Alexander II of Russia, Alexander III of Russia, Assumption Cathedral, Dagmar of Demark, Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Gatchina Palace, George I of the Hellenes, Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia, Maria Feodorovna of Russia, Moscow, the Kremlin
Maria Feodorovna was beloved by the Russian public. Early on, she made it a priority to learn the Russian language and to try to understand the Russian people. Baroness Rahden wrote that “the Czarevna is forming a real, warm sympathy for that country which is receiving her with so much enthusiasm.” In 1876, she and her husband visited Helsinki and were greeted by cheers, most of which were “directed to the wife of the heir apparent.”
Maria rarely interfered with politics, preferring to devote her time and energies to her family, charities, and the more social side of her position. She had also seen the student protests of Kiev and St. Petersburg in the 1860s, and when police were beating students, the students cheered on Maria Feodorovna to which she replied, “They were quite loyal, they cheered me. Why do you allow the police to treat them so brutally?” Her one exception to official politics was her militant anti-German sentiment because of the annexation of Danish territories by Prussia in 1864, a sentiment also expressed by her sister, Alexandra.
Prince Gorchakov remarked about that policy that ‘it is our belief, that Germany will not forget that both in Russia and in England [sic] a Danish Princess has her foot on the steps of the throne”. Maria Feodorovna suffered a miscarriage in 1866 in Denmark while she was horseback riding.
Maria arranged the marriage between her brother George I of Greece and her cousin-in-law Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia. When George visited St. Petersburg in 1867, she contrived to have George spend time with Olga. She convinced Olga’s parents of her brother’s suitability. In a letter, her father Christian IX of Denmark praised her for her shrewd arranging of the marriage: “Where in the world have you, little rogue, ever learned to intrigue so well, since you have worked hard on your uncle and aunt, who were previously decidedly against a match of this kind.”
On May 18, 1868 Maria 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. Her favorite child was Nicholas, and Olga and Michael were closer to their father. She was lenient towards George, and she could never bear to punish him for his pranks. Her daughter Olga remembered that “mother had a great weakness for him.”
Maria’s relationship with her father-in-law, Alexander II of Russia, deteriorated because she did not accept his second marriage to Catherine Dolgorukov. She refused to allow her children to visit their grandfather’s second wife and his legitimized bastards, which caused Alexander’s anger. She confided in Sophia Tolstaya that “there were grave scenes between me and the Sovereign, caused by my refusal to let my children to him.”
At a Winter Palace reception in February 1881, she refused to kiss Catherine and only gave Catherine her hand to kiss. Alexander II was furious and chastised his daughter-in-law: “Sasha is a good son, but you – you have no heart”.
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 Emperor Alexander II and the sister of the tsarevich.
Empress of Russia
On the morning of March 13, 1881, Maria’s father-in-law Alexander II of Russia was killed by a bomb on the way back to the Winter Palace from a military parade. In her diary, she described how the wounded, still living Emperor was taken to the palace: “His legs were crushed terribly and ripped open to the knee; a bleeding mass, with half a boot on the right foot, and only the sole of the foot remaining on the left.” Alexander II died a few hours later.
After her father-in-law’s gruesome death, she was worried about her husband’s safety. In her diary, she wrote, “Our happiest and serenest times are now over. My peace and calm are gone, for now I will only ever be able to worry about Sasha.” Her favorite sister, the Princess of Wales, and brother-in-law Prince of Wales, stayed in Russia for several weeks after the funeral.
Alexander and Maria were crowned at the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow on May 27, 1883. Just before the coronation, a major conspiracy had been uncovered, which cast a pall over the celebration. Nevertheless, over 8000 guests attended the splendid ceremony. Because of the many threats against Maria and Alexander III, the head of the security police, General Cherevin, shortly after the coronation urged the Emperor and his family to relocate to Gatchina Palace, a more secure location 50 kilometres outside St. Petersburg.
The huge palace had 900 rooms and was built by Catherine the Great. The Romanovs heeded the advice. Maria and Alexander III lived at Gatchina for 13 years, and it was here that their five surviving children grew up.
Under heavy guard, Alexander III and Maria made periodic trips from Gatchina to the capital to take part in official events.
Maria was a universally beloved Empress. Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin wrote that Maria’s “bearing, her distinguished and forceful personality, and the intelligence which shone in her face, made her the perfect figure of a queen… She was extraordinarily well-loved in Russia, and everyone had confidence in her… and [was] a real mother to her people.