Princess Irene Luise Marie Anne was the third child and third daughter of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Her maternal grandparents were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
.Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine
.Her Royal Highness Princess
Heinrich of Prussia
11 July 1866
Grand Duchy of Hesse
11 November 1953 (aged 87)
Prince Henry of Prussia
Irene Luise Marie Anne
Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine
Princess Alice of the United Kingdom
She received her first name, which was taken from the Greek word for “peace,” because she was born at the end of the Austro-Prussian War. Her mother Alice considered Irene an unattractive child and once wrote to her sister Victoria that Irene was “not pretty.” Though not as pretty as her sister Elizabeth, Irene did have a pleasant, even disposition. Princess Alice brought up her daughters simply. An English nanny presided over the nursery and the children ate plain meals of rice puddings and baked apples and wore plain dresses.
Her daughters were taught how to do housework, such as baking cakes, making their own beds, laying fires and sweeping and dusting their rooms. Princess Alice also emphasized the need to give to the poor and often took her daughters on visits to hospitals and charities.
In the autumn of 1878 Irene, her siblings (except for Elizabeth) and her father became ill with diphtheria. Her younger sister Princess Marie, nicknamed “May,” died of the disease. Her mother, exhausted from nursing the children, also became infected. Knowing she was in danger of dying, Princess Alice dictated her will, including instructions about how to bring up her daughters and how to run the household. She died of diphtheria on 14 December 1878. Following Alice’s death, Queen Victoria resolved to act as a mother to her Hessian grandchildren.
Princess Irene and her surviving siblings spent annual holidays in England and their grandmother sent instructions to their governess regarding their education and approving the pattern of their dresses.
With her sister Alix, Irene was a bridesmaid at the 1885 wedding of their maternal aunt, Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg.
Irene married Prince Henry of Prussia, the third child and second son of Frederick III, German Emperor and Victoria, Princess Royal on 24 May 1888 at the chapel of the Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin. As their mothers were sisters, Irene and Henry were first cousins.
Her marriage displeased her grandmother Queen Victoria because she had not been told about the courtship until they had already decided to marry. At the time of the ceremony, Irene’s uncle and father-in-law, the German emperor, was dying of throat cancer,
and less than a month after the ceremony, Irene’s cousin and brother-in-law ascended the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Heinrich’s mother, Empress Victoria, was fond of Irene. However, she said she was shocked because Irene did not wear a shawl or scarf to disguise her pregnancy when she was pregnant with her first son, Prince Waldemar, in 1889. this caused a short rift between them. Empress Victoria, who was fascinated by politics and current events, also couldn’t understand why Heinrich and Irene would never read the newspapers.
However, the couple were happily married and they were known as “The Very Amiables” by their relatives because of their pleasant natures.
Irene, raised to believe in a proper Victorian code of behaviour, 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, Elizabeth, married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and when Elizabeth converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, in 1891, Irene was deeply upset. She wrote to her father that she “cried terribly” over Elizabeth’s decision. Irene transmitted the haemophilia gene to her eldest and youngest sons, Waldemar and Heinrich. Waldemar’s health worried her from early childhood.
She was later devastated when her youngest child, four-year-old Heinrich, died after he fell and bumped his head in February 1904.
Her brother Ernest Louis was married off by Queen Victoria to a first cousin, Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It was amidst the wedding festivities that Irene’s youngest surviving sister, Alix, accepted the marriage proposal of Tsarevich Nicholas, and when Nicholas’ father died prematurely in November 1894, Irene and her husband traveled to St. Petersburg, to be present at the funeral and the wedding of Alix, who had taken the name Alexandra Feodorovna upon her conversion to Orthodoxy, to the new tsar, Nicholas II. In 1912, Irene was a source of support to her sister Alix when her son Alexei nearly died of complications of haemophilia at the Imperial Family’s hunting lodge in Poland.
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 Alix, her husband and children and her sister Elizabeth had been killed by the Bolsheviks
Following the war and the abdication of the Kaiser, Germany was no longer ruled by the Prussian Royal Family, but Irene and her husband retained their estate, Hemmelmark, in northern Germany. When Anna Anderson surfaced in Berlin in the early 1920s, claiming to be the surviving Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, Irene visited the woman, but decided that she could not be the niece she had last seen in 1913. Princess Irene was not impressed.
Irene’s husband, Heinrich, said that the mention of Anna Anderson upset Irene too much and ordered that no one was to discuss her in his presence. Heinrich died in 1929. Irene later adopted Sigismund’s daughter (her granddaughter), Barbara, born in 1920, as her heir after Sigismund left Germany to live in Costa Rica during the 1930s. He declined to return to Germany to live after World War II. Irene grieved terribly when her haemophiliac eldest son, Waldemar, became ill in 1945 and died due to the lack of blood for a transfusion.
In the photo to the right
Prince Sigismund, Princess Irene, Prince Heinrich holding Sigismund’s son Prince Alfred of Prussia; Alfred’s sister Princess Barbara in front of their mother, Princess Charlotte Agnes; Princess Calixta and her husband Prince Waldemar
Irene herself died in 1953, leaving her estate to her granddaughter Barbara. At her death, she was the last surviving child of Princess Alice and Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine.
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