On 25 April 1843, Queen Victoria gave birth to her third child, a daughter named Alice Maud Mary. Victoria was relieved to have survived another childbirth but was bored two days later, “It is rather dull lying quite still and doing nothing particularly in moments when one is alone.” Princess Alice was nicknamed Fatima because she was such a chubby baby.
She spent her early years in the nursery with her younger siblings Alfred and Helena but once out of the nursery, Alice was particularly close to her elder sister Victoria. In 1855, Alice contracted scarlet fever, which permanently weakened her constitution. Despite this, as early as 1856, Queen Victoria was writing to her uncle in Brussels for his views on the suitability of the Dutch heir (William, Prince of Orange – who would predecease his father) as a husband for Alice. This did not come pass.
In early 1858, Alice lost her elder sister and confidant to marriage when Victoria married Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Alice was now the eldest daughter at home, and her mother had begun to map out her future. In June 1860, Prince Louis of Hesse-Darmstadt, the future Grand Duke, came to visit and to be inspected by the Queen. Alice apparently fell in love at first sight, but they were not allowed to spend any time alone together. Louis returned to England once more in November 1860, and he and Alice were allowed to talk with just one lady-in-waiting present. On 30 November, they became officially engaged. Queen Victora consented to the match but informed Louis that the wedding would have to wait a year. It was only after the engagement that Alice was informed by her father of the physical side of marriage.
The year 1861 would become Queen Victoria’s annus horribilis, and it began with the death of the Duchess of Kent, Queen Victoria’s mother. Prince Albert sent for Alice with the instruction: “Go and comfort Mama.” Alice had already spent considerable time with her grandmother, playing the piano for her and nursing her. Meanwhile, the final arrangements for Alice were being made. Parliament was persuaded to provide a dowry of £30,000 although her father commented, “she will not be able to do great things with it.” Hesse-Darmstadt was a poor country, and they couldn’t even find a place for Louis and Alice to live. It caused resentment with the people of Hesse-Darmstadt before Alice had even arrived.
Then Prince Albert fell ill, and Alice once again took up nursing duties – as she had done with her grandmother. She read to her father, played the piano and moved her own bed into the connecting room. Yet, despite all her efforts, Prince Albert died on 14 December. As her mother collapsed on the floor, Alice sat beside her, looking up at the bed where her father lay. It was Alice who ordered opium to be administered to her mother during those first restless nights after Albert’s death. Soon after Albert’s death, Victoria decided that Albert’s wishes should be carried out. He had approved of Louis and Alice’s marriage and so it should take place.
Alice and Louis’ wedding took place in the dining room at Osborne on 1 July 1862. The death of Louis’ aunt just a few weeks before the wedding made it even sadder and Queen Victoria described the day as, “the saddest I remember.” Alice wore a white wedding gown but changed back into her black mourning dress immediately after the ceremony. Alice found the customs in Darmstadt very different and rebelled against some of them – which made her immediately disliked. The question of their housing had still not been settled, and they initially lived in a little house in the Old Quarter of town. In the end, they were given an old castle at Kranichstein. Alice’s first child was born on 5 April 1863 – a daughter named Victoria – in Windsor as Alice was visiting England for the Prince of Wales’ wedding to Alexandra of Denmark. Shortly after Victoria’s birth, the castle at Kranichstein was renovated and refurbished, and Alice really enjoyed living there.
On 1 November 1864, a second daughter named Elizabeth was born to them. When Alice decided to breastfeed her daughter herself, Queen Victoria was appalled, and their relationship deteriorated. Alice was coming into her own in Darmstadt, and her attention to the social affairs there made her much loved. She wrote to her mother, “… If one never sees poverty and always lived in the cold circle of Court people, one’s good feelings dry up, and I feel the want of going about and doing the little good that is in my power. I am sure you will understand this.” In 1866, Louis and Alice moved into the New Palace. That same year, Alice gave birth to a third daughter named Irene. Louis had been sent to war and Alice was determined to oversee the field hospitals as soon she had given birth. They suffered territorial losses, but the Grand Duke was able to retain his throne.
In 1868, their first son – Ernest Louis – was born, followed by a second son – Friedrich – in 1870 and two more daughters – Alix and Marie – in 1872 and 1874. Meanwhile, Alice focussed on her nursing, and she founded the Alice Hospital which treated the city’s indigent sick without charge. Tragedy struck in 1873 when little Friedrich – nicknamed Frittie – who had only recently been confirmed a hemophiliac, fell 20 feet out of a window onto a stone terrace. There was no visible bleeding, and the little boy regained consciousness, but he remained quiet. He died the following afternoon from bleeding in the brain. The window from which he had fallen was turned into a stained-glass memorial by memorial with the words “Not lost, but gone before” worked into it. Alice would never recover from her young son’s death. Alice found herself in an unfulfilled marriage, and she could not share her grief with her husband. “The wound… is not yet healed… I sometimes need to talk about it… But I don’t do it with you – I know it hurts you”, she wrote.
Despite their marital troubles, they soon found themselves the new rulers of Hesse-Darmstadt. In March 1877, Louis’ father Charles died making Louis the new heir. Grand Duke Louis III died three months later and Alice’s husband succeeded as Grand Duke. Alice’s new duties overwhelmed her and she wrote to her mother, “I am so dreading everything, and above all the responsibility of being the first in everything…”
Then life came to a screeching halt. On 5 November 1878, Alice’s eldest daughter Victoria complained of a stiff neck. She was diagnosed with diphtheria the following morning. Alice – with her nursing experience – knew and dreaded the disease. Victoria came through the illness just as her younger sister Alix came down with it. Marie, Irene and Ernest Louis also became ill – as did Louis. Alice sent away Elizabeth, the only member of the family who had not been infected. By 15 November, Marie was critically ill, and Alice rushed to her daughter’s bedside when she was informed. Marie choked to death. Alice sent a telegram to her mother, “The pain is beyond words.” The following two weeks, Alice nursed her other children and did not tell them of Marie’s death. When she finally told her son, she bent down to kiss him. It was then that Alice became sick herself. Louis informed Queen Victoria who promptly sent Sir William Jenner. On the 13th, Louis was told that there was no hope. In the early morning of 14 December – exactly 17 years since the death of her father – Alice died.
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 an awful disease… She had darling Papa’s nature, and much of his self-sacrificing character and fearless and entire devotion to duty!”1