From the Emperor’s Desk: In the past on this blog I’ve written detailed accounts of the assassination of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. Today I will focus on genealogy, his marriage and briefly cover his reign.
Nicholas II (May 18, 1868 – July 17, 1918), known in the Russian Orthodox Church as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer, was the last Emperor of Russia, King of Congress Poland and Grand Duke of Finland, ruling from 1 November 1894 until his abdication on 15 March 1917.
Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich was born in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo south of Saint Petersburg, during the reign of his grandfather Emperor Alexander II. He was the eldest child of then-Tsesarevich Alexander Alexandrovich and his wife, Tsesarevna Maria Feodorovna (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark).
Grand Duke Nicholas’ father was heir apparent to the Russian throne as the second but eldest surviving son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. He had five younger siblings: Alexander (1869–1870), George (1871–1899), Xenia (1875–1960), Michael (1878–1918) and Olga (1882–1960). Nicholas often referred to his father nostalgically in letters after Alexander’s death in 1894. He was also very close to his mother, as revealed in their published letters to each other.
His paternal grandparents were Emperor Alexander II and Empress Maria Alexandrovna (née Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine). His maternal grandparents were King Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark (née Princess Louise of Hesse-Cassel). Nicholas was of primarily German and Danish descent, his last ethnically Russian ancestor being Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna of Russia (1708–1728), daughter of Peter I the Great.
Nicholas was related to several monarchs in Europe. His mother’s siblings included Kings Frederik VIII of Denmark and George I of the Hellenes, as well as the United Kingdom’s Queen Alexandra of King Edward VII.
Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and German Emperor Wilhelm II were all first cousins of King George V of the United Kingdom. Nicholas was also a first cousin of both King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway (neé Princess Maud of the United Kingdom), as well as King Christian X of Denmark and King Constantine I of Greece.
Nicholas II and Wilhelm II were in turn second cousins once-removed, as each descended from King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, as well as third cousins, as they were both great-great-grandsons of Emperor Paul I of Russia.
In addition to being second cousins with the German Emperor through descent from Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and his wife Princess Wilhelmine of Baden. Nicholas and Alexandra were also third cousins once-removed, as they were both descendants of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia.
In 1884, Nicholas’s coming-of-age ceremony was held at the Winter Palace, where he pledged his loyalty to his father. Later that year, Nicholas’s uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, married Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, daughter of Ludwig IV, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and his late wife Princess Alice of the United Kingdom (who had died in 1878), and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
At the wedding in St. Petersburg, the sixteen-year-old Tsesarevich met with and admired the bride’s youngest surviving sister, twelve-year-old Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine. Those feelings of admiration blossomed into love following her visit to St. Petersburg five years later in 1889. Princess Alix had feelings for him in turn.
In April 1894, Nicholas joined his Uncle Sergei and Aunt Elisabeth on a journey to Coburg, Germany, for the wedding of Elizabeth’s and Alix’s brother, Ernst Ludwig , Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, to their mutual first cousin Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and his wife Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia (Nicholas II’s aunt).
Other guests included Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, German Emperor Wilhelm II, the Empress Friedrich (Emperor Wilhelm’s mother and Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter), Nicholas’s uncle, the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII of the United Kingdom) and the bride’s parents, the Duke and Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Once in Coburg Nicholas proposed to Alix, but she rejected his proposal, as a devout Lutheran she was reluctant to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. But Emperor Wilhelm II later informed her she had a duty to marry Nicholas and to convert, as her sister Elisabeth had done in 1892.
Thus once she changed her mind, Nicholas and Alix became officially engaged on April 20, 1894. Nicholas’s parents initially hesitated to give the engagement their blessing, as Alix had made poor impressions during her visits to Russia. They gave their consent only when they saw Emperor Alexander III’s health deteriorating.
By that autumn, Emperor Alexander III lay dying. Upon learning that he would live only a fortnight, the Emperor had Nicholas summon Alix to the imperial palace at Livadia. Alix arrived on October 22; the Emperor insisted on receiving her in full uniform.
From his deathbed, he told his son to heed the advice of Witte, his most capable minister. Ten days later, Alexander III died at the age of forty-nine, leaving twenty-six-year-old Nicholas as Emperor of Russia.
That evening, Nicholas was consecrated by his father’s priest as Tsar Nicholas II and, the following day, Alix was received into the Russian Orthodox Church, taking the name Alexandra Feodorovna with the title of Grand Duchess and the style of Imperial Highness.
Nicholas and Alix’s wedding was originally scheduled for the spring of 1895, but it was moved forward at Nicholas’s insistence. Staggering under the weight of his new office, he had no intention of allowing the one person who gave him confidence to leave his side.
Instead, Nicholas’s wedding to Alix took place on November 26, 1894, which was the birthday of the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, and court mourning could be slightly relaxed. Alexandra wore the traditional dress of Romanov brides, and Nicholas a hussar’s uniform. Nicholas and Alexandra, each holding a lit candle, faced the palace priest and were married a few minutes before one in the afternoon.
During his reign, Emperor Nicholas II gave support to the economic and political reforms promoted by his prime ministers, Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin. He advocated modernization based on foreign loans and close ties with France, but resisted giving the new parliament (the Duma) major roles. Ultimately, progress was undermined by Nicholas’s commitment to autocratic rule and an unwillingness to work with the Duma.
Nicholas II signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which was designed to counter Germany’s attempts to gain influence in the Middle East; it ended the Great Game of confrontation between Russia and the British Empire.
He aimed to strengthen the Franco-Russian Alliance and proposed the unsuccessful Hague Convention of 1899 to promote disarmament and solve international disputes peacefully. Domestically, he was criticised for his government’s repression of political opponents and his perceived fault or inaction during the Khodynka Tragedy, anti-Jewish pogroms, Bloody Sunday and the violent suppression of the 1905 Russian Revolution.
His popularity was further damaged by the Russo-Japanese War, which saw the Russian Baltic Fleet annihilated at the Battle of Tsushima, together with the loss of Russian influence over Manchuria and Korea and the Japanese annexation of the south of Sakhalin Island.
During the July Crisis, which occured after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este, Nicholas supported Serbia and approved the mobilization of the Russian Army on July 30, 1914.
In response, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914 and its ally France on August 3, 1914, starting the Great War, later known as the First World War.
The severe military losses led to a collapse of morale at the front and at home; a general strike and a mutiny of the garrison in Petrograd sparked the February Revolution and the disintegration of the monarchy’s authority.
By March 1917, public support for Nicholas had collapsed and he was forced to abdicate the throne, thereby ending the Romanov dynasty’s 304-year rule of Russia (1613–1917).
After abdicating for himself and his son, the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, Nicholas and his family were imprisoned by the Russian Provisional Government and exiled to Siberia. After the Bolsheviks took power in the October Revolution, the family was held in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed on July 17, 1918.