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 Melita and her second husband,|
Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich of Russia
- 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
|Grand Duchess Victoria Melita of Russia|
|Victoria Melita with her husband, Grand Duke Kirill, and their two|
youngest children - Kira and Vladimir
| Victoria Melita's eldest daughter - |
Grand Duchess Maria Kirillovna of Russia
|Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha|
|Grand Duchess Kira Kirillovna of Russia|
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)