Monday, July 18, 2011

Olga Nikolaievna of Russia: The Second Russian Queen in Wurttemberg

Portrait of Queen Olga of Wurttemberg
by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
(Current Location: Landesmuseum Wurttemberg)
Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaievna was the second daughter of Nicholas I of Russia and his consort Alexandra Feodorovna. She was born on August 30, 1822 in the Anichkov Palace. While pregnant with Olga, Alexandra had suffered some anxiety because two years earlier, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Fortunately, this time, everything went well and the newborn daughter was named Olga, probably in honor of Princess Olga of Kiev. Within the family, she was called 'Ollie'.

In 1825, when Olga was 3 years old, her father ascended the throne as Nicholas I. The Emperor and the Empress doted on their children and Olga grew up in a loving and close-knit family. Nicholas and Alexandra were able to create a real home - a "happy island" in the words of the grand duchess: "Along with a very strict upbringing, on the other hand, we were given a lot of freedom. My father demanded strict obedience, but allowed us pleasure inherent in our childhood, which he himself loved to decorate what some unexpected surprises. "

In 1828, Olga was given a governess of a Swedish descent and a Protestant faith, Charlotte Duncker. Well-educated and strict, she inspired her student to work and study hard. In five years, Olga could read and write in three languages. However, according to her, her religious upbringing was rather superficial. "We are surrounded by Protestant teachers, who barely knew our language and our Church." She explained that because of the religious differences that existed in their environment, she and her siblings developed a strong attraction to their Orthodox faith.

Her education consisted of studying languages (German, French and English), history and geography. She learned how to play the harpsichord and the organ. However, her passion were painting and sculpting. One of her tutors, Count Vasily Zhukovsky, who had to return to Germany before Olga finished her education, wrote about her to her sister Maria: "Olga is very industrious. ...and always very, very attentive. She listens diligently, and does not forget what she learned... I am sorry that I do not have more time: it is a great pleasure to learn with her..."

In 1838, the imperial family traveled to Prussia to visit Empress Alexandra's father, King Frederick William II. It was Olga's second trip abroad. She recalled how she and her sisters enjoyed their stay with their Prussian relatives, where there were always jokes and laughter. The old King loved being surrounded by his Russian granddaughters. Olga recalled how during dinners, he always wanted Maria, Olga and Alexandra to be seated across from him, and how he "liked to look at [them] all and enjoy [their] beauty". Olga also mentioned that among the three of them, it was she who bore little resemblance to their mother, and opined that Alexandra was their grandfather's favorite because she, the King said, "was the only one among us who look 'Prussian' with her snub nose and a sly face."

It was in also in Prussia that Olga met the Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria. In Charlottenburg, she was able to dance with him in a cotillion. The Bavarian royal family wanted Max to marry one of the Russian princesses, and they thought about Maria. But the Crown Prince told Olga that he saw a resemblance between her and a portrait in one of the Bavarian palaces, and so it was only her that he wanted to marry. At first, Olga didn't know that she was already being courted. When her mother told her about Max's intention, Olga refused even to think about marriage.

After the marriage of their sister Maria to the Duke of Leuchtenberg, and their brother Alexander being away for periods of time in search for a bride, Olga became closer to her sister Alexandra. "We talked a lot together, especially about the future... Most of it was about our future children, whom we will love and believe passionately, fill them with respect to all the beautiful and above all to the ancestors and their deeds, and to imbue them with love and devotion to our family. Our future husbands do not take us completely, it was enough that they seemed to us perfect and full of generosity."

By this time also, Olga was already 19, attractive, cultured and still unmarried. She was regarded as one of the most eligible princesses in Europe. After the wedding of her sister Maria, who married a prince below her rank, their parents were determined to find Olga a royal husband. Back in 1838, there was Max of Bavaria, but neither Olga nor her family liked him. A year later, their thoughts turned to Archduke Stephan of Austria. He was the son of Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary (Joseph's first wife was none other than Olga's aunt, Alexandra Pavlovna) from his second marriage. Olga liked Stephan, but a possible marriage between her and Stephan was prevented by his stepmother, who, probably out of jealousy, didn't like a Russian relative of Alexandra Pavlovna. Furthermore, Austria didn't want a princess with an Orthodox faith as this can lead to social unrest among the minorities. By 1840, Olga decided that there was no need to rush into marriage. She was happy to stay home. Her father told her that she was free to choose who she like.

When Prince Frederick William of Hesse-Kassel visited Russia in 1843, Nicholas and Alexandra were hopeful that he might consider marrying the already 21-year-old Olga. He was introduced to her when he came to Peterhof. Olga seemed to have liked Frederick and enjoyed his company and conversation. However, the next day, Frederick met the 18 year-old Alexandra, and to everyone's surprise, fell in love with the younger princess. Realizing that the couple were very much in love with each other, Olga graciously 'stepped aside' in favor of her sister. Frederick William and Alexandra married in January 1844 but the couple's blissful married life was tragically cut short when Alexandra died 6 months later from consumption and premature childbirth.

Later that year, Adolf, Duke of Nassau came to visit Russia with his younger brother Maurice. The Emperor and the Empress were considering this visit as a great opportunity for a marriage between Adolf and Olga. However, their hopes were dashed once again when Adolf fell in love and decided to marry Olga's cousin, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna. The Emperor was surprised, but Olga wrote that "he had nothing against [the match]".

Meanwhile Olga turned 22 year old, still unmarried, and a suitable groom can't still be found.

Olga was said to have a strong personality and was very much like her father "with regular features, a strong will and a persistent nature". While on the other hand, she also inherited her mother's "femininity and angelic tenderness". She was described as the ideal feminine beauty: "tall, slender, blond, with a cameo profile and big blue eyes."

The death of Olga's younger sister Alexandra in the summer of 1844 was a devastating blow to the whole family. Olga's grief in the death of her beloved sister inspired her to write her memoirs later in life and described how it felt without Alexandra, the favorite of the family. She described her as "a lark that emanates with joy." The Empress was doubly affected by Alexandra's death. Not of a robust constitution, her grief greatly worsened her health. She was advised by her physicians to spend sometime abroad and to benefit in the warm climate of the South. Olga was to accompanied her mother, and wrote sadly that the trip was like a death sentence. "Away from the family, from home, without Papa and my brothers, wandering around Europe, not knowing when we can return." Olga, her mother and a few staff wander across Europe, visiting one health resort to another. When they reach their final destination, Palermo in Italy, the Empress's health certainly improved and Olga happily wrote that her mother was doing quite well, was able to put on some weight, was more cheerful and was strong enough to do everyday activities. It was also during this stay in Italy that Olga received a letter that would finally decide her fate. The letters that Olga received are from Stuttgart. The first dispatch of letters contained a request from the King of Wurttemberg to introduced his son to Olga, because the prince wanted to meet her. The second dispatch was a letter from Count Metternich stating that the Austrian Imperial Family were interested in a rapprochement, regarding the failed match between Archduke Stephan and Olga.

Olga felt confused and in her own words, the first time she went in doubt. She didn't want to be bound to a husband, who, not having a firm position, depends entirely to Metternich. The unexpected request from Stuttgart made her more confused and undecided. But she later remembered her father's advice that everything is in God's hands. She decided to visit Stuttgart to meet the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, and it was after then that she would decide which of the two candidates is more suitable for her.

Then Olga made her decision. She decided that she would chose to marry Crown Prince Charles of Wurttemberg. Her reason for selecting him was familial. Among all the ruling families in Germany, Wurttemberg was most closely associated with the Romanovs. Olga's grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna was born a princess of Wurttemberg, so was her aunt, Elena Pavlovna, and another aunt, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna was once married to the King of Wurttemberg.

Crown Prince Charles of Wurttemberg arrived in Palermo on January 1, 1846. On their first meeting, Olga felt nervous but not shy. She recalled how she immediately fell in love with his soft voice, and admired his figure, his brown eyes and how his hair framed his forehead and temples. "He was rather shy and spoke little." After several meetings, Olga accepted Charles's marriage proposal. She was brimming with happiness in this event, same also her whole family and Russia. The Russian Court sighed in relief upon receiving the news that she was marrying Charles instead of Archduke Stephan. "In Austria, she would be unhappy, as was the late Alexandra Pavlovna... Thank God she was saved from trouble and gave her a more dignified fiance."

After their engagement was announced, Olga spent most of her free-time with Charles:
"I looked at his eyes and listened to him in intently, but the upcoming big change in my life also interested me, so I kept clear memories and impressions. It seemed to me that it is more important and significant to know the character and nature of Charles. His childhood was not happy: his parents never had a harmonious time together. He grew up lonely, and his need for affection was great. He loved to talk to me while walking in the garden, on bank of the Arno. When I was sitting in the room with work in hand, he quickly grew impatient, and this reminded him of his joint family evenings at home, where his mother and sisters sat in silence for their work, shivering in advance of the chicanery of the King. When he found out that my birthday is on 11 September, he exclaimed: 'Oh, it lies exactly between the birthdays of my parents! This may mean that you are destined to become the connecting link between the two.' He guessed my nature and I have thus the direction of my path."

Olga and Charles were married in great splendor at the Peterhof Palace in Russia on July 1846. Olga looked radiant. After the Orthodox wedding, a Lutheran one followed. The celebration lasted for several days and then the couple attended a ball in their honor. The people observed: "She was incomparably beautiful. Her husband was not handsome, but his face radiates common sense and kindness."

In September, Olga and Charles left Russia for Wurttemberg. She was enthusiastically welcomed by the people. The couple settled in Villa Berg in Stuttgart. Less than a month after her arrival to her new homeland, Olga was settling herself with great ease, bringing herself closer to her new country and her people: "It's comforting to think in a moment of separation that my grandmother was born unforgettably in this land where I was destined to live and where Ekaterina Pavlovna left so many memories. They love their Russian name, and Württemberg connected us by many ties."


"The Golden Dream of My Youth" by Queen Olga of Wurttemberg


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