HIH Grand Duchess Marie of Russia
- March 17, 2017
HIH Grand Duchess Marie of Russia (1853-1920) was the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II and the only member of the Romanov dynasty to marry into the British royal family. Despite opposition from both sides, the Grand Duchess married Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1874 and developed a loathing for her adopted country. The Duchess of Edinburgh is remembered in history as arrogant, brusque and dismissive of her British royal in-laws but her upbringing and unhappy marriage offer mitigating factors for this unhappy woman.
As the only daughter of the Emperor Alexander II, Marie was doted on by her father and older brothers. Her principal residence was the 1600-room Winter Palace in St Petersburg and her idyllic childhood was a round of summers in the Finnish Peterhof palace, the Crimean Livadia estate and the Alexander Palace in Tsarsko Selo where her father built her a house and farm on an island in the pond of the estate’s parklands.
The Grand Duchess was a tomboy and a precocious student under the tutelage of governess Countess Alexandrine Tolstoy. When the author Mark Twain met the little Grand Duchess at Livadia he reported ‘she is absolutely genuine and never changes in front of strangers’. Her governess said of her, ‘she is accustomed to being the centre of the world and that everyone yields to her’ adding ‘one cannot treat her roughly or reason with her a lot’. The splendour of the Romanov court was unsurpassed in Europe but the Grand Duchess Marie knew no other life.
Prince Alfred (‘Affie’) was by all accounts a shy, handsome naval officer when he first encountered the fifteen-year old Russian Grand Duchess. They fell in love over a mutual passion for music but neither Queen Victoria nor Emperor Alexander promoted the match: the former having an inherent dislike for Russia and the latter being reluctant to let his beloved daughter marry overseas. But in 1873 Prince Alfred asked the Tsar for Marie’s hand and was accepted. In Queen Victoria’s words to her daughter Crown Princess Frederick of Prussia, ‘the murder is out’.
The wedding was held in the Winter Palace not, as Queen Victoria demanded, in England. Prince Alfred’s elder brother the Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Alexandra were in attendance establishing a tension between the future sisters-in-law. Alexandra was from relatively humble Danish stock whereas Grand Duchess Marie was an Imperial Highness who had been lavished with jewels for her wedding – a parure of diamonds and Burmese rubies, a parure belonging to Catherine the Great and her grandmother’s sapphires – and gifted at £100,000 dowry from the Tsar plus a £32,000 annual income. The Grand Duchess said of her husband ‘I have a feeling of peace and inexpressible happiness and a boundless impatience to be altogether his own’. The Tsar, however, said ‘the light of my life has gone out’.
Installed in Clarence House, an annex to St James’s Palace, the Grand Duchess professed herself claustrophobic after the freedom of the Winter Palace. She found the climate in London depressing and was even more miserable when commanded to visit Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight or Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Matters cane to a head with the mother-in-law she considered ‘a silly obstinate old fool’ when Queen Victoria commanded that a pail of water be thrown over the fire in the Duchess of Edinburgh’s bedroom in Balmoral. With typical pot-calling-kettle-black bluntness, Queen Victoria declared her daughter-in-law ‘not pretty or graceful’ complaining that she ‘held herself badly’.
In retaliation, the Duchess of Edinburgh made no attempt to hide her disdain for what she considered a provincial royal family. Her insistence on taking precedence over the Princess of Wales caused bad blood. The request was denied and the Duchess took great delight in displaying her Romanov jewels at Court Drawing Rooms that made the Princess of Wales appear poor by comparison. The Duchess smoked in public, never missed an opportunity to denigrate England and was finding Prince Alfred, who by the 1880s had become alcoholic, increasingly tiresome. The Duchess found some solace in the birth of her son ‘Young Affie’ and daughters Marie, Victoria Melita, Alexandra and Beatrice.
Tragedy struck in 1881 when anarchists threw a bomb at Tsar Alexander II that shattered his body and ultimately killed him. The Duchess remained in St Petersburg to witness her brother Tsar Alexander III’s coronation. In the late 1880s the Duke of Edinburgh was posted to Malta as Admiral of the Fleet where his Duchess held court away from her royal in-laws who were probably as relieved as she that the Edinburghs were oceans away. The Duchess got her own back on Queen Victoria for opposing her marriage when an attachment was formed between the Duke of York (the future King George V) and her daughter Princess Marie. The Duchess of Edinburgh pushed for an alliance with Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania who Marie married in 1892.
In 1893 the Duke of Edinburgh succeeded to the ruling duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha after the death of childless Duke Ernest II. The Duchess of Edinburgh entered one of the happiest periods of her life decorating the custom-built Edinburgh Palace and the various hunting lodges and schlosses in the hereditary possession of the dukes. The Duchess of Saxe-Coburg Gotha returned to St Petersburg again in 1894 when her brother died and her nephew Nicholas II became Russia’s last emperor. By now the Duchess and her husband were estranged with Marie writing to her daughter Queen Marie of Romania ‘if only you knew how easy and comfortable life is without him’.
The ageing Duke was described as ‘alcoholic, rude, touchy, wilful, unscrupulous, improvident and unfaithful’. Equally concerning was the behaviour of Young Affie who had inherited his father’s appetite for wine, women and gambling. He had also contracted syphilis. In 1899 the poor boy shot himself during the celebration of his parents’ wedding anniversary and later died. A year later the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha followed his son leaving the Duchess a widow at only forty-six. Fortuitously, the Dowager Duchess did not return to Russia and chose instead to remain in Coburg spending her winters at the Chateau de Fabron in Nice.
The Gods did not smile on the Dowager Duchess in the latter years of her life. Her daughter Victoria Melita divorced in 1901 only to marry her Russian maternal first cousin for which she was ostracised by the Court of Nicholas II. When war was declared in 1914, Russophobia was rife in the German ducal states and the Dowager Duchess chose to flee Coburg first for Bavaria then Switzerland where she first heard reports of the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks murdered her last surviving brother the Grand Duke Paul, her nephew the Tsar’s entire family and cut-off her income that had lain in Russian bonds that were now worthless.
The Dowager Duchess sold-off her fabled Romanov jewellery collection to support much reduced circumstances in Switzerland. The woman who was a Russian Grand Duchess, a British Princess, a Royal Duchess by marriage and consort of a German sovereign Duke died of a heart attack in 1920. Saxe-Coburg Gotha had been annexed in 1918 after the war but the Dowager Duchess’s body was returned there to rest with the Duke’s in the Ducal mausoleum in Coburg. Queen Marie of Romania said rather poignantly of her mother, ‘I hope God will not disappoint her as most things and beings did in her life’.
(c) James Sherwood
Photo © (c) Wiki Commons