Maternal Princess

Irene Luise Marie Anne was born in the New Palace, Darmstadt, on 11 July 1866 and was the third daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Alice of the United Kingdom.

The name Irene was taken from the Greek word for peace and was thought to be fitting as the princess was born at the end of the Austro-Prussian War. As a child, Irene was not considered to be as attractive as her older sisters and even her mother remarked she was an unattractive baby. Despite this, Irene had a good nature and had a simple upbringing very much influenced by her English mother and nanny. The children were instructed on how to make their own beds and to clean their own rooms. However, the loving atmosphere was brought to an abrupt end by a series of family tragedies that began with the death of her younger brother, Friedrich, on 29 May 1873. The boy was an haemophiliac and he suffered a brain haemorrhage after falling out of a window.

Then, in November 1878, her older sister, Victoria, contracted diphtheria and it quickly spread through the other children, except for Elisabeth who was sent away. The children were nursed by their mother, however the youngest, Marie, died on 16 November 1878. Alice kept the news of Marie’s death to herself for as long as she could but when the other children seemed to be recovering, she finally told them the devastating news. Irene’s son, Ernst Ludwig, burst into tears and Alice broke her own rules by kissing him as a comfort. Days later, the princess herself became gravely ill and died on 14 December 1878.

Princess of Prussia

After the loss of their mother, the eldest daughter, Victoria, tried to take on the role of mother and she lamented how her childhood had came to a sudden end. However, the children were also taken under the wing of their grandmother, Queen Victoria, who brought the children to England for holidays and took a great interest in their welfare.

Irene married her first cousin, Heinrich of Prussia, much to the displeasure of Queen Victoria who had been unaware of the relationship. The couple were married on 24 May 1888 at the chapel of the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, however it was overshadowed by the obvious decline in health of Heinrich’s father who died a month later and was succeeded by his eldest son, Wilhelm, who treated his mother with disdain. Heinrich and Irene preferred to stay out of politics and were unconcerned with current events.

Irene gave birth to three sons, however she was dismayed when her eldest son, Waldemar, and her youngest son, Heinrich, were both diagnosed with haemophilia. Heinrich would die, aged four, after falling and bumping his head on 26 February 1904. Six months later, her sister, Alix, finally gave birth to a son, Alexei, who would also suffer from haemophilia but it was kept a strict secret. Irene maintained a close relationship with all her siblings but she was shocked when Elisabeth and Alix both converted to Russian orthodoxy after their marriages.

The relationship between Irene and her sisters would be strained during the First World War when they found themselves on opposite sides but worse was to come when Alix and Elisabeth were both executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Irene was devastated by the loss of her sisters and equally dismayed when Anna Anderson appeared on the scene claiming to be her niece, Anastasia. Irene met with the young woman and declared she was not Anastasia, however opinions were divided in the family. The Romanovs who believed Anderson dismissed Irene’s opinions saying she had not been well enough acquainted with Anastasia to determine Anderson was an imposter. It got to the point Irene’s husband banned anyone from talking about Anderson to spare his wife further upset.

Although Anderson never wavered from her story that she was Anastasia, DNA tests done after her death proved she was not related to the Romanovs. In 1991, the bodies of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and three of their daughters were exhumed from a mass grave near Yekaterinburg, and mDNA samples taken from Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, proved their identities. A further two bodies, that of the Tsarevich Alexei and the remaining daughter, were discovered in 2007 and subsequent DNA tests proved all seven were the Imperial family.

Irene was widowed in 1929 when Heinrich died of throat cancer like his father and her eldest son, Waldemar, died in a Bavarian clinic on 2 May 1945 when a lack of blood supplies prevented him from getting the necessary transfusions he needed for his haemophilia. Waldemar had married Calixta of Lippe-Biesterfeld on 14 August 1919, however they had no children. Irene’s remaining son, Sigismund, had married Charlotte of Saxe-Altenburg on 11 July 1919 and they had two children, Barbara and Alfred, before they left Germany to settle in Costa Rica. Irene would later adopt Barbara as her heir.

Irene died on 11 November 1953 at Schloss Hemmelmark, Barkelsby, in Schleswig-Holstein which was then part of West Germany.