Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all and have a blessed year ahead! May the good Lord bless us all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Portraits of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria

On December 24, 1837, Princess Elizabeth Amalie Eugenie of Wittelsbach, who later became famous as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, was born in Munich. "Sissi", as she was called, was one of history's most interesting women. Her beauty as well as her unconventional life, exerts a lasting fascination. She was and is always a beloved and iconic figure throughout Austria and Hungary.

Today marks the 174th anniversary of her birth, and as a tribute to this restless and unhappy Empress, I posted some of her portraits.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Daughters of Tsar Paul I

Alexandra Pavlovna, 
Archduchess of Austria (left)
Alexandra's birth was a disappointment to the Empress Catherine, who preferred grandsons to granddaughters. A less pretty child (in the Empress's judgment), she was compared unfavorably to her "good-looking" older brothers and with her younger sister Elena. Nevertheless, she was reportedly Paul's favorite daughter, and that when he received reports that her daughter was miserably unhappy at the Austrian court, he threatened war with Austria. 

Elena Pavlovna, 
Hereditary Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (right)
Elena, named after the legendary Helen of Troy, was the beauty of the imperial family. Judging from Empress Catherine's letters, she preferred Elena's physical appearance to her sister Alexandra. As Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Elena became acquainted and eventually friends with Queen Louise of Prussia. She was the one who 'introduced' the Prussian king and queen to her brother Tsar Alexander I, and their resulting friendship helped forged an alliance between Russia and Prussia against Napoleonic France.

Maria Pavlovna, 
Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Maria was highly precocious as a child, and she was generally regarded as the most intellectual and literary of all Paul's daughters. She used her talents and learning to the improvement of Weimar, and she was able to transform her adoptive country as the cultural and literary center of Europe. 

Catherine Pavlovna, 
Queen of Wurttemberg
After the deaths of Alexandra and Elena at a relatively young age, Catherine, or "Katya" to the family, became the recognized beauty of the imperial family. A very vivacious and ambitious woman with a fiery temper, she was her brother Alexander's favorite sister. Of all Paul's daughters, Catherine was the only one who inherited her father's large dark eyes. She had a strong and daring personality and possessed great intellectual power, but also, according to Countess Lieven, a need to "always eclipse others". 

Anna Pavlovna, 
Queen of the Netherlands
Just like the youngest girls of other families, "Annette" was her father and mother's 'pet'. Unlike her older sisters whose upbringing and education were strictly supervised by Empress Catherine, Anna was brought up by her parents. It can be say that Anna and her younger brothers were Maria Feodorovna's favorite children. She was determined to have her own way in raising her three youngest children. After Paul's assassination, Maria Feodorovna turned to the then six-year-old Anna as source of comfort and consolation. She also became her mother's constant companion, and was horrified when Napoleon Bonaparte proposed to marry the teenage Anna. Nothing came out from this proposal, and Anna was eventually married to the future King of the Netherlands.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Historical Dolls (Empresses and Queens)

A while ago, I was surfing the internet for portraits of royal ladies, and I came across this wonderful collection of historical dolls created by Cheryl Crawford. I thought the dolls and their costumes looked beautiful. I just love how Ms. Crawford was able to transform well-known and evocative characters in history into such a beautiful works of art. Here are some photos of her lovely creations. By the way, I do not own any of these dolls nor the pictures.

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England

Friday, December 2, 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte and Queen Louise of Prussia

The Treaty of Tilsit
Napoleon receives the Queen of Prussia at Tilsit, July 6, 1807.
The painting also shows King Frederick William III of Prussia and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
(Painting by Jean Charles Tardieu)

Queen Louise accompanied her husband with the hope of helping him secure better terms for Prussia. Unfortunately, Napoleon proved to be adamant. In the course of this infamous and momentous meeting, the French emperor offered the beautiful queen a rose, which she took, and asked furtively, "With Magdeburg, Sire?" Napoleon sternly answered: "Madam, it is mine to give, yours to accept what I offer!" This rebuff proved to be the Queen's breaking point, for she was already by this time suffering from ill health and was so worn out with anxiety for her husband and the whole country. Her grief for her suffering people and her hapless country took its toll, and Queen Louise died before she could ever see Prussia's victory and the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte. Before she died, she was said to utter the words: "Were they to open my heart, they would find Magdeburg engraved upon it."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Gallery of Beauties

A tour in Munich, Bavaria is certainly not complete without a visit to the imposing Nymphenburg Palace. The palace was used to be the summer residence of the Kings of Bavaria, and it is now famous not only for its collection of artworks, but also for housing the Schönheitengalerie or the Gallery of Beauties.

The Gallery of Beauties is a collection of 36 portraits of the most beautiful women in Munich. The portraits were commissioned by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, a man known for his eccentricity and his love for beauty. German portrait painter Joseph Stieler painted the 36 portraits, featuring women from royalty (including King Ludwig's relations), nobility, and middle-classes, the latter group were shown wearing elaborate dresses and hair accessories despite their humble backgrounds. In 1861, Friedrich Durck painted two more portraits for the Gallery of Beauties (the portraits of Anna Greiner and Carlotta von Breidbach-Bürresheim).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Berengaria of Navarre: The English Queen Who Never Set Foot in England

Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England.
Engraving from c.1890.
Berengaria of Navarre, consort to one of England's most beloved and best remembered kings, Richard I (the Lionheart), had a distinction in history as the only Queen of England never to set foot in England, well at least during her husband's lifetime. Just as in the case of early medieval English queens consort, little is known about Berengaria's life, and this what makes her more intriguing for me. She lived in a time of many historical events and yet she was overshadowed by more forceful personalities of that time (Richard the Lionheart and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine). Berengaria is one of my favorite historical character, and I have always looked up to her as a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate and courageous woman, deeply devoted to her husband. But beauty and devotion were all seemed wasted. Richard, although undoubtedly the ideal warrior-king and the epitome of a chivalrous knight, was far from being the ideal husband (and the ideal king), and his treatment of Berengaria reveals a rather cold and callous side of his personality.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Portraits of The Princess Margaret

Princess Margaret has always struck me as a very lovely young woman. I just love her large, piercing blue eyes, her dazzling smile, and her beautiful coloring. She was very elegant and glamorous. No wonder she was a fashionable figure during the 1950s, and was always named as one of the best-dressed women at that time. This beautiful princess is indeed the embodiment of elegance and charm. It is just kind of sad that she spent the last days of her life in isolation and loneliness.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Polka for a Princess

I found a rather interesting article about the creation of Johann Strauss's "Olga-Polka". Strauss is one of my favorite composers and Olga-Polka one of my favorite music. I was amazed to find out that it was actually composed by Strauss as a dedication to Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna of Russia, sister-in-law to Tsar Alexander II.

This is what the article says about the music:

The Olga-Polka was created because of a Russian imperial wedding which took place in St. Petersburg on August 20, 1857. On that day, the music-loving Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaievich, youngest brother of Tsar Alexander II, married Princess Cecilie of Baden. At that time, Johann Strauss was giving concerts in Pavlovsk. He used the opportunity occasioned by the event to enhance his already enviable popularity with the Russian imperial family and composed the Cecilien-Polka in honour of the lovely young bride. Indeed, it is clear from a letter which Johann wrote in late July 1857 to Carl Haslinger, his publisher in Vienna, that the new polka had been prepared well in advance of the wedding (the fair copy of the full orchestral score made for the publisher's engraver is dated 9 August) and was enjoying success even before the royal couple's official engagement on August 16, 1857. The performance of the Cecilian-Polka in Pavlovsk caused a sensation in St. Peterburg, and was praised for its "truly genial Viennese sounds full of verve and melody".

Since tradition demanded that the German princess Cecilie adopt a Russian name - Olga Feodorovna - before her marriage, so Johann's Cecilien-Polka also underwent a change of identity. On December 8, 1857 Carl Haslinger announced the publication of Strauss's Olga-Polka, on the title page of which is the inscription: "Dedicated to her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Olga, née Princess of Baden". It was under this title, too, that Johann himself first conducted the work in Vienna at a concert in the Volksgarten on November 1, 1857, shortly after his return from Russia. Reporting on this event, the Wiener Allgemeine Theaterzeitung observed: "The Olga-Polka is a most delightful, fragrant musical bouquet, full of fine, gracious rhythms".

Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna of Russia
nee Princess Cecilie of Baden

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Fascinating Marie

Crown Princess Marie of Romania

"Princess Marie was already famous for her beauty: she had wonderful eyes of such a rare shade of grayish blue that it was impossible to forget them. Her figure was tall and slender as a young poplar, and she bewitched me so completely that I followed her about like a shadow. I spent sleepless nights conjuring up her lovely face. Once, she kissed me; I was so happy that I refused to let my face be washed that night. She was much amused to hear about this act of boyish infatuation, and many years later when I met her again at a dinner given in London at the Austrian Embassy, she reminded me of the incident." 
--Prince Felix Yusupov 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Princess Zinaida Yussupova

Princess Zinaida Yusupova was the greatest Russian heiress of her day. She was famed not only for her dazzling beauty and wealth, but also for her intellect and the lavishness of her hospitality.

Her family, the Yusupovs, were immensely wealthy. They owned many properties throughout Russia, among these were the Arkangelskoie Estate (with its paper and textile factories), and sixteen sumptuous palaces in St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Crimea, France, Germany, and Britain. They also possessed a huge and valuable collection of paintings, sculptures, and jewelries.

Being the only the surviving child of Prince Nicholas Borisovich Yusupov and Countess Tatiana Ribeaupierre, Zinaida solely inherited the vast properties of the Yusupovs. As a young woman, she had numerous suitors, among them the Crown Prince of Bulgaria, but she married Count Felix Sumarokov-Eston, an officer of the Russian Imperial Guard. They had two sons, Nicholas and Felix, the latter would eventually gain fame as the man who murdered Rasputin.

Below is an excerpt from Prince Felix Yusupov's memoirs about his mother.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'Crowned Ophelia'

The Grand Duchess Elizabeth, c1890
"She is fair, winning, gifted, the most brilliant and accomplished of all the Queen's grandchildren, with beauty of so fragile and delicate a type that they call her a 'crowned Ophelia'."

While reading "Royal Girls and Royal Courts" by M.E.W Sherwood, I came across this interesting passage about the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna ('Ella'). It intrigued me that Ella was called  a "crowned Ophelia". I haven't read anywhere before that she was called like that. Perhaps there is something about the character Ophelia (I assume from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet') which made the comparison with Ella. I'm not sure.

"Ophelia" by Arthur Hughes, 1865

Friday, October 14, 2011

Royal Portrait: The Princess Elizabeth

Princess Elizabeth by Cecil Beaton, 1945
(From V&A Museum)

This must be my favorite portrait of Her Majesty the Queen. It was taken in 1945, when she was still Princess Elizabeth. She is truly the quintessential princess. I just love the whole effect of this photo: her dress, the flowers, her pose... There is something romantic, magical, and serene about it. Cecil Beaton has perfectly captured the youthful beauty and charm of the Princess, as well as her sweet smile.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The First American Princess of Monaco: Alice Heine

Alice Heine,
Princess of Monaco
Before the American actress Grace Kelly became Princess of Monaco by her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, another American woman had become the wife a Prince of Monaco more than half a century earlier. Marie Alice Heine was the first American woman ever to marry a Prince of Monaco, and the first American woman ever to wed a reigning sovereign.

Alice Heine was born on February 10, 1858 in New Orleans. Her father, Michael Heine was a scion of the prominent European banking family Heine-Freres, and a cousin of the German poet Heinrich Heine. He came to New Orleans from France to become a real-estate developer and to organize cotton financing. Alice's mother was Amelie Miltenberger, an architect's daughter, and of a French ancestry.

Because of the American Civil War, the Heines were forced to go back to France. It was also in France that Michael Heine introduced his daughter to Parisian society. Alice's beauty and her family's wealth made her an attractive bride, and soon enough the most eligible bachelors were begging for her hand in marriage.

At the age of 17, Alice married Armand, 7th Duke of Richelieu, a wealthy man but many years older than her. They went on to have a son, the future 8th Duke of Richelieu. Five years after their marriage, the Duke died, and 22 year-old Alice was left a widow. Her husband left her a substantial fortune, and the young and wealthy widow became one of the most courted widows in the cosmopolitan world. She embarked on her fabulous career as an international hostess, and became famous in London and Paris.

Few years later, Alice met Prince Albert of Monaco at the island of Madeira. The prince was immediately attracted to the beautiful blonde widow and wished to marry her. However, Prince Albert's father was against the match and the couple had to wait years before they could marry. When the reigning prince died and Albert became the new sovereign of Monaco, he immediately married Alice. They got married on October 30, 1889. Alice arrived in Monte Carlo and was greeted with much fanfare. The Bishop of Monaco described her as "the embodiment of virtue, chastity, and generosity". She brought with her six million dollars as dowry, which was a fortune at that time, and possessed some of the most valuable jewels in existence.

Alice's marriage to Prince Albert proved an equal blessing to him and his tiny principality. Alice possessed a strong business acumen, well in advance for her youth. Having helped put her husband's principality on a sound financial footing, she would devote her energies to making Monaco one of Europe's great cultural centers, with an opera, theater, and a ballet under the direction of the famed Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Prince Albert was a keen oceanographer, and ordered the construction of the research ship Princess Alice in honor of his wife.

Albert supported his wife's efforts in transforming Monaco into a major cultural center, but Alice was unsympathetic to her husband's love for the sea. Despite the initial success of the marriage, the couple eventually found it hard to reconcile their differences, and they separated in 1902. They did not divorce. Alice's father tried to negotiate a return of some part of her large dowry, but the Grimaldi family refused. After her separation from the prince, Alice settled in London, and became the hostess to one of its most glittering salons. She became a close friend of Queen Alexandra, and the Queen regularly sent her roses from Sandringham to be added to her garden. She entertained considerably, and her parties were frequented by celebrated artists, writers, and political leaders. She also became patron to many young, promising artists and a supporter of humanitarian causes popular in the early 20th century. Upon the Prince's death 20 years later, Alice became the Dowager Princess of Monaco. She did not remarry.

Princess Alice died in Paris at the age of 68.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Imperial Cyphers of the Russian Empresses

Diamond imperial cyphers of the Empress Maria Feodorovna, consort of Paul I (left),
the Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, consort of Alexander I, in combination with the monogram of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (right), and the Empress Maria Feodorovna, consort of Alexander III (center)

Cypher of the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, consort of Nicholas I

(Left) Monogram of the Empress Maria Feodorovna, consort of Paul I
(Right) Dual cypher of the Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, consort of Nicholas I 
and the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, consort of Alexander II

Dual cypher of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, consort of Alexander III, 
and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, consort of Nicholas II

Friday, September 23, 2011

Royal Portrait: The Family of Tsar Paul I

This portrait of the family of Tsar Paul I of Russia was done by Gerhard von Kugelgen in 1800. The imperial family is depicted against the background of the Pavlovsk Park. At the right side of the painting is the facade of the Pavlovsk Palace, overlooking the Slavyanka River.
From left to right: Tsarevich Alexander (wearing the uniform of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment and his arm resting on a pedestal containing the bust statue of Peter the Great), Constantine (in red uniform), Nicholas (wearing a blue ribbon around his waist), Empress Maria FeodorovnaCatherine, Maria (playing with a harp), Olga (depicted as a bust statue); Anna (wearing green clothes), Tsar Paul I, Michael (sitting on the ground), Alexandra, and Elena.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Queen Hortense: Recollections by the Duchess d'Abrantes

From the memoirs of Laure Junot, Duchess d'Abrantes:
"Hortense de Beauharnais was at this time, 17 years old; she was as fresh as a rose, and though her fine complexion was not relieved by much color, she had enough to produce that freshness and bloom which was her chief beauty; a profusion of white hair played in silky locks round her soft and penetrating blue eyes. The delicate roundness of her figure, slender as a palm tree, was set off by the elegant carriage of her head; her feet were small and pretty; her hands very white, with well-rounded nails. But what formed the chief attraction of Hortense was the grace and suavity of her manners which united the Creole nonchalance with the vivacity of France. She was gay, gentle and amiable; she had wit, without the smallest ill temper, is enough to be amusing. A polished and well conducted education has improved her natural talents; she dances excellently, sang harmoniously, and performed admirably in comedy. ...She became one of the most amiable princesses in Europe. I have seen many, both in their own countries and in Paris, but I never knew one who had any pretensions to equal talents. She was beloved by everyone..."

Queen Hortense

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Pearl of Russia: Maria Pavlovna of Russia

Maria Pavlovna, Grand Duchess of Russia,
Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia was the fifith child and third daughter of Paul I of Russia and Empress Maria Feodorovna. She was born in Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg on February 4, 1786, and was named after her mother. Maria was raised along with her four sisters in Pavlovsk and Gatchina under the strict guidance of their mother. As a child, "Masha", as she was called within the family, was distinguished from her sisters as a bit of a tomboy. Her grandmother, the Empress Catherine, wrote that Maria would have been better to have been born a boy and earn a place in the dragoons ("a guardsman in a skirt", her grandmother called her). She was inclined to enjoy boy's games, and swaggered by clenching her hands and putting them on her hips. The Empress Catherine despaired, "...I don't know what will become of her..." The little Maria was also considered not pretty: her features where disfigured as a result of a pioneering application of the smallpox vaccine. "My third granddaughter was unrecognizable", wrote Empress Catherine. The grandmother and the parents were so concerned about Maria that they, especially the Empress, started to pay special attention to her development.

Fortunately, as she grew older, Maria began her transformation from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan. The pox marks were now barely visible, and by the time she reached adolescence, people at court started admiring her. She was now a very pretty girl, with deep-set brown eyes and an aquiline nose, and was called "the pearl of the family". She was not as beautiful as her sister Elena, who was considered the beauty of the family, but she had grown up to be an attractive girl. "...She looked like an angel," said one courtier. If Maria did not stand out as the beauty among her sisters, she made it up through her remarkable talent in music. This was especially praised by her grandmother, who noted how, at the age of nine, Maria was able to play the piano with such genius. She also became a favorite of her father, who admired her cheerful and lively disposition, strength of character, will power, and candor. A highly precocious child with a serious interest in intellectual pursuit, Maria loved reading so much that courtiers were amazed to see her holding and reading a book for hours.

In 1799, Maria's two elder sisters, Alexandra and Elena, were married in St. Petersburg, and soon departed  with their respective husbands for their new home. Fourteen-year-old Maria was left as the eldest daughter of the family. But after a year, there were already talks about a possible marriage between her and the heir to the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Prince Charles Frederick, a nephew of Paul I's first wife, Natalia Alexeievna. Negotiations were conducted, and in the summer of 1803, Charles Frederick arrived in Russia. He was warmly greeted by the imperial family and the court, was made Lieutenant-General, and was given his own suites in the palace. He was to spend a year in Russia with his future bride. This was a great opportunity for the couple to know each other thoroughly, and to better understand each other's personality, habits and tastes.

The young grand duchess Maria in
Charles Frederick was said to be handsome, kind, and with a good sense of humor, but he was considered too "simple-minded" and obtuse for the intelligent Maria. Nevertheless, he and Maria were finally married in St. Petersburg after nine months of "getting to know each other". They spent their honeymoon in Pavlovsk.

Maria's future adoptive homeland, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, was nothing like Russia when it comes to wealth, power, and prestige. The duchy was small and impoverished, but it was well-known throughout Europe to be a center of culture and science. Its capital, Weimar, was the home of great poets like Goethe and Schiller, dramatists, philosophers, writers and other eminent scholars. Curiously, the cultural glory of this duchy was not created by its ruling dukes, but by the Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia, who was a Princess of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel before her marriage to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. It seemed that Maria's talent and love of music and the arts had found their rightful place in this duchy.

Meanwhile in Weimar, the people were already excited for the arrival of their prince and their new princess. They were very eager to meet her. The poet Friedrich Schiller wrote to his friend: "We are all waiting anxiously for the appearance of the new star from the East." In the autumn of 1804, Charles Frederick and Maria left Russia for Weimar, where they were greeted with much festivities. Her arrival caused great enthusiasm to the people of Weimar. Cristoph Martin Wieland, a German poet and writer, described the happy event: "The most festive part of all the magnificence of balls, fireworks, promenades, comedies, illuminations was the widespread and genuine joy at the arrival of our new princess". She was not only warmly welcomed by the two duchesses - Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia and the reigning Duchess Louise - but they also "fell in love with her". Anna Amalia wrote to a friend: "It is indeed with great joy and genuine love to speak to you about my new granddaughter - who was a real treasure. I love and respect her endlessly. She was blessed with the ability to charm us all." Maria charmed not only her new relatives, but also those people who had the opportunity to converse with her. Wieland wrote to his friend about his impression of the Russian grand duchess: "She was inexplicably charming, and knows how to connect innate majesty with extraordinary politeness, delicacy and tact. She was perfect when she speaks. It is impossible not to wonder how, in the first hours of her arrival, when she has not been to court before, she was able to addressed each person with such tact and politeness. She will probably begin a new era for Weimar... It will go on and bring to perfection what Amalia has begun forty years ago." Schiller seconded Wieland's impression: "She has a talent for music and painting, is very well-read, and shows strength of mind which aimed at serious things... Her face is attractive, but not pretty. She seems a very determined character, and as she strives for truth and goodness, we can hope that she will reach her goals. In other words, if we had a choice and we could choose any princess, then we would still choose her... If she feels at home here, there is a promise of a great Weimar era."

As a Russian grand duchess, Maria's marriage to Charles Frederick was considered by the people of Weimar to be politically advantageous. Through her marriage, the duchy gained the friendship and protection of powerful and wealthy Russia. The couple's arrival in Weimar in 1804 coincided with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and in the succeeding years, the defenseless duchy found itself in constant threat by Napoleon's aggressive political ambition. 

The French Army then started attacking Prussia, which was an ally of Saxe-Weimar, and successfully defeated it in the Battle of Jena and Battle of Auerstadt. With the advancement of the French Army in Weimar, Maria, her husband, and her children were forced to flee to Schleswig. They returned in Weimar after a year. Although the terms of peace for the duchy were hard, it was allowed to retain its independence, thanks to Maria's position as the sister of the Russian emperor. 

During the French campaign in Russia, Maria and her family left Weimar once again and stayed in Bohemia, where the family received the protection of Austrian troops. After the Battle of Leipzig, they returned to Weimar. During the Congress of Vienna, heads of state and diplomats all over Europe participated and Maria was one of them. Through her efforts, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach was elevated to a Grand Duchy and added more territories.

Throughout her life, Maria showed great interest in the arts and sciences. Gifted with intelligence, and, in the words of Schiller, "a great talent for painting and music, and a love for reading", she spent the first years of her marriage in constant contact with intellectual people. She wanted to continue the work began by her predecessors by cementing Weimar's place as the cultural capital of Germany. She wanted to further her education by taking up logic, history and philosophy in the University of Jena. She maintained a correspondence with Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky and Schiller even dedicated his last poem to her.

When Maria and Charles Frederick succeeded to the Grand Duchy, she became the patroness of art, science and social welfare. Through her efforts, a museum was built as a dedication to Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, Herder, and helped establish the Falk Institute in Weimar. "Literary Evenings" were conducted in her home, the Wilhelmsthal Castle, where scholars and professors from Jena University and others from outside the grand duchy were invited to give lectures on various topics. Maria also encouraged the study of history, and expanded the Weimer Library that was founded by the Dowager Grand Duchess Anna Amalia. She was also interested in nature. She facilitated the opening of a horticulture school and donated a substantial amount of money for the planting of trees along roads, and creating new parks, squares, and gardens.

Maria was also involved in charity. She gave loan fund to help assist the poor, and established workhouses and a variety of trade schools. She also set up committees that would donate equipment and medicine for hospitals. Because of her efforts, she was called by the people as "the angel of the poor, the sick and the orphans". And Goethe declared that she was "one of the greatest and most outstanding women of our time".

Although she kept herself busy in her adopted homeland, Maria still remained in contact with her relatives in Russia. After the death of her eldest brother, Alexander, and her eldest sisters, Alexandra and Elena, Maria became the eldest child in her family (Constantine was still alive but he was distant). Her younger brothers and sisters, particularly, Nicholas and Michael, held her in high esteem. They treated her as their second mother figure (their mother was still alive), and her authority over family affairs was never overlooked.

Charles Frederick and Maria's marriage was far from being perfect but the couple seemed to enjoy a harmonious relationship. The couple had different personalities and temperament, but the success of their marriage was largely attributed to Maria's acceptance of her position in Weimar. She never complained about her destiny and learned to make the most out of it.

Grand Duke Charles Frederick died in 1853, and he was succeeded by his son, Charles Alexander as the new Grand Duke. Meanwhile, Maria's youngest daughter, Augusta, made a grand marriage to Prince William of Prussia, who would one day become the first German Emperor as William I.

The now widowed Maria spent most of her time in Schloss Belvedere on the outskirts of Weimar. It was there that she received the sad news that her brother Tsar Nicholas I had died. She was deeply affected by his death that she started suffering from ill health. Nevertheless, she was still strong enough to travel to Russia to attend the coronation of her nephew, Alexander II. While in Russia, she wandered through the parks of Pavlovsk and Gatchina, remembering her happy childhood days. She wrote to Vasily Zhukovsky, "Who among us old people can forget the dreams of our youth?"

She seemed to know that this trip to her homeland was to be her last. On the evening of June 23, 1859, Maria passed away in her bedroom at Schloss Belvedere. She had died of heart attack. She was buried beside her husband in a mausoleum that was constructed in a lot purchased by the Russian government. Next to the mausoleum, a Russian Orthodox church was erected. Her burial was attended by the members of her family, among them was her daughter, the Empress Augusta of Germany, and the empress's daughter, Louise, Grand Duchess of Baden.

Maria Pavlovna's contribution to her adoptive country cannot be underestimated. With her strong character and powerful intellect, she had become a highly-respected and well-loved figure throughout Germany, and with the number of people who greatly mourned her death, it was a proof of that.

Read more about Maria's sisters:

Alexandra | Elena | Catherine

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wife to the Conqueror: Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England

Matilda of Flanders
Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy
Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and the first woman to be crowned and titled Queen of England after the Norman Conquest, was born sometime in 1031. She was of illustrious descent: her father, Baldwin V, was the Count of Flanders, and her mother Adela, was a daughter of the King of France. On one side or the other, Matilda was related to most of the royal families of Europe.

She was extremely well-educated, and said to be very beautiful - though modern research shows that she never exceeded 5 feet in height. According to old chroniclers, she had a refined, delicate features, a well-set head, and a graceful figure. And when she was in her state dress, she would have compared favorably with a Greek statue. Matilda spent her early years in Lille, a town that was built by her own father in Northern France. She inherited his talent for architecture which she would later turned to such good account. It was also in Lille that Matilda met an English ambassador named Brihtric, the Earl of Gloucester. The youthful Matilda fell in love with him, but Brihtric never returned her affections. He returned to England, perhaps even forgot about her, but her pride was wounded, and she was said to take her revenge years later.

Although Matilda's father Baldwin V possessed no higher title than Count, he ruled over a realm which was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. So it is no wonder that his daughter was a much sought-after bride. One of her numerous suitors was her own cousin, William of Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva, a daughter of a tanner. William was called by his enemies as "William the Bastard", but he had no problem with it. Even though he was illegitimate, his father made him heir, and when Robert died, William succeeded as Duke of Normandy at the tender age of seven.

William grew up to be a handsome and athletic man, according to all accounts. By the age of nineteen, he was already a toughen man and a reputable warrior who had successfully defended his title. But the Count of Flanders had misgivings regarding William's position, and this view was shared by Matilda. She didn't want him as her husband. She considered herself too high-born to be considered marrying a bastard even though he was a Duke. But William was not the sort of man to easily give up.

Matilda was the smallest Queen of England.
Her height never exceeded beyond five feet.
He had fallen in love with Matilda when he saw her for the first time at the French court. He was said to be so passionately enamored of her that he would do anything to obtain her, whether it means by using force. Nevertheless, her words reached him and he felt slighted. And so one day, while Matilda and her ladies were on their way home from church, she was met by William. Her ladies were alarmed by his wild demeanor, but Matilda remained calm. She remained adamant that she would not marry a bastard, and upon hearing this, William dragged her off her horse by her long braids, and threw her down in the mud-covered street in front of her flabbergasted attendants. He did not abduct her; he rode away.

The Count of Flanders took offense at this, and prepared to attack William's dominions, but Matilda intervened. She may had found William's violent behavior "macho" and likable because she finally agreed to marry him, to the astonishment of all. "His request pleases me well," she said. When her father laughingly asked her how she consented to the marriage after her scornful refusal, she was said to reply: "Because I did not know the Duke then so well as I do now; for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my father's place."

William and Matilda were married at the Angi Castle in Normandy, when they were 25 and 21, respectively. Soon after their marriage, the Pope expressed his displeasure at this marriage between cousins and excommunicated them. William indignantly appealed to the Pope, and finally relented but with conditions. They must build two abbeys. And so William founded St. Stephen's Abbey for monks, and Matilda, the Abbaye-aux-Dames for nuns.

Despite the rather violent nature of their meeting, William and Matilda went on to have a successful and happy marriage. William was especially proud of his wife. He made sure that he would take her with him on royal tours of his dominions, showing her off to his subjects. They settled in Rouen, and Matilda became popular with the people. The couple was devoted to each other, and both were noted to possess commanding tempers. She was faithful and affectionate to William, as he was to her, and was able to win and retain his affection, respect and esteem. She supported and sympathized with all his projects, whether they were social or political. They went on to have ten children.

Meanwhile, Edward the Confessor, King of England, died without issue, and the throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants. William, now 28 years-old and a hardened man of battle, press his claim through descent to Emma (mother of Edward). He also contended that Edward, when in exile in Normandy, had promised William the throne. But it was Harold who was crowned King of England, in accordance to Edward's last will.

And so William finally set out on his greatest enterprise: the conquest of England. He was helped in his preparations by Matilda, convincing the barons to overcome to reluctance and follow William "beyond the sea". King Philip I of France treated William's idea of annexing England as absurd, and asked him who would be left in charge of Normandy while he was running a kingdom. To this William confidently replied that he had Matilda and his subjects, who were capable of securing the duchy during his absence.

Matilda returned this gesture of confidence by building and fitting out a secret ship to be added to William's navy. It was called the Mora. Upon seeing it, William was surprised. The ship's gold figure-head was an effigy of their youngest son holding a trumpet with one hand and with the other a bow, with its arrow pointed towards England. William took this as his flagship.

Before leaving Normandy, William appointed Matilda as the regent of his dominions. She was helped in this by her eldest son, Robert, who was only 13-years-old. She proved to be a capable and wise regent that when William had successfully landed in England and crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey, he arranged for her coming and had her crowned Queen of England at Winchester Cathedral in 1068.

Matilda remained in Normandy most of the time, looking after her husband's interests while he was detained in England by recurring revolts caused by the Saxons. Her revenue as Queen of England was considerable, this include money to provide oil for her lamp and wood for her hearth. She received tolls on goods landed at Queenhithe, and part of every fine voluntary paid to the crown.

William and Matilda enjoyed a happy marriage life throughout their lives, but the one cause of tension between husband and wife was their eldest son, Robert. He was his mother's favorite child, but he also inherited too much of his father's masterful spirit. He grew up to be arrogant and self-centered. He challenged his father and demanded to be the regent of Normandy. William acquiesced, and Robert acted as regent, while his father was in England busy subduing the rebellions. Then he demanded complete control of Normandy and broke into open rebellion. William was much surprised at his son's capacity as a leader, but he was still no match to him. William successfully suppressed the rebellion, and Robert sought pardon. But William was not to be easily propitiated; he refused to completely forgive his son. Throughout the quarrel between father and son, Matilda gave all her efforts at reconciliation, but to no avail. She was torn between husband and child. She supported Robert during the rebellion, secretly supplying him with money and jewels. William discovered her secret aid for Robert, but this did not seem to have made any difference in his affection for her.
Statue of Matilda of Flanders in the
gardens of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris

William and his son never had a full reconciliation, and this trouble seemed to have already preyed on Matilda's mind. She became ill and grew weaker. When William received the news that she was seriously ill, he hastened to Normandy to be at her bedside. He wrote a letter to Robert, who was by that time staying at Gerberol Castle because of his recent rebellion, and asked him to immediately travel to Rouen. Robert arrived, and William grant him full pardon. For a time, Matilda's health improved. But in 1098, her daughter Constance died, and there were troubles once again between William and Robert. She was deeply affected by these sad events, and died in November after a lingering illness. She was buried at the Abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen.

Matilda's death plunged William into deep depression. It was said that after her death, he became tyrannical, and people blamed it on his having lost her. He no longer went hunting, which was his favorite sport. After four years, William died, and was buried at St. Stephen's Abbey.

Read about other Queens-Consort of England:

Berengaria of Navarre
Isabella of Angouleme
Mary of Modena

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Napoleon's Beautiful Enemy: Queen Louise of Prussia

Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz,
Queen of Prussia

She was a glamorous figure of her day. A beautiful and fashionable young woman, her popularity is very similar to that of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Austrian Empress Elizabeth. She was probably the most famous and well-loved queen consort in German history. She was Queen Louise of Prussia, wife of King Frederick William III of Prussia. She influenced her contemporaries and modern Germany probably more than any other woman. Often called the “Queen of Hearts”, she impressed those around her with her beauty, charisma and cheerful, friendly nature. Her legacy was further cemented by her infamous meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte of France, and thus became the symbol of German national unity that eventually led to the creation of the German Empire.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Almost an Empress - Anna Feodorovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia
Born Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld

From a portrait by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
(The Royal Collection)

Little has been written about the Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia in English so it's not surprising that many people reading about the Romanovs are not familiar with her. And yet, she bears that distinction as the first princess who married into the Romanov Family to be divorced from her husband. She was related to almost all royal families in Europe, and perhaps the most famous of her relatives was Queen Victoria. Anna Feodorovna was the sister of Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, as well as Leopold, King of the Belgians, thus, Anna was aunt to Victoria.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Heroine of Gaeta - Maria Sophia of Bavaria

Duchess Maria Sophia of Bavaria,
Queen of the Two-Sicilies

Maria Sophia of Bavaria was the last queen of the Kingdom of the Two Siciles, who by the age of 19, had been a queen, lost her kingdom, rallied soldiers around her in the hopeless defense of a lost cause, and had had men - even her enemies - writing reams of romantic slush about her. She was "the angel of Gaeta" who would "wipe your brow if you were wounded or cradle you in her arms while you die". D'Annunzio called her the "stern little Bavarian eagle" and Marcel Proust spoke of the "soldier queen on the ramparts of Gaeta". She was intelligent, lovely, and headstrong; she could ride a horse and defend herself with a sword. She was everything you could ask for - a combination of Amazon and Angel of Mercy.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poem for Empress Maria Feodorovna

On June 15, 1888, when Maria Feodorovna had been Empress of Russia for three years, her husband's cousin, the poet Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, wrote a poem dedicated to her.

On the balcony, blooming in spring,
As the nightingales sing in the gardens,
I admired you in silence,
Gazing into your gentle eyes.

A quiet voice rang in my ears,
But I can not hear what you were saying:
I was like in a dream immersed
In the depth of those soft eyes.

All that is joyous, pure, lovely,
That lives in beautiful dreams
Were all told so simply and clearly
To me through these enchanting sight.

In their secret meaning
No words can be enough...
Like the night hanging over me,
A Radiant, Spring night!

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