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The Hesse Sisters: Queen Victoria's favourite granddaughters
Famous for their beauty, the Hesse sisters were known within royal circles as ‘The Four Graces’. Victoria, Ella, Irene and Alix were granddaughters of Queen Victoria and each married into a European dynasty. Their lives, loves and losses fractured, altered and shaped the royal makeup of Europe like never before.
Set against a backdrop of a feuding continent spiralling towards war, the sisters found themselves on opposing sides at the advent of WWI. With their lives encompassing everything from a classic fairytale to a Greek tragedy, the true story of the Hesse sisters is far from dull.
Throughout her life, Victoria was presented with many hard challenges. The first came in 1873 when her younger brother Friedrich fell to his death from a window aged just two years old.
Then, in 1878, her youngest sister Marie passed away from diphtheria before her mother succumbed to the same disease a short while later. Victoria, as the eldest daughter of the family, was thrust into a newfound world of responsibility.
The tragedies moulded Victoria into a courageous and strong woman. So much so that after falling in love with her cousin, German prince Louis of Battenberg, she proceeded to marry him without her father’s blessing.
Rather hypocritically, her father disapproved of the match and decided to marry his mistress on the same day as his daughter's wedding. The move caused quite a stir across the European royal houses with the scandal stealing the spotlight from Victoria.
Victoria’s marriage, however, proved long-lived and happy with the couple having four children together. Her second eldest, Louise, married the Crown Prince of Sweden, eventually becoming the country’s queen in 1950. One of Victoria’s grandchildren was a certain prince called Philip, who'd go on to become the Duke of Edinburgh after marrying Queen Elizabeth II, making Victoria the great-grandmother of King Charles III.
Known for her adventurous spirit, Victoria flew in a Zeppelin airship and a biplane and travelled throughout Europe visiting family. The outbreak of war in 1914 heralded the next set of tragedies for Victoria. Not only did she lose two sisters during the war, Ella and Alix, but she also lost her identity. With her German honours removed by King George V, her name changed from Battenberg to Mountbatten.
Not long after the war ended, Victoria lost her husband of 37 years in 1921. Then, in 1938, she lost her eldest son George to bone cancer. Victoria lived to the age of 87, passing away in 1950 and leaving behind a legacy that continues to underpin royalty to this day.
Born in the German state of Hesse in November 1864, Princess Elisabeth was fondly known as Ella.
After being sent away at the beginning of the diphtheria outbreak, she managed to avoid the disease that would rob her of a mother and a sister. As she grew older, Ella blossomed and was soon considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Her features were so striking they were said to bring ‘tears to your eyes’.
Of course, this meant the suitors came thick and fast. One such hopeful was none other than future German Emperor Wilhelm II, a man who'd go on to play a pivotal role in bringing the world to war. His numerous love poems fell on deaf ears and his proposal was rejected by Ella.
Many more princes, dukes and lords fell by the wayside until Ella’s heart was finally won over by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the seventh child of Emperor Alexander II of Russia.
Although her grandmother, Queen Victoria, disapproved of the match, Ella and Sergei were wed in 1884 at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Ella converted to Russian Orthodoxy and although the pair had no children together, they were living a happily married life.
That all changed in 1905 after Sergei was assassinated by a socialist revolutionary called Ivan Kalyayev. Ella’s life changed after that moment as she sold off many of her luxurious possessions to fund the opening of a convent in Moscow. She then spent her days as a nun tirelessly helping the poor and the orphaned.
Then came the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin took power and he ordered the deaths of the royal family. Ella met a grizzly end. She was beaten and thrown down a mineshaft with other members of her family before grenades were dropped on top of them. A fire was then lit in the entrance to the shaft. In the end, Ella died from injuries sustained in the initial fall and subsequent starvation.
She was later canonised as a martyr by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.
Born in 1866, Irene was known for her quiet, unassuming manner and never shared the same limelight as her sisters when it came to beauty. Nor do the history books remember her story quite so vividly.
However, being overlooked by the annals of history is not something Irene would have been particularly fussed about as she cared little for the spotlight. In 1888, she married her first cousin Prince Henry of Prussia, whose older brother was Wilhelm II. She is famous for being a carrier of the haemophilia gene, inheriting it from Queen Victoria. Irene then transmitted the bleeding disorder to her children.
The youngest of her three children, Heinrich, passed away aged just four after falling and bumping his head. Further tragedy came during the Great War as she lost contact with her sisters, only to find out after the conflict that Ella and Alix had been killed by Russian revolutionaries.
Although Henry’s older brother Wilhelm II was exiled from Germany after the war was over, he and Irene were allowed to stay. She passed away in November 1953.
Perhaps the most famous of the Hesse sisters, Princess Alix was born in 1872 at the New Palace at Darmstadt, in the state of Hesse. The favourite granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Alix was a noted beauty but also a carrier of the haemophilia gene.
At the wedding of her elder sister Ella and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, she met her future husband, Nicholas II. As history tells us, Nicholas would go on to become the last Emperor of Russia, making Alix the country's last Empress.
Although Nicholas’ initial proposal was declined by Alix, as she didn’t want to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, she eventually yielded and the pair were married in 1894. Unlike her sister Ella, Alix was not well received by the Russian people. Shy and introverted, she came across as cold and withdrawn making her extremely unpopular. Her unwillingness to court the public’s affection, belief in the divine right of the emperor and empress, alienated her further.
In the years that followed, she bore four daughters. The inability to produce a male heir compounded her already unfavourable position in the eyes of the Russian people. Eventually, she gave birth to a son, Alexei, in 1940 to much fanfare.
Alexei, however, suffered from haemophilia which Alix attempted to cure with the help of the infamous Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin; a move that caused her reputation further harm.
Alix and her family suffered a horrendous fate during the Russian Revolution of 1917. As the country turned on its monarchy, the Tsar and his entire family were taken into Bolshevik captivity. Early in the morning of 17 July 1918, Nicholas, Alix and their five children were killed by firing squad.
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