Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine, who was born “Princess Maximilienne Wilhelmine Marie”, was the youngest of the seven children of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden. Marie was born on August 8, 1824 in her family seat of Darmstadt. At the time of her birth, Marie’s father was simply the heir to the Duchy of Hesse since his father was still alive. In 1804, he married his first cousin, Princess Wilhelmine of Baden, the youngest daughter of Charles Louis, Hereditary Prince of Baden and Amalia of Hesse-Darmstadt. Wilhelmine, who was eleven years her husband’s junior, was the sister of Caroline of Baden, the first Queen Consort of Bavaria, Empress Consort Elizabeth Alexeievna of Russia, Frederica of Baden, the Queen Consort of Sweden, and Charles, Grand Duke of Baden. Wilhelmine and Louis were very unhappy together because Louis could never remain faithful to his spouse. In fact, after the births of their three eldest children, they lived apart from one another. In 1820, Wilhelmine began a long-term affair with her chamberlain at her home of Heiligenberg Castle, a native of Switzerland named Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy. It is rumored that her last four children with Louis, including Marie, were actually the issue of her lover but this allegation doesn’t hold up against Louis’s recognition of all of Wilhelmine’s children.
|Marie of Hesse and by Rhine|
(Christina Robertson, 1849)
Marie had three surviving elder brothers since one of her sisters died in infancy and two of her siblings were stillborn. Marie was primarily reared by her mother as opposed to her cheating father. Wilhelmine oversaw her daughter’s education and, as the Grand Duchess liked French culture and literature, she had her daughter focus primarily on these subjects, as well as history and general texts. In 1836, six years after Louis became the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, Wilhelmine died at the age of forty-seven. Marie was just eleven years old when her mother unexpectedly passed away and she was taken in by her late mother’s lady-in-waiting, Marianne Gransi, who made sure Marie continued her education.
|Marie of Hesse and by Rhine and her husband,|
Alexander II of Russia
In 1838, Tsarevich Alexander Nikolayevich of Russia went on an extensive tour of Europe specifically to locate a suitable wife. The highly educated yet greatly underestimated eldest child of Emperor Nicholas I and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (born Princess Charlotte of Prussia) met the fourteen year-old Marie on his tour and immediately became enchanted with her. Even after he learned about the question of her paternity, he still remained infatuated with the teenage German princess who was six years his junior. Alexander’s mother was against the match but her son remained firm in his desire to wed Marie, even writing to his doubting mother: “I love her, and I would rather give up the throne, than not marry her. I will marry only her, that’s my decision!” Emperor Nicholas I coaxed his wife into taking a trip to Darmstadt to see Marie and much to Alexander’s relief, his mother approved of Marie’s appearance and character and finally agreed to the marriage. Before Marie left for her future home, she was educated in the Russian Orthodox religion by a priest sent from Russia to Germany, as she was expected to convert from Lutheranism to the Russian religion upon her marriage. In September of 1840, Marie arrived in St. Petersburg, chaperoned by her brother Alexander, and quickly fell in love with the beautiful city. On December 5, 1840, Marie was officially received into the Russian Orthodox Church as “Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna”. The formal betrothal was held in front of the Imperial family the following day, as well as the entire Russian court and high-ranking representatives of foreign countries.
|Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia|
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1857)
On April 16, 1841 in the Cathedral Church of the Winter Palace, the sixteen year-old Maria Alexandrovna married Tsarevich Alexander Nikolayevich, who was just days away from his twenty-third birthday. Maria wore a beautiful white gown “richly embroidered with silver and diamonds” and a red sash over one shoulder. She also sported a crimson velvet robe with white satin and fine ermine. The young bride was decked from head to toe with diamond jewelry in the form of a tiara, earrings, necklace, and bracelets. Her mother-in-law weaved orange blossoms through Maria’s hair, as flowers were a representation of innocence and decorum. After the lavish wedding ceremony and honeymoon, the new Tsarevna found it rather challenging to fit in at the Imperial court and accept foreign customs and routines. Maria was naturally very shy and timid so she struggled to assimilate herself with the court and make friends. The Tsarevna had been born with sensitive lungs and the dank weather of St. Petersburg caused her to develop a incessant cough and a chronic fever. Her poor health prompted her to take various trips to Germany and countries in southern Europe to escape Russia’s poor climate, especially during the bitter winters. Despite her fragile health, Maria was able to produce a total of eight children with her husband over a span of eighteen years with just their eldest dying in childhood:
|Empress Maria Alexandrovna with her youngest sons,|
Sergei and Paul
- Grand Duchess Alexandra Alexandrovna (1842-1849) died from infant meningitis at the age of six and a half
- Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (1843-1865) engaged to Dagmar of Denmark (Maria Feodorovna) before his death from cerebro-spinal meningitis at the age of twenty-one
- Emperor Alexander III of Russia (1845-1894) married: Dagmar of Denmark (Maria Feodorovna) – had issue
- Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich (1847-1909) married: Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (Maria Pavlovna) – had issue
- Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich (1850-1908) married (possibly): Alexandra Zhukovskaya – had issue
- Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna (1853-1920) married: Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha and Edinburgh – had issue
- Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (1857-1905) married: Princess Elisabeth of Hesse (Elizabeth Feodorovna) – no issue
- Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich (1860-1919) married: (1) Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark (Alexandra Georgievna) – had issue, (2) Princess Olga Valerianovna Paley – had issue
|Empress Maria Alexandrovna|
(Ivan Makarov, 1850)
Although Alexander held a large amount of respect for his wife throughout the entirety of their union, his infatuation with her quickly rescinded after their wedding. Alexander was a rather promiscuous man and since Maria was often away from court either because of her string of pregnancies or her annual vacations away from Russia, the Tsarevich took her absence as an opportunity to begin relationships with other women. The true love of his life was his long-term mistress, Catherine Dolgorukov, who was just twelve years old to Alexander’s forty-one years when they first met in 1859. The beautiful Catherine was described as being, “of medium height, with an elegant figure, silky ivory skin, the eyes of a frightened gazelle, a sensuous mouth, and light chestnut tresses”. Although she was given the position of a lady-in-waiting of the Empress by Alexander himself, Catherine was very hesitant to become just another lover of the Emperor until July of 1866 when she was eighteen years old. Their love for one another was so passionate that Alexander’s own family and court highly disapproved of Catherine’s influence over the Emperor. Catherine had four children with her royal lover, two sons and two daughters, and lived quite close to Alexander so he could see her multiple times a week. Of course, Maria knew of her husband’s infidelity and his love for Catherine but there was nothing she could do to stop his feelings; she just had to tolerate the fact that her husband would never dedicate his heart to her, his own wife. Maria’s relationship with her children was no better; while she cared for her sons and daughter, she was also a physically cold woman who rarely, if ever, displayed her affection or emotions, leaving her children feeling as though she did not feel anything for them.
|Coronation of Emperor Alexander II and Empress Maria Alexandrovna|
(Mihály Zichy, 1856)
On March 2, 1855, the fifty-eight year old Emperor Nicholas I died of pneumonia and Alexander succeeded to the throne as Emperor Alexander II at the age of thirty-seven. A coronation for the new Emperor and his Empress Consort was held on August 26, 1856 in the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. During the ceremony, the crown slipped from Maria’s head, which was perceived as a bad omen. Because Maria was usually suffering from weak health, she wasn’t particularly active as an Empress and was not often in the public eye. Throughout the early 1860’s and the 1870’s, Maria often travelled to her homeland with her husband and children and they would go to Schloss Heiligenberg to visit her brother, Alexander, who lived there with his morganatic wife (who had actually been a lady-in-waiting of Maria) and children. Here, Maria met the wife of her nephew, Prince Louis of Hesse, and the second daughter of Queen Victoria of the U.K. – Princess Alice. Alice suggested to Maria that her brother, Prince Alfred, marry Maria’s only daughter, also named Maria, and although the Empress was reluctant to agree to the match initially, the couple eventually married in 1874. Maria formed a friendship with Alice that lasted until Alice’s early death in 1878, after which the Empress invited Alice’s motherless children to come visit herself and her family when she went to Heiligenberg. It was in Heiligenberg that many marital connections were made between Maria’s family and Alice’s family. Other than the engagement between the young Maria and Prince Alfred, Maria’s second youngest son, Sergei, met and fell in love with his future wife, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, during the family trips to Heiligenberg. During these vacations, Maria became acquainted with the young Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, who would grow up to marry Maria’s grandson, Emperor Nicholas II. It is common lore that when Maria first met Alix, she turned to her maid of honor and said: “Kiss her hand. That is your empress to be.”
|Family of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna: (front row) - Alexander II, Nicholas II, Maria Feodorovna/Dagmar of Denmark, (back row) - Paul, Sergei, Maria, Alexei, Alexander III, Vladimir|
Maria’s first child to marry was her second son, the future Emperor Alexander III. Alexander’s bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, had been betrothed to Alexander’s older brother, Tsarevich Nicholas, but after Nicholas’s unexpected death in 1865, Dagmar and Alexander became engaged and fell in love with each other. The future Emperor and Empress Consort of Russia would go on to have five surviving children, including: Emperor Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Xenia, and Grand Duchess Olga. Two of Maria’s children married in 1874 – her daughter, Maria, and her third son, Vladimir. Vladimir married his second cousin, Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and had four surviving children with her, including Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the second husband of Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The younger Maria married Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria of the U.K., and although they had a very unhappy union, they had five surviving children. Their four daughters were Queen Consort Marie of Romania, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Princess Consort Alexandra of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and Infanta Beatrice of Spain. Ten years after Maria and Vladimir’s marriages, Grand Duke Sergei married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine. Although they had no children, they were extremely happy together and loved each other immensely. Maria’s last child to marry was her youngest, Grand Duke Paul, who actually married twice during his lifetime. His first union was in 1889 to Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark, the daughter of King George I of Greece, who he had two children with before Alexandra’s early death in 1891. Paul remarried in 1902 to a divorced mother of three children, Olga Valerianovna Paley, who was Paul’s mistress for some time until he married her morganatically, much to the displeasure of his family. They had three children together, their eldest of whom was born before they wed. Although Maria's four son, Alexei, never married, it is claimed that he morganatically married his mistress, Alexandra Zhukovskaya (who was eight years his senior), who he had a son with in 1871. If the couple ever did marry, the union would have been annulled by the Russian Orthodox Church since Alexandra, the daughter of an illegitimate son of a Russian landowner and a Turkish slave, was no suitable wife for a Grand Duke of Russia.
|Empress Maria Alexandrovna|
Maria contracted tuberculosis in 1863 and her health deteriorated each year until 1880 when her vigor finally collapsed. On June 3, 1880, Empress Maria Alexandrovna died at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg at the age of fifty-five. She was buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Her husband, who married his mistress Catherine Dolgorukova a month after Maria’s death, survived his wife by less than a year until he was brutally killed by an assassin on March 13, 1881, where a bomb took his life outside the Winter Palace when he was sixty-two. Her was buried beside Maria in the Peter and Paul Cathedral after their son, Alexander, succeeded to the throne.