In a recent life of Queen Victoria, (A. N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life, 2014) I stumbled across an illustration of one of the famous group photographs taken behind the Palais Edinburg in Coburg, showing Queen Victoria surrounded by a whole host of contemporary royalty – mostly members of her own family through blood or marriage, including five of her children and numerous grandchildren – as the Europe’s acknowledged royal matriarch. Writing in April 2019, it is perhaps interesting to re-visit this event, through the focus on an item of her personal jewellery.
This series of photographs is remarkable in many ways, literally constituting a living snapshot of the great gathering that took place in Coburg, April 1894 for the wedding of Ernst Ludwig, the young Grand Duke of Hesse and Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, both grandchildren of the Queen. Amongst the group and close to Queen Victoria at the symbolic centre of the photograph, is the young Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia and Princess Alix of Hesse, one of the Queen’s favourite grandchildren. The two had recently become engaged at Coburg on 8 April 1894 – a day that they would ever hold sacred to memory for the rest of their lives. Queen Victoria’s comment in her journal of the news of the engagement was the following: ‘I was quite thunderstruck, as though I knew Nicky much wished it, I thought Alicky was not sure of her mind. Saw them both. Alicky had tears in her eyes but she looked very bright and I kissed them both.’ (cit., Greg King, The Last Empress, 57).
What do we know of Princess Alix’s engagement ring? She is wearing one on her engagement finger in the photograph, which shows her hand resting on Queen Victoria’s chair, but a closer examination of the sources reveals that this cannot be the official engagement ring, however, as I outline below. It would appear that Princess Alix is simply wearing a host of rings the day that the group photographs were taken.
We know that she wore the bracelets she had been given as a child by her uncle, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, as she was not able to remove them until the end of her life(Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 344). Other photographs made whilst at Coburg – notably by the local photographer Uhlenhuth – tend to show her engagement finger either obscured, not visible at all or possibly hidden inside gloves. The engagement ring has never really received much attention, because little is known about it, save varying (scant) descriptions. I want to see what more – if anything – can be discovered about it.At some point towards the end of her life, Alexandra Feodorovna must have been separated from this ring, probably by force. We know from her biographer Baroness Buxhoeveden, who knew her personally, that she ‘treasured so deeply every souvenir of that time [the engagement]’ (cit., Ibid, 39). Her diary entry – quoted later – describes jewellery being taken from them at Ekaterinburg.
Rings presumably had also been used in the couple’s long romantic history, to scratch their names onto windows. At least example of these windows survives, the famous windowpane of signatures at the Hessian hunting lodge at Wolfsgarten. Tsarevich Nicholas also memorably referred in his diary on Alix’s first visit to Russia in 1884 for the wedding of Alix’s elder sister Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse, to his uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich: ‘Alix and I were writing our names on the back window of the Italian House (we love each other)’. (cit., King, 30).
Items relating to the engagement which were part of her personal jewellery would surely have been of paramount sentimental importance. One of these items was a brooch that Nicholas had given her on the engagement; brooches too had their own rich symbolism. Princess Alix had been given a brooch during this Russian visit of 1884 by Tsarevich Nicholas and pressed it later back into his hand at a party. In her private letters to a close friend of her youth, the Tsarevich was often referred to as the ‘Brooch-Person’.
Researches reveal that Tsarevich Nicholas brought the official engagement ring with him to England, when he came to Windsor in the summer of 1894, as a guest of Queen Victoria and to see his fiancée, also in England. Along with other magnificent presents, which included a chain bracelet with a huge emerald, was a necklace of pink pearls.
Nicholas’s mother, Tsarina Marie Feodorovna, had written to him from Gatchina (undated): ‘Nicky, – I am sending you this delightful bracelet. I think you could give it to your fiancée as a present… give it to her from both of us. Ask her also which stones she likes most: sapphires or emeralds…’ (cit., ed. Edward J. Bing, Letters of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Marie, 77). The Tsarevich has written in the margin of this letter next to ‘sapphires’ in his own hand: ‘Has none’. (Ibid, 77).
The Tsarevich wrote in his diary that on 16 April: ‘At 5 o’clock a courier arrived with precious letters from home… and wonderful gifts for Alix from Papa and Mama…’ (cit., Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion 54). Princess Alix wrote to thank Tsarina Marie: ‘It is much too beautiful for me! It gave me quite a shock when I opened up the case – saw those beautiful stones…’ (cit., Ibid 55).
All this underlines the reliability of the sources that the official engagement ring was given later as it is not mentioned at Coburg. Interestingly though, Tsarevich Nicholas received a ring from Princess Alix at Coburg, because he wrote in his diary for Good Friday, 15 April 1894: ‘Alix gave me a ring. How funny it seemed to put it on my finger for the first time!’ (cit., Ibid, 54). She must have either bought it at Coburg or less likely, it was one of her own. This could also mean that perhaps an unofficial ring was given whilst at Coburg, which we see on Princess Alix’s engagement finger in the aforementioned group photograph, but that the official one was indeed given much later.
Perhaps it is significant that the official engagement ring which Nicholas gave to Alix was pink. It matched the necklace of pink pearls which she was given amongst the official engagement presents and the engagement ring was, according to Buxhoeveden, a ‘pink pearl ring that the Empress always wore’. (cit., Buxhoeveden 37). Pink was also the colour of the flowers at Coburg that they loved. We know this because Nicholas wrote to Princess Alix at the frontier on 21 April 1894 of an episode concerning a photograph of Princess Alix in ‘a glass frame with our pink flowers (japonica I think).’ (cit., Maylunas and Mironenko, 58).
This means then that we must look for references to the engagement ring in the material relating to Windsor, not Coburg. Perhaps importantly, it was at this time, when the official presents from Russia were given, that the much-quoted anecdote surfaces, when Queen Victoria saw all the gifts and said: ‘Now, do not get too proud, Alix’. (cit., Buxhoeveden, 38). Alix’s love of pearls was legendary.
Nicholas’s diary (in its published extracts) does describe looking at jewellery with Princess Alix at Windsor, but this is not the official Russian gifts: ‘Together we looked at the work of one of the four jewellers who had sent me his card…’ (cit., Maylunas and Mironenko, 78). About a week later, he continues: ‘Returned to Windsor… two jewellers had laid out their wares in my room, and I took a trinket from each…’ (cit., Ibid, 80).
So, there is no direct reference to an engagement ring at Windsor, in the primary sources. Alix does refer to a ring which Queen Victoria sent her later in November 1894, for her wedding to Nicholas: ‘the lovely ring I wore for the Wedding and ever since, and when I look at it I have to think of the beloved giver…’ (cit., Ibid 112). Queen Victoria’s hands, of course, in later life particularly, were heavily ringed.
Lastly, I have checked the wartime correspondence of the Tsar and Tsarina, as they invariably mentioned their engagement day, in the form of letters and telegrams. For the anniversary of their engagement in 1915, the Tsar sent his wife a cross: ‘8 April 1915. To his majesty. How to thank you for dear letter and wonderful little cross! This completely unexpected surprise touched me terribly…’ (cit., Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 107).
So perhaps importantly, jewellery was still being used to mark the day of their engagement. On 8 April 1915, the Tsarina wore ‘yr, dear brooch…’ and sent the Tsar an icon of St Simeon to mark the anniversary. (cit., Ibid, 108). Touchingly, she reminds him: ‘You know I have kept the grey princesse dress I wore that morning?’ (cit., Ibid, 108). She also sent the Tsar lilies that day. (Ibid, 109).
The following year, 7 April 1916, she wrote to the Tsar: ‘to-morrow, the 22-nd anniversary of our engagement… I cover you with kisses & remain yr. very, very own Bridy…’ [Bride] (cit., Ibid, 444). The next day she wrote: ‘That dear brooch will be worn to-day…’ (cit., Ibid, 446). Once again, it seems that the brooch that Tsarevich Nicholas had given her on the actual engagement at Coburg, was more important sentimentally to her than any betrothal ring she received, then or later.
The Tobolsk diary of Nicholas reads for 8/21 April 1918: ‘The twenty-fourth anniversary of our engagement! The day was sunny with a cold wind, all the snow has melted…’ (cit., Maylunas and Mironenko, 612).
Poignantly, at the last in Ekaterinburg in the Ipatiev House, Alexandra described the cruelty of the fact that the commandant Yurovsky had – together with an assistant – made the Russian Imperial Family show them ‘all our jewels we had on and the younger one noted all down and then they were taken from us…’ (cit. Buxhoeveden 344).
In this entry in the last diary that the Tsarina would ever write, we see the pain of this separation from personal jewellery: ‘Why? For how long? Where?’ (cit., Ibid, 344). The Tsarina continued for the same day’s entry: ‘They left me only two bracelets from Uncle Leopold which I cannot take off, and left each of the children the bracelets we gave them, and which cannot be slipped off, also N’s [Nicholas’s] engagement ring, which he could not take off…’ (cit, Ibid, 344). So, this tells us that Nicholas had never removed his engagement ring and indeed, could not remove it. In the list of items found at Ekaterinburg after the murder of the Russian imperial family on 16/17 July 1918, was found in the apartment of the guardian of the Ural local Soviet, Peter Iliaronovich Lylov, “a gold wedding ring (purity, “1894”). So this must either have been Alexandra’s or Nicholas’s wedding ring. It was a long way from the luminous painting (in various versions) by Laurits Regner Tuxen, depicting their marriage in 1894.
The Tsarina does not mention her engagement ring at Ekaterinburg.
Perhaps significantly, she listed only the things that could still not be taken from them.