I’ve been reading Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004) and am going to do a series of posts on Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters, all of whom went on to be European queens themselves. All quotations are from that book.
Today we will talk about Princess Alix (nicknamed Alicky), who was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice. Alix was born Alix Viktoria Helene Luise Beatrix, Princess of Hesse, one of the seven children of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine.
Alicky would more famously go on to marry Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and become Tsarina Alexandra Feodorova–the woman who was the mother of Anastasia, who transmitted haemophilia to the long-awaited prince and heir to Russia, the one who became good friends with Rasputin out of the belief that he could cure her son, and the one who was killed by Bolsheviks, along with her entire family, during the Russian revolution–which brought to an end centuries of Romanov rule.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This post will focus more on Alicky’s young years and her courtship with Nicholas.
Firstly, it should be known that Alicky was–of all Victoria’s children and grandchildren–the most babe-tastic:
“Princess Alix of Hesse – had already become an acknowledged beauty, whose attributes did not go unnoticed. Never one to mince words where looks were concerned, even when they involved her own family, Queen Victoria was thoroughly pleased with Alix, exclaiming that Alicky was ‘the handsomest child I ever saw‘.
“At twelve years of age, Alicky’s good looks made their first memorable impression on a young man of sixteen. It was a meeting that changed the course of history: in 1884, the future Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra encountered each other for the first time when Alix attended the wedding of her sister, Ella, to Nicky’s uncle, Serge. Alix’s arrival in Russia for her sister’s wedding opened the young girl’s eyes to the splendours of the Russian imperial court. In wealth and spectacle, this court was still unsurpassed in all of Europe. But even more fascinating than the surroundings and ceremonials was the sixteen-year-old tsarevitch himself. If Nicky was the object of a pre-adolescent crush on Alix’s part, she proved equally intriguing to the future tsar. Eventually, using a diamond, the pair carved their names on a windowpane, and the tsarevitch recorded that ‘we love each other‘” (17).
D’awwwwwwwwww, young love. It’s adorable that they were childhood sweethearts, if equally creepy that she was only twelve to his sixteen.
But then Alicky had to go back to Hesse, and it was years before she and Nicholas would meet again. Nicholas never forgot her and was infatuated for years, but it’s unknown how much Alicky thought of him–she had other suitors to ward off.
In particular was her cousin, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, who was madly in love with her. Albert Victor (nicknamed Eddy) was the eldest son of Queen Victoria’s eldest son; in other words, he would be King of England one day (this didn’t happen, though. He predeceased his father, the future King Edward VII, however, and the crown eventually passed to Eddy’s younger brother, the future King George V; Eddy was only 28 years old in 1892 when he died of influenza).
However, when Eddy was still alive and single and in love with Alicky, it seemed like a better match couldn’t be made. He was in line to be King of England, she was Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter . . . . there was a lot of family pressure for Alicky to accept and get in line to replace her grandmother one day as Queen of England.
But Alicky wasn’t interested. Not many women were interested in Eddy, despite him being in line to be King:
“Even into young adulthood, Eddy did not impress, as the Duchess of Edinburgh discovered when she and her family visited Sandringham in January 1885 in order to celebrate her nephew’s twenty-first birthday. When the time came for Eddy to receive his birthday gifts and congratulations, the duchess found him ‘pale‘ and ‘horribly timid‘. ‘In a word,’ wrote his aunt, Eddy ‘is still a real child in spite of his twenty-one years.’ In time, Eddy also grew increasingly debauched. In fact, so bizarre was his scandalous behaviour that years later the theory that he was Jack the Ripper was seriously bandied about. In the eyes of his family, the only answer was to marry him off to a suitable and sensible woman. Such, then, was the peculiar creature that Queen Victoria was foisting on her dearest of granddaughters. Eddy did not take much persuading to warm to the idea of having Alix as his wife. Just as everyone thought, he could not resist the lovely princess, duly fell in love, and proposed.
“Alix, however, was not interested in marrying the most unprepossessing of Queen Victoria’s grandsons, prompting the queen to ask, ‘what fancy has she got in her head?‘ (42).
“Once Alix rejected Eddy, Tsarevitch Nicholas redoubled his efforts at making Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt his wife, much to Queen Victoria’s horror. She loathed the Romanovs, whom she viewed as morally corrupt as well as ‘false and arrogant’. Moreover, Russian expansionist aims concerning Turkey and Afghanistan, which directly challenged Britain’s interest in both regions, served to inflame further Queen Victoria’s view against the tsarist empire. Neither did memories of the Crimean War help to alleviae the British monarch’s entrenched Russophobia” (43).
For all that Queen Victoria hated the Russians, the Russian royal family hated the Germans. The idea of the German/English Alicky marrying the Russian Nicholas was as repugnant an idea to Queen Victoria as it was to the Romanovs.
Nicholas had other ideas, and vowed that he would rather become a monk than marry anyone but Alicky. Alicky, who desperately loved Nicholas, was a devout Lutheran and could never renounce her faith and convert to Orthodoxy, as her position as tsarina would require.
Everything was at a standstill and everyone was annoyed:
“Emperor Alexander [Nicholas’s father] grew impatient, telling his stubborn son, ‘She won’t have you. She’s a confirmed Lutheran.’ Then, wondering what Nicholas found attractive in the intensely shy and awkward princess besides her looks, Alexander asked, ‘And what in the world do you see in her?‘ The tsarevitch shot back, ‘Everthing.‘
“Nicholas received the same kind of comments from his mother. ‘Alix of Hesse,’ insisted Empress Marie, ‘does not wish to have you. You are the heir. It is your duty to marry.’ ‘ And I shall,’ replied an exasperated Nicky. ‘And she’ll have me yet,’ he added defiantly. Nickly declared: ‘It’s Alicky of Hesse – or nobody – for me!‘” (45).
In a wonderful world of double-think, Nicholas was–at the same time–not exactly chaste:
“Amidst all of this, Nicky was dallying with a young ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinksa. Yet he was moved to confess, ‘What a surprising thing our heart is!‘ How was it that he could carry on with Kschessinksa and long for Alix at the same time? The affair with the ballerina was just that – an affair – but it was not true love” (46).
Despite the constant letters he and Alicky exchanged and their clear love for each other, Alicky could just not bring herself to renounce her faith. The couple were to be reunited soon, however, as both were to be guests at Alicky’s brother’s wedding in Germany.
“For a day and a half, Nicholas pondered, read and endured an uncomfortable journey, punctuated by excessive heat as the train sped toward its destination, the picturesque town of Coburg in Germany. Ostensibly, Nicky was on his way to the small duchy to attend the wedding of Ernie, the Grand Duke of Hesse . . . . In reality, Nicholas had seized upon the chance to leave for Coburg in order to confront the groom’s youngest sister, Alix. For the Tsarevitch Nicholas was intent on one purpose: to extract from Alix the much-coveted ‘yes’ to his quest to make her his wife.
“When the tsarevitch left Russia, all indications pointed to a daunting task ahead. Already he had been told by Princess Alix that all was over between them; Nicholas must look elsewhere for a bride. Yet for a man who throughout his life was hampered by irresoluteness, Nicky’s single-minded determination where Alix was concerned was astonishing . . . . Almost from the moment the tsarevitch stepped off the imperial train, there was not to be a moment’s peace for Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt.
“For the next four days -tense days full of high drama – the twenty-one-year-old Alix set the future Tsar of All the Russias on an emotional roller-coaster ride. So resolute was she in refusing to accept Nicky’s proposal, yet so insistent was the tsarevitch, that the outcome was in question right to the very end. A sense of urgency hung heavily in the air. And so immersed were the guests in the high-stakes drama that the wedding of Ernie and Ducky, instead of being the centrepiece, was turning into a sideshow.” (41)
Worst. Wedding. Guests. EVER.
When the wedding was over, Alicky was no closer to accepting his proposal than she had been when he first arrived. However, they had provided so much ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ fodder to half of the crowned heads of Europe over the course of the wedding, that eventually SOMEONE had to step up and tell them to get their shit together.
That person was Kaiser Wilhelm (in addition to Alicky’s sister Elizabeth). Kaiser Wilhelm told Alicky that it was absolutely her duty to marry Nicholas, for political reasons. This half convinced her. It was only when her sister Elizabeth broken down some of the dogmatic differences between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy that Alicky realized the two branches of religion weren’t so different after all.
She accepted Nicholas’s proposal after TEN YEARS of courtship.
She married Nicky, converted to Orthodoxy, and became very devout.
You guys generally know the rest of the story. Nicky inherited the throne and the young couple were desperate to produce a son and heir. They had four daughters in quick succession, bringing about despair and susceptibility to religious fraudsters:
“but the nagging void [of not having a son] left Alix prone to the influence of two of the most colourful members of the Romanov clan: Militza and Anastasia (‘Stana’), daughters of King Nicholas of Montenegro. Not content with the conventional practices and beliefs offered by Orthodoxy, Militza and Stana were easily deceived by a parade of charlatans and ‘holy men’ who appealed to their bizarre sense of the supernatural.
“Alexandra was drawn to the pair at a time when she was at her lowest ebb over her inability to produce a son, allowing her to believe in quacks introduced or recommended by the two grand duchesses. This included a certain Philippe Nazier-Vachot, a one-time butcher from France, said to have the ability to manipulate an unborn child’s sex. He was dismissed in 1903 after being unmasked as a charlatan” (100).
Eventually she bore a sickly son and fell prey to the magnetism of Rasputin. Alicky was never very comfortable with the decadence of the Russian court and the Russian people never quite grew to like her, since she was very introverted and shy. Nicky was a fairly indecisive ruler whose dynasty had created generations of unhappiness in its people. Nicky’s involvement in the first World War, in addition to his other policies in general, brought his people to the tipping point and revolution ensued.
It’s nice to know, however, that in a world of fairly cold, pragmatic, political marriages, Alicky and Nicky at least had a real love match.