Monday, July 18, 2016

Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia (Princess Dagmar of Denmark)

Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar, known more commonly as “Princess Dagmar of Denmark”, was the fourth child and second daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel. She was born on November 26, 1847 in her family home of the Yellow Palace, a town house near Amalienborg Palace in Copenhagen. Her siblings included: King Frederick VIII of Denmark, King George I of Greece, Queen Consort Alexandra of the U.K., and Crown Princess Thyra of Hanover.

Princess Dagmar of Denmark
(mid 1860's)
Known to her family as “Minnie”, Dagmar was named after her ancestress, Marie Sophie Frederikke of Hesse-Kassel, Queen Consort of Denmark and Norway, as well as the medieval Danish queen, Dagmar of Bohemia. At the time of her birth, her parents were of a relatively obscure royal status and her father was simply Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Thus, Dagmar and her siblings lived a very modest lifestyle for royalty, as their only income was Christian’s army salary. Dagmar even shared a drafty attic bedroom in the Yellow Palace with her elder and favorite sister, Alexandra. But the family’s life changed for the better in 1852 when Prince Christian became the heir-presumptive to the throne of Denmark. While he was a distant member of Danish royalty, his wife was the niece of King Christian VIII and the first cousin of the current king, the childless Frederick VII. After the Act of Succession was passed and Christian was named the “Crown Prince of Denmark” (thanks to his wife’s lineage), Dagmar and her family moved from the Yellow Palace to the much grander Bernstorff Palace. On November 15, 1863, Frederick VII died and Christian succeeded to the throne as King Christian IX. Dagmar, who was weeks away from her sixteenth birthday, was now the daughter of the King and a Princess of Denmark. By the end of 1863, much had changed for Dagmar’s family; her father was the King of Denmark, her sister Alexandra had married Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), and her brother, Wilhelm, was elected as King George I of Greece.

Princess Dagmar and her husband, Tsarevich
Dagmar’s aspiring mother made sure that all of her children made impressive marriages into powerful European families and her plans for the petite, deep-eyed Dagmar were no different. The emergence of Slavophile in Russia led Emperor Alexander II and his consort, Empress Maria Alexandrovna, to search for a bride for their son and heir, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, in countries other than the traditional Russian bride-pool of Germany. The handsome Tsarevich Nicholas, or “Nixa”, as he was known in his family, traveled to Denmark in 1864 to meet with the young Dagmar, who was four years his junior. The couple soon became engaged but the match didn’t last for long because Nicholas fell ill from cerebro-spinal meningitis and died on April 24, 1865 at the age of twenty-one in Nice, France. It is said that on his deathbed, he asked that his younger brother, the new Tsarevich Alexander, marry his Danish fiancée in his place. But poor Dagmar was so upset over her charming betrothed’s death that when she went back home after his passing, her family became gravely concerned about her health. Dagmar had already become deeply attached to Russia and thought of it as home. She had also become very close with Nicholas’s parents and Alexander II even wrote her a letter in an attempt to comfort her, saying that he would always think of her as a member of his family. It was not long before the Emperor’s statement and Nicholas’s dying wish became a reality and Dagmar entered into a betrothal with Tsarevich Alexander in June of 1866. Alexander had come to Dagmar’s home of Copenhagen to visit her and ask for her hand in marriage, which he did when they were in her room looking at photographs.

The Wedding of Tsarevich Alexander and Maria Feodorovna
(Mihály Zichy, 1867)
Alexander, who was less than two years younger than his late older brother, was a tall, strapping, bear of a man who was well known for his ability to bend iron rods. The giant Russian prince had been secretly in love with Dagmar ever since Nicholas had become engaged to her and once Dagmar became engaged to the new Tsarevich she gradually developed a strong passion for the gruff, abrupt, and straightforward Alexander. On September 1, 1866, Dagmar left Copenhagen for Russia for a second time and she received a warm welcome from the Emperor and his family (who, as mentioned previously, adored her) in Kronstadt. After she arrived, she converted to Orthodoxy and was baptized as Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. On November 9, 1866 in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the nearly nineteen-year-old Maria Feodorovna married the twenty-one Tsarevich. After the extensive wedding festivities, the couple moved into the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg where they would remain for the next fifteen years. They would also spend their long summer holidays at their villa of Livadia in the Crimean Peninsula. Maria’s marriage to Alexander was happy, stable, and full of love.

Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna
The future Empress Consort was an instant hit with the Russian people. They adored her beauty, her charming and outgoing personality, and her extensive attempts to integrate herself into Russian culture. She learned the Russian language as soon as she arrived in her adopted country and stayed out of politics (though like her sister Alexandra, she had an extreme hatred for Germany because of the annexation of Danish territories by Prussia in 1864), focusing instead on her family, philanthropy, and her social reputation. On May 18, 1868, the twenty-year-old Maria gave birth to hr first child – the future Nicholas II. In the span of fifteen years, she would have six children, one of whom died in infancy:

  • Emperor Nicholas II of Russia (1868-1918) married: Princess Alix of Hesse – had issue
  • Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich (1869-1870) died at the age of 10 months from meningitis
  • Grand Duke George Alexandrovich (1871-1899) died at the age of twenty-nine from tuberculosis, unmarried with no issue
  • Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna (1875-1960) married: Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich of Russia – had issue
  • Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (1878-1918) married: Countess Natalia Brasova – had issue
  • Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (1882-1960) married: (1) Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg – no issue, (2) Nikolai Kulikovsky – had issue

The Family of Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna
with their surviving five children
Maria was nothing short of a doting, loving mother but she also spoiled her children to such an extent that she wanted them to stay children forever, especially her sons. While she had a somewhat detached relationship with her two daughters, she was extremely overprotective of her boys and coddled them throughout their childhood and adult years. The fact that she babied her sons contributed partly to Nicholas’s inexperience and inability to rule, as he had never been prepared for his future role as Emperor. But Maria’s world would transform completely on the cold winter afternoon of March 13, 1881 when leftist revolutionaries assassinated her father-in-law, Emperor Alexander II, outside the Winter Palace. The sixty-two year old Emperor was hit by a bomb in his carriage but he didn’t die at first; instead, his wounded body was carried inside the palace, where Maria described his mangled state: “His legs were crushed terribly and ripped open to the knee; a bleeding mass, with half a boot on the right foot, and only the sole of the foot remaining on the left”. Alexander II died after a few hours and the Tsesarevich Alexander was crowned Emperor Alexander III after his father’s passing.

Empress Maria Feodorovna
(Konstantin Makovsky, 1880's)
Maria was thirty-four years old when she became the Empress Consort of Russia and although her large, menacing husband was never popular with the people, she was perhaps the most beloved Russian consort in the Empire’s long history. She loved her new position as the foremost woman in Russia and was admired for her stunning elegance and her ability to transform the once profligate and debauched Imperial court into a reflection of herself – well respected, sophisticated, and admired. But despite the fact that the Empress Maria had fans and aficionados wherever she went, the tragic death of her father-in-law shook her to the core and heightened her almost constant sense of fear for the life of her husband and their children. She had good reason to worry, for there were so many threats and conspiracies against the monarchy that on the day of Alexander and Maria’s grand coronation at the Kremlin on May 27, 1883, they had to move into Gatchina Palace, a safer location than Anichkov Palace because it was outside of St. Petersburg. The Emperor and Empress would live in this palace for the next thirteen years and it was here that their children were primarily reared. Maria would accompany her husband from Gatchina to the capital city various times during the year (always under heavy guard) to take part in ceremonial or public events, which was her main duty as Empress. She also loved to host balls and parties in the Winter Palace as well as at Gatchina. Almost every summer, the Imperial family would go to Denmark to take part in the family reunions Maria’s parents annually hosted, where they were always joined by King George I and his family as well as Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who usually came without her husband or with just a few of her children. 

Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna
In 1894, the typically strong and robust Alexander III fell ill with nephritis, a terminal kidney disease, and it was clear to everyone that he didn’t have much time left. Maria began to focus all her attention on her eldest son and the heir to the throne, Nicholas, because not only the future of the Empire but also her and Alexander’s hopes and dreams rested on his unsteady shoulders. However, Nicholas, who was also Maria’s favorite child, disappointed his mother right from the start as he declared that he wanted to marry his long-time love, Princess Alix of Hesse, who neither Alexander nor Maria approved of. So far, the only one of Maria and Alexander’s children to marry was their eldest daughter, Xenia, who had wed her paternal first cousin once removed and childhood friend, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, on August 6, 1894. Maria, who detested anything to do with Germany, thought Alix was no worthy match for a future Emperor. She believed that the quiet and awkward granddaughter of Queen Victoria was not an ideal consort. Though Maria and her husband had known Alix since she was an infant because of their status as her godparents, both viewed Alix as frenetic and unstable. On a more selfish note, Maria also worried that Alix would overshadow her as the most important woman in Nicholas’s heart. But Nicholas was resolute in his desire to marry the German princess and as Alexander’s health declined further, Maria and her ailing husband grudgingly allowed for the betrothal to be arranged.

Empress Maria Feodorovna with her son,
Soon after Alix arrived in Russia and the engagement was finalized, Alexander III died at the age of forty-nine on November 1, 1894 at the family’s summer villa of Livadia. Maria mourned her husband’s passing immensely and wrote in her diary: “I am utterly heartbroken and despondent, but when I saw the blissful smile and the peace in his face that came after, it gave me strength.” Her sister and her brother-in-law, Alexandra and the Prince of Wales, journeyed to Russia to help arrange the late Emperor’s funeral and to provide solace to the grieving Empress Dowager. A week after Alexander was buried in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the new Emperor Nicholas II married Alix of Hesse (who took the name Alexandra Feodorovna) on Maria’s birthday, as it was a day in which court mourning for Alexander was a bit more lenient. Though she was now the Empress Dowager, Maria continued to live at Anichkov Palace during her son’s chaotic and ultimately doomed reign. She never got along with her daughter-in-law, Alexandra, and it didn’t help that the Russian people hated their new Empress while continuing to fawn over Maria, whose possessiveness of Nicholas and envy of Alexandra worsened relations between the two. Alexandra resented the fact that her mother-in-law was so beloved by the court and the people while she herself was never liked. The Russian custom of the Empress Dowager taking precedence over the Empress Consort also irked Alexandra immensely. A huge rift developed between the royal couple and Nicholas’s family, as the Emperor and Empress remained secretive and private to everyone, including their own relatives. Maria especially detested how weak of a ruler her son was and that Alexandra seemed unable to have a son. After having four daughters, the Empress finally gave birth to an heir – Alexei – in 1904 but her unpopularity soared when it was discovered that Nicholas and Alexandra had hid the fact that their little boy had hemophilia, the “royal disease” of Alexandra’s British family.

Empress Maria Feodorovna
(Vladimir Makovsky, 1885)
Maria spent most of her time as a widow traveling to visit her family in Copenhagen, London, and Athens as well as focusing on charitable efforts and her social presence. She faced yet another loss of a family member in the summer of 1899 when her third child, the fun-loving and mischievous George, died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. The funeral was a terrible affair for the grieving Maria, who rushed out of the ceremony because she couldn’t bear the sadness of the occasion any longer. Two years after George’s death, Maria arranged the calamitous marriage of her youngest daughter, Olga, to a distant cousin, Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, who was fourteen years her senior. The marriage was never consummated as Peter was a homosexual and only married Olga for financial and social gain. After Olga fell in love with a cavalry officer named Nikolai Kulikovsky two years into her marriage, she asked her husband for a divorce but he refused. The couple separated in 1914 and Olga finally achieved her divorce in October of 1916, after which she married Kulikovsky a month later and had two sons. Maria also ran into some trouble with her youngest son, Michael, regarding marriage when he caused a scandal by secretly marrying his mistress, the two-time divorcee Countess Natalia Brasova (who had a daughter by her first husband), in 1912. Maria and Nicholas II were so furious over the affair that Michael was exiled and removed from the succession. Michael and his wife lived in England until World War I, when Nicholas II allowed his brother to come back home and serve in the Army. They had one son in 1910, George Mikhailovich, who died at the age of twenty in 1931 in a car accident.

Maria Feodorovna's daughters: Grand Duchesses Xenia and Olga Alexandrovna
When World War I broke out in 1914, Maria worked as the head of the Russian Red Cross and spent most of her time either supporting her charities or caring for wounded soldiers. But she was powerless to do anything as the Empire’s government crumbled in front of her very eyes when Nicholas left to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and appointed Alexandra as his regent. Alexandra was poorly equipped to rule and while Russia lost nearly every battle in the war, the political structure of the government fell apart and people began to starve in the streets. Maria protested against her daughter-in-law’s ruinous rule and the influence of the Imperial couple’s mystic, the infamous Rasputin, who had Alexandra under his thumb. In 1916, Maria left St. Petersburg (which was renamed Petrograd the same year) for the Mariyinsky Palace in Kiev, allegedly in objection of Rasputin’s power at court. What Maria didn’t know at the time was that she would never see the capital city again. When the February Revolution broke out in 1917, Maria was horrified when her son abdicated the throne on March 15th without a fight. She traveled from Kiev to see her deposed son in Mogilev before moving to one of the imperial villa in the Crimea where she was joined by her daughter Xenia, her son-in-law, and their seven children. Also with them were Prince Felix Yusupov, the husband of Xenia’s eldest child, Princess Irina, his parents, and the pregnant Grand Duchess Olga and her second husband, Nikolai Kulikovsky. In July of 1918, she learned that the Bolsheviks had killed her son, Nicholas II, his wife, and their five children. She also discovered that the Bolsheviks killed her youngest son, the thirty-nine year old Michael, just five days before his brother. While she refused to accept the truth of her sons’ deaths and clung onto hope that they escaped, her daughter Olga later said: “…I am sure that deep in her heart my mother had steeled herself to accept the truth some years before her death.”

Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna
While the Russian Revolution raged on and the Bolsheviks killed a further ten members of the Imperial family, Maria and her relatives who had gathered together in Crimea remained alive but in danger. She refused to leave Russia until her sister, the Queen Dowager Alexandra, pleaded with her to leave in 1919. Alexandra’s son, King George V, sent the warship the HMS Marlborough to take his aunt and her family members in Crimea to London. Maria stayed with her sister and royal nephew in London for some time until she went back to her home of Denmark with her daughter Olga because she didn’t like playing second fiddle to her sister in terms of status. She settled at her holiday villa of Hvidøre near Copenhagen and her nephew, King Christian X (Xenia stayed behind in England). The aged Maria watched as her family members slowly died around her and eventually, her own health began to decline. The death of her treasured sister, Queen Dowager Alexandra, in November of 1925 was her final breaking point. On October 13, 1928 at her home in Denmark, the eighty year-old Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna, once known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, died. She was first buried in the Roskilde Cathedral, the traditional burial site for members of Danish royalty, until her remains were reinterred next to those of her husband’s in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in 2006. 

1 comment:

  1. i have studied this family since the first Czar was crowned over 300 years ago...What a tragic story of the last Czar Nicholas and his the history of Russia..