ERNST LUDWIG, GRAND DUKE OF HESSE


A Sensitive Child

Ernst Ludwig Karl Albrecht Wilhelm was born in the Neues Palais, Darmstadt, on 25 November 1868, and was the eldest and only surviving son of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and Alice of the United Kingdom.

Ernst Ludwig grew up in Darmstadt in a very close family where his upbringing was more informal than the norm for someone of his rank. Ernst Ludwig and his siblings were raised in the English style and they spent many holidays in England with their grandmother Queen Victoria. However, his early life was beset with tragedy when he witnessed the death of his brother, Friedrich, when he fell from a window onto a balcony twenty feet below. The two boys were playing a game when Friedrich suffered the accident and later died from his injuries due to his haemophilia. Ernst Ludwig was distraught at the loss and told his mother he dreamt about going to Heaven and asked God to give his brother back.

Tragedy struck again when the family all contracted diphtheria in 1878 and it claimed the lives of his youngest sister, Marie, and his mother. As the children succumbed to the illness one by one, they were nursed by their mother who kept strict hygiene protocols to prevent herself from catching it. However, when she told Ernst Ludwig about the death of his little sister, he was so inconsolable she broke her own rules and kissed him. Within days, Alice was gravely ill herself and died on 14 December which was the anniversary of the death of her father.

The loss of their mother was a huge blow to the children and the oldest daughter, Victoria, took over the role as a surrogate mother to the younger children. The relationship between Queen Victoria and Alice had been strained but the Queen was distraught when her daughter died and the coincidence of the date was not lost on her. The Queen vowed to ensure Alice’s children were well cared for and invited them to stay with her whenever possible.

Ernst Ludwig attended the University of Leipzig where he took classes with the ordinary students and developed a keen interest in the arts. Ernst Ludwig also spent more time socialising than concentrating on his studies with did not please his grandmother. Ernst Ludwig then moved on to the University of Giessen in Hesse where he was treated more formally due to his rank as a prince, however he showed little interest in his studies. Ernst Ludwig was even more dismayed when he had to go to Potsdam to serve time with the Prussian army which he hated found stifling.

After the death of his father in 1892, Ernst Ludwig succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Hesse and was determined to be less formal. After the official mourning period ended, Ernst Ludwig threw elaborate balls and indulged in his love for music and the arts. Ernst Ludwig established the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in 1899 where artists could gather to encourage each other’s creativity while being funded by donations from patrons.

Marriage

Queen Victoria was keen for Ernst Ludwig to marry his first cousin, Victoria Melita, the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Victoria Melita had already fallen in love with another first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, however their marriage had been forbidden as the Russian Orthodoxy Church banned marriage between cousins. Heartbroken, Victoria Melita bowed to family pressure and agreed to marry Ernst Ludwig.

The wedding took place at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg on 19 April 1894 but the event was overshadowed by the news Ernst Ludwig’s sister, Alix, had become engaged to Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia. The marriage was a disaster from the start as the two were incompatible, however they were renowned for their famous parties which were held at regular intervals. Unfortunately, Victoria Melita was less keen on carrying out her duties as grand duchess and this led to volatile arguments between the pair.

Victoria Melita gave birth to two children, Elisabeth, on 11 March 1895, and a stillborn son on 25 May 1900. Ernst Ludwig doted on his daughter and lavished all his attention on her as his marriage disintegrated. Victoria Melita began to spend a lot of time in Monte Carlo where she spent vasts sums of money at the card tables and begged Queen Victoria to allow them to divorce. The Queen forbade it on the grounds they had a child to protect and should make more of an effort to make their marriage work.

When Queen Victoria died, Victoria Melita wasted no time in ending the marriage and the divorce was granted by the Supreme Court of Hesse on 21 December 1901 on the grounds of mutual antipathy. The couple were given joint custody of their daughter, however Elisabeth preferred being with her father and had to be persuaded to visit her mother who was keen to build bridges. After the divorce, Victoria Melita spread rumours Ernst Ludwig was homosexual and had been caught in a compromising situation with a male servant. Regardless of the truth, Victoria Melita went on to marry her first love, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, without consent and had three more children.

Ernst Ludwig devoted his time to his daughter, however he was shattered when she developed typhoid fever while staying with his sister, Alix, and the rest of the imperial family at their hunting lodge in Poland. The little girl died on 16 November 1903 before her parents could reach her bedside and their last task together was to bury their only surviving child. Elisabeth was taken back to Darmstadt where her father had planned a white funeral for her and the people of Darmstadt sobbed openly as they gathered for her funeral procession. Elisabeth was buried in the Rosenhöhe with other members of the Hessian grand ducal family and a marble angel was placed over her grave. A broken-hearted Ernst Ludwig never got over the death of his daughter and called her the “sunshine in his life” in his memoirs.

Second Marriage

On 2 February 1905, Ernst Ludwig married Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich and they had two sons, Georg Donatus, born on 8 November 1906, and Ludwig, born on 20 November 1908. This second marriage was far more successful as the couple were more compatible and Eleanore was content to allow Ernst Ludwig to indulge in his artistic endeavours. Eleanore also had a keen sense of what was required of her as grand duchess and carried out her duties without complaint. She was required to act as regent when Ernst Ludwig served as a general of the infantry at Kaiser Wilhelm’s headquarters during the First World War.

In 1918, Ernst Ludwig faced fresh tragedy when his sister, Tsarina Alexandra, her husband and her children were murdered by the Bolsheviks. His sister, Elisabeth, who had become a nun after the death of her husband, was also killed. When the war drew to a close, Ernst Ludwig lost his ducal throne after refusing to abdicate.

Ernst Ludwig died on 9 October 1937 and was buried next to his daughter, Elisabeth, in Rosenhöhe, Darmstadt. A month later, Eleanore, was killed in a plane crash, alongside her eldest son, Georg Donatus, his wife, Cecilie, and their two sons. The family were on their way to England for the wedding of Georg Donatus’s brother Ludwig when it is believed Cecilie went into labour and the plane crashed in bad weather while trying to land in Ostend.