by Scott Mehl
Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia
Queen Victoria’s 23rd grandchild, Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, is perhaps remembered best as Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Empress of Russia. She was born on June 6, 1872 at the New Palace in Darmstadt, the sixth of seven children of Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine.
She was christened Alix Victoria Helena Luise Beatrice – named for her mother and her four maternal aunts – on July 1, 1872 (her parents’ tenth wedding anniversary) with the following godparents:
- The Prince of Wales – later King Edward VII
- The Princess of Wales – later Queen Alexandra
- The Tsarevich of Russia – later Emperor Alexander III, her future father-in-law
- The Tsarevna of Russia – later Empress Maria Feodorovna (born Dagmar of Denmark) – her future mother-in-law
- Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom
- The Duchess of Cambridge (born Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel)
- The Landgravine of Hesse (born Princess Anna of Prussia)
Alix had six siblings:
- Victoria (1863-1950) – married Prince Louis of Battenberg, later Marquess of Milford Haven, had issue
- Elisabeth “Ella” (1864-1918) – married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, no issue
- Irene (1866-1953) – married Prince Heinrich of Prussia, had issue
- Ernst Ludwig “Ernie” (1868-1937) – married (1) Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had issue; (2) Princess Eleonore of Holms-Sohenholms-Lich, had issue
- Friedrich “Frittie” (1870-1873)
- Marie “May” (1874-1878)
Nicknamed Sunny, she was, by all accounts, a happy and beautiful child. She was very close with her brother Ernie and would remain so through her life. The family lived a rather simple life, as they were not very wealthy by royal standards. In 1877, Alix’s father became the reigning Grand Duke, but the children’s lives remained mostly unchanged. They spent time with Queen Victoria each year, relishing their visits to ‘Grandmama’ and looking forward to the next one. This relationship would become even closer in the coming years.
In 1878, most of the family became ill with diphtheria. Sadly, Alix’s younger sister, May, succumbed to the illness, followed a few weeks later by their mother, Princess Alice. Queen Victoria stepped in to serve as a surrogate mother to the children, managing nearly every detail of their lives.
One detail which was of great importance Queen Victoria was the marriages of her grandchildren. The Queen had promoted a marriage Alix and her first cousin, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, but Alix showed no interest. She had already found her true love — her second cousin, Nicholas, the Tsarevich of Russia. The couple had first met in Russia in 1884 at the wedding of Alix’s elder sister Ella to Nicholas’ uncle, Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich. Several years later, on a visit to her sister, Alix and Nicholas realized their feelings for one another and began their courtship. Despite misgivings from both The Queen and Nicholas’ parents, the couple continued their courting for several years. It was in 1894, while the family was all gathered in Coburg for the wedding of Alix’s brother Ernie and their first cousin, Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, that the couple finally became engaged.
Alix had turned down Nicholas’ first proposal. A devout Lutheran, she was initially unwilling to give up her religion and convert, as would be required of her. However, after encouragement from her sister Ella, she finally relented and accepted the second time Nicholas asked. Their announcement still met with great resistance, particularly from his parents. However, several months later, Emperor Alexander III fell ill, and his feelings seem to have changed. Perhaps sensing death approaching, he allowed Nicholas to summon Alix to Russia and insisted on greeting and welcoming her in full military uniform.
Emperor Alexander III died on November 1, 1894, leaving Nicholas as the new Emperor Nicholas II. The following day, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and was given the name Grand Duchess Alexandra Feodorovna. Although originally planning to marry the following spring, the wedding was quickly arranged and the couple married on November 26, 1894, in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace. The young princess from Darmstadt was now Empress of All the Russians. Over the next ten years, the couple had five children:
- Grand Duchess Olga (1895-1918)
- Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1918)
- Grand Duchess Maria (1899-1918)
- Grand Duchess Anastasia (1901-1918)
- Tsarevich Alexei (1904-1918)
Alexandra found it very difficult to relate to the Russian people and was perceived as being very haughty and aloof. Those who knew her attribute this to her extreme shyness. This was magnified by the drastic difference in personality of her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, who was very outgoing and greatly loved. Alix was also met with distrust by the Russian people, due to her German roots. This would be greatly magnified in years to come, during World War I.
Having had four daughters, Alexandra felt great pressure to provide an heir. Finally, in 1904, she gave birth to a son, Alexei. However, it would soon become apparent that she was a carrier of hemophilia, and her young son was a sufferer. This would cause great pain to the Empress, and great measures were taken to protect him from harm and to hide the illness from the people. When it eventually became public knowledge, it led to more dislike for the Empress, with many of the Russian people blaming her for the heir’s illness. See Unofficial Royalty: Hemophilia in Queen Victoria’s Descendants.
After working with many physicians to help Alexei, the Empress turned to mystics and faith-healers. This led to her close, and disastrous, relationship with Grigori Rasputin. Several times he appeared to have brought the Tsarevich back from the brink of death, which further cemented Alexandra’s reliance. To many historians and experts, this relationship would contribute greatly to the fall of the Russian monarchy.
During World War I, in March 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate. The family was held under house arrest first at the Alexander Palace, and later in Tobolsk. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, they were moved to the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. It was here on the morning of July 17, 1918, that the family were brought to a room in the basement and assassinated. Their bodies were initially thrown down a mine, then retrieved and hastily buried.
In 1979, a mass grave was discovered, believed to include the remains of the Imperial Family. They were exhumed in 1991, and in 1998, through DNA testing, it was announced that the remains were of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their daughters. On July 17, 1998 – 80 years to the day of their murders – the bodies were interred in the St. Catherine Chapel at the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. The remains of the last two children were found in a nearby grave in 2007 and positively identified the following year. They were buried alongside the rest of the Imperial Family.