized the poor girl and rubbed it all over her face until she fled from the room and, by chance, ran straight into Prince Albert. That evening, members of the household caught sight of the Queen leading her two eldest daughters by the hand to the servants’ quarters to apologise to the unfortunate maid […] before using their pocket money to buy her an entirely new set of clothes.”

But innocence was short-lived. In 1853, when Alice was 10, her parents’ eighth child was born, Prince Leopold. Shortly after his birth he was diagnosed with hemophilia, the first sign of the disease to show itself in the family, but one which would have devastating consequences for Alice and her siblings, particularly she and her sisters.

Five years later, Vicky was the first to be married and she departed London for Berlin as the Princess of Prussia, leaving Alice as her parents’ eldest unmarried daughter. The role took on even more significance when, on December 14, 1861, Prince Albert died after unexpectedly catching Typhoid Fever. Victoria was devastated and the entire family plunged into deep, unabating mourning.

Alice had taken it upon herself to help nurse her father during his illness, spending hours reading to him and playing the piano. On his deathbed he told her, “Go and comfort Mama,” advice which she seemingly took seriously, for she spent the next several months seeing Victoria through the worst of her mourning.

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Just four months later, Alice’s engagement to Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt was announced, a rare shot of light in an otherwise oppressive existence. The couple first met in 1860 when Louis and his brother had been invited to attend Royal Ascot. Louis and Alice hit it off and before he left he requested a picture of her. For her part, Alice made it known she wasn’t completely repulsed by him.

At the time, however, the match was put on ice due to concern that Louis had formed an emotional and romantic attachment to another woman. Instead of pressing further, Victoria and Albert stepped back and waited for it to play out. A few weeks later, Louis wrote to Albert asking if he might approach Alice directly when he returned to England that autumn.

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Louis in 1860

He arrived that November and on the 30th he and Alice were privately engaged with a wedding tentatively penciled in for June 1861. Somewhat ironically, it would be death which both delayed and spurred the marriage. In March 1861, the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of Kent, passed away and Victoria wouldn’t hear of the family improperly honoring her memory by not adhering to strict mourning. However, once Albert died, knowing that her husband had approved of Louis as a son-in-law, the union became front and center for the Queen.

The union, mind you, not the wedding. That event, which took place on July 1, 1862 was a private, somber affair. The ceremony took place in the dining room at Osborne House, a far cry from the pomp that had seen Vicky off four years before. Victoria attended by being ushered in by her four sons who then stood as a shield to block their mother from view, while Prince Albert’s older brother, Ernest, gave the bride away. While Alice was allowed to wear a white wedding gown, it was donned and removed immediately before and after the ceremony so that she could otherwise continue to wear black.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was in attendance and wrote that it was “the saddest day I can remember.”

Not quite the ideal wedding day, then.

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Alice in her wedding dress

Nor was the honeymoon, for that matter. While the concept of a honeymoon didn’t quite look the same as it does to us now, the trip did have a damper put on it by the arrival of the Queen who stopped by to see how they were getting on. A fun side effect of her widowhood was her complete disgust at the marital happiness of others, particularly her daughters, as it aroused only jealousy and sadness over what she had lost – as such, Alice spent most of her visit trying to downplay her own happiness.

The couple arrived in Hesse on July 12, 1862 and were greeted with rapturous praise. Alice initially suffered from homesickness, but she quickly found her footing, helped by the warm welcome she received from Louis’s parents. Just a few months into marriage, Alice discovered she was pregnant and, knowing how traumatic Vicky’s first birth had been, she made plans to deliver her child in England where she could avail herself of British doctors. With her brother, Bertie, due to marry Alexandra of Denmark in March and Prince Albert’s re-internment scheduled for the December before, logistically it made sense for her to stay on until the baby had been born.

Victoria of Hesse was born on April 5, 1863 at Windsor Castle in the presence of the Queen. After her birth, cognizant of how much time she had spent out of Hesse since her wedding, Alice returned to the duchy, eager to continue establishing her young family there. When her mother began planning yet another return visit for the couple, Alice wrote:

“Out of the ten months of our married life, five have been spent under your roof, so you can see how ready we are to be with you. Before next year Louis does not think we shall be able to come; at any rate when we can we shall, and I hope I shall be able to see you for a day or two in Germany to divide the time.”

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Alice and Louis with Victoria and Ella

Alice’s second daughter was born on November 1, 1864 and christened Elizabeth, though she was always known as “Ella” in the family. Shortly after her birth, Alice and Louis took their children to Berlin to visit Vicky and Fritz, where Vicky had recently given birth to her fourth child and started breastfeeding. At her sister’s encouragement, Alice began to do so with Ella to the complete horror and disgust of the Queen.

This coincided with a renewed interest in the caregiving that had so spoken to Alice in her youth. Around this time she met Florence Nightingale and became deeply passionate about supporting, promoting and even participating in nursing, particularly once the Austro-Prussian war broke out in 1866. Within the Royal Family the war was both personal and political since the fighting was prompted by Austria’s demand that Prussia return Schleswig-Holstein, a principality from which the new husband of Alice’s younger sister came. Queen Victoria’s children were divided and when Hesse sided with Austria, Alice and Vicky were on opposing sides of the war.

When conflict first broke out, Alice, pregnant with her third child, sent Victoria and Ella to England to stay with her mother. Louis left to command the Hessian Calvary and Alice spent an intense summer by herself in the duchy where she led support for the armed forces on the home front and gave birth to another daughter, Irene.

All told, Alice would go on to have four more children: Ernest, Frederick, Alix and Marie (always known as “May”). Her second son became her favorite son, perhaps due to the level of care required to raise him as he was diagnosed at age three with hemophilia, of which Alice was a carrier. Just a few months later, in May 1873, Frederick and Ernest were playing in Alice’s bedroom and Frederick fell from a window. He survived the 20-foot drop and would likely have survived the event completely had he not suffered from the disease. He died hours later from a brain hemorrhage and Alice never fully recovered.

For the next two years she bowed out of the majority of her public duties as she mourned and she became increasingly focused on Ernest and her younger children. Unfortunately this period of time also coincided with the worsening of relations between her and her mother. The Queen couldn’t wrap her head around Alice’s interest in nursing or her practical approach to discussing sex, pregnancy or physical ailments and Alice became increasingly uninterested in bending her will to her mother’s. When the Queen and Tsar Alexander II of Russia were negotiating the marriage of Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Marie, the Queen accused Alice of taking the “Russian side” after her daughter suggested the Tsar’s terms weren’t unreasonable.

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Alice, Louis and their children in 1875

Her marriage, too, which had begun as one of genuine affection started to deteriorate. In 1876 when she was convalescing from a medical procedure at Balmoral, she wrote to Louis to criticize his letters to her, saying:

“[I]f my children wrote me such childish letters – only short accounts – of where and what they had eaten or where they had been etc., and no opinions, observations and remarks, I should be surprised – and how much more so when you write like that!”

More seriously, she later wrote:

“I longed for real companionship, for apart from that life had nothing to offer me in Darmstadt…So naturally I am bitterly disappointed with myself when I look back, and see that in spite of great ambitions, good intentions, and real effort, my hopes have nevertheless been completely ship-wrecked…You say, darling, that you would never have caused me hardship intentionally…I only regret the lack of any intention or desire – or rather insight – to be more to me, and that does not mean spending all your time with me, without wishing to share anything with me at the same time. But I am wrong to talk of these things. Your letters are so dear and kind – but so empty and bare – I feel myself through them that I have less to say to you than any other person. Rain – fine weather – things that have happened – that is all I ever have to tell you about – so utterly cut off is my real self, my innermost life, from yours…I have tried again and again to talk to you about more serious things, when I felt the need to do so – but we never meet each other – we have developed separately…and that is why I feel true companionship is an impossibility for us – because our thoughts will never meet…I love you too so very much, my darling husband, and that is why it is so sad to feel that our life is nevertheless so incomplete…But you are never intentionally to blame for this – I never think that, never.”

On June 13, 1877 Louis and Alice became the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse, however her years of hiding out after Frederick’s death, her repeated trips back to the UK and her progressive attitude towards her role and public work had unfortunately mangled her reputation in the duchy. By the time she was its first lady she was wildly unpopular and life in Darmstadt had soured considerably since she had first arrived 15 years before.

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In November 1878 the ducal household was hit by diptheria and five of her children, as well as Louis, came down with it. Alice’s youngest and favorite daughter, May, died at the age of four on November 16th. In the hopes of not worsening the health of her other children, Alice concealed the news of her death until early December. Ernest grew so upset that Alice comforted with him a kiss, which turned out to be fatal. Ernest recovered, but Alice caught the disease and died on December 14th.

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Queen Victoria with Louis and her Hessian grandchildren

The date marked the 17th anniversary of Albert’s death, which the Queen saw as an omen and the day grew even more sinister in her mind. The Times wrote in its obituary for her that:

“The humblest of people felt that they had the kinship of nature with a Princess who was the model of family virtue as a daughter, a sister, a wife and a mother…Her abundant sympathies sought for objects of help in the great unknown waste of human distress.”

Alice was the first of the Queen’s children to die and despite their often tense relationship, Victoria felt the loss deeply and took a focused interest on the welfare of Alice’s children. Worried that Louis wasn’t up to the task of raising them alone, she even contemplated marrying him off to her last unmarried daughter, Princess Beatrice, which thankfully wasn’t allowed in the Church of England. Even so, all five of her Hessian grandchildren spent considerable time in the UK as they grew up and had close ties to their mother’s relatives. While Ella and Alix would go on to marry Russians, Victoria, Irene and Ernest all married members of the extended family – in the case of the latter two, they chose first cousins.

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Alice’s daughters in the 1880s, from L to R: Irene, Victoria, Ella & Alix

As mentioned at the top of the post, Victoria of Hesse named her eldest daughter after her mother and that Alice would go on to become the mother of Prince Philip, the current Queen’s husband. Thus, from the Prince of Wales down, today’s Royal Family are all direct descendants of Alice and Louis.

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