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‘My darling Auntie’: Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and Princess Louise

Amongst the extensive collection of letters left by Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, the sixth daughter of Queen Victoria, are at least two from her niece, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918).

Two of Alexandra’s letters to her aunt were reproduced in the admirable book Darling Loosy, Letters to Princess Louise 1856-1939, ed. Elizabeth Longford (1991). I want to explore these letters and set them in the context of when they were written and what we know of Alexandra’s movements at this time, especially against the wider wartime correspondence that she conducted with her husband, Tsar Nicholas II.

Letters from the last Tsarina to her relatives are rare. We know that she continued to think of her British relations until the end of her life because she marked the birthdays of certain English relatives at the heading of the respective entries in the pink cloth-bound diary that she used right up until her death. The dates of these (selected) surviving letters to Princess Louise from the Tsarina are also of interest because they were written between 1914 and 1916. Similarly, the wartime correspondence of the Tsarina with her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, shows that she was receiving letters from her English aunts, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein and Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg in the early months of the war: ‘I received letters from Thora [Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein]. A. Helene [sic] & A. Beatrice, all send you much love & feel for you deeply…’ (ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 49).

Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, as painted by Philip de László, (Philip de László [United States Public domain via Wiki Commons])

An enquiry by the present author to the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF), produced a negative response as to the existence of any letters from Princess Louise still preserved in Moscow. This was in itself unsurprising for we know from contemporary accounts that the Tsarina destroyed much of her personal correspondence herself in the wake of the February Revolution. The absence of any letters from Princess Louise in Moscow appears to confirm that these letters must, therefore, have been among those which the Tsarina personally destroyed, one by one.

This destruction of her private correspondence also included some of her diaries according to the biographer R. K Massie who stated that the Tsarina burned many of her white satin or leather bound diaries and much of her personal correspondence. We must suppose that this, for the Tsarina, must have been a painful task as these letters also apparently included communication from Queen Victoria and, according to the author Carolly Erickson, the Tsarina also burned her letters from her father, Ludwig IV of Hesse (Carolly Erickson, Alexandra, The Last Tsarina, 300).

Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting, Lili Dehn, wrote later: ‘A fierce fire was burning in the huge grate in the red drawing room… she [the Tsarina] reread some of them… I heard stifled sobs and… sighs… Still weeping, [she] laid her letters one by one on the heart of the fire. The writing glowed for an instant… then it faded and the paper became a little heap of white ash…’ (cit., Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 413).

This destruction did not, however, extend to her own correspondence with the Tsar which was carefully preserved. As far back as January 1916, the Tsarina had requested the Tsar to burn her letters, ‘so that they should never fall into anybody’s hands’, but he preserved them, and they were found later at Ekaterinburg in a black box together with the Tsar’s diaries and correspondence (Letters of the Tsaritsa, 255; Erickson, 369).

Alexandra’s private letters from her closest friends and family were such that she did not wish them to be read by others. Alexandra’s elder sister, Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia, deeply regretted having to take similar action when she had to flee Kiel to safeguard the privacy of such personal correspondence. She wrote to their sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, that she had had to burn almost everything she had kept which her sisters, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna and Alexandra, had written to her because she hadn’t wanted them to fall into the wrong hands.

This preface enables us to understand the very great worth, then, of letters of Alexandra which have survived aside from those she wrote to her husband, Tsar Nicholas II.

Following her birth in Darmstadt as the fourth daughter of Princess Louise’s elder sister, Alice, Princess Louis of Hesse, the names proposed for the girl were those of her sisters. Princess Alice wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘We think of calling our little girl ‘Alix… Helena Louise Beatrice… and if Beatrice may, we would much like to have her as godmother…’ (cit., Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 279). A week later, Princess Alice bowed to what was the Queen’s request: ‘I will add Vicky’s name to Baby’s others, as you propose…’ (cit., Ibid, 280). The future Tsarina was, therefore, given Princess Louise’s name among her baptismal names, along with those of her other aunts. Princess Louise married Lord Lorne, future 9th Duke of Argyll, the year before Alix’s birth and  Louise and Lord Lorne were frequent visitors at the Hessian hunting lodge of Wolfsgarten (Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 16).

I have yet to discover a photograph which shows Princess Alix of Hesse alone with Princess Louise although there are, of course, numerous examples of Princess Alice with her younger sister Princess Louise, which are preserved at the archives in both Windsor and Darmstadt. Princess Alice ended a letter to Princess Louise just over a month before her death in Darmstadt in 1878: ‘Goodbye once more and God bless you ever your loving sister Alice’ (cit., Longford, 214). Reading this from the perspective of posterity, we know that Louise never saw Alice again.

Prince Arthur, their brother, wrote to Princess Louise on 23 November 1878: ‘Almost the first thing that will have greeted your arrival in Halifax will be the sad news of poor little May’s [Princess Marie of Hesse] death, and the serious illness of all the others… imagine the frightful anxiety Alice has had to go through. At the very time of the funeral of her little darling she had to go into the room of Louis [her husband, Ludwig IV of Hesse] and the others with a smiling face as if nothing had happened. We have all felt so much for her…’ (cit., Ibid, 216). Alice died on 14 December 1878 on the anniversary of the death of her beloved father, Prince Albert, who had passed away seventeen years earlier; the names of her youngest daughter Princess Marie and that of her father were amongst the last words she said.

Princess Alix’s elder brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, later wrote in his memoirs:My favourite aunt was Louise, Duchess of Argyll. She was so sweet with us children and was always pleased, when she could take part in something with us. It was a special pleasure for me, when I could be at the dressing of my beautiful, idolized aunt. What didn’t we chat about together! She always remained the same towards me and now, though she is nearly 90, is still a match for any other beautiful woman….’ (Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, 88).

Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, in later years (Bassano [Public domain])

The artistically inclined Ernst Ludwig continued: ‘She is a true artist in painting and sculpture. In St. Paul’s hangs a beautiful, large Christ on the Cross, supported by an angel, which was erected in memory of those who had fallen in the Boer War’ (Ibid, 88). A charming photograph of Ernst Ludwig with his adored Aunt Louise by the Darmstadt court photographer, Backofen, survives, showing Ernst Ludwig in what appears to be a sailor’s uniform (Charlotte Zeepvat, Queen Victoria’s Family, 47). A handful of letters from Princess Louise to Ernst Ludwig as well as to his son, Prince Georg Donatus, survive in the Hessian archives.

The first letter from the Tsarina to Princess Louise dates from 1914 and is written chiefly as a condolence letter to her aunt on the death of Louise’s husband, Lord Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll. We might be forgiven for remembering Queen Victoria’s widow’s cap and regal mourning at this moment when reading a letter to Princess Louise from Queen Alexandra: ‘Darling Louise, Here is my old [widow’s] bonnet as a pattern which I hope you may like and copy. I wore it always…’ (cit., Ibid, 283). Princess Louise was sixty-six when Lorne died, to Queen Victoria’s forty-two when she became a widow. Princess Louise confided to a lady-in-waiting, Ethel Badcock: ‘My loneliness without the Duke is quite terrible… I wonder what he does now.’ (cit., Ibid, 77).

Alexandra’s eldest sister, Princess Louis of Battenberg, was with Princess Louise during the first weeks of her widowhood. We know this because of a letter Queen Alexandra wrote to Princess Louise: ‘Dear Victoria B[attenberg] I know has been a great comfort and help to you in your loneliness and anguish…’ (cit, Ibid, 282). Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia echoed this in a letter to her eldest sister, Princess Louis of Battenberg: ‘poor dear Aunt Louise she must have gone through terrible days till the end came and will miss him sadly I fear in spite of all, after such a long married life – and being so poorly it will have been a great shock I fear… ‘ Princess Henry offered Louise the chance to stay with them at Hemmelmark: ‘Should she like a change… I am at any moment ready to go and fetch her and ask her to make a stay with us at Hemmelmark, where perhaps the quiet, and even my dullness might at such a moment be a relief to her….’ (cit., Ibid, 283). Perhaps with a thought to her younger sister, Alexandra in distant Russia, Irene added at the end of her letter: ‘Russia seems more restless again’ (cit., Ibid, 283).

The Tsarina wrote the first of these two letters from Livadia, the imperial resort in the Crimea, 17/30 May 1914. She had probably not seen her aunt since the Russian imperial visit to Balmoral in 1896 at which Louise was present (Buxhoeveden, 72). The Russian imperial family had been at the Crimea until 3 January 1914 and departed for Livadia again on 5 April 1914 (Buxhoeveden, 181). The Tsarina began her letter to her aunt:

My darling Auntie, I just received your letter forwarded to me by Victoria, and thank you for it with all my loving heart. It is a comfort to know that at least one of dear Mama’s daughters [Victoria] was near you during the first trying days. You know how especially dear you have always been to us and how tenderly Papa [Louis, Grand Ludwig IV of Hesse] and we loved you…’ (cit., Ibid pp. 283-284). This is supported by the fact that sixteen letters from Princess Louise to Ludwig IV (1871-1890) are preserved in the Hessian State Archives in Darmstadt. Also surviving in the Darmstadt archives are sketches from a trip to Scotland which Princess Louise made together with Princess Alice and Prince Louis of Hesse, from October 1865.

The Tsarina continued, in sympathy at her aunt’s bereavement and typical of the kind of warm interest she showed in her female correspondence: ‘More than ever are my thoughts near you, and the home-coming to the empty house will be bitterly trying. But you are brave, darling, and God is sure to give you strength and comfort. You are right in saying that one must ever turn to Him and trust that all is for the best. I too have ever found that in prayer alone one can gain strength to bear one’s crosses….’ (cit., Ibid, 284).

The tone of the letter is revealing, as it also provides a rare glimpse into the life led by the Russian Imperial family at this time as well as the Tsarina’s thoughts: ‘Being myself such an invalid these last eight years, I have learned to look upon Him every moment of my life. Our Church-services and prayers are most beautiful and consoling – and to partake oftener of Holy Communion brings such peace and resignation…’ (cit., Longford, 284).

The Tsarina enclosed with her letter some photographs of the Russian Imperial children apparently because Princess Louise had asked about them in a previous letter. Indeed, the Tsarina’s letter reads as much as a reply to one of her aunt’s earlier letters as a deep expression of sympathy at her loss. The photographs of the children survive, in the Royal Collection, together with the letter. That of the imperial daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, was taken by Boissonnas & Eggler (active 1902-1916). At least ten other photographs are professional single and group photographs of the daughters, whilst that showing the young Tsarevich Alexei, may have been a private photograph made by the Tsarina herself, who was often photographed with her fashionable box camera (ed. Royal Collection Trust, Russia: Art, Royalty and the Romanovs, 429).

As if perhaps thinking on this theme, the Tsarina went on to tell her aunt about the health of the Tsarevich: ‘Thank God Alexei has been keeping in much better health and has grown very much. He will be ten this summer. I think you would love him, you always loved boys so much. He has such a tender heart – and bears pain so patiently – is very merry and clever…’ (cit., Longford, 284). Poignantly, a colonel’s uniform of a Kuban Cossack Attaman c. 1910, which belonged to the Tsarevich Alexei survives in the Royal Collection. It came into the Collection by way of Lady Paget who wrote to the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Lord Sysonby, to tell him that she had bought the uniform and wished to present it to King George V, writing: ‘It is a very sad possession and everyone including myself has felt great emotions about it.’ (cit., ed. Royal Collection Trust, 446).

The Tsarina then wrote to her aunt a charming description of Livadia which she probably knew would appeal to Princess Louise’s artistic sensibilities: ‘We… regret having to leave this lovely place. You cannot imagine what quantities of roses we have – of every colour and sort and so immense – one longs to be an artist to paint from morn to night’. (cit., Longford, 284). Princess Louise, of course, was a remarkably accomplished artist.

Alexandra Feodorovna, dressed in her nurse’s uniform, ca. 1916 (Crimea at hu.wikipedia [United States Public domain/ Public domain])

Of particular interest, is the second letter, which shows that the Tsarina was continuing to correspond with her British relations even at the mid-point of the First World War because it is written from Headquarters [Stavka] on 2 December 1916. The letter is clearly written in reply to one from Princess Louise: ‘My darling Auntie, I was so touched and happy to receive your dear letter and thank you ever so tenderly for it. It was indeed dear of you thinking of me… I come down here every month for a week’s rest and to see my two darlings [Nicholas II and Tsarevich Alexei]. It is hard not being together at such trying times and he is very lonely, therefore I have left my Boy [Alexei] with him for 6 months…’ (cit., Longford, pp. 288-289).

The above letter is not reproduced with its equivalent Russian date for either Old Style or New Style; Nabokov writes that Alexandra and the imperial daughters arrived at Headquarters on November 13/26 1916; Alexandra wrote a parting letter to Tsar Nicholas II from Tsarskoe Selo (4 December 1916), beginning it with an expression of pain at having to say goodbye to him (ed. Fuhrmann, pp. 654-656).

Alexandra describes life at Stavka: ‘I miss them awfully, but they are happy together – sleep in one room, go out and take meals together etc. Alexei has grown very much and developed in every sense of the word…’ (cit., Longford, 289).

I wonder whether Russia was still somewhere in Princess Louise’s thoughts. This could be implied by a letter written from Alexandra’s nephew, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to Louise. It was written from Luton Hoo, where, the private collection of Romanov ‘relics’ collected by the English tutor to the Tsarevich, Charles Sydney Gibbes, were housed for a time. Lord Mountbatten writes: ‘Dear Aunt Louise, Thank you a thousand times for the lovely Russian cushion you sent me for Xmas. It will look quite lovely in my cabin…’ (cit., Longford, pp. 290-291). The letter was written on 4 January 1919; the Russian imperial family had, of course, been brutally murdered in Ekaterinburg on 16 July 1918; one of the imperial daughters was Grand Duchess Marie Nikolevna, the childhood love of Lord Louis Mountbatten.

But of course, the Russian cushion may well have simply been an object of appeal to someone as artistically gifted as Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.

The letters to Princess Louise throw new light on the Tsarina and the life led by the Russian Imperial Family, all the more so because such correspondence is in itself remarkable in that it has survived at all.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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