Elisabeth was related to the Romanovs through her father, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse. He was the only surviving brother of Alexandra. Ernst's marriage to his cousin Victoria Melita was an abject failure - but it did produce a child Ernst called 30 years later "the sunshine" of his life, Elisabeth Marie Alice Viktoria.
Princess Elisabeth, or Ella as she was known, was very sensitive to the problems between her parents. She was also a favorite of her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The queen forbid her grandchildren to divorce for Ella's sake (yes - this was the pull that the queen had, even over grandchildren in a different country!). When Victoria died in 1901, Ernst and Victoria Melita finally divorced. Victoria Melita was already having an affair with her cousin, Grand Duke Cyril Vladmirovich. Cyril was a grandson of Tsar Alexander II, and he and Victoria Melita would eventually marry.
The divorce had a profound effect on Ella. Margaret Eagar was with the Romanovs when they visited Hesse in 1903. "Looking at her I used to wonder what those wide grey-blue eyes saw, to bring such a look of sadness to the childish face," she wrote. Ella had to be coaxed to visit Victoria Melita, preferring to stay with her father.
Olga, Ella and Tatiana
It was during that same visit in 1903 in Poland that Ella became ill. A sore throat turned into a 104-degree fever that worsened as the day went on. By nightfall, Ella was clearly dying. "The child turned to me, and said anxiously, 'Send a telegram to mama,'" Eager wrote. "She added, 'immediately.' ... We continued to fan the feeble spark of life, but moment by moment it declined. She began to talk to her cousins, and seemed to imagine she was playing with them. She asked for little [Anastasia] and I brought the wee thing into the room. The dying eyes rested on her for a moment, and [Anastasia] said, 'Poor cousin Ella! Poor Princess Elizabeth!'"
Ella was only eight at the time of her death.
An autopsy concluded she had died of typhoid. Nicholas donated a silver casket for his niece, while Ernst commissioned a white funeral instead of the customary black. Thirty years later, Ernst still wrote of his daughter with grief: "My little Elisabeth was the sunshine of my life." She would be his only child.