On 1 June 1844, Tsar Nicholas I paid a surprise visit to London. Although advanced in her seventh month of pregnancy, Queen Victoria did all she could to welcome the Russian emperor. Nicholas visited Windsor Castle, stayed in Buckingham Palace and accompanied Victoria to Ascot.
Two months later, on 6 August 1844, Queen Victoria gave birth to her fourth child and second son – Alfred Ernest Albert. Prince Alfred grew up as a shy and handsome young man, interested in the navy and everything to do with the sea.
Maria was the first Russian princess to be raised by English nannies and to speak fluent English. She was also the first, and only, member of her family to marry into the British royal family.
Growing up, both children had narrow escapes from death. At the age of five, Alfred suffered concussion after sliding down a banister in Buckingham Palace. Maria almost died from a throat disease at the age of seven. In 1868, Alfred survived an assassination attempt when he was shot by an Irish nationalist in Australia.
In summer 1871, Alexander II and his wife paid a visit to relatives at Jugenheim in Germany. They were accompanied by seventeen-year-old Maria and her two elder brothers. Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, also happened to be there, along with the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Although Alfred and Maria had met before at Jugenheim, something happened that summer and they fell in love. They spent their days walking and talking, and soon found that they had a common love of music. Alfred was an enthusiastic amateur violinist, while Maria played the piano.
Although they confessed their love to one another, no engagement was announced, and the Duke of Edinburgh returned to England. The reason was that both parents were against the match.
Alexander II did not want to lose his daughter, to whom he was deeply attached. The Tsar also objected to a British son-in-law, due to the general anti-English feeling in Russia following the Crimean War. His wife regarded the British customs as peculiar and the English people as cold and unfriendly. She was convinced that her daughter would not be happy there.
Queen Victoria had her own reasons for being against the match. No English prince had ever married a Romanov, and she foresaw problems with the Orthodox religion and the Russian upbringing. The Queen had visions of Orthodox priests running in and out of her son’s home. She thought that the Romanovs were “false, arrogant and half-Oriental,” and that Russia was generally “unfriendly” towards Britain. Victoria was also suspicious about Russian moves in the direction of India.
The Queen was dismayed, therefore, when she heard that official negotiations had begun in January 1873. There were rumours going about St Petersburg that Maria had compromised herself with Prince Golitsyn, if not others, and her family were anxious to see her settled.
The truth was that just as Alexander II had been prepared to fight to marry the person he loved, so was his daughter. Maria declared that she loved Alfred and would not marry anyone else.
Alfred was equally determined to marry Maria. Queen Victoria therefore swallowed her pride and said nothing. Both mothers continued to look for other partners for their children, but Alfred and Maria would not have anyone else.
The British cabinet began to like the idea of a Russian-British marriage. That year, an Anglo-Russian dispute had arisen over the Afghan border. The Queen’s ministers thought that a marriage might help to ease the tension between the two countries, if only by putting the monarchs into closer contact with one another.
In July 1873, Alfred went to Jugenheim to meet the Russian Emperor. He sent a telegram from Germany back to his mother: “Maria and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us.”
The Tsar and his wife also sent a telegram to Victoria: “We implore with you God’s blessing on our dear children and recommend to you our daughter, who kisses your hand.” The Queen sent back her congratulations, but confined her misgivings to her diary on 11 July 1873: “Not knowing Maria, and realising that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts and feelings are rather mixed.” When breaking the news to her eldest daughter, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, she simply said: “The murder is out.”
Alexander gave Maria a bridal present of magnificent jewellery that had once belonged to Catherine the Great. Alfred was made the honorary chief of a Russian guards regiment and even had a Russian battleship named after him – the Herzog Edinburgsky.
A week after the engagement, the proposed Russian-British alliance experienced its first crisis. Queen Victoria asked the Tsar to bring Maria to Scotland, so that she could inspect her future daughter-in-law. Alexander refused and called Victoria a “silly old fool” – forgetting that she was in fact a year younger than him.
Alexander’s wife only made matters worse by suggesting that they all meet in Cologne. The Queen called it “simply impertinent” that “I ... who have been nearly twenty years longer on the throne than the Emperor of Russia ... and who am a Reigning Sovereign ... should be ready to run to the slightest call of the mighty Russians ... like any little Princess.” Victoria also made herself unpopular by refusing the Tsar’s offer to make the Prince of Wales colonel of a Russian regiment and by demanding that an Anglican marriage service be held in St Petersburg alongside the Orthodox ceremony.
The wedding was celebrated in great splendour, even by Russian standards, at the Winter Palace on 23 January 1874. The Duke of Edinburgh arrived in St Petersburg a week before the event, and stayed in the Winter Palace. The other British guests arrived on 18 January. Queen Victoria was represented by Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife Alexandra, sister of Tsarevna Maria Fyodorovna.
The marriage ceremony consisted of two parts. First of all, the Orthodox service was performed by the Metropolitans of St Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev in the Imperial Chapel. The bride and groom then moved into the Blue Drawing Room, where Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, made them man and wife according to the rites of the Anglican Church.
Back in England, The Graphic described the “glittering fairytale wedding” to its readers: “The most picturesque portion of the ceremony was the placing of the two massive golden crowns on the heads of the bride and bridegroom, which were subsequently held above them by the groomsmen, Prince Arthur and the Grand Duke Vladimir. After this they partook of the ‘common cup’, each drinking thrice from a goblet of wine ... the service concluded with an act which renders the marriage indissoluble. Joining hands under the priest’s stole, the bridal pair followed the Archbishop three times round the altar, in commemoration of the Trinity ... The procession then proceeded to the Alexander Hall, for the ceremony according to the Anglican rites.”
The newspaper recorded that Maria wore a glittering coronet and a mantle of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine and a sprig of myrtle, specially sent by Queen Victoria. Alfred wore the uniform of the British Navy. The Tsar looked pale throughout the entire ceremony and said afterwards: “It is for her happiness, but the light of my life has gone out.”
Back in London that night, Queen Victoria wore the Order of St Catherine on her dress and drank a toast to the young couple. Those members of her court who had travelled to St Petersburg were overwhelmed by the scale of the celebrations, receptions and entertainments marking the Anglo-Russian marriage. Major-General Sir Howard Elphinstone noted that in one room supper was served to five hundred people at fifty different tables, with “palms and exotics ... used to so large an extent that it gives the place the appearance of a conservatory ... the heat of the rooms was almost unbearable, and several ladies left the ballroom in a fainting state.” Lady Augusta Stanley summed up the wedding in three words: “What a day.”
Alfred and Maria spent their wedding night at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo. Alexander had ordered a lavish honeymoon suite on the ground floor, hoping that it would persuade the young couple to remain in Russia. After a short honeymoon in Tsarskoe Selo, however, Alfred and Maria left Russia to live in England. Alexander never lost hope that they would return, and the honeymoon suite was kept preserved for the couple for two decades. It later became the bedroom of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife Alexandra, in 1894.
The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh arrived in England on 7 March 1874. The town of Windsor was decorated in their honour, with Union Jacks and Russian flags, and Maria was given a great welcome by the waiting crowds. Queen Victoria met them at the South-Western Station and records their arrival in her journal: “I took dear Maria in my arms and kissed her warmly several times. I was quite nervous and trembling, so long had I been in expectation ... Dear Maria has a very friendly manner, a pleasant face, beautiful skin and fine bright eyes ... She speaks English wonderfully well.”
Alfred and Maria moved into Clarence House in London and spent the first three years of their marriage creating a family. Three children were born in quick succession – first a son, known as young Alfred, in 1874, followed by Maria in 1875 and Victoria Melita in 1876. The Duchess of Edinburgh shocked English society by nursing the children herself.
The seal was put on the royal wedding when the Tsar and his son Alexei paid a family visit to England in May 1874. Alexander had first visited Victoria back in 1839, when she was a twenty-year old queen, and he was a twenty-one year-old prince influenced by Vasily Zhukovsky. Back then, they had confessed their platonic love for one another, and the Queen had afterwards confided to her diary: “I really think I was in love with him.”
Victoria and Alexander now met again, exactly thirty-five years later. The visit got off to a bad start when the Tsar’s yacht ran onto some rocks near Dover, ruining the plans for a welcoming lunch. Alexander only arrived at Windsor by train at half past ten in the evening. Victoria was shocked by the change in the Emperor. She found him “very kind, but ... terribly altered, so thin, and his face looks so old, sad, and careworn.”
Throughout his time in England, the Tsar rode on horseback in Windsor Park, dined with the Prince of Wales, visited the Russian church in Welbeck Street, attended a military review at Aldershot and was guest of honour at a banquet given by the Lord Mayor of London. A state concert was held at the Royal Albert Hall, with a programme containing Russian Orthodox church music.
On the second day of Alexander’s visit, Victoria held a banquet in his honour at St George’s Hall in Buckingham Palace. The Queen and the Tsar talked nostalgically about the past and the happy days they had spent together thirty-five years ago. Alexander thanked Victoria for her kindness to his daughter, and she responded by reaching out and taking his hand. On leaving England, he wrote back to the Queen: “I leave London ... profoundly touched by your so kind reception and persuaded that my beloved daughter will always find a second mother in you.”
Despite their words of affection for one another, however, the following year an international dispute arose that brought the two countries to the point of war and caused irreparable damage to the Edinburghs’ marriage.
In 1875, an anti-Turkish uprising broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, spreading to Bulgaria in 1876. The rebellion was cruelly put down by the Turks, who massacred fifteen thousand people at Philippopolis (now Plovdiv). Although English public opinion was outraged, articles began to appear in the British press about Russian intrigues and provocations.
Alfred attempted to defend his Russian father-in-law and wrote to his mother in July 1876, saying that the Russian Emperor was “deeply hurt at all the unpleasant and untrue things said of him in the English press.” His words had little effect and, when Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877, Victoria sent Alexander a series of aggressive telegrams that almost led to a state of war between the two countries.
Maria was deeply shocked at her mother-in-law’s hostility towards her country and her own father in particular. She decided then that none of her daughters would ever marry an Englishman.
The Balkan crisis was not the only problem affecting the great Anglo-Russian royal marriage. There were also arguments over royal rank. As the Tsar’s only daughter, Maria had precedence over all the Grand Duchesses in Russia. She therefore deeply resented having to give precedence in England to the Princess of Wales and Queen Victoria’s own daughters.
Alexander II wrote to Victoria asking that his daughter be called imperial, not royal, “as in all civilised countries.” Victoria replied that she did not care whether imperial was used or not, as long as royal came first. There was also the added problem that Maria was both Duchess of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess of Russia. Which title should be written first?
Maria was extremely disappointed with Britain. She found the climate detestable, and the food tasteless and badly cooked. She did not like the Royal Albert Hall, describing it as “all ecclesiastical and ... quite boring ... Every concert goes on for several hours.” London was drab and uninteresting after the broad streets, golden domes and magnificent palaces of St Petersburg. Buckingham Palace compared unfavourably to the Winter Palace, and there was no court life in England.
The Russian Grand Duchess also disliked the constant visits to her mother-in-law at Windsor Castle and the Isle of Wight. Worse was to come when she visited Scotland. Maria was frozen in her unheated bedroom in Balmoral Castle and ordered a fire to be lit. When she was out, Queen Victoria entered the room and ordered a maid to throw water on the fire and open all the windows. Maria said that she might as well live on an iceberg as in a British house in winter. She was soon writing letters home to her father describing Queen Victoria as a “silly obstinate old fool.”
Maria, however, was also capable of being obstinate. Although she spoke perfect English, she made herself unpopular by preferring to speak French, the traditional language of the Russian court. British people thought her rough and masculine, with a tendency to be rude to servants. Maria also broke English convention by smoking cigarettes in public.
The Duchess of Edinburgh also took great pleasure in showing off her magnificent jewellery. The English princesses were clearly jealous of her diamonds, and so was Queen Victoria. Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the last British ambassador to Imperial Russia, describes Maria’s first Drawing Room: “The Queen compared the Duchess’s tiara with those of her own daughters, shrugging her shoulders like a bird whose plumage has been ruffled, her mouth drawn down at the corners, in an expression which those who knew her had learned to dread.”
Disenchanted with Britain and life with her difficult mother-in-law, Maria became increasingly homesick for Russia and was happy for any excuse to return there. On one of her visits to her parents, on 17 February 1880, she was almost killed in a bomb attack on the Winter Palace. Maria returned to Russia again in June 1880, to be with her dying mother, and also attended the funeral of her father in St Petersburg in March 1881.
Alfred accompanied Maria to the coronation of her brother, Tsar Alexander III, in Moscow in May 1883. The following year, in July 1884, they travelled to Ilinskoe outside Moscow to visit Maria’s younger brother Sergei, who had married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Ella. The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh also went to Livadia in October 1894 to be with the dying Alexander III.
Maria’s situation slightly improved in August 1893, when Alfred’s uncle, Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, died and Alfred inherited his title. Although Maria was glad of the chance to escape from Queen Victoria and move to Coburg, she was no happier in Germany than she was in Britain.
The love between Alfred and Maria had gone out. They had been living apart since 1889, when the Duke of Edinburgh moved back to England from Malta, where he had commanded the British Mediterranean Fleet. Alfred was now an alcoholic, and arguments over their children added to their marital problems.
The Duke hoped that their eldest daughter, Maria, would marry his nephew George, who later became King George V of England. The Duchess, however, was determined that her daughter should avoid her mistake, and married her instead to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania on 10 January 1893.
After becoming Queen of Romania on 11 October 1914, Maria played an important role in bringing Romania into the First World War on the same side as Britain and Russia. She followed the Romanian armies as a Red Cross nurse, treating sick and wounded soldiers, including victims of cholera and typhus. After the war, she represented Romania at the Versailles Peace Conference, where she managed to double the country’s territory and population. Maria was also a successful writer, publishing many novels in English.
Alfred and Maria’s second daughter, Victoria Melita, was also linked to Russia. She married Ernest of Hesse, brother of the last Russian empress, on 7 April 1894. She divorced him in 1901, and married Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia on 25 September 1905. Victoria converted to Russian Orthodoxy and became known as the Grand Duchess Victoria Fyodorovna. For many years after the revolution, her husband was the pretender to the Russian throne. In the unlikely event of a restoration, Victoria might have become the empress of Russia. She died in Germany in 1936, but was reburied, along with her husband, at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg in 1995.
In February 1899, tragedy hit Alfred and Maria when their only son committed suicide. Young Alfred was a junior officer in Coburg, where his chief hobbies were drinking and womanising. In 1898, he concluded a morganatic marriage with an Irish girl called Mabel Fitzgerald, who was the granddaughter of the 4th Duke of Leinster. When his mother found out, she demanded that the marriage be annulled, even though the girl was already pregnant. Young Alfred shot himself and died a week later at the age of twenty-five.
The Duke of Edinburgh was heartbroken at young Alfred’s death and the news that he himself had cancer of the throat. By May 1900, he was unable to swallow and could only be fed by a tube. On 30 July 1900, he died in his sleep at Schloss Rosenau in Coburg.
After Alfred’s death, Maria moved to a villa in Tegernsee in Bavaria. The First World War and the Russian Revolution, however, meant that she could no longer live in Germany or in Russia.
Unwilling to return to Britain, where she had never been happy, Maria spent her last years in a run-down hotel in Switzerland. Eight days after her sixty-seventh birthday, on 25 October 1920, the only child of Alexander II to survive the revolution died in her sleep of a heart attack.