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One Royal Veil’s Extraordinary History

One British royal veil has had a quite extraordinary history of its own since it was first worn by Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice of Great Britain and Ireland, on her marriage to Prince Louis of Hesse at Osborne House on 1 July 1862. The wedding was solemnised at one o’clock in the afternoon by the Archbishop of York, and Princess Alice was led in on the arm of her uncle Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in place of Prince Albert, who had died the previous winter on 14 December 1861. The marriage took place in the Dining Room at Osborne House, under the picture by Franz Xavier Winterhalter ‘The Royal Family in 1846’ – the artist Thomas made a sketch of the ceremony being performed beneath this painting, which showed the Queen’s then growing family, not complete until the birth of Princess Beatrice in 1857. It was the first royal wedding in the Queen’s family since the death of Prince Albert and was accordingly but perhaps not unapprovingly described by the Queen as “more like a funeral than a wedding“.

The Wedding of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh at Coburg, 1894. Princess Victoria Melita is wearing the wedding veil of Princess Alice. (By originally uploaded by LeighBCD (en: Wikipedia) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress is preserved, and today may be seen on permanent display at Kensington Palace. Her wedding veil features in the important painting by Franz Xavier Winterhalter of the Queen in 1847, painted as a gift to Prince Albert on their seventh wedding anniversary – “I wearing my dear wedding veil” (Millar, 1992, pg 294, quoted in Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, Pg 121). The Queen’s wedding veil was photographed for a volume in the Royal Photograph Collection entitled ‘Album of Important Occasions 1837-1885′ – the first date being significant, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession – with the Queen’s orange blossom wreath laid on top of it.

The tradition, seemingly peculiar to Queen Victoria’s family, seems to have been continued with at least three of her daughters’ wedding veils worn at their respective marriages – the veil of Princess Louise was photographed on its own and then together with the dress, train and wreath that she wore on her marriage to the Marquess of Lorne, later the 9th Duke of Argyll in 1871; that of The Princess Royal on her wedding to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 and the lace, veil and wreath worn by Princess Alice on her marriage to Prince Louis of Hesse in 1862. Curiously, the bonnets both worn by Princess Alice and the Princess of Wales on their weddings days were also photographed together in 1863, evidently taken around the time of the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. Queen Victoria’s wedding veil was worn by her beloved fifth and youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice on her marriage to Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885, which the Queen had worn for the wedding of Prince Leopold to Princess Helen of Waldeck-Pyrmont, poignantly observing that it was the first time she had worn it since her own wedding in 1840; in fact however, she had worn the veil for the christenings of all her children and chose to forget this, in a dramatic remark. Like Alice, Princess Beatrice wore no bridal train – and her white satin wedding dress was decorated with some of the Queen’s own wedding lace.

Princess Alice’s wedding veil was – like that of her sister Princess Louise’s nearly ten years later, of lace – more specifically, of Devon, Honiton Lace. The artist Charles Martin sketched Princess Alice in her wedding veil, in an oval made in 1862 with a wreath of orange blossom and myrtle. The wedding dress also was embroidered with a “deep flounce” of Honiton Lace with myrtle and orange blossom embroidered around the hem (HRH The Duchess of York with Benita Stoney, Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House Pg 172). Princess Alice wore an opal cross at her neck, a brooch and a bracelet made out of two medallions. The veil was long and hung over the shoulders from flowers which decorated her hair. Princess Alice was photographed in her bridal attire in various poses, by the photographer William Bainbridge. Although Princess Alice was permitted to wear white on her wedding day, her trousseau was apparently black, as befitted a Royal Family very much still in mourning (Ibid, Pg 172). Perhaps Alice’s wedding dress took its inspiration from the Queen’s own wedding dress, which had equally had a “deep flounce” of Honiton Lace; the Queen choosing to patronise British textile manufacturers, instead of favouring the fashionable Brussels lace. The Queen’s particular liking for Honiton Lace was confirmed by the fact that it continued to be used in her clothing and that of her children and on the weddings dresses of her daughters-in-law (World of Fashion, March 1840, pg 66 quoted in Stanisland, Pg 120).

The veil of Princess Alice continued to have an extraordinary life of its own – it became an important Hessian family heirloom. It was re-used for example, at the 1894 wedding in Coburg of Princess Alice’s eldest son, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh – a spectacular gathering of royalty, which included of course, Queen Victoria – when the bride wore an emerald and diamond tiara to fasten Alice’s veil. Princess Alice’s daughters did not appear to wear the veil on their marriages; however – Princess Victoria, her eldest daughter, did not wear it at her wedding to Prince Louis of Battenberg. Her second daughter, Princess Elizabeth of Hesse instead followed Russian imperial tradition when she married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia in 1884 and wore a heavy dress of silver, with a spray of myrtle – her veil was of white lace but wasn’t Princess Alice’s. As another Russian imperial bride, Alice’s last surviving daughter, Princess Alix of Hesse, also wore Russian court dress and wrote to Queen Victoria (as one of her favourite grandchildren) that she intended to send the Queen a sample of her wedding dress, together with some sprigs of the myrtle and orange blossom that she wore on her wedding to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia on 16 November 1894.

The wedding veil of Princess Alice, which had been “used at every family occasion since 1862 [that date]” (David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, Pg 352) was finally lost in the tragic air crash at Ostend on 16 November 1937 which had been carrying the Hessian Grand Ducal Family to Great Britain and included the Dowager Grand Duchess Eleonore of Hesse, Grand Duke Georg Donatus of Hesse and his wife, Grand Duchess Cecile, together with their young sons, Prince Ludwig and Prince Alexander of Hesse. The Hessian Ducal Family had been travelling to the London wedding of Prince Ludwig of Hesse – the second son of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse – to the Hon. Margaret Geddes, the daughter of Sir Auckland, later 1st Baron Geddes and Lady Geddes, which had been postponed from 23 October to 20 November. The Grand Ducal Couple’s only daughter, Princess Johanna of Hesse, had been left behind in Darmstadt and was the sole surviving member of the family of Grand Duke Georg Donatus – Princess Johanna was adopted by Prince Louis and Princess Margaret of Hesse, but in a terrible full-circle of tragedy, the little Princess Johanna died in 1939, not quite three-years-old. Also lost in the air crash were the famous Hessian pearls, another family heirloom. With it, the veil of Princess Alice – faithfully preserved as a family relic since 1862 – was gone.

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