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A British Prince’s wedding in St. Petersburg

In 1874, Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh got married. In great contrast, however, to the weddings of his other siblings, he did not marry in Great Britain, but instead, in Russia. The marriages of his brothers all took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor; two of his sisters married at St George’s, whilst another two married on the Isle of Wight, his elder sister, Princess Alice at Osborne House. His younger sister married at St Mildred’s Church, Whippingham, where the Royal Family worshipped when staying at nearby Osborne. His eldest sister, the Princess Royal, was married at St James’s Palace in the Chapel Royal, whilst his remaining sister Princess Helena married in the Private Chapel at Windsor. Prince Alfred was, incidentally, the only one of his siblings not to be born at Buckingham Palace; instead, he was born at Windsor Castle, in 1844. His marriage, however, would take place in St. Petersburg, because his future bride was the daughter of the Russian Tsar, Alexander II.

Tsar Alexander II had, in fact, been that same Tsarevich who visited Windsor in 1839, a year before the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Indeed, the dashing Tsarevich had so charmed the Queen whilst dancing a lively mazurka with her in St George’s Hall after dinner that she breathlessly commented: “I never enjoyed myself more”. A giant malachite urn was presented to Queen Victoria by Tsar Nicholas I in 1839; today, it can be seen in the Grand Reception Room at Windsor Castle.

The engagement between Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna took place in 1873, at Jugenheim, not far from Darmstadt. They had first met in 1868 at Jugenheim when the fifteen-year-old Marie was visiting her mother’s Hessian relatives. They met again at Schloss Heiligenberg in 1871, but despite spending time together, no engagement was announced. It was not until 11 July 1873, where in the same setting of Jugenheim, that the betrothal finally took place. Prince Alfred telegraphed from Germany to Queen Victoria at Osborne: “Maria and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us”.

Prince Alfred arrived in St. Petersburg on 4 January. He married Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna in the Great Cathedral Church of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on 23 January 1874 (O.S 11 January 1874). It was the only wedding of any one of her children which the Queen did not attend. Instead, an artist named Nicholas Chevalier was given special permission to attend the wedding and was duly sent to St. Petersburg to stand in for the Queen’s eyes. He made a series of watercolour sketches and pencil sketches of key moments of the service so that Queen Victoria could follow them afterwards. In effect, he had to make the journey instead of her, and as such, he had the heavy, artistic responsibility of conveying the beauty and mysticism of the Russian Orthodox and English services which were performed, far away from Windsor and Buckingham Palace, in the splendid setting of the imperial Winter Palace. The cost of his travels to St. Petersburg was shared between Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. The Prince of Wales represented the Queen, attending with the Princess of Wales, whose sister, was the Tsarevna Marie Feodorovna. The younger brother of the princes, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, also attended.

A second, English service (with a choir) followed the Russian ceremony, not in the Great Cathedral Church, but instead in the impressive Alexander Hall, at which the Dean of Westminster, who had also travelled to St. Petersburg, pronounced the blessing. Queen Victoria’s journal for the day of her second son’s wedding is full of anticipation and hungry for detail; her observant eye, as well as her keen sense of the personal element in the ceremony, means that her absence is a significant loss to us, regarding a primary account. We are, like the Queen, rather forced instead, to focus on the splendid images made by Chevalier, in St. Petersburg.

The result of his sketches in pencil and watercolour is a large, oil painting of the wedding, showing the Russian service. Chevalier’s artist impression is resplendent in detail and communicates all of the shimmering beauty of a Russian marriage, picking up on the gilding of the priests’ vestments and the decoration of the church. This was just as the Danish painter Laurits Regner Tuxen would in 1895, when he captured the imperial wedding the previous year, of one of Queen Victoria’s favourite granddaughters, Princess Alix of Hesse and the young Tsar Nicholas II, celebrated in the same Great Cathedral Church at the Winter Palace, on 14 November 1894. Similarly, Queen Victoria was not present at this wedding either, but instead was represented by the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VII – and the young Prince George, Duke of York and an account was made of that wedding by the Queen’s Chamberlain, Lord Carrington. Fittingly, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and his Russian wife, Marie, Duchess of Edinburgh, also attended this wedding of 1894.

The Great Cathedral Church of the Winter Palace – granted cathedral status in 1807 – had also provided the setting for the wedding of another of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Elizabeth “Ella” of Hesse and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1884. Like Tuxen’s portrait, Chevalier’s painting shows the couple holding candles before the Metropolitan Archbishop, who performs the Russian wedding service. In fact, the Metropolitan Archbishops of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev were all in attendance. According to Orthodox wedding tradition, gold crowns are held over the heads of the bride and bridegroom; an office which was shared by Marie’s brothers, Grand Duke Vladimir, Grand Duke Alexis and Grand Duke Sergei, together with Prince Alfred’s brother, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

Prince Alfred wore a naval uniform, a fitting choice given the fact that he entered the Royal Navy in 1856 and a Russian battleship had been named after him in his honour, the Herzog Edinburgsky. Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna wore the same robe and jewels which she later wore for the aforementioned wedding of her brother, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and Princess Elizabeth of Hesse, in 1884 (Christopher Warwick, Ella: Princess, Saint and Martyr, Pg 113, 2006). Chevalier made a full-length sketch of Grand Duchess Marie’s wedding outfit of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine, which featured a long train. Tsar Alexander II had given his daughter a magnificent array of Romanov jewels, including a parure which had once belonged to Catherine II ‘the Great’; she received a parure of diamonds and Burmese rubies for a wedding present from her father, which he had commissioned from the court jeweller, Bolin. Queen Victoria sent a sprig of Osborne myrtle for Marie’s nosegay.

Queen Victoria would have been especially curious as to the young Grand Duchess’s appearance, because she had not met the bride of Prince Alfred before the marriage, despite expressing an ardent wish to do so. She had seen a portrait of her – which was probably painted in the Crimea as a gift to Queen Victoria from the bride’s mother, Empress Marie Alexandrovna, the previous year – a most flattering image of an imperial princess, who had by some accounts at least, been considered “plain” (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, Pg 398, 2000). Queen Victoria was in residence at Osborne House on the wedding day; later that evening, several guard ships, including the ‘Royal Alfred’ came over from Portsmouth to dock in Osborne Bay, where there were fireworks. Prince Alfred’s elder sister, Princess Alice – born the year before him in 1843 – wrote to Queen Victoria from Germany, as bride of Prince Ludwig ‘Louis’ of Hesse: ‘On our dear Affie’s wedding day, a few tender words. It must seem so strange to you not to be near him. My thoughts are constantly with them all, and we have only the Times’ account, for no one writes here – they are all too busy, and of course all news comes to you…‘ (Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Biographical Sketch and Letters, Pg 317, 1884). Princess Alice went on to ask for any other newspaper accounts of the wedding, with the curiosity of another family member who was absent from the event. The couple were given an extremely warm welcome – they landed at Gravesend on 7 March 1874 – another bride had landed there nearly ten years earlier, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to marry Prince Alfred’s elder brother, the Prince of Wales – they were greeted by great crowds at Windsor; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, composed an ode of welcome for Grand Duchess Marie – as he had for Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 – and this was published in the Times, so presumably, Princess Alice read it. Alice went on to write to Queen Victoria: “The Times’ accounts are charming. Such a warm reception must have touched Marie, and shown how the English cling to their Sovereign and her house...’ (Ibid, Pg 319).

Grand Duchess Marie, now styled Duchess of Edinburgh on her marriage, lived with Prince Alfred in Clarence House whenever they resided in London; their first child, their father’s namesake, Prince Alfred of Edinburgh, was born at Buckingham Palace on 15 October 1874. Their daughter, Princess Marie of Edinburgh, her mother’s namesake and future Queen of Romania, was born at the couple’s residence in Kent, Eastwell Park, as was her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice – “Baby Bee” – in 1884. Her daughter, Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – so styled because Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh also became Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on the death of his uncle, Duke Ernest II of Coburg in 1893 – was born appropriately, at Schloss Rosenau, the Coburg birthplace of her paternal grandfather, Prince Albert. Marie’s daughter, Princess Victoria Melita was born in Malta (from which came the name Melita) at the San Anton Palace – where her parents resided for three years due to Prince Alfred’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean naval squadron – in 1876. A silver medal was struck on the occasion of the couple’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, in 1899.

One legacy, however, did remain of that Russian wedding in St. Petersburg in 1874. A Russian Orthodox Chapel was constructed for Marie, Duchess of Edinburgh, on the first floor of Clarence House, designed by C. B. Waller. This splendid chapel was used by the Duchess whenever she was at Clarence House but was later demolished in 1900 – the year of the death of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. A biscuit was also created in Bermondsey, London, by the bakers Peek Freans, to commemorate the marriage; it was known as the ‘Marie Biscuit’ and named after the Duke of Edinburgh’s Russian-born Duchess.

Today, the Great Cathedral Church of the Winter Palace is an unconsecrated space, since its closure as a church in May 1918. Happily, the area was restored between 2012-14, and it continues to be used as exhibition space by the State Museum of the Hermitage. The splendid decoration which provided the setting for Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna’s wedding now again contains original features, which have been returned to their old places, such as the “icons, the candelabra, the standard lamps and pieces of the iconostasis, the pulpit, the lantern and the altar canopy”. 

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.