The tragic Saint who left her mark in Sussex

On 21st August 1878 a royal party arrived at Eastbourne from the Isle of Wight.  This group consisted of Louis IV, the Grand Duke of Hesse and his wife Princess Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse. Princess Alice was the second daughter of Queen Victoria and had been visiting her mother at Osborne House. The couple were travelling on the Royal Yacht Alberta with three of their children, the Hereditary Grand Duke and the Princesses Alexandra and Marie of Hesse.

Whilst in Eastbourne the royal party stayed at Compton Place which is now a Language School but was then the home of the Duke of Devonshire. It was a house known to them as they had stayed there a few weeks earlier in July.  On this occasion they stayed in Eastbourne until 4th September but it was to be Princess Alice’s last visit; she died of diphtheria later that year on 14th December 1878.

Eastbourne were proud that the Queen’s daughter chose the resort for holidays and commemorated her death with a Memorial Hospital in Carew Road.  The foundation stone was laid in 1882 by Princess Christian, another of the Queen’s daughters and the hospital was opened the following year by the Prince of Wales who said at a speech in Devonshire Park “The kind way in which you have received the name of my dearly-beloved and ever-to-be-lamented sister is a proof to me that the hospital with which you have associated her name is no mere form, but a sign that , though she has been taken from us, she lives in your memories and hearts.

Princess Alexandra also caught diphtheria but was not only to survive but returned to Eastbourne again when she was also to leave a permanent reminder of her stay.

Princess Alexandra was born on 6th June 1872 and baptised as ‘Her Grand Ducal Highness, Princess Alexandra Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice of Hesse and the Rhine’. She was a bright and active girl and was known by the nickname ‘Sunny’ although she preferred the name Alix.    

Queen Victoria adored her grand-children and mentions Alix in her journals on many occasions but, as she had several other Alexandra’s in her vast family, called her ‘Alicky’.  In 1875 the Queen described her grand-daughter as ‘dear, beautiful and amusing’ and tried to sketch her but the toddler would not keep still.  In 1878, the year she came to Eastbourne, Victoria described Alicky as “a glorious child, handsomer than ever and a great darling with brilliant colouring, splendid eyes and a sweet smile.

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After her mother, Princess Alice, died in 1878, Alix spent many holidays in England.   Her father Louis (who the previous year had become Grand Duke Ludwig IV) died in April 1892.  Alix was distraught and returned to England to stay with the Dukes of Devonshire in Compton Place for the summer, before travelling up to Balmoral where she stayed with her grandmother, the Queen.

How did Alix feel when she was in Eastbourne? She was 20 years old and must have been lonely, sad and bored.  She was under pressure from her Grandmother to get married to her cousin, Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence. He was rather a cad and was later to be a suspect in the notorious Jack the Ripper murders.

Her bedroom in Compton Place was (and still is) sumptuously decorated in pale blue with rococo stucco-work.  Pevsner complained that the State Bedroom was over decorated but did Alix notice the decoration as she looked over the fine gardens towards the sea?   Was she pondering her future?

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In her boredom she scratched her name and date on the window, most probably with her diamond ring.    Alix was in love.  She had fallen in love with a distant relative several years before.  Her beloved was no less than Nicholas, the heir to the Russian throne and they were married in 1894, two years after her last stay in Eastbourne.   Two years after that (with her husband now Tzar Nicholas II) she was crowned and became the Empress of Russia.

Nicholas and Alexandra had five children, their last being Alexei, the heir to the throne.  Alexei was a sickly child and suffered from haemophilia.  When doctors failed to heal the child his mother looked to alternative cures and fell under the spell of the mystic  Grigori Rasputin.

During the Great War the Tzar took personal control of the Russian Military to leave his wife, Alexandra in charge of the Government.  The War with Germany was a disaster for Russia and Alexandra (who after all was German herself) was blamed for the economic decline of a once great power. There were food shortages and millions starved.

The Revolution of 1917 saw Nicholas, Alexandra and their three children deposed.  They begged to be exiled to England but our own George V, worried about their unpopularity declined.  They were placed under house arrest and sent to a palace near St Petersburg.

On 17th July 1918 revolutionary guards burst into their room and summarily executed the family.  Her husband and two servants were killed in front of her and as she made the sign of the cross she was also shot.  The Russian Royal dynasty had ended.

A few years ago, the remains of the family were formally identified. She was the Great Aunt of Prince Phillip and he provided a DNA sample to aid the identification. Alexandra and her family were finally buried at St Petersburg Cathedral.

In 2000 Alexandra was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church and is now known as Saint Alexandra the Passion Bearer.

Do the students who now use the State Bedroom in Compton Place as a classroom realise the room has something precious and unique? “ALIX 1892” is a sad reminder of her stay in Eastbourne. It must be the only place in the world where you can see graffiti scratched by a saint!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Neil Jones says:

    Very interesting. The theory that Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence was a suspect in the Jack of Ripper murders has been discredited. Court circulars show that he could not have been in London on the dates when the murders were committed.


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