Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was born on 14 May 1854 as the daughter of Grand Duke Frederick Francis II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Princess Augusta Reuss of Köstritz. She was just seven years old when her mother died, and her father would go on to marry twice more. His second marriage to Princess Anna of Hesse and by Rhine lasted less than a year as Anna died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a daughter. His third wife was Princess Marie of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt, and by her, she became the half-sister of Henry, Prince Consort of the Netherlands.
Marie was baptised on 24 June 1854 in the Golden Hall at Ludwigslust Castle, where she had been born. She spent her childhood at Schwerin Castle and was known as “Miechen” in the family. She was close to her brother Johann Albrecht. At the age of four, Marie was taken in the care of a governess named Clara von Schroeter. Her formal lessons started at the age of six, and she was taught to read, write and count. She learned to sing and play the piano in addition to learning English, French, geography and history. Marie was also close to her paternal grandmother Alexandrine (born of Prussia) whom she would visit three times a week.
Marie would meet her future husband, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, at military manoeuvres in Berlin. By then, she had already broken her engagement to George, Prince of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. Vladimir wrote to her younger brother, “I liked Duchess Marie very much from the first sight.”1 They soon set their sights on marrying and everything seemed to go according to plan until the matter of religion came up. It wasn’t until 2 May 1874 that they unofficially became engaged as it was finally agreed that she would not have to convert to Russian Orthodoxy.
Marie arrived in St. Petersburg on 27 August 1874 with her father, stepmother and her two brothers. The wedding itself took place on 28 August in the court church of the Winter Palace. Her brothers held a crown over her head during the service. She wore a “white silvery dress, embroidered with flowers, and a diamond tiara on her head.”2 After the wedding, she became known as Maria Pavlovna. The newlyweds moved into the Vladimir Palace on the Neva River, and they also owned a villa in Tsarskoe Selo. Four of their five children would be born in Tsarskoe Selo: Alexander (1875-1877), Kirill (1876-1938), Andrei (1879-1956) and Elena (1882-1957). Only Boris (1877 – 1943) was born in the Vladimir Palace. The death of little Alexander hit Marie hard. The future Alexander III wrote, “In the last few days he contracted pneumonia, and he finally died of heart paralysis. We went to Vladimir and Miechen straight away and found them together with Maman, and the little darling was lying on his mother’s lap as if he was asleep. It is impossible to describe the pain at the sight of my poor brother and his wife.”3 After the birth of their youngest child Elena, Marie became quite ill and was apparently advised not to have any more children.
Marie soon established herself as a great hostess. She would often organise balls and masquerades in the Vladimir Palace. Their court was second only to that of the Emperor. “The Grand Duchess’s Court shone with ladies-in-waiting, who were all equally beautiful, intelligent and cheerful. Marie Pavlovna demanded that all the staff would also look elegant and smart. She would only become closer with those guests who knew how to keep up the conversation and not let it get dull.”4
Marie also became involved with charities such as the Imperial Women’s Patriotic Society (IWPS). She and her husband were also honorary members of several charities.
In 1894, Vladimir’s brother Alexander III died and was succeeded by their nephew, now Nicholas II. He married Alix of Hesse (Alexandra Feodorovna) shortly after his accession and she and Marie could not have been any more different. While Alexandra was never quite popular, and Marie was the centre of attention wherever she went. The relationship between Nicholas and the rest of the family visibly deteriorated over time. This came to a head when Marie’s eldest son Kirill married the divorcee Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was also his first cousin. Nicholas was against the match and refused to sanction it. He resigned all his commissions, and he was banished from Russia. From then on, Vladimir and Marie also began to spend much of their time abroad.
On 17 February 1909, Marie’s husband died of cerebral oedema at the Vladimir Palace. It was only then that Kirill was pardoned and allowed to return to Russia. Marie gave the governor of St Petersburg 5,000 roubles to give out as alms in her husband’s memory. Their shared grief brought Marie and her sister-in-law Maria Feodorovna closer together.
During the First World War, Marie became involved in helping the army, and she went on to assist in military hospitals and infirmaries. She funded a hospital train which was designed to help evacuate the wounded. As time went on, the situation in Russia deteriorated, and Marie believed that the monarchy was at risk. The murder of Rasputin only deepened the rift that now existed in the Imperial Family. On 15 March 1917, Nicholas abdicated the throne. He nominated his brother Michael to succeed him, but he declined, and the Romanov dynasty came to an end. Next in line to the defunct throne was Marie’s son Kirill.
Marie was put under house arrest in December 1917 while she was in Kislovodsk. On 31 December 1919, Marie became one of the last Romanovs to escape from Russia. She was met by her niece Olga who wrote, “I was amazed that she arrived in the city on her own train, accompanied by the retinue and remained a Grand Duchess to her fingertips. There was never a particularly loving relationship between aunt Miechen and our family, but I felt proud for her. Despite the danger and hardships, she firmly adhered to the traditions of the past era of splendour and glory.”5
At Cannes, she was finally able to rest after a long journey. She then went to Switzerland, where her daughter Elena was, and they finally saw each other again for the first time in five years. By then, Marie was already suffering from kidney problems and various other ailments. She would spend the last months of her life in Contrexéville in France. She took the waters there, but they could do nothing for her anymore. She died on 6 September 1920 at the Hotel La Souveraine. She was buried in an Orthodox chapel she had built in Contrexéville – she had finally converted to Russian Orthodoxy later in life.
In 1924, her son assumed the empty title of Emperor, and his descendants still claim the Russian throne today.
- Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova p.13
- Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova p.18
- Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova p.101
- Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova p.112
- Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova p.213