Looking at some of the many photographs taken of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters as children, we often linger at some of these album prints and ponder over the lives that these little girls had when they reached adulthood. Queen Victoria would lose several grandsons including Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence as well as Princes Waldemar and Sigismund of Prussia, the sons of her eldest daughter Victoria, Crown Princess of Prussia. Tragically another grandson Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Hesse, second son of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom died at the mere age of three. Queen Victoria also had a granddaughter who was destined never to reach adulthood.
Princess Marie of Hesse was born on Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May 1874. She was, in fact, the last child of the Queen’s second daughter, Princess Alice. Her brother, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Hesse, “Frittie”, had died only a year before her birth, falling from the bedroom window of his mother in the Neues Palais, in Darmstadt. The little prince had suffered from haemophilia, as did his uncle, Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, who was also the prince’s godfather. It is reasonable to assume that the birth of Princess Marie was a consolation to Princess Alice, who was still deeply mourning the loss of her young son. In fact, she commented that the baby Marie much resembled the brother who had predeceased her.
She was christened in July 1874 and received the names Marie Victoria Feodora Leopoldine. The names, of course, had great significance for Queen Victoria’s family. Victoria for the Queen herself, Feodora most probably for the Queen’s half-sister Princess Feodora of Leiningen and Leopoldine for Princess Alice’s brother Leopold. The earliest images of little Marie are from the year 1874, one of which could date from the time of her baptism because she is wearing a white gown with short sleeves. A notable feature of the little princess was the two large dimples in her cheeks. Princess Alice wrote that the child had “fair hair, marked eyebrows and [such] speaking eyes…”
Princess Marie was an enchanting child and although images of her are rare, those that do exist bear strong witness to the charm of the little girl. Some of the loveliest pictures of the child were made by the photographer Alexander Bassano, which show her in a series of oval portraits, with bows. Princess Alice commented in her letters to Queen Victoria on the prettiness of the pair, referring to her two youngest daughters, Princess Alix of Hesse and Marie. The pair was photographed together on several occasions, notably by the Darmstadt court photographer, Carl Backofen. The images by the photographers Hills & Saunders also include group portraits, which show little Marie smiling and laughing, characteristics that were often much commented on by her mother, Princess Alice.
Princess Alix of Hesse often known as ‘Sunny’ within the family. There are references although to little Marie or ‘Maly,’ being Princess Alice’s ‘Sunshine,’ the name her mother often called her. Princess Alice wrote to Queen Victoria when enclosing photographs with her letter, “May has not such fat cheeks in reality; still it is very dear. The two little girlies are so sweet, so dear, merry, and nice. I don’t know which is dearest; they are both so captivating…” Marie was clearly a charming child, calling her mother in her particular toddler language, “my weet [sic] heart”.
When Princess Alice’s family came to Eastbourne on holiday in July 1878, Princess Marie was with them. It was a beautiful summer, with accounts of the children playing on the beach and searching for crabs. There was even a visit to the villa of the Duke of Devonshire at Compton Place. Princess Alice’s family were photographed in front of the entrance to Compton Place, in one of the photos, little Princess Marie is sat on the horse that is pulling the family’s carriage. Princess Marie was also photographed at Eastbourne in various poses holding the oars of a boat upon where she sat.
In November 1878 back in Darmstadt, the children of Princess Alice were listening to their eldest sister Princess Victoria, read aloud from the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Princess Victoria would later complain of a sore throat that showed a white membrane, a typical symptom of diphtheria. One by one, each family member went down with the fatal disease except Princess Elisabeth, called “Ella”, who was sent to her grandparents’ house in Darmstadt during the epidemic. Princess Alice devotedly nursed all of her family, which included not only her children but now also her husband, Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Princess Marie fell ill with the disease on 11 November despite the nursery being fumigated. In a series of heart-rending telegraphs to the Queen, Princess Alice detailed Marie’s worsening condition. The white membrane – a tell-tale sign of diphtheria – was evident in Marie’s throat. Alice sought to combat the disease with inhalers and potash.
Princess Marie died on 16 November 1878. The funeral was held two days later because the emphasis was to protect the remaining family members from further risk of infection. One can only imagine the effect this all had on Princess Alice, already worn out with nursing and drifting from one bed to another, who now had to arrange the funeral of her beloved four-year-old daughter.
As her children gradually began to recover, Princess Alice would succumb to the disease herself and die on the 17th anniversary of the death of her father, Prince Albert, 14 December 1878. It is important to note that as Princess Alice died, she mentioned the names of Prince Albert and little Princess Marie, as if before falling asleep, into unconsciousness from which she never again awoke.
Marie was remembered amongst her family as a particularly beloved child. She was buried in the Old Mausoleum on the Rosenhöhe, the hill where the Hesse family tombs are to be found, set within beautiful parkland. Eventually, her remains were transferred to the New Mausoleum when it was completed in 1910, by order of her brother Ernst Ludwig, then himself Grand Duke of Hesse. Marie’s tomb is a sarcophagus, very like that of her brother Prince Friedrich Wilhelm “Frittie”, who had died at the age of three. Princess Alice’s tomb features a recumbent statue of herself, clutching little Princess Marie, made by the eminent sculptor Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm. A copy of this beautiful statue is in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore not far from the effigies of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and it is a touching testament to a much-loved child and granddaughter.