Maria Alexandrovna (Marie of Hesse)
Maria Alexandrovna (Russian: Мария Фёдоровна; IPA: [ɐlʲɪˈМария ˈfjɵdərəvnə]), born Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine (8 August 1824 – 3 June 1880) was Empress consort of Russia as the first wife of Emperor Alexander II. She was the mother of Emperor Alexander III.
She was a daughter of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden. Marie was raised in austerity but was well educated by her mother who took personal charge of her education but died when Marie was still very young. She was only fourteen years old when the Tsarevich Alexander Nikolaevich, later Tsar Alexander II of Russia, fell in love with her while he was traveling to Western Europe. She arrived in Russia in September 1840, converted to the Orthodox Church, took the title of Grand Duchess of Russia and traded the name Marie for Maria Alexandrovna. She married Alexander on 16 April 1841. The couple had eight children: two daughters and six sons. For fourteen years (1840–1855), she was Tsarevana, the wife of the heir of the Russian throne. She became the Russian Empress consort after the death of her father-in-law, Tsar Nicholas I.
Maria Alexandrovna learned the Russian language quickly, she was pious and identified with her adopted country. She did not enjoy court life of the duties of representation as she was shy and of a withdrawn nature. As a consequence she was not popular. She took interest in charity activities more strongly after the death of her mother-in-law the Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in 1860. Maria Alexandrovna was particularly active in the field of female education establishing Russia's first all female schools. She organized the Russian Red Cross and expanded its activities during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78.
She was deeply affected by the death of her eldest son the Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich in 1865. By then, her fragile constitution was undermined by her numerous pregnancies and by tuberculosis which afflicted her since 1863. To avoid the harsh Russian winters, she spent long sojourns in the Crimea and in southern Europe. During many summers she visited her family in Jugenheim, where she had spent her childhood. Her marriage to Tsar Alexander II started as a love match and it was happy for some years, but Alexander II had many affairs and in 1866 he fell in love with Catherine Dolgorukova and had four children with his mistress. Maria Alexandrovna was treated with respect by her philanderer husband and was much loved by her surviving children. After a long illness, she died in 1880. The Mariinsky Theatre and the city of Mariehamn in Åland are named after her.
Empress Maria Alexandrovna was born as Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse and by Rhine, on 8 August [O.S. 27 July] 1824 in Darmstadt. She was called Wilhelmine, like her mother, while in Darmstadt, but was known as Marie afterwards.
Maria was the youngest child among the seven children of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden, a sister of the Russian Empress consort, Elizabeth Alexeievna. Maria Alexandrovna's parents were first cousins, but they were a mismatched couple. Ludwig, then hereditary Prince, was shy and withdrawn, while Wilhelmine, eleven years her junior, was pretty and charming. After the birth of three sons, the couple grew apart during the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars while Prince Ludwig was in the battle fields. However, after a gap of eleven years, Princess Wilhelmine went on to have four more children. Court rumors attributed the biological paternity of the second set of children to Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, the Grand Master of the stables of the Grand Duke of Hesse. Of those four children, Marie and her brother Alexander, who was a year older, lived to adulthood. Ludwig officially recognized the children as his. By 1827, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and his wife became estranged. While Prince Ludwig occupied the Grand Ducal Palace in Darmstadt, in 1828, his wife moved with their two younger children and her household to Heiligenberg, a mountainside estate nestled on a hill overlooking the village of Jugenheim that she purchased that same year In 1829, however Wilhelmine and Ludwig celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in apparent harmony. In 1830, Maria's paternal grandfather, Ludwig I, Grand Duke of Hesse, died and her father, Ludwig II became the new reigning Grand Duke. Gradually Maria's parents reconciled. Heiligenberg was used in the summer months by Ludwig II as well as his wife.
Marie was four years old when she moved to Heiligenberg with her mother and her brother Alexander. It was there where she spent most of her childhood. Heiligenberg, originally built in simple German patterns, had been previously a nunnery and it was located some 20 kilometers from Darmstadt. Princess Marie grew up under the care of her mother who was responsible for her education. Wilhelmine had a preference for French culture and literature which was evident the way she educated her daughter with a special emphasis on literature and history. When Marie was eleven years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Marianne Gransi, a lady-in-waiting to Marie's mother, a sister of August von Senarclens de Grancy, took over the responsibility of Marie's education.  After her mother's death Marie and her brother Alexander moved permanently to the their father's court in Darmstadt. The two siblings would remain very close through out their lives. Marie also was close to her two elder brothers: Ludwig III, Grand Duke of Hesse and Prince Karl of Hesse. The cloud over the legitimacy of their birth continued to be cast upon Alexander and Marie. On his part, their father, Ludwig II, was cold and distant towards his children.
In the spring of 1839, the Tsarevich Alexander Nikolaevich, heir to the Russian throne, the son of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, traveled to western Europe to complete his education and to search of a wife. His parents had preselected for him Princess Alexandrine of Baden, but, upon meeting her, Alexander's heart was unmoved. On 13 March 1839, after visiting the courts of Prussia, Württemberg and Baden, Alexander and his entourage made an unplanned stop at Darmstadt at the court of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse. Marie, the Grand Duke's only surviving daughter, was not on the list of possible brides. They stopped for one day in Darmstadt because it was on their way and they needed some rest. That evening, invited to the Opera house to a performance of La vestale to the music by Gaspare Spontini by the Grand Duke, Alexander was introduced to Princess Marie of Hesse. Although she was only fourteen, Marie was slender and tall for her age. She was girlish, still wearing her hair loose, fragile with a tiny waist, golden hair and bulging blue eyes. She was eating cherries and had to spit the seeds in her hands when she was pushed forward to be introduced to the Tsarevich. Alexander was smitten by her. Alexander's tutor, Vasily Zhukovsky, who was traveling with him, described the Princess as: "modest, charming and even intelligent." Alexander stayed to dine with the boring Ludwig II to see Marie again. Before he left Darmstadt, she gave him a locket containing a piece of her hair. That night Alexander wrote to his father: "I liked her terribly at first sight. If you permit it father, I will come back to Darmstdat after England". Nicholas I received the letter nine days later, as his son has carefully planned, on the day of the annunciation and saw the timing as a good omen. Nicholas I gave his approval. He was not bothered by the gossips surrounded Marie's origin. If Ludwig II has recognized her as his daughter that was good enough.
In London, Alexander was entertained by the young Queen Victoria and he later visited his aunt, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia in The Hague. In early June, he returned to Darmstadt to seal his engagement with Princess Marie. As she was not yet fifteen, a long engagement period was necessary before the actual marriage would take place. Towards the closing weeks of 1839, the Tsarevich returned to Darmstadt to visit Marie again. A Russian Orthodox priest came to Darmstadt to give Marie instruction in the Russian Orthodox religion. The engagement between Princess Marie of Hesse and the Russian Tsarevich was officially announced in April 1840.
Two generation earlier, a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt had already married a Russian Tsarevich. Princess Marie's paternal great aunt, Natalia Alexeievna, had been the first wife of Tsar Paul I, Alexander's grandfather. Natalia had died in childbirth after a labor lasting five days. In addition, Marie's maternal great-aunt Louise of Baden (Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna) had married Emperor Alexander I of Russia. She had died when Marie was only two years old. Alexander Nikolaevich's mother Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia, objected to her son's choice for a wife. She was not only disturbed by the rumors surrounded Marie's paternity but also ill-disposed towards the Hesse family and she was concerned that Marie might have inherited her mother's consumption. In a letter to his mother, Alexander wrote: "I love her, and I would rather give up the throne, than not marry her. I will marry only her, that's my decision!" Finally, after being persuaded by her husband Emperor Nicholas I, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna went to Frankfurt where she met Marie in June 1840. The Empress liked what she saw and gave her permission to the marriage.
A few weeks after her sixteenth birthday, in August 1840, Princess Marie of Hesse and her party set out for Russia. She was escorted by her brother Alexander. Her governess, Mlle von Grancy went as well, and remained in Russia with Marie. Marie arrived in September 1840 and she shared her impressions of St. Petersburg in a letter to her family: "St. Petersburg is much more beautiful than I thought. The Neva River contributes to this. I think it is difficult to find a greater city. The view from the Winter Palace on the Neva is wonderful!". Marie's arrival in Russia was greeted with great pomp and ceremony with a continuous round of festivities and amusements. French plays, operas and new ballets were performed in the Chinese theater, and each Sunday her future mother-in-law, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, gave a banquet in the Alexander Palace. However, Marie had a hard time adapting to her new surroundings. Years later, her lady in waiting, Anna Tiutcheva, was to write about this period in the life of the young German Princess: "Having been raised in seclusion even, one might say, in austerity, in the little castle of Jugneheim ( sic Heiligengber), where she saw her father only rarely, she was more frightened than bedazzled, when she was suddenly brought to the most opulent, most splendid, most brilliant Court of all European nations. She told me that many times. After constant battles of overcoming her timidity and awkwardness, later on, under cover of darkness and the stillness of her own room, she would give freedom to her tears and muffled cries".
Marie, who had been raised in the Lutheran religion, was received into the Russian Orthodox Church on 17 December [O.S. 5 December] 1840 and she became Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. On the next day, the official betrothal was held in the presence of the Imperial Family, the whole court, the Russian nobility, many notable foreign guests, and representatives of foreign states. Alexander was twenty three and Maria was only sixteen.
Marie won the hearts of all those Russians who could get to know her. Sasha [Alexander II] became more attached to her every day, feeling that his choice fell on God given. Their mutual trust grew as they recognized each other. Papa [Nicholas I] always began his letters to her with the words: "Blessed be Thy Name, Mary." <...> Dad joyfully watched the manifestation of the strength of this young character and admired Marie's self control. This, in his opinion, balanced the lack of energy in Sasha's lack of energy fro which he constantly worried about.— Olga Nikolaevna. A dream of youth. Memories of the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna
The wedding took place on 28 April [O.S. 16 April] 1841 in the Cathedral Church of the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg, on the eve of Alexander"s twenty-third birthday. Maria Alexandrovna wore a white dress richly embroidered with silver and diamonds. Over one shoulder lay a red ribbon and a crimson velvet robe with white satin and fine ermine was fastened on her shoulders. She was bedecked with a diamond tiara, diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, and diamond bracelets. Her future mother-in-law, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, decorated the bride's hair with orange blossoms sticking them between the diamonds in Maria Alexandrovna's tiara, and pinned a small branch on her chest. The wedding was attended by members of the Russian Imperial family, the court and numerous guest and it was followed by a festive dinner ball.
Maria Alexandrovna did not like noisy receptions and balls or metropolitan life. All this bored her. She preferred a quiet life in the royal residences. However, "etiquette obliged her to fulfill all this." She was very reserved, even shy. Now she felt only the horror of that brilliant destiny, which so unexpectedly opened before her. Adjustment to life at the Russian court proved a difficult challenge for Maria Alexandrovna, prompting her, in later years, to take extended journeys abroad. She was very shy. The damp climate of St. Petersburg did not prove healthy for her, and she developed a persistent cough and recurring fever. Nevertheless, she became the mother of eight children. These pregnancies, together with ill health, often kept her away from activities at the Imperial court, which brought temptations to her husband.
On 18 February 1855, Nicholas I died, and the coronation of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna took place the following year. The ceremony happened in the Assumption Cathedral of Moscow Kremlin, and the celebrations lasted from 14 to 26 August 1856. As Empress consort Maria Alexandrovna had to attend more state functions, her health notwithstanding.
From the early 1860s through the 1870s, she began to pay long visits to her homeland, usually bringing her husband, children and a Russian entourage with her, and stopping at Schloss Heiligenberg, the small castle of her brother Alexander, who lived with his morganatic wife and their children at Jugenheim, outside Darmstadt. There she met Princess Alice, second daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of her nephew, Prince Louis of Hesse. She resisted Alice's suggestion that her brother Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Marie's only daughter, Maria marry, but the couple would wed in 1874. It was there that Marie's eldest son, the Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich had become betrothed to Princess Dagmar of Denmark, although he died in 1865 during the couple's engagement and Dagmar would wed Marie's next oldest son, the future Emperor Alexander III, in the following year.
After Alice died in 1878, Marie invited the motherless children to visit during the holidays she spent with Alexander's family at Heiligenberg. It was also during Maria Alexandrovna's visits to Heiligenberg that her second youngest son, Grand Duke Sergei, met his future wife, Alice's second daughter, Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine. There, too, Maria also met Elisabeth's youngest surviving sister, Princess Alix, who would eventually become the devoted, though ill-fated, wife of Maria Alexandrovna's eldest grandson, Emperor Nicholas II.
A legend alleges that on a visit to Darmstadt, upon meeting Alix, Marie turned to her maid of honour with the words, "kiss her hand. That is your empress to be." In later years Nicholas II's eldest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga, claimed that as a small child she saw the ghost of her great-grandmother, Maria Alexandrovna, according to her nanny, Margaretta Eagar.
Maria Alexandrovna knew Alexander was unfaithful and had many lovers. The Tsar had three children with his mistress, Princess Catherine Dolgoruki, whom he moved, along with their children, into the Imperial Palace during Marie's final illness, entering into a morganatic marriage with the princess on 18 July [O.S. 6 July] 1880.
Titles and styles
- 8 August 1824 – 3 June 1880 Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine
- 16 April 1841 – 2 March 1855 Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, Tsesarevna of Russia
- 2 March 1855 – 3 June 1880 Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of all the Russias
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- Zeepvat, Romanov Autumn, p.50
- Zeepvat, Heiligenberg, p. 3
- Van der Kiste, The Romanovs 1818–1959, p.11
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- Radinsky, Alexander II, p. 66
- Zeepvat, The Camera and the Tsars, p. 41
- Van der Kiste, The Romanovs 1818–1959, p.12
- Radinsky, Alexander II, p. 67
- Zeepvat, Romanov Autumn, p.32
- Van der Kiste, The Romanovs 1818–1959, p.13
- Korneva & Cheboksarova, Russia & Europe, p. 16
- Gilbert, Alexander II and Tsarkoe Selo, p. 41
- Zeepvat, Romanov Autumn, p.33
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- Profile, Mariagessen.narod.ru (in Russian)
- Манифестъ. — О кончинѣ Ея Императорскаго Величества Государыни Императрицы Маріи Александровны. (in Russian)
Maria Alexandrovna (Marie of Hesse)
Cadet branch of the House of HesseBorn: 8 August 1824 Died: 3 June 1880
Charlotte of Prussia
|Empress consort of Russia
Title next held byDagmar of Denmark