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Princess Irene, raised to believe in a proper Victorian code of behavior, was easily shocked by what she saw as immorality. In 1884, the same year that her elder sister Victoria married Prince Louis of Battenberg, another sister, Elisabeth, married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and when Elisabeth converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, in 1891, Irene was deeply upset.

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Princess Irene ca. 1902

She wrote to her father that she “cried terribly” over Elisabeth’s decision. In 1892, Irene’s father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV, died, and her brother, Ernst-Ludwig, succeeded him as Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Two years later, in May 1894, Ernst-Ludwig was married off by Queen Victoria to a first cousin, Victoria-Melita of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was amidst the wedding festivities that Irene’s youngest surviving sister, Alix, accepted the marriage proposal of Tsarevich Nicholas, a second cousin, and when Nicholas’ father, Emperor Alexander III, died prematurely in November 1894, Irene and her husband traveled to St. Petersburg to be present at both his funeral and the wedding of Alix, who had taken the name Alexandra Feodorovna upon her conversion to Orthodoxy, to the new Emperor Nicholas II.

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Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (1864–1918)

Despite the disagreement that she had over the conversion of her two sisters to Russian Orthodoxy, she remained close with all of her siblings. In 1907, Irene helped arrange what later turned out to be a disastrous marriage between Elizabeth’s ward, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, to Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, Duke of Södermanland. Wilhelm’s mother, the Queen Victoria of Sweden, was an old friend of both Irene and Elisabeth. Grand Duchess Maria later wrote that Irene pressured her to go through with the marriage when she had doubts. She told Maria that ending the engagement would “kill” Elizabeth.

Prince Wilhelm was the second son of King Gustaf V of Sweden and his wife Victoria of Baden.

On May 3, 1908, in Tsarskoye Selo, the wedding between was Wilhelm of Sweden married Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia took place. The bride was a daughter of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia by his first wife Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna was a cousin of the reigning Russian Emperor Nicholas II and first cousin of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The couple had only one son: Prince Lennart, Duke of Småland and later Count of Wisborg (1909–2004).

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Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia

The marriage was unhappy. Their son, Lennart, later wrote an autobiography in which he revealed several details of the Swedish royal family. The autobiography tells of how Maria, like her aunt and namesake Maria, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, felt that she had married beneath herself in marrying a younger son of the King of Sweden, and this caused problems of ego between the couple.

Maria insisted that the servants address her by her correct style Your Imperial and Royal Highness, to the chagrin of her husband, who was merely a Royal Highness. When apprised of the matter, Wilhelm’s father King Gustaf V had no choice but to acquiesce with his daughter-in-law’s wish, which was perfectly valid in law, and ordered that the imperial style be used invariably for Maria.

Maria sought a divorce because of what she described as the horror she then felt toward the Swedish royal family, due to their unlimited support of Doctor Axel Munthe who had accosted her sexually. The divorce was granted in 1914, and Maria returned to Russia.

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Prince Heinrich and Princess Irene

In 1912, Irene was a source of support to her sister Alix and her relationship with Grigori Rasputin when Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich nearly died of complications of haemophilia at the Imperial Family’s hunting lodge in Poland.

Princess Irene’s support stemmed from the fact that two of her children with Prince Heinrich of Prussia, princes Waldemar and Heinrich, were hemophiliacs, a disease which they inherited through Irene from the maternal grandmother of both of their parents, Queen Victoria, who was a carrier. Prince Sigismund was the only one of the three brothers who did not have the hemophilia.

On February 25, 1904, Princess Irene left 4 year old Prince Heinrich unsupervised for a few minutes while she went to fetch something. The playful Prince climbed a chair, and then he climbed onto the table. As he heard his mother approaching, he attempted to quickly come down but stumbled while attempting to climb down the chair and fell on the floor headfirst.

Prince Heinrich started to scream, which immediately attracted Princess Irene’s attention. By the time she reached him, the child was almost unconscious. The doctor said the fall had not been that bad and the child would have survived had he not been a haemophiliac. However, suffering from this condition, it was certain the young Prince would die. He was suffering from a brain haemorrhage. He lingered for a couple of hours, but died the following day, on February 26. Prince Heinrich’s premature death would later very much affect the Princess, who would withdraw into herself.

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Princess Irene with her husband Prince Heinrich of Prussia and their two surviving sons, Prince Sigismund, left, and Prince Waldemar.

Later life

Irene’s ties to her sisters were disrupted by the advent of World War I, which put them on opposing sides of the war. When the war ended, she received word that her sister Alix, and her husband and children along with her sister Elisabeth had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. Following the war and the abdication of her brother-in-law, Emperor Wilhelm II, Germany was no longer ruled by the Prussian Royal Family, but Irene and her husband retained their estate, Hemmelmark, in northern Germany.

Irene and Anna Anderson

When Anna Anderson surfaced in Berlin in the early 1920s, claiming to be the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, Irene visited the woman, but decided that Anderson could not be her niece that she had last seen in 1913. Princess Irene was not impressed.

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Anna Anderson

I saw immediately that she could not be one of my nieces. Even though I had not seen them for nine years, the fundamental facial characteristics could not have altered to that degree, in particular the position of the eyes, the ear, etc. .. At first sight one could perhaps detect a resemblance to Grand Duchess Tatiana.”

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, sister of the murdered Emperor, commented on the visit of Princess Irene, saying it was an unsatisfactory meeting, but the woman’s supporters said that Princess Irene had not known her niece very well and all the rest of it.”

Irene’s husband, Heinrich of Prussia, said that the mention of Anderson upset Irene too much and ordered that no one was to discuss Anderson in her presence.

Prince Heinrich, Irene’s husband, died of throat cancer, as his father Emperor Friedrich III had, in Hemmelmark on April 20, 1929.

Anna Anderson biographer Peter Kurth wrote that several years later, Irene’s son (Prince Sigismund) posed questions to Anderson through an intermediary about their shared childhood and declared that her answers were all accurate. Irene later adopted Sigismund’s daughter, Barbara, born in 1920, as her heir after Sigismund left Germany to live in Costa Rica during the 1930s. Sigismund declined to return to Germany to live after World War II.

Princess Irene died November 11, 1953 (aged 87) at Schloss Hemmelmark, Barkelsby, Schleswig-Holstein, West Germany.

End note:

In 1991, the bodies of Emperor Nicholas II, Irene’s sister, Empress Alexandra (Alix) and three of their daughters were exhumed from a mass grave near Yekaterinburg. They were identified on the basis of both skeletal analysis and DNA testing. The female bones matched that of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose maternal grandmother Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine was a sister of Alexandra and Irene. The bodies of Tsarevich Alexei and the remaining daughter were discovered in 2007. Repeated and independent DNA tests confirmed that the remains were the seven members of the Romanov family, and proved that none of the Emperor’s four daughters survived the shooting of the Romanov family.

A sample of Anderson’s tissue, part of her intestine removed during her operation in 1979, had been stored at Martha Jefferson Hospital, Charlottesville, Virginia. Anderson’s mitochondrial DNA was extracted from the sample and compared with that of the Romanovs and their relatives. It did not match that of the Duke of Edinburgh or that of the bones, confirming that Anderson was not related to the Romanovs. However, the sample matched DNA provided by Karl Maucher, a grandson of Franziska Schanzkowska’s sister, Gertrude (Schanzkowska) Ellerik, indicating that Karl Maucher and Anna Anderson were maternally related and that Anderson was Franziska Schanzkowska.