Russia History Romanov Nicholas and Alexandra Queen Alexandra in Russia

Queen Alexandra in Russia

Princess Alexandra of Denmark was born on 1 December 1844. Her younger sister, Dagmar, was born three years later, on 26 November 1847. Throughout their lives, much of what they did followed a pattern. They were born within three years of one another, married within three years of one another, and died within three years of one another.

Something else that the two Danish princesses had in common was their great beauty, which soon had the royal families of Europe competing for their hands in marriage. Both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II hoped to marry Alexandra to their eldest sons. The British side was victorious and, in 1862, Alexandra became engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales. They were married at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on 10 March 1863.

The following year, Alexander II’s eldest son and heir, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, proposed to Dagmar. The first to whom Dagmar broke the news was the Prince and Princess of Wales. Edward said: “The wedding will, of course, be in St Petersburg, and I shall certainly come to it.” Up until then, no member of the British royal family had ever visited Russia.

But tragedy struck in April 1865, when the Tsarevich died in the south of France, in the company of Dagmar and his brother Alexander. Unknown to Dagmar, Alexander was secretly in love with her and, the following summer, he proposed to the Danish princess. Dagmar converted to Russian Orthodoxy, taking the name of Maria Fyodorovna, and married Alexander in St Petersburg on 9 November 1866.

The Princess of Wales was unable to travel to Russia for the wedding, owing to her third pregnancy. Queen Victoria believed that “a visit to St Petersburg by one of the Prince of Wales’s gentlemen would be quite sufficient,” but Edward was determined and went alone to the Russian capital. Disturbing stories were soon filtering back to Britain about the playboy prince’s behaviour in St Petersburg, Moscow and at stops en route.

Arriving in St Petersburg three days before the wedding, Edward was greeted by Alexander and his brothers and immediately taken on a tour of St Petersburg’s bars and night clubs. Himself a connoisseur of London night life, the Prince of Wales particularly liked Novaya Derevnya in the notorious “Islands” region of the city. Nothing pleased the Russian hosts more than Edward’s confession that, in terms of vice and depravity, London could not compete with St Petersburg.

Everything Edward did in Russia was applauded. He appeared in Scottish Highland uniform at a ball given by the British Ambassador, taking the floor with Dagmar. Writing home to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales said that “every moujik in the streets seems anxious to show me some signs of goodwill.” On his return to England, the Prince of Wales painted his wife a glowing picture of life in St Petersburg.

The next time the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Russia was in 1869, when they called in at the Crimea on their way back from a tour of the Middle East. Alexandra visited the Crimean battlefields of Sebastopole, Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, while Edward rode on horseback through the Valley of Death, scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.

The two families continued to meet regularly in Denmark. In summer 1873, the Prince and Princess of Wales decided to invite the Tsarevich and Tsarevna on an official visit to London. It was even agreed that Alexandra and Dagmar would dress alike throughout the entire visit, which was to last a month.

The Tsarevich and Tsarevna arrived in London in June 1873, bringing their two sons, Nicholas and Georgy. This was the only time that the future Alexander III visited Britain. The Prince and Princess of Wales entertained Alexander and Dagmar at their London home, Marlborough House. Queen Victoria met them briefly at Windsor and wrote in her journal on 21 June: “Bertie and Alix arrived with the Cesarevich and [Dagmar] ... He is very tall and big, good natured and unaffected.”

In London, the guests visited art galleries, hospitals, racecourses and the Tower. The Tsarevich was honoured with a naval review at Spithead and military parades at Windsor, Woolwich and Aldershot. He even visited a debate in the House of Commons, later claiming that he was impressed with the British parliamentary system. Alexander also spent an afternoon in the Court of the Lord Chief Justice, listening to the trial of the Tichborne case. Dining with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Elder Brethern of Trinity House, he delivered a graceful speech of thanks for his reception, expressing the hope “that our cordial and affectionate relationship may continue to the end of our lives.”

While Edward and Alexander attended official functions and openings, their wives went off on a tour of the East End slums, where they visited the various Houses of Refuge supported by the Princess of Wales.

Alexandra’s concern for the sick and unfortunate was legendary. She took a special interest in the case of Joseph Merrick, a man disfigured by a disease called elephantiasis, who was known as the “Elephant Man.” The Princess of Wales visited him at London Hospital throughout the 1880s. Her kindness helped him to regain his self-confidence and every year, until he died in 1890, she sent him a Christmas present with a personal message. As a direct result of what she saw in London, Dagmar was inspired to create similar charitable institutions in Russia.

Six months later, Edward’s younger brother Alfred married Alexander’s sister, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. The Prince and Princess of Wales arrived in St Petersburg for the wedding on 18 January 1874 and stayed at the Anichkov Palace as the guests of the Tsarevich and Tsarevna. Lord Augustus Loftus, the British ambassador to St Petersburg, noted that the stars of the ceremony were the two sisters, “beaming with beauty and delight at being together.”

Seven years later, Alexander and Dagmar became emperor and empress of Russia, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881. Fearing that they too might be killed, Queen Victoria refused to let the Prince and Princess of Wales travel to Russia, but they insisted and she was forced to give her consent. They were met at the Russian border by the imperial train, reaching St Petersburg on 25 March.

Edward and Alexandra lived with the new emperor and empress as virtual prisoners inside the Anichkov Palace. From the windows, they watched trenches being dug around the building as a defence against bombs. The only exercise they could take was in a small, snow-covered backyard which Edward said was “unworthy of a London slum.” The only excursions were the daily visits, under strong guard, to the Peter and Paul Fortress, to kiss the rapidly decomposing face of Alexander II. The Princess of Wales asked the Russian minister of the interior, Count Loris Melikov, if they really were in danger. The count informed her that she and the prince were perfectly safe, but advised her not to stand too close to the emperor and empress in public.

While living at the Winter Palace, Alexander and Dagmar received a death threat, forcing them to return to the Anichkov Palace. Edward and Alexandra did all they could to take their minds off their problems. Alexander III was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, thanking her for allowing the Prince and Princess of Wales to come and assuring her that their “presence has been a great consolation for me and the Empress.” The Tsar also thanked the Queen for the Order of the Garter, awarded by the Prince of Wales in the throne room of the Anichkov Palace during the visit.

After the funeral, the Prince of Wales began preparing for the long journey back to London. Alexandra, however, announced that she was staying on in Russia, to be with her sister. Queen Victoria sent a message of protest, but Alexandra was adamant.

There was perhaps another reason for the Princess of Wales’s desire to stay in Russia. Her husband had publicly humiliated her with his long line of mistresses, such as Lillie Langtry, Daisy Warwick and Alice Keppel, and his involvement in numerous public scandals. He had been involved in a card-cheating scandal in an underground gamblers’ den and was accused in court of having an affair with a married woman. As Alexander III wrote to Dagmar in 1891: “Poor Alix, what she has to go through with that brainess and depraved husband of hers!”

On her trips to Russia, Alexandra stayed not only with Dagmar at the Anichkov Palace and in Gatchina. She also visited the Konstantin Palace in Strelna, where another relative lived. This was her sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Olga Konstantinovna, who had married Alexandra’s brother, King George of Greece.

On 9 November 1891, Alexander III decided to mark his silver wedding anniversary at Livadia in the Crimea. Although 9 November was also the fiftieth birthday of the Prince of Wales, Alexandra decided that she would rather be with her sister in Russia. She met the Russian emperor and empress in Denmark and sailed with them on the imperial Russian yacht, the Polar Star, to the port of Danzig, where they boarded a special train to the Crimea.

Alexandra was back in Russia three years later, for the wedding of Dagmar’s eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, to Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich at Peterhof on 6 August 1894. The Princess of Wales arrived in Russia in July with her daughters Victoria and Maud and stayed with the emperor and empress at Gatchina. Describing the wedding in his diary, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich wrote: “I could not help but admire the Princess of Wales. She is forty-nine years old but looks thirty. She is marvellously slim and her bright kind smile creates an enchanting impression.”

During her stay in Russia, the Princess of Wales was shocked by the change in Alexander III, who was suffering from kidney disease. That autumn, he was ordered by his doctors to move to the Crimea for a rest. Barely had the Princess of Wales returned to Britain when she received a telegram from Dagmar, saying that her husband was dying and begging her to come to Livadia. The next day, the Prince and Princess of Wales telegraphed that they were on their way.

The following day, Alexander III wrote a last message and asked that it be given to the Princess of Wales if he should die. On 1 November, Edward and Alexandra reached Vienna, where they received the news that the Emperor had died. Three days later, they reached Sebastopole, where they were met by Grand Duke Alexis.

Throughout the long funeral services, Alexandra supported Dagmar, both psychologically and physically. The Princess of Wales sat beside her, prayed beside her, and even slept alongside her at night. Edward and Alexandra accompanied the funeral train on its thousand-mile journey from the Crimea to St Petersburg. After two days in Moscow, the final service was held at the Peter and Paul Fortress on 19 November 1894. A week later, the Prince and Princess of Wales attended the wedding of their nephew, Nicholas II, to Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt.

It was during this difficult time that Princess Alexandra marked her fiftieth birthday. She had celebrated her husband’s fiftieth birthday in Russia and now she celebrated her own in St Petersburg on 1 December 1894. Although the Prince of Wales left the country the following day, Alexandra decided to stay on in Russia until the end of the year. She lived with Dagmar at the Anichkov Palace and only left Russia on 16 January 1895.

On 22 January 1901, the news reached Russia that Queen Victoria had died and that Edward and Alexandra were the new King and Queen of England. Nicholas II wrote to King Edward from the Winter Palace in St Petersburg: “Dearest Uncle Bertie ... we all feel with you the terrible loss you have sustained. My thoughts are much with you and dear Aunt Alix ... I shall never forget your kindness and the tender compassion you showed Mama and me when we underwent the same six years ago ... I am quite sure that with your help, dear Bertie, the friendly relations between our two countries shall become still closer than in the past. May the new century bring England and Russia together for their mutual interests and for the general peace of the world. Please give my tender love to dear Aunt Alix.”

Although King Edward VII only reigned for nine years, Britain and Russia probably grew closer in this period than at any time in their history. The culmination was the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, the same year that Dagmar paid her first visit to London for thirty-four years.

The Anglo-Russian Entente was celebrated the following year, when King Edward and Queen Alexandra made a state visit to Russia. They sailed from London on the royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, on 5 June 1908, travelling through the Kiel Canal. All the time they were in German waters, Alexandra kept the blinds of her cabin pulled firmly down, until they were in the Baltic Sea.

The Victoria and Albert was met by the two imperial Russian yachts off the town of Reval in Estonia. The Standart brought Nicholas II and his wife, while Dagmar and Queen Olga of Greece arrived on the Polar Star. The first night a dinner was given on the Standart, followed by a dinner party on the Victoria and Albert the next night. During the visit, King Edward made Nicholas II an admiral of the British Navy.

The following year, in 1909, Alexandra, Edward and Dagmar met in the south of France. They sailed together on board the Victoria and Albert to Naples, where they decided to go on a donkey ride up the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The Russian empress shot off ahead, followed by Queen Alexandra in hot pursuit, leaving the sixteen-stone King Edward far behind. The King blew furiously on his whistle for them to stop, but his wife was too deaf and Dagmar was too far ahead to hear. Edward returned to England, while Alexandra and Dagmar travelled on to Greece. That same summer, Edward and Alexandra entertained Nicholas II and his family at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

The following spring, Alexandra and Dagmar were staying with Queen Olga of Greece when it was announced that King Edward was seriously ill. Alexandra immediately returned to London, where the King died on 6 May 1910. Dagmar then hurried to England herself to be with her sister at this difficult time. She lived with Alexandra at Buckingham Palace throughout the funeral and returned for the coronation of the new king, George V, on 22 June 1911.

In the following years, Dagmar often stayed with Alexandra in London. In 1914, she accompanied her sister to Ascot for the Queen’s first appearance there since the death of King Edward VII. When the First World War broke out a month later, Dagmar was trapped in London. She made a hazardous return to Russia through Germany and Scandinavia, only reaching Petrograd a week later.

Throughout the war years, the two sisters wrote to each other every day, sharing both family news and intelligence reports. In February 1915, Dagmar wrote to her son, Nicholas II: “Aunt Alix wires to say they know for certain that the Germans intend to attack Warsaw this week and she hopes we are aware of this... Her information has usually been correct.”

Of all the members of the British royal family, Alexandra was the most upset at the news of the Russian revolution. Her son, King George V, wrote in his diary on 16 March 1917: “Motherdear is much distressed at the news from Russia.”

When she heard of the murder of her nephew, Nicholas II, and his family at Ekaterinburg in 1918, Alexandra decided that Dagmar should escape a similar fate and sent a British warship, HMS Marlborough, to the Crimea to collect her. The seventy-two year-old empress refused to leave Russia until all other refugees were taken on board. After three days of dangerous delay, as the Red Army approached, the ship finally set sail for England in April 1919.

Alexandra went to Portsmouth to meet Dagmar, whom she had not seen for nearly five years. The two sisters lived together at Sandringham and Marlborough House, before Dagmar moved on to Denmark. For the rest of her life, she was given an annual pension of £10,000 from the private resources of the British royal family. Dagmar continued to visit England and accompanied Alexandra to the wedding of her grandson, later King George VI, to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in April 1923.

Two years later, Queen Alexandra died at Sandringham on 20 November 1925. The cold weather meant that her sister was unable to attend the funeral. Dagmar lived for another three years and died in Denmark on 13 October 1928.

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