Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna was born on 17 October 1853 as the daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and his first wife, Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, who was known as Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine. At the time of her birth, her father was still the heir apparent. She was one of eight siblings, though her eldest sister Alexandra did not survive to adulthood. Maria herself almost did not survive to adulthood either as she nearly died of a throat disease at the age of 7.
Maria grew up in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, Peterhof and the Catherine and Alexander Palaces. She had her own small house on the children’s island in the park of the Alexander Palace. Maria and her two younger brothers Sergei and Paul also often went along with their mother to Germany and the south of Europe. She was known to be quite a tomboy. Maria learned to speak Russian, English, German and French.
In 1868 – while visiting family – Maria met Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was Queen Victoria’s second son who was visiting his sister Princess Alice. She was married to Prince Louis of Hesse, Maria’s first cousin. Their first meeting would be brief as Alfred’s naval career took him around the world the following two years. They met again at Heiligenberg in the summer of 1871. They soon learned that they had a lot in common and wished to marry. However, her parents were initially against the match. Maria’s father was very attached to her and suggested a waiting period of at least one year. Queen Victoria was also against the match as no British Prince had ever married a Romanov. Nevertheless, after a delay, negotiations resumed in January 1873, even though Maria was presented with several other suitors in the meantime. On 29 June 1873, her father wrote, “God give her happiness. After a tete-a-tete with Prince Alfred, she came to ask me to bless them. I did, but with a very heavy heart, I confess.”1
On 11 July 1873, Alfred officially asked for Maria’s hand in marriage, and she accepted his proposal. He sent a telegram to Queen Victoria, “Marie and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us.”2 She later wrote to her eldest daughter, “Affie and Marie seem very happy, and I pray she may continue so, for she really seems a very sweet girl, who marries him entirely for his sake (!!) – I wonder – but never mind that. She has written me such a pretty letter in English, of which I will send you a copy another day. Difficulties there will be and delays and troubles, but if she is so amiable and dear, much will be got over.3
Alexander wasn’t about to just let his daughter go. He granted her the grand sum of £100,000 as a dowry, plus an annual allowance of £32,000. She also received some very fine jewellery, including items that had belonged to Catherine the Great. As a wedding present, he had a complete parure of diamonds and rubies made for her. He also made Alfred an honorary chief of a Russian Guards regiment and named a Russian battleship after him.
On 4 January 1874, Alfred arrived in St Petersburg for the wedding as it was a custom for Russian Grand Duchesses to marry in Russia. On 23 January, the wedding was held at the Grand Chruch at the Winter Palace. Queen Victoria was represented by her son and daughter-in-law, the Prince and Princess of Wales. Her eldest daughter Victoria and her husband, the German Crown Prince, were also there. An Orthodox service was performed first, and Maria wore a coronet, a mantle of crimson velvet trimmed with ermine and a sprig of myrtle, which had been sent by Queen Victoria. In the Alexander Hall, the Dean of Westminster married Alfred and Maria according to the rites of the Church of England. Even though she was not there, Queen Victoria toasted the newlyweds while she wore the Order of St Catherine.
The wedding night was spent at the Alexander Palace, and they had a short honeymoon in Tsarkoe Selo. The moment Maria’s father had been dreading, had now come. The young couple went to live in England, even though he kept their honeymoon suite intact, hoping they would return. On 7 March 1874, Queen Victoria prepared to receive her new daughter-in-law. Two days later, she wrote to her eldest daughter, “And now about Marie. She is dear, and most pleasingly natural, unaffected and civil; very sensible and frank and unaffected not pretty (excepting fraîcheur) and not at all graceful. At first in her white bonnet, I thought her prettier than I expected, but without it – and since – I think her less pretty even than I expected. The chin is so short and runs into the throat, and the neck and waist are too long for the dear little child’s face though the bust is very pretty, and then she holds herself badly and walks badly. She is, however, quite at ease with me, and we get on very well – and she is very sensible. She is not a bit afraid of Affie, and I hope she will have the very best influence upon him.”4