Honey golden sun and the sweet smell of Mediterranean flowers – when the Ancient Greeks arrived in Malta they called it ‘honey sweet’ and the Romans used the same name for the island, Melita. In the 19th century, this pretty and picturesque spot and the honey golden walls of its famous San Anton’s Palace was briefly home to one of Queen Victoria’s sons and the birthplace of one of his spirited daughters. He named her in honour of the island but that was just the start of an exotic royal story that was truly bitter sweet. The baby born in this honey palace grew up to be Victoria Melita, the Maltese Princess.
Her start in life was truly sweet with a golden pedigree. On the day she was born, November 25th 1876, she could count one emperor and two empresses among her grandparents. Her mother’s parents were the Tsar of All the Russias, Alexander II, and his Tsarina, Maria, while her father’s mother, Queen Victoria, had been declared Empress of India just months before her birth. Victoria Melita’s father, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, was the queen empress’ second son and had little chance of inheriting her throne. But he was in line to become Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha which would make him equal to many crowned heads in Europe. The future was golden for Victoria Melita even if she was soon known by the slightly less glamourous nickname of Ducky.
But by the time she was a toddler, the bitter sweet twists and turns that would govern her life had already come into play. After two idyllic years on Malta, where her father was stationed as part of his duty with the Royal Navy, Ducky and her family went back to England. And no one was more unhappy about that than Melita’s mama. The Duchess of Edinburgh had been born Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna and raised at the grand court of St Petersburg. She considered her married title of Her Royal Highness to be a demotion and didn’t understand why she had to give precedence to her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales, who had been born a daughter of the King of Denmark while her own father was the Tsar. So on their return to England, Maria ensured that her family spent as much time as possible at their country estate in Kent rather than at court in London. There, the Grand Duchess turned Royal Duchess filled her home with exciting people while giving her children a somewhat limited education.
Ducky didn’t exactly grow up honey sweet herself. She was described as sensitive, serious and even difficult and her favourite sister, Marie, who was a year older than her said that her ‘passionate’ sibling was ‘misunderstood’. While Marie, known as Missy, had golden hair and was praised as a great beauty her little sister, Ducky, grew up dark and tall and was described as having ‘the high spirits of a tomboy’. In 1886, their father was posted again to Malta and the two girls – along with their older brother and two younger sisters born during their time in Kent – returned to San Anton where they lived for another three years. Later, Missy would call this time the ‘happiest memory’ of her life and there’s little doubt that Ducky loved it just as much. Everything changed when the family moved to Coburg in 1889 as their father prepared to succeed to his dukedom. The honeyed days of horse riding in the sea air were replaced with strict lessons with a severe governess. And by the time her father became Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1893, Ducky’s life had changed forever.
Because if any part of this princess’ life was bitter sweet, it was her personal relationships. In 1891 she went to a family funeral in Russia and fell in love with a relative. The Grand Duke Kyril Vladimirovich, in his early teens like Melita, was equally smitten but their marriage was impossible as the Russian Orthodox Church forbade first cousins to wed. Besides, Ducky’s grandmother had plans of her own. That arch royal match maker, Queen Victoria, thought Melita of Malta would be a perfect bride for another of her grandchildren, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse by Rhine. The fact that the two didn’t really seem to get on was a minor inconvenience. For two long years, Ducky kept up contact with Kyril in the hope that love might conquer all. But on April 9th 1894, at the age of 17, she did her family’s bidding and married the man they called Ernie.
Their marriage was clearly unhappy from the start, and Ducky sometimes met Kyril at events in Russia, but ending her marriage while Queen Victoria was alive was out of the question. Grandmamma’s death, in January 1901, cleared the way for the Grand Duke and Duchess to part and they were divorced before the year was out. But if Ducky hoped bitterness would be replaced by sweetness by this move, she was wrong. Society was shocked by the divorce and Kyril was told in no uncertain terms that marriage to his shamed first cousin was completely out of the question. Ducky faced more heartbreak in 1903 when her only daughter with Ernest, Elisabeth, died at the age of eight. She retreated to her widowed mother’s house in Germany.
And then a shocking event changed everything round again. Kyril was serving in the Russian Navy and in 1904, as his country fought Japan, he narrowly escaped death when his ship was blown up. Having come so close to losing everything, he married Victoria Melita as soon as he could with their wedding taking place in Coburg on October 8th 1905. As a result, Kyril lost his title and claim to the Russian throne and he was banished from his home country. The couple didn’t seem to care but they were also quite happy to give up the life they built for themselves in Paris after their wedding as soon as the Tsar called them back to St Petersburg in 1908. Perhaps for the first time since her childhood in Malta, Melita entered a phase of sustained peace and contentment. Every inch her mother’s daughter, she revelled in her new title and the luxurious lifestyle that came with it. Being a Russian Grand Duchess suited Melita and it came to define her identity for the rest of her life.
It led to her seeking safe passage from her adopted home when revolution rippled through Russia and toppled the Tsar. It meant she changed the way the baby boy she gave birth to in exile was educated with little Vladimir being raised as a Russian royal. And it pushed her on to support Kyril when he claimed the title of Tsar in exile. She campaigned for the restoration of the Russian royal throne and ran their version of a court at their final home in Brittany. Through this later stage of her life, the sweetness of her marriage to her great love remained. But there was to be one more bitter twist.
In the 1930s something happened between the couple that would leave Melita angry with her husband for the rest of her life. But no one, not even the couple’s three children (they had two daughters as well as Vladimir) knew the cause – or if they did, they weren’t telling. Ducky’s beloved sister, Missy, said later that the secret had been whispered to her by her younger sibling and that she had promised never to divulge it. Given all they had been through to be together, some historians have argued that it must have been something truly terrible to cause such damage between Kyril and Melita. Some argue that Melita’s serious nature didn’t help as she had always had a tendency to brood and found it hard to forgive anything, however minor, once it had taken hold of her. Whatever happened, they were still on unhappy terms when she suffered a stroke in early 1936. She died on March 2nd soon after Missy had rushed to her bedside.
The little girl who was born on Malta was buried in Coburg but decades later her body, along with that of Kyril, was taken back to St Petersburg and buried in the Grand Ducal Mausoleum there. Born the granddaughter of empresses, her life had taken her around Europe through good times and bad until she, too, laid claim to a sort of imperial title. The passion and determination of the little girl who rode her white horse in the grounds of San Anton coloured her life through six tumultuous decades and the story of Victoria Melita is forever tied to that honey sweet land that lent her its name. She truly was the Maltese Princess.