Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alice Maud Mary

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ALICE MAUD MARY (1843–1878), princess of Great Britain and Ireland, duchess of Saxony, and grand duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt, the third child and second daughter of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort, was born at Buckingham Palace on 25 April 1843. Her third name was given in honour of the queen's aunt, the Duchess of Gloucester, who had been born on St. Mark's day sixty-seven years before. ‘Bright, joyous and singularly attractive’ (Earl Granville) almost from her cradle, she was early described by her father as ‘the beauty of the family, and an extraordinarily good and merry child.’

The Princess Alice became one of the most accomplished young ladies in England. She was sympathetic and affectionate. In a characteristic letter of condolence, 24 May 1861, to one of her instructors, she describes herself as having ‘so lately for the first time seen death,’ the allusion being to the Duchess of Kent, whose decease had taken place in the month of March previous. In December of the same year she became more widely known as the assiduous nurse of her father during his last illness, when she was, in the queen's own words, ‘the great comfort and support’ of her mother.

On 1 July 1862 she became the wife of Prince Frederick William Louis of Hesse, nephew of Louis III, grand duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, to whose throne he succeeded, as Louis IV, on 13 June 1877. ‘The principal characteristics of her married life appear to have been—first, absolute devotion to her husband and children; next, a course not merely of benevolence, but of unceasing, thoughtful benevolence to all depending upon her; and, lastly, a remarkable talent for acquiring the sympathy and attracting the regard of some of the most gifted of the intellectual country which she had adopted, and to whose interests she was devoted, without ever breaking a link in the chain of memories and associations which bound her to the country of her birth’ (Earl Granville, 17 Dec. 1878). Brilliant but solid in her accomplishments, she took an increasing interest in German art and literature, and was an accomplished sculptor and painter. At her death it was said of her by a German authority that ‘Art mourned in her her noblest patroness.’ D. F. Strauss, whose acquaintance she made in 1868, read his ‘Voltaire’ to her in manuscript in 1870, and dedicated it to her when published by her express desire.

The Franco-German war called forth her philanthropy, and she set the example of nursing the sick and wounded, French as well as German, as they crowded the hospital at Darmstadt, in the midst of anxieties for the safety of her husband, then in the field. She became the foundress of the Women's Union for nursing the Sick and Wounded in War, which was called after her name. In December 1871 she contributed by her devoted nursing to the recovery of her brother the Prince of Wales.

The family of the Princess Alice and her husband consisted of five daughters and two sons, one of whom, Prince Frederick William, a child of less than three years of age, fell, almost under her eyes, from a window of the palace, 29 May 1873, and received injuries from which he died. On 16 Nov. 1878 her youngest child, the Princess Mary, died in her fifth year from diphtheria, an epidemic which had within eight days, 6–14 Nov., prostrated nearly every member of the grand-ducal family. The mother, already worn out by her ministrations to her husband and children, caught the infection. ‘My lords,’ said the Earl of Beaconsfield, in addressing the House of Peers upon the occasion, ‘there is something wonderfully piteous in the immediate cause of her death. The physicians who permitted her to watch over her suffering family enjoined her under no circumstances whatever to be tempted into an embrace. Her admirable self-restraint guarded her through the crisis of this terrible complaint in safety. She remembered and observed the injunctions of her physicians. But it became her lot to break to her son, quite a youth, the death of his youngest sister, to whom he was devotedly attached. The boy was so overcome with misery that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms, and thus she received the kiss of death.’ She died on 14 Dec. 1878, being the seventeenth anniversary of the decease of her father. She was buried, 18 Dec., in the mausoleum at Rosenhohe. The English flag was laid upon her coffin, in accordance with a desire she had fondly expressed.

The beneficence of the grand duchess was varied and discriminating. She took pains to instruct herself in the methods of philanthropy, attending meetings and visiting institutions without parade, and ‘as a woman among women.’ She translated into German some of Miss Octavia Hill's essays ‘On the Homes of the London Poor,’ and published them with a little preface of her own (to which only her initial A. was affixed), in the hope that the principles which had been successfully applied in London by Miss Hill and her coadjutors might be put into action in some of the German cities.

[A memoir by Dr. Sell of Darmstadt, with a translation of the princess's letters to her mother, was published in German in 1883; and the letters in the original, with a translation of the memoir, were published in London, 1884. See also Martin's Life of the Prince Consort; The Princess Alice in Social Notes, 4 Jan. 1879; Speeches of the Earl of Beaconsfield and Earl Granville, 17 Dec. 1878; the Queen's letter to the Home Secretary, 26 Dec. 1878; Times, December 1878.]

A. H. G.