Empress Maria Alexandrovna

Empress Maria Alexandrovna, Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse, first wife of Tsar Alexander I, mother of Alexander III
Born: 1824, Darmstadt
Died: 1880, St Petersburg

Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse was born in Darmstadt on 8 August 1824. It was widely rumoured that the girl was not really the daughter of Grand Duke Louis II, but the child of his wife’s lover, Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy. Her mother was Princess Wilhelmine of Baden, the youngest sister of Empress Elizabeth Alexeyevna.

In 1838, when the future Tsar Alexander II was touring Europe, he visited Darmstadt and unexpectedly fell in love with the fourteen-year-old princess. Knowing of the irregularity of her birth, his parents initially had misgivings when they received a letter from their son, asking for their permission to propose to Marie.

Nicholas I and his wife eventually agreed after Alexander insisted that he was were very much in love with Marie. She converted to Orthodoxy as Maria Alexandrovna on 5 December 1840 and married the tsarevich in St Petersburg on 16 April 1841.

Over the next twenty years, Maria gave birth to eight children. The first was a girl, Alexandra, who died in 1849 at the age of seven. She was followed by four boys – Nicholas, Alexander, Vladimir and Alexei. In 1853, another daughter was born and called Maria. After the accession of Alexander II, two more sons were born – Sergei and Pavel.

Cracks began to appear in the marriage immediately after Alexander’s succession in 1855. As empress, Maria found herself a prisoner of the rigid protocol of the Russian court. In 1865, when their eldest son Nicholas was dying in Nice, she was not allowed to visit him for an entire week, because his afternoon nap coincided with the time set aside for her daily stroll. Try as she might, the tsar’s wife was unable to take her walk at another hour.

Maria Alexandrovna had a delicate chest and disliked the damp climate in St Petersburg. She constantly suffered from bronchitis, which eventually developed into consumption. The last years of her life were particularly unhappy. Not only was she often ill, but her husband spent more and more time with his second family – the three children from his love affair with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya.

Not long before she died, Maria Alexandrovna said: “I forgive the insults dealt to me as empress. But I am unable to forgive the torments inflicted on me as a wife.” Yet she never reproached her husband, not even towards the end, when he left her every evening to spend the night with his mistress.

No one knows the exact reason for the collapse of Alexander and Maria’s once happy union. Whatever the case, their marriage had already failed by the time the tsar met Dolgorukaya. The empress possibly no longer interested him as a woman (Alexander is known to have made erotic drawings of the young Ekaterina).

The whole family worried terribly about their mother, especially the new tsarevich, Alexander, who blamed Dolgorukaya for all the family’s problems. To add insult to injury, Ekaterina was appointed a lady-in-waiting to the empress. Alexander was outraged and took no pains to conceal his attitude towards her presence at the Russian court.

Maria Alexandrovna died alone in her bedroom on the night of 8 June 1880. Countess Alexandra Tolstaya, her lady-in-waiting, wrote: “The angel of death came for her quite quietly, while the whole house slept. No one, not even the surrounding nurses, could state the exact moment when her dear soul departed the earth.”

The empress had once confided that she wanted to die alone, without any emotional farewell scenes. Several years later, when Alexander III was discussing proposed canonisations with church officials, he suddenly declared: “If we were talking about my mother, I would be only too happy, because I know that she was a saint!”

Random articles