Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine died on this day in 1953.
She was the third child and third daughter of Princess Alice of Great Britain, a daughter of Queen Victoria, and Grand Duke Louis of Hesse and by Rhine.
Princess Irene’s parents were married on 1 July 1862, just a few months after the death of the bride’s father, Prince Albert. Their wedding was a very sombre occasion, as the court was still in mourning for the death of the Prince Consort. After a brief honeymoon, the couple settled in Darmstadt, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Hesse, where Princess Irene was born on 11 July 1866.
Christened Irene Louise Marie Anne, she received her first name, derived from the Greek word for peace, because she was born at the end of the Austro-Prussian War.
Her childhood and that of her siblings were overshadowed by tragedy: in 1873, when Princess Irene was not yet 7-years-old, her haemophiliac younger brother Friederich, nicknamed in the family ‘Frittie’, died after a bad fall. Then, in the autumn of 1878, most members of the Grand Ducal Family fell ill with diphtheria, and first Princess Irene’s younger sister Marie, then her mother succumbed to the disease.
Following Princess Alice’s death, Queen Victoria took her Hessian grandchildren under her wing, and Princess Irene and her surviving siblings spent long annual holidays in England. Their grandmother also sent pervasive instructions to their governess regarding their education and even minute details as the pattern of their dresses.
Princess Irene’s siblings included Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, who married Prince Louis of Battenberg and later became Marchioness of Milford Haven and the maternal grandmother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia; Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Tsarina of Russia.
Princess Irene married her first cousin, navy officer Prince Henry of Prussia, a son of German Emperor, Frederick III and her maternal aunt, Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom, in the Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin on 24 May 1888. She was 21 and the groom was 23.
Although Queen Victoria did not particularly approve of the marriage, as her consent had not been sought prior to the nuptials, the match was reportedly one of love, and the couple became known among their relatives as ‘The Very Amiables’, thanks to their pleasant dispositions and amiable nature.
Princess Irene and Prince Henry had three sons. However, as the Princess was a carrier of the haemophilia gene through her mother, she transmitted the illness to two of them: her eldest, Prince Waldemar, and her youngest, Prince Heinrich, who died of the illness aged just 4.
Her middle child, Prince Wilhelm, was thankfully not affected by the disease.
Princess Irene was close to all her siblings, although her ties to her sisters were disrupted by the onset of World War I, which saw them on opposing sides. In 1918, Princess Irene received news of the death of her sisters, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and Empress Alexandra of Russia and her immediate family, who were killed at the hand of the Bolsheviks.
Irene’s husband, Prince Henry, died of cancer in 1929. Their eldest son, Prince Waldemar, died of complications of haemophilia in the last days of World War II. His death deeply affected Princess Irene. She died on 11 November 1953, aged 87, at Hemmelmark, her country residence in Schleswig-Holstein, by then part of West Germany.
She was survived by her second son, Prince Sigismund, who had relocated to Costa Rica in the 1930s; as he lived so far away and never expressed a desire to return to Germany after the end of the war, Irene left her estate to Sigismund’s daughter, Princess Barbara of Prussia. At the time of her death, Princess Irene was the last surviving child of Princess Alice and Grand Duke Louis of Hesse.