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 the 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 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 herself occupied with visiting the wounded. In several letters to Queen Victoria however, she repeated the wish that her baby daughter should not be christened until the conflict was resolved. Prince Louis himself 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.
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 the diptheria. 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 herself 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 herself knowingly reinforced in letters to Irene’s elder sister Princess Victoria.
However, Irene’s youth was not entirely overshadowed by tragedy. Photographs of her made in the 1880’s 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 own father, Crown Prince Frederick, who had just become Emperor of Germany two months previously, was himself already in fact 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, his temper being 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 which were haemophiliac. 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, herself gave birth to the longed for heir to the throne in 1904; however the Tsarevich Alexei would likewise prove to be haemophiliac, with devastating consequences. Irene’s son Waldemar died in 1945 from the failure of sufficient blood transfusions being available. 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.
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 1920’s. 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 town home 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, who had married Christian Ludwig, Duke of Mecklenburg, at Glücksburg in 1954.
Princess Irene herself 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. The adopted child Princess Barbara, died in 1994 at Hemmelmark, the place of her birth.