Saturday, June 13, 2009

Empress Dagmar

Here, we see Empress Maria Feodorovna, (1847-1928), consort of Tsar Alexander III and mother of the ill-fated Nicholas II. She was born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, into an impoverished, cadet branch of the Danish royal family. She later became known as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, when her father, the future Christian IX, was appointed heir-presumptive to the Danish throne. He became King of Denmark in 1863. 

His children's brilliant dynastic marriages earned Christian the title "Father-in-law of Europe." Dagmar's older sister, Alexandra, was Queen Consort of Edward VII and mother of George V of the United Kingdom. Her older brothers, Frederik and George, became, respectively, the monarchs of Denmark and Greece. Dagmar, for her part, became engaged, in 1864, to Nicholas, eldest son and heir of Tsar Alexander II, but her fiancé died the following year. Dagmar, who had become deeply attached to "Nixa" and to Russia, was distraught. The tragedy, however, brought her even closer to the Russian imperial family and, in 1866, she became engaged and married to Nicholas' younger brother, Alexander. Raised as a Lutheran, she converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took a new name, Maria Feodorovna.

Alexander and Maria had six children: Alexander, who died in infancy, Nicholas, the tragic future Tsar, George, who died in his youth, Xenia, Michael (killed, like Nicholas, by the Bolsheviks), and Olga. The family enjoyed a tranquil life until the murder of Maria's father-in-law, Tsar Alexander II. Despite his liberal sympathies and reform efforts (he had, famously, liberated Russia's huge serf population) he was assassinated by revolutionaries on March 13, 1881. Under these tragic circumstances, Alexander and Maria became the new Emperor and Empress of all the Russias. They would live with the constant threat of further assassination attempts. 

Nonetheless, Maria brilliantly fulfilled her role, presiding over Russian high society with great dignity, elegance, taste, and spirit. She largely avoided involvement in politics, preferring to devote her time to charitable works. In the political realm, however, she did exert some influence. Her anti-German feelings, provoked by Germany's annexation of Danish territories, contributed to her husband's hostility to Germany. With her Scandinavian sympathies, Maria was also a strong supporter of the autonomous duchy of Finland, ruled by the Tsars since 1809. In turn, she was greatly loved by the Finns. In his memoirs, Finland's Marshal Mannerheim, when discussing his years in the Chevalier Guards (whose Colonel-in-Chief was Empress Maria), recalled:
...The Empress, daughter of Christian IX of Denmark, had always shown great interest in Finland, and was by us Finns affectionately called Princess Dagmar, the Scandinavian name by which she was known as a girl. On several occasions in the 1920's when I passed through Copenhagen where the Empress spent the last years of her life, I had the opportunity to offer my former Colonel-in-Chief my homage...
With her infant son, Nicholas

Maria was a devoted wife and mother, but controversy arose in the imperial family over the marriage of her eldest son, Nicholas. Alexander and Maria did not approve of his choice, Princess Alix of Hesse (the future Alexandra Feodorovna), considering her odd and unfit for the role of Empress. In the end, however, faced with Nicholas' insistence, the imperial couple yielded. Relations between Maria and Alexandra, however, were always marked by tension and rivalry. 

In 1894, Tsar Alexander III died. He was only 49 years old. Maria wrote in her diary: "I am utterly heartbroken and despondent, but when I saw the blissful smile and the peace in his face that came after, it gave me strength." Nicholas and Alexandra ascended the throne and Maria began a new life as Dowager Empress. Less in danger of assassination attempts, she lived with greater freedom and peace of mind, until the disastrous events culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. 

After Nicholas' dethronement, Maria, along with a group of other Romanovs, took refuge in the Crimea. She was deeply traumatized by the events of the Revolution. In 1918, she received the terrible news of the massacre of her son, Nicholas II, and his family, by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg. Unable, however, to face this tragedy, she dismissed the report as rumor. Despite the danger to her life, she refused to flee Russia until 1919, when she finally departed, albeit unwillingly, escaping to England by sea. 

She later returned to her native Denmark, settling at the Hvidøre villa, near Copenhagen, where she spent her final years. To the Russian émigrés, who had escaped to Denmark, she always remained a beloved and revered Empress. Ostensibly, at least, she always refused to believe that her son and his family had been killed; she insisted they must be hidden somewhere in Europe. In 1925, she lost her much-loved sister, Queen Alexandra, a final blow to the old Empress, burdened by so many tragedies. On October 13, 1928, Maria died, at the age of 80. She received a Russian Orthodox funeral, and was buried in Roskilde Cathedral. In 2006, her remains were transferred to St. Petersburg, and she was re-buried, beside her husband, Alexander III, in the Peter and Paul Cathedral. 

May she rest in peace. 

With her daughter Xenia


MadMonarchist said...

I've always found this Czarina fascinating. She's on my list of consort profiles yet to be done. She was a real trooper throughout her life and I always thought her and Alexander III looked like such a mis-matched couple but they made it work. I guess looks can be deceptive.

Matterhorn said...

She is definitely one of my favorites and I'm glad I finally got to post on her, I've been meaning to for quite some time.

MadMonarchist said...

I'm glad you did. I never knew about the Finnish connection. One thing that always struck me was that in her portraits she has such a fragile, thoughtful grace about her but when you read her life you find out she was made of pretty tough stuff behind those deep, soft eyes. She's what we southerners would call a "steel magnolia".

Matterhorn said...

Scandinavian women are tough in general, I think. This is very clear in the Norse sagas...

Elisa said...

The two photos of her with two of her children were new to me.
A shared dislike of Kaiser Wilhelm was a common point with both Dagmar and Alix.

Anonymous said...

I got into Russian Imperial history in eighth grade and now I'm writing one of my college admission essays on Maria Feodorovna!

Matterhorn said...

Good luck and congratulations! Thank you for your comments.