Sunday 11 December 2011

A forgotten Grand Duchess

Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna entered the world in the 1,500-room Winter Palace on 24th June 1825, the third daughter of His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia and his German wife, dainty Princess Charlotte of Prussia, who taken the name of Alexandra upon converting to the Russian Orthodox faith just before her marriage. It is often asserted that this latest addition to the Romanov clan, definitely the most powerful family on earth in 1825, was christened in honour of her father's late sister, Archduchess Alexandra of Austria, described by one diplomat as 'lovable, caring and the most thoughtful of the princesses in Europe'. A striking but shy blonde, the late Alexandra had married into the Austrian imperial family, before dying at the tragically young age of seventeen during a particularly grueling childbirth that she was quite simply too fragile to survive. However, it's equally possible that the younger Alexandra was named in honour of her mother's Russian name or in honour of her uncle, Alexander I, the current Tsar of Russia. Either way, little baby Alexandra joined her brother, Alexander (nicknamed Sasha), and two elder sisters, Maria and Olga, and settled down to what everyone expected to be a quiet but privileged life as the Tsar of Russia's youngest niece.

Nine months after little Alexandra's birth, however, her parents were thrust into the centre of national life when her uncle Alexander suddenly died at the age of forty-seven whilst vacationing in southern Russia. Alexander's marriage to the stunning Empress Elisabeth had been childless, which meant that it was logically assumed by most people that the next-in-line was the Tsar's younger brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, a middle brother between him and Alexandra's father, Nicholas. However, unbeknownst to most of the Russian government and even to Nicholas himself, years earlier Constantine had come to a secret agreement with Alexander to give up his rights to the throne so that he could marry a Polish socialite, Joanna Grudzinska. Joanna was a Roman Catholic and, by the standards of the Russian Imperial House, a commoner (her father was a count); both of these things made her ineligible to marry the future tsar and, like Edward VIII a century later, Constantine put private satisfaction above public duty and renounced the throne in order to marry Joanna. The major problem with this was that the Romanov family's proverbial ability to keep a secret meant that neither Constantine nor the departed Alexander had bothered to tell Nicholas who, because of his brother's decision, was now heir-apparent to the Russian throne. On 1st December 1825, when news reached Saint Petersburg that Alexander I was dead, Nicholas therefore dutifully had Constantine officially proclaimed the new Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias. Meanwhile, Constantine, still in Warsaw, took nearly thirteen days to inform Nicholas of the turn of events which meant he would stay a grand duke, but his younger brother would now become Tsar Nicholas I. The situation was turned from an embarrassment into a crisis when a group of liberal army officers attempted to force liberal Constantine onto the throne instead of conservative Nicholas, resulting in the so-called "Decembrist Uprising,"  which ultimately ended in failure.

Perhaps it was because of the otherwise-traumatic events of the year in which she was born that Alexandra was apparently her father's favourite child. Through her mother, she had inherited some of the fabled beauty of her German grandmother, Queen Louise, and she was said to be sweet, charming, beautiful and a talented musician. At the age of sixteen, like all the Romanov princesses, she made her official 'entrance' into Saint Petersburg high society as a debutante, where she quickly earned general approval for her charm, vivacity and style. Doted upon by her father and now the toast of the capital's glittering night-life, Alexandra was also an avid patron of music and took singing lessons herself from the famous German opera singer, Henrietta Sontag.  However, like her mother the Empress, Grand Duchess Alexandra was physically very fragile and like the aunt she may have been named after, she was almost certainly too weak to go through the rigours of early nineteenth century childbirth.

During the Season of 1843, when she was seventeen years old, Alexandra fell madly in love with a twenty-three year-old German prince, Frederich-Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel, who was visiting Saint Petersburg in search of a wife. Heir to one of the most prestigious royal houses in Germany, Prince Frederich-Wilhelm was allegedly originally intending to pay suit to Alexandra's elder sister, twenty year-old Olga. (The eldest sister, Maria, was already married.) However, realising the depth of passion between the two, Olga stepped graciously aside to allow Frederich-Wilhelm to begin courting Alexandra, a move which Olga later insisted was something she had done voluntarily and not under any pressure from either Frederich or Alexandra. Although initially reluctant to part with his baby daughter, the Tsar realised that Alexandra was entirely smitten with Frederich-Wilhelm and, like Olga, he did not want to stand in the way of the couple's happiness. The Emperor and Empress gave their permission for the marriage to go ahead and it was celebrated with the Romanov court's customary pomp at the Winter Palace on 28th January 1844, during the middle of the Saint Petersburg Season, which began on New Year's Day and ended just before Lent. Alexandra, now Princess of Hesse-Kassel, was pregnant by spring and the Tsar used it as an excuse to keep the young couple in Saint Petersburg.

However, Alexandra had withheld the news that even before the wedding, she had been suffering from ill-health. In fact, she almost certainly had consumption and the pregnancy accelerated the process whereby the life was almost literally drained out of Alexandra. She was too ill to make the journey to Germany and her husband stayed at her side in Russia, hoping desperately that once the pregnancy was over, his wife might make a recovery. It was not to be. On 10th August 1844, Princess Alexandra collapsed and went into labour, three months early. The baby was a boy, christened Wilhelm in honour of his German grandfather, but he died shortly after his premature birth. Broken in body and spirit, Alexandra died a few hours later, at the age of nineteen.

The grief of Alexandra's father and her husband was said to be manic. Forty years later, her sister Olga would recall in her memoirs The Golden Dream of My Youth that Alexandra's death was something that she herself still wept to remember. Reflecting the Emperor's heartbreak and acknowledging the fact that Alexandra had never left Russia, Alexandra was buried in the Romanovs' Grand Ducal Mausoleum near the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg, the traditional necropolis of Russia's imperial family. She was buried with her baby in her arms; mother and child united in death. Understandably, Frederich-Wilhelm never recovered from such an appalling tragedy, in which he had fallen in love, become a bridegroom, then lost a child and a wife he by all accounts worshipped, all in the space of a year. Bowing to dynastic considerations, he did later marry again to a German princess, a cousin of Alexandra's, with whom he had six children. But he never loved his second wife and the marriage was said to be polite, but distant, something predicted by Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who warned the young bride's family that she knew Frederich-Wilhelm would remain in love with Alexandra until the day he died.

Back in Russia, Alexandra's parents had her rooms in the Peterhof Palace, a beautiful summer palace by the northern sea, preserved exactly as they had been on the day she died.


  1. What a tragic story! I had never heard of Alexandra.

  2. I didn't know her story either. How sad!


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