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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 who became 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 (r. 1863–1906) and of Louise of Hesse-Cassel. Louise was born as the daughter of Prince Wilhelm of Hesse-Cassel and Princess Charlotte of Denmark. Charlotte of Denmark watithe daughter of Frederik, Hereditary Prince of Denmark and Norway, and Sophia Frederica of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

From L to R. Dagmar, Wilhelm, Alexandra. Seated King Christian IX of Denmark

Charlotte played some part in the succession crisis which occurred because her half first cousin, King Frederik VI of Denmark, lacked a male heir. In 1839, her brother Christian VIII of Denmark succeeded their cousin on the throne, and during his reign, Charlotte had an important position at the Danish royal court in Copenhagen because her brother favored that her line of the family should succeed to the throne after his male line had died out. This meant Louise of Hesse-Cassel had a better hereditary claim to the throne than her husband King ChristianIX of Denmark. But I digress. I have written about this elsewhere on the blog.

Due to the brilliant marital alliances of his children, King Christian IX became known as the “Father-in-law of Europe.” Dagmar’s eldest brother would succeed his father as King Frederik VIII of Denmark (one of whose sons would be elected as King Haakon VII of Norway).

Dagmar’s elder, and favourite, sister, Alexandra married Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) in March 1863. Alexandra, along with being queen consort of King Edward VII, was also mother of George V of the United Kingdom, which helps to explain the striking resemblance between their sons Nicholas II and George V.

Within months of Alexandra’s marriage, Dagmar’s second older brother, Wilhelm, was elected as King George I of the Hellenes. Wilhelm actually became King a few months before his father succeeded to the Danish throne. Her younger sister was Princess Thyra, who became Duchess of Cumberland with her marriage to Ernst August of Hanover, Duke of Cumberland and a straight male line descendant of George III, King of the United Kingdom and Hanover.

Princess Dagmar of Denmark

Dagmar also had another younger brother, Valdemar. He had a lifelong naval career. He was paternal uncle of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, father of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He married Princess Marie d’Orleans on October 22, 1885 at the Château d’Eu, the residence of Prince Philippe, Count of Paris. Marie was the eldest child of Robert, duke of Chartres, and his wife, Princess Françoise d’Orléans. I will write more on Prince Valdemar later this month.

Dagmar was known for her beauty. Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge said that Dagmar was “sweetly pretty” and commented favorably on her “splendid dark eyes.” Her fiancee Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich was enthusiastic about her beauty. He wrote to his mother that “she is even prettier in real life than in the portraits that we had seen so far. Her eyes speak for her: they are so kind, intelligent, animated.”

Due to the rise of Slavophile ideology in the Russian Empire, Alexander II of Russia searched 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 and proposed to Dagmar. Her future mother-in-law Maria Alexandrovna (Marie of Hesse) gave her a pearl necklace and Nicholas gave her diamonds. In total, the betrothal gifts Dagmar received from her future in-laws cost 1.5 million rubles.

Dagmar of Denmark and Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich

In April, Nicholas grew gravely ill with cerebrospinal meningitis. Alexander II of Russia sent a telegram to Dagmar: “Nicholas has received the Last Rites. Pray for us and come if you can.” On April 22, 1865, Nicholas died in the presence of his parents, brothers, and Dagmar. His last wish was that Dagmar would marry his younger brother, the future Alexander III.

Dagmar was devastated by Nicholas’ death. Nicholas’ parents struggled to “pull Princess Dagmar away from the corpse and carry her out.” She was so heartbroken when she returned to her homeland that her relatives were seriously worried about her health.

She had already become emotionally attached to Russia and often thought of the huge, remote country that was to have been her home. Many were sympathetic towards Dagmar. Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge wrote of “poor dear Minny’s sorrow and the blight which has fallen upon her young life.” Queen Victoria wrote “how terrible for poor Dagmar… the poor parents and bride are most deeply to be pitied.”

Princess Dagmar of Denmark

Alexander II of Russia and Maria Alexandrovna had grown fond of Dagmar, and they wanted her to marry their new heir, Tsarevich Alexander. In an affectionate letter, Alexander II told Dagmar that he hoped she would still consider herself a member of their family. Maria Alexandrovna tried to convince Louise of Hesse-Kassel to send Dagmar to Russia immediately, but Louise insisted that Dagmar must “strengthen her nerves… [and] avoid emotional upsets.”

In June 1866, Tsarevich Alexander visited Copenhagen with his brothers Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duke Alexei. While looking over photographs of Nicholas, Alexander asked Dagmar if “she could love him after having loved Nixa, to whom they were both devoted.” She answered that she could love no one but him, because he had been so close to his brother. Alexander recalled that “we both burst into tears… [and] I told her that my dear Nixa helped us much in this situation and that now of course he prays about our happiness.”

Dagmar 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.

Dagmar of Denmark and Tsarevich Alexander Alexandrovich

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.

Maria and Alexander had an exceptionally happy marriage. She was widely recognized as “the only person on the face of the earth in whom the Autocrat of all the Russias puts any real trust. In his gentle consort, he has unlimited confidence.” Despite her anti-Russian sentiments, Queen Victoria wrote favorably about Maria and Alexander’s marriage. She wrote that “[Maria] seems quite happy and contented with her fat, good-natured husband who seems far more attentive and kind to her than one would have thought….I think they are very domestic and happy and attached to each other; he makes a very good husband.”