Her Imperial Majesty the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia (1847-1928) was born at the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen and was originally titled Princess Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. She was the second daughter of an impoverished branch of the Danish royal family but rose in stature when her father Christian was declared heir presumptive to the Danish throne in 1852. Princess Dagmar’s marriage prospects improved considerably when her eldest sister Alexandra was betrothed to the future King Edward VII in 1861 and her father acceded to the throne as King Christian IX of Denmark in 1863.
Princess Dagmar won an alliance that would eclipse even her sister in 1864 when she was betrothed to the Russian Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. The poor chap died of meningitis a year later and declared on his deathbed that his sincerest wish was for the Princess to marry his younger brother Alexander. This she did 1866 having converted to Russian orthodoxy when she wed the future Tsar Alexander III in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. As Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna she held court in the Anichkov Palace for fifteen years dazzling the Russian people by assiduously learning the language and devoting her time to leading society and patronizing Imperial charities.
The Grand Duchess was careful to exclude herself from politics with one exception. Like her sister Alexandra, Maria Feodorovna was vehemently anti-German following the annexation of Danish territories by Kaiser Wilhelm I. In 1881 tragedy struck Russia when Tsar Alexander II was killed by an anarchist’s bomb. The Grand Duchess wrote in her diaries ‘his legs were crushed terribly and ripped open to the knee; a bleeding mass with half a boot on the right foot, and only the sole of the foot remaining on the left’. The Tsar died hours later and the Grand Duchess became Empress of all the Russias. She was to write ‘our happiest and serenest times are now over. My peace and calm are gone, for now I will only ever be able to worry about Sasha (her husband Tsar Alexander III)’.
The Empress Maria Feodorovna’s reign was blighted by assassination attempts on her husband and the Imperial family. They lived outside St Petersburg in the Gatchina Palace under constant guard. Countless plots to kill the Tsar were thwarted by the secret police including one that led to the hanging of Lenin’s older brother as a co-conspirator. Despite living under the shadow of the assassin’s bomb, knife or bullet, the Empress was a popular consort and a bright, beautiful presence as chatelaine of the Winter Palace, the Kremlin and the Crimean summer palace of Livadia. Tragedy struck again in 1894 when Tsar Alexander III died unexpectedly of nephritis. The throne was left clear for their son Tsar Nicholas II who declared ‘what is going to happen to Russia? I am not prepared’.
Indeed he was not. The new Tsar’s choice of consort was deeply unpopular with his mother. Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt showed signs of melancholy, hysteria and crippling shyness. She had already turned down Britain’s heir apparent Prince Albert Victor and showed a marked reluctance to convert to Russian Orthodoxy as was required of a Russian Grand Duchess. Following the death of Tsar Alexander III, the Dowager Empress relented and allowed her son to marry Princess Alix: the woman the Russian nation would blame for igniting the flame that would explode into the Russian Revolution of 1917. When the First World War was declared in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II opened hostilities with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. His disastrous decision to lead the Russian army left St Petersburg under the regency of Empress Alexandra who was under the influence of ‘mad monk’ Rasputin. The Empress believed Rasputin could preserve the life of her hemophiliac son Alexei and allowed him to appoint ministers and lead the war cabinet in absentia of the Tsar.
The Dowager Empress could do nothing to break the bond between Nicholas and Alexandra and watched from the sidelines as the dynasty crumbled and the Tsar abdicated. She only saw Nicholas once after the abdication before being compelled to flee to her estates in Livadia. Maria Feodorovna refused to leave Russia even when news came telling her that the entire Imperial Family had been shot dead in a basement in Yekaterinburg in 1918. She was only persuaded to flee Russia when King George V sent HMS Marlborough to rescue her and what was left of the Romanovs. The Dowager Empress never returned to Russia. She lived out her exile as a guest of sister the Dowager Queen Alexandra at Marlborough House in London and Sandringham House in Norfolk. The sisters bought a modest house outside Copenhagen called Hvidore where the Dowager Empress died in 1928.
Contrary to popular belief, the Dowager Empress never met pretender Anna Anderson who claimed she was granddaughter Anastasia and had escaped the Bolshevik bullets in Yekaterinburg. According to her daughter the Grand Duchess Olga, the Dowager Empress had reconciled herself to the death of her son and his family. The best of the Dowager Empress’s jewels, smuggled out of the Anitchkov Palace by a British diplomat Bertie Stopford, found their way into the British royal family jewels when Queen Mary acquired them in the late 1920s.