Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine was born on 8 August 1824 as the daughter of Louis II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden. Her biological father could also be Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, but she was recognised as his daughter by Louis. Marie spent most of her childhood at Heiligenberg with her mother and brother Alexander, but her mother would tragically die of tuberculosis when Marie was just 11 years old. Marie and Alexander moved back to Darmstadt where their father ruled as Grand Duke since 1830.
In 1839, Tsarevich Alexander Nikolaevich, the future Alexander II of Russia, visited Darmstadt and was instantly attracted to her. He wrote, “I liked her terribly at first sight. If you permit it, father, I will come back to Darmstadt after England.”1 Both he and his father had heard the rumours of her possible paternity but as long as Louis recognised her as his daughter, that was good enough for them. Alexander’s mother Alexandra Feodorovna (born Charlotte of Prussia) was not so happy with the rumours, but he wrote to her, “I love her, and I would rather give up the throne, than not marry her. I will marry only her, that’s my decision!”2 Alexander’s father forbade the court from discussing the rumours.
Alexander travelled on to England where he met the 20-year-old Queen Victoria who became quite smitten with him. She wrote, “I am quite in love with the Grand Duke, a dear delightful young man. The Grand Duke is so very strong, you are whisked around like in a waltz which is very pleasant… I never enjoyed myself more.”3 Alexander’s father reminded him that a marriage with Queen Victoria was really quite impossible, but he was certainly welcome to return to Darmstadt.
Alexander returned to Marie, where he sent his adjutant to ask Marie’s father for her hand in marriage. Alexander’s father was delighted and wrote, “Our joy, the joy of the whole family is indescribable, this sweet Marie is the fulfilment of our hopes. How I envy those, who met her before me.”4 However, upon Alexander’s return to Russia, he also promptly returned to the bed of his mother’s maids-of-honour. His father then threatened to disinherit him though that came to nothing. Marie was still only 14 years old at the time of the engagement, and so the actual wedding was postponed until she was 16 years old.
Meanwhile, Marie received instruction in the Russian Orthodox religion. Their engagement was officially announced in April 1840. In June 1840, her future mother-in-law met with her and gave her approval.
In August 1840, Marie set out for Russia with her brother Alexander. She arrived to continuous festivities, and she had a hard time adapting to her new surroundings – not surprising considering her age. On 17 December 1840, she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and received the name Maria Alexandrovna. The following day, she and Alexander were officially betrothed. Her future sister-in-law would later write in her memoirs, “Marie won the hearts of all those Russians who could get to know her. Sasha (Alexander II) became more attached to her every day, feeling that his choice fell on God-given. Their mutual trust grew as they recognised each other. […] Dad joyfully watched the manifestation of the strength of this young character and admired Marie’s self-control. This, in his opinion, balanced the lack of energy in Sasha’s lack of energy fro which he constantly worried about.”
Marie herself later wrote that life in the Russian court demanded “daily heroism.” She “lived like a volunteer fireman, ready to jump up at the alarm. Of course, I wasn’t too sure about where to run or what to do.”5
Marie and Alexander were married on 28 April 1841 at the Winter Palace. She wore a white dress embroidered with silver and diamonds. She also wore a velvet robe with ermine and white satin and a diamond tiara, earrings, a necklace and bracelets. The Winter Palace would also become their first home, and they spent the summer at Tsarkoye Selo. Their first child – a daughter named Alexandra – was born on 30 August 1842. A son and heir named Nicholas was born on 20 September 1843, followed by Alexander on 10 March 1845, Vladimir on 22 April 1847, Alexei on 14 January 1850, Maria on 17 October 1853, Sergei on 11 May 1857 and Paul on 3 October 1860. Their eldest daughter Alexander would tragically die of infant meningitis on 10 July 1849. One day, Marie and Alexander even tried to contact her spirit with the help of a Scottish medium. The many pregnancies affected Marie’s health, and she began to visit spas to recover. She became very thin, and although Alexander continued to compliment her, she once replied, “The only thing I am wonderful for is the anatomical theatre – a teaching skeleton, covered with a thick layer of rouge and power.”6 She was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
- Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky p. 67
- Russia & Europe: Dynastic Ties by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova
- The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.367
- The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.367
- Alexander II: the last great tsar by Edvard Radzinsky p.66
- The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore p.399