Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine was born on 11 July 1866 as the daughter of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and the future Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. She was their third daughter, following Victoria and Elisabeth. Brothers Ernest Louis and Friedrich would follow, as would two more sisters; Alix and Marie. Irene was named for the goddess of peace as she was born during the Austro-Prussian War.
Alice, a daughter of Queen Victoria, would raise her daughters as was expected of 19th-century Princesses. They would learn to ride, paint and play music. They also followed a strict education with lessons throughout the day. They learned to speak English, French and German. They cleaned their own rooms and made their own beds and regularly accompanied their mother as she visited charitable institutions. An English nanny named Mary Anne Orchard took care of the Irene and her two younger sisters.
The happy family life experienced its first tragedy in January 1873 when three-year-old Friedrich did not stop bleeding for several days after cutting his ear. It soon became apparent that he suffered from haemophilia, the same disease that Irene’s uncle Leopold had. Just a few months later, Friedrich climbed onto a chair to wave from a window, but he slipped as he leaned forward and he fell through the open window. He appeared uninjured, but he died that night of a brain haemorrhage. Alice was devastated and wrote to her mother, “To my grave, I shall carry this sorrow with me.”1
A second tragedy followed in 1878 when Irene’s elder sister was the first to fall ill with diphtheria. Each of the children fell ill, except for Elisabeth, and she was sent to her paternal grandmother for her safety. Throughout this time, Alice nursed her children, but despite her loving care, four-year-old Marie died on 16 November. Irene’s father also became ill, but he recovered, as did her elder sister Victoria. The younger children, including Irene, remained dangerously ill and Ernest Louis continued to ask about little Marie, but Alice could not bring herself to tell him she had died. Eventually, she broke down and told him and gave him a kiss to console him – within days, Alice was dead of diphtheria. Slowly, the other children began to recover, but the disease had left a gaping hole in the family.
Queen Victoria felt for her Hessian grandchildren and invited them to Osborne for an extended holiday. They returned home to face a life without Alice but were regularly invited back to England. By 1880, Queen Victoria was pleased to learn that Prince Henry of Prussia – the son of Victoria, Princess Royal – showed an interest in his cousin Irene but Queen Victoria warned her granddaughters not to rush into marriage. On 23 July 1885, Irene acted as a bridesmaid in the wedding of her aunt Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg and Prince Henry of Prussia also attended, and he quietly courted Irene. On 5 October 1886, Henry’s mother wrote to her mother Queen Victora, “He is very much attached to Irene. The Empress says she knows he is not. He wrote so nicely about her – and said if he was only worthy of her.”2
The engagement between Irene and Henry was announced during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year on 22 March. His father – who was already seriously ill with throat cancer – could barely be heard as he made the announcement. Henry’s grandfather, William I, German Emperor, died on 9 March 1888 but his father, now Frederick III, was already terminally ill. He had undergone a tracheotomy in February to allow him to breathe more easily.
Henry and Irene were married on 24 May 1888 at the chapel of the Charlottenburg Palace. Henry’s father was present, but he struggled through the ceremony and was exhausted afterwards. The New York Times later reported, “Before the ceremony the royal family assembled in the Blue Drawing Room, where the Empress affixed the Princess’s crown upon the bride’s head, using a gold toilet service presented by Czar Alexander I to Queen Louisa.[…] Prince Henry’s ‘yes’ resounded through the chapel. Princess Irene’s response was given timidly and in a low tone. At the close of the ceremony, the bridal couple approached the Emperor who, deeply moved, held his son in his arms and repeatedly kissed him on the cheek and brow. His Majesty congratulated Princess Irene in the heartiest manner.[…] The bride, Princess Irene of Hesse, wore a low-necked dress, trimmed with large diamonds and a large necklace set with diamonds. Her breast ornaments, which were diamonds, and her bracelets were all ancient royal jewels.”3 Later that day, Irene and Henry travelled by a special train to Erdmannsdorf, where they would spend their honeymoon. Irene’s father-in-law died just one month later.
- Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters by Christina Croft p.45
- Beloved & Darling Child edited by Agatha Ramm p.41
- The New York Times