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A ‘lost’ letter from Ella?

In the Western manuscripts collection held at the British Library are what are known as the Boyd Carpenter papers, Vol. V, Add MS 46721: 1884-1917. This remarkable collection of documents contain letters written in English from or on behalf of various crowned heads of Europe or their consorts, as well as other members of Europe’s ruling families. These letters were written to William Boyd Carpenter, the ‘silver-tongued’ Bishop of Ripon, whose sermons were much admired and who preached for Queen Victoria.

To give an idea of the privileged standing of Boyd Carpenter’s extraordinary correspondence, he received letters from and on behalf of Edward VII, George V, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, Princess Helen, Duchess of Albany, Empress Frederick, Helena, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg, Prince Alexander of Battenberg and 1st Marquess of Carisbrooke, Prince Louis of Battenberg, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Handling the volume of these letters is to pick up a substantial piece of royal time.

Whilst researching the letters written to Boyd Carpenter by Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, I encountered three letters written to the Bishop by Alexandra’s elder sister Princess Irene, who married her cousin, Prince Heinrich ‘Henry’ of Prussia in the Chapel at Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin 1888. One is listed in the British Library papers as dated 28 December 1905, ff. 221-226b. Two further letters, however, are contained in the Life of the Bishop of Ripon by H. D. A Major, D. D Principal of Ripon Hall, Oxford and sometime Librarian at the Bishop’s Palace, Ripon, The Life & Letters of W. B. C. (1925) on which I have also drawn. Some of the letters in the British Library Boyd Carpenter papers have remained unpublished, although Major printed many of them in his Life as op. cit.

A stunningly beautiful photograph of ‘Ella’, with pearls in her hair, July 1887. [Hayman Selig Mendelssohn, Public domain/United States Public domain, Wikimedia Commons])

The first two letters from Princess Irene are interesting but unremarkable. It seems that Boyd Carpenter had sent Princess Irene one of his sermons. He also sent a sermon to her younger sister, the future Tsarina of Russia, for which she thanked him in a letter. It is a measure of the valued trust that European royalty placed in Boyd Carpenter that the tone is formal, yet warm. We see that the Bishop has sent a book to Princess Irene as a gift. He later sent her some books for Christmas 1902. So essentially, both of Irene’s letters are fond letters of thanks.

The third letter is remarkable in every way, beginning quite normally, dated 28 December 1905. We see from it that Princess Irene’s thoughts in northern Germany are entirely with her two sisters in far-distant Russia:

‘Kiel Dec 28 1905

Most heartfelt thanks for your so kind letter of good wishes with those beautiful verses you wrote, and the charming book of Poems by Whittier, which is quite new to me…

I just received letters from my two sisters in Russia; they avoid touching on political matters excepting just mentioning the anxiety they are in for the welfare of their country. It is grievous times they are going through. At Zarskoe the Empress is out of those terrible sights and sounds, but my eldest sister Ella at Moscow is not – although fortunately, she left there before these last barricade fights took place to join the Emperor for his Namesday. They both occupy themselves chiefly for the sick and wounded returned from the war. Alix goes almost daily to a hospital in the Park of Zarskoe, where she even reads to the poor soldiers in Russian – she has a school for them where they do basketwork, and tailoring, carpentering and book-making – for those poor souls who have been amputated – and she says those with one arm learn also very quickly…

There is a newly founded hospital for babies where nurses are trained for nursery work, wh. is a great failing in Russia, cleanliness and neatness being one of their very weak points… She started it this summer and is quite proud of her success so far, as she is constantly seeing them at work – it is really a school for nurses in better families, nursemaids, etc. Then her two trains are still running for the sick and wounded in Siberia – greatly in demand. All this is some comfort to her in these sad times…’ 

Two wheels from the Grand Duke Sergei’s carriage, as photographed after the assassination (Unknown, a photographer from the Justice Ministry’s Criminal Division [Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

It is the next part of the letter which astonishes. Princess Irene actually copied out for Boyd Carpenter part of a private message written to her by her beloved elder sister, ‘Ella’, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna. The real significance of this cannot be overestimated, as we shall see. In the letter, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna is referring to her new-found hospital work in the wake of the death of her late husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, who was assassinated by a bomb in February 1905. Examples of Ella referring to this catastrophic event, when she had seen the pieces of her husband’s shattered body bleeding in the Moscow snow, would seem to be rare. It is a symbol of how much Irene must have trusted Boyd Carpenter and known his concern for Ella that she copied out a letter personally addressed to her by her sister.

I also realised that this could actually be part of a ‘lost’ letter of Ella when I found through research, that few of the letters of Ella to Irene survive in the archives at Hemmelmark. Princess Irene wrote to her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, her regret at having to burn so many of her private papers: ‘Leider Gottes mußte ich fast alles verbrennen, was sie [Ella and Alexandra Feodorovna] & Du mir schrieben, als wir K. [Kiel] verliessen in der Angst, dass Dinge in falsche Hände fallen würden’ [Author’s translation: To God’s sorrow, I had to burn almost everything which they [Ella and Alexandra Feodorovna] and you sent me, as we left Kiel, from fear that things would fall into the wrong hands].

The Hemmelmark archives contain few letters from the Tsarina. A number of postcards do survive, written at Christmas and Easter from the Tsarina, the four imperial daughters, the Grand Duchesses and also, from Ella. The ‘wrong hands‘ were presumably the mutinous sailors, who by an act of violence, could have seized her private papers when Irene had to flee Kiel. The ‘Kiel mutiny’ was the name given to the major revolt of the High Sees Fleet, which sparked the German Revolution and ultimately, led to the fall of the Empire and the birth of the Weimar Republic. This tells us that Irene must have burnt her papers then in November 1918 – only four months after the murder of both Alexandra Feodorovna and Ella by the Bolsheviks in July.

If this is a ‘lost’ letter, it is a quite remarkable find. Major – who reproduced it in his Life of the Bishop – would have been unaware of the letter’s true significance. By the time he published his biography of Boyd Carpenter, Ella of course as we know, was no longer alive, but Princess Irene outlived all her sisters, dying in 1953. Major would not have known that Princess Irene had felt moved to destroy most of her sisters’ correspondence to her, seven years before he published his Life of Boyd Carpenter. The letter – apart from Major’s reprinting it in his Life – has lain in the collection of Boyd Carpenter’s papers for decades, at the British Library and there it remains.

Ella’s feelings on the death of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, can only be imagined. Ella telegraphed the close friend of her sister’s youth, Baroness Fabrice, from Moscow on 24 February 1905 (11.30): ‘Herzlichen Dank für tiefempfundene Theilnahme, Ella’. [Author’s translation: ‘Heartfelt thanks for the deeply felt participation’] (ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, Alix an Gretchen: Briefe der Zarin Alexandra Feodorowa aus den Jahren 1891-1914 an Freiin Magarete von Fabrice, 166). Ella erected a cross on the site of her husband’s assassination at the Kremlin, on Senate Square. It was inscribed by the painter and designer Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, with the words of Christ: ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do’ (Christopher Warwick, Ella, Princess, Saint and Martyr, 229). A replica of the cross which Ella erected to Sergei was re-dedicated by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in 2017 in a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.

The crypt of the Chudov Monastery, where Grand Duke Sergei’s body was first buried (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Sergei’s original burial place, the Chudov Monastery, was blown up – like so many sacred buildings, such as the splendid Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow – under Stalin. Long before England’s Richard III, the site of Grand Duke Sergei’s burial vault was discovered in a modern carpark in 1990, its entrance bricked-up. When opened, Sergei’s coffin was said to contain not only those of his mortal remains but also his military decorations and an icon. This is supposedly the gold and enamel triptych that rested on his breast when the Grand Duke’s body was prepared for burial (Ibid, 225). Full burial in military uniform was presumably impossible for his mutilated body. As it happened, what remained of his torso wore the tunic of the 5th Kiev Grenadier Guards, pinned with medals.

Over five years later, his coffin was finally recovered and transferred by special hearse from Red Square to the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow and at last reburied in the burial vault that served the earlier Romanov dynasty, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (Ibid, 229). Before this, a special commemorative service was held at the Cathedral of the Archangel in the Kremlin, known in Russian Orthodox language as the Panikhida, the liturgical service for the repose of the dead. The Cathedral of the Archangel was a most appropriate choice because it was here that Russian tsars had been buried before the capital was transferred to St Petersburg.

The great Novospassky Monastery had been converted into a prison during the Soviet period and was not returned to the Russian Orthodox Church until 1991. Now, the murdered Grand Duke shares his burial place with among others, the Boyarina Xenia Shestova, the mother of Michael Romanov, the first Tsar of the eponymous dynasty. He rests with his royal ancestors. Ella, the wife who survived him – murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 – lies in far-distant Jerusalem, in the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives that she had visited with Grand Duke Sergei over thirty years previously.

Interestingly, I discovered another letter amongst the Boyd Carpenter papers at the British Library, with a connection to Ella. This was from the Rev. Frederick Louis Wybergh, Chaplain of the English Church in Moscow, sent on behalf of Ella, after her widowhood. The letter was written on 12 March 1906.

Irene’s letter, however, to Boyd Carpenter continues:

My sister in Moscow has many institutions she is at the head of, and especially one hospital where now in her sad widowhood she goes twice a day to and says

“My hospital is an intense comfort to me; I never thought it could be so calming to know those simple souls with their little interests, their great faith in God, and unbounded patience – how they bear their own wounds in marvellous; one feels so small next to that patience. Never worry for me, nothing prints itself on me to make me nervous physically or morally – I have a feeling of belonging to those who suffer – that I want to be my aim in life; personal sorrow is gone, there is no room for it. Serge (her husband) is at rest, such rest we on this earth can’t find: how can and dare I long for him to return? I have and will stand alone – I who never did a thing without his advice, it seems strange to me. I manage it – but what must be must be, and perhaps that is my strength that God does not allow me to lose courage, it is work, work and I feel well, etc. I have much more comfort than Ernie (our brother now nearly two years ago when his little girl died) had and none of those worries, etc. All only live to give me pleasure, and perhaps the hardest thing for me now is not to become selfish. I have a constant battle with myself; it is not good to spoil people. All charity-work gives so much joy in spite of many a very bitter disappointment, but that is good – it pushes one on”.’

The tone of Ella’s words are like the memories of her brother, Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, of her: ‘Once we spoke together, when she said, a person should have an ideal, after which they could strive. Hers was the hardest. When I asked her what it was, she said “To become a perfect woman, but that is the hardest thing, because first must that woman understand that she must forgive all’ (Author’s translation, Ernst Ludwig, Grossherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein, Erinnertes, 63). Ernst Ludwig repeats the much-quoted story of his sister visiting the assassin of her husband in his prison, named Kalayev and her asking him to accept an icon from her. He continues: ‘The prisoner had laid the holy picture near his pillow. That was the reason for her smile. Whether she went there again, I don’t know, because she never again spoke of the thing with me. How she had reached her ideal!’ (Author’s translation, Ibid, 64).

This letter, written from Ella to her younger sister Irene, gives a quite remarkable personal insight into Ella’s feelings at this time, as well as her extraordinary spiritual faith and strength. Probably she had no idea that Irene had copied it out for the Bishop to read.

As if perhaps thinking of this, Irene added quickly:

‘I have only written this out for you!!! – who knows us all almost – that you should have a peep into her sweet unselfish nature, so full of love and faith. So true, so simple, never gaining any influence except by her deeds and never pushing herself forward, always keeping in the background. You can well imagine how she is adored – but her life is in God’s hands, and nowhere else would she be happy at present. She knows all the failings of the Russian character, but also their good points. She is no dreamer. Forgive me writing all this about my own dear sisters – but you kindly asked after them, and I thought you might like a peep into their inner life so sacred to us.

Once more every good wish for you and yours from Yours truly Irene, Princess Henry”.’ 

The re-dedication ceremony of a monument in memory of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow consecrates the replica of Ella’s memorial cross, 4 May 2017 ( [CC BY 4.0 (])

At the time of writing, the original of this letter has not yet been located in the Hemmelmark archives, where Princess Irene’s papers are kept after the present author made enquiries.

The letter is – potentially – therefore, amongst those papers which Princess Irene felt moved to burn in 1918 so that they did not fall into ‘the wrong hands’. Contemporary evidence tells us that the Tsarina did the same in 1917, for the same reasons.

If this turns out to be correct, then the fact that Irene copied out her sister’s words to an English bishop, means that these private thoughts have survived. If the original is amongst Irene’s surviving papers, then it is still an important letter to resurface, because it tells us Ella’s thoughts and activities at this crucial point in her life, after the assassination of her husband.

Either way, it is indeed, a ‘peep’ into the inner lives of two sisters in long-ago imperial Russia.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer, poet and researcher. Her subject area is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has studied historic royalty as an independent scholar for over fifteen years and has spoken on the subject for TV and radio, including the BBC.