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Royal Cousins and Imperial Russia

Princess Alix of Hesse – as the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna was known before her marriage to the young Tsar Nicholas II in 1894 – visited Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park on several occasions, as the residence of her maternal aunt, Princess Helena of Schleswig-Holstein and her cousins.

Cumberland Lodge made a circle for Princess Alix around this part of her English family. She was extremely fond of her Schleswig-Holstein cousins, Princesses Helena Victoria ‘Thora’ and Marie Louise and continued to think of them long after she had gone to Russia; we know that she corresponded with them until at least as late as 1914, from surviving correspondence of the Tsarina with her husband, Tsar Nicholas II. The roots of this Romanov association with the Schleswig-Holsteins properly begins long before Princess Alix married into the Russian Imperial House.

As the fiancé of Princess Alix, the future Tsar Nicholas II came to Cumberland Lodge – an example of his being welcomed into Queen Victoria’s immediate family. The Queen, though politically anti-Russian, was personally extremely fond of the Tsarevich Nicholas and fondly signed her letters to him following his engagement to Alix, as ‘Ever… your devoted (future) Grandmama’, Nicholas followed suit, replying ‘My dearest Grandmama’ (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 89). So, the later Russian link was properly forged through Alix’s own English family connections with the Schleswig-Holsteins.

Alix’s even shared a lady-in-waiting with her aunt Princess Helena, in the German-born Margarethe, ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice. But the Tsarevich Nicholas had strong connections with the British Royal Family of his own, through his mother, the Russian Empress Marie Feodorovna, who was the sister of the Princess of Wales, as both were Danish-born princesses. All this serves to demonstrate that if the father of Marie Feodorovna and the Princess of Wales – the Danish King Christian IX – was fondly (and correctly) referred to by his popular sobriquet, ‘the Father-in-Law of Europe’, Queen Victoria was undoubtedly Europe’s ultimate grandmother in terms of its ruling houses, which were already closely interconnected through birth and marriage and became ever more of a blood network through the marriages of her grandchildren.

Marie Feodorovna had, in fact, been briefly engaged to the elder brother of Nicholas’s father Alexander, the Grand Duke Nicholas, who died early in 1865, whereupon Marie Feodorovna became engaged to the future Alexander III. The Tsarevich Nicholas remarked on his pleasure in a letter to his mother, Empress Marie, when arriving at Windsor Castle as a guest of Queen Victoria, in June 1894: ‘I am in the same rooms you stayed in previously. Your portrait (!) by Angeli hangs on the wall. It was a joy to see dear Aunt Alix and the cousins…’ (Ibid, 74). This underlines the notion that they were to some extent, one large Royal Family of Europe.

This, of course, also meant that Alix and Nicholas both shared mutual cousins in the children of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was particularly striking in the case of Nicholas and the future George V, so much so that when Nicholas attended Prince George’s wedding to Princess Mary of Teck in 1893, he was even famously mistaken for the bridegroom by guests at the garden party. Prince George, Duke of York was, in turn, reminded not to be late for his own wedding day by those mistaking him for the Russian Tsarevich. Nicholas wrote in his diary: ‘Everyone finds a great resemblance between Georgie and myself – I am getting quite tired of hearing the same thing all the time…’ (Ibid, 28). Interestingly, Princess Mary of Teck had – like Marie Feodorovna – been earlier engaged to an elder son who had died early – Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, and was in turn betrothed to his younger brother, Prince George, Duke of York.

Other British-Russian ties were also long since established. Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, married the Russian Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna – daughter of Tsar Alexander II, in St Petersburg in 1874. The couple spent part of their honeymoon at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, by a curious twist, the very place that Alix and Nicholas would adopt as their private imperial residence (Elizabeth Jane Timms, A British Prince’s wedding in St. Petersburg, in Royal Central, 2018). Tsar Alexander II had been the charming Tsarevich with whom the young Queen Victoria had herself danced with at Windsor Castle, before her marriage to Prince Albert. Crucially, in Hessian terms, Alix’s own elder sister Princess Elizabeth had married Grand Duke Sergei of Russia, Nicholas’s uncle in 1884, cementing the ties permanently between the families of Alix and Nicholas.

Alix’s family feeling was deeply held and an integral part of her individual identity. The importance of Queen Victoria in the lives of her grandchildren on the death of her second daughter, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, meant that the Schleswig-Holsteins would probably also have represented a living connection for Alix with her mother, whom she lost in 1878, at the tender age of six. Queen Victoria’s attempt to become a type of ersatz mother from afar to the Hesse children, is given particular emphasis in the letters she wrote to Alix’s eldest sister, her beloved granddaughter (and namesake), Princess Victoria of Hesse, featuring conscious sign-offs such as ‘Ever your devoted Mama’ [sic] V.R.I.’ (Richard Hough, Advice to a Granddaughter, 77). The twenty-two-year-old Princess Alix confirmed this herself, in a letter of her own to the Queen in 1894: ‘…ever since dear Mama died, and I cling to You more than ever, now that I am quite an Orphan…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 71).

For Alix, England remained the country of her childhood visits; England was Queen Victoria and her English relatives. Alix wrote six days after Queen Victoria’s death to her sister Princess Victoria of Hesse, now Princess Louis of Battenberg: ‘England without the Queen seems impossible…’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 90).

Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (‘Thora’) would telegram to Cumberland Lodge from Osborne in 1901: ‘Dear Grandmama just passed peacefully away. God help us all’ (Quoted in Charlotte Zeepvat, ‘So loyal and strong in her affections’, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2015/2, 15). As Alix herself wrote to Queen Victoria, a month after her engagement to Nicholas: ‘and when I am far away, I shall long to think that there is One… who loves me a little bit…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 71). So, time or distance clearly did not divide the family, for Alix; her family continued to occupy that space in her affections, regardless of where they were, or she was.

Alix took hundreds of the books which had belonged to her mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, with her to Russia, which formed part of her personal library at the Alexander Palace, Tsarskoe Selo. Her library also contained books which had connections to her English relatives (Elizabeth Jane Timms, ‘What did the Tsarina read’, in Royal Central, 2018; Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Nicholas and Alexandra, At Home with the Last Tsar and His family, 116).

One of these books was a German edition of the Biographical Sketch and Letters of her mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, with its dedication to Prince Ernst Ludwig and Princesses Victoria, Elizabeth, Irene and Alix of Hesse. Importantly, this book – printed in English by the London publishers, John Murray – contained a remarkably personal preface written by Alix’s aunt, Princess Helena of Schleswig-Holstein, dated Cumberland Lodge, 15 April 1884.

Alexandra’s beloved elder brother, Prince Ernst Ludwig later remembered their English aunt in his private memoirs, Erinnertes: ‘We used to see Aunt Helena (Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein) very often because she came almost every year to us with Uncle and her children. When they travelled onwards to take a cure, the children remained with us, so that their visit often extended into months…’ (Author’s translation, Ernst Ludwig, Erinnertes, 88). Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, a biographer of the last Tsarina, confirmed that Princesses Helena Victoria and Marie Louise were ‘great friends’ of Princess Alix (Buxhoeveden, 16).

One example of this was the large visit of the English relatives to Darmstadt for the fifty-fifth birthday of Alice’s widower, Grand Duke Ludwig IV; a photograph was made (Royal Archives, Windsor) to record the gathering on the exact day – 12 September 1882 – and features amidst others including Princess Alix of course, Prince Christian and Princess Helena of Schleswig-Holstein, and their sons, Princes Albert and Christian Victor of Schleswig-Holstein (Ibid, 206; Charlotte Zeepvat, Queen Victoria’s Family, A Century of Photographs, 47).

Photographs are an important proof of the particular bond which existed between the royal cousins. Princesses Alix and Irene of Hesse had been bridesmaids at the wedding of the Queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice to Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885, as were also Princesses Helena Victoria ‘Thora’ and Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. Both Princesses Irene and Alix of Hesse and Ernst Ludwig are, for example, within the large group photograph made of the official unveiling of the statue of Queen Victoria at the foot of Castle Hill, Windsor in 1887, contained within a memorial album dedicated by Queen Victoria to her grandson Ernst Ludwig (Ibid). Also in the group is Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. These images are important, showing how through Queen Victoria, they were all part of one another’s family albums.

The photographs which exist in the heavy, leather-bound albums Portraits of Royal Children (Royal Photograph Collection) point to a special relationship between Princess Alix and Helena Victoria, as several images have the two of them photographed together for both September 1891 and August 1894. Implying a particular bond, something confirmed later when Helena Victoria went to visit Alix in Russia in 1897. This bond with Helena Victoria seems to be confirmed in Alix’s letters, references to ‘Thora’ being more frequent, although this could also simply point to ‘Thora’ having been present at the time. Queen Victoria’s journal also groups them together as a pair for July 1894, when they were both visiting her at Osborne at the same time.

Princess Alix even described in a letter (18 July 1894) to the Tsarevich Nicholas what she and Thora did together over two summer days: ‘I played on two pianos with Thora, which was nice. Then we two went down to the beach, I drove the two ponies, but they pulled vilely… We have first come back from bathing in the large swimming bath [constructed by Prince Albert]. The sailor held Thora from a bridge… then he fastened a cord to me, made me try…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 84). Thora was also present at Balmoral for the Russian imperial visit of 1896, when Nicholas and Alix came as guests of Queen Victoria, in the year of their imperial coronation. She features in the large group photograph made on the steps.

It was, however, to Princess Marie Louise that Alix ecstatically announced her engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, whilst they were all in Coburg for the wedding of Alix’s brother Ernst Ludwig to Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, as Marie Louise later recorded in her My Memories of Six Reigns (1957): ‘I remember I was sitting in my room… I was quietly getting ready for a luncheon party when Alix stormed into my room, threw her arms around my neck, and said, “I’m going to marry Nicky!”…’ (Marie Louise, 56, quoted in Greg King, the last Empress, 57).

Marie Louise was Alix’s age – Alix was born just over two months earlier, in 1872. It seems that the two may have had to share a bedroom at Balmoral on at least one occasion; according to Alix’s biographer Greg King, Alix and Marie Louise ‘hiked’ together in the Highlands and also fished in the River Dee (Greg King, The Last Empress, 23). Marie Louise sometimes came to the Hessian hunting lodge of Wolfsgarten; writing later in her Memories of Six Reigns: ‘Alix, [I said], you always play at being sorrowful; one day, the Almighty will send some real crushing sorrows and then what are you going to do?” (Quoted in Ibid, 24).

Cumberland Lodge – where the Schleswig-Holsteins lived in Windsor Great Park, Prince Christian being Ranger – had perhaps even helped to provide its own inspiration for the decoration of the couple’s private rooms on their marriage. The Imperial Bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra was hung with English chintz patterns, as produced by the London firm Charles Hindley (Elizabeth Jane Timms, English chintz and Imperial Russia, in Royal Central, 2018). Alexandra’s elder sister, Elizabeth, Grand Duchess Sergei of Russia wrote to Tsarevich Nicholas in May 1894, with her recommendations concerning the furnishing and design that they might choose for themselves: ‘Windsor is not pretty, I love the place but the style of rooms I do not like. Cumberland Lodge where Aunt Helena lives is oh so cosy…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 69).

Queen Victoria’s journal contains several references to Cumberland Lodge and Alix – always referred to as ‘Alicky’ in the Queen’s diary, to distinguish her from the Princess of Wales. This occurs in 1887 and 1891, but twice in 1894. Alix stayed at Cumberland Lodge before her leaving for Harrogate – where she would take her cure in May 1894 – possibly because the Queen had already departed for Balmoral. Alix wrote in a private letter to a friend of planning to lunch at Cumberland Lodge in February 1894. Similarly, a letter to her brother, Ernst Ludwig was headed from Cumberland Lodge in May 1894, so must, therefore, date from shortly before her departure for Yorkshire (Elisabeth Heresch, Alexandra, Tragik und Ende der letzten Zarin, 100). Alix was photographed on her return from Harrogate, by the photographer Mullins in August 1894; the photograph also features Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein and her German lady-in-waiting, Gretchen von Fabrice, as well as her lectrice [reader], Mlle Schneider, who accompanied her to Harrogate, where they both proceeded with Russian lessons.

The popular choice of Cumberland Lodge as a place to visit whilst at Windsor continued after Alix’s return from Harrogate. In June 1894, the Tsarevich Nicholas came on a visit to England as a guest of Queen Victoria, sailing into the Thames aboard the imperial yacht Polar Star. He made no less than three trips to Cumberland Lodge, noting it was ‘to see Snipe [Princess Helena Victoria] and her sister” and again: ‘with Alix in a pony carriage to Cumberland Lodge where we had tea. Mr Wolf played the violin, the accompaniment was played first by Snipe and then by Alix. Aunt Helena showed me her rooms upstairs’ (Poliakoff, The Tragic Bride, 1927, 39).

Nicholas’ diary – poignantly littered with private annotations in Alix’s hand – has an ethereal quality, rendered all the more idyllic by the fact that on 1 November 1894, his father Tsar Alexander III, died at Livadia Palace in the Crimea and the young Nicholas, became a bewildered Tsar overnight. The blissful betrothal period had lasted a mere eight months. The summer of 1894, therefore, contains an intense overtone of happiness throughout. The death of Alexander III meant that the marriage of Nicholas and Alexandra – whilst deeply happy for them in personal terms – was performed directly after the imperial obsequies for the late Tsar. Alix’s German lady-in-waiting, Gretchen von Fabrice, wrote letters to Queen Victoria detailing Princess Alix’s journey to the Crimea and the illness and death of Tsar Alexander III, a uniquely personal record of one of the Queen’s favourite grandchildren by one of her closest friends, at this crucial turning point in her new and imperial, life.

Gretchen von Fabrice forms an essential part of the circle which links Princess Alix with Cumberland Lodge and through Alix, the Romanovs and Cumberland Lodge. Gretchen von Fabrice was born Margarethe Olga Freiin von Fabrice on 26 June 1862, in Grimma in Saxony, the daughter of Bernhard Freiherr von Fabrice, Rittmeister in the Royal Saxon 3 and Reiterregiment and Ida, Freiin von Fabrice, born Countess of Schönburg-Wechselburg. Her father fell in the great ‘German’ war of 1866, leaving Gretchen as one of six daughters. Gretchen went to Karlsruhe aged fifteen, where her aunt Olga lived with her husband, William Fürst zu Löwenstein, who had been an early friend of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. It was through her Uncle Löwenstein that Gretchen was recommended to the post of governess for Helena Victoria and Marie Louise, arriving at Cumberland Lodge in November 1884 (Rotraut von Prittwitz and Heinrich, Graf von Spreti, Alix an Gretchen, Briefe der Zarin Alexandra Feodorowna aus den Jahren 1891-1914 an Freiin Margarethe von Fabrice, 11).

Gretchen kept a diary during her time at Cumberland Lodge, although she wrote in it guardedly: ‘Today it is 1. November 1886, two years since I have been with Princess Christian. How long it is since I wrote in this book! In such a position as mine one must be doubly careful, before writing down thoughts and observations…’ (Quoted in Ibid). Gretchen appears to have become especially close to Marie Louise, whereas her relationship with Helena Victoria was more strained, in contrast to what may have been Alix’s experience with her cousins.

In her role as a governess, she participated in the celebrations to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, attending the great service at Westminster Abbey. Gretchen’s glowing letter to her sister describing the event is written on Cumberland Lodge notepaper; Princess Alix was also present that day at the Abbey (Ibid, 211). It was through Queen Victoria’s seeking someone for the sixteen-year-old Princess Alix as a lady-in-waiting that she finally left Cumberland Lodge on 30 April 1888 for Darmstadt (Ibid, 12).

Another important witness was Emily Loch, lady-in-waiting to Princess Helena at Cumberland Lodge. Alix corresponded with Emily from Russia; the letters, notes and postcards sent to Emily by Alix and later also her daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, date from the 1890s until 1915. These were contained within a French edition of the book of the tutor to the Grand Duchesses, Pierre Gilliard, Le Tragique Destin de Nicholas II et sa famille (1921) and exhibited in the Russian exhibition of National Museums of Scotland in 2005, ‘Nicholas and Alexandra, the Last Tsar and Tsarina’. These were, for the most part, Christmas, New Year or Easter greetings (Nicholas and Alexandra, the Last Tsar and Tsarina, National Museums of Scotland catalogue, 190).

Emily Loch accompanied Helena Victoria on the visit that she made to Russia in 1897, to visit Alix; details of this are available to us through the researches of Judith Poore in the Memoirs of Emily Loch, Discretion in Waiting (2007). Helena Victoria wrote to Queen Victoria: ‘You will have heard through Papa of Alix’s invitation for me to go to Russia & that Mama has allowed me to go… it will be so delightful to stay with Alix whom I have seen so little of since she married…’ (Quoted in Charlotte Zeepvat, ‘So loyal and strong in her affections’, Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2015/2, 8).

Emily and Helena Victoria stayed at the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo: ‘We lead a very quiet life here & one can scarcely realise that they are an Emperor & Empress as there is, here in the country, an entire absence of all state…’ (Ibid). This was an important point and picked up the domesticity of the imperial couple’s private family life, an effect which was deliberately cultivated, even down to the English chintzes which covered the wall. It emphasises too that Alix was first and foremost a private individual in an intensely public role.

Princess Helena Victoria spent Christmas in Russia: ‘Alix and Nicky prepared a tiny tree for me which was most dear of them but they said they kept their real presents for me till their own Christmas’, meaning that Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar, was celebrated in January. This meant an extension of Helena Victoria’s visit, which also hints at an imperial attempt at matchmaking: ‘Thora is staying for the balls in January, everyone likes her, but I haven’t found her a husband’ (Quoted in Ibid, 11). The above was written by Alix to none other than Gretchen von Fabrice. Baroness Buxhoeveden wrote: ‘Princess Helena Victoria… came on a visit, and on her account the Empress went about far more than ever before to balls and dinners at the foreign Embassies and private houses in St. Petersburg. Her young cousin’s presence seemed to give her support…’ (Buxhoeveden, 84).

Emily Loch accompanied Thora when she visited Hesse in 1910 when the Tsar and Alix and their family were visiting Germany.

Even into the early years of the First World War, the names of Princess Helena and in particular her cousin, Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein feature in her private correspondence with the Tsar. Epistolary proof that her family feeling was indeed not in the least disrupted by either time or distance, writing from Tsarskoe Selo in November 1914: ‘I received letters from Thora [Princess Helena Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein], A[unt] Helene [sic]… all send you much love & feel for you very deeply…’ (ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra, 1914-17, 49).

Poignantly, even Alix’s last diary continues to demonstrate just how much her English relatives constituted a sort of personal calendar in her mind; sat in Siberian exile, she noted the birthday of her English aunt, Princess Helena, far from the England of Windsor and Queen Victoria. Her diary would eventually find its final entry with the laconic words written by Alix in pencil for 16/17 July 1918: ‘Played bezique with Nicholas… 10 ½ to bed. 15 degrees.’

16/17 July 2018 marked the centenary of the murder of the Russian Imperial Family at the ‘House of Special Purpose’ in Ekaterinburg; a Romanov monument has been unveiled at Cowes, to commemorate the special anniversary.

Cumberland Lodge was the place where Alix brought the future Tsar Nicholas II, to visit her relatives at Windsor in the summer of 1894. It stands then, in a way, as a monument and symbol to this royal, English-Russian cousinship.

©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.