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Looking at Marie Antoinette and Tsarina Alexandra

Comparison between historical personalities should, as a rule, always be treated with caution even if given life circumstances are similar; an example of this might be ‘comparisons’ made between the legendary Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Where an interest or association is deliberately fostered by one of the individuals, this can, of course, be better justified. I became interested in the possible links between Marie Antoinette and the last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), because of certain instances where there might be considered to be a historical overlap. Alexandra it appears was interested in the Austrian-born Queen of France and read about her to a certain extent (Alexander Palace Time Machine). I wanted to see if these associations bore any weight, having also read hints of it in Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

Marie Antoinette, in fact, numbered two Princesses of Hesse amongst the dearest of her youth; these were Princess Charlotte of Hesse-Darmstadt – her particular friend, the ‘dear Princess’– and Princess Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt. The latter became first Landgravine of Hesse, the former, the second bride of Prince Karl of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the stepmother of Prussia’s fabled Queen Louise. Marie Antoinette thought so highly of these Hesse princesses that she even took portraits of them with her on the last journey of her life, from the Temple to the prison of the Conciergerie (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Pg 518, 2000). These were in a packet, with a portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe; along with locks of hair of Louis XVI and those of her children, showing that these portraits of her ‘Princesses’ were indeed among the last personal objects that she prized the most (Ibid, Pg, 518). A volume of the letters exchanged in French between Marie Antoinette and the Landgravine Louise were published in 1865. Importantly, Princess Charlotte of Hesse predeceased Marie Antoinette, dying at the tragically early age of thirty in Hanover in 1785, as Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; perhaps another reason why Marie Antoinette guarded her memory so closely.

When Marie Antoinette began her momentous journey from Vienna to Versailles in 1770 as French Dauphine, she did not pass through Hesse; she was geographically closest to the home of her ‘Hesse Princesses’ when she took the road via Ulm to Freiburg.

In the year of their coronation in 1896, Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna made a vital State Visit to France, during which the foundation stone of the elegant Pont Alexandre III was laid. The ‘Hesse Princesses’ of Marie Antoinette’s youth made a family trip to Paris in 1780, with their father, Prince George William of Hesse. As part of this visit, Marie Antoinette invited Princess Louise, the future Landgravine of Hesse, her husband, Prince Louis and her brother, Prince Frederick of Hesse, to visit her beloved private retreat of the Petit Trianon. This was a sure sign of royal favour: ‘It’s looking so beautiful that I should be charmed to show it to you’ (Ibid, Pg 210). During a performance at Versailles, Princess Charlotte even sat in the Queen’s box at the opera (Ibid, Pg 210).

As part of the Russian Imperial State Visit, the tradition has been handed down that Alexandra was ‘assigned’ the rooms of Marie Antoinette at Versailles for one night, based on her biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden, who importantly, was not present during the State Visit. If Alexandra considered her Hessian forebears having been invited to Versailles in 1780, she made no mention of it. Alexandra was directly related to Landgravine Louise, as Antonia Fraser has observed, as her fourth cousin, four generations removed (Ibid, Pg 538). Alexandra’s father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV, was the nephew of Grand Duke Ludwig III of Hesse – the grandson of Grand Duke Ludwig I – as Landgravine Louise’s husband became known, the title of Hesse becoming Hesse and by Rhine in 1816. According to Antonia Fraser’s biography, Alexandra was “delighted” (Ibid, Pg 538) with being given Marie Antoinette’s rooms, which if she did stay overnight, must have been the Queen’s State Bedchamber, as there is no mention of the Trianon, nor did Marie Antoinette’s private quarters contain her bed. Alexandra’s biographer, Greg King, stated that in Marie Antoinette’s rooms, Alexandra spent the night underneath “the damask canopy of the doomed queen’s bed”, citing Alexandra’s earlier biographer Baroness Buxhoeveden, for this (Greg King, The Last Empress, Pg 115, 1994).

As a result of this visit, Alexandra would later tell her daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, tales of Paris and Versailles, according to Buxhoeveden (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 1928). Alexandra’s suite, by contrast, had found the fact that the young Tsarina had been given Marie Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles “ominous”, while the Tsarina herself according to Buxhoeveden, was “thrilled” by Versailles (Ibid, Pg 75). In a pleasant parallel to the theatrical performance given for Marie Antoinette’s ‘Hesse Princesses’, the Tsarina attended a theatrical performance at Versailles with the Tsar, in the Salon d’Hercule (Ibid, Pg 75). Recent researches would appear to cast doubt on Alexandra having spent a night at Versailles as the secondary sources seem to be simply repeating one another. Importantly however, Buexhoeveden must have got the information from somewhere, even if she was not there. It is all too possible that the association with the doomed French Queen may have been embroidered with this story for effect or that the story was simply inaccurate, due to the biography being written down so much later. We will probably never know.

There were other associations, however. According to Marfa Mouchanow’s 1918 book My Empress, Alexandra had the Imperial Bedroom at the Winter Palace used by herself and Tsar Nicholas, hung with silk, itself inspired by a pattern used in Marie Antoinette’s rooms at the chateau of Fontainebleau (King, Pg 90), although Mouchanow’s book is not consistently reliable.

On Alexandra’s marriage to Tsar Nicholas II in 1894, she took many books with her to Russia which had belonged to her mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse. It was interesting to discover a reference in Alice’s letters to her mother, Queen Victoria, telling her in 1865 from Darmstadt, that she was “reading at this moment a book by Herr von Arneth – the publication of letters from Maria Theresia to Marie Antoinette from 1770-80. I recommend it to you… the advice the Empress gives her daughter is so good; she was a very wise mother” (Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, Biographical Sketch and Letters, Pg 89, 1884). Perhaps Alexandra also took this volume with her to Russia, if her mother had kept it among her books.

Two portraits of Maria Theresia and Emperor Francis Stephen hang today at the Hessian castle cum hunting lodge of Kranichstein; the hunting lodge that Alexandra knew from her childhood in Darmstadt; the castle’s inventories list many portraits of the Austrian imperial couple in the 18th century, so presumably, Alexandra would have known some of these paintings. A gift to the Hesse Landgrave Ludwig VIII, who had pro-Austrian leanings and traditionally pledged Hessian loyalty to the House of Habsburg. His present to Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen on his visit to Vienna in 1750 was the ‘Kaiserliche Vorstellungsuhr’, (or Maria-Theresia-Clock). It is displayed in the Leopoldnischer Trakt of the Hofburg, which today houses the offices of the federal Austrian president; the clock is displayed in the Rosenzimmer and celebrates Maria Theresia and her consort. Importantly, Alexandra visited Vienna prior to the Russian imperial State Visit to Paris and mentioned the ‘Vorstellungsuhr’ in a letter to her brother, Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig that Kaiser Franz Josef had had the Clock brought into her rooms, because of the Hessian connection; the Kaiser had done the same for Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig when he visited Vienna a few years previously. Marie Antoinette had of course, been born in the Leopoldnischer Trakt of the Vienna Hofburg, but Alexandra did not refer to this.

There was a further, more important association, too. Alexandra was given a Gobelin tapestry which was hung in the Formal Reception Room at the Alexander Palace, the imperial couple’s private residence at Tsarskoe Selo, outside St. Petersburg. Significantly, it depicted Marie Antoinette and was a copy of the iconic portrait by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, which showed the French Queen in red velvet trimmed with fur, with her three children and the cradle which had the fourth child, Madame Sophie who had recently died, painted out. Today this painting hangs at Versailles, in the Antechamber of the Grand Couvert. The tapestry had been a gift from the last President of the Third Republic, Albert Francois Lebrun. It would have hung there when the Russian Imperial Family left Alexander Palace forever on 1 August 1917, as was described in the Alexander Palace’s official booklet (Fraser, Pg 538). That said, it is unlikely that the Imperial Family would have passed directly through this room however, as it was in the far right corner of the palace. This was probably said, so that it would seem to add momentum to oncoming tragedy, through the presence of the doomed French Queen. A possible parallel could also be seen then, in the fact that in October 1789, Marie Antoinette left Versailles forever for Paris, never to return.

This allusion was maintained by palace guides in later years, (Alexander Palace Time Machine) who thought all this presaged disaster, perhaps just as Alexandra’s suite had felt her occupying Marie Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles had done, in 1896. Importantly, however, this hindsight can mislead. Alexandra never viewed the tapestry as “ominous”, just as she may not have considered staying in Marie Antoinette’s rooms as being so, either – in contrast to Empress Josephine, who commented grimly about sleeping in the Tuileries Palace, “I can feel the Queen’s ghost asking what I am doing in her bed” (Fraser, Pg 536).

©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.