Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna was the sixth child and only surviving daughter of the eight children of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and his first wife, Maria Alexandrovna, who was born Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine. Maria Alexandrovna was born on October 17, 1853 in the Alexander Palace, located in Tsarskoye Selo when her grandfather, Emperor Nicholas I, was still on the throne and her father was Tsarevich. Maria Alexandrovna had four older brothers and two younger brothers. One of her older siblings was the future Emperor Alexander III of Russia (who married Princess Dagmar of Denmark and became the father of Emperor Nicholas II) and one of her younger brothers was Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, who married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, a daughter of Princess Alice of the U.K.
|The Family of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Empress Maria Alexandrovna|
In 1855, Maria’s grandfather died and her father became the new Emperor of Russia when Maria was not yet two years old. As the daughter of the sovereign of the Empire, Maria had a privileged and lavish upbringing. Though her family had various residences throughout the kingdom, their principal home was the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Both the Emperor and his wife adored Maria, as she was their only daughter, but she had a special relationship with her father. Emperor Alexander II clearly favored Maria over all his other children and he spent most of his free time with her. Her mother, on the other hand, was a physically unemotional woman and did not often openly show her affection for her children. Since the Empress had weak lungs that were negatively affected by the cold Russian winters, she would often travel to Germany and southern Europe during that time of the year with her three youngest children. As a result of these annual trips, Maria grew quite close to her younger brothers – Grand Duke Sergei and Grand Duke Paul. With no sisters and a distant mother, Maria developed into an independent, determined, and stubborn tomboy.
|Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna|
While she wasn’t astonishingly beautiful, she wasn’t completely unattractive either. The Grand Duchess had a wide, round face and a sturdy, solid frame as well as dark hair and blue eyes. As for her education, Maria was the first grand duchess to be cared for by English nannies and to learn the English language, which would serve her well in her adult years. Other than English and her native Russian, Maria was also fluent in German and French. She was an honest and down-to-earth girl who did not change for anyone. She was also known for her “stubborn and uncompromising” personality, as well as her tendency to always get what she wanted (a result of her royal status and upbringing). Emperor Alexander did have a successful marriage with his wife in terms of producing children but the same could not be said for the romantic side of their union. Empress Maria was a very shy woman who struggled to adjust to the Russian court and because of her many pregnancies and her poor health; she was often away from her husband. Alexander was not a man to stay faithful to an absent wife so he took many mistresses during his marriage, which the Empress was quite aware of. His principal lover was a Russian noblewoman named Catherine Dolgorukov, who Alexander became romantically involved with in 1866, despite their almost thirty year age gap. The couple had four illegitimate children together. One month after Empress Maria died in 1880, Alexander morganatically married Catherine, much to the displeasure of the aristocracy and his own family.
|Grand Duchess Maria and her fiancée,|
Much was expected for Maria Alexandrovna in terms of marriage since not only was she the daughter of the Emperor of Russia, she was his only daughter. In the summer of 1868, Maria went with her family to visit her mother’s relatives in Jugenheim. Here, the fifteen year-old Maria met Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria of the U.K, as he was also in Jugenheim visiting his sister, Princess Alice, who was married to Maria’s first cousin. Alfred, who was nine years Maria’s senior, was a handsome yet introverted prince serving as a commander in the Royal Navy at the time. It was because of Alfred’s career in the Navy that he did not see Maria again until the summer of 1871 when Maria’s family went to Germany to visit the Empress’s family once more, this time at Schloss Heiligenberg. It was during this second meeting that the British prince and the Russian grand duchess took an interest in each other. They often spent their time walking together and talking about their shared love of music. The love-struck couple soon announced their desire to marry but nothing came of this revelation and Alfred went back to England. Maria’s parents were firmly against the marriage since the Emperor was fearful of parting from his beloved daughter and the Empress was sure Maria would not be happy in England due to the kingdom’s odd customs and the impersonal and rigid natures of the British people. The marriage wouldn’t be totally accepted by the people of Russia either due to anti-English sentiment after the Crimean War. Even Prince Alfred’s mother, Queen Victoria, did not want her son to marry Maria. A marriage to a Russian Grand Duchess simply went against tradition, for no British prince had ever done such a thing, and Maria’s Orthodox religion and her foreign customs only complicated the matter. The Queen was also wary of Russia’s intentions regarding India and she viewed the Empire as a whole with hostility and distrust. But even after both Maria and Alfred’s parents tried to dissuade them from the match, they remained firm in their desire to wed one another. The Queen and her Russian counterparts finally gave in during the summer of 1873 when it was suggested that a British-Russian marriage could solve an Anglo-Russian dispute over the Afghan border as well as bring the two kingdoms closer together. Even after Alfred proposed to Maria in Jugenheim on July 11, 1873, Queen Victoria had a feeling that the couple’s happiness would not last for long. She wrote in her diary after hearing of the engagement: “Not knowing Marie, and realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts and feelings are rather mixed.”
|Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna and her husband, |
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh
Although tensions were high between the Queen and the Emperor while the wedding preparations began, Maria could not wait to marry Prince Alfred. She wrote of her glee: "How happy I am to belong to him. I feel that my love for him is growing daily. I have a feeling of peace and inexpressible happiness and a boundless impatience to be altogether his own." On January 23, 1874 at the Winter Palace, the twenty-one year old Maria Alexandrovna married the thirty year-old Prince Alfred in a two-part ceremony, which consisted of an Orthodox and an Anglican service. While Alfred wore the uniform of the Royal Navy, Maria was adorned more lavishly in a mantle of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine and a sprig of myrtle as well as a bejeweled coronet, courtesy of her new mother-in-law. The newlyweds spent their wedding night and their honeymoon at the Alexander Palace by the Emperor’s request, as he hoped that this would convince Maria and her husband to stay in Russia. But after the couple left for England once their brief honeymoon had concluded, poor Emperor Alexander II never gave up hope that his daughter would return to him so, he upheld the honeymoon suite in the palace for Maria and Alfred for twenty years after their departure. When Alfred and his bride, now the Duchess of Edinburgh, arrived in Windsor on March 7, 1874, they were greeted by Queen Victoria, who was pleased with Maria Alexandrovna’s appearance and character. She wrote of her: “I have formed a high opinion of her," Queen Victoria reported, impressed with "her wonderfully even, cheerful, satisfied temper - her kind and indulgent disposition, free from bigotry and intolerance, and her serious, intelligent mind - so entirely free from everything fast - and so full of occupation and interest in everything, makes her a most agreeable companion. Everyone must like her.”
|Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna|
The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh set up Clarence House in London as their main residence with Eastwell Park in Ashford, Kent as their country retreat. Unfortunately, although Maria had come to England with an open mind and heart, she grew to hate her husband’s home. She detested the kingdom’s dreary climate and food and looked down upon London when compared to the extravagant St. Petersburg. Though Queen Victoria wrote fondly of Maria upon their first meeting, Maria grew to dislike her domineering mother-in-law. She even struggled to get along with Alfred’s siblings and only liked his youngest brother and sister: Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice. She became homesick quite quickly and took any chance she could get to escape her gloomy new home to visit her family. Her obvious distaste for Britain made her unpopular with the people, who disliked her harsh treatment of her servants and her insubordination of English customs, such as when she smoked in public. Maria didn’t care what the Brits thought of her, even when they openly criticized her manners because they found her too coarse and virile. She failed to make any successful relationships with the British royal family, including with her husband. Their marriage crumbled almost from the start once Maria realized that Alfred, like her father, would never be a faithful spouse. Maria also exasperated the British court with her constant wrangling with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, Alexandra, Princess of Wales, when it came to titles and superiority. Maria simply could not accept that she had to give precedence to Alexandra since status worked differently in Britain than it did in Russia. Her birth title of “Grand Duchess” no longer applied once she married Alfred and became “Royal Highness”. This was a low blow for the proud Maria since she had been given precedence over all other women in Russia (except her mother) as the Emperor’s only daughter. Despite the fact that Maria was completely unhappy both with her marriage and with every aspect of her new home, she began a family with Alfred right away. Nine months after their wedding, Maria gave birth to her first child – a son named Prince Alfred after his father (to avoid confusion between the two, he was called “Young Alfie”). In the next ten years, Maria Alexandrovna would have a total of six children with Alfred, though her fifth child was stillborn:
- Alfred, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1874-1889) died unmarried and without children at the age of twenty-four under mysterious circumstances
- Princess Marie, Queen Consort of Romania (1875-1938) married: Ferdinand I, King of Romania – had issue
- Princess Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Hesse & by Rhine (1876-1936) married: (1) Grand Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse & by Rhine – had issue, (2) Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia – had issue
- Princess Alexandra, Princess Consort of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (1878-1942) married: Ernst II, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg – had issue
- Stillborn son (1879)
- Princess Beatrice, Infanta of Spain (1884-1966) married: Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera – had issue
The Duchess of Edinburgh went to Malta, a British territory located just south of Italy, with her husband in 1876 when was stationed there for the Navy. She gave birth to her third child, Victoria Melita, on the island before the family returned to England in 1877. The family went to Coburg in 1878 to familiarize themselves with their future home because Alfred was the heir of his elderly and childless paternal uncle, Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Maria ordered a palace to be built for her family in the German city called the Ehrenburg Palace, which she decorated with furniture and objects that reminded her of her birthplace. Less than a month after Maria went back to Russia to be at her mother’s bedside upon her death in June of 1880, she received terrible news in March of 1881 that her father had been brutally assassinated by radicals outside the Winter Palace. She grieved her father’s death immensely and had to hurry from England to St. Petersburg to attend his funeral and the coronation of her older brother, Alexander III. In October of 1886, Maria and her family moved back to Malta when Alfred became the commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The children loved the warm beaches of the beautiful island and even Maria became more cheerful during the three years the family spent there because she found it to be a refreshing break from England. Since Maria had so many relatives scattered around Europe and her husband was rarely home due to his career, the Duchess of Edinburgh was often able to travel all over the Continent, much to her pleasure. Other than her yearly trips to England, Germany, and Russia, she visited Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, and Montenegro.
|Maria Alexandrovna, Duchess of Edinburgh|
In March of 1887, Alfred officially resigned from his position as commander-in-chief and he moved his family to Coburg permanently. Maria spent most of her time presiding over court and giving her children an education while Alfred was always away with the Navy. Although she was a strict mother, she was also clearly dedicated to her children and did everything she could to be the most influential figure in their lives. Her relationship with Alfred fell apart completely by the 1880’s when he became a full-fledged alcoholic. Queen Victoria’s prediction of a failed marriage between the two was painfully true; the couple had nothing in common other than their interest in music and their children (even this was limited, as Alfred cared little for his offspring). As Alfred grew older, he became more “reserved, taciturn, moody, and ill-tempered” and never quit being rude and unfaithful to his wife. Maria was deeply hurt by his relationships with other women but hid her broken marriage and unhappiness from her children to make sure they didn’t share her misery. It was only later in their lives that she confessed that throughout all her years of marriage to Alfred, she never felt like anything more than his legitimate mistress. On August 22, 1893, Maria gained another title when Ernest II died and Alfred became the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. While Alfred disliked his new status since he had to leave the Navy, Maria loved this change in her life. The Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was pleased with her new home in Coburg and called it a “real God-send” as she no longer had to live in England. While Alfred spent most of his time hunting, Maria worked on restoring the run-down castles in the area and partaking in charitable activities, such as setting up a home for the mentally challenged. She promoted the opera and the theater (both of which she loved to attend) and in her free time she enjoyed reading and mushroom hunting.
|The Daughters of Maria Alexandrovna (left to right): Beatrice,|
Victoria Melita, Alexandra, and Marie
Just months before Alfred and Maria became the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, their eldest daughter, Marie, married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, who was ten years her senior. Alfred and Maria argued heavily when it came to Marie’s marriage since Alfred wanted her to marry his nephew, the future George V, but Maria approved of her union to Ferdinand instead, a she didn’t want her daughter to repeat her own mistake. The tables were turned the following year when the couple’s second daughter, Victoria Melita, married her first cousin, Grand Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse and by Rhine. Maria didn’t want her daughter to marry Ernest (she thought he was too close to his grandmother, Queen Victoria) but Alfred supported the union. However, the marriage proved to be a complete disaster because the cousins couldn’t stand each other and divorced in 1901. They had one daughter together, Princess Elisabeth, who died in 1903 at the age of eight from typhoid fever. Marie’s marriage to Crown Prince Ferdinand was no better; the two didn’t love each other and although they had six children (including King Carol II of Romania, Queen Elisabeth of Greece, and Queen Maria of Yugoslavia), their two youngest were most likely fathered by Marie’s long-time lover, Barbu Știrbey. Alfred and Maria came to blows regarding their children’s marriages yet again in 1895 when Maria betrothed their third daughter, Alexandera, to Prince Ernst of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a grandson of Queen Victoria’s half-sister). They had five children together, three daughters and two sons, but only their four eldest survived infancy. Alfred couldn’t stand that Prince Ernest was a member of a non-reigning royal family but he had more pressing concerns at the time regarding his only son. Young Alfie was a rebellious young man with a patchy career in the German army and his insolence (his favorite pastimes were drinking, gambling and womanizing) was becoming very worrisome for Maria. To top it all off, Alfred and Maria’s marriage had only plunged further into the abyss of unhappiness. Maria struggled to find a single think to talk about with her husband without causing an argument and it had come to the point where she was only comfortable and happy when he was gone. By 1898 his health had waned along with his marriage because of his excessive drinking. In 1892, Young Alfie fell ill with syphilis as a result of his many sexual escapades and in 1898, like his father, his time was limited. On January 23, 1899, the twenty-four year old prince supposedly shot himself during his parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary celebration. He survived and was sent to the Martinnsbrunn Sanatorium in Gratsch (mental abnormalities are a primary symptom of syphilis) where he died on February 6, 1899 at the age of twenty-four. Young Alfie’s death devastated his father, who blamed Maria because she was the one who oversaw Alfie’s education. Maria grieved her son’s death just as deeply as her husband and during his funeral, she began weeping hysterically and collapsed.
|Maria Alexandrovna, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg |
Around this time, it was discovered that Alfred had throat cancer that was too far along to be treated. By May of 1900, he couldn’t swallow and had to be fed by a tube. On July 30, 1900, the fifty-five year old Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Edinburgh, passed away in his sleep at the family’s country home of Rosenau Palace with his wife and three youngest daughters at his bedside. Since his only son had predeceased him, the duchy was inherited by Alfred’s nephew, Prince Charles Edward. Maria Alexandrovna was now a widow at forty-six years old. The Dowager Duchess stayed in Clarence House in England for some time until she had to give it up to her brother-in-law, the Duke of Connaught. In her later years, Maria lived in Edinburgh Palace and Rosenau Palace but she spent the majority of her time at her villa in Tegernsee near Munich. In 1901, after Victoria Melita divorced Ernest Louis, she lived with her mother until she remarried her teenage crush and maternal first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia. Although Maria was judgmental of her daughters, she always had their backs when times got tough. In 1909, her youngest daughter, Beatrice, married Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera, the grandson of Queen Isabella II of Spain. They had three sons during their marriage.
|Maria Alexandrovna, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg|
In the years before World War I, Maria often visited Russia to see her daughter, Victoria Melita. But once the Great War began, Maria supported Germany against her home of Russia (her poor relationship with her nephew, Emperor Nicholas II, probably influenced her views). Germany became so anti-Russian during the war that Maria had to leave Coburg for Tegernsee, even though she was pro-German. After Maria was harassed by an angry mob in Tegernsee, she had to flee the country to live in exile in Switzerland in Zürich. Here, she watched the war from afar and learned in 1917 of the various deaths of members of the Romanov family at the hands of the Bolsheviks, including those of her last surviving brother, Grand Duke Paul, and Nicholas II. After the war, Maria lost most of her wealth since a majority of it was held in a trust in Russia. She was living in poor conditions as a result of her financial strain when Victoria Melita and her family with Kirill escaped Russia and came to live with the Dowager Duchess in 1919. By this time, Maria was worn down in her old age. Although she had been stout all her life, she was now thin and fragile with constant tremors in her hands. Just months before her death, the elderly Maria (who was plagued with gastric problems) wrote: "I am too utterly disgusted with the present state of the world and mankind in general... They have destroyed and ruined my beloved Russia, my much-loved Germany.” On October 25, 1920, the sixty-seven year old Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Edinburgh, died in her sleep of a heart attack. She was buried in the ducal mausoleum at Friedhof am Glockenberg with her husband and son. Perhaps Maria’s sad life can be summed up best by her what her daughter Marie wrote of her after her death: “She was profoundly religious. I hope God will not disappoint her as most things and beings did in this life.”