Inherited bride

Published: 8. 10. 2021
Author: Silvia Mária Petrovits
Photo: Photo © Wikimedia Commons
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This year marks the 155th anniversary of the arrival of Danish Princess Sophie Frederikke Dagmar in Russia to become the penultimate Russian empress, better known as Maria Feodorovna or simply ‘Minnie’. 15 years ago, the mother of the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II. ‘returned’ back to St. Petersburg.

Many romantic stories include princesses, and many small girls dream of such a life. Yet, the fates of many real members of European monarchies have often been no fairy tale. Neither was the life story of a beautiful Danish princess, the mother of the last Russian tsar, Maria Feodorovna (26th November 1847 - 13th October 1928). Her life was bitterly marked by the events in her new homeland; and she was particularly tragically struck by the fate of her immediate family.

Bride for brother

When the Russian Tsar Alexander II. was looking for a bride for his successor Nicholas, Maria became the object of a dynastic alliance. Nicholas, the Russian Grand Duke and Heir Apparent and Vice-chancellor of the University of Helsinki, met Maria in 1864; they got engaged the same year. Maria was already learning Russian at that time and was preparing to convert to the Orthodox Church. Soon Nicholas got meningitis and went again for a treatment stay to Nice, France, where he had been in 1863. Although he spent two years there intermittently, the treatment was not successful. This is probably down to the doctors having diagnosed him correctly just before his death. While caring for the dying heir apparent a relationship began to blossom between Marie and his younger brother Alexander. The dying  heir apparent noticed the fondness they had for each other. Before he died in the spring of 1865, he had, according to several testimonies, expressed his desire for his younger brother and later Tsar Alexander III. to ‘inherit’ his fiancée. After the death of Grand Duke Nicholas and the end of the prescribed mourning, there was extensive correspondence between the imperial house and the royal family  about the renewal of the alliance - this time with Alexander.

Happy years of the Empress

The reception of the Danish princess was very cordial in  her new Russian homeland and at the imperial court. Even before the wedding in the chapel of the Winter Palace in November 1866, she had converted to the Orthodox faith and had taken the name of Maria Feodorovna. The Grand Duchess Maria, the charming, cheerful and most elegant woman of the court, was warmly received by the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the serfs. She supported homes for disadvantaged children, various educational institutions including the famous Smolny Institute, the Russian Red Cross and artists - especially painters. In the first years of the marriage, the young couple travelled a lot, also to Denmark. They liked to go there for the less stringent security measures and  more freedom of movement. Their peaceful period ended with the assassination of Alexander II. in 1881. Her husband, Tsar Alexander III, ascended the throne and she supported his political conservatism. She softened her husband's temper and despotism. Although  outwardly she barely interfered in politics, she nevertheless tried to persuade him to  favour Denmark in foreign policy, to approach Great Britain , and to face Germany against which she held a grievance for annexing Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 after the Danish-Prussian war.

The British dream vanishes

The Russian Dowager Empress (Alexander III. died in 1894) survived the revolution in Kiev, where she also learned about the abdication of her son. After the overthrow of the tsarist regime, she didn’t leave Russia, but hid in the Crimea. In the spring of 1919, she was evacuated from there by the warship HMS Marlborough to Great Britain, sent for her by her nephew, King George V of England, who happened to resemble her son. After the British government refused to grant her asylum, she left for Denmark. She lived there in the  resort of Hvidøre near Klampenborg. According to witnesses, she still refused to believe reports of the murder of her son and his family, hoping to meet him in Russia while she was still alive.

Fight for the head of the family

As a widow she had great influence in the Russian emigrant environment in Western Europe. Hvidøre House was the political centre of Russian emigration until her death, but she rejected any attempts to engage in political activities. Believing that her son Nicholas II. was alive, she considered the appointment of a new head of the dynasty to be premature. Together with Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich Jr., a respected member of the family, they publicly opposed the declaration of her nephew, Grand Duke Kirill, as the new Tsar Kirill I in 1924.

Triumphant return after death

After her death in 1928, the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna was placed in a sarcophagus in the crypt of the cathedral in Roskilde. By agreement between the Russian and Danish governments, her remains were transferred to St. Petersburg in 2006 and placed in the Peter and Paul Cathedral next to her husband, Tsar Alexander III, and son Nicholas II. The Danish Crown Prince Frederik and his wife Mary also attended  the ceremony. The daughter of a Danish king and later Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna, returned to Russia on the 140th anniversary of her first arrival and marriage to Alexander III, and 78 years after her death. As Queen Margaret II of Denmark stated on television at the farewell ceremony in Denmark: "I am glad she will return. She wanted it. Her heart belonged to Russia."

Daughter of the "father of rulers"

The princess, affectionately called "Minnie" in the family and in Russia, was known for her beauty, sociable  and kind nature. The situation of her impoverished branch of the Danish royal family, on the periphery of public interest, changed after the childless King Frederick VII. appointed her father Christian as his successor. The social status of the family changed significantly when her father Christian Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburghe ascended the throne in 1853 as Christian IX. The marriage policy he applied to his children was close to the policy of the Austrian Empress and Hungarian Queen Maria Theresa.  The eldest daughter Alexandra married the future British monarch King Edward VII, youngest daughter Thyra married  Ernst Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Teviotdale and Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Hannover. Two of  the sons later became kings - Frederik of Denmark and William - the grandfather of the recently deceased husband of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh – became the King of Greece. Only Prince Valdemar did not accede the throne. He pursued a career in the Danish navy.


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