By Emma Westport
In June 1884, Princess Alix, from the small duchy of Hesse and by Rhine, came to St. Petersburg to celebrate the marriage of her sister, Ella, to the Tsar’s brother, the Grand Duke Serge. The young girl was related to most of the nobility of Europe, many of whom she’d never met and all of whom were in attendance. At a family dinner, she found herself seated next to her handsome, blue-eyed cousin, the sixteen-year-old Tsarevich, Nicholas Romanov. Before dinner was over, Alix was in love. So was he. That night, Nicholas wrote in his diary. “I sat next to little twelve year old Alix and I like her awfully much.”
For the rest of her stay, Alix spent time with her cousin. They walked in the parks around Peterhof, laughed together and etched their names in the window of the Italian House. Nicholas gave her a brooch, which she at first accepted. But before she left, she gave it back feeling, perhaps, she was too young for such an expensive gift.
By the time Alix returned to Russia in 1889, it was clear to both families that there was something more than a childish infatuation at play. The formidable Queen Victoria opposed the match. She liked Nicholas well enough. She thought him a charming young man. But she did not want to see a favorite grandchild on the dangerous throne of Russia. Nicholas’s grandfather had been brutally murdered by an assassin’s bomb and his father Tsar Alexander III had also been the target of assassination attempts. No. Victoria pressed Alix to marry ‘Eddy,’ eldest son of the Prince of Wales. Victoria believed Alix would be a steadying influence on the young man and she wanted Alix to be Queen of England. Alix refused the match.
Tsar Alexander III and his wife also opposed a marriage. The Tsar felt Nicholas was already too timid. He did not want to see his son married to a wife with the same failing. Worse, Alix often hid her shyness behind a cold smile and curt manner. The Tsarina, Maria Feodorovna, feared this would make Alix unpopular. She would never be loved or accepted by the Russian people.
Thing changed when the Tsar became ill. The prospect of his own death made the Tsar realize Nicholas needed someone by his side. Queen Victoria continued to oppose their marriage but Nicholas now had his parents’ permission to at least court Alix. Aided by Alix’s sister, Ella, wife of Grand Duke Serge, Nicholas began writing to her.
It did not go well. Both wanted to marry but marriage to the Tsarevich would make Alix Russia’s Tsarevna and that meant she had to be a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Alix could not bring herself to renounce her Lutheran beliefs, not even for the man she loved. Nicholas was stunned but Ella told him not to worry. A solution would be found. And it was. Alix was told both churches held many beliefs in common. No ‘renunciation’ was necessary. She would simply join the Orthodox Church. Alix accepted Nicholas and their engagement was announced.
The happy couple had a short time together before Nicholas had to return to Russia. Alix went to England but, even as she traveled, she was followed by reporters and gawkers. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the beautiful girl who would rule the Russian Empire. She went to Harrogate under an assumed name, seeking privacy and treatment for the sciatica that would plague her throughout her life. Her identity was soon discovered. She wrote to Nicholas, and joked about the people who stared at her. Next time, she said, she’d know to stick her tongue out at them.
In fact, her new celebrity frightened the shy Princess. Total strangers tried to peer in her windows, some using opera glasses. She couldn’t go out her front door or take a carriage without being followed. Shopping became impossible. Any store she entered was instantly mobbed and it was not just the loss of privacy that made her uneasy. Pain crippled her legs, limiting her mobility and confining her to a wheelchair. There was no way she could escape if a crowd proved unruly.
Meanwhile, the Tsar’s condition worsened. Nicholas telegraphed Alix, asking her to come. Alexander III insisted on getting up from his bed to meet his future daughter-in-law and nothing but his full dress uniform would do. But the man who used to bend steel bars to amuse his children was exhausted by the effort of standing and putting it on. Barely able to breathe, he met Alix sitting down. She came in and knelt before him.
The Tsar died on November 1, 1894. After the state funeral, Nicholas took advantage of his mother’s birthday, a day when mourning was suspended, to marry Alix. On November 26, 1894, the twenty two year old Princess became Her Imperial Majesty, Tsarina of all the Russias, Alexandra Feodorovna. On the morning after her wedding night Alexandra wrote in her husband’s diary. “Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in the world, such a feeling unity between two mortal beings. I love you—those three words have my life in them.”
It was the start of one of the most tragic love affairs in history.
(For photos and images of Alexandra, please try the following links. If they do not work, simply cut and paste them in your browser.
The quote above is from Greg King’s biography, The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia. Carolyn Erickson’s Alexandra, The Last Tsarina is also very readable.)