Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine was born on 1 November 1864 as the second child of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and Alice of the United Kingdom. She was known as Ella in her family. Tragedy struck for the first time in 1878 when diphtheria killed Elizabeth’s youngest sister Marie on 16 November and her mother Alice on 14 December.
Though Elizabeth attracted many suitors, she finally married Grand Duke Sergei, a son of Alexander II. Sergei initially made little impression but after he had lost both his parents, Elizabeth shared in his grief, and the two grew closer. They married in 1884 at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and she took the name Elizabeth Feodorovna. They never had children. Elizabeth voluntarily converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 1891.
Tragedy would soon strike again. On 18 February 1905, Sergei was assassinated. Elizabeth was shocked but refused to cry during the day of the murder. She would later break down. Ivan Kalyayev, who threw the bomb that killed Sergei, was later hanged.
After her husband’s death, Elizabeth became a vegetarian, sold off her jewellery and turned to religious life. She opened the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary and became its abbess. She did a lot of work to help the poor and sick of Moscow. Elizabeth saw her younger sister Alix, who was by then Empress of Russia, for the last time in 1916. Both sisters would be dead in two years time.
In 1918, Elizabeth was arrested on the orders of Lenin. She was first exiled to Perm and later to Yekaterinburg, where she was joined by others. She was taken to Alapayevsk on 20 May 1918 where she was housed in a school. Initially, the days passed pleasantly enough. Elizabeth planted vegetables in the garden.
On the early morning of 18 July 1918, Elizabeth and a few others were driven to a road near Siniachikha to an abandoned iron mine 20 metres deep. They were reportedly blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their back. They were led to horsedrawn carts for a journey that would take at least two hours. During these two hours, according to one report, they sang Hail, Gentle Light. Other reports state they were silent. Elizabeth was probably beaten before being thrown into the pit. Reports state that she was the first to be thrown in. The pit had some water at the bottom and it appeared that Elizabeth managed to get onto a ledge and heard her speaking to the second victim who was thrown in. Hand grenades were thrown in as well, but they did not kill everyone.
Singing was reportedly heard after the initial explosion, and the pit was then stuffed with wood and set alight. Her remains and those of the others were uncovered on 8 October. Since the bodies were in a relatively good condition, it is thought they died of starvation. Elizabeth had apparently died of injuries sustained in the fall. The bodies were placed in simple wooden coffins and brought to the Cathedral of the town. After the advance of the Red Army, the coffins were moved to Irkutsk on Lake Baikal and then to Peking, where they laid to rest in the Church of St. Serafim of Sarov. Her sister Victoria arranged the transport of Elizabeth’s body to the Church of Maria Magdalene in Jerusalem.
Elizabeth’s sister Alix and her family had all been murdered the day before in the early morning of the 17th.
In 1981, she was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and in 1992 by the Moscow Patriarchate.1