Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born on 25 November 1876 as the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. She was thus a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was born in the San Antonio Palace on Malta, which was her parents’ official winter residence. She was christened in the palace on New Year’s Day 1877 and received the names Victoria – for her grandmother – and Melita – for her birthplace. She was known in the family as “Ducky.”
Victoria Melita was very close to her elder sister Marie, later Queen of Romania. They had a Scottish nurse named Nana Pitcathly, and soon they were joined in the nursery by two more sisters, Alexandra and Beatrice. They also had an elder brother named Alfred. One her earliest surviving correspondence is an 1882 note to her grandmother Queen Victoria, wishing her a happy birthday. The note is in French as her mother despised the English language, and Victoria Melita did not start writing in English until she was eight years old.
In 1886, they returned to the island of Victoria Melita’s birth when her father was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean squadron. Victoria Melita received her very own pony there – its name was Stuart. Her sister Marie later recalled, “Our ideas about riding were anything but civilised. We were entirely fearless, and our chief pace was full gallop, quite regardless of the ground.”1 At the age of 12, Victoria Melita and her family moved to Coburg where they lived at Palais Edinburg. Her father was expected to succeed his childless uncle Ernest II as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Marie and Victoria Melita had lessons together in geography, history, literature, religion, French and several other subjects.
In 1891, she was skillfully introduced to her first cousin Ernest – the son of Princess Alice – who was exactly eight years older than her. Queen Victoria already had the marriage in mind, but Victoria Melita wasn’t too sure about it. Ernest succeeded as Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine in March 1892, making a match even more urgent. His father had expressed the wish that he should marry Victoria Melita shortly before he died. Her sister Marie was actually the first to marry – to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania in January 1893. Both Ernest and Victoria Melita remained reluctant to marry. However, she eventually accepted his proposal in January 1894.
Around 11 A.M. on 19 April 1894, they were married at Schloss Ehrenburg at Coburg with Queen Victoria among the guests. Her aunt, the Empress Frederick, wrote, “Ducky looked very charming and distinguee. She had a plain white silk gown with hardly any trimming, and Aunt Alice’s wedding veil, a light diadem of emeralds with a sprig of orange blossom stuck in behind. It all suited her charmingly. During the service, Aunt Marie was very calm, but the tears rolled down Uncle Alfred’s cheeks and Grandmama’s and mine too…”2
That summer, Victoria Melita learned that she was pregnant and on 11 March 1895, she gave birth to a daughter named Elisabeth. Their newfound joy did not reflect in their relationship, and their marriage was already falling apart. They were simply unsuited to each other. It is unclear exactly when Victoria Melita would meet the man who would become her second husband – Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich – but when they did, there was an instant attraction.
Meanwhile, Ernest and Victoria Melita grew apart as Queen Victoria continued to hope that Victoria Melita would bear a son and heir for the Grand Duchy. They grew closer somewhat in their shared grief over the death of Victoria Melita’s brother Alfred in 1899, and she became pregnant once more. She had already suffered a miscarriage, and this pregnancy led to the stillbirth of a premature son. Tragically, she would lose her father that same year as well, followed by Queen Victoria in January 1901. With the death of the family matriarch, a divorce now seemed likely for Ernest and Victoria Melita. In October 1901, Victoria Melita went to stay with her mother and did not wish to return to Darmstadt. She wrote to her husband that she was going to ask for a divorce – and he agreed.
He later wrote to his elder sister, “Now that I am calmer I see the absolute impossibility of going on leading a life which was killing her (Victoria Melita) & driving me nearly mad. For to keep up your spirits & laughing face while ruin is staring you in the eyes & misery is tearing your heart to pieces is a struggle which is fruitless. I only tried for her sake. If I had not loved her so, I would have given it up long ago.”3 In December, the marriage was dissolved by a verdict of the Supreme Court of the Grand Duchy. Their young daughter was to spend half the year with her mother and the other half with her father. The divorce was considered to be a disgrace in royal circles, and it seemed that most blamed Victoria Melita for it. Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna wrote to her sister-in-law, “She will not be missed in the country, as she never made herself beloved nor showed any liking for the country. Alas! Poor girl, she is utterly miserable and without a home…”4 Their daughter had been the only good thing to come out of the marriage and for Ernest she was, “the sunshine of my life.”5 In the autumn of 1903, as Elisabeth and Ernest were visiting the Tsar and Tsarina in Poland, Elisabeth woke up gasping for air. Victoria Melita was immediately summoned, but just as she was preparing to leave a telegram arrived announcing the little girl’s death. An autopsy confirmed that she had died from typhoid.
Victoria Melita did not depart and instead waited for Ernest to return to Darmstadt with their daughter’s body. At the funeral, Victoria Melita put her Hessian Order on her daughter’s coffin – there was now nothing left for her in Darmstadt.
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