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Princess Victoria Alberta Elizabeth Mathilde Marie of Hesse and by Rhine, later Victoria Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven (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.

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, Ludwig III, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine (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. The youngest, Marie, became seriously ill on November 15, and Alice was called to her bedside, but by the time she arrived, Marie had choked to death.

A distraught Alice wrote to Queen Victoria that the “pain is beyond words”. Alice kept the news of Marie’s death secret from her children for several weeks, but she finally told Ernst in early December. His reaction was even worse than she had anticipated; at first he refused to believe it. As he sat up crying, Alice broke her rule about physical contact with the ill and gave him a kiss.

At first, however, Alice did not fall ill. She met her sister Victoria as the latter was passing through Darmstadt on the way to England, and wrote to her mother with “a hint of resumed cheerfulness” on the same day. However, by Saturday, December 14, the anniversary of her father’s death, she became seriously ill with the diphtheria caught from her son. Her last words were “dear Papa”, and she fell unconscious at 2:30 am. Just after 8:30 am, she died.

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 April 30, 1884 at Darmstadt. Her father did not approve of the match; in his view Prince Louis—his own first cousin—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.