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Maria Feodorovna (November 26, 1847 – October 13, 1928), known before her marriage as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, was a Danish princess and Empress of Russia as spouse of Emperor Alexander III (reigned 1881–1894). She was the second daughter and fourth child of King Christian IX of Denmark and Louise of Hesse-Cassel; her siblings included Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom, King Frederik VIII of Denmark and King George I of Greece, Thera Duchess of Cumberland and Valdemar of Denmark. Her eldest son became the last Russian monarch, Emperor Nicholas II of Russia. She lived for ten years after he and his family were killed.

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Princess Marie Sophie Frederike Dagmar was born at the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen. Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a member of a relatively impoverished princely cadet line. Her mother was Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.

She was baptised as a Lutheran and named after her kinswoman Marie Sophie of Hesse-Cassel, Queen Dowager of Denmark as well as the medieval Danish queen, Dagmar of Bohemia. Her godmother was Queen Caroline Amalie of Denmark. Growing up, she was known by the name Dagmar. Most of her life, she was known as Maria Feodorovna, the name which she took when she converted to Orthodoxy immediately before her 1866 marriage to the future Emperor Alexander III. She was known within her family as “Minnie”.

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Princess Dagmar, Prince Vilhelm, Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Alexandra

The rise of Slavophile ideology in the Russian Empire led Alexander II of Russia to search for a bride for the heir apparent, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, in countries other than the German states that had traditionally provided consorts for the tsars. In 1864, Nicholas, or “Nixa” as he was known in his family, went to Denmark where he was betrothed to Dagmar. On April 22, 1865 he died from meningitis. His last wish was that Dagmar would marry his younger brother, the future Alexander III. Dagmar was distraught after her young fiancé’s death. She was so heartbroken when she returned to her homeland that her relatives were seriously worried about her health.

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Dagmar of Denmark and Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich

She had already become emotionally attached to Russia and often thought of the huge, remote country that was to have been her home. The disaster had brought her very close to “Nixa’s” parents, and she received a letter from Alexander II in which the Emperor attempted to console her. He told Dagmar in very affectionate terms that he hoped she would still consider herself a member of their family. In June 1866, while on a visit to Copenhagen, the Tsarevich Alexander asked Dagmar for her hand. They had been in her room looking over photographs together.

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Dagmar of Denmark and the future Emperor Alexander III of Russia

She converted to Orthodoxy and became Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. The lavish wedding took place on November 9, 1866 in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Financial constraints had prevented her parents from attending the wedding, and in their stead, they sent her brother, Crown Prince Frederick. Her brother-in-law, the Prince of Wales, had also travelled to Saint Petersburg for the ceremony; pregnancy had prevented the Princess of Wales from attending. After the wedding night, Alexander wrote in his diary, “I took off my slippers and my silver embroidered robe and felt the body of my beloved next to mine… How I felt then, I do not wish to describe here. Afterwards we talked for a long time.” After the many wedding parties were over the newlyweds moved into the Anichkov Palace in Saint Petersburg where they were to live for the next 15 years, when they were not taking extended holidays at their summer villa Livadia in the Crimean Peninsula.

On May 18, 1868, Maria Feodorovna gave birth to her eldest son, Nicholas. Her next son, Alexander Alexandrovich, born in 1869, died from meningitis in infancy. She would bear Alexander four more children who reached adulthood: George (b. 1871), Xenia (b. 1875), Michael (b. 1878), and Olga (b. 1882). As a mother, she doted on and was quite possessive of her sons. She had a more distant relationship with her daughters.

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In 1873, Maria, Alexander, and their two eldest sons made a journey to the United Kingdom. The imperial couple and their children were entertained at Marlborough House by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The royal sisters Maria and Alexandra delighted London society by dressing alike at social gatherings. The following year, Maria and Alexander welcomed the Prince and Princess of Wales to St. Petersburg; they had come for the wedding of the Prince’s younger brother, Alfred, to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and the sister of the tsarevich.