The Sorrow of Hesse

Princess Alice’s Wedding at Osborne

On a gloomy day in July 1862, Princess Alice, the second daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, married Prince Louis of Hesse and by Rhine in a private ceremony at Osborne House.

Queen Victoria would later describe the ceremony in a letter to her eldest daughter, Victoria, as being “more of a funeral than a wedding” and remarked to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, it was “the saddest day I can remember”. Alice’s wedding day should’ve been the happiest day of her life, however the death of her father six months previously and the self-absorbing grief of Queen Victoria would cast a pall over the day that would ultimately result in a breakdown in Alice’s relationship with her mother.

Flanked by her younger sisters, Alice was escorted into the dining room of Osborne House which had been temporarily converted into a chapel for the ceremony, by her uncle, Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. However, the attention was firmly on the sobbing Queen who was ushered into the room by her four sons and blocked from the view of the guests. The Queen also made it clear Alice would have to wear her black mourning clothes before and immediately after the ceremony was concluded so it is hardly surprising the photos of Alice in her wedding dress are sombre ones. It must have been a relief to Alice when she left for her honeymoon at St. Claire in Ryde where she could escape her mother’s suffocating grief, however the Queen would continue to be plagued with jealousy over her daughter’s happiness and Alice had to tone down her letters to her mother so she didn’t sound too happy.

Was the bleakness of the wedding an omen to the sorrows that would befall the family?

The Grand Ducal Family of Hesse and by Rhine

The Kiss of Death

Alice was initially happy with Louis but her relationship with her mother would become increasingly strained when the princess admitted she was breastfeeding her children – a practice the Queen found abhorrent. As a mother of seven, Alice delighted in her children, however her heart was broken by the death of her youngest and favourite son, Friedrich, a haemophiliac, who fell out of a window in her bedroom and died of massive internal bleeding on 29 May 1873. Alice never got over Frittie’s death and she wrote to her mother two months later stating how much she missed him, but the Queen was preoccupied with the engagement of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Marie Alexandrovna of Russia. Queen Victoria had yet to meet her future daughter-in-law and had doubts the Grand Duchess would be happy in Britain.

Alice lavished attention on her remaining son, Ernest Louis, and was soon preoccupied with the birth of her last child, Marie, who had been born on 24 May 1874. Marie was like a breath of fresh air in the household and Alice saw a marked resemblance to her darling Frittie, however her happiness was tempered by the fact her relationship with her husband was deteriorating and she no longer felt her marriage was fulfilling. Louis became Grand Duke of Hesse after the death of his father on 13 June 1877 but Alice was afraid of her new role and her attempts to confide in her mother were rebuffed to the extent Alice was sure her mother would be happier if she were dead.

Nevertheless, Queen Victoria paid for the family to take a holiday at Eastbourne in the autumn of 1878 and Alice visited her mother at Osborne before returning to Darmstadt. It would be last time they saw each other. A few weeks later, Alice’s eldest daughter, Victoria, fell ill with diphtheria, and it soon spread to the other children, apart from Ella who was sent away to stay with her paternal grandmother. The youngest daughter, Marie, died on 16 November 1878 and Alice kept the news of her death from the other children for as long as she could. In early December, Alice finally told Ernst Louis about Marie and he took the news so hard, Alice kissed him. The kiss proved to be a fatal one as Alice contracted diphtheria from her son and died on 14 December – the anniversary of her father’s death.

Alice’s death sent shockwaves through the royal family and the coincidence of the date did not go unnoticed by Queen Victoria who wrote in her journal about how it was “almost incredible and most mysterious”. In due course, Alice’s children regained their health but they were now bereft of their beloved mother and the eldest daughter, Victoria, tried to fill the gap.

Russian Tragedies

Elizabeth Feodorovna (left) and Alexandra Feodorovna (right)

Victoria’s younger sister, Elisabeth, was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe and she had more than her fair share of admirers, however Elisabeth fell in love with Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and they were married on 15 June 1884 at the Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. While attending the wedding, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Alix, met Sergei Alexandrovich’s young nephew, Tsarevich Nicholas, and they would soon become infatuated with each other. Elisabeth converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, taking the name Elizabeth Feodorovna, but her happiness came to an abrupt end when her husband was assassinated on 18 February 1905.

In 1909, Elizabeth Feodorovna sold all her possessions to fund the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary, and she took up the position of abbess. Elizabeth Feodorovna dedicated her life to caring for the poor and sick, however that wasn’t enough to save her when the revolution broke out. Elizabeth Feodorovna was arrested along with other members of the Romanov family who were thrown down an empty mine shaft and killed with hand grenades on 18 July 1918. Elizabeth Feodorovna’s body was recovered in October 1918 and it was determined she had died of wounds sustained from the fall rather than the result of the explosions and subsequent fire.

Elizabeth Feodorovna was laid to rest in the Church of Maria Magdalene at Gethsemane and she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981, and in 1992, by the Moscow Patriarchate as Holy Martyr Elizabeth Feodorovna.

Elizabeth Feodorovna had been instrumental in encouraging the match between her sister, Alix, and the Tsarevich Nicholas, much to the chagrin of Queen Victoria who had wanted Alix to marry her grandson, Albert Victor. Queen Victoria wasn’t the only one unhappy about the proposed match as Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander III, did not want his son marrying a German and had his sights set on Hélène of Orléans, the daughter of Philippe, Comte de Paris, pretender to the throne of France. However, Hélène refused to convert to the orthodox faith and the marriage negotiations floundered before they’d even started. Nicholas declared he would only marry Alix and his father finally relented.

When Nicholas first proposed to Alix, she refused him on the grounds she would not convert to the orthodox faith but she was persuaded to change her mind by Elizabeth Feodorovna and accepted a second proposal. Before the marriage could take place, Nicholas succeeded to the imperial throne when his father died on 1 November 1894 and Alix converted the following day. The wedding took place as planned at the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg on 26 November 1894 but the subsequent coronation was marred by tragedy when the crowds got out of hand and people were crushed to death. The imperial couple were advised to attend a festive ball at the French Embassy as planned but the Russian people saw this as the act of an uncaring tsar.

Alexandra Feodorovna was not popular with the Russian people who interpreted her shyness as being aloof and they were further angered when she produced four daughters in quick succession but failed to provide a male heir. The couple’s prayers were finally answered with the birth of Tsarevich Alexei on 12 August 1904 but their happiness soon turned to dismay when the boy was diagnosed with haemophilia. The tsarina knew the disease had come from her, causing her tremendous guilt, and she became obsessed with finding a cure. The tsarevich’s medical condition was initially kept a secret from the rest of the family but Alexandra Feodorovna became increasingly reliant on mystics like Grigori Rasputin. Alexandra Feodorovna believed Rasputin was the only one capable of stopping her son’s bleeding but the rest of the court, unaware of the reason for his presence, accused the tsarina of having a sexual relationship with him. Alexandra Feodorovna refused to listen to reason and Rasputin was eventually murdered on 30 December 1916.

When news of Alexei’s haemophilia broke, the tsarina was instantly blamed and she became even more hated. The deprivations caused by the war ignited anger amongst the Russian people and a series of revolts broke out, however Nicholas was too preoccupied by the war to take much notice. When a revolt broke out in St. Petersburg, Nicholas tried to return from the army headquarters at Mogiliev but he was stopped at Pskov and forced to abdicate. Nicholas was allowed to rejoin his family at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo where they were placed under house arrest.

The family were eventually moved to the Ipatiev House, Yekaterinburg, where they were all executed in the basement on 17 July 1918. After the execution, the bodies of the Imperial family were thrown down a disused mine shaft, however they were later recovered and burned. The bodies of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of the daughters were found in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union and they were reinterred in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. The two missing bodies, Alexei, and the fourth daughter, believed to be either Anastasia or Maria, were finally found in 2007 and were interred alongside the rest of the family.

A Lost Daughter

Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse & his daughter, Elisabeth

Alice’s only surviving son, Ernest Louis, had been deeply affected by the deaths of his mother and younger siblings, however the Hesse children were taken under the wing of their grandmother, Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria arranged a marriage for Ernest Louis with his first cousin, Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the daughter of his mother’s brother, Prince Alfred. Victoria Melita had fallen in love with her first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, but the marriage was forbidden as the Russian Orthodox faith did not allow marriage between first cousins. Victoria Melita had no real desire to marry Ernest Louis but she bowed to family pressure and they were married on 19 April 1894 at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg.

The couple were not suited in temperament as Victoria Melita liked to party and Ernest Louis was much more serious. The couple’s daughter, Elisabeth, was born on 11 March 1895 and Ernest Louis doted on her as his marriage disintegrated. Victoria Melita wanted a divorce but Queen Victoria would not countenance it due to the fact they had a child so Victoria Melita spent most of her time in the south of France at the gambling tables. The couple finally divorced after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and Elisabeth divided her time between both parents but she was always closer to her father. Ernest Louis was devastated when Elisabeth died of typhoid fever in October 1903 while visiting the Imperial family in Russia and her father took her back to Hesse where he arranged an all-white funeral. Ernest Louis would later describe his daughter as the “sunshine in his life” in his memoirs.

Ernest Louis married his second wife, Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich, on 2 February 1905 and this time the marriage was a happy one. The couple had two sons, Georg Donatus, born on 8 November 1906, and Louis, born on 20 November 1908. Victoria Melita had confided in her close relatives that her husband liked to sleep with men and Ernest Louis certainly appeared to be bisexual as he also had a longterm relationship with Karl August Lingner, the inventor of Odol. Just as things seemed to be going well for once, Ernest Louis lost his dukedom as a result of the First World War but the family remained in Darmstadt where Ernest Louis and Eleonore raised their sons.

Plane Crash

Georg Donatus & Cecilie with their two sons

The eldest son, Georg Donatus, married Cecilie of Greece and Denmark on 2 February 1931, and their first son, Louis, was born on 25 October 1931. The couple would go on to have a second son, Alexander, on 14 April 1933, and a daughter, Johanna, on 20 September 1936. Ernest Louis died after a long illness in October 1937 which proved to be a blessing as he was spared the tragedy that was about to befall his eldest son.

Ernest Louis’s second son, Louis, had fallen in love with the Hon. Margaret Geddes and they had arranged a wedding in London in November 1937. On 16 November, Georg Donatus, a heavily-pregnant Cecilie, their two young sons, and Grand Duchess Eleonore, along with the children’s nurse and a family friend, were flying to London when their plane crashed into a factory chimney near Ostend. The plane exploded, killing everyone on board. During an inquiry, it was revealed the remains of a newborn baby boy were found in the wreckage leading to speculation Cecilie had gone into labour during the flight and the pilot had tried to divert to Ostend in poor weather.

The only member of Georg Donatus’s family to survive was his two-year-old daughter, Johanna, who had been left behind in Darmstadt due to illness. Louis and Margaret adopted the little girl but she died of meningitis on 14 June 1939. Louis and Margaret had no children of their own, so the male line of Hesse and by Rhine became extinct upon his death in 1968.

The Other Princesses

Victoria (right) and Irene (left)

Princess Irene had married her first cousin, Heinrich of Prussia, the second son of Victoria, Princess Royal, but two of their three sons were haemophiliac. The youngest son, Heinrich, died of a brain haemorrhage, aged four years, after climbing on to a piece of furniture, and his death greatly affected his mother who was still haunted by the death of her brother, Frittie, in a similar accident. During the Second World War, the eldest son, Waldemar, died in a clinic in Bavaria because of the lack of blood transfusion facilities as the US Army had diverted all medical resources to a nearby concentration camp. Irene was the last surviving child of Alice when she died on 11 November 1953.

The eldest child, Victoria, married Louis of Battenberg on 30 April 1884 and they had four children. Louis had adopted British nationality and was serving as an officer in the Royal Navy so the family name was changed to Mountbatten after the First World War when George V denounced all the royal family’s German titles. In 1917, Louis was made Marquess of Milford Haven, however he died in London in September 1921.

Victoria moved into Kensington Palace and became the main guardian for her grandson, Philip, after his mother, Alice, was hospitalised with schizophrenia. Victoria’s later years seemed to be filled with sorrow as she lost her son, George, to cancer in April 1938. Victoria died of bronchitis on 24 September 1950 and was spared from enduring the loss of her youngest son, Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was assassinated by the IRA on 27 August 1979.

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