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Ever your devoted friend: Alix and Pollie

Where is Pollie?’ (Lotte Hofmann-Kuhnt, Briefe der Zarin Alexandra von Russland an ihre Jugendfreundin Toni Becker-Bracht, 2009).

Princess Alix of Hesse paused to add these words, almost as an afterthought, to a letter to her close friend, Toni Becker-Bracht, from Balmoral, on 27 September 1892. With these words, Princess Alix most probably refers to her friend, Marion Louisa ‘Pollie’ Delmé-Radcliffe, Baroness Ungern-Sternberg. Pollie was seemingly of royal descent; her medieval ancestor was George, Duke of Clarence, brother of the Yorkist King Edward IV. Pollie was born in 1870, two years before Alix.

Much less is known about this particular friendship of the future Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia, and even in most biographies of the Tsarina, footnotes or remote references to Pollie are all but scarce. I became intrigued by this friendship back in 2004 when I came quite by chance, across a single letter from Alexandra to Pollie, whilst researching the cure that the future Tsarina made in Harrogate in 1894, prior to her marriage to the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, an event which – whilst deeply happy for the young couple in personal terms – was expedited by the shock death of Tsar Alexander III in Livadia. The letter was contained within the 1968 biography of Alexandra’s niece, Princess Louise of Battenberg, youngest daughter of Alexandra’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg, written by the Swedish author Margit Fjellman, Louise Mountbatten, Queen of Sweden.

Fjellman mentions ‘Aunt Alix’ because Princess Louise of Battenberg was sent in 1894 on a cure to Bad Kreuznach for a month with her other siblings, to take the waters. Louise was specifically mentioned, in Alexandra’s letter to Pollie, written from Harrogate. The date, too, is significant – June 14 1894. Alexandra wrote to Pollie for her twenty-fourth birthday. Pollie’s letter was headed: ‘Harrogate, up on the Marlow Moors in a bath chair, June 14 1894.’ Looking at modern maps of Harrogate, it is not immediately clear where Alexandra meant. Harrogate lies to the east of the Yorkshire Dales, and it is unclear how far Alexandra may have travelled. We know, however, that she visited near-lying towns and villages such as Knaresborough, Pannal and Plompton.

We know from Alexandra’s letters from Harrogate, written both to the Tsarevich Nicholas and to Queen Victoria, for example, that the sulphur baths which she was obliged to take, made her extremely tired. She lived very quietly – which was the overall aim of the visit – and took her Russian lessons with her reader, Mlle Catherine Schneider (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s visit to Harrogate, Royalty Digest Quarterly 2018/1, 40). Remembering the birthdays of her close friends was second nature to Alexandra, but perhaps there is something touching about Alexandra choosing to begin a letter to her friend, outside on the bracing Yorkshire moors, in her bath chair – an original such chair is now displayed in the Harrogate Royal Pump Room Museum. These rolling chaises were popular at watering-places in the nineteenth century. Bath chairs have folding hoods, and Alexandra wrote about the rainy mornings in Yorkshire, so perhaps the letter was written on just such a rainy morning on the moors. Alexandra wrote to the Tsarevich about the attention she received in Harrogate, despite being there incognito under the Hessian alias of Baroness Starckenburg: ‘If I were not in the bathchair I should not mind’ (Quoted in Carolly Erickson, Alexandra, the last Tsarina, 54).

Fjellman nowhere states where she sourced this extremely rare letter – writing that the material for the book was collected by her ‘immediately after the death of Queen Louise of Sweden in 1965’ (Fjellman, pp. 7-8). Alexandra celebrated her own (twenty-second) birthday in Harrogate on 6 June 1894; so, just about a week before Pollie. Alexandra received a tea-basket from Queen Victoria and a photograph of the Queen and the Prince of Wales; from the Tsarevich Nicholas, Alexandra was given a bracelet and a present. Queen Victoria specifically wished for Princess Louis of Battenberg to join her younger sister in Harrogate: ‘For her dear birthday she must not be left quite alone and you really must go and spent it with her… do promise that you will go to her…’ (Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 124; quoted in Elizabeth Jane Timms, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 42).

In the event, Princess Louis did go to Alexandra and spent her birthday with her. Princess Louis’s daughter Alice – later Princess Andrew of Greece and mother to The Duke of Edinburgh – was taken along in tow (Greg King, The Last Empress, 67). Baroness Buxhoeveden, Alexandra’s biographer, wrote: ‘She did not go about much on account of her cure, but her small niece, Princess Louis of Battenberg’s daughter, was with her…’ (Baroness Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 36). Interestingly, Alexandra’s letter to Pollie also implies that Princess Louise of Battenberg also came too: ‘Little Louise Battenberg is with me. I had begged Victoria to spare her for eight days and really she looks better since she is here and is taking one of the waters. It makes such a difference having a child in the room…’ (Quoted in Fjellman, 75).

The latter remark is a poignant one. Alexandra’s youngest sister, Princess Marie of Hesse (‘May’) died at the age of four in 1878; shortly after which, Alexandra’s mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, died at the Neues Palais, in Darmstadt. Alexandra’s comment might be seen to be reinforced by the fact that she wrote to the Tsarevich Nicholas from Harrogate on 11 May 1894: ‘Tomorrow my little sister May would have been 20, think only, quite grown up. Sweet little Child that she was…’ (Quoted in Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 67).

It clearly was a long time since Alexandra had known the constant company of a child and little Princess Louise of Battenberg was aged five at the time. Alexandra dedicated a sketch to Princess Alice of Battenberg during that Harrogate trip – as my researches revealed, when I was writing the article about Alexandra in Harrogate (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 44). I wonder why there has been so little mention of Princess Louise also going to Harrogate, but it seems from all this, that perhaps both little princesses may have gone and not just Alice.

Alexandra’s letter begins: ‘Darling Pollie, I am staying up here and hasten to use the occasion to send you a few lines of love and tender thanks for your dear birthday letter which touched me deeply and gave me much pleasure. It is really the first warm day again though a strong wind is blowing and up here. The view is lovely. A blue haze over the distant hills and a delicious breeze… The twins which turned up the day before we arrived were christened yesterday and I was Godmother to Nicholas and Alix. Of course, there was a crowd when we went to church though we tried to keep it secret. The people are a nuisance staring at one so. One feels such a fool. I bathe daily and take my water…’ (Quoted in Fjellman, 75).

This christening relates to the twins that Alexandra’s landlady, Mrs Christopher Allen, who let out Cathcart House in Harrogate, had recently given birth to; the children were christened after Alexandra (Alix being her given name, prior to Alexandra Feodorovna, which she was given when she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church) and the Tsarevich Nicholas.

Alexandra took her responsibilities as godmother remarkably seriously. It would be no less so with Pollie’s children. The Harrogate twins continued to receive splendid gifts from imperial Russia as late as 1915; two matching cloisonné sets were made for their first birthdays and presents such as a pair of gold Faberge cufflinks in the form of the Russian imperial eagle and a gold cross and chain for the boy Nicholas, arrived for his twenty-first birthday. Alexandra sent a silver set of knives and forks for her godson, Alexander von Pfuhlstein, son of her close friend, Gretchen von Fabrice. She similarly embroidered a Russian smock for little Alexander, which was passed down to his descendants (Alix an Gretchen, ed. Heinrich Graf von Spreti, 34).

When Pollie expected her first child, Alexandra wrote to her on 16/28 June 1898 from the magnificent imperial palace of Peterhof: ‘I must send you a few lines to tell you how much my thoughts and prayers will surround you next month. God bless & protect you, Darling, & may you not suffer too much-tho one willingly suffers, so as to have the intense joy of holding one’s own precious Baby in one’s arms. I have worked a quilt for you to cover the tiny little Being with-the brooch is for you as a wee remembrance of a dear friend…’ (Quoted in Lot 220 information for Russian Art, 29 November 2010, Christie’s).

Pollie gave birth to a daughter, Alix Louisa Emilia Marion Hedwig von Ungern-Sternberg on 7 July 1898 at Kassel; the baby girl was named Alix and the Tsarina became her godmother. A baby boy followed in 1909, born in Darmstadt and christened Reinhold August Emil Ludwig. Pollie had married the Master of the Household and Court Chamberlain to Alexandra’s brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, in 1897. He features in group photographs taken during the Russian imperial visit to Hesse in 1910, surrounded by visiting royalty and members of the Russian and Hessian suite.

The young Tsarina continued to make her own gifts for Pollie, as she would for her closest friends. She was an accomplished needlewoman and beautiful examples of her work survive, not least in the Russian Chapel in Darmstadt, whose altar cloth she helped to hand embroider. The Tsarina’s personal gifts were normally sent by special messenger, so that they would arrive for Christmas Eve – it will be remembered that in Germany for example, the custom is to exchange presents on Christmas Eve, a tradition known as the ‘Bescherung’. Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, her lady-in-waiting and biographer, remembered: ‘All the tables in the boudoir and the Empress’s dressing-room, as well as extra tables brought in for the occasion, were covered in vases, cushions, note-books, scarves and umbrellas, for the Empress liked to give practical presents…. Her family and old friends generally got one gift made by herself, in addition to the others...’ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, Before the Storm, 267).

One Christmas, the Baroness recalled her making a present for Pollie: ‘That year Her Majesty was making an intricate bed-jacket for her English-born friend, Baroness Polly Ungern, and she sat up sometimes till midnight, stitching for all she was worth as busily as any shop-girl…’ (cit., Ibid, 268). The Baroness also remembered that the Tsarina liked to send ‘every present…accompanied by a card, often painted by herself, with a few autograph words of greeting...’ (cit., Ibid). Typically, when her own turn came, the Tsarina gave the Baroness one Christmas prior to 1904, a ‘lovely jewelled pendant as she kissed me, and wished me a happy Christmas…‘ The Baroness concluded this chapter with the fact that from then onwards, for Christmas and Easter, the imperial messenger came with a gift and something handwritten from the Tsarina. “Once a friend always a friend” was her motto, as she confessed to the Baroness. (cit., Ibid, pp. 268-69).

The brooch that Alexandra described, featured in a sale of Russian art at Christies in 2010; by descent in the family and believed traditionally to have been given by the Tsarina to Pollie, it was a jewelled and gold-mounted guilloche enamel brooch, crafted by Faberge, with a diamond-set lily-of-the-valley, with a diamond studded bow and gold chain. Still, in its lush original silk and velvet lined case, it realised £32,450 when it went under the hammer in London. Two further lots were included in the sale, both were brooches, one from the St. Petersburg firm Köchli in cabochon sapphires and set with diamonds, the other a jewelled gold brooch with the maker’s mark ‘AK’, St. Petersburg, ca 1890. Gretchen von Fabrice, Alexandra’s close friend, received a red gold bracelet with diamonds and cabochon sapphires by Köchli, as a personal gift; she also was given various gold brooches by either Faberge or Köchli, which were given either in the late 1890s or early 1900s (Alix an Gretchen, pp. 27-31).

Pollie is thought to have died in 1949, in Ampthill, Bedfordshire. Her descendants still preserve letters from the Tsarina which span a period of some three decades (Christies, 2010). If Alexandra continued to write to Pollie, the letters probably dried up in the mid-point of the First World War; Alexandra burned much of her personal correspondence in the wake of the February Revolution.

Alexandra’s letter from 1894 to Pollie continued: ‘What a disappointment you cannot come to England this year. It would have been such fun if we had met. I am leaving on the 19th or 20th for Walton when you can guess who is coming…’ (Quoted in Fjellman, 75). Walton refers to Elm Grove, the house that Alexandra’s eldest sister, Princess Louis of Battenberg had rented at Walton-on-Thames; it was here that Alexandra spent a few blissful days with the Tsarevich Nicholas, who sailed into the Thames in the imperial yacht Polar Star. They spent a wonderful time together at Walton, before continuing on to Queen Victoria at Windsor. Later, the mere word ‘Walton’ was enough to bring tears to the eyes of Alexandra, as Tsarina (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Elm Grove, the Battenberg House at Walton-on-Thames, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2012/4); Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra, 35).

Alexandra concluded: ‘After about three days we go then again to Windsor probably till the Queen goes to Osborne. A loving kiss. Ever your devoted friend, Alix’ (Quoted in Fjellman, 75).

The last sentence says it all. Alexandra was devoted to the close friends of her youth and never forgot them.

©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.