Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, born “Irene Louise Marie Anne”, was the third child and daughter of Princess Alice of the U.K., a daughter of Queen Victoria, and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. Irene, who was named after the Greek word for “peace” because she was born at the end of the Austro-Prussian War, came into the world on July 11, 1866 in the New Palace of Darmstadt. She had two older sisters - Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia – and four younger siblings, including Grand Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia.
|The Daughters of Grand Duke Louis IV and Princess Alice (left to right):|
Irene, Victoria, Elizabeth, and Alice
Unlike Irene’s other three sisters who survived to adulthood, she is often overlooked or forgotten by history due to the legacy of her other siblings. Her older sister Victoria is remembered as the grandmother of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and the mother of Queen Louise of Sweden. Irene’s two other sisters, Elizabeth and Alexandra, are associated with their tragic deaths at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. But Irene would become grateful for her relative insignificance in her later years, as she desired nothing more than to live a private existence. Though Irene’s mother loved all of her children, she considered Irene to be her least attractive child. Irene may not have been beautiful like her sister Elizabeth but she did have a pleasant and warm personality that made her easy to like and befriend. Alice raised her children rather modestly for their royal statuses and brought them up in an English manner. The children learned how to speak both English and German and were taught to do household chores such as clean their rooms, sweep the floors, and bake cakes. They wore homemade dresses and were taught by their mother to value the importance of aiding the poor, who often took her girls to visit local hospitals and charities.
|Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine|
But Irene’s happy childhood didn’t last for long, as the 1870’s were marked by a series of sudden deaths within the family. In 1873, Irene’s two year old hemophilic brother, Friedrich, died after falling from a window (Alice was a hemophilia carrier, like her mother, and she passed the disease on to some of her children – including Irene). Then, in late 1878, everyone in the family fell ill with diphtheria except for Alice and Elizabeth. Elizabeth was sent to her paternal grandmother’s house to stay healthy while Alice remained behind to nurse her sick husband and children. In November, Irene’s youngest sibling, the four year-old Marie, died from the disease and a month later, Alice herself caught ill and died as well. The twelve year-old Irene, her father, and the rest of her siblings recovered but the children would remain distraught over their mother’s sudden death for years to come. With their mother gone, Queen Victoria stepped in to take care of her daughter’s children, taking great interest in almost every aspect of their lives. Irene’s eldest sister, Victoria, also took on the role as a motherly figure for her younger siblings and helped their father with his royal duties by taking over the late Alice’s position as the head lady of the duchy.
|Princess Irene and her husband, Prince Henry|
After the marriages of both her older sisters in 1884, Irene became the eldest daughter still living at home and as a result, she took over Victoria’s role as her father’s companion and hostess for official events. But eventually, Irene had a marriage of her own. On May 24, 1888, the twenty-one year old Irene married her maternal first cousin, the twenty-five year old Prince Henry of Prussia, at the chapel of the Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin. Henry was the third child and second son of Frederick III, German Emperor and Victoria, Princess Royal, the older sister of Irene’s mother. Although the couple was close due to their familial relationship, their grandmother, Queen Victoria, was not happy about the arrangement because she hadn’t known of her grandchildren’s romantic relationship until the marriage was announced. When the wedding took place, Henry’s father was dying of throat cancer and not even a month after the marriage, Frederick III died, so, Henry’s older brother took the throne as Kaiser Wilhelm II. Henry’s other siblings included: Princess Charlotte of Prussia, Princess Viktoria of Prussia, Queen Sophie of the Hellenes, and Margaret, Landgravine of Hesse-Kassel.
Irene and Henry were well suited for each other. Both were genial, pleasant, and easy to get along with. In fact, they were so good-natured that their relatives called them “The Very Amiables”. Despite the powerful political positions of their families, neither Irene nor her husband were interested in politics, much to the dismay of the Empress Victoria. But the Empress Dowager was quite fond of Irene as a daughter-in-law, especially because of her relationship as the Empress’s niece. The discreet and unpretentious couple, who had no political ambitions whatsoever, was content to live quietly at home and stay out of the spotlight of the Prussian royal court. Almost a year after the wedding, Irene gave birth to the couple’s first child – a son named Prince Waldemar. But when Waldemar was born, Irene was devastated to learn that he had inherited her family’s disease – that of hemophilia. She blamed herself for his sickness because she had become a hemophilia carrier through her own mother and never stopped fretting over his health during his early childhood. No doubt the memory of her younger brother Friedrich’s early death was quite apparent in her mind. Seven years after Waldemar’s birth, Irene had another son named Prince Sigismund who, much to her relief, was not a hemophiliac. But when Irene had her last and final child in 1900, a boy named Prince Heinrich, she was upset to learn that little Heinrich had hemophilia like his eldest brother.
|Princess Irene, Prince Henry, and their sons|
Irene and Henry’s children:
- Prince Waldemar of Prussia (1889-1945) married: Princess Calixta of Lippe-Biesterfeld, no issue
- Prince Sigismund of Prussia (1896-1978) married: Princess Charlotte of Saxe-Altenburg, had issue
- Prince Heinrich of Prussia (1900-1904) died at the age of 4 from a brain hemorrhage due to a fall as a result of his hemophilia
Prince Henry, who served in the Prussian Imperial Navy, spent most of his time focusing on his career while Irene stayed at home to focus on her own main concern – her family. They lived mainly at an estate in Eckernförde named Hemmelmark, which was located in Schleswig-Holstein. The couple purchased this home in 1894 specifically because it was near Henry’s military base in Kiel. The family would also sometimes reside in Potsdam and Berlin when they had to attend to royal matters. During Irene’s life as a married woman, she kept in close contact with her siblings. She and her older sister, Victoria, would often take trips to Russia to see their sisters Elizabeth and Alexandra. They would also go back to their family home of Darmstadt to visit their brother, Ernest, who had succeeded their father as Grand Duke of Hesse upon his death in 1892. The siblings would all come together for the occasional family vacation in Hesse, where they would stay at Schloss Wolfsgarten. Although Irene, who was brought up under her grandmother’s formal and strict code of behavior, was distraught when Elizabeth and Alexandra converted to Russian Orthodoxy after their marriages, she never lost love for them. But Irene continued to worry about her sons’ delicate health as they grew older and sadly, her greatest nightmare became a reality in February of 1904 when her youngest boy, Heinrich, fell from a chair onto the floor headfirst. His hemophilia triggered a brain hemorrhage, which caused him to die a day after his fall at the age of four. Heinrich’s death was eerily similar to little Friedrich’s own demise in almost every aspect, especially since both boys would have most certainly survived their falls had they not been hemophiliacs. Heinrich’s death had a profound effect on his mother, who retreated into herself in her grief.
|Princess Irene and Prince Henry|
Irene’s close communication with her family fell apart when World War I broke out in 1914 since they were on opposing sides. It wasn’t until the conflict’s conclusion that Irene learned that the Bolsheviks had murdered her sisters, Elizabeth and Alexandra, as well as Alexandra’s family. Henry’s brother had to abdicate the throne after Germany’s defeat in the war and the German Empire ceased to exist. Though the Kaiser had to leave the country in exile, Irene and her husband were allowed to remain at their home of Hemmelmark. Irene heard the rumors circulating that one of the Tsar’s daughters, her nieces, had escaped the family’s brutal demise and she hoped that this was indeed was true. In 1920, she met with Anna Anderson, the woman who was claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but Irene was convinced that Anderson was nothing but a fake (DNA evidence in 1991 concluded that Anderson was indeed a pretender. The missing body of the real Anastasia was recovered in 2007). However, the existence of Anderson caused Irene so much stress and anxiety that her husband commanded no one to even say the pretender’s name to Irene. Irene suffered further grief on April 20, 1929 when her husband died at the age of sixty-six from throat cancer, just like his father. By the time of Prince Henry’s death, the couple’s surviving sons, Waldemar and Sigismund, had made lives of their own. In 1919, Waldemar had married Princess Calixta of Lippe-Biesterfeld at the family home of Hemmelmark, a decision which shocked many considering his weak health. His hemophilia did affect his marriage, as the couple had no children and Waldemar spent much of his later life in hospitals. Just a month before Waldemar’s marriage, his younger brother, Sigismund, had married at the family home as well. His wife was Princess Charlotte of Saxe-Altenburg, the eldest child of Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg. Sigismund was the only one of Irene’s children to have issue. He had a daughter and a son and though both married, only Sigismund’s daughter had children.
|The Family of Princess Irene and Prince Henry (left to right):|
Irene, Sigismund, Henry, and Waldemar
When Sigismund left Germany to live in Costa Rica in 1927 to take part in the banana and coffee business, Irene later adopted his daughter and her granddaughter, Barbara, in the 1930’s as her own heir. Barbara provided her widowed grandmother with some much-needed company after the terrible grief Irene had suffered when Prince Henry had died. In 1937, Irene’s brother, Ernest, died and weeks later, a terrible plane crash killed Ernest’s widow, eldest son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons. When World War II broke out in 1939, Irene was separated once again from her only surviving sibling, Victoria. As the Russians and Americans invaded Germany by the end of the war, Waldemar and his wife had to flee their home for Tutzing, Bavaria. Since the American army redirected all medical supplies to the recently discovered victims of the concentration camps, the sick Waldemar was unable to receive a blood transfusion and died on May 2, 1945 at the age of fifty-six. Irene lost her last surviving sibling, Victoria, in 1950, after which she lived out the remainder of her years peacefully with her granddaughter, Barbara, in Hemmelmark. On November 11, 1953, Irene died in her home at the age of eighty-seven with her granddaughter by her side. She was buried with her husband and her youngest son in the chapel located in Hemmelmark. Her last surviving son, Sigismund, lived in Costa Rica until his death on November 14, 1978 at the age of eighty-one.