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Looking back at the birth of Princess Alice

On 25 April 1843, Queen Victoria gave birth to a third child, her second daughter. Like all of Queen Victoria’s children, with the exception of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – who was born at Windsor Castle – the future Princess and later Grand Duchess of Hesse was born at Buckingham Palace. She was born, not on a November day when Buckingham Palace’s then-notorious chimneys were smoking, as were her two elder siblings, Victoria “Vicky” Princess Royal (b. 21 November 1840) and Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (b. 9 November 1841). Instead, Queen Victoria’s third child was born in the early morning of a wet day in April. The new baby was born after a labour of about four hours.

Alice was born at a time when the magnificent bulk of John Nash’s neo-classical transformation at the top of the Mall still had Marble Arch as its main ceremonial entrance, which was moved in 1851 when Buckingham Palace’s Quadrangle was enclosed as a result of Thomas Cubitt’s new wing, built to the designs of Edward Blore. This new East Wing, along what is today the palace’s central front, started construction in 1847 – four years after Alice’s birth – and completed three years later. Its present appearance, in Portland stone, is the result of a further modification in 1913 under the direction of Sir Aston Webb.

An engraving of Buckingham Palace ca. 1837, by J Woods after a picture by Hablot Browne and R Garland, published in 1837 (Merchbow~commonswiki (talk | contribs); [United States public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Our best impression of the room where Alice was born comes from a watercolour in the Royal Collection, by the artist James Roberts (ca. 1800-67). The watercolour shows Queen Victoria’s Bedroom at Buckingham Palace in 1848, the year of the birth of Alice’s younger sister, Princess Louise, future Duchess of Argyll, at Buckingham Palace. The room contains many artworks, such as paintings, sculptures, a large bed with heavy green hangings and a carpet with a pink and blue floral design. The room was photographed in 1873, but by then the furnishing had changed considerably, as the Queen’s family had by then grown significantly. One notes portraits of the Princess Royal and Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in the year of their marriage – the ceiling, however, is still its same complex design of lozenges and rose garlands. Queen Victoria commissioned a watercolour from the artist Robert Thorburn, the year after Alice’s birth, showing her baby daughter, sat on a cloth against a spectacular Highland mountain scenery.

However, the most crucial image made of Alice as a baby is that by the great painter, Sir Edwin Landseer, who painted Alice in her seventeenth-century Saxon cradle, with Dandie Dinmont, a black Skye terrier at her side, in a work entitled ‘Princess Alice Asleep’. This was commissioned by Prince Albert for the Queen’s birthday, on 24 May 1843. ‘Alice and Eos’, was completed the following year, in a sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer, showing Alice with Prince Albert’s favourite greyhound, which had accompanied its master to England from Coburg. This seventeenth century Saxon gilt wood cradle, used by Princess Alice, is today – pleasingly – displayed in the ‘Victoria Revealed’ exhibition at Kensington Palace, in the very room where Queen Victoria was born.

Princess Alice, ca. 1850 (Princess Alice, ca. 1850 (Wellcome Images, Photo number: L0012030; Fae: [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice would, in fact, give birth to one of her children in England, whilst on a visit to Queen Victoria. Her eldest child, Princess Victoria of Hesse, later Princess Louis of Battenberg, first Marchioness of Milford-Haven and maternal grandmother of The Duke of Edinburgh, was born at Windsor Castle on 5 April 1863 and christened in the arms of Queen Victoria in the Castle’s Green Drawing Room on 27 April, two days after Alice’s twentieth birthday. Alice herself had been christened on 2 June 1843, in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace – destroyed by bomb damage in the Second World War and roughly corresponding to the area occupied today by the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Alice received the names of ‘Alice, Maud, Mary’, and was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley. ‘Maud’ was chosen, as an old English name, probably in tribute to Princess Sophia Mathilda, one of her godmothers, who was a niece of George III. ‘Maud’ is an ancient variation of ‘Mathilda’; although an alternative theory has it that she received the name ‘Maud’ because it referred to Mathilda, (1102-1167) later known as Empress Maude, daughter of Henry I.

‘Maud’ was most notably used in Queen Victoria’s family, as the first name of Princess Maud of Wales, daughter of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, later to become Queen Maud of Norway. Alice was later to complain as the wife of Prince Ludwig of Hesse, that “they murder my name [Alice] here” – here” meant Darmstadt, where Alice lived, following her marriage to Prince Ludwig (“Louis”) on 1 July 1862. ‘Mary’ was chosen in tribute to her other godmother, Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, the last surviving daughter of George III, with whom Princess Alice was photographed towards the end of the Duchess’s life, in the blurred rendering of an 1856 daguerreotype, together with Queen Victoria and a young Prince of Wales. Importantly, ‘Mary’ was also chosen, because Alice had also been born on the Duchess of Gloucester’s 67th birthday.

Alice’s other godparents were the King of Hanover, represented by the Duke of Cambridge; Princess Feodore of Hohenlohe-Leiningen (Queen Victoria’s beloved half-sister), represented by the Queen’s mother, the Duchess of Kent; the Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as represented by the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; and finally, Princess Sophia Mathilda of Gloucester, the latter both providing a distinct nod back to Alice’s maternal great-grandparents, George III and Queen Charlotte. Queen Victoria wrote to her uncle, Leopold I, King of the Belgians, four days after the christening, that it was “a very imposing ceremony. Nothing could be more anständig [gone off better], and little Alice behaved extremely well” (Life of the Prince Consort, Sir Theodore Martin, vol 1, pg 166, quoted in Alice: Biographical Sketch and Letters, Pg 4, 1884).

Alice would later refer to her birthday in her letters to the Queen, written from Darmstadt. The Queen appears to have sent her birthday congratulations to Alice early by letter because in 1865 we read in a message written the day before her birthday fell: “Many thanks for… all the kind wishes for my birthday…” It must have been a particular pleasure for her, to be able to celebrate her thirtieth birthday in Rome, during the trip she made to Italy in 1873.

After Alice’s premature death on 14 December 1878 in Darmstadt, on the seventeenth anniversary of her beloved father, Prince Albert’s death, an article dated ‘Christmas Eve 1878’ appeared in the newspaper, the Darmstädter Zeitung. It was a tribute in annexed translation by Sir Theodore Martin, which had been published in the Times. Fittingly, reflections were made back on Alice’s birth. Alice was described in Queen Victoria’s letters to Leopold I, King of the Belgians: “She is a pretty and large baby, and we think we be la Beaute of the family...” (9.5.1843) and again: “Our little baby, whom I am really proud of, for she is so very forward for her age, is to be called Alice, an old English name; and the other names are to be Maud (another old English name, and the same as Mathilda), and Mary, as she was born on Aunt Gloucester’s birthday…”

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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