07 July 2010

The Kiss of Death

From the room next door, 18-year-old Princess Alice could hear her beloved father’s ragged and uneven breathing. She had moved her own bed to this chamber so that she could be by his side in seconds whenever he needed her. For two weeks, Alice had been Prince Albert’s chief care giver; mopping his fevered brow, changing his linens, following after him when he was strong enough to take a few steps. Never hearty, Albert was left with little energy or will to fight off typhoid.

Quietly and tenderly, young Alice saw to his every need and, when she heard the death rattle in his throat, she personally went to bring her mother, Queen Victoria, to say good-bye. On Dec. 14, Prince Albert passed away with the loyal Alice at his side. As Victoria lost herself in the dramatic realization of all she had lost, Alice shifted her care to her mother, nursing her through the early, violent stages of a grief that would ultimately last for almost 40 years. Alice also became Victoria’s unofficial secretary for the next several months—until her own wedding, a marriage pre-approved by her late father, took her to her new home in the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt in Germany.

Alice quickly started her own family; five daughters and two sons arrived at fairly regular intervals. Unlike her mother, Alice was a natural and devoted mom. She even breastfed her children—much to Victoria’s disgust.

But Alice’s loving-kindness extended well beyond her own family. She began visiting the homes of the poor and offering her assistance, sometimes without her benefactors even knowing who she was. “I feel the want of going about and doing the little good that is in my power,” the newlywed princess wrote home.

Alice actively supported and visited hospitals, often caring for the sick and injured herself. When war pushed its way into Hesse-Darmstadt, she spent the last few days of her third pregnancy making bandages for the wounded. A friend of the famous Florence Nightingale, Alice created an institute to train nurses using Nightingale’s modern nursing techniques.

Unafraid to personally nurse soldiers and the most destitute of the poor, Alice naturally waited upon her own children whenever they were ill. When her oldest daughter was stricken with diphtheria, a highly contagious bacterial disease, in early November 1878, Alice automatically looked after her, careful always to avoid personal contact for fear of infection. One by one, each child became ill, except Elizabeth the future martyred saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even her husband contracted the dreadful disease. Alice tirelessly nursed them all and, one by one, they each recovered.

Each except the youngest, four-year-old Mary. The swelling in little Mary’s throat and mouth continued to grow until the tiny princess finally suffocated to death on Nov. 15. Her devastated mother barely allowed herself time to grieve as she continued to fight for the rest of her family’s survival. “The pain is beyond words,” she telegraphed to Queen Victoria.

The tragic news was kept from the other patients for a couple of weeks until 10-year-old Prince Louis, now past the worst danger, asked about his little sister. Alice broke the news to him as gently as she could. When the broken-hearted little boy began to cry, Alice hugged him and kissed him tenderly.

It was her last act of kindness. The disease struck the exhausted princess with virulence. On Dec. 14, exactly 17 years after she heard the death rattle in her father’s throat, Alice drew her final breath.

A mournful Victoria, who had sent her own doctor racing to Alice’s side, wrote “that this…sweet child…should be called back to her father on the very anniversary of his death seems almost incredible and most mysterious.”

Ever mindful of that dreadful anniversary, Alice’s last words were, “Dear Papa.” She was 35.


  1. Lovely post, cos.
    Coincidentally, I just read an article about Victoria and the children that predeceased her today.

    Thank you. And hope that you're doing well!


  2. What a very sad story! It does seem a very striking and mournful coincidence.

    Incidentally, I was wondering if you would be interested in doing a guest post on my blog, Cross of Laeken, on Princess Charlotte of Wales, the first wife of Leopold I?

  3. I would be delighted to write a guest post on Princess Charlotte. She is my favorite princess. In fact, I've already written the first three chapters of a biography on her. I'll get cracking on something. I have a couple projects in front of it, but should be ready in a week or so. Cheers!

  4. I'm looking forward to it! Just let me know when you're ready.