Thursday, July 14, 2011

Melancholic Princess: Elizabeth Mikhailovna of Russia

The Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna of Russia,
Duchess of Nassau
Vladimir Ivanovich Hau

One of the lesser-known but tragic figures in the Romanov family was the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna. She was the second daughter of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich of Russia (youngest brother of Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I) and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (who was born as Princess Charlotte of Wurttemberg). This grand duchess is almost of the same age and shared the same fate as her cousin, Alexandra Nikolaievna, and I can't help but feel fascinated about her as much as Alexandra.

Elizabeth was born in Moscow Kremlin on 26 May 1826. She was named after her aunt, the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, wife of Alexander I. The Empress Elizabeth was a close friend of Elena Pavlovna and her death robbed the young Elena of any close friend at court. So it was understandable that she decided to named her second daughter after the lonely and kindhearted Empress.

Elizabeth was nicknamed "Lili" and she and her sisters grew up and educated at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. Their education was carefully supervised by their admirable and highly-intelligent mother. Elizabeth was considered the prettiest among the sisters, but she was delicate, less animated, melancholic and reserved. She was also sensible, and had an extreme love of music. Her cousin, the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaievna, wrote about Elizabeth: "Cousin Lily is very outspoken, quick-tempered and a little like a boy..."

Elizabeth and her cousins frequently spend time together, especially when there were balls and other occasions at the Winter Palace. She was closest to Alexandra, to whom she shared almost the same age. But unlike Alexandra, Elizabeth was, in some degree, estranged from the inevitable splendor of the court. She was brought up in a more relaxed atmosphere than that of the court. Her father, Grand Duke Michael, was a simple, unassuming and upright man who felt happier without any exterior pomp. On the other hand, her mother Elena Pavlovna, was a graceful and intellectual woman. She delighted on conversations with likewise intellectual people and always listen to the opinions of people from all walks of life. Surrounded by these kind of people, Elizabeth was nearer the realities of life than Alexandra, who almost knew nothing about the outside world.

When Elizabeth was 17, Duke Adolf of Nassau came to visit St. Petersburg at the invitation of the Emperor. The arrival of the Duke of Nassau almost caused a rift between the family of Nicholas I and his sister-in-law Elena Pavlovna. Elena had always cherished a dream of marrying off her eldest daughter Maria to the Hereditary Prince of Baden, and Elizabeth to the Duke of Nassau. At the same time, Nicholas I and Empress Alexandra were hoping that Adolf would choose their unmarried daughter Olga. Olga had been also a prospective bride to Prince Frederick William of Hesse-Kassel but the gallant prince fell in love instead to Olga's younger sister Alexandra. So Olga was left with no future husband again. The Emperor then intervened and said that Adolf is free to make his own choice between the two cousins. But Elena was concerned that Adolf might prefer Olga because she was the daughter of the Emperor. In the end, Adolf chose Elizabeth to be his wife, as the couple seemed to have fallen in love already.

Elizabeth and the Duke of Nassau got married in St. Petersburg, few days after her cousin Alexandra's wedding to the Prince of Hesse-Kassel. The 'double' wedding in the imperial family caused so much festivities. Few days after their wedding, Elizabeth and Adolf left Russia for Nassau. The climate in Nassau was far more favorable and mild compared to that of St. Petersburg. They settled in Biebrich Castle in Wiesbaden. In here, Elizabeth was extremely happy, full of life and charm. She didn't require to embellish her residence by her imagination, for scarcely on the world is a more lovely place to be found than Nassau; but Elizabeth could appreciate this as a special happiness. She was well-loved by her people and travelers reported her happiness. However, that summer, a tragic news arrived from St. Petersburg: her cousin Alexandra had died with her newborn baby. Everyone was shocked, especially Elizabeth, who had only celebrated their wedding together that winter. In the months that followed, she began to convince herself that she would died in childbirth as well. Unfortunately, Elizabeth did die giving birth to her daughter, who didn't survive as well a year after her wedding. Her husband Adolf was devastated. He ordered the building of an Orthodox Church that will house the remains of Elizabeth using his wife's dowry. The sculptor Hopfgarten has immortalized Elizabeth's features in the marble. The church rises above the Nero Valley near in Wiesbaden so that Adolf could still see the church from his residence. Elizabeth's death was a great sorrow for Adolf and it took many years before he remarried. But he wasn't able to forget the memory of his beloved first wife.

Elizabeth's sarcophagus at the St. Elizabeth Church in Wiesbaden.

The Golden Dream of My Youth - The memoir of Queen Olga of Wurttemberg
Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia by August Theodor Grimm, translated by Lady Grace Wallace


Derek Pike said...

I was propmpted to search for this blog after visiting the church in Wiesbaden. Her story is such a sad one, but she did inspire the building of a beautiful church, as well as the portrait by Hau, a sculpture and the sarcophagus. Thank you for telling her story on the internet.

Gem said...

Hello Derek!

You're welcome! What a short life she had though.

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