Monday, July 25, 2016

Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Grand Duchess of Hesse and by Rhine

Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was the third child and second daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (as well as Edinburgh) and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Victoria was born on November 25, 1876 in San Anton Palace in Attard, Malta, a small island south of Italy that was a territory of the British Empire. At the time of her birth, her father was an officer in the Royal Navy stationed at Malta so her parents decided to give her the second name of “Melita” as an attribute to her birthplace. Prince Alfred was the second son of Queen Victoria and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna was the only surviving daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Empress Maria Alexandrovna (formally Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine). She had two older siblings - Prince Alfred and Queen Marie of Romania- and two younger sisters, Alexandra, Princess Consort of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, and Princess Beatrice, Infanta of Spain and Duchess of Galliera.

Princess Victoria Melita
Victoria Melita spent the first two years of her life in Malta before her father’s service was completed. After this, the family came back to England and resided in their various homes of Eastwell Park (which was a favorite of the children’s), their country home in Kent, and Clarence House. Victoria, known as “Ducky” by her family, had a complicated disposition. She was sensitive, introverted, solemn, and often misunderstood. While she was a gifted artist and pianist, she was always compared to her older sister by one year, Marie, who was her closest sibling in terms of affection. While Marie was blonde, laid back, open, and personable, Victoria was dark-haired, sullen, closed off, and temperamental. In fact, Victoria was so solemn that she was constantly mistaken as the eldest daughter of Prince Alfred. Unfortunately, Victoria Melita did not have an idyllic childhood. Her father was a reticent man who had a tendency to drink and was constantly unfaithful to his wife. He was also emotionally detached from his family and showed little love for his children. Victoria’s mother was no better. Though she was a strong-willed and educated woman, Maria Alexandrovna was also unemotional and stringent. The Grand Duchess disliked her life as a married woman and cared little for her husband. She was more considered with her social status than providing her children with a well-rounded education. Maria Alexandrovna as a proud woman who thought her married title of “Royal Highness” was a downgrading from her birth title of “Grand Duchess”. She disliked the fact that she had to give precedence to her sister-in-law, Alexandra of Denmark, Princess of Wales, because she thought that she was higher in class than a daughter of the King of Denmark, as she herself was the daughter of an Emperor. Because of this, the Grand Duchess disliked England and preferred not to spend much, if any, time at court.

Princess Victoria Melita (center) with her sisters, Marie (left),
and Alexandra (right)
Soon after Victoria’s ninth birthday, the family left England in January of 1886 when her father was given the position of commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean naval squadron based in Victoria’s birthplace of Malta. The family lived in San Anton for another three years, which the children described as the happiest time of their lives. Alfred became the heir presumptive to the duchy when his older brother, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, conceded his Saxon succession rights in favor of his younger brothers. At the time, the reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was Alfred’s paternal uncle, Ernest II. So, in 1889, Alfred moved his family from the beautiful beaches and warm ocean waters of Malta to Coburg. After the move, Maria Alexandrovna quickly tried to “Germanize” her daughters by forcing them to take part in a vigorous educational regime under a strict governess, forbidding them to wear anything but simple clothing, and having them confirmed as German Lutherans although they had been Anglicans all their lives. Not surprisingly, Victoria and her sisters protested against these new limitations. Eventually, the Grand Duchess gave in to her children’s complaints and alleviated some of the girls’ constraints. Alfred would not become the Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha until 1893 when Ernest II died. Though Victoria longed for the happy days of her childhood in Malta, it was in Germany where she spent her teenage years. During this period in her life, she was described as a “tall, dark girl, with violet eyes…with the assuredness of an Empress and the high spirits of a tomboy”. Though she apparently had “too little chin to be conventionally beautiful”, she was certainly not unattractive, as another contemporary said: “she had a good figure, deep blue eyes, and a dark complexion.” 

Princess Victoria Melita and her first husband, Grand
Duke Ernest Louis of Hesse, on their wedding day
Victoria experienced love for the first time in 1891 when she was fifteen years old. That year, she went to Russia with her mother to attend the funeral of her mother’s sister-in-law, Grand Duchess Alexandra Georgievna, a daughter of King George I of Greece. Here, she met her first cousin, the handsome Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the second child of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The cousins were just one month apart in age and they soon became infatuated with each other. But their romance was not meant to be, as Victoria’s mother was hesitant to allow her daughter to marry such a close relative (marriage between first cousins was forbidden in the Russian Orthodox Church) and she was wary of the ethics of the men in her family. Other plans were in the making for Victoria Melita’s marital future by her matchmaking grandmother. Queen Victoria wanted her granddaughter to marry her paternal first cousin, Prince Ernest Louis of Hesse. Both were grandchildren of the Queen, as Ernest Louis was the eldest son of Alfred’s older sister, the late Princess Alice, and Ernest Louis was also his father’s heir to the Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine. The Queen thought the two would compliment each other nicely since both were fond of art, liked to have fun, and even had the same birthday. However, the Queen and the rest of the royal family were oblivious to the fact that the cousins did not get along at all and Victoria Melita was still head-over-heels in love with her Russian cousin. Victoria even wrote Kirill for two years after their first meeting, both holding on to the hope that their love might prevail over their family’s desires. But unfortunately, love did not prevail over royal duty and on April 9, 1894 at Schloss Ehrenburg in Coburg, an unhappy Victoria Melita (who was seventeen at the time) married her twenty-five year old German cousin, who had become the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine two years earlier. The marriage between Ernest Louis and his new Grand Duchess was a disaster from the start. The two simply did not and never would get along. Victoria hated that her husband showed no affection towards her, instead choosing to shower all his attention upon their young daughter (who openly preferred her doting father over her lookalike mother). Victoria had two children with her mismatched spouse, though their youngest was stillborn:

  • Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and By Rhine (1895-1903) died of virulent typhoid at the age of eight
  • Stillborn son (1900)

Grand Duchess Victoria Melita of Hesse and her
daughter, Princess Elisabeth
While Victoria loved to host lavish and informal parties for the couple’s young intellectual and artistic friends (the unwritten rule was that anyone who was older than thirty “was old and out”), she despised having to perform her public duties as her husband’s consort. She evaded responding to letters, avoided visiting elderly relatives who she did not like, and preferred to socialize with charming, younger people similar to herself than individuals of higher status at official events. Ernest regularly argued with his wife over her negligence in her role as Grand Duchess in noisy, physical fights that usually resulted in the hot-blooded Victoria throwing anything close at hand at her husband, such as china and tea trays. Victoria’s only relief in her miserable life was her passion for horses. She would take long rides over the countryside to escape her unloving husband, her boring royal duties, and her young daughter who took after her father in showing little love for Victoria.

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse 
In May of 1896, Victoria and her husband travelled to Russia to attend the coronation of her maternal first cousin, Emperor Nicholas II, who had recently married Ernest’s younger sister, Alix of Hesse. During her trip, Victoria ran into Kirill once again and the cousins’ love for each other was rekindled. She spent the majority of her time at the coronation’s celebratory balls and parties flirting with Kirill, who was still unmarried. The following year, Victoria travelled to Romania to visit her sister, Queen Marie, and when she came back home she was horrified to find her husband in bed with a male servant. Although she never revealed this finding to the public, she told one of her nieces, “no boy was safe, from the stable hands to the kitchen help. He slept quite openly with them all.” Queen Victoria knew of her grandchildren’s unhappy marriage but she refused to allow them to divorce for the sake of their daughter. The Queen and the royal family spent the next few years trying to regenerate the marriage but everything that was attempted failed miserably. It was only upon Queen Victoria’s death in early 1901 that Victoria Melita could finally escape her cheerless union. Through initially Ernest did not want to divorce, he soon realized it was the only thing his wife truly desired. The marriage between the cousins was officially dissolved on December 21, 1901 when Victoria Melita was twenty-five years old. The royal families of Europe viewed the divorce as scandalous, as such a thing was seen as a taboo at the time. But Victoria couldn’t be happier to be free again and she moved away from Hesse to live with her widowed mother at Coburg at her house in the French Riviera (Prince Alfred had died in the summer of 1900 at the age of fifty-five from throat cancer. His duchy passed to his nephew, Prince Charles Edward, because Alfred’s only son, the young Prince Alfred, died in early 1899 under vague circumstances).

Princess Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Hesse
Victoria shared custody of her daughter with her ex-husband and it was agreed that Elisabeth would spend six months of every year with each parent. But Elisabeth had a difficult relationship with her mother because the young girl held her responsible for the divorce. The relationship never improved because Elisabeth died in November of 1903 from typhoid fever when she was only eight and a half years old. Ernest grieved his beloved daughter’s early death immensely, as he regarded her as “the sunshine of his life”, while Victoria was more introverted in her mourning. At her daughter’s funeral, she placed her Hessian Order medallion on her coffin as a last indication “that she had made a final break with her old home.” Ernest Louis remarried in February of 1905 to Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich, who he had two sons with. Ernest Louis died in October of 1937 at the age of sixty-eight after a long illness. A month after his death, his second wife and his eldest son, Georg Donatus, along with Georg's pregnant wife, Princess Cecilie of Greece and Denmark (a daughter of Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark) and two young sons were involved in a deadly airplane crash that left no survivors. After her divorce and her daughter’s death, Victoria and Kirill tried to begin an intimate relationship despite the fact that Kirill’s parents protested against the couple’s love. Kirill’s mother even told him to keep Victoria as his mistress but to marry someone else instead. When Kirill was serving in the Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War, his ship was blown up by a Japanese mine in 1904. Luckily, he was one of the few survivors of the explosion. His close brush with death made Kirill realize how precious life was and that he wanted Victoria as his wife now more than ever. So, after he was sent home to recover, he left Russia for Coburg to propose to Victoria, who happily accepted.

Victoria Melita and her second husband,
Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia
 On October 8, 1905, Victoria Melita married Kirill in a small ceremony in Tegernsee, Bavaria. The only guests at the wedding, other than a few attendants, were Victoria’s mother, her sister Beatrice, and a friend named Count Adlerburg. Tsar Nicholas II was so outraged over his cousins’ marriage that he denied Kirill of his royal allowance and barred him from the Navy. His wife reacted to the marriage just as angrily, saying that she would never see Victoria (who she called, “a woman who had behaved so disgracefully”) or Kirill ever again. Because the couple faced so much hostility from their Russian relatives, they decided to move to Paris. They lived in a home off the Champs-Élysées and survived off an income that their parents granted them. Victoria, who was almost thirty years old, matured greatly during her second marriage. Much to the delight of her husband and mother, she chose to convert to Russian Orthodoxy in 1907. Now a Grand Duchess of Russia, she had three children with Kirill in the span of ten years:

  • Grand Duchess Maria Kirillovna, Princess of Leningen (1907-1951) married: Karl, 6th Prince of Leningen – had issue
  • Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna, Princess of Prussia (1909-1967) married: Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia – had issue
  • Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich (1917-1992) married: Princess Leonida Bagration of Mukhrani – had issue

Grand Duchess Victoria Melita, her husband Kirill, and
their two daughters - Maria and Kira
After some members of the Romanov family died, Kirill became the third in line to the throne so Nicholas II decided to reinstate his cousin and invite him and his wife back to Russia. In May of 1910, Kirill and Victoria, who was given the official title “Grand Duchess Viktoria Feodorovna”, settled down in Saint Petersburg with their two young daughters. In the Russian capital, Victoria took pleasure in hosting copious dinners and balls for the crème de la crème of Russian society. She used her artistic talents to decorate her various homes and spent her free time gardening, painting, and riding. Unlike her days as the Grand Duchess of Hesse, Victoria fit in quite well in the lavish Russian aristocracy, although she never warmed to her cousins the Emperor and the Empress (both Victoria and her husband disapproved of Rasputin’s influence with the Imperial family). She had a loving relationship with her husband and the two often spent time together traveling through the Baltic provinces by car (Kirill loved automobiles). Both were also close to their two daughters and though Victoria hated the bitter Russian winters, she used the cold season as an opportunity to visit her sister Marie in Romania and her mother in either Coburg or southern France.

Grand Duchess Victoria Melita of Russia
When World War I broke out, Kirill and Victoria were vacationing with their daughters on their yacht in the Gulf of Finland. They soon came back to Russia and Victoria took part in the war effort as a nurse in the Red Cross while Kirill went back to the Navy, serving in a department in Poland. She used her money and status to create an efficient motorized ambulance for the wounded. Victoria Melita exhibited great bravery during her service, as she was often at the war front near Warsaw where she could be found tending to the injured under enemy fire. The couple was back in Saint Petersburg in February of 1917 since Kirill had been stationed as Commander of the Naval Guards in order to be closer to his wife and children. Though the couple was supportive of the Tsar in public, they would meet secretly with other relatives to try to find a way to save the doomed regime. Once revolution spread throughout the Empire and Nicholas II abdicated in March, Victoria discovered to her surprise and concern that she was pregnant at the age of forty. Meanwhile, Kirill and his naval unit proclaimed their loyalty to the Provisional Government in hopes that order could be returned and the Crown could survive the revolution. Although Kirill was eventually obliged to give up his command of the Naval Guards and many of his royal relatives saw him as a traitor to his family, Victoria stood by him, for she herself wanted the government to be reformed. His men also remained loyal to him and guarded his family’s house on Glinka Street. 

Victoria Melita with her husband, Grand Duke Kirill, and their two
youngest children - Kira and Vladimir
But the men’s protection did nothing to soothe Victoria and Kirill’s frayed nerves because they feared for their security under this new the anti-royalist regime. In June, the family was allowed to leave Russia for Finland, which was a territory of the Empire at the time with its own constitution and government. They rented a house in Porvoo, a city on the southern coast of the country, and it was here that Victoria gave birth to her only son, Grand Duke Vladimir, in August. Once the Bolsheviks gained control of Russia, Victoria and Kirill decided to remain in Finland, which had become independent in December. They desperately watched from afar as their home was plunged into civil war between Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the royalist White Army. They prayed for the White Army to prevail in the conflict but soon the family was more concerned with a matter that directly affected their wellbeing. They were quickly running out of supplies and money and had to beg for support from their family. The family lived under these troubling circumstances for two years and it seems as though this stressful period and the Russian Revolution took quite a toll on Victoria’s appearance. According to one eyewitness, she “looked aged and battered and has lost much of her beauty, which is not astonishing considering all that she has gone through.” In the autumn of 1919, Victoria and her family finally left Porvoo for Munich, where they joined with Victoria’s mother and moved to Zurich in September.

 Victoria Melita's eldest daughter -
Grand Duchess Maria Kirillovna of Russia
In October of 1920, Victoria Melita’s mother died at the age of sixty-seven and Victoria inherited her French villa, the Chateau Fabron in Nice, as well as her home in Coburg, the Edinburg Palace. For the remainder of their lives in exile, Victoria and her family would spend their days living in both residences. During her time in Germany, Victoria became attracted to the Nazi Party due to its anti-Bolshevik platform. She hoped, in vain, that the party might restore the Russian monarchy and even donated money to the Nazi cause. But it was highly unlikely that Victoria understood just how immoral the party and its ideology was; she simply believed that giving money and supporting the Nazis would bring back the Russian Crown because then her husband would have a chance of being named Emperor. A year after Kirill suffered a nervous breakdown in 1923, he named himself the Guardian of the Throne while his wife went to America to try to raise U.S. support for the restitution of the monarchy. Her efforts were futile but even after she returned home, she never stopped trying to fight for her husband’s claim to the throne. In 1925, her eldest daughter, Maria, married the head of one of Germany’s mediatized families, that of the House of Leiningen. The eighteen year-old Maria, who greatly resembled her maternal grandmother, married the twenty-seven year old Karl, 6th Prince of Leiningen (her third cousin) on November 25, 1925. They had seven children together with just one son dying in infancy. Victoria Melita, devoted to the last, was at her daughter’s bedside each time she gave birth during Victoria’s lifetime.

Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Around the time of Maria’s marriage, the German government began to deal politically with the Soviet Union. This made Kirill and Victoria’s claim to the lost Russian throne rather shameful for Berlin. In the summer of 1926, the couple moved to Saint-Briac on the Breton coast to escape the hostility of the German government. They lived in a secluded and remote location just outside of the French town in a house they named Ker Argonid. Victoria and Kirill felt a sense of security in this little country town and made friends in the area. It was in this isolated home that Vladimir was primarily raised, though he was upbringing was quite different from that of his older sisters. His mother was extremely protective of her only son, as she put all her hopes and desires for the future of the family name on his shoulders. She constantly feared for his safety so she wouldn’t let him go to school. Instead, she had him homeschooled by a private tutor as though he were a Russian grand duke before the revolution. Though she never let him even think about receiving an education for any sort of future career, Vladimir adored his mother and held her up on a pedestal for her commitment to him. Unfortunately for Victoria Melita, her life in Saint-Briac was not completely idealistic. In 1933, she found out that her husband had been having extramarital affairs during their time in France. Despite her shock and anger over this revelation, she decided to pretend as though nothing was wrong with her marriage to keep her children unaware of the situation. But eventually, the children did learn the truth and Vladimir took his father’s unfaithfulness to his mother quite seriously. He was never able to forgive Kirill for his actions and regarded his affairs as an act of treachery to the family.

Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna of Russia
In February of 1936, right after she went to the christening of Maria’s fifth child, Victoria had a severe stroke that restricted her to her bed for the last month of her life. She took comfort in the presence of her children and her dearest sister, Marie, at her bedside but the same could not be said for her cheating husband, as she apparently “shuddered away from Kirill’s touch.” On March 1, 1936, Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha died at the age of fifty-nine in Amorbach, Germany. She was buried in the family mausoleum of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Coburg until 1995 when her remains were moved to the Grand Ducal Mausoleum of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Kirill survived his wife by two years but he struggled with depression during his time as a widower. He was extremely lonely without his wife and although he hadn’t been faithful to her in the end, his love for Victoria still remained. Kirill had leaned upon Victoria for support, guidance, and strength and without her, he became a shell of his former self. The only happy occasion in his life after his wife’s death was the marriage of their second daughter, Kira, to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia in 1938. Kirill took great joy in the marriage between the thirty-one year old grandson of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany and the twenty-nine year old Kira, because he viewed the marital union as a merging of two dynasties. The blonde, blue-eyed Kira was a lively, smart, and blunt woman with a calm personality with a inquisitive nature. She had seven children with Prince Louis Ferdinand – four sons and three daughters. Kirill spent the last years of his life writing memoirs of his life with his late wife. He wrote of her: “There are few who in one person combine all that is best in soul, mind, and body. She had it all, and more. Few there are who are fortunate in having such a woman as the partner of their lives – I was one of those privileged.” Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia died on October 12, 1938 at the age of sixty-two in Neuilly, France. He was first buried beside his wife in Coburg until his remains, like hers, were moved to the Peter and Paul Fortress in 1995.

After his father’s death, Vladimir became the Head of the Imperial Family of Russia. During World War II, he spent a brief period of time in a concentration camp after he declined to write a manifesto asking Russian émigrés to back the Nazis against the Soviets. After the war, he lived in Madrid where he married the widowed Princess Leonida Bagration of Mukhrani, the daughter of the titular Head of the Georgian noble House of Mukhrani. Leonida had one daughter by her first marriage and after she wed Vladimir in 1948, they had one daughter – Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna of Russia – who is today the disputed Head of the House of Romanov. In the spring of 1992, Vladimir died at the age of seventy-four of a heart attack. He was buried beside his parents in the Peter and Paul Fortress. His wife survived him by eighteen years until her death in 2010 at the age of ninety-five.

Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
(Heinrich von Angeli, 1896)
As for Vladimir’s sisters, his eldest, Maria, lived in peace with her husband and children until World War II, when Prince Friedrich Karl was coerced to join the German army by the Nazis. At the end of the war, he was held as a prisoner of war by the Soviets and died of starvation in a Russian concentration camp in 1946 at the age of forty-eight. Maria, now a widow, had essentially no money after her husband’s death and she fought immensely to provide for her children. In October of 1951, Maria died at the age of forty-four of a heart attack. Maria’s younger sister, Kira, also struggled during the war when her husband, who worked with underground forces against the Nazis, was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp. Kira was imprisoned at the camp along with her spouse but luckily, both survived and were rescued by American soldiers in 1945. In her later years, Kira let her health go. She put on weight and developed high blood pressure, which caused her death from a heart attack in September of 1967 at the age of fifty-eight. Her husband survived her by twenty-five years until he died in September of 1994 at the age of eighty-six. The two were buried beside each other in Hohenzollern Castle, located in Baden- Württemberg. 

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