Elisabeth Alexandra Luise Alix was born in Bessungen on 1 November 1864 and was the second eldest daughter of of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, and Alice, Princess of the United Kingdom.
Elisabeth was named after St. Elizabeth of Hungary, the ancestress of the House of Hesse, and her paternal grandmother, Elisabeth of Prussia, however she was known as Ella in the family. Elisabeth’s family weren’t particularly wealthy despite their status so the children learned to mend their own clothes and clean their rooms. Elisabeth and her siblings were raised in the English way and she considered English her first language despite also speaking German. Elisabeth’s happy home life was shattered in 1878 when diphtheria swept through the family, claiming the lives of her younger sister, Marie, and her mother, Alice. Elisabeth, the only one not affected, had been sent away to live with her paternal grandmother.
As she grew older, Elisabeth was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe and she soon caught the attention of her cousin, Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Prussia, who was studying at Bonn University. Wilhelm visited the Hesse family frequently and he fell in love with Elisabeth but she rejected his proposal in 1878. Elisabeth would go on to have many admirers, however it was Sergei Alexandrovich, Grand Duke of Russia, who finally won her heart. Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, formerly Marie of Hesse, was a frequent visitor and she often brought her youngest sons, Sergei Alexandrovich and Paul Alexandrovich. Elisabeth had known her Russian cousins since childhood but neither had managed to make much of an impression on her. However, this all changed when Sergei Alexandrovich lost his parents within a short time of each other and her sympathy drew them together.
Sergei Alexandrovich and Elisabeth were married on 15 June 1884 at the Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg much to the disapproval of her grandmother, Queen Victoria, who mistrusted the Russians. However, the wedding would also bring Elisabeth’s younger sister, Alix, to the attention of Sergei Alexandrovich’s nephew, Tsarevich Nicholas, who would also eventually marry. After her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy, Elisabeth took the name Elizabeth Feodorovna, and the Russians soon fell in love with their new grand duchess. The couple settled in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace in St. Petersburg after Sergei Alexandrovich was appointed Governor General of Moscow and spent the summer at Ilyinskoe, an estate outside Moscow that Sergei Alexandrovich had inherited from his mother.
Elizabeth Feodorovna became a renowned hostess who threw many parties at Ilyinskoe, especially for children, as she and Sergei Alexandrovich had become the foster parents of Dmitry Pavlovich and Maria Pavlovna, the children of Sergei Alexandrovich’s brother, Paul Alexandrovich, who had been banished from Russia for marrying Olga Valerianovna Karnovich without permission. Elizabeth Feodorovna and Sergei Alexandrovich had no children of their own, however Maria Pavlovna wrote in her memoirs that Sergei Alexandrovich was a hard disciplinarian and Elizabeth Feodorovna cold and unfeeling.
Elizabeth Feodorovna was delighted with the growing relationship between her sister, Alix, and Tsarevich Nicholas, and she actively encouraged it. When Alix refused a proposal of marriage on the grounds of not wanting to convert to the Orthodox religion, Elizabeth Feodorovna urged her sister to reconsider. When the tsarevich proposed again a few days later, Alix accepted. While plans for the wedding were underway, Tsar Alexander III died and his son was confirmed as Tsar Nicholas II on the evening of 1 November 1894. The following day, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox Church as Alexandra Feodorovna. Alexandra Feodorovna and Tsar Nicholas were married on 26 November 1894 in the Grand Church of the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg.
As much as Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra Feodorovna loved each other, the union proved to be a disaster as the tsarina was hated by the Russian public who found her cold and aloof. The tsarina had given birth to four daughters in quick succession but finally gave birth to a son, Alexei Nikolaevich, on 12 August 1904. Tragically, Alexei Nikolaevich was born with haemophilia and and Alexandra Feodorovna began to rely heavily on mystics like Rasputin. As political unrest began to sweep Russia, the imperial family seemed oblivious to the danger.
On 17 February 1905, Sergei Alexandrovich was assassinated when his carriage passed through the gate of Nikolskaya Tower of the Kremlin and turned the corner of the Chudov Monastery into Senatskaya Square. Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party’s Combat detachment, threw a nitroglycerin bomb directly into Sergei Alexandrovich’s lap and the carriage was blown to bits. Elizabeth Feodorovna rushed to the scene of the explosion and helped in the grisly task of gathering up as much of her husband’s remains as she could.
Distraught at her husband’s death, Elizabeth Feodorovna withdrew from public life and spent most of her time in prayer. In 1909, she sold all of her possessions, including her wedding ring, and used the proceeds to open the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary becoming its abbess. On the grounds, Elizabeth Feodorovna opened a hospital, a chapel, a pharmacy and an orphanage, while she and her fellow nuns worked tirelessly to ease the suffering of the poor in Moscow.
Despite her pity and selflessness, Elizabeth Feodorovna wasn’t spared when the revolution broke out and her arrest was ordered by Vladimir Lenin before eventually being sent to Yekaterinburg along with Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; and Varvara Yakovleva, a sister from the convent. On 20 May 1918, the group were moved to Alapayevsk where they were housed in the Napolnaya School on the outskirts of the town. On the evening of 17 July, the prisoners were awakened and taken to the village of Siniachikha where they were beaten before being hurled down an abandoned mine shaft 20 metres deep. Afterwards, grenades were thrown down the pit but only one of the prisoners was killed.
According to the testimony of one of the killers, Vasily Ryabov, Elizabeth Feodorovna had survived being thrown into the shaft and she began to lead the rest in singing a hymn. Further grenades were thrown into the pit but the singing continued. The killers finally lit a large quantity of brushwood on fire and dropped it into the shaft before leaving.
On 8 October 1918, the remains of Elizabeth Feodorovna and her companions were found in the shaft. The bodies were in relatively good condition and it is believed the captives mainly died of starvation rather than the fire. Elizabeth Feodorovna appeared to have died from injuries sustained during the fall down the shaft but hadn’t died until much later. The remains were buried temporality in the cemetery of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking, however Elizabeth Feodorovna’s body was eventually laid to rest in the Church of Mary Magdalene at Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
Elisabeth was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981 and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992 as Holy Martyr Elizabeth Feodorovna.