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Queen Victoria’s granddaughters: Princess Irene of Hesse


It is fitting that this Hessian granddaughter of Queen Victoria was christened ‘Irene’ – a name meaning “peace” – an appropriate choice in more ways than one, as her character and the circumstances of her birth would prove. Perhaps one of Princess Alice’s surviving daughters about which least is known, she was destined to outlive all her immediate family, dying in 1953.

Princess Irene of Hesse in 1883, photographed by Alexander Bassano (Alexander Bassano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Irene was born in a year of fateful importance for Germany, a year which bore heavily the imprint of the events of 1866, when the war broke out over the conflict concerning the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, which closely affected her parents, Princess Alice and Prince Louis of Hesse. Just shortly before her birth, Prince Louis had assumed his military duties in the field and was only able to be present at the event due to his being granted leave a few days beforehand, although he had to resume his command a mere three days after the birth of his baby daughter.

Princess Alice was occupied by visiting the wounded. In several letters to Queen Victoria, she repeated the wish that her baby daughter should not be christened until the conflict was resolved. Prince Louis wrote to Queen Victoria, that the baby girl had “dark eyes and brown hair”, whilst Alice privately expressed the momentary wish that the child had been a boy – a wish that was not fulfilled until 1868, with the birth of her first son, Ernst Ludwig. Baptised on September 12th 1866, the baby girl received the names “Irene Louise Marie Anna.” She was photographed some twelve weeks after her birth, in a short-sleeved garment, asleep.

Princess Alice wrote in a letter to Queen Victoria after the christening that the choice of ‘Irene’ was a name that was pleasing to her parents-in-law, Prince and Princess Charles of Hesse, Princess Charles having had a sister who had also been named ‘Irene’, that died as a child. The choice was fitting, as her brothers and sisters would later recall that she always assumed the role of peacemaker in any family disagreement, Ernst Ludwig recalling in his memoirs that she was lovingly referred to by the other children, in a statement that probably contains a fragment of truth, “Aunt Fuss”.

Princess Alice wrote the year after her birth that she had no teeth and was not particularly fat, but that she was “fresh and rosy, and…strong.” That strength was certainly present in Irene’s character and would sustain her throughout her family’s experiences of both joy and deep tragedy. A second son, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, was born in 1870 in the year of the Franco-Prussian War, followed by a further daughter in 1872, Princess Alix of Hesse. Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, Princess Alice’s beloved “Frittie”, a haemophiliac, died as the result of a fall from her bedroom window at the Neues Palais in Darmstadt, which plunged the whole family into grief. The following year, another sister arrived for Princess Irene – Princess Marie of Hesse, at which the family was complete, but for the harrowing gap left by the loss of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm.

Queen Victoria and her Hessian grandchildren, following the death of her second daughter, Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse, Princess Irene of Hesse is to Queen Victoria’s right (By W. & D. Downey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1877, the then Grand Duke of Hesse, Ludwig III, died. Prince Louis then became Grand Duke in his own right and Princess Alice Grand Duchess. The following year the family visited Eastbourne in the summer before returning to Darmstadt. In November 1878, Princess Alice’s family was thrown into turmoil with Princess Victoria falling ill with diphtheria, and the disease swept through the entire family, Princess Elisabeth “Ella”, being the only child who was able to escape the disease, having been sent to the palace of her grandparents in Darmstadt. Princess Alice then assumed the exhausting and heartbreaking task of visiting the sickbeds of all her children, as she had once sat next to the bedside of her beloved father Prince Albert, when he lay ill with typhoid at Windsor in 1861. Princess Irene had the disease by November 13th. Three days later her little sister Princess Marie died at the Neues Palais. Princess Alice then caught the terrible disease, dying on the anniversary of her father’s death, December 14th 1878 – as Queen Victoria called it, “that terrible 14th”.

Queen Victoria featured in the group photographs taken by William and Daniel Downey of Princess Alice’s children and Prince Louis – all now recovered, in mourning for the dead Grand Duchess. A similar grouping by Hills & Saunders shows Princess Irene in black with her sisters and a bust of Alice amongst the group, echoing the group photographs taken of Queen Victoria’s children with a bust of Prince Albert when he died.

Queen Victoria came to represent something of a mother figure to the orphaned children, a fact that she knowingly reinforced in letters to Irene’s elder sister Princess Victoria, sometimes signing as ‘Mama’ in a deliberate ‘mistake’. Amongst the many bound volumes of correspondence preserved in the Royal Archives to Queen Victoria from her grandchildren are thank you letters for gifts they received at Christmas. One such beautifully-written letter is from Princess Irene to Queen Victoria, from Darmstadt dated 30 December 1877. Decorated with a watercolour of a bird inside a lilac flower, Princess Irene wrote to thank the Queen so very much for Your beautiful presents’, which included some ‘pretty’ pocket handkerchiefs and a book of short stories entitled ‘Aunt Judy’s Xmas volume’ (cit., Louise Cooling, A Royal Christmas, 53). Princess Irene wrote that ‘there seem to be so many nice stories in it’ before going only poignantly to note how ‘happy’ the family festivities had been on what would prove to be their last Christmas at Darmstadt, unshadowed by death.

Princess Irene of Hesse (left) seated with her sisters (l-r) Princess Victoria of Hesse, Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and Princess Alix of Hesse (Carl Backofen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

However, Irene’s youth was not entirely overshadowed by tragedy. Photographs of her made in the 1880s show a beautiful young woman, with lovely features and brown hair, as commented on by her father when she was born. She was one of the bridesmaids at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s youngest child, Princess Beatrice and Prince Heinrich of Battenberg at Whippingham Church on the Isle of Wight in 1885. Her engagement to her cousin, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, second son of Princess Alice’s elder sister Victoria Princess Royal, Crown Princess of Prussia, was celebrated in Berlin in March 1887.

The wedding followed the year after, being celebrated at Charlottenburg, the Prussian summer palace in Berlin, on Queen Victoria’s birthday, May 24th, 1888. The wedding was a sombre affair, the Dowager Empress Augusta in a wheelchair dressed in black, and Prince Heinrich’s father, Crown Prince Frederick, who had just become Emperor of Germany two months previously, was already dying from throat cancer. The SS Prinzess Irene was launched in 1900 at Stettin and named after her.

The marriage of Princess Irene and Prince Heinrich of Prussia was a happy one; although it was not without its challenges, as his temper was a characteristic that again needed the peacemaker element of Irene’s nature to cool it. Amongst the family, they were called “The Very Amiables” because of their ease and friendliness. They mainly resided in the Königliches Schloss [Royal Palace] at Kiel and Eckernförde, their house at Hemmelmark. Irene had three sons, two of whom were haemophiliacs.

It was certainly a tragedy that the inherited condition that had afflicted her little brother Prince Friedrich Wilhelm would be carried over to two of her own children. This was also a heartache that would be shared by her younger sister Princess Alix in her turn, when she, as the wife of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, gave birth to the longed-for heir to the throne in 1904; however, Tsarevich Alexei would likewise prove to be haemophiliac, with devastating consequences. Irene’s son Waldemar died in 1945 from a failed blood transfusion. Sigismund survived, however, her third son Heinrich died young following a fall from a chair. This death was one from which Irene never truly recovered.

Princess Irene of Prussia (left) with her husband, Prince Heinrich of Prussia and their two surviving sons, Prince Sigismund (l) and Prince Waldemar (r) (Ferdinand Urbahns [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The outbreak of the First World War saw Princess Irene on the opposite side to her sisters with her husband commanding the German Navy. In 1918, her two sisters Elisabeth, “Ella” and Alexandra were murdered by the Bolsheviks. Most painfully, these events of such horrific personal tragedy, resulted in the appearance of claimants, purporting to be several of her sister Alexandra’s children, most famously Anna Anderson, who first came to public attention in Berlin in 1920s. Princess Irene met her and was not impressed with her claim. Princess Irene’s husband Prince Heinrich died at Hemmelmark in 1929.

Her brother Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse lived on until 1937. Mercifully, he escaped experiencing the news of the Ostend plane tragedy that afflicted the whole Hessian family in 1937, when Ernst Ludwig’s son Georg Donatus along with his entire family – excepting the little Princess Johanna of Hesse – were killed when the plane struck a chimney as they flew to attend the wedding of Ernst Ludwig’s younger son Prince Louis of Hesse with the Hon. Margaret Geddes. During the war, the townhome of her parents in Darmstadt, the Neues Palais, was devastated by Allied bombing.

Princess Irene’s last surviving sibling, Princess Victoria of Battenberg and Marchioness of Milford Haven, died in 1950. Movingly, Irene was the last one left. Despite the loss of her husband, she continued, true to the example of her mother Princess Alice, to do good and to concern herself with ways to help and benefit others. The year before her death, she legally adopted her son Sigismund’s daughter, Princess Barbara of Prussia.

The Mausoleum at Hemmelmark, containing the tombs of Princess Irene (Heinrich) of Prussia, Prince Heinrich of Prussia and their son, Prince Heinrich (By Mef.ellingen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Irene died at Hemmelmark on November 11th, 1953 and was buried in the Mausoleum in the grounds at Hemmelmark, which in some ways resembles the Neues Mausoleum on the Rosenhöhe at Darmstadt, the final resting place of her parents and siblings who died young, which had been completed in 1910. Also resting in the Mausoleum are Prince Heinrich and her son, Heinrich. Outside the Mausoleum is to be found the grave of the adopted child, Princess Barbara, who died in 1994. It is hoped that Princess Irene found the ‘peace’ of her name’s meaning.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019



About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, also speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a long-standing contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for the Tudor Society's own magazine, Tudor Life. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and she is particularly interested in historic royal weddings. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) and has written numerous articles on the Tsarina's life and correspondence. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and conducts original research on the subject, making a number of important finds including 'lost' royal letters and rediscovering Queen Victoria's perfume. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of culture heritage, she worked in the heritage sector for ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous societies and charities/organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, Historic Royal Palaces and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. She also researches and publishes on the life of W. A. Mozart, writing a mini-series on Mozart and Prague for the culture column of the English-speaking Czech newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019) as well as for the newsletter of the New York society, Friends of Mozart (2016). Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary journal and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with forthcoming poetry in the quarterly literary journal Trafika Europe. Her first short collection, a collection of poems on Prague, is scheduled for publication as a chapbook in 2020 by Marble Poetry.