Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Hessian Princess in Russia: Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt

The Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeievna of Russia
Born Princess Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt

by Alexander Roslin

The first Hessian princess to marry into the Romanov family was Princess Wilhelmine of Hesse-Darmstadt. She was the fourth daughter of Landgrave Louis IX of Hesse-Darmstadt and Countess Caroline of Zweibrucken.

Wilhelmine grew up under the strict care of her mother Caroline, who was called "The Great Landgravine", one of the most learned women of her time. Their house was frequented by intellectual people like Goeth, Herder and Wieland. In this kind of environment, young Wilhelmine grew up to be a girl with an outstanding mind but with a strong nature and quick-temperament.

At the invitation of Catherine the Great, Wilhelmine and her two sisters, Amalie and Louise, travelled to Russia with their mother. The Empress was looking for a suitable bride for her son, the Tsarevich Paul. Upon meeting the princesses, Paul was immediately attracted to Wilhelmine and eventually chose her to be his wife. Wilhelmine was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and was baptized Natalia Alexeievna, Grand Duchess of Russia. She will never be able to use the name 'Wilhelmine' again.

Weeks after her arrival, Natalia and Paul were married with great pomp and opulence in St. Petersburg. Paul was delighted and contented with his beautiful and exuberant wife. However, Natalia was not. She was willful and temperamental, and was disappointed with her husband's eccentric nature. The Empress, though initially delighted with her daughter-in-law, realized that there was something wrong. Natalia was interested in French poetry, theater and most of all, politics. Being brought up in the free spirit of Europe, Natalia manifested independence in her statements, adhering to liberal ideas, and every now and then spoke in favor of the release of the peasants. This certainly didn't please the Empress. She commented that Natalia "loves extremes in all things" and that "she listens to no advice". Natalia's disappointment in her marriage prompted her to influence Paul to keep him distant to all, except to a small circle of friends.

After 3 years of marriage, Natalia finally became pregnant. She delivered a daughter after a long and painful labor. The baby was a stillborn and it was impossible for Natalia to deliver the infant normally. The doctors didn't perform a Cesarean operation, and Natalia died. Her death devastated Paul and was in no way could be comforted. To keep him sane, Catherine showed him letters from Natalia's desk, purported proof that Natalia and his bestfriend Andrei Razumovsky had had an amorous affair. Having been convinced by his mother that Natalia had been unfaithful, Paul didn't attend the burial of his wife and court mourning was not declared. Almost immediately, the search for a new bride for the heir was began.

Many contemporaries regarded Natalia as ambitious, arrogant, and egoistic. Maybe she was not the right wife for Paul nor the right woman to become the Empress of Russia someday. But despite her shortcomings, I think Natalia was just a victim of circumstances and her own personality. Perhaps, she thought that what she was doing at that time was right and people misunderstood her. Nevertheless, she had a very unhappy life in Russia which ended tragically.


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