ELISABETH OF HESSE AND BY RHINE
Elisabeth and her siblings were well-educated, however their childhood years were marred by war and tragedy, and they were sent to live with their grandmother during the Prussian invasion of Hesse in June 1866. Four years later, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and military hospitals were set up in the palace grounds at Darmstadt where her mother helped nurse the wounded. That same year, Elisabeth’s younger brother, Friedrich, was born on 7 October 1870 and a few months later, he was diagnosed with haemophilia which was the first indication the order was hereditary in the British Royal Family. The family were devastated when the boy died on 29 May 1873 after falling out of a low window and suffering a brain haemorrhage.
In early November 1878, the family contracted diphtheria and it quickly spread through the other children, except for Elisabeth who had been sent away to live with her paternal grandmother. Alice nursed the children, however she was unable to save the life of her youngest daughter, Marie, who died on 16 November 1878. Alice kept the news of Marie’s death to herself for as long as she could but when the other children seemed to be recovering, she finally told them the devastating news. Alice’s son, Ernst Ludwig, burst into tears and Alice broke her own rules by kissing him. Days later, Alice herself became gravely ill and died on 14 December 1878. When Elisabeth returned home, she recalled how sombre and unreal everything seemed.
A Grand Duchess
After their loss, the eldest daughter, Victoria, tried to take on the role of mother to her younger siblings and she lamented how her childhood had came to a sudden end. Elisabeth grew into a beautiful young woman who was greatly admired amongst royal circles. Her cousin, Wilhelm of Prussia, became infatuated with her and wrote a letter to his mother expressing his desire to marry her. Thereafter, the lovesick prince spent long weekends with the family when he was attending the University of Bonn and sent frequent love poems to Elisabeth. Wilhelm finally proposed to her in 1878 but was rejected.
Elisabeth had many admirers as she was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe and was a highly sought after bride. However, Elisabeth had already lost her heart to her cousin, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, who visited Hesse frequently with his mother, Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna, who was her paternal great-aunt. Elisabeth had known Sergei since childhood and had found him rather arrogant, however her impression of him changed when he lost both parents within the same year. Elisabeth and Sergei found they had more in common than they realised and their admiration grew into love. Sergei proposed to Elisabeth and she accepted much to the annoyance of Queen Victoria who wasn’t keen on marrying into the Imperial family.
Elisabeth and Sergei were married in the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 15 June 1884 and she became known as Elizaveta Feodorovna upon her conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. At the wedding, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Alix, fell in love with Tsar Nicholas II and would eventually marry him on 26 November 1894. Elisabeth had not been required to convert to the orthodox religion but had chosen to do so and it provoked outrage within the family. Elisabeth’s former suitor, Wilhelm, declared she had only done it to seek favour at court and it showed a lack of intelligence on her part.
The newlyweds settled in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace in St. Petersburg and Elisabeth was greatly admired by the Russian court and the wider public. When Sergei was appointed Governor-General of Moscow, they moved into one of the Kremlin palaces and spent their summers at Ilyinskoe. The couple had no children of their own but Elisabeth delighted in throwing children’s parties at Ilyinskoe and they would later foster Dmitry Pavlovich and Maria Pavlovna, Sergei’s niece and nephew.
On 17 February 1905, Elisabeth was left in a state of shock when Sergei was assassinated in the Kremlin and his death would change her forever. Elisabeth found comfort in religion and she sold most of her possessions to raise funds to open the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary. Elisabeth became abbess and soon opened a hospital, chapel, pharmacy and orphanage on the grounds while working tirelessly to help the poor in the slums of Moscow. Elisabeth’s new devout life was not enough to save her from the revolutionaries as Lenin ordered her arrest in 1918 and she was sent to Yekaterinburg along with other members of the Imperial family.
In May, the prisoners were moved to Alapayevsk where they were kept in the Napolnaya School on the outskirts of the town by the Cheka, one of the first incarnations of the Russian secret police. On 17 July, the prisoners were moved to the village of Siniachikha where they were beaten and thrown into mine shafts. When it appeared the fall had not killed the prisoners, hand grenades when thrown in after them and then brushwood set alight over the entrance.
A few months later, Elisabeth’s body was recovered from the mine shaft and buried in the cemetery of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking, China. In 1921, Elisabeth was laid to rest in the Church of Mary Magdalene at Gethsemane, Jerusalem. She was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1981, and in 1992 by the Moscow Patriarchate as Holy Martyr Elizabeth Feodorovna. A statue of Elisabeth was erected in the garden of her convent in Moscow with the following inscription: “To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna: With Repentance.”