Maria Alexandrovna was born at Tsarskoe Selo on 17 October 1853 and was the only surviving daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Marie of Hesse.
When Maria Alexandrovna was seventeen months old her grandfather, Nicholas I, died and her father succeeded as Alexander II. Since Maria Alexandrovna was the only girl amongst six brothers, she was spoiled by her father who doted on her and she grew up in the various residences owned by the Romanov dynasty. As well as the main residences of the Winter Palace and Gatchina, the family spent the autumn months at Tsarskoe Selo where Maria Alexandrovna had her own private little house which was off limit to adults.
Maria Alexandrovna did not have as good a relationship with her mother who was rather cold towards her children, however since she frequently travelled abroad for health reasons, she often took Maria Alexandrovna and her younger two brothers. Since they spent so much time together, Maria Alexandrovna was closer to Sergei Alexandrovich and Paul Alexandrovich than her older brothers, but it turned her into an independent and strong-willed tomboy. Maria Alexandrovna was also the first Russian grand duchess to be raised by English nannies and she was proficient in German, French, and English, as well as her native Russian.
In the summer of 1868, Maria Alexandrovna first met Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, while visiting her maternal relatives at Jugenheim and the shy young naval officer made a lasting impression on her. Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred did not meet again until 1871 as Alfred’s career kept him preoccupied, however they found they had common interests such as their love for music. Although Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred expressed a desire to marry, no engagement was announced because neither set of parents were enthusiastic about the match. Alexander II was reluctant to lose his daughter and Queen Victoria was worried about how Maria Alexandrovna would fit into the British court which was not as rigid as its Russian counterpart.
The negotiations seemed to stall, however in 1873 they resumed after rumours began to circulate Maria Alexandrovna had compromised herself with Prince Golitsyn, an aide-de-camp, and her family were anxious to see her settled. Alfred, still in love with Maria Alexandrovna, did not believe the rumours and made it clear he would marry no one else, forcing Queen Victoria into a corner. In the meantime, the Tsarina’s desperate hunt for other potential husbands ended fruitlessly so she was forced to meet with her daughter and Alfred in Italy who underlined their intention to marry.
As tensions between Britain and Russia heightened regarding a dispute over the Afghan border, Queen Victoria’s ministers urged her to consider the Russian match since it could help ease the differences between the two countries. In July 1873, Alfred travelled to Russia to formally ask for Maria Alexandrovna’s hand in marriage and she accepted. Alfred sent a telegram to his mother announcing the engagement but Queen Victoria was still hesitant, although she did send her congratulations.
A week after the engagement, Queen Victoria invited the Russians to Balmoral, however the Tsar refused the invitation and the Tsarina suggested a meeting in Cologne instead. Queen Victoria was furious with the Tsar, calling him impertinent, so she refused his offer to make the Prince of Wales colonel of a Russian regiment. The Queen then went on to cause offence by suggesting an Anglican marriage service be held in St. Petersburg alongside the Orthodox ceremony. Maria Alexandrovna, oblivious to the power play going on, was said to be blissfully happy regarding her impending nuptials.
On 4 January 1874, Alfred arrived in St. Petersburg for the wedding and was later followed by other members of his family, including the Prince and Princess of Wales who were representing the Queen. The opulent wedding took place on 23 January 1874 at the Winter Palace with an orthodox ceremony performed first in the Imperial Chapel. Maria Alexandrovna’s brothers, Vladimir Alexandrovich, Alexis Alexandrovich, and Sergei Alexandrovich took turns with Alfred’s brother, Arthur, Duke of Connaught, holding the golden crowns over the head of the bride and groom. After the orthodox ceremony was complete, Alfred and Maria Alexandrovna were married according to the rites of the Church of England by Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster.
The young couple spent their wedding night in a lavish suite at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo which had been specially arranged by the Tsar in the hopes it would persuade them to stay in Russia, however it was not to be. The Tsar was forced to say goodbye to his beloved daughter a few days later when they left for England. The suite at the palace was let intact in case the couple ever changed their minds and was eventually occupied by Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred arrived in England on 7 March 1874, and the new Duchess of Edinburgh was greeted warmly by the crowds who had decorated Windsor with Union Jacks and Russian flags in her honour. Queen Victoria greeted her new daughter-in-law with some trepidation but was generally pleased with her demeanour and her fluency in English. Alfred and Maria Alexandrovna moved into Clarence House which would be their main residence in London while their country residence would be Eastwell Park, a large estate of 2,500 acres near Ashford in Kent.
While Maria Alexandrovna had arrived in England full of enthusiasm, she found it hard adapting to the ways of the British court just as Queen Victoria had surmised, and she began to suffer from homesickness. Maria Alexandrovna did not like London which could not compare to the wonders of St. Petersburg and she found the Queen’s company rather tedious into the bargain. In turn, Maria Alexandrovna was thought too haughty for English society and her father’s insistence his daughter be ranked over the Princess of Wales infuriated Queen Victoria. Maria Alexandrovna did not have a high opinion of any of her new sisters-in-law, especially the Princess of Wales who she believed to be foolish.
Nine months after their marriage, Maria Alexandrovna gave birth to her first child, Alfred, in October 1874, but the new mother shocked society by insisting on nursing him herself and she continued to do so with her daughters, Marie, born in October 1875, and Victoria Melita, born in November 1876. Victoria Melita was born in Malta while Alfred was stationed there as an officer in the Royal Navy but their return to England in 1877 would prove contentious as Maria Alexandrovna grew increasingly dismayed by her mother-in-law’s attitude towards Russia. Russia had invaded Turkey over ownership of the Balkans and Queen Victoria had wasted no time in sending disapproving telegrams to Alexander II which reignited hostilities between the two nations.
Disenchanted with England, Maria Alexandrovna removed herself to Coburg where Alfred was expected to succeed his uncle, Ernst II, who was childless. While at Rosenau Castle, Maria Alexandrovna gave birth to her third daughter, Alexandra, but it wasn’t long before the family had to move back to England where Maria Alexandrovna gave birth to a stillborn son at their country residence in October 1879.
In 1880, Maria Alexandrovna returned to Russia to visit her dying mother and was horrified when she discovered her father had moved his long-term mistress, Catherine Dolgorukova, and their children into the Winter Palace. Maria Alexandrovna had ignored her father’s transgressions in the past, but his insensitivity irked her and they quarrelled so severely, the Tsar left for Gatchina Palace. Maria Alexandrovna’s mother died in June and within a month, Alexander had married his mistress which did not endear him further to his daughter.
In March 1881, Maria Alexandrovna received the news her father had been assassinated and her brother was now Alexander III. Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred travelled to St. Petersburg for the funeral and would return in May 1883 for her brother’s coronation. In April 1884, Maria Alexandrovna gave birth to her final child, Beatrice, who was born at Eastwell Park.
In January 1886, Alfred was appointed commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet in Malta and the family moved into the San Anton Palace where the duchess enjoyed playing hostess to the naval officers and their wives. While Maria Alexandrovna found life in Malta rather dull, it was a welcome respite from England and proved to be a good base for visit numerous relatives in Europe. However, the duke resigned his commission the following year so the family could settle in their main residence, the Palais Edinburgh, in Coburg which had been purposely built for them.
With Alfred away a great deal of the time due to his naval duties, Maria Alexandrovna concentrated on raising her children and the couple inevitably grew apart. Even though she had been in love with Alfred, Maria Alexandrovna had found marriage to be disappointing as her husband had turned out to be a heavy drinker and a womaniser. For the sake of her children, Maria Alexandrovna chose to ignore her husband’s unfaithfulness but she and Alfred often argued over their children’s future marital prospects.
On 22 August 1893, Alfred finally inherited the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha upon the death of his uncle, but he wasn’t pleased about having to leave the navy. On the other hand, Maria Alexandrovna relished her new role as she genuinely liked Coburg and set about renovating the various castles attached to the estates. Maria Alexandrovna’s happiness didn’t last though as she soon received word from Russia that her brother, Alexander III, had died, and she had to travel to Russia for his funeral, along with the Prince and Princess of Wales, and their son, George, Duke of York. They also stayed for the wedding of her nephew, Nicholas II, to Alix of Hesse, the youngest daughter of Princess Alice.
On 23 January 1899, Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at Schloss Friedestein, the duke’s official residence in Gotha, despite the fact their relationship had deteriorated further over the years. However, the festivities were marred when they received the shocking news that their only son, Affie, had reportedly tried to shoot himself. Maria Alexandrovna had long been concerned with her son’s health as he seemed to share his father’s alcoholism and his numerous affairs had led to him contracting syphilis in 1892 which severely compromised his mental state. Alfred would never recover from his wounds and his devastated father laid the blame at the feet of Maria Alexandrovna.
With no other male heir, Alfred had to prepare his nephew, Charles Edward, the posthumous son of his brother, Leopold, to succeed him as Alfred was already suffering from cancer of the throat. When the duke died in July 1900, Charles Edward was still only sixteen so Maria Alexandrovna’s son-in-law, Ernest of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, acted as regent for the next five years. When Charles Edward reached his majority, Maria Alexandrovna had a tense relationship with him as she had worked hard to make the duchy financially secure but he proved himself by providing her with support when it was needed.
The First World War would have disastrous consequences for Maria Alexandrovna since her British and Russian connections put her under a cloud of suspicion so she made herself scarce by staying at her villa in Tegernsee in Bavaria. However, after she and her younger daughters were attacked by an angry mob while travelling by car, Maria Alexandrovna decided enough was enough and she left for Switzerland. The end of the war would bring even more heartache for the dowager duchess as Charles Edward was forced to abdicate and the duchies that had once been her home were abolished.
Maria Alexandrovna lost most of her personal when revolution swept through Russia, however, much worse was to come when her relatives were systematically executed by the Bolsheviks, including her nephew, Nicholas II, and his entire family. Distraught by the events in Russia and forced to sell her jewellery to make ends meet, Maria Alexandrovna was a mere shadow of the woman she had once been and she despaired at the state of the world. On 25 October 1920, Maria Alexandrovna, the only child of Alexander II to have survived the revolution, died in her sleep of a heart attack and was buried in the ducal mausoleum at Coburg beside her husband and son.