Friday, July 15, 2011

Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna of Russia,
Archduchess of Austria
Portrait by Vladimir Borovikovsky
Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna was the eldest daughter of Paul I of Russia and Empress Maria Feodorovna. She was born on August 9, 1783 in Tsarskoe Selo. Her grandmother Empress Catherine took Alexandra's elder brothers, Alexander and Constantine, to be brought up and educated under her supervision. She had no interest in a granddaughter that's why Alexandra was allowed to be brought up by her parents. In turn, Alexandra became her father's favorite daughter. 

The young princess was educated to a high standard. She received lessons in languages, music and painting. By the time she was 10 years old, she could already speak four languages and was an excellent harpsichord player. Her dancing was exquisite, and although Catherine had greatly admired the beauty of Alexandra's younger sister, Elena, she was also starting to praise young Alexandra's beauty and her gentleness. Catherine wrote to Baron Grimm: "She speaks four languages, writes well, draws, plays the harpsichord, sings, dances, learns easily and reveals a nature of extraordinary gentleness."

Alexandra had many talents: she was also an amateur translator and a painter. Her translations were published in the book "The Muses" and her paintings were sent to the Academy of Fine Arts. When she was being prepared by her grandmother for the role of Queen of Sweden, she also studied the Swedish language.

Alexandra was only 10 years old when her fate was sealed by her grandmother. The Empress wished to strengthen Russia's ties with other European countries, and thought about Sweden. She immediately began negotiating with the Swedes on a marriage between Alexandra and the young Swedish king Gustav IV Adolf. The Swedes accepted and the wedding would take place when the bride turned 18 (Alexandra was only 13).

Catherine liked the young king very much. He was said to have "a very pleasing face, in which wit and charm were portrayed." And Alexandra was described by Madame Vigee Le Brun with"an angelic face, complexion so tender and delicate that one might have supposed that [she] lived in ambrosia. ...She was of the Greek type of beauty, and very much resembled Alexander [her older brother]."

Another description of her: "At 14, she was already tall and womanly; her figure was noble and majestic, softened by all graces of her sex and age. Her features were regular, and her complexion fair as alabaster. Innocence, candour, and serenity stamped their divine impressions on her brow; and light flaxen hair...fell in ringlets on her well-turned neck. Her heart, her talents, and her intellect were in unison with her exterior appearance."
Alexandra saw a miniature of her future husband and convinced herself to be in love with him and that she will be happy 'forever'.

On August 1796, Gustav IV Adolf arrived in St. Petersburg. His stay in the capital was accompanied by endless festivities, balls and parades. Gustav first saw the portrait of Alexandra by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun in the artist's studio. Madame Le Brun recalled: "He was only seventeen years old, but his tall figure and his proud and noble bearing made him respected in spite of his youth. Having been very carefully brought up, he showed a most unusual politeness. The Princess whom he had come to marry, and who was fourteen, was lovely as an angel, and he speedily fell deeply in love with her. I remember that when he came to my house to see the portrait I had done of his bride elect, he looked at it with such rapt attention that his hat fell from his hand." Gustav was so fascinated with his Russian princess that he immediately asked the Empress for Alexandra's hand. Catherine joyfully consented and the engagement ceremony was scheduled for September in the Throne Room of the Winter Palace.

Unfortunately, everything happened very badly on the day of the betrothal ceremony. As the future Queen of Sweden, Alexandra must change her religion from Orthodoxy to Protestantism. Catherine insisted that Alexandra should keep her Orthodox religion. Catherine thought that Gustav had implicitly agreed to this when he declared his love to Alexandra. It was a misunderstanding, and not just a simple one. Upon reading the contract where it was stated that Alexandra will remain an Orthodox after her marriage, Gustav was livid. He was adamant that he will never give his people an Orthodox queen. He didn't appear in the betrothal ceremony. The whole Russian court - and the whole Europe - was shocked. The social affront was humiliating for Catherine and the whole Russia. As for Alexandra, she also felt humiliated and brokenhearted.

This rebuke apparently shortened Catherine's life and she died two months later. But the new emperor Paul I, had other plans. He hoped to make an alliance between Russia and Austria against France and Napoleon.
In 1798, Alexandra's parents received a proposal from the Austrian court about a possible marriage between Alexandra and Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, younger brother of Emperor Franz II of Austria. Negotiations were conducted, and Archduke Joseph personally went to St. Petersburg to ask Alexandra's hand for marriage.

Archduke Joseph was described as 'nice and intelligent, shy, awkward but kind... His accent more Italian than German'. He felt deeply in love with Alexandra and they were married in St. Petersburg in October 1799. A month after the wedding, Alexandra and Joseph left Russia for Austria. She was quiet and very sad to say goodbye to her family, particularly to her father. She confined to a lady-in-waiting that she had a feeling that she would never be able to see Russia or any of her family again. And indeed she was right.

Joseph and Alexandra arrived in Austria, and stayed in Vienna for the next few weeks. She was warmly welcomed by her brother-in-law, the Emperor Franz I, but not by his wife, the Empress Maria Theresa. Alexandra looked so much like the Emperor's beloved first wife, Elizabeth of Wurttemberg, who had died in childbirth, (Elizabeth was Alexandra's maternal aunt), and he felt naturally drawn to her. The kindness he was showing her quickly aroused the animosity of the Empress. In addition, the Empress became jealous of Alexandra's youthful beauty, her magnificent jewelries from Russia, and her growing popularity among the people. As a result, Alexandra's life at the Austrian court became exceedingly unhappy. When she appeared for the first time in a theater box to watch a performance, the audience's attention immediately drawn to her. They were captivated by her fresh beauty and her incredible Russian jewels. This greatly infuriated the Empress, and in the next day, when Alexandra was to attend a ball, the Empress forbade her to wear her jewelries. Alexandra meekly followed, and during the ball, she decorated her hair and her dress with fresh flowers only. Her simple attire further enhance the radiance of her beauty, and when she appeared, the people were all attention to her. This further aroused the Empress's animosity, and she began to be concerned of Alexandra's influence might have at court. She insisted to Joseph to take his wife and leave immediately for their residence in Buda, the capital of Hungary. The Empress rendered Alexandra's life so intolerable that when Emperor Paul learned how his favorite child had been treated, "he flew into a rage, demanded that she should be sent back to St. Petersburg, and even threatened war".
Archduchess Alexandra of Austria,
wearing the traditional Hungarian costume.

In Buda, the couple settled in the castle of Alcsut. For the first time since she left Russia, Alexandra was extremely happy. She was happy with Joseph, and she immediately won the hearts of the Hungarian people, even calling her "The Queen". She became her husband's counselor and persuaded him to build a town center in order to give Budapest the features of a European capital city. She did not have difficulty in feeling herself one with the culture of Hungary that she started wearing the Hungarian national costume, and this was followed by the aristocrats who used to refuse wearing it.

Joseph was a doting husband and he deeply cared for his young wife. He was constantly by her side, especially during their early days in Austria, comforting and encouraging her, knowing how his wife deeply misses Russia and her family. However, he had a weak character and he could not protect his wife from the intrigues of the Viennese court and from the antagonism of the Empress. But even in Hungary where she was beloved, she was not free to practice her Orthodox religion. The court at Vienna was watching her every move, and she was forbidden to attend Orthodox masses. She was not allowed to have her own Orthodox chapel in Buda. Alexandra's confessor Father Andrew Samborski wrote in his memoirs that the ministers of the Austrian court were afraid because if Alexandra bore a son, then there would be a possibility of establishing an independent Hungarian kingdom.

When Alexandra became pregnant, Joseph decided to return to Vienna with his wife. Alexandra had a difficult pregnancy, and Joseph was convinced that if they were in Vienna, Alexandra could receive better medical care. Unfortunately, she was far from having a comfortable situation. The rooms she was given to in the palace were cold and wet. Her food was so badly prepared that she could not eat any of it. Father Andrew even had to use his own money to buy provisions and food for Alexandra. Joseph could do nothing to help her, although he loves her.

Alexandra finally gave birth to a daughter, who was named Alexandrine, but unfortunately, the baby died several hours later. Alexandra was greatly weaken by her pregnancy and childbirth. Several days later, she contracted puerperal fever, and died without ever regaining her consciousness. When Father Andrew came to her rooms to check her, he found her already dead. His cries awaken Joseph who was sleeping on a chair. He rushed to his wife only to see her dead. Joseph was grief-stricken and cried the whole time. On March 16, 1801, Joseph mournfully wrote to Paul I of Russia, "I had an irreparable misfortune on losing my wife. She is no more, and my happiness all vanished." Joseph didn't know that Paul would never be able to read this letter. Five days before Alexandra's death, Paul had been killed in his palace by conspirators.

After Alexandra's death, Empress Maria Theresa refused her burial in Austrian grounds. Her coffin remained unburied for some time in the basement of the palace. Then, with the efforts of Father Samborski, her remains were transferred in Buda, and an Orthodox chapel was constructed to house her remains.

Joseph remained a widower for the next ten years. He eventually remarried two times and had children but he never truly forgot Alexandra. He remained devoted to her memory. In 1814, Emperor Alexander I and the Grand Duchesses Ekaterina and Maria visited the grave of their sister. For many years, Alexandra's tomb was carefully maintained by the Orthodox Church in Russia. But after the Revolution, everything changed. Her coffin was exhumed and the jewels on Alexandra's corpse were robbed. In the end, her remains were reburied to the family vault of the Hapsburgs. For a daughter of a Russian emperor, Alexandra's short life and the events after her death were rather sad and tragic.

Read about Alexandra's sisters:
Elena | Maria | Catherine 


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