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Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, later Victoria Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven (Victoria Alberta Elisabeth Mathilde Marie; April 5, 1863 –September 24, 1950) was the eldest daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine (1837–1892), and his first wife, Princess Alice of the United Kingdom (1843–1878), daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

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Victoria’s mother died while her brother and sisters were still young, which placed her in an early position of responsibility over her siblings. Over her father’s disapproval, she married his first cousin Prince Louis of Battenberg, an officer in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, and lived most of her married life in various parts of Europe at her husband’s naval posts and visiting her many royal relations. She was perceived by her family as liberal in outlook, straightforward, practical and bright.

During World War I, she and her husband abandoned their German titles and adopted the British-sounding surname of Mountbatten, which was simply a translation into English of the German “Battenberg”. Two of her sisters—Elisabeth and Alix, who had married into the Russian imperial family—were killed by communist revolutionaries.

She was the maternal grandmother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and mother-in-law of King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden.

Victoria was born on Easter Sunday at Windsor Castle in the presence of her maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria. She was christened in the Lutheran faith in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle, in the arms of the Queen on April 27. Her godparents were Queen Victoria, Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, Louis III, Grand Duke of Hesse (represented by Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine), the Prince of Wales and Prince Heinrich of Hesse and by Rhine.

Her early life was spent at Bessungen, a suburb of Darmstadt, until the family moved to the New Palace in Darmstadt when she was three years old. There, she shared a room with her younger sister, Elisabeth, until adulthood. She was privately educated to a high standard and was, throughout her life, an avid reader.

During the Prussian invasion of Hesse in June 1866, Victoria and Elisabeth were sent to Britain to live with their grandmother until hostilities were ended by the absorption of Hesse-Cassel and parts of Hesse-Darmstadt into Prussia.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, military hospitals were set up in the palace grounds at Darmstadt, and she helped in the soup kitchens with her mother. She remembered the intense cold of the winter, and being burned on the arm by hot soup.

In 1872, Victoria’s eighteen-month-old brother, Friedrich, was diagnosed with haemophilia. The diagnosis came as a shock to the royal families of Europe; it had been twenty years since Queen Victoria had given birth to her haemophiliac son, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, and it was the first indication that the bleeding disorder in the royal family was hereditary. The following year, Friedrich fell from a window onto stone steps and died. It was the first of many tragedies to beset the Hesse family.

In early November 1878, Victoria contracted diphtheria. Elisabeth was swiftly moved out of their room and was the only member of the family to escape the disease. For days, Victoria’s mother, Princess Alice, nursed the sick, but she was unable to save her youngest daughter, Victoria’s sister Marie, who died in mid-November.

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Just as the rest of the family seemed to have recovered, Princess Alice fell ill. She died on December 14, the anniversary of the death of her father, Prince Albert. As the eldest child, Victoria partly assumed the role of mother to the younger children and of companion to her father. She later wrote, “My mother’s death was an irreparable loss … My childhood ended with her death, for I became the eldest and most responsible.”

Marriage and family

At family gatherings, Victoria had often met Prince Louis of Battenberg, who was her first cousin once removed and a member of a morganatic branch of the Hessian royal family. Prince Louis had adopted British nationality and was serving as an officer in the Royal Navy. In the winter of 1882, they met again at Darmstadt, and were engaged the following summer.

After a brief postponement because of the death of her maternal uncle Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, Victoria married Prince Louis on 30 April 1884 at Darmstadt. Her father did not approve of the match; in his view Prince Louis had little money and would deprive him of his daughter’s company, as the couple would naturally live abroad in Britain.

However, Victoria was of an independent mind and took little notice of her father’s displeasure. Remarkably, that same evening, Victoria’s father secretly married his mistress, Countess Alexandrine von Hutten-Czapska, the former wife of Alexander von Kolemine, the Russian chargé d’affaires in Darmstadt.

His marriage to a divorcee who was not of equal rank shocked the assembled royalty of Europe and through diplomatic and family pressure Victoria’s father was forced to seek an annulment of his own marriage.