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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Regina

The life of Princess Alice

On this day, 25th April 1843, Princess Alice, second daughter and third child of Queen Victoria, was born at Buckingham Palace.

Princess Alice by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, dated 1854 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Like her older sister, Alice's birth came with mixed feelings. In a letter to Prince Albert, the Privy Council wrote to Prince Albert to express their "congratulations and condolences" as everyone hoped for a boy to secure the royal house a second heir. The new princess was christened in the Private Chapel at Buckingham Palace, on 2nd June 1843. She was given the names Alice Maud Mary and later gained the nicknames "Alee" and "Fatima". Her godparents included: Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover; Princess Fedora of Leiningen; Prince Ernest of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; and Princess Sophia of Gloucester.

Like her other siblings, Alice's education was arranged by Prince Albert and Baron Stockmar. Her daily lessons included English, French, German, mathematics and dancing. Along with formal subjects, Victoria and Albert wanted their children to learn ordinary tasks, such as: gardening, cooking, carpentry, housekeeping and shopkeeping! They also dressed their children in middle class clothing and kept their rooms with little heating so that they didn't take their royal positions for granted.

Princess Alice by Sir William Ross, dated 1846 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

From a young age, Alice was fascinated with non-royal life. While staying at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, she would often visit the estates tenants. On one occasion, she wanted to understand normal people so escaped her governess in chapel and managed to sit in a pew with ordinary families.

Alice's kind and empathetic nature makes her one of the most recognisable and f Queen Victoria's daughters. In 1854, she accompanied her mother to visit London hospitals filled with soldiers injured in the Crimean War. It's likely that these visits are what inspired her caring nature and encouraged her to care for others in later years. Although she was know for her caring personality, Alice was also one of the most strong minded of the royal siblings and was known for her strong opinions and sharp tongue.

Princess Alice as 'Spring', dated 10th February 1854, by Roger Fenton © Roval Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

In 1860, Victoria and Albert began making plans to find Alice a husband. Similarly to themselves, they believed that their children should marry for love. However, the options were still limited to European royals that promoted a positive foreign alliance. On request of the Queen, Alice's older sister, Princess Victoria, made a list of potential suitors. The two suggestions included William, Prince of Orange and Prince Albert of Prussia. Although William travelled to Windsor for the Queen to analyse, the two quickly proved incompatible. Unfortunately for Prince Albert of Prussia, he was dismissed by Princess Victoria's husband, Friedrich, before he'd had chance to meet the Princess. With both of the prime candidates dismissed, Princess Victoria suggested Prince Louis of Hesse. Before long, Louis and his brother, Henry, had been invited to watch the Ascot races with the royal family, however Victoria's real reason for the invite was so he could undergo her close inspection.

Princess Alice and Prince Louis of Hesse, 1st December 1860, by William Bembridge © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Both Victoria and Albert were impressed with Louis and noticed that him and Alice seemed to be getting along. When preparing to return home, Louis asked Alice for a photograph, and on return she made it clear that she was interested in him. On 30th November 1860, Louis proposed to Alice at Windsor Castle. However, it wasn't announced until the following April.

Princess Alice with her grandmother, the Duchess of Kent in April 1860, by Frances Sally Day © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

In March 1861, Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, underwent surgery in her arm. During her recovery, Alice played her piano, read to her and also helped nurse her. Unfortunately, after complications, the Duchess's health began to decline and she died on 16th March 1861. Alice remained by her grandmothers side right up until the end. Victoria was devastated by her mothers death but it was Alice that went to comfort her mother. In a letter to Leopold I of Belgium, Queen Victoria wrote that "Dear good Alice was full of intense tenderness, affection and distress for me". Just over a month later, on 30th April, Alice's and Louis engagement was publicly announced and wedding plans were being put in place. During discussions, Queen Victoria asked for a new palace to be built in Darmstadt. Even though this was dismissed, Princess Alice had become unpopular amongst the Darnstradt people before she'd even arrived!

Princess Alice with Queen Victoria in March 1862 by Prince Alfred © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Just eight months later, tragedy struck the royal household when Prince Albert fell ill with typhoid. Just as she had with the Duchess, Alice nursed Albert and kept him company throughout his final illness. As the end got closer, she went against her mothers wishes and sent a telegram for the Prince of Wales to arrive. Victoria was unhappy with Alice's decision as she blamed the Prince for Albert'sr decline. 14th December 1861, Prince Albert aged just 42. For the next six months, Alice became a second mother to her grieving siblings, Victoria's companion and also her unofficial private secretary. All of this, on top of her own grief, caused Alice's mental health to decline. Soon she began skipping meals and noticeably losing weight, suggesting she was suffering from some kind of eating disorder.

The marriage of Princess Alice, 1st July 1862 by George Housman Thomas © Roval Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Following Albert's wishes, Victoria agreed that the wedding plans would still go ahead. Princess Alice and Prince Louis got married in the dining room at Osborne House, on 1st July 1862. Compared to the wedding of her sister, the ceremony was relatively small and each aspect was filled with misery and grief. Alice was allowed to wear a white dress but had to change into black immediately after. In a letter to her eldest daughter, Queen Victoria described the day as "more of a funeral than a wedding".

The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at St. Claire in Ryde. When Queen Victoria went to visit them, she was jealous of Alice's new happiness. On 12th July, Alice and Louis arrived in Bingen, Germany. Much to their surprise, there were massive crowds waiting to celebrate. In a letter to her mother, Alice said " believe the people never gave so hearty a welcome."

Princess Alice in her wedding dress, 1862 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Despite the positive start, Alice quickly became homesick and struggled to adapt to her new country. Even after their wedding, housing arrangements still hadn't been made. Eventually, Alice and Louis were given a house in the

"Old Quarter" of Darmstadt, overlooking the busy street. Alice's new home was completely different to the quiet palaces she'd been used to back home in England, however, the environment seemed to suit her interest in ordinary people.

In March 1863, Alice and Louis traveled to England for the wedding of her older brother, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Less than a month later, on 5th April, she gave birth to her first child, Princess Victoria, at Windsor Castle. When the family returned to Germany in May, they moved into Kranichstein in Bessungen, Darmstadt. By the time Alice gave birth to her second child, Princess Elizabeth, her relationship with Queen Victoria had seriously deteriorated. Victoria had become overwhelmed with jealousy towards Alice's family. She began criticising everything Alice did, including her parenting techniques. At one time, she named a cow after Alice, simply because she decided to breastfeed her children; an act that Victoria described as "animal-like".

Princess Alice, Prince Louis and Princess Victoria, dated December 1863, by Franz Backofen © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Alice's third pregnancy with Princess Irene coincided with the Anglo-Prussian war. Heavily pregnant and with Louis away commanding the Hessian Cavalry, Alice continued to prepare bandages and hospitals for wounded soldiers. When it came to giving birth, she couldn't have picked a worse time as Prussian troops were about to enter Darmstadt.

Out of fear for their safety, she begged the Grand Duke to surrender on Prussia's terms. Alice continued to devote her time to wounded soldiers and developed a close friendship with Florence Nightingale, who sent money from England and gave Alice tips on the cleanliness of hospitals.

In total, Alice and Louis had seven children. On 29th May 1873, her youngest son, Prince Friedrich, fell out of a window while playing with his older brother. Like Queen Victoria, Alice was a carrier of haemophilia, which spread to many of her children. As a result, Friedrich died of internal bleeding soon after regaining consciousness. Alice never truly recovered from his death.

Princess Alice and Prince Louis of Hesse with their five daughters and Prince Ernest Louis, dated May 1875 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

In 1876, she returned to England for treatment relating to a backward curvature of the womb. While recovering at Balmoral, tensions between Alice and Louis began to rise. She started to complain of his "childish letters", that only contained short accounts of his day. In a long letter, dated 3rd October, she writes that she had "longed for real companionship" before going on to say "Your letters are so dear and kind - but so empty and bare - I feel myself through them that I have less to say to you than any other person. Rain - fine weather - things that have happened - that is all I ever have to tell you about - so utterly cut off is my real self, my innermost life, from yours". She also wrote of how she felt her "great ambitions, good intentions and real efforts, my hopes have nevertheless been completely ship-wrecked." It is clear to see that Alice was not only struggling in her marriage, but also in herself.

Princess Alice by Joseph Hartmann, dated 1879 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

On 13th June 1877, Louis succeeded his brother as Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Despite her new role, Alice remained unpopular amongst the people of Darmstadt. Wanting a break, Alice and her children went to stay in Houlgate in Normandy. While she was there, her reputation worsened and her bitterness towards her Darmstadt increased. When the family returned two months later, there were large, unexpected crowds awaiting their arrival. Alice continued to support Louis even though they were slowly drifting further apart.

Making the most of her position, Alice raised funds and pushed for social reform. However, she quickly became overwhelmed by the responsibility she faced and and wrote to Queen Victoria explaining how she "dreaded everything". As her popularity grew, she became known as Landesmutter (mother of her people) and her reputation began to fix itself. Despite this, her relationship with Queen Victoria was worse than ever. On one occasion, she received a hurtful letter from her mother that "made me cry with anger". In a letter to Louis, she added that "I wish I were dead and it probably will not be too long before I give Mama that pleasure."

Princess Alice in December 1871 © Roval Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

Over the next year, Alice involved herself in the arts and sciences as a way to avoid her official duties. Realising her need to escape, Queen Victoria paid for the whole family to travel to Eastbourne for a holiday. while there, Alice undertook more royal duties and also visited her mother at Osborne.

Soon after arriving returning to Darmstadt, 5th November 1878, Alice's eldest child, Princess Victoria, began complaining of a stiff neck. The next morning she was diagnosed with diphtheria, which quickly spread throughout the household. The only one of their children not to fall ill was Princess Elizabeth, who was sent away to her paternal grandmothers for safety. Alice nursed each of her children, somehow avoiding the illness herself.

On 15th November Alice's youngest child, Princess Marie, fell seriously ill. Unfortunately Marie had choked to death before Alice had been able to get to her bedside. In a letter to Queen Victoria, she described Marie's death as "pain beyond words". However, Victoria was too busy planning a match for her second son and instead responded with a rather sharp letter. Not wanting to upset her other children, Alice avoided telling them about Marie's death.

Princess Alice in 1877 © Royal Collection Trust / HM King Charles III

In early December, Alice decided to tell her son, Ernst Louis, who was more upset than everyone had anticipated. Trying to comfort her son, Alice broke all rules about physical contact and kissed Ernst. Although at first she didn't appear to have caught the diphtheria, Alice fell seriously ill by the 13th December. Her final words were "dear papa" before falling unconscious at 2:30am on the 14th. She died about six hours later, aged just 35, on the anniversary of her fathers death seventeen years earlier. She was the first of Queen Victoria's children to die and her death broke the hearts of everyone that knew her. She was buried on 18th December 1878 at the Grand Ducal mausoleum at Rosenhöhe outside Darmstadt.

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