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Gifts from an imperial godmother: The Allen twins of Harrogate

In May 1894, Princess Alix of Hesse undertook a cure in the fashionable Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate for sciatica. She had become engaged to Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia at Coburg the previous month. Whilst she stayed at Harrogate, she regularly corresponded with her fiancé, who would later join her at the house her eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg had rented at Waltonon-Thames, before continuing on to Windsor, as guests of Queen Victoria.

Whilst at Harrogate, Princess Alix took not only her elder sister, Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna’s reader, Mlle Schneider, but also her devoted lady-in-waiting and friend, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice, and a pile of Russian manuals, so that her language lessons could continue. It was whilst at Harrogate that Princess Alix of Hesse became godmother to two children, the Allen twins, who were born to her landlady, Mrs Christopher Allen, during her stay.

It was not the first occasion that Princess Alix would stand as godmother, although more generally, this was something she did for the close friends of her youth, such as Pollie, Baroness Ungern-Sternberg (nee Delme-Radcliffe). A jewelled and gold-mounted guilloche enamel brooch, crafted by Faberge, with diamond-set lily-of-the-valley, diamond studded bow and gold chain, was sold at Christie’s in 2010, by family tradition, thought to have been given by Alix as Tsarina to Pollie, who was expecting her first child, born on 7 July 1898 and as Tsarina, Alix became her godmother. The baby girl was duly christened Alix Louisa Emilia Marion Hedwig von Ungern-Sternberg. She also became godmother to the son of Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice, whose son, Alexander von Pfühlstein, born in 1899, received a Russian smock, embroidered by the Tsarina, which was preserved by his decendants. She eagerly awaited news of the births of the children of her close friends, writing to the latter in 1899: ‘Am anxiously awaiting the telegram with the news…’ 

Becoming godmother in Harrogate, however, predated all this by some years. At her request, the twins were named Nicholas and Alexandra Allen, a clear nod to their imperial sponsor. Possibly, Alix may have interpreted their births as a happy omen for her future marriage. Princess Alix personally attended the baptism of the twins in Harrogate’s St Peter’s Church, only a few steps from Cathcart House on the Stray, where she was staying. The baptism was performed on 17 June 1894 (NS). As the Harrogate Advertiser made clear, the ceremony was entirely private. There is, however, something touching about the description of Princess Alix of Hesse, the Mayor of Harrogate, Mr Charles Fortune and the local butcher, Mr Robinson, kneeling as sponsors to the baby twins. Princess Alix in fact stood as godmother to both the children, whilst her lady-in-waiting, Magarete ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice was godmother to the girl, Alexandra. Princess Alix signed the certificates for the christening. The baby girl was christened Alix Beatrice Emma Allen, the boy Nicholas Charles Bernard Hesse.

She had bought some small christening gifts for the twins in Harrogate, consisting of a pair of gold sleeve links with her crest for bay Nicholas and a gold enamel heart-shaped necklace for the baby girl Alexandra, and a nappy pin. ‘Gretchen’ von Fabrice gave a gold chain for her goddaughter and the Mayor of Harrogate a silver rattle for each child. The butcher gave a jug and a spoon. This was, in fact, the start of a remarkable series of small presents which would arrive from Russia unfailingly throughout the years, even as late as 1915.

Presumably, because the townspeople of Harrogate had realised the identity of the ‘Baroness Starckenburg’ [Princess Alix’s travelling incognito] at Cathcart House, any movements that Alix made were closely observed with pedestrians staring out of curiosity or rudeness, depending on the point of view. Alix interpreted it to be the latter, hardly a good portent for the very public role of Tsarina. Because the ceremony was a private one, we may suppose she used the side entrance to get out. This would appear to be the door in the wall at Cathcart House which I discovered on my visit in 2004; also, it is in the right direction for the church of St Peter’s, to the left of the house. Alix wrote to the Tsarevich on 16 May 1894 that she was now getting in via the backyard, as people had taken to watching the door (Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 68). Later people recalled that she was ‘affable and unassuming, nothing stiff or formal about her’.

During her stay in Harrogate, Princess Alix was presented with a copy of Armstrong’s Harrogate Handbook, bound in red morocco. The edition that came out the following year – 1895 – contained a reference to Princess Alix in it. The now Russian Tsarina was described as ‘now popping into her bedroom, and alarming the servant by helping her to make the bed; then startling Mrs. Allen by tapping at the kitchen door, with a pretty “May I come in”, dandling the lucky twins, or standing with her back to the fire, like a Yorkshire man, whilst she chatted as to the cooking operations, or held lengthy discussions along with Baroness Fabrice as to the best way of dressing and training children‘. (‘Concerning Her Grand Ducal Highness, Princess Alix of Hesse’, in Armstrong’s Harrogate Almanac (Harrogate, Yks: J. L Armstrong, 1895, 2), quoted in Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters, 21).

Of course, we know that the sudden death of Tsar Alexander III catapulted Princess Alix of Hesse into Russian history before time. She was not permitted through this shattering event, the years of preparation to become Tsarina, as had been the experience of her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna. Princess Alix became the fiancée of Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia, Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna when she entered the Russian Orthodox Church in the Crimea, on the very day that the embalmers arrived at the old imperial palace of Livadia, to prepare the late Tsar for burial (Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 42). It was, therefore, as the wife of Tsar Nicholas II, that the first gifts arrived from Russia, for her Harrogate twins, the next year.

Alexandra sent each twin an imperial silver gilt and cloisonné christening set decorated with Russian enamel. We know this because one of these sets emerged on the antique market in 2017 and was consigned to auction in Dorset. I had the rare opportunity of being allowed to examine the piece, given to her goddaughter Alexandra, prior to its sale. Its beautiful oak wooden case bore its own specially engraved plaque reading ‘Presented to Alix Beatrice Emma Allen by her Godmother Her Imperial Majesty The Czarina of Russia, 21st May 1895’. This personal dedication also helps us to explain the choice of baptismal names because Beatrice was Alexandra’s own last baptismal name, being the name of Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, who married Prince Heinrich ‘Henry’ of Battenberg. The set includes its own knife, fork, spoon, napkin ring and salt cellar & spoon, with the marks for Grachev and maker’s mark of Ivan Saltikov. The sets were commissioned for the first birthdays of her Yorkshire twins, giving us also the exact dates of their births. Later, the modest Cathcart House was the subject of a miniature the so-called ‘Revolving Miniatures’ Egg of 1896, crafted by Peter Carl Faberge, as recent research has revealed. The set survived by descent to its most recent family owner, before it was finally sold in 2017. The champlevé christening set for Alix Allen is the first object from her story to enter the collections of the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. Their first birthday presents included two matching pink and blue petticoats which Alexandra herself made for them by hand.

Nor did the stream of imperial gifts cease. Alexandra took on her role of godmother as an intensely personal commitment and much of her surviving correspondence demonstrates that she did not view personal ties of friendship or family, as broken by geographical distance. The vows she made kneeling then, in that Yorkshire church that morning, were serious ones.

As such, it should not surprise that not only birthdays, anniversaries, but also important occasions in the lives of these twins was held worthy of a present from far-off Russia. The Allen family kept for many years a heavy book known as the ‘family album’ – included in the 2017 auction – which contained a wealth of material collected by them, including news cuttings, letters, signed photographs, telegrams from Queen Alexandra and also, a sketch that Princess Alix had done in Harrogate, for her niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, perhaps on a rainy Yorkshire day indoors (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s Visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 2018/1, 44).

Alexandra sent a pair of gold Faberge cufflinks in the form of the Imperial Russian eagle, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires to the boy Nicholas in 1910 as a confirmation present; these were gifted to the Harrogate Museums and Arts by Nicholas Allen’s own son Michael in 1994, along with several other items including gold pins that his father had received. Today they are among those pieces connected with the story, displayed in the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The last known present I currently traced was a gold cross and chain identifiably made by Ivan Britzin, which was presumably sent to the boy Nicholas in 1915 for his 21st birthday, so presumably, there was also one sent to the girl Alexandra. Tsarina Alexandra wrote a letter on 29 May 1915 to Mrs Allen to thank her for a recent photograph of Nicholas. We must imagine she found pleasure in seeing this young man on his 21st birthday, having last physically seen him when a baby. Gifts appear to have ceased after this, presumably because of the difficulties of sending things during the war, as opposed to the fact that Alexandra was intensely involved with her wartime nursing and organisations for the war effort, during this period.

The gold cross and chain given by the Tsarina to Nicholas Allen in 1915. It is inscribed in Cyrillic ‘Save and Keep’ and in English ‘With God’s blessing from the Empress Alexandra of Russia 31 May 1915’. (Staff or representatives of Harrogate Museums and Arts service [CC BY-SA 4.0 (

Today at the Royal Pump Rooms in Harrogate, it is still possible to taste the sulphur water which Princess Alix commented in a letter to her fiancé, the Tsarevich Nicholas ‘did not smell lovely’ ( Maylunas and Mironenko, 67). I have checked Alix’s (published) letters to the Tsarevich from Harrogate, but curiously, they do not contain any reference to the birth of the twins, nor to their christening. Nor does the (published) wartime correspondence of the Tsarina. May was, of course, an important personal month for birthdays, for her, being obviously, the birthday month of the Tsar.

Harrogate seems to have retained a place in Alexandra’s heart. Writing to her former English governess, Margaret Hardcastle Jackson from Balmoral, during the Russian imperial visit of 1896. Somewhat protectively, she wrote to Miss Jackson: ‘I hope my Harrogate and the beautiful Yorkshire air did you good!’ (cit., Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 73). With less intensity but still with interest, the Tsarina wrote to Miss Jackson much later from the imperial palace of Peterhof in 1911, ending her letter with: ‘God bless you, darling. When do you go to Harrogate?’ (cit., Ibid, 129).

Perhaps there are subtle references in the fact that on 28 May, a week after the birth of the twins, Alix was writing to her beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria: ‘I cling to You more than ever, now that I am quite an Orphan (cit., Ibid, 71). Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden wrote – many of the anecdotes of the Tsarina’s early life having been told to her personally – that she had ‘insisted’ on standing ‘sponsor in person’ to the twins (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 36). Even Alexandra’s eldest sister, Victoria, Princess Louis of Battenberg doesn’t seem to mention it in her private memoirs, saying only that her sister had been suffering from sciatica, and for that reason, she took the cure at Harrogate, where she joined her and they had ‘great fun’ racing in their Victorian bath chairs (David Duff, Hessian Tapestry, 236).

The visit to Harrogate was never forgotten. When Alix left Harrogate, she gave photographs to Mr and Mrs Allen of herself and the Tsarevich, to give to the twins when they grew up (Elizabeth Jane Timms, in Royalty Digest Quarterly, 42). One of the photographs included in the family album of the Allens, was one taken unmistakably at Coburg at the time of Alix and Nicholas’s engagement, showing them at the summer palace of the Rosenau. The gifts that arrived from Russia – a long ago remembrance of a visit to Yorkshire – but more importantly, of a commitment to her twins, it is fitting that several of these gifts should now be displayed in Harrogate, where they were sent from their imperial, Russian godmother.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019