Alice had a compassionate nature and was particularly close to her older sister, Victoria, Princess Royal, and her brother, Albert Edward. Sensitive by nature, Alice was the care giver of the royal family and she stayed at the bedside of her maternal grandmother, the Duchess of Kent, through her final illness. Later that year, Alice also nursed her father when he became ill at Windsor Castle and would be a source of strength for her mother upon his death on 14 December 1861. The Queen was distraught at losing Albert, withdrawing from the public, and Alice had to became her mother’s unofficial secretary for the next six months.
In 1860, Queen Victoria began looking for a husband for Alice, however candidates were few and far between with the best choices being William, Prince of Orange, or Albrecht, Prince of Prussia, but both were dismissed by Alice. It was Alice’s sister, Victoria, who suggested Louis of Hesse as she had been very impressed with him on a visit to assess his sister, Anna, as a suitable match for their brother, Bertie. Both Louis and his brother, Henry, were invited to Windsor Castle in 1860 to attend the Ascot races and by the time the visit was over, it was obvious Louis and Alice were smitten with each other.
Louis and Alice were formally engaged on 30 April 1861, however arrangements for the wedding were interrupted by the death of Prince Albert on 14 December that same year. Queen Victoria ordered the wedding to go ahead as planned despite the period of mourning, however it would be a far simpler affair at Osborne House. On 1 July 1862, the royal family gathered in the dining room at Osborne House which had been temporarily converted into a chapel for the wedding, but the atmosphere was gloomy as an emotional Queen Victoria was hidden from view by her sons.
Alice also wore a traditional white bridal gown, the guests were required to wear subdued clothing while the princess had to wear the appropriate mourning attire before and after the ceremony. Alice was walked down the aisle by her father’s brother, Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and was flanked by four younger sisters. Alice had to be careful not to appear to joyful in case she upset her mother which explains the mournful wedding photos taken that day. In fact, Queen Victoria later wrote to her eldest daughter that day had been “more of a funeral than a wedding”.
Alice and Louis left for Hesse a few days later but her place of residence had already sparked controversy and Alice’s popularity in Hesse was already at its lowest as the small state could not afford to provide a place suitable for the daughter of a queen. Despite that, when Alice finally arrived in Darmstadt, she had Louis were greeted warmly by the crowds despite the bad weather.
In 1863, a pregnant Alice returned to England for her brother, Bertie’s wedding to Alexandra of Denmark and ended up giving birth to her first child, Victoria, on 5 April, in the presence of her mother. The birth of a second daughter, Elizabeth, on 1 November 1864, would strain the relationship between Alice and her mother as Alice chose to breastfeed her children herself, something Queen Victoria abhorred. Unfortunately, it was the start of a rift that would only grow wider as time went on because Victoria was jealous of Alice’s happiness and Alice despaired of her mother’s prolonged mourning.
In 1866, tensions in the family were heightened when Austria declared war on Prussia with Hesse firmly on the Austrian side which meant Alice and her sister Victoria were technically enemies. Alice, pregnant with her third child, sent her older daughters to live in England while Louis went off to war. After the child, another daughter, Irene, was born, Alice devoted herself to nursing wounded soldiers, using the methods promoted by her friend, Florence Nightingale, but still putting herself at great risk from disease.
The war with Prussia soon came to an end with the emergence of the new German nation but it meant Louis was now in the Prussian army and he spent a lot of time away from home. Over the following years, cracks began to appear in Louis and Alice’s marriage and Alice consoled herself by concentrating on her public duties. Tragedy befell the family in 1873 when Alice’s youngest and favourite son, Friedrich, nicknamed Frittie, died after falling 20 feet from a window. The boy suffered from haemophilia, and although he regained consciousness, the internal bleeding could not be stopped and Alice never recovered from his death.
In 1876, Alice returned to England for treatment for an internal complaint caused by a backward curvature of the womb and then spent time at Balmoral recuperating. While at Balmoral, the strain between Alice and Louis was evident in her letters in which she often berates her husband for his childishness and apparent lack of intelligence. Despite her reservations, Alice remained loyally supportive of Louis and she stood up for him whenever she felt his actions were not being recognised. On 20 March 1877, Louis’s father, Charles, died, making Louis heir apparent to his uncle, Louis III, who himself died on 13 June the same year. As the new Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Hesse, Louis and Alice managed to reconcile but Alice found her new duties rather overwhelming.
In November 1878, the family fell ill with diphtheria and while the older children recovered, Marie, the youngest, died. Alice kept the news of Marie’s death from the other children but eventually told her son Ernest who was so devastated by the news, Alice kissed him on the cheek, sealing her own fate. A few days later, Alice became seriously ill and died, aged 35 years, on 14 December 1878, the anniversary of her father’s death.
Alice’s death was felt keenly by the royal family, especially by Bertie and Victoria, who were her closest siblings, and the rift between mother and daughter was quickly forgotten. Alice was the first of Victoria and Albert’s nine children to die and one of three who were outlived by their mother.