Princess Victoria Melita

Princess Victoria Melita

by John van der Kiste

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Princess Victoria Melita played a colourful role from her birth in 1876. The second daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, she made a brief and unhappy marriage at the age of 17 to her cousin, Ernest, Grand Duke of Hesse. In the face of strong opposition from her family she divorced him seven years later and married another cousin, Grand Duke Cyril of Russia, resulting in three years of exile. When revolution toppled the empire in 1917, the Grand Duke and Duchess and their children escaped to Finland, living in danger for three long years. Following the atrocities of the Bolsheviks at the time, including the murder of most of the Romanov family, the Grand Duke believed he was the senior surviving member of the imperial house, and proclaimed himself Tsar. However, they were never able to return to their homeland, and the Grand Duchess died in exile in 1936. Using previously unpublished correspondence from the Royal Archives and Astor papers, this is a portrait of the Princess, set against the imperial courst of the turn of the 20th century and inter-war Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752471945
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 10/21/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 411,491
File size: 566 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

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Princess Victoria Melita

Grand Duchess Cyril of Russia 1876â"1936

By John Van der Kiste

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7194-5


The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh

A swarm of European royalty descended on St Petersburg in January 1874 for the wedding of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia. As befitted the nuptials of a daughter of the Tsar, it was a picturesque and magnificent occasion. No less remarkable were the circumstances leading up to the marriage themselves, for in view of the fragile relations between Britain and Russia during the nineteenth century, and even more so between their reigning dynasties, it was almost unthinkable that such a match could ever come to pass.

Prince Alfred ('Affie') was born at Windsor Castle on 6 August 1844, the fourth child and second son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In his formative years he compared favourably with his elder brother Prince Albert Edward ('Bertie'), Prince of Wales. While the son born to succeed his mother on the throne as King Edward VII was wilful, obstinate and given to fits of uncontrollable temper, Affie was a placid child. He was more eager to learn than his brother, and at the age of four and a half, according to his governess Lady Lyttelton, he was said to have 'very uncommon abilities; and a mind which will make the task of instructing him most smooth and delightful.' His intelligence and powers of concentration were evident at an early age, as was his passion for geography and anything to do with the Royal Navy. He was clever with his hands, and enjoyed taking mechanical devices to pieces and reassembling them to find out how they worked, sometimes adding minor improvements of his own in the process. He also made toys for the younger children, and even a rudimentary musical box which played Rule Britannia, albeit in fits and starts.

Bertie was heir to his mother's throne; Affie was likewise destined to succeed his Uncle Ernest as Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Ernest had already fathered several illegitimate children, and contracted venereal disease, much to the disgust of his virtuous brother Albert. It seemed unlikely that he and his wife Alexandrine would produce an heir to the duchy. The succession would therefore fall to Affie. Yet he could not be educated entirely abroad; should anything happen to Bertie, he would be King, and as Prince Albert pointed out to his brother, 'if we make a German of him, it might be very difficult for him and for our country.'

At the age of eleven, Affie began training for the Royal Navy under the supervision of a tutor, Lieutenant John Cowell. Three years later, he passed his entrance examination with excellent marks, and spent much of the next three years away from home, apart from occasional periods of leave with the family at Windsor, Osborne and Balmoral.

During his formative years, Affie showed signs of growing up to be very like his father. He was never bored; his perpetually-inquiring mind and busy hands meant that he could always find himself something to do, and he was happy to be left on his own. Inevitably this went with a tendency to be quiet and rather shy, a trait sometimes mistaken for rudeness in later life by those who did not know him better. In character he was remarkably unlike Bertie, an extrovert who relished the company of others, and never liked being left to his own devices, and hated books or anything remotely connected with the schoolroom. The brothers were devoted to each other, and this fraternal bond would last throughout their lives, but people outside the family readily observed how different they were. Charles Wynne-Carrington, chosen to come and play as a boy at Eton with them while the family was in residence at Windsor, remarked that he liked the Prince of Wales much better, even though Prince Alfred 'was the favourite'.

Father and second son also shared a common bond in their love for Coburg. On his visits to Uncle Ernest and Aunt Alexandrine, Affie realized that he found the same feelings of contentment and tranquillity at Rosenau, the birthplace of Prince Albert who always retained a great affection for the castle.

However, Affie was to be deprived of his father's guidance at an early age. A few weeks after his seventeenth birthday and one glorious family holiday in the Scottish Highlands, Affie sailed from Liverpool to join the North American and West Indies station.

Several thousand miles away that winter, his grieving relations at Windsor gathered round the bed of the Prince Consort. Prince Albert, gravely weakened by overwork and anxiety, had aged far beyond his forty-two years, and on 14 December 1861 he succumbed to an attack of typhoid. Apart from his eldest sister Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, recovering from pneumonia at Berlin, Affie was the only one of the children not at Windsor. Not until February 1862 did he arrive home on an extended period of compassionate leave. Ironically his efforts to be cheerful, and his reluctance to observe every little detail of mourning at home, began to drive mother and son apart. Much as he missed his father, and was saddened at being denied the solace of relations at the time, he argued that he was trying not to be heartless. With the resilience of youth, he knew that life had to go on; but the brave face he showed to the family was not appreciated in what had become a house of deepest mourning.

Worse was to come. That summer Affie rejoined his ship and sailed for Malta. Queen Victoria had asserted, somewhat hysterically, that an affair between the Prince of Wales and an actress in Ireland the previous year had 'broken her Angel's beloved heart'. Now, when their second son likewise yielded to the temptations of the opposite sex, and rumours of an affair he had had on Malta reached her, she was shocked by his 'heartless and dishonourable behaviour'.

This had happened at a rather inopportune moment. The Greeks had just rebelled against their unpopular and childless King Otto, and the provisional government was asking the protecting powers of Britain, France and Russia to nominate a candidate for the vacant throne. Although members of these three countries' ruling families were ineligible under the terms of a London protocol signed in 1830, the Greeks showed great enthusiasm for 'a son of Queen Victoria', it was reported cryptically in the press. By mid-November it was apparent that Prince Alfred's election as King of the Hellenes was almost a foregone conclusion. In a plebiscite held at the end of the year, he received over 95 per cent of the votes cast. Yet much to his relief, the British government made it clear that he was not permitted to accept the throne, and at length a prince of the Danish house of Glucksburg was chosen instead.

In 1866 Affie was promoted to the rank of Captain, and three months later Queen Victoria created him Duke of Edinburgh, and Earl of Ulster and Kent. By the end of the year, plans were well under way for him to take his ship HMS Galatea on a world cruise. It was a responsibility which, the Queen remarked coldly, he seemed to view 'with such reluctance and suspicion'. He was unhappy at the idea of being separated from family and friends for so long, but this was just what she wanted, hoping that 'the responsibility and the separation from his London flatterers will do him good.' He had shown a marked predilection for society life, and the Queen feared that he was too infatuated with his charming sister-in-law, Princess Alexandra.

All the same, he discharged his duties on the world cruise with distinction, though a lengthy sojourn in Australia soon palled for him. It was, however, cut short when an attempt on his life was made near Sydney in March 1868. A Fenian sympathizer, seeking revenge for the execution of three members of the Fenian Brotherhood for shooting a policeman in Manchester, found the nearby presence of Queen Victoria's second son a providential target for revenge.

Affie was shot and wounded in the back, but fortunately the bullet was deflected from his spine by a pair of heavy braces, and removed after a short operation. He returned home, where he quickly exhausted his mother's patience by receiving 'ovations as if he had done something – instead of God's mercy having spared his life.' A second cruise on Galatea took him to India, Asia and the South American continent, and he returned in May 1871.

Shortly before setting sail again at the end of 1868, he had stayed at Jugenheim with his sister Alice and her husband Prince Louis of Hesse and the Rhine. Several other members of the Russian and Hessian families were present, among them Grand Duchess Marie, fourteen-year-old daughter of Alexander II, Tsar of Russia. It was this same Marie, the Duke told his mother shortly after completing his travels in 1871, that he wished to marry.

Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna was born on 17 October 1853, sixth child of Tsarevich Alexander and the former Princess Marie of Hesse and the Rhine. There were six sons of the marriage, all of whom lived to maturity, and two daughters. The elder, Alexandra, had died in infancy, and as the only surviving girl, Marie was inevitably the apple of her father's eye. She grew up to be rather spoilt, used to having her own way, and as a result of being surrounded by brothers, somewhat brusque and masculine in her demeanour. Certainly she inherited nothing of her mother's fragile beauty.

Marie's eldest brother, Tsarevich Nicholas, died shortly after being betrothed to Princess Dagmar of Denmark, sister of the Princess of Wales. It was Nicholas's dying wish that Dagmar should marry his brother Alexander, and the match was a very happy one. Both Danish-born sisters and Princess Louis of Hesse, Queen Victoria's second daughter, were anxious to ease tension and suspicion between their adopted countries, and to this end they arranged regular meetings of British, German and Russian royalty with the annual Danish family reunions. King Christian IX and Queen Louise were supremely fortunate in having such a united family. Queen Victoria, used to pacifying warring elements between her sons and daughters when continental marriages, divided loyalties, and Bismarck's policy of blood and iron exacted their toll on fraternal harmony, remarked with envy on how King Christian's brood 'never breathe one word against each other, and the daughters remain as unspoilt and as completely Children of the Home as when they were unmarried'.

It was at one such meeting that Affie and Marie came face to face for the first time. Marie was not yet fifteen, so it was hardly a case of love at first sight. Nonetheless Affie liked her company and thought she had plenty of character. No less importantly, he realized that once he returned from the second part of his cruise on Galatea (which he was scheduled to join again a few weeks hence), Queen Victoria would increase pressure on him to consider a suitable marriage. He had already been more than mildly infatuated with his sister-in-law, and after that with Lady Constance Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster. The Queen knew that the sooner a wife was found for him the better, and preferably a German one.

Having allowed her eldest son to marry a Danish princess had, in her eyes, proved a grave miscalculation for political reasons. Within less than a year of the marriage, Germany and Denmark had gone to war over the future of the Schleswig-Holstein duchies. Despite the Queen's steadfast German sympathies, the Prince and Princess of Wales had – without actively trying – helped to swing public opinion at large firmly on the side of beleaguered Denmark.

Several German princesses had been considered for Affie, but ruled out for various reasons, mainly on grounds of health or total lack of mutual attraction. Princess Elizabeth of Wied came the closest to becoming Duchess of Edinburgh, but her eccentricities were revealed when she discovered that her suitor played the violin. When he was invited to stay with the family, she and her mother organized an expedition into their favourite beech woods, so that he could serenade them under the trees. Gallantly he complied with this strange command – he could hardly say no – but he vowed silently between clenched teeth that he would never marry anyone with such peculiar notions.

If there were no eligible German princesses for Affie, why not a Romanov Grand Duchess? The Princess of Wales, her sister, and his sister Alice all thought that such a dynastic union would help to further the cause of European harmony, and ease relations between England and Russia. As the Tsar's only daughter, Marie would doubtless come into a considerable fortune on her marriage, and Affie had inherited something of the Coburg parsimony. Sir John Cowell, now his secretary, maintained that his concern with money 'amounted to a disease'. On her side, Marie was fascinated by this deeply-tanned sailor prince and Duke with a wealth of stories about his recent world travels, comprising what was probably the most extensive journey yet undertaken by a European prince – and with a wound in his back, to bear witness to the most hair-raising episode of them all.

Affie's meeting with Tsar Alexander II in July 1871 proved to be a prelude to two years' difficult courtship. The Tsar and Tsarina dreaded the idea of losing their beloved daughter to a foreign court, and hoped fervently that a prince who would stay in Russia might be found for her. As for Queen Victoria, she had no love for the Romanovs, whom she regarded as 'false and arrogant'. According to her great-grandson, Earl Mountbatten of Burma, speaking a century later, 'she feared Russia, with very good reason. She had the view ... that absolute autocracy was wrong and was bound to end in tears, which it did.'

A contemporary of Mountbatten, Tsar Alexander's granddaughter Grand Duchess Olga, had no doubt of Queen Victoria's feelings for the family: 'Victoria was always contemptuous of us. She said that we possessed a "bourgeoisie", as she called it, which she disliked intensely. ... My father (Tsar Alexander III) could not stand her. He said that she was a pampered, sentimental, selfish old woman.'

Less than twenty years had elapsed since the English and French armies had gone to war with Russia in the Crimea, and mutual enmity was still just below the surface. Religious differences posed another obstacle, until the Queen was assured that members of the Greek Orthodox church (to which the Romanovs belonged) did not refuse to acknowledge any creed other than their own, unlike Roman Catholics. She accepted that the choice of wives for her second son was becoming so narrow that they 'must get over the difficulties concerning religion'.

More than once, Queen Victoria believed that what she called 'the Russian project' was over. She heard from various sources that the Grand Duchess was too deeply attached to her home; the Tsar and Tsarina would not let her marry, except to a Russian; and later that she was in disgrace for having had an affair with one Russian officer and regular correspondence with another. At one stage, she insisted that there must be 'mutual attachment' between the Duke of Edinburgh and the Grand Duchess, and that they must marry within the year, 'or else it must finally be put an end to'.

At length patience brought its own reward. On 11 July 1873 at Jugenheim, Affie asked for Marie's hand, and she accepted him. When she received his telegram in which he told her how happy they were, and 'hoping that your blessings rest on us', the Queen at Osborne professed astonishment 'at the great rapidity with which the matter has been settled and announced'. To Vicky, she wrote bluntly, 'The murder is out!'

The Duke of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Marie were married at St Petersburg on 23 January 1874, at a double ceremony. The first was performed according to the Greek Orthodox Church, the second according to the rites of the Church of England. It was the only marriage among Queen Victoria's children which she did not attend in person, but she sent Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, to perform the English service. Lady Stanley was commanded to report back to her sovereign in full detail.

Bride and groom arrived at Windsor on a sunny day in March. At last the Queen had repented of her persistently churlish attitude, and relished this first chance to meet her son's bride. Though she had to admit that the Duchess of Edinburgh was not pretty or graceful, and held herself rather badly, she was 'most pleasingly natural, unaffected and civil; very sensible and frank'. Best of all, she was 'not a bit afraid of Affie and I hope will have the very best influence upon him'.

Yet Queen Victoria's apprehensions about having a Romanov daughter-in-law were soon justified. Marie and the Tsar informed the Queen that she was to be known as Her Imperial Highness, 'as in all civilised countries'. This rankled with the not yet imperial Queen who retorted that she did not mind whether her daughter-in-law was called Imperial or not, as long as the style Royal came first. Then there were arguments as to which title should come first, when referring to Marie – Grand Duchess of Russia, or Duchess of Edinburgh? Feeling out of her depth on the matter, the Queen referred it to her private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby, who was amused at so much fuss about such trivialities, and quoted Dr Johnson to his wife: 'Who comes first, a louse or a flea?'.

In May 1874 Tsar Alexander paid a state visit to England. This coincided with another argument about Marie's position at court. It rankled with her that as an emperor's daughter she was not granted right of precedence over the Princess of Wales, by birth the mere daughter of a King of Denmark. The Tsar had to concede to Queen Victoria that Princess Alexandra should indeed precede Marie, as wife of the heir to the throne, but he asked for his daughter to take precedence over her other sisters-in-law. This the Queen would not countenance, but Marie exacted her own subtle revenge. At her first drawing-room she took malicious pleasure in showing off her splendid jewellery. The English princesses could not hide their jealousy, while the Queen looked at the pearls and diamonds disdainfully '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'.


Excerpted from Princess Victoria Melita by John Van der Kiste. Copyright © 2011 John Van der Kiste. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh,
2 'This passionate, often misunderstood child',
3 'Very charming and distinguée',
4 'A period of magnificent enjoyment',
5 'A terrible and unexpectedly grave event',
6 'At last, the future lay radiant',
7 'Ta femme est Grande Duchesse',
8 'Nothing is left, nothing!',
9 'Three long years',
10 'Magnificently resigned and uncomplaining',
11 'She was our Conscience',
Genealogical Tables,
Reference Notes,

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