Prince Alfred, the second son of Victoria and Albert, joined the Royal Navy at the age of twelve and spent the next few years serving on various ships. However, Alfred was also heir to the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha so it was imperative he make a good marriage.
In August 1868, Alfred was visiting his sister, Alice, when he first met Maria Alexandrovna of Russia who was also visiting relatives. Alfred’s career would keep him away for the next two years but the couple were destined to meet again in the summer of 1871 when they were visiting mutual relatives in Germany. Maria Alexandrovna and Alfred spent time together and it was obvious the young couple were attracted to each other. When Alfred returned to England, he told his mother he wished to marry Maria Alexandrovna but Queen Victoria did not approve of the match due to the fact Britain and Russia were not on good terms.
Tsar Alexander II was also not keen on the marriage as he was close to his daughter and did not want her leaving Russia so he managed to stall the negotiations by citing Maria Alexandrovna’s young age. In January 1873, rumours began to circulate Maria Alexandrovna had compromised herself with the tsar’s aide-de-camp so her family were anxious to see her married but Maria Alexandrovna insisted she would marry no one but Alfred. Alfred refused to believe the rumours about Maria Alexandrovna’s indiscretion and the prince was finally invited to meet her parents at Jugenheim. Alfred proposed to Maria Alexandrovna on 11 July and telegrammed the good news to his mother who congratulated the couple despite her misgivings.
The wedding took place in St. Petersburg at the Grand Church of the Winter Palace on 23 January 1874, making Alfred the only child of Victoria’s who did not marry in England or with her in attendance. Victoria was represented by her eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Alfred also engaged Nicholas Chevalier, an artist, to record the day in a series of watercolour sketches for his mother who commemorated the day at Osborne House.
The young couple had two ceremonies with the Orthodox service being performed by the Metropolitans of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev in the Imperial Chapel. The young couple were escorted to their places by the tsar himself while the wedding rings were placed before the altar on golden plates. Maria Alexandrovna’s brothers, Grand Dukes Vladimir, Alexis, and Sergei took turns with the groom’s brother, Arthur, Duke of Connaught, to hold golden crowns over the heads of the bride and groom. Since marriage is considered one of the seven sacraments of Russian Orthodoxy, there is more importance in placing crowns onto the heads of the couple than the exchange of wedding rings.
After the end of the orthodox service, the newlyweds were escorted into the Alexander Hall where a second Anglican service was conducted according to the rites of the Church of England by Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster.
The grand duchess wore the traditional white and silver sarafan worn by all Russian imperial brides for their wedding, paired with the traditional kokoshnik headdress. Maria Alexandrovna’s crimson velvet mantle was trimmed with ermine and the train was supported by four chamberlains and the grand duchess’s equerry.
A sprig of myrtle, sent by Queen Victoria, was also placed on the crimson robe to maintain the tradition started by Vicky, Princess Royal. As a Russian imperial bride, Maria Alexandrovna wore The Russian Nuptial Tiara with its central rose-pink diamond and sitting behind was The Russian Nuptial Crown. The Russian Nuptial Crown had 320 large diamonds and 1,200 smaller diamonds mounted in silver and set on a crimson velvet crown.
After the wedding ceremonies, a banquet and a Bal Polonaise was held in the Throne Room of the Winter Palace. The British, determined not to be cheated out of their chance to celebrate a royal wedding, hung out the bunting and hosted street parties but it was a far more subdued affair than previous weddings. Queen Victoria, unable to attend in person, quietly toasted her son and new daughter-in-law at Buckingham Palace while photographs of the couple were bedecked with British and Russian colours.
Alfred and Maria Alexandrovna spent their wedding night at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo in specially refurbished rooms which the Tsar was hoping would persuade the newlyweds to live in Russia, however the couple soon departed for England.