Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse

The third child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was Alice. Alice Maud Mary. Maud is the Anglo-Saxon version of Matilda. (For those of you writing down these names.)

At first I was not going to devote too much time here to Alice: she didn't really do anything earthshaking; she was hardly her mother's favorite; she was a bit of a rebel and feminist, given more to mingling with the common folk than suited her mother's taste; she actually stood up to her mother and married whom she wanted; she didn't live very long. But the more one researches Alice, the more interesting she becomes - so much so that I find I need to break this account into two posts. This is the first.

Princess Alice married the Duke of Hesse, one of the many German states that Prussia was trying hard to unite (and dominate.) She left the UK shortly after her father's death. (You may recall St. Albert had been killed by the Prince of Wale's shocking behavior.)

Usually Hesse was a prime source of queens for Europe, along with Denmark, but Alice moved there instead of out.

Hesse was a Grand Duchy. Might still be. So Her husband was Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and she was the Grand Dutchess of Hesse. It wasn't nearly as well-paid a job as being a princess of the United Kingdom, and Alice was always complaining of being poverty-stricken in her letters to her mother. Frankly, Alice was not all that high on Queen Victoria's list of children to begin with, so this complaining didn't set well with her, and the relationship became even more strained.

During the wars of German unification, Hesse sided with Austria and Prussia attacked Hesse, so (technically) Alice was at war with her sister Vicky. As you might imagine, Hesse fell to Prussia even faster than France did in WWII. The Prussians moved into Hesse and took over their railroads and telegraphs and strutted around for a while and socked Hesse with a 3 million florin levy for war reparations and... well, Alice just couldn't take it anymore (since they didn't have that much money to start with) and wrote off to her mother the queen to MAKE VICKY JUST STOP IT!

Queen Victoria shot off a letter to her eldest daughter, passing along Alice's request that her sister intercede and tell the Prussians to PLEASE BACK OFF HESSE. Vicky wrote back to her mother, reminding her that she was now married into the Prussian Imperial chain of command, and that Alice would just have to DEAL WITH IT and next time not choose to be on the losing side. Or words to that affect.

But, in the end, Prussia did back off, and Louis was allowed to keep his thronette. Obviously the fact that Alice was the sister of the German Empress had something to do with it. Not to mention that she was the daughter of the ruler of the British Empire. Also, the fact that the Russian Tsar put in a good word didn't hurt. So Hesse survived and Alice got to keep the house she was always complaining about.
Alice and Louis had 7 children. Those that survived childhood all played their own parts in the saga that was the European royal houses, but I only want to mention three of them here.

Her 4th child was Ernest Louis (Uncle Ernie) who succeeded his father as the next Grand Duke of Hesse.

Alice's second child was Elisabeth and her sixth child and fourth daughter was Alix. Both were to walk in the highest circles of power, and both were destined for tragic ends.

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (called Ella in the family) married Grand Duke Sergei of Russia, a younger brother of Tsar Alexander III (father of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia.)

Alix, of course, became the tragic last Empress of Russia, wife of Tsar Nicolas II, mother of the hemophilic tsarevich, desperately susceptible to the demonic monk Rasputin, who seemed to be able to abate her son's hemophilia. Born Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine (called Sunny by her mother, Alice - and a darling favorite of her gran, Queen Victoria) she married Tsar Nicholas II and ruled with him as Empress Alexandra Fedorovna for 24 years (including their time of captivity) until the Russian Revolution, when the imperial family was taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks. She was executed with her husband and all her children in that gunsmoke-filled Ekaterinburg cellar on that terrible impossible July night in 1918.
The Russian imperial family in 1913 [click to enlarge] Alix (Empress Alexandra), daughter of Alice, was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The children are great-grandchildren of Queen Victoria. The Tsar was a cousin (and look-alike) of George V - the Tsar's mother was the sister of Alexandra of Denmark, Queen Consort of Edward VII. Clear? Back row: the Grand Duchesses Marie, Olga, and Tatiana; Right, Grand Duchess Anastasia; Front: the tsarevich Alexei; Nicholas and Alexandra.

As Lenin and Sverdlov and the Cheka continued their purge of the Russian aristocracy, Ella (by then a nun) was arrested a few days later and, along with other members of the extended royal family, was beaten and thrown into an abandoned iron mine pit. Though the Cheka expected them all to be killed by the fall, singing and praying were heard from the shaft. Hand grenades were thrown in and brush pushed down and set ablaze. When the White Army later exhumed the bodies of Ella and the others, they found young prince Ioann's injuries had been bandaged by Ella before he died. Ella herself finally had died from injuries from the initial fall. All in all a horrible and lengthy death for the lovely Ella, who had meant so much to her little sister Alix.
Ella was canonized by the Orthodox church outside Russia in 1981, and in 1992, following the fall of communism, she was canonized by the Russian Orthodox church inside Russia as well.

The Tsar and Tsarina, like all the other royals of the day throughout Europe, kept diaries and made entries for every day of their lives since they were old enough to write. It was the fashion of royalty to do this. So did all their children, of course. The Russian family all wrote in English in their diaries. After they were murdered, the final books of their diaries were recovered. The last entry in the diary of the young Grand Duchess Olga Nicholaevna has become legend, still printed on plaques and T-shirts even today:

"Remember that the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love."

Next: Alice, the early years.


  1. Oh what a tangled web! Looking forward to the next instalment.

  2. My neighbour on a plane somewhere over Iceland, once was an editor with Hessischer Rundfunk.
    I always thought that would be a great name for a band.

  3. Oh, and it's somewhat ironic that Olga's diary tweet became a t-shirt slogan, as in her case love failed to coquer evil, and then she died.

  4. Maud/Matilda harks back to the fiery and temperamental wife of William the Conqueror. Quite an interesting individual herself.

    I found this terribly touching and desperately sad. I knew about Alix. I did not know about Ella. How horrible. Perhaps it's more sad because of the recent events in Haiti. Too easy to imagine.



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