Marie Feodorovna (1847–1928)
Marie Feodorovna (1847–1928)
Russian empress, known as the "Lady of Tears," who was related by birth or marriage to three European monarchies and survived the violent upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that claimed many in her family . Name variations: Princess Dagmar of Denmark; Maria Feodorovna or Fyodorovna or Fedorovna; Mary Feodorovna or Fyodorovna or Fedorovna; Mary Oldenburg; Minny; Maria. Born Marie Sophia Frederika Dagmar on November 26, 1847, at Gule Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark; died at Hvidore Villa near Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 13, 1928; second daughter of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sönderborg-Glücksburg, later Christian IX, king of Denmark (r. 1863–1906), and Louise of Hesse-Cassel (1817–1898); sister of Frederick VIII (1843–1912), king of Denmark (r. 1906–1912), Alexandra of Denmark (1844–1925), queen of England, Thyra Oldenburg (1853–1933), and William of Denmark, who was elected king of the Hellenes as George I (r. 1863–1913); taught languages, dance, music, literature and physical education by her parents; married Alexander III (1845–1894), tsar of Russia (r. 1881–1894); children: Nicholas II (1868–1918), tsar of Russia (r. 1894–1917); Alexander (1869–1870); George (1871–1894, died of tuberculosis); Xenia Alexandrovna (1876–1960); Michael (1878–1918, who married Natalia Sheremetskaia ); Olga Alexandrovna (1882–1960).
Married Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovitch (1866); became empress of Russia at the coronation of Alexander III (1881); became dowager empress following Alexander III's death (1894); was a prisoner of the Bolshevik Revolution (1917–19); embarked for England after the World War I Armistice (1919); took permanent residence in Denmark (1919–28).
Marie Feodorovna, dressed in a sweeping robe of silver, had no idea at her coronation with her husband, Tsar Alexander III, that she would be known as the "Lady of Tears" in 20th-century Europe. Her life would witness the assassination of her brother, King George I of Greece, the premature death of her husband in 1894, the abdication of her son, Tsar Nicholas II, and the execution of many members of her family during the Bolshevik Revolution. But her own miraculous escape from Russia, and the dignity she maintained during her exile, won Marie Feodorovna the admiration and respect of the world.
Marie Sophia Frederika Dagmar was born on November 26, 1847, at Gule Palace, Copenhagen, Denmark. Known as Princess Dagmar until her marriage, she was the second daughter and fourth child of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sönderborg-Glücksburg and Louise of Hesse-Cassel , daughter of Charlotte Oldenburg and Landgrave William of Hesse-Cassel. Marie's parents lived in unpretentious surroundings in Copenhagen, but Louise's mother Charlotte, a sister of King Christian VIII (r. 1839–1848), was the natural heiress to the Danish throne after her childless cousin, King Frederick VII (r. 1848–1863). When a succession struggle became apparent, several European nations reached an agreement in 1852 known as the London Protocol which established the borders of Denmark and named Prince Christian and Princess Louise as heirs to the throne of Denmark. In 1863, Marie's father became king of Denmark as Christian IX (r. 1863–1906); her brother William became King George I of Greece the same year.
Marie spent her youthful years living in the Yellow Palace, a modest home provided by her maternal grandfather, on a street lined with similar houses near the harbor. She shared a room with her sister, Alexandra of Denmark , who would later marry the British prince of Wales (future king Edward VII). Prince Christian, only a captain in the Danish Guards, had a small income which made it difficult for his growing family to make ends meet. The girls made their own clothes and knitted their own stockings. Education was expensive, so their mother taught them music and religion and their father looked after their physical education. They were taught foreign languages and learned English from their English nannies. Sometimes the girls would spend the summers at the 18th-century château of Bernstorff, ten miles from Copenhagen. Author Hans Christian Andersen was a family friend and visitor; Marie and her siblings knew him very well.
Little is known about the individual personalities or childhood experiences of Marie and her siblings. An oil portrait made when Princesses Alexandra and Marie were about ten and seven confirms that Alexandra was the more beautiful and Princess Marie the more lively of the two. In her early youth, Marie was both charming and pretty, with dark violet eyes and an elfin, sparkling face. It was her idea to dress alike, and she and Alexandra almost gave the appearance of twins. Marie was the only one of Christian's daughters to demonstrate any interest in books and literature. The girls, generally not very artistic or intellectual, were happy, boisterous children with good manners and natural senses of humor. In March 1863, Marie accompanied her family to London for Alexandra's marriage to the prince of Wales.
Shortly thereafter, Marie was herself betrothed to Tsarivitch Nicholas, heir to the Russian throne. Nicholas, however, died of pulmonary problems before their wedding, at the age of 22. His last wish from his deathbed was that Princess Marie marry his younger brother, Alexander. Both the Russian and Danish royal families accepted that arrangement, and the engagement and marriage dates were set. Just before the wedding ceremony, Marie converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and changed her name from Dagmar to Marie Feodorovna. She married Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovitch, heir to the Russian throne, on November 9, 1866, at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Among the wedding guests were her sister, Alexandra, and the prince of Wales.
Their marriage was a happy one. Alexander, never expecting to succeed to the throne, had received an education for the military profession. He would remain throughout his life a plain and blunt soldier with excellent qualities and character. His honesty was sterling and his demeanor unceremoniously straightforward. Alexander possessed incredible physical strength but was extremely tender and affectionate to his family. He spent hours of recreation with his children, and his matrimonial relationship to Marie was impeccable.
Quite unexpectedly, Alexander and Marie became the rulers of Russia. On March 1, 1881, Tsar Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists on the very day he
had signed a decree approving a representative assembly. Badly wounded by a bomb, he died at the Winter Palace shortly after the attack. Alexander III (r. 1881–1894), as he was now called, and Marie Feodorovna were forced to take the strictest precautions for their safety because of the political radicalism in Russia. Instead of living in the Winter Palace or the palace of Tsarskoe Selo, they took up residence in the strongly guarded palace at Gatchina. During their rare stays in St. Petersburg in the summer months, they resided in the small, secure Anitchkoff Palace. The fear of terrorism strengthened a political reaction that saw Alexander III reject the constitutional reforms of his father. Konstantin Pobiedonostzeff, a fanatical defender of autocracy, presided over the reactionary policies of the new reign. Alexander III, as a result of his protective isolation from his public, was probably ignorant of many of the excesses committed by his zealous officials.
Their coronation did not take place until May 15, 1883. The emperor and empress were escorted by heralds arrayed in cuirasses, plumed hats, and gilded spurs. Appearing small beside her husband, Marie wore a sweeping robe of silver covered with jewels. Four court pages carried her long gold-and-ermine train. Although her coronation gown, robes and train were so heavy as to fatigue her, Marie maintained a radiant smile for everyone present. After a lengthy ceremony, the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg passed the crown to Alexander who placed it on his own head. The tsar then took the second crown and turned to Marie, kneeling in front of him, and placed it upon her head.
[S]he saw the face of Europe transformed; saw dynasties flourish and fall … saw that country over which she had ruled as a joint sovereign descend into the very Valley of the Shadow.
—Edmund A. Walsh
Marie and Alexander's marriage produced five children between 1868 and 1882. Nicholas, born on May 18, 1868, would eventually succeed his father as Emperor Nicholas II. George, born on May 9, 1871, entered the Russian navy and died of consumption at the age of 23. Xenia Alexandrovna , born on April 6, 1876, married the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch in 1894. Michael was born on December 5, 1878, and served as the heir to the Russian throne from the time his brother ascended the throne until the birth of a son in 1904. Olga Alexandrovna , born on June 13, 1882, married the duke of Oldenburg but their marriage was later dissolved. She then married to Major Nicholas Koulikovsky. The children were raised in a simple way in a warm family environment. Little effort was exerted to prepare them for their future roles as the imperial rulers of Russia. They were in a narrow sense well-educated by tutors. The royal family probably lost some touch with reality and the necessity of protocol and training in the seclusion and isolation at Gatchina. The children were often uneasy around their father, who, while loving and caring, was a taciturn and gruff man.
The Empress Marie found her happiness in the serenity of domestic life and family. She had little interest in politics beyond discussions with her husband. The only political influence known to have been exerted by Marie was over Russian policy toward Finland. She so strongly disliked Russian infringement upon the autonomy of their neighbor that Alexander III moderated policies toward Finland out of consideration for her feelings.
Apart from her family, she spent most of her time in philanthropic and educational work. She was generous in both effort and financial support for her projects, and became head of the Department of the Institution of the Empress Marie, which provided for special girls' schools. Marie, who had thrown herself into this project during the reign of Alexander II, completely changed the character of the department. It grew and expanded under her leadership into a network of not just schools but also hospitals, relief centers, and refuges. She improved the finances of the department by introducing the concept of voluntary contributions to supplement government subsidies. More than being head of this department, she took an emotional and personal role in trying to alleviate the suffering of thousands of unfortunate girls.
Marie Feodorovna was also the head of the Russian Red Cross. Her involvement helped to remedy several deficiencies while enlarging both its size and service. She had been trained as a nurse during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and her personal knowledge of Red Cross duties helped her during her stewardship at its head.
The private life of the royal couple was for the most part uneventful, although there was an unsuccessful attempt on Alexander's life on March 1, 1887, by university student radicals. Of the 15 men indicted in the assassination plot, five were ultimately given the death penalty. One of those executed was Alexander Ulianov, older brother of V.I. Lenin. In October 1888, the royal train was accidentally derailed near Kharkov as the tsar and his family were eating in the dining car. The badly damaged roof caved in, but Alexander, using his Herculean strength, lifted the ceiling on his shoulders while Marie and the children crawled uninjured from the car. Marie, forgetting her own plight, helped the doctors with other members of the court who had been injured in the crash.
In 1894, Alexander began to suffer from insomnia, headaches, and pain in his legs. The family traveled, on doctors' advice, to the royal hunting lodge near Spola, Poland, but his condition continued to worsen and was finally diagnosed as nephritis. It was decided that the warm weather in the Crimea would benefit the tsar, but after a brief period of improvement his health again began to deteriorate. Marie spent day and night beside her husband and, despite her deep grief, nursed him until his death on the afternoon of November 1, 1894, at age 49.
Following the traditional period of mourning, Marie Feodorovna returned to public life. She served as an advisor to Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), who was conscientious but poorly prepared to govern his empire. In time, a bitterness developed between Marie and her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872–1918), because Russian court protocol gave precedence to a dowager empress over the reigning empress. Marie, always splendidly dressed in jewels and fine clothes, made public appearances on the arm of her son, while Alexandra was escorted by one of the grand dukes. They even quarreled about sharing the imperial jewels. This unintended rivalry died away in 1895, however, when Marie took a long visit to her family in Denmark and Nicholas moved his family to the Peterhof Palace.
Marie lived in the Anitchkoff Palace after her return to Russia and devoted herself to her philanthropic work. A coldness always remained between the pragmatic Marie and the often unstable Alexandra. Marie openly expressed her dislike of the charlatans, fortune-tellers and mediums serving and advising her daughter-in-law. She found her most pleasant times to be her visits to the family in Copenhagen and to her sister, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain.
Marie, who was in England when World War I broke out, left immediately for Russia, but she was detained in Berlin on August 4, 1914, and given the choice of returning to England or traveling to Denmark. Refusing to appeal to the German government, she eventually reached Russia by traveling through Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
During the war, Marie spent much of her time with the Russian Red Cross, which did exceptional work under her leadership and patronage. As the war progressed, the Russian public began to turn against the imperial family. Empress Alexandra's constant meddling and the people's concerns about the influence of her confidant and advisor, Gregory Rasputin, made Nicholas II appear weak. Marie, at the request of several influential people, attempted to warn her son of the unrest. Events moved rapidly in both the imperial family and the Russian nation. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916. Three months later, the March revolution forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. Marie traveled to the General Headquarters at Mogilev to see her son. They spent three days together before he was taken prisoner on March 21, 1917. As the train took him away, a tearful Marie waved at her son and made the sign of the cross to him. They would never see each other again.
Marie joined other members of the royal family in the Crimean city of Sebastopol, where several loyal officers protected them from the chaos created by the revolution. Life was difficult and dangerous. Conditions improved during the German occupation of the Crimea, and the Germans offered her safe passage to Denmark through their territory. She refused and remained in the Crimea until British forces arrived after the Armistice ended the war. In April 1919, as the Russian Communist army advanced on the Crimea, Marie left Russian soil on the British battleship H.M.S. Marlborough for Great Britain. Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and their five children had been murdered by Bolshevik forces in July 1918.
Marie Feodorovna never acknowledged the execution of Nicholas II and his family at Ekaterinburg. She eventually left England and returned to her native Denmark, taking up residence in the Hvidore Villa which she and her sister Alexandra had earlier built for themselves. She constantly feuded over money with her nephew, King Christian X, and stubbornly refused to sell the jewels she had brought from Russia when the king suggested she could pay her own expenses. Her sister, Alexandra, sent her £1,000 annually toward the maintenance of the villa. In the end, King George V, Alexandra's son, generously established a yearly pension of £10,000 for Marie—"his dear Aunt Minnie."
Marie Feodorovna, dowager empress of Russia, died at the age of 81 at her residence on October 13, 1928. Her daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia, who had also escaped from Russia, were at her bedside. Services were held at the Russian Church in Copenhagen, and, despite her desire to be buried on Russian soil, she was laid to rest in her father's vault in Roskilde Cathedral.
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Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama