Of the thousands who pass by the West Door of Westminster Abbey each day, few raise their heads to notice the effigy of a middle-aged nun, and, of those who do, perhaps even fewer are aware that this remarkable woman was once renowned as ‘the most beautiful princess in Europe.’
A granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and great-aunt of the present Duke of Edinburgh, no one who saw Princess Elizabeth (Ella) of Hesse-Darmstadt gracing the opulent Romanov Court could have imagined that she would die horrifically of infected wounds and starvation in a mineshaft in Siberia, or that she would one day be recognised as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The second daughter of Queen Victoria’s daughter Alice and her husband Louis, heir to the little German Grand Duchy of Hesse, Ella was born into a happy household in 1864. Although by royal standards her parents were not wealthy, they sought to create an idyllic childhood for their seven children, whom they educated themselves, ensuring that their curriculum included the practical skills of gardening, cookery, woodwork, book-keeping and household management. Alice, a great philanthropist, was equally keen to instil in her children the belief that with privilege comes responsibility, and they frequently witnessed her willingness to carry out the most menial tasks in the hospitals and homes of the poor.
Life was not all service and study, though. Each year, the family spent several months with Queen Victoria in England, where Ella delighted in the ‘pretty English houses with their pretty little gardens’ and she and her siblings ran wildly through the corridors of Windsor Castle in noisy games of hide and seek, or enjoyed the sea air at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
This childhood idyll was tragically cut short in 1878 when a diphtheria epidemic broke out in Darmstadt, and one after another, Ella’s father and each of her siblings contracted the illness. While Ella was sent away for her own protection, her mother nursed the rest of the family, adhering to the doctor’s instructions to neither kiss nor hold the children to avoid contracting the highly contagious disease.
Despite Alice’s tender ministrations, diphtheria proved fatal for her youngest child, five-year-old May, and to avoid causing distress to the other children who were still in the grip of the disease, Alice did not tell them that their sister had died. When, eventually, her son, Ernie, began to recover, Alice revealed the truth, and the little boy was so overcome with grief that Alice held him in her arms and kissed him. It was, as Disraeli told the British parliament, ‘the kiss of death’. Alice, too, contracted the illness and died on 14th December – the seventeenth anniversary of the death of her father, Prince Albert. Her final words were a whispered, “Dear Papa!”
Devastated by Alice’s death, Queen Victoria promised she would try to be a mother to ‘dear Alice’s orphaned children’, and, true to her word, she followed their progress with maternal concern, frequently inviting them to spend time with her in England. Ella, she noticed, was blossoming into a strikingly beautiful young woman and when her cousin, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, fell in love with her, The Queen was delighted. Ella’s intelligence and gentleness would, she hoped, help calm the impetuous young man, and she had no doubt that Ella would one day make a wonderful German Empress.
To Ella, though, the idea was abhorrent and, while even years later, her fond grandmother sighed at the thought of ‘what might have been’ she accepted Ella’s decision, convinced that she would soon find an equally suitable ‘parti’. A few years later, The Queen’s resignation turned to horror when she discovered that Ella had decided to marry ‘a Russian!’
Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, a younger brother of Tsar Alexander II, was, at first sight, hardly the ideal husband for a half-English princess, raised in a liberal atmosphere. Tall, extremely thin and highly-strung, he was notoriously short-tempered with strong reactionary views and firm belief in the autocracy of the Tsar. Nonetheless, Ella appeared to see beyond his harsh exterior and, as she told The Queen, she hoped she might ‘do him some good’. When the wedding took place in the Winter Palace in June 1884, a distressed Queen Victoria huffed in horror, “I hate weddings!”
In the early months of her marriage, Ella revelled in the glamour of the ballrooms of St. Petersburg where her beauty attracted the attention of every man in the room, but within months of the wedding, unfounded rumours of Serge’s cruelty towards her spread through the courts of Europe, fuelled no doubt by her spurned suitor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The fact the couple remained childless added to the belief that something was amiss in the marriage and, when Ella attended Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887, her fond grandmother pressed her to reveal the most intimate details of her life but was disappointed by Ella’s protestations: “All I can repeat is that I am perfectly happy.”
For a while, in fact, Ella was happy. She loved her husband and he, in his way, loved her, but for a woman raised in an atmosphere of service to others, Ella soon found that her talents were stifled in an endless round of receptions and society entertainment. Serge refused to permit her to venture out among the poor of Russia, viewing such a move as dangerous and demeaning to the Imperial Family, and Ella was obliged to console herself by founding various charities, and encouraging a match between her younger sister, Alix, and Serge’s nephew, the Tsarevich Nicholas, who had met and fallen in love with one another at Ella’s wedding.
Neither the Russian Imperial Family nor Queen Victoria favoured such a match. To the Russians, Alix was too reserved and serious for a future Tsarina; and for Queen Victoria, the prospect of her favourite granddaughter living in a country where assassinations were commonplace was too terrifying to contemplate. Moreover, Alix herself had reservations for, much as she loved Nicholas, a Tsarina had to be of the Russian Orthodox faith, and she was unwilling to abandon her Lutheran religion. Even when, in 1891, Ella converted to Orthodoxy, Alix’s scruples prevented her from accepting Nicholas’ proposal. For ten years, Ella urged Nicholas to remain hopeful, while Queen Victoria became increasingly irked by Ella’s ‘interference’, until, at last, at a family wedding in Coburg in 1894, Alix gave way and agreed to marry Nicholas. In the ‘orgy of rejoicing’ that followed, even Queen Victoria was so touched by the romance, that she gave the young couple her blessing.
Queen Victoria’s fears for Alix’s future were well-founded. Barely had the engagement been announced when Nicholas’ father, Tsar Alexander III, died unexpectedly, leaving twenty-six-year-old Nicholas to shoulder the responsibility for his hundred-and-eight-million subjects. Alix, eager to support him, agreed to have the wedding brought forward, and in November 1894, amid whispers that ‘she has come to us behind a coffin’, Tsar Nicholas II and ‘Alexandra’ (as she was now named) were married in an atmosphere of mourning.
Despite Ella’s high hopes, Alix did not endear herself to the Russian Court, where her attempts to engage the aristocracy in charitable works were met with disdain. More importantly, in the first ten years of her marriage, she gave birth to four daughters but, in a country where women were debarred from inheriting the throne, she had yet to produce an heir. It was not until 1904 that she finally gave birth to a son – the Tsarevich Alexei – but, within a matter of weeks, it was discovered that he had inherited the ‘terrible illness of the English family’ – haemophilia.
In 1905, following a disastrous war with Japan, unrest spread through Russia, and one particular target of the revolutionaries was Ella’s husband, Serge, now Governor General of Moscow. One afternoon in February, while Ella was working on a Red Cross project in the Kremlin, she heard an explosion from the street outside, and realised at once that her husband had been assassinated. Rushing to the scene, she discovered a shattered carriage, two dead horses and Serge’s mutilated corpse. Gathering his remains in her own hands, she ordered the body to be taken to a neighbouring monastery and, three days later, visited his killer in prison. Presenting the man with an icon and a Bible, she told him she had forgiven him but needed to know what had impelled him to commit such violence.
From that moment on, Ella’s life changed dramatically. She sold or gave away all her property, even her wedding ring, to purchase a piece of land in the poorest part of Moscow, where she built a hospital, orphanage, church and convent of which she became Abbess. Every part of the building was designed by the finest architects and artists to create a palace for the poor, for, as she said, “How can those who work all day in terrible conditions ever find beauty in their souls.”
Throughout the night, she wandered the streets, rescuing abandoned children and child prostitutes, providing them with a home, and, having undertaken a course in nurse training, she tended the most abject patients herself. Her schemes extended to providing work and hostels for young people across Russia, and establishing the earliest forms of district nursing in the country. So great was her impact that the Muscovites revered her as a saint, and even when Russia was in the grip of revolution, she was initially permitted to continue her work, until the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 and Lenin declared that no Romanov should be left alive in Russia.
Despite pleas from her family in England, and offers of help from her cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, Ella refused to abandon her orphans and her convent. In the summer of 1918, she was taken with several companions to Siberia where, in the early hours of the morning on 18th July – a day after the murder of her sister, Alix, and the entire Imperial Family – she was taken by cart to a disused mine, and having been struck by rifle-butts was forced into the waterlogged shaft, and left to die of starvation.
Miraculously, it was reported that when her body was eventually recovered from the mine, it was found to be incorrupt, and when, in 1921, her elder sister, Victoria (grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh) arranged for her to be reburied in Jerusalem, a monk accompanying the coffin claimed that a scent of roses emanated from it. Since then, several miracles have been reported at her tomb on the Mount of Olives.
The convent, which Ella founded, has now re-opened, and in 1981 she was declared a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia.
Perhaps, if you should pass by Westminster Abbey, you might raise your head and notice ‘the most beautiful princess in Europe’, who sought to bring beauty to the lives of the poor – Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Saint Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia.