Maria quickly fell pregnant and gave birth to her first child – a son named Alfred – in October 1874. On 27 October, Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, “She has not had any drawback – and is as well and strong as possible and shows a very healthy constitution which is a great thing, is it not? She nurses the child – which will enchant you. As long as she remains at home – and does not publish the fact to the world – by taking the baby everywhere and can do it well – which they say she does now – I have nothing to say (beyond my unfortunately – from my very earliest childhood – totally insurmountable disgust for the process).” Maria breastfed her son, and when she did so during his christening, he threw up over her dress. The Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark) reported that she handed over her son to her mother and “ran about with her big breast hanging down in front of everyone and wiped the dress clean!!!”1 Four daughters followed: Marie (born 1875), Victoria Melita (born 1876), Alexandra (born 1878) and Beatrice (born 1884). She also had a stillborn child in October 1879.
Alfred and Maria moved into Clarence House, where an Orthodox Chapel was installed for her. They also lived in Malta, where Alfred was stationed. After 1878, they also spent time in Coburg as it was expected that her husband would eventually succeed his uncle as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In 1880, Maria lost her mother and the following year, her father was killed by a terrorist bomb. She and her husband hurried to St Petersburg for the funeral. Her elder brother had now become Alexander III of Russia.
In Coburg, Maria held court in the Palais Edinburg. She enjoyed her freedom there and was not under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law Queen Victoria. Her daughter Marie later said, “She was her own mistress; it was a small Kingdom perhaps, but her will was undiscussed, she took her orders from no one, and could live as she wished.”2
The first of her children to marry was Marie, who married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania on 10 January 1893. Alfred was devastated at his daughter’s marriage to a man whose country was by no means stable. Her first grandchild was born the following October; the future King Carol II of Romania. Maria was with her daughter until November. After Maria left, her daughter wrote to her, “Today you arrive in Coburg, how I wish I was with you. I feel it so terribly that you are gone, and when our little boy is particularly sweet, I always feel so sorry you are no more there to enjoy him.”3 That August, she and Alfred had also become Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha upon the death of Ernest II. Maria’s sister-in-law, the Empress Frederick, wrote to her daughter Sophie, “He will do it all so well, and Aunt Marie will love being No. 1, and reigning Duchess, I am sure.”4 Maria indeed savoured the moment of becoming Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
On 19 April 1894, Victoria Melita married Ernst Ludwig, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and their daughter Elisabeth was born on 11 March 1895. It was an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce in 1901. The unexpected death of her brother Alexander III on 1 November 1894 stunned Maria, and she and Alfred arrived only just in time to say goodbye. On 20 April 1896, Maria’s third daughter Alexandra married the future Ernst II, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (a grandson of Queen Victoria’s half-sister Feodora). Meanwhile, her only son, the young Alfred, worried her with his drinking and his health was suffering because of it. By early 1899, he was emaciated and almost unable to walk. He died on 6 February 1899 – still only 24 years old. A few months later Maria wrote to her eldest daughter, “Our poor, poor Alfred! He gave us only pain and trouble and yet one was always hoping for a better future, one was working for him and had an object in life. And now it all seems too dismal, too empty for words! In what hand will this dear home of ours get later on?”5 The succession to the Duchy now fell to the Duke of Connaught and his son, but he decided to renounce the succession and so it fell to the Duke of Albany, the posthumous of Prince Leopold.
Alfred, too, was devastated by his only son’s death, and he was “in a dreadful state.” He underwent several cures in Egypt and Hungary, but his health continued to decline. In May 1900, he went to take the waters at Herculesbad, but soon after his arrival, he began to have throat problems. Soon, he was unable to swallow, and he had to be fed by tube. At the end of June, a cancerous growth was discovered at the root of his tongue. He returned to Coburg, where doctors prepared to do a tracheotomy – to help him breathe. It would be too late, and he died on 30 July 1900 with Maria and three of their daughters by his side. Maria was now a widow at the age of 46.
Just a short while later, Maria was at Osborne when her mother-in-law Queen Victoria passed away. Although she kept several residences, her favourite one was her villa in Tegernsee in Bavaria. After Victoria Melita’s divorce, she returned to live with her mother for some time. She remarried to Cyril Vladimirovich, Grand Duke of Russia on 8 October 1905. On 15 July 1909, her youngest daughter Beatrice married Infante Alfonso of Spain, 3rd Duke of Galliera. Maria made frequent trips to Russia to stay with Victoria Melita, and she gained three more grandchildren from her daughter’s second marriage.
The outbreak of the First World War made things difficult for Maria, and after being attacked by an angry mob, Maria moved to Switzerland. She lost many family members during the Russian Revolution, including her nephew Nicholas II and his family. It also left in reduced circumstances, and much of her fortune had been held in trust in Russia. Her death came quite sudden on 25 October 1920, and she suffered a heart attack in her sleep. She was buried in Coburg beside her husband and son.