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Ella: The birth of Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna

Saw good Mrs Clark, returned from Darmstadt, who gave me an excellent account of Alice, the Baby & dear little Victoria’ (Quoted in Charlotte Zeepvat, From Cradle to Crown, 13).

With these words, Queen Victoria recorded in her journal for 13 December 1864, that she had seen Mrs Clark, the nurse who had attended the confinement in Darmstadt of her second daughter, Alice, Princess Louis of Hesse. Mrs Clark had attended the birth of Princess Alice’s first child, Princess Victoria, who was born at Windsor Castle in 1863, after which the baby had been promptly ‘wrapped in the velvet & ermine cloak, in which all our children had been carried’ (Quoted in Ibid, 12). The new ‘Baby’ in question who had just been born on 1 November 1864, was a girl. So successful was Mrs Clark in her role that the Queen wrote to Alice in Darmstadt, recommending that Mrs Clark remain with her a little longer, although this cannot have been very long if she did so. Alice’s second daughter is better known to history, as Elisabeth Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia, often called ‘Ella’, brutally thrown down a mineshaft and left there to die by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

This was the beautiful Russian Grand Duchess over whom no less than the flamboyant Queen Marie of Romania sighed in the attempt to describe her, writing: ‘I would like to dip my pen in colour, so as to be able to make her live again, if only from a moment, because eyes that have never beheld her will never be able to conceive what she was.’

She was the despair of painters such as the skilled portraitist Friedrich August von Kaulbach, who declared himself – according to Ella’s brother Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig in his private memoirs – simply unable as an artist to reproduce in paint, something which was so perfect, concluding: ‘She is the most difficult that I have ever yet painted’ (Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, 60). But Ella also had an inner, soulful beauty, which deepened through the personal sufferings she sustained.

Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Louise Alice was born on 1 November 1864 and christened on 28 November, her main name of Elisabeth being chosen in clear homage to the thirteenth century St. Elisabeth of Hungary, as the common ancestress of the Houses of Hesse and Saxony, as Alice explained in a letter to Queen Victoria, just over a week before the christening (Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 78). Perhaps no other single mention is apter when considering the legends that abound of this ministering, medieval saint who tended to the hunger-ridden poor and needy and the activities of her namesake as a widowed Grand Duchess in Moscow, who had been named after the Hungarian St. Elisabeth at birth. Possibly this choice of name was also inspired by the fact that Princess Alice had visited the tomb of St. Elisabeth in Marburg in August 1863: ‘At Marburg, I saw in the beautiful church the grave of St. Elizabeth, the castle where she lived, and many other things which Kingsley mentions in his Saint’s Tragedy… (Quoted in Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 57).

Alexandra was a family choice in compliment to her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales, who had given birth to a son prematurely, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, on 8 January 1864. (Incidentally, a child whom Queen Victoria at one time greatly hoped Alice’s daughter Alix would marry). Louise was almost certainly chosen for Alice’s younger sister, Princess Louise, with Alice no doubt after herself. On the birth of her daughter, Princess Alix in 1872, Alice wrote to Queen Victoria that they gave the new baby the name ‘Alix’ for ‘Alice’, ‘as they murder my name here: Aliice they pronounce it, so we thought ‘Alix’ could not so easily be spoilt’ (Quoted in Ibid, 280).

But the name Elisabeth was also chosen because it was the name of the baby’s paternal grandmother Princess Charles of Hesse, who incidentally, held her at her christening (Ibid, 78). The name Victoria had been chosen for her first daughter, in homage to Queen Victoria and because the baby had been born at Windsor. Elaborating further on the choice of names as well as on the private name by which she would be called within the family, it seems as if Alice felt the need to clarify how her baby daughter would be addressed both publicly and privately, for she wrote to the Queen: ‘I forgot to tell you, in answer to your letter about Ella’s name, that, of course, she must be called Elizabeth; only ‘entre nous’ Ella’ (Quoted in Meriel Buchanan, Queen Victoria’s Relations, 88).

Ella’s exceptional beauty was already in evidence as a toddler, which we gather from Alice’s letters to the Queen, which describe Ella’s dark blue eyes and ‘rich brown’ hair (Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 102). A lock of Ella’s hair as a child is preserved in its own envelope, in the Schlossmuseum at Darmstadt, along with the hair of Alice’s other children and Alice. Queen Marie of Romania described her eyes much later as being ‘long-shaped’ and ‘sky-blue’ (Quoted in Ibid, 97).

If we assume that Ella was a full-term child, she must have been conceived roughly at around the beginning of February 1864. Alice’s published letters to Queen Victoria contain descriptions of her toddler daughter, Princess Victoria during this early part of 1864. However, there is also a reference to the delightful winter pastime of sledging with jingling bells in Darmstadt, a charming vignette to consider in hindsight if we remember Ella’s future life in distant Russia, the land of the troika. When Ella’s younger sister Princess Alix of Hesse – future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – visited Russia in 1889, Ella made a series of entrancing watercolour sketches to decorate a frame for the Tsarevich Nicholas to remember the Hessian winter visit, including the ice and the skates (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 16); the Tsarevich recorded in his diary for February 1889: ‘Slid down the hill with Aunt Ella and Alix…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 15). Ever prone to comparing her children, Alice had written on Princess Alix’s birth in 1872, to Queen Victoria: ‘Baby is like Ella, only smaller features, and still darker eyes…’ (Quoted in Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 280).

Princess Alice visited Queen Victoria between May and August of 1864; back in Darmstadt and now heavily pregnant with Ella, Princess Alice took communion in the chapel at the Hessian hunting lodge of Kranichstein, together with Prince Louis of Hesse and two of her ladies in waiting, because she wanted to ‘take it before my hour of trial comes’ (Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 75).

Her birth is listed as having taken place at the house at Bessungen, which was a suburb of Darmstadt and the oldest of the city’s southernmost districts, for which reason it was actually known as a separate principality until 1888 (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Birth in Darmstadt – Princess Alix of Hesse, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2017/3, 7). We can see from Queen Victoria’s journals, that the Queen was in residence at Windsor at the time of Alice’s confinement and that the news was conveyed to her by telegram by Prince Louis. Alice gave birth to her second daughter shortly after nine o’clock in the morning, an event which resulted in a twenty-five gun salute.

The Queen’s journal entry for 1 November 1864 lightly hints at an initial sense of regret of another girl for Princess Alice, as opposed to an heir for the House of Hesse, a hope which was not satisfied until the birth of Prince Ernst Ludwig, four years later: ‘Heard just before going out by telegraph from Louis, that dear Alice had got a 2nd daughter… & that both were doing well. Very thankful, as had felt rather anxious about her, but am sorry it is again a girl…’  (Quoted in Christopher Warwick, Ella: Princess Saint & Martyr, 19). This hope for an heir to the house of Hesse was echoed much later in a letter – with typically execrable grammar – written by Ella herself to Queen Victoria, on the pregnancy of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig’s first wife, Victoria Melita: ‘I am so very very glad she is expecting a Baby if only it could be a Boy the idea of our branch of the Hessian family dying out made me so sad.’ (Quoted in Maylunas and Mironenko, 91).

Alice’s letter to Queen Victoria two days prior to Ella’s christening confirms that she felt well in the aftermath of the birth: ‘All people say I look better, and have more colour than I have had for long, and, indeed, I feel strong and well, and my fat Baby does perfectly, and is a great darling…’ (Quoted in Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 78). Queen Victoria’s journal entry continued: ‘Went to the beloved Mausoleum where I prayed for dear Alice & the Baby & that her dear Father’s blessing might rest on them’. (Quoted in Warwick, 19). 

This sense of praying in the Royal Mausoleum at the tomb of Prince Albert for a blessing on the Royal Family was something that the Queen took to doing; movingly, she made a point of doing it the day before the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark: ‘I opened the shrine and took them in… I said “He gives you his blessing!” and joined Alix’s and Bertie’s hands, taking them both in my arms. It was a very touching moment, and we all felt it’ (Quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, A Personal History, 303).

The first (published) mention of Ella’s birth that we have from Alice is contained within her letter to Queen Victoria, written from Darmstadt on 7 November 1864, where she echoes the Queen’s journal entry: ‘The little daughter was but a momentary disappointment to us, which we have quite got over. We console ourselves with the idea that the little pair will look very pretty together…’ (Quoted in Ibid, 77). Later another ‘pair’ would be added to Alice’s brood; her youngest daughters, Princess Alix and Princess Marie ‘May’ of Hesse, born in 1872 and 1874 respectively, who would double up as her elder pair had done.

About a fortnight after the birth, Ella measured about twenty-three and a half inches and so was considerably bigger than her eldest sister, Princess Victoria, who Alice recalled as having been about twenty inches when she was born (Ibid 79). Alice concluded after Ella’s christening that her second daughter was ‘larger’ and more ‘dark’ than little Victoria, (Ibid, 79) who was of blonde colouring and who had kept murmuring throughout the ceremony to Alice ‘Go to Uncle’s’, whilst managing to trip over the footstool that was set in front of her (Ibid, 78).

The earliest surviving images of Ella preserved in the Royal Collection were taken by the Berlin photographer Heinrich Graf and can be found within the voluminous albums entitled ‘Portraits of Royal Children’; these images date from February 1865. In these touching pictures, the two-month-old Princess Elizabeth is photographed asleep on a fur-draped chair, tightly wrapped in clothes and wearing a baby bonnet, with only her tiny head visible. One of these charming images has been mounted into the royal album, directly beneath a photograph of her mother, Princess Alice, in profile. Graf photographed Ella again, apparently wearing the same white bonnet, propped up against a cushion, her bright blue eyes already a striking feature for the modern onlooker.

A month earlier, Alice had written to Queen Victoria: ‘Ella has her bath as a bed, and Victoria sleeps in the bassinet, which is done up with chintz for the occasion…’ (Quoted in Alice, Biographical Sketch and Letters, 85). In March, baby Ella was vaccinated against smallpox but without success. By June, Ella had been weaned and was crawling; Alice reported to Queen Victoria that by mid-June, she had her first two teeth (Ibid, 101). She was talking the following month and, like any proud mother, Princess Alice recorded that these early words were, ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’.

A chubby portrait of a two-year-old Ella was commissioned by Queen Victoria from the painter Christian Karl Magnussen, whilst the infant princess was staying with her grandmother at Osborne in 1866, together with her elder sister, Princess Victoria. This delightful image now graces the Nursery Bedroom at Osborne House, as does a watercolour of her younger sister Princess Alix, who would later follow her to Russia, painted by the Austrian artist Georg Koberwein.

Ella was canonised in New York by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1984 and later recognised by the Moscow Patriarchate in April 1992 as the Holy Imperial Martyr Saint Elisabeth Romanova. Her beautiful statue by the sculptor John Roberts, depicting her as a nun of the SS Martha and Mary Convent she founded in Moscow, was dedicated on 9 July 1998 and adorns the western entrance of Westminster Abbey, where she stands alongside a row of modern martyrs. Hewn from French Richemont limestone (Warwick, 312), it was unveiled in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose mother, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece, shares a burial place with Ella and her attendant nun, Sister Barbara who was martyred with her, in the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. Ella’s coffin lies in a crypt chapel of the church. Ella’s cousin, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, visited the site in April 1931 and wrote to Queen Mary that ‘dear old Bishop [Serafim] who knew Ella very well in Moscow showed us round and took us to the vault where her coffin rests (all very poor and simple)’ (Quoted in Warwick, 311). Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, was the daughter of Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, whom the Hesse children had all been extremely fond of; poignantly, it was the two bracelets given her long ago by her Uncle Leopold, which Ella’s younger sister Alix – now Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna – had been unable to remove at Ekaterinburg, when the Commandant of the Ipatiev House appropriated the jewellery of the Russian imperial family, on 4 July 1918, a dozen days prior to the night of their murder (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 344).

A statue of Ella features amongst the seven statues of martyrs carved for the nave screen of St. Albans Cathedral to mark the cathedral’s 900th anniversary, in 2015. A beautiful statue also stands in the grounds of Ella’s convent of SS Martha and Mary in Moscow. In this centenary year of the murder of the Russian Imperial Family, it is especially poignant to remember Ella’s birth, one hundred years after her death, for that journey which ended with such horrific barbarism in a mineshaft nearly sixty feet deep, known as Lower Selimskaya [Russian, Nizhny Seliminsky] on the road to Sinyachikha near Alapaevsk, had begun back in 1864, in Bessungen, Darmstadt.

Following her death at Buckingham Palace in 1969, the remains of Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece were first placed in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel. Only much later in 1988, were they finally transferred to Jerusalem and interred in the Russian Orthodox Church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, in a crypt beneath the church, where her maternal aunt Ella was also buried, in a coffin with a glass lid. Princess Alice had been the eldest daughter of Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, Ella’s elder sister, whom their mother, Alice’s namesake and maternal grandmother, Alice, Princess Louis of Hesse, had written on Ella’s birth, that ‘the little pair will look very pretty together…

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert on past British and European royalty as an academic subject, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She specializes in the family of Queen Victoria and Russian royalty, with a particular interest in royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the first British Royal Wedding in 2018. She responds to media enquiries ranging from the BBC to private individuals. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.