The regal tradition of scratching signatures in windowpanes is long established and well known. The windows – particularly when in rooms of royal residences – formed a kind of living ‘guestbook’, often accompanied by the date the visit or signature, was made. These windowpanes are silent witnesses to vanished royal gatherings on long ago summers or essential occasions, represented today by the grouping of names that remain. Other examples are etched into the pane as poignant proof of a royal visit to a palace, castle or hunting lodge that was well known to the person and therefore remained like a type of footprint in glass and well illustrates their passing presence.
Probably the famous examples of windowpanes used in this way are that at Fredensborg, the royal Danish summer palace, where it is a tradition for a visiting head of state to scratch his or her name into the glass with a diamond. The Fredensborg glass stands like a symbol of the popular sobriquet given to King Christian IX of Denmark of ‘the father-in-law of Europe’. Tattooed with regal and political signatures, it is a testimony to forgotten times. They may be seen on the windows of the Garden Room, the Prince’s Salon or the Guard Room.
The tradition at Fredensborg Palace goes back some 150 years and is usually performed before leaving the palace, together with the date of the visit. Presidents, as well as monarchs, have continued this tradition, from Tsar Alexander III of Russia, through to Francois Mitterand and Bill Clinton. The first signature on the glass was scratched by Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel, on 17 August 1841, the year before her marriage to Christian IX. Such was the importance of these windowpanes that from 1916 onwards, the signatures on them were recorded, now numbering 239.
By tradition, the future Queen Elizabeth I is alleged to have scratched a poem into a window with a diamond, whilst imprisoned in the royal palace of Woodstock during the reign of her sister, Mary I. The Poetry Foundation renders this as ‘Much suspected by me, Nothing proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.’ Prisoner graffiti, of course, remains one of the most moving things to see at the Tower of London, carved into the thick walls. The legendary Queen Louise of Prussia famously was believed to have scratched Goethe’s line with a diamond ring into her window, having fled from Berlin: ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’ [They that never ate their bread with tears].
Possibly two of the children of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, scratched their names into one of the windowpanes at the Hessian hunting lodge of Kranichstein. The date reads ‘1882’ and the names ‘Elisabeth’ and ‘Victoria’, for Alice’s two eldest daughters, Victoria, later Princess Louis of Battenberg and perhaps Elisabeth, called ‘Ella’, later Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna of Russia. An alternative theory suggested that ‘Elisabeth’ instead referred to Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel-Rumpenheim (Elizabeth Jane Timms, ‘Kranichstein’, in Royalty Digest Quarterly 2015/2, 22). The rococo house of Schloss Braunshardt, near Darmstadt, which Queen Victoria described in her journal as ‘one of the many houses belonging to Louis built in the last century… with family pictures. Here we took tea, which we had brought with us….’ (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 172). In one of these old rococo rooms, is a pane of glass, most probably from the eighteenth century. In this fragile windowpane has been etched the signatures of three of Queen Victoria’s Hessian granddaughters: ‘Victoria’, ‘Irene’ and ‘Alix’, (Ibid, 174), the latter already with its classically distinctive looping ‘A’.
This habit of etching her signature on glass was something that Princess Alix of Hesse replicated in Russia, unknowing that she would one day be Tsarina. On her first visit to imperial Russia for the wedding of her elder sister, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ of Hesse, to Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, Alix first met her future husband, Tsarevich Nicholas. The Tsarevich recorded in his diary for 1884 of the twelve-year-old Princess Alix, that she was someone he liked very much (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 10). Already three days after her arrival with her family in Russia, he wrote in his diary for 31 May 1884: ‘Alix and I wrote our names on the rear window of the Italian house [at Peterhof] (we love each other)’. Exactly ten years after this following their engagement, Alix wrote to Nicholas, referring to ‘our windowpanes’.
At the Hessian hunting lodge of Wolfsgarten, a windowpane contains the etched signatures of the imperial couple: ‘Alix’ and ‘Nicky’, ‘1896’, ‘1899’ and ‘1903’. Next to this, is what looks like the combined initials of the pair, the Russian ‘N’ and Alix’s ‘A’. During this period, the Russian Imperial Family were visiting Darmstadt or Wolfsgarten from 10-29 October 1896, from 2-29 October 1897, 28 September-7 November 1899 and also from 25 September until 7 November 1903 (Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 199).
In the private rooms of the Russian imperial family in the Winter Palace, the Tsarina had a study, containing alongside objets d’art, a writing desk and a needlework basket. The windows of the Tsarina’s private study commanded a magnificent view onto the river Neva, which had its annual thawing in the spring. Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his diary on 4 April 1896: ‘After coffee sat at Alix’s corner window and watched an excellent flow of ice.’ (cit., ed. Robert Timms, Nicholas & Alexandra, The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia, 24). One spring day six years later, the Tsarina scratched with a diamond ring into one of the windowpanes of her private study: ’17 March 1902‘. Her signature and inscription can still be seen in the pane, which survives. (Ibid, 24).
At the Ipatiev House, darkly deemed the ‘House of Special Purpose’ in which the Russian Imperial Family would be brutally executed on 16/17 July 1918, Alix, now Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, took an instrument, supposedly a pencil not a ring, (Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 482) and drew on a window of the new room assigned to her upstairs, a swastika, as a religious symbol. Under this, she etched into the glass, the date of that day in Ekaterinburg: ‘17/30 April. 1918’ (cit., Ibid, 482). The swastika was an ancient symbol that meant a great deal to Alexandra; it was embroidered on the front cover of the diary for 1918 that she used right up until the final evening of her life. This diary was an exercise book with black paper binding in lilac cloth, lined with silk. It has a white swastika sewn into the upper right-hand corner. This was a gift to the Tsarina from her second daughter, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, who bound it herself.
Perhaps significantly, this time the Tsarina did not sign her name in the glass. It was not a place of sentimental value and certainly, no proper royal residence.
It was a long way to have come since ‘our windowpanes’.