On January 23, in 1874, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, second son of Queen Victoria, married Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, daughter of Alexander II, Emperor of Russia at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Queen Victoria didn’t attend the ceremony – indeed, she had been against the match during the marriage negotiations, as was the Russian Emperor -and was instead represented by her eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (“Bertie”) and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, Princess of Wales.
The couple originally met during a trip to Germany in the summer of 1868, when Alfred was visiting his older sister, Alice, married to Prince Louis of Hesse. They wouldn’t meet again until the summer of 1871, again in Germany, where Marie had accompanied her parents and Alfred had Bertie and Alexandra. There the couple had the opportunity to spend substantial time together and apparently fell in love. They were reported to share a passion for music – Marie played the piano and Alfred the violin – and spent a remarked-upon amount of time in each other’s company.
By the end of the visit, the couple had apparently told their families they wished to marry, but no engagement announcement would be forthcoming. Alexander II was extremely close to his daughter and was loath to lose her, while his wife, the Tsarina, formerly known as Marie of Hesse, thought the British cold and strange. Meanwhile, Queen Victoria’s sentiments weren’t any friendlier: Mutual mistrust of both cultures still existed from the Crimean War, which had ended in Russian defeat in 1856. Added on to those sensitivities was Marie’s Orthodox faith, which would be entirely foreign to the House of Hanover.
Negotiations begun in 1871 stalled in 1872, but were re-started in January 1873. Rumors circulated through Europe that Marie had “compromised herself” with one of her father’s aides-de-camp, though Alfred refused to believe the stories. Instead, he jumped through every hoop the Romanovs put before him, while both mothers worked fruitlessly to distract their children with other suitors.
In April Alfred met Marie and the Tsarina in Sorrento, Italy, and in July he traveled to Germany to meet with Alexander where he formally asked for Marie’s hand and was accepted. Alfred promptly telegrammed his mother: “Maria and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us.”
In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote, “”Not knowing Marie, and realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts and feelings are rather mixed.” In a letter to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, she wrote, “The murder is out.”
The Tsar agreed up on a hefty dowry for his daughter and gave her several priceless jewels from the Romanov collection, including a parure that had belonged to Catherine the Great. However, it all nearly came to naught when Queen Victoria requested the girl be sent to Balmoral Castle in Scotland to meet her, was refused, and instead issued a counter-offer to meet in-between in Germany. The answer was viewed as wildly insulting by Queen Victoria, who said:
“I … who have been nearly twenty years longer on the throne than the Emperor of Russia … and who am a Reigning Sovereign … should be ready to run to the slightest call of the mighty Russians … like any little Princess.”
The Tsar, meanwhile, was nonplussed by Victoria’s insistence that an Anglican service be held in addition to an Orthodox one, though he did agree to it.
Alfred arrived in St. Petersburg with Bertie and Alexandra on January 4, the ceremony, split into two parts – the Orthodox and the Anglican – occurring just under three weeks later. The Tsar, devastated to lose his daughter, was reported to look pale throughout the wedding, but stated he knew it was for “her happiness.” It was said that the lavish celebrations that followed, which overwhelmed British guests, were meant to convince Alfred to make his home in Russia, but the couple departed after a several weeks-long honeymoon, arriving in England on March 7.
The Tsar, for his part, kept their honeymoon suite decorated as-was until his death, holding out hope his daughter would return. The room would eventually become the bedroom of Nicholas II and his wife, Alfred’s niece, Alix of Hesse, in 1894.
Marie and Queen Victoria finally came face-to-face at Windsor Castle. The Queen wrote about the meeting in her diary, saying:
“I took dear Marie in my arms and kissed her warmly several times. I was quite nervous and trembling, so long had I been in expectation … Dear Marie has a very friendly manner, a pleasant face, beautiful skin and fine bright eyes … She speaks English wonderfully well.”
The young couple were given Clarence House as their London base, as well as a country estate of Eastwell Park in Kent. And it was here that the couple’s first two children were born, a son named Alfred after his father, and a girl named Marie, but always called Missy, after her mother. The couple would go on to have three more daughters, as well as a stillborn son.
Unfortunately, despite a strong start and good intentions, the marriage quickly began to suffer. Marie detested England, London in particular. She didn’t care for most of Alfred’s siblings. She found visiting Queen Victoria to be boring and, hardly unsurprising given strict adherence to mourning the late Prince Consort, depressing. Alfred, like his elder brother, the Prince of Wales, was a serial philanderer.
Marie sparred with the Queen and her sisters-in-law over the matter of precedence. As the Russian Emperor’s only daughter, she was used to outranking all women with the exception of her mother. However, in England, it was impossible for her to precede the Princess of Wales, as the wife of the future king. In retaliation, Marie took delight in showing off the large jewels her father had gifted her, which consistently overshadowed the British collection, including the Queen’s. As the daughter of the British Ambassador to Russia noted at the time:
“The Queen compared the Duchess’s tiara with those of her own daughters, shrugging her shoulders like a bird whose plumage has been ruffled, her mouth drawn down at the corners, in an expression which those who knew her had learned to dread.”
Beginning in 1878, the couple began to spend large amounts of time outside of England. With Alfred the heir to his paternal uncle, Earnest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, they spent time at his court in Coburg, and Marie made numerous trips back to Russia to be with her parents. In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated and Marie returned home for his funeral and to witness the coronation of her brother, Alexander III.
In 1887, the couple moved permanently to Coburg and she oversaw the building of Edinburgh Palace in Coburg, which house the couple’s ample art collection and where she was able to entertain in Russian style. The marriage, however, had almost completely deteriorated. By the mid-1880s, Alfred was an alcoholic and the couple spent as little time together as possible. This worked for a few years when Alfred was able to decamp from Coburg to various naval bases, however in 1893 his uncle Ernest died and he inherited the duchy.
The time together didn’t help the relationship. In 1898, Marie wrote to her eldest daughter, Missy, then Crown Princess of Romania, “If only you knew how easy and comfortable life is without him.”
On January 23, 1899 Alfred and Marie celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, during which their eldest child and only son, Alfred, committed suicide. His death would fully drive his parents apart, with Alfred blaming Marie for the tragedy. During his funeral, Marie broke with ceremony and began sobbing hysterically.
Alfred, devastated by his son’s death, never fully recovered and his health deteriorated quickly. He died in his sleep in July 1900 with Marie and their three youngest daughters at his bedside.
Marie spent her widowhood primarily in Germany, however she did visit England on occasion – she was with Queen Victoria at Osborne House when her mother-in-law passed away on January 22, 1901. She spent most of her time focused on her daughters and supporting them through their own marriages. In 1901, following the Queen’s death, her second daughter, Victoria Melita, known as “Ducky,” divorced her husband and first cousin, Ernest, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, and came to live with Marie for a time. Ducky would go on to marry Kirill Vladimirovich, Grand Duke of Russia, pleasing her mother with a Russian match.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Marie’s loyalties were divided, but painfully, she sided with Germany over her homeland. She was forced to watch as many of her relatives were assassinated or forced into exile – indeed, she would be the only child of Alexander II to live through World War I. She wrote, in 1917, that:
“At the age of 63, I am very fresh in mind, if not in body, and I can support with patience and resignation a sad and perhaps miserable end of life which is in store for my old age… Sometimes I also seem to despair, but not about myself, but about the state of things in general.”
Harassed for her Russian heritage in Germany, Marie relocated to Zurich, Switzerland where she was reunited with her daughters, Missy and Ducky. She died there on October 25, 1920, age 67. Shortly before her death, she would write:
“I am too utterly disgusted with the present state of the world and mankind in general… They have destroyed and ruined my beloved Russia, my much-loved Germany”
It’s a sad story, especially given its promising beginning. Beloved by her father and genuinely in love with her husband when she married him, it would have been impossible to foretell how Marie’s life would unfold once she reached England.
The wedding, however, was lovely.
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