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Princess Alice was born on April 25, 1843 at Buckingham Palace, the second daughter and third child of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She was christened “Alice Maud Mary” in the private chapel at Buckingham Palace by The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, on June 2, 1843. “Maud,” the Anglo-Saxon name for Matilda, was chosen in honour of one of Alice’s godparents, Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, (Her father was Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, the third son of The Prince Frederick, Prince of Wales, making her a great-granddaughter of King George II of Great Britain and niece of King George III). “Mary” was chosen because Alice was born on the same day as her maternal great-aunt, the Duchess of Gloucester (the eleventh child and fourth daughter of King George III of the United Kingdom and his consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz).

Princess Alice of the United Kingdom

Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine was born on September 12, 1837 at the Prinz-Karl-Palais in Darmstadt, the first son and child of Prince Carl of Hesse and by Rhine (April 23, 1809 – March 20, 1877) and Princess Elisabeth of Prussia (June 18, 1815 – March 21, 1885), granddaughter of King Friedrich-Wilhelm II of Prussia. As his father’s elder brother Ludwig III (1806-1877), the reigning Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, had been married to his first wife, Princess Mathilde Caroline of Bavaria, eldest daughter of Ludwig I of Bavaria and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The marriage produced no children and the Grand Duke remarried, morganatically, in 1868 to Magdalene Appel who was created Baroness of Hochstädten. Since Grand Duke Ludwig III remained childless, Prince Ludwig was, from birth, second-in-line to the grand ducal throne, after his father.

Prince Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine

Alice’s matrimonial plans were begun in 1860 by her mother. Queen Victoria had expressed her wish that her children should marry for love, but this did not mean that her choice of suitors would necessarily be extended to anybody outside the royal houses of Europe. Raising a British subject to royalty, however high their rank, was politically objectionable, and also wasted any opportunity for a useful foreign alliance. The Queen instructed her daughter Victoria, recently married to Prince Friedrich of Prussia, to produce a list of eligible princes in Europe. Her search produced only two suitable candidates: the Prince of Orange; and Prince Albert of Prussia, cousin to Victoria’s husband Friedrich. Willem, Prince of Orange, was heir apparent to the Dutch throne as the eldest son of King Willem III of the Netherlands from March 17, 1849 until his death on June 11, 1879. The Prince of Orange journeyed to Windsor Castle so that Queen Victoria could look him over in person, but he proved unpalatable to Alice. The prince too showed little interest in Alice, despite strong pressure from his pro-British mother, Queen Sophie of the Netherlands. He was soon discounted. Prince Albert, too, was spurned, with Prince Friedrich of Prussia remarking that his cousin would not do for “one who deserves the very best.”

With both of the leading candidates now discounted, Princess Victoria suggested Prince Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine, a minor German royal, the nephew of the Grand Duke of Hesse and By Rhine. Princess Victoria had gone to the court of Hesse to inspect Ludwig sister, Princess Anna, as a potential bride for her brother, the Prince of Wales. Although not favorably impressed with Princess Anna, she was impressed with Ludwig and his brother Prince Heinrich. Both were invited to Windsor Castle in 1860, ostensibly so they could watch the Ascot Races in the company of the royal family, but in reality, the visit was a chance for the Queen to inspect her potential son-in-law. The Queen admired both Ludwig and Heinrich, but noted how well Ludwig and Alice got along together. When the Hessian family departed, Ludwig requested Alice’s photograph, and Alice made it clear that she was attracted to him.

Engagement and wedding

Princess Alice in her Wedding Dress

Alice was engaged to Prince Ludwig of Hesse and By Rhine on April 30, 1861, following the Queen’s consent. The Queen persuaded the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to vote Alice a dowry of £30,000 (£2.75 million as of 2019). Although the amount was considered generous at the time, Prince Albert remarked that “she will not be able to do great things with it” in the little realm of Hesse, compared to the riches that her sister Victoria would inherit as future Queen of Prussia and German Empress. Furthermore, the couple’s future home in Darmstadt, the Grand Ducal seat, was uncertain. Although Queen Victoria expected that a new palace would be built, the people of Darmstadt did not want to meet that expense, and the resulting controversy caused resentment there. This meant that Alice was unpopular in Darmstadt before she even arrived.

On July 1, 1862, Ludwig married Princess Alice, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. On the day of the wedding, the Queen issued a royal warrant granting her new son-in-law the style of Royal Highness in the United Kingdom. The Queen also subsequently made Prince Ludwig a knight of the Order of the Garter.

Wedding at Osborne House

Alice was given away by her uncle, Albert’s brother Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and was flanked by four bridesmaids: her younger sisters, Princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice, as well as Ludwig’s sister Princess Anna of Hesse and By Rhine. For the ceremony, Alice wore a white dress with a veil of Honiton lace, but was required to wear black mourning clothes before and after the ceremony as the Royal Family was still in deep mourning for Prince Albert who had died seven months previously on the 14th of December 1861. Queen Victoria later confided to her daughter Vicky, the Princess Royal and the Crown Princess of Prussia, that the wedding of ‘poor Alice’ had been ‘more like a funeral and the saddest day I can remember.”