Princess Alice of the United Kingdom was born on 25 April 1843. The princess was the third child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, following her siblings Victoria, Princess Royal, and the Prince of Wales. A further six children were born to the couple after Alice, and the brood were raised by their parents and a team of governesses and tutors, travelling between different royal residences.
Alice was a very caring child; she longed to know what life was like for non-royal people and liked to watch people go about their day to day lives and she liked to visit farmers when the family were at Balmoral. She always looked after her little siblings and was involved in charitable works at an early age – during the Crimean war, she visited soldiers in hospitals at the age of just eleven. This caring nature would grow as Alice did.
In 1861, Alice lost her grandmother Victoria, Duchess of Kent and also her father, Prince Albert. Both suffered drawn-out illnesses and by their sides was Alice, who was known to be the caregiver of the family. Queen Victoria said that “dear good Alice was full of intense tenderness, affection and distress for me.” Once Queen Victoria plunged into a long period of mourning, Alice became her mother’s secretary and representative for six months and took on many of her mother’s duties along with her sister Louise.
In 1860, Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, Princess Royal, had begun to try to look for a match for Alice. Two high ranking royals were suggested but discounted, and eventually, a minor royal was chosen; Prince Louis of Hesse who was nephew to the Grand Duke of Hesse. Queen Victoria approved of the match, and Alice and Louis were attracted to each other, so although the prince ranked much lower than Alice, it was deemed a successful pairing.
The marriage had been planned a year earlier before the death of Prince Albert, but by the time it came around Queen Victoria, and the whole court were still officially in mourning for Albert. This period was a very sombre time at court, everyone had to wear black and the Queen was scarcely seen in public, and yet the wedding went ahead as planned because Albert would have wished it.
On 1 July 1862, the couple were married in a small ceremony at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Alice was given away by her uncle Ernst, and Victoria sat behind a screen during the ceremony as she was too upset by the wedding as it reminded her of her own happy times. Queen Victoria even commented that the wedding felt more like a funeral and the bride was only permitted to wear her wedding dress for a brief time before changing back into her mourning garbs.
Alice and Louis soon moved to Darmstadt in the Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine where Alice had to adjust to a much simpler way of life, living in an old house by the roadside with little income. Here she threw herself into charity work and began to study art, luckily Alice did not mind the drop in status as she loved her new husband dearly.
In 1863, Alice had her first child, a daughter named Victoria. The baby was born in England, and her grandmother, the Queen was there and was quick to judge Alice for wishing to breastfeed the child. The couple had a further six children in the following decade, their daughters; Irene, Elisabeth, Alix and Marie and their sons Friedrich and Ernst.
Alice was a doting mother, but still made time for charity works, focusing on women’s charities and her charities began to run the state military hospitals during the Austro-Prussian war. This was a difficult time for Alice as Hesse was supporting Austria in the war and her sister was Crown Princess of Prussia! By the end of the war, Hesse had lost a lot of money and also land, which was devastating to Alice’s family.
In 1873, Alice and Louis suffered a terrible loss, when their young son Friedrich died after a fall from a window. Friedrich had been born with the family curse of haemophilia, and his death was caused by unstoppable bleeding rather than the fall itself. Alice poured her heart out in distressed letters to her mother at this time, stating “I feel lower and sadder than ever and miss him so much”. Sadly, Alice did not receive the support she needed from her busy mother and felt rather isolated in her grief. After her loss, Alice became more involved with charity work; she worked on housing reforms and social issues which became her passion, and she made real changes during her lifetime.
In the following years, Alice and her husband grew apart as she was spending time in England having treatment for an illness, and she felt her husband did not communicate properly with her. She struggled with this feeling of loneliness. The couple clearly had problems at this time but did not have the time to work on them as in 1877, Louis became Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and therefore Alice became Grand Duchess. These roles were never expected for the couple and had only occurred because of the deaths of Louis’ father and elder brother. Despite the shock, Alice was welcomed as Grand Duchess by the people of Hesse, and she was finally able to work on some of the reform plans she had been working on to a greater extent, although she found her new role very overwhelming.
In November 1878, however, the period of joy came to an abrupt end, when diphtheria hit the Hessian household. On 5 November, the eldest child Victoria began to feel unwell and reported having a sore, stiff neck and was diagnosed with the dreaded illness. The illness began with a normal sore throat and fever but could quickly become deadly back then. The infection ravished the family, and only Elizabeth was free from it. Sadly, on 15 November little Marie choked to death, aged just four. To comfort her son Ernst, who was inconsolable over the loss of his little sister when he was eventually informed weeks later, Alice kissed the little boy on the lips.
It seemed that Alice was not unwell with the disease and she even managed to see her sister Victoria, Princess Royal, who was visiting Darmstadt in early December. On the evening of 7 December, Alice herself became ill. Her husband notified Queen Victoria, who sent her own physician – Sir William Jenner. By the 13th, Louis was informed that there was no hope and that Alice was going to die. The following morning – which was also the anniversary of Prince Albert’s death – Alice died just after 8.30 A.M. Her last words were “dear papa.”
Prime Minister Disraeli said in a memorial speech, “My Lords, there is something wonderfully piteous in the immediate cause of her death. The physicians who permitted her to watch over her suffering family enjoined her under no circumstances whatever to be tempted into an embrace. Her admirable self-restraint guarded her through the crisis of this terrible complaint in safety. She remembered and observed the injunctions of her physicians. But it became her lot to break to her little son the death of his youngest sister, to whom he was devotedly attached. The boy was so overcome with misery that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms, and thus she received the kiss of death. My Lords, I hardly know an incident more pathetic.”1
Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, “My precious child who stood by me and upheld me seventeen years ago on the same day taken, and by such a fearful, awful disease.” Her daughter wrote back, “Darling Alice – is she really gone – so good and dear, charming and lovely – so necessary to her husband and children, so widely beloved, so much admired. I can not realise it – it is too awful, too cruel, too terrible”2
Princess Victoria was not allowed by her in-laws to attend her sister’s funeral in case she too became ill. For the Queen, it was too much to bear, the loss of her daughter on the anniversary of her husband’s death. The newspapers poured out notices of support and love for Alice, who had always been a princess of the people and treated everybody with kindness. Her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales (born Alexandra of Denmark), who loved her dearly, said: “I wish I would have died instead of her.”
Alice was buried in Darmstadt where there is still a monument to her and little Marie. She left behind her a legacy of amazing charity work and institutions such as women’s training services and the Alice hospital in Darmstadt which continued her missions.
In a way, Alice’s sad early death spared her from further pain as she did not live to see her daughters Alix and Elizabeth marry into the Russian royal family which led to both of their murders and the murders of Alix’s children by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Alice’s line still continues today; however, her great-grandson is Prince Philip, meaning her great-great-grandson Charles will be the next king.