Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine

by Scott Mehl

photo: Wikipedia

Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine

Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine was the fourth child of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine. He was born Ernst Ludwig Karl Albrecht Wilhelm (known as Ernie), on November 25, 1868 in Darmstadt. He had six siblings:

In 1874, his younger brother Frittie died after falling from a window while the two were playing. A hemophiliac, Frittie succumbed to a brain hemorrhage. Ernie was distraught and developed what would become a lifelong fear of death, and particularly of dying alone. This fear would soon be reinforced upon the deaths of his mother and youngest sister. In late 1878, most of the family fell ill with diphtheria. Sadly, Ernie’s youngest sister, Princess May, did not recover and died in November. While consoling Ernie, Alice gave him a hug and kiss, thus exposing herself to the illness. Due to her weakened state, she quickly fell ill herself and died on December 14, 1878.

After Alice’s death, Queen Victoria stepped in as a surrogate mother to the Hessian children, often having them stay with her in her various residences in the United Kingdom. Ernie’s three elder sisters also helped to contribute to his upbringing, and he remained particularly close to both Victoria and Ella.

Ernie was educated privately, and then in 1885 began serving with the First Hessian Infantry Regiment as a sub-lieutenant. He became a first lieutenant in 1889 and then attended the University of Leipzig and the University of Glessen. In 1891, following his father’s example, he was attached to the First Prussian Regiment of Foot Guards at Potsdam. Then, on March 13, 1882, Ernie became the reigning Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine upon his father’s death.


On April 9, 1894 in Coburg, Ernie married his first cousin, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. She was the daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. The wedding was attended by Queen Victoria and many of her extended family. It was at this gathering that Ernie’s younger sister, Alix, became engaged to the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. While that marriage turned out to be a happy one, the same could not be said for Ernie and Victoria Melita. Having been pushed into marriage by Queen Victoria, the couple shared little in common and quickly grew to resent each other. Despite this, they had two children:

  • Elisabeth (1895-1903) – died of typhoid, age 6
  • stillborn son (1900)
Queen Victoria, surrounded by the 'Royal Mob' gathered for Ernie's wedding, 1894.

Queen Victoria, surrounded by the ‘Royal Mob’ gathered for Ernie’s wedding, 1894.

Disenchanted with each other, Ernie and Victoria Melita wished to divorce, but their grandmother would not allow it. However, following Queen Victoria’s death, they quickly separated and were divorced on December 21, 1901. They shared custody of their daughter, to whom Ernie was particularly close. Victoria Melita went on to marry another first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia.

The Hesse siblings, October 1903. L-R: Ernie, Alix (with Nicholas), Irene (with Heinrich), Ella (with Serge), Victoria (with Louis). photo: Wikipedia

Following a large family gathering in Darmstadt in October 1903 for the wedding of his niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, Ernie and his daughter went to visit the Russian Imperial Family at their hunting lodge in Poland. While there, Elisabeth fell ill. At first, it was just believed to be exhaustion from so much playing with her cousins, but her condition quickly worsened. A telegram was sent to her mother, imploring her to come quickly, as it seemed the child would not survive. Unfortunately, the telegram would arrive too late. Princess Elisabeth died on November 16, 1903. Rumors at the time were that she had been poisoned by eating or drinking something which was intended for her uncle, Tsar Nicholas II. However, it was discovered that she had died from typhoid. Ernie, of course, was distraught. His daughter had been, in his own words, “the sunshine of my life.”

On February 2, 1905, Ernie married Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich, in Darmstadt. Eleonore was the daughter of Hermann, The Prince of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich and Countess Agnes of Stolberg-Wernigerode. This marriage, from all accounts, was a very happy one. The couple had two sons:

  • Georg Donatus (1906-1937) – married Princess Cecilie of Greece, had issue
  • Ludwig (1908-1968) – married The Hon. Margaret Geddes, no issue

Eleonore with the couple’s two sons, 1911. photo: Wikipedia

Ernie was well loved in Hesse and involved himself with maintaining and supporting the arts, particularly music. Sadly, the later years of his life were marred by tragedy. World War I brought the murders of two sisters, Alix and Ella, in Russia, as well as the loss of the Grand Ducal throne. With the fall of the German states, Ernie refused to abdicate, but still lost his throne on November 9, 1918. However, unlike many of his counterparts, he was allowed to remain in Hesse, and retained several of the family’s properties, including Schloss Wolfsgarten and the New Palace in Darmstadt.

Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine died at Wolfsgarten on October 9, 1937. Tragically, just weeks later, a plane crash in Belgium took the lives of many of his remaining family – his widow, elder son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons. The plane crash took place on November 16, 1937 – ironically, this was the anniversary of the deaths of both Ernie’s sister May (in 1878) and his daughter Elisabeth (in 1903). Ernie is buried in the Rosenhöhe Park in Darmstadt, alongside his wife and family.

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