Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–1880)

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Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–1880)

Empress of Russia and wife of Tsar Alexander II . Name variations: Mariia Aleksandrovna or Alexandrovna; Mary of Hesse-Darmstadt; Princess Wilhelmine (before 1841), Empress Marie; Empress Marie of Russia. Born Princess Maximilienne Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie on July 27, 1824, in Hesse-Darmstadt; died of tuberculosis on May 22, 1880 (o.s.) in St. Petersburg; illegitimate daughter of Baron August Ludwig de Senarclans-Grancy (a minor state official) and Princess Wilhelmine of Baden (1788–1836); education uncertain; married Alexander II, tsar of Russia (r. 1855–1881), in 1841; children: Alexandra or Aleksandra (1842–1849); Nicholas (1843–1865); Alexander III (1845–1894), tsar of Russia (r. 1881–1894); Vladimir (b. 1847, who married Maria of Mecklenburg-Schwerin ); Aleksei (1850–1908, who married Alexandra Zhukovskaya ); Marie Alexandrovna (1853–1920); Sergei or Sergius (1857–1905, who married Ella ); Paul (1860–1919, who married Alexandra Oldenburg [1870–1891]).

Raised in German duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–40); lived in St. Petersburg as wife of Alexander II (1841–80); was empress of Russia (1855–80); was active in numerous charitable activities.

On September 8, 1840 (o.s.), Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt arrived in St. Petersburg in a great gold coach. Next to her sat her future mother-in-law, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Charlotte of Prussia ). Behind them Tsar Nicholas I rode on horseback followed by Marie's handsome fiancé, the tsarevich Alexander Nikolaevich (Alexander II), at the head of a cavalry honor guard. All around them church bells rang and cannon boomed to welcome the future empress of Russia. Despite this warm reception, the 16-year-old girl from the small and isolated German duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt could not help but be awed and frightened by her new surroundings. She knew no Russian; she was a Lutheran in an Orthodox country; and she had no training for the responsibilities which confronted her. Much like her more famous predecessor, Catherine II the Great , who also came from an obscure German principality to be empress of Russia, Marie turned out to be as bright as she was pretty. She soon became the helpmate as well as the wife of Alexander, a liberal and stabilizing influence on her weak-willed husband, the mother of eight of his children, and the benefactor of many Russian charities. Unfortunately, she also was the victim of court intrigue and of Alexander's philandering. She spent the last 15 years of her life in poor health and in undeserved humiliation.

Alexander first met Marie on March 13, 1839, when he was in the middle of a 16-month tour of Western European capitals in search of a suitable royal bride. Given the insignificance of Hesse-Darmstadt, a "remarkably dull and stagnant duchy," it is not surprising that Marie was not on the list of princesses to be interviewed. Moreover, her youth and family background seemed to disqualify her. Her mother, Princess

Wilhelmine of Baden , had left her husband Grand Duke Ludwig II in 1809, 15 years before Marie was born. Marie's real father was August Ludwig Senarclans-Grancy who held a minor post as master of horse in Hesse-Darmstadt. To avoid further scandal, the grand duke generously accepted Marie as his own child and raised her after her mother's death in 1836. This family imbroglio was well known to the courts of Europe even if not to Alexander and his advisors. After attending an opera in their honor, the Russian party returned to the duke's castle where the tsarevich met Marie, who was serving as her adoptive father's hostess. Despite her youth—she was not yet 15—"she attracted me enormously from the first moment I saw her," Alexander informed his father. Though he did not state the nature of his attraction, one of his biographers notes that "Marie was beautiful but she was also alarmingly intelligent. She seemed to have been educated far above her age." Alexander declared to one of his advisors: "We don't have to go further. I have made my choice."

In the face of considerable parental opposition, the tsarevich stuck to his "choice" even to the point of threatening to renounce the throne unless he had his way. A year later, they were engaged, and, in September 1840, Marie came to St. Petersburg to face the problems of being the wife of the future tsar of Russia. Given the Russian name of Mariia Aleksandrovna, but known universally as Marie, she became an enthusiastic convert to Russian Orthodoxy; she learned to read the classics of Russian literature in the language in which they were written; and she worked to understand the problems of her new country. The royal couple were married in the chapel of the Winter Palace on April 16, 1841, with all the pomp and ceremony imperial Russia could muster. Their early married life was happy and fruitful. Marie had four children (one of whom died in infancy) during the first six years of their marriage. The young couple surrounded themselves with friends interested in music, poetry, and the arts. Marie and Alexander read together Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches as it appeared serially, and they discussed the need for peasant reform which it revealed. The tsarevich also developed the habit of reading state papers with his wife in the evening and listening to her advice on liberal policies he might pursue on becoming tsar.

The Empress is a woman of sense and ability and is believed to have great influence with her husband when he is with her.

—Lord Granville

Conservative elements in the court, however, resented Marie's strong convictions and stabilizing influence on her often vacillating and perhaps less intelligent husband. Rumors were spread that she sought to "Germanize" Russia, and she was criticized for hiring English nannies to look after her children. As much as possible, she was isolated from influencing policy once Alexander ascended to the throne in 1855. The new tsar then chose the inopportune time of Marie's seventh pregnancy in 1857 to have an affair with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Alexandra Dolgorukaia , an affair which may have been encouraged by Marie's enemies at court. When reproached for his infidelity, Alexander angrily decided to spend more of his time hunting and less of it listening to his complaining wife. The death by meningitis of their eldest and favorite son Nicholas in 1865, followed soon after by the tsar's very public infatuation with Ekaterina Dolgorukova , a woman 30 years his junior, effectively ended the royal marriage in all but name.

Wilhelmine of Baden (1788–1836)

Grand duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt . Name variations: Wilhelmina von Baden; Wilhelmina Zahringen. Born on September 10, 1788; died on January 27, 1836; daughter of Charles Louis (b. 1755), margrave of Baden, and Amalie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1754–1832); sister of Frederica Dorothea of Baden (1781–1826), queen of Sweden; married Ludwig also known as Louis II, grand duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, on June 19, 1804; children: (first marriage) Louise III, grand duke of Hesse-Darmstadt (1806–1877); Charles of Hesse-Darmstadt (1809–1877); Alexander of Hesse-Darmstadt (1823–1888); (with August Ludwig Senarclans-Grancy) Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–1880).

Marie devoted much of the last two decades of her life to charitable activities, serving as president of the Russian Red Cross and fostering better education for women. She also became interested in Pan-Slavism and promoted greater Russian support for their Slavic and Orthodox brethren in the Balkans. As her health as well as her marriage deteriorated, she spent more of her time in Germany visiting relatives and seeking medical treatment abroad. She also increasingly turned to mysticism and the Orthodox Church for inner salvation. As a result, she rarely engaged in court activities, which merely reinforced the popular perception that she was aloof and cold. The empress' final indignity came in 1878 when Alexander moved Ekaterina Dolgorukova into the Winter Palace. Sick in bed, Marie was forced to listen to the "other woman's" three illegitimate children playing immediately above her bedroom. When she sought the emotional support of her own children and her sisters-in-law in the face of Alexander's inconsiderate behavior, she caused even further division in an already unhappy royal family. Two years later, this intelligent and progressive woman died a lonely and lingering death from tuberculosis on May 22, 1880, at the age of 55.


Almedingen, E.M. The Emperor Alexander II. London: The Bodley Head, 1962.

Mosse, W.E. Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. NY: Collier Books, 1962.

Tarsaïdzé, Alexandre. Katia: Wife Before God. NY: Macmillan, 1970.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–1880)

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Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt (1824–1880)