Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna was the first Romanov to marry into the British royal family. Between her jealousy-fueled rivalry with her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, to her loveless marriage to Prince Alfred, she would also be the last Romanov to shack up at Buckingham Palace. Never accepted by her matrimonial Britain and shut out from her homeland, poor Maria lived a bitter life…but with diamonds. So many diamonds.
1. She Was Outnumbered
Maria Alexandrovna was born in October of 1853 to Alexander II of Russia and his wife, also confusingly named Maria Alexandrovna. She was her parents’ only surviving daughter—unless, of course, you count the two girls her father had with his mistress. Either way, that left Maria as the only girl alongside her six brothers.
But she was a tough cookie.
2. She Was A Tomboy
Growing up with all of those boys, Maria wasn’t your typical, delicate princess. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a child, she was ever the tomboy and flipped the script by being the one to defend her bigger brothers. According to her governess, Maria couldn’t “stand when someone reprimand[ed] any of her brothers. [That brought] her to the state of real despair.”
Tough as she was, she wasn’t invincible.
3. She Had A Lump In Her Throat
Maria’s older sister, Alexandra Alexandrovna, had succumbed to infant meningitis at the age of six, well before Maria even came screaming into the world. There must have been something unlucky about that number because Maria herself barely made it to her seventh birthday when she contracted a mysterious throat disease. Soon, she too was fighting for her life.
4. Her Parents Grieved In A Weird Way
The premature demise of Maria’s older sister left her parents devastated, and they had a sinister way of coping with the grief. Maria’s parents attended seances in the 1860s in order to communicate with their beloved first daughter. They claimed to have experienced genuine supernatural phenomena, but it didn’t bring them the solace they looked for.
After the first seance, Maria’s mother refused to attend another, believing that the “spirits of lies” had visited them. Fortunately, they moved on and gave all of their love to Maria.
5. She Was The Favorite
Parents normally don’t play favorites with their children, but Tsar Alexander II didn’t care for convention. The Russian ruler wasn’t shy about the fact that Maria was his favorite child. In speaking to his wife’s maid of honor he said, “This is the only enjoyable minute of my whole day[…],” when referring to visiting the infant Maria in the evening.
However, her father’s love wouldn’t save her from her painful future.
6. Her Mother Showered Her In Kisses
It wasn’t just Maria’s father who adored her. Even her mother showed a clear preference for her sole surviving daughter. The elder Maria “shower[ed] her with kisses and affection” and, indeed, “the whole family adore[d] this child.” It might not be possible to literally spoil a child rotten, but Maria’s parents certainly tried.
7. She Had Her Own Private Island
Being a Romanov—and the favorite Romanov, at that—came with a certain number of perks. Maria grew up bouncing between her family’s many massive palaces and even had a place of her own. Her parents gifted her her very own private island situated in the pond of Alexander Palace. Her first act as Lady of the Flies was to ban all adults.
Enjoy it while you can, little Maria, because your days of happiness are numbered…
8. She Was The Little Tsarina
Maria frequently became bored with her studies and she couldn’t exactly banish school the way she had banished adults from her island. Whenever she became particularly restless—which was particularly often—she would burst in on her father’s important meetings. The influence she had over the Russian ruler didn’t exactly go unnoticed.
9. She Was Mark Twain’s Muse
The famous American author Mark Twain visited the Russian Imperial family while they were vacationing in Crimea. Upon his return, he commented that Maria was “blue-eyed, unassuming, and pretty.” He also couldn’t help but notice that that unassuming girl had the Russian Tsar wrapped around her little finger. In fact, everyone bent to her will.
10. She Was Stubborn As A Mule
It wasn’t just Maria’s parents who answered her every beck and call. Her lady-in-waiting said that the grand duchess was “accustomed to being the center of the world” and expected “everyone [to] yield to her.” From the sounds of it, saying “No,” to Maria wasn’t an option. A Russian courtier described her as “stubborn and uncompromising” and utterly immune to reason.
These traits would get her into trouble with her future mother-in-law, the Queen of England.
11. She Had A Summer Fling
At 15, Maria met Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh—the second son of Queen Victoria—while visiting mutual relatives in Germany. The two spent hours together, strolling through the gardens of Jugenheim and talking about their mutual interest in music. The young royals became smitten with each other and thus began the longest (and coldest) summer romance ever.
If they’d known what their lives would be like, maybe they’d have turned and ran.
12. Her Father Forbade The Marriage
Maria’s parents, namely her father, were not in favor of the match. Alexander II couldn’t bear the thought of another man taking his darling little princess away. As an excuse, he told Maria that she was too young to get married—which, let’s be real, she definitely was. In addition to her age, however, Alexander II didn’t want a British son-in-law.
The only thing worse would be a British mother-in-law.
13. Her Mother Knew Best
Maria’s father wasn’t alone in his opposition to the match. Her mother, the elder Maria, felt that the British people were “cold” and “unfriendly” and that her daughter would be unhappy in England (How do mothers always know?). Nevertheless, in the end, neither of her parents had the heart to, well, break her heart, and marriage negotiations began.
14. Her Parents Weren’t Alone
When the marriage negotiations commenced, it became very clear that Maria’s parents weren’t the only ones opposed to the match. Alfred’s mother, Queen Victoria, was also against it, as she was weary of the Romanovs. But, as was the British custom, Queen Victoria kept a tight lip about her opposition to the marriage. Others, however, weren’t nearly so reserved.
15. She Was All The Talk
During the marriage negotiations, Maria became the subject of vicious rumors. Gossip began swirling around Europe that she had “compromised” herself with her father’s aide-de-camp. It seemed like everyone—except for her darling Alfred—believed the rumors. It was almost as if the gossip had been planted by a secret, sovereign saboteur.
16. She Said, “Yes!”
With her “purity” in question thanks to those rumors, Maria’s marriage prospects were shrinking. In light of her new situation, her parents had to drop their opposition to her choice of a match—any husband would be better than none. In July of 1873, Alfred proposed to Maria and she gleefully accepted. The couple were eager to share the news, but the response was not what they hoped for.
17. She Made Alfred Very Happy
Alfred was so happy that he telegrammed his mother saying, “Maria and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us.” Even if Queen Victoria wasn’t the one responsible for spreading false rumors, she definitely wasn’t bestowing any blessings. In fact, she might have had a different plan altogether.
18. She Had A Monster-In-Law
Queen Victoria was not a fan of her new daughter-in-law. She had never met Maria but the fact that she was a Romanov was more than enough. After she received Alfred’s telegram, Queen Victoria uttered an ambiguous and ominous phrase to her eldest daughter: “The murder is out.” Whatever that meant exactly, clearly she wasn’t happy about the engagement.
19. She Made People Jealous
If Maria’s soon-to-be mother-in-law couldn’t celebrate the pending nuptials, then her father certainly could. Just like he had when she was a little girl, he showered Maria with gifts. In addition to a truly massive dowry, he gave Maria a wedding gift so ostentatious that even Queen Victoria would be jealous of it. And jealous she was.
20. She Was “Icy”
Queen Victoria had the crown jewels, but Maria had the imperial jeweler. As a wedding gift, Alexander II gave Maria sapphires, two separate sets of matching jewelry made of diamonds and rubies, and a diamond tiara that could double as a necklace. Oh, and a massive collection of over 50 dresses and gowns worth more than most cars.
21. She Ransacked The Mines
Maria’s dowry was so impressive that a visiting earl remarked, “One would have thought that the world had been ransacked to lay these treasures at the Duchess’s feet, and there seemed to be enough for an entire royal family rather than for one member of it.” Unfortunately, though, good wedding gifts don’t ensure a good marriage. Maria is proof of that.
22. Her Love Kept Growing
Maria was ecstatic about her pending nuptials—and not just because of her insane wedding gifts. She wrote about her coming marriage: “How happy I am to belong to him. I feel that my love for him is growing daily. I have a feeling of peace and inexpressible happiness[…].” She wouldn’t feel that way forever. She wouldn’t feel that way for long at all.
23. Her Mother-In-Law Skipped Her Wedding
Despite mounting tensions between their respective empires and families, Maria and Alfred’s marriage went ahead in January of 1874. Not surprisingly, Queen Victoria did not attend the ceremony in St. Petersburg, but it seemed like she was warming to Maria. The British monarch sent a coronet—a small crown—designed especially for the occasion.
Or maybe sending a little crown was just her way of telling Maria how little she thought of her.
24. Her Father Couldn’t Let Her Go
Maria’s father couldn’t bear the idea of losing his little princess. During the wedding ceremony, Alexander II was visibly distraught. He was noticeably pale throughout the wedding and said afterwards, “It is for her happiness, but the light of my life has gone out.” He devised his own plan to keep his baby girl at home.
25. She Broke Her Father’s Heart
Maria and Alfred honeymooned at the Alexander Palace. In an effort to convince his daughter to stay at home in Russia, Alexander II ensured that the newlyweds wanted for nothing. He had the entire ground floor of the palace decked out just for them. But once the wedding bells stopped chiming, Maria and Alfred went to live in England as planned.
26. She Always Had A Room To Go Back To
Maria’s father never stopped hoping that his daughter would return—or, perhaps, rightly predicted that her marriage would be a nightmare. The crestfallen Russian Tsar left the honeymoon suite at Alexander Palace completely untouched for two decades. Sadly, for Maria, that room would only serve as a reminder of happier times.
27. She “Was Not Pretty”
Maria and Alfred arrived in England in March of 1874 and finally came face-to-face with her new mother-in-law. Despite her earlier misgivings—and potential scheming—Queen Victoria actually liked Maria at first. She wrote that Maria was “most pleasing natural, unaffected and civil” even if “she was not pretty or graceful and held herself badly[…]Everyone must like her.”
Their relationship would only go downhill from there.
28. Her Family Dropped In On Her
Maria became terribly homesick almost immediately after she arrived in England. She must have missed those Russian winters. In order to help comfort her, Maria’s father and one of her younger brothers visited her mere months after she left home. Unfortunately, it would take more than a friendly visit to make her new house feel like a home.
29. She Outranked Her In-Laws
Maria and Queen Victoria’s improved relations didn’t last very long. Queen Victoria insisted on Maria dropping or sidelining her Russian imperial titles. It just wasn’t a good look to have a daughter-in-law with grander titles. The situation caused something of a row between the two ruling families—but Maria had other ways of showing up her mother-in-law.
30. She Upstaged The Queen
Even though Maria only had the title of Grand Duchess, she managed to upstage all of the English princesses at court, and even Queen Victoria herself. She made a habit of showing off the ostentatious jewelry her father had given her as a wedding gift. She must have felt pretty smug—until Queen Victoria came up with a way to put her in her place.
31. She Was Cold At Heart
Maria visited Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Even though she had grown up in Russia, she found the unheated Scottish castle to be too cold. She ordered her attendants to make a fire in her room in order to warm it up while she stepped out. Queen Victoria saw that as an opportunity to give Maria a lesson in British hospitality.
32. She Got The Cold Shoulder
When Maria stepped out, the fire in her room still warming the stone-cold castle, Queen Victoria got her revenge for being constantly upstaged. She ordered Maria’s attendants to put the fire out and to open all of the windows, letting the Scottish chill back in. That was the closest thing Maria would get to a warm welcome.
33. She Was Always Bored
Maria’s homesickness only got worse. Her mother had correctly predicted that she wouldn’t like England. She wrote, Maria “thinks London hideous…the air there appalling, the English food abominable, the later hours very tiring, the visits to Windsor and Osborne boring beyond belief.” The feeling from the English towards Maria was mutual.
34. Her Subjects Hated Her
If Maria wasn’t fond of her new English subjects, then they were just as disappointed with her. The people of England didn’t hold back in criticizing the Russian Grand Duchess. They thought that her manners were too “masculine” and her attitude towards servants to be “imperious.” She couldn’t even find a sympathetic shoulder to cry on at home.
35. Her Husband Had Other Hobbies
Maria had given up her Imperial status and her home country all to be with the man she loved. Loved, as in past tense. For all of the grief that her life in England was causing her, Maria couldn’t even turn to her husband. He was always, erm, occupied. Less than ten years into their marriage, Alfred had become an insatiable philanderer.
36. She Got New Castles
Alfred was too busy with his naval career—and finding refuge in other “ports”—to pay Maria any mind. But she did get something out of their marriage. After the passing of Alfred’s uncle, Maria became the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany. She spent most of the 1880s traveling back and forth between England, Germany, and Russia.
But her motherland wasn’t as welcoming as she remembered it.
37. She Narrowly Escaped An Explosion
In 1880, Maria returned to Russia to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her father’s coronation. In the time that she had been gone, Russia had experienced some turbulent changes. She received a chilling lesson on just how different things on the trip. During the ceremony, a group of anti-imperialists attacked the Romanovs using explosives. The Winter Palace sustained damage, but Maria and her family survived.
However, this was just the beginning. A storm was coming—and the Romanovs wouldn’t be ready.
38. She Felt Like A Doormat
Maria’s marriage really was falling apart. She complained that Alfred was “rude, touchy, willful, unscrupulous, improvident, and unfaithful.” More than anything, Maria wanted to keep their five children insulated from their marital woes, but later made a shocking confession. She told one of her daughters that, at times, she felt like nothing more than Alfred’s “legitimate mistress.”
39. She Was On Mushrooms
Maria started spending most of her time in Germany, maintaining their two palatial German residences. Maria sidelined her marriage and focused on opening an institution for the mentally infirm. She also developed an interest in mushroom hunting and reading. Soon, the man she had loved became nothing more than a stranger in her hallways.
Her fairy tale life was gone. Now the misery had begun.
40. She Wanted To Be Single
Maria and Alfred’s marriage became so bad that when they were together, Maria struggled to find anything to talk to him about. They didn’t even share an interest in music anymore—you know, Beethoven versus Mozart, Tupac versus Biggie, etc. She later wrote to her daughter, “if only you knew how easy and comfortable life is without him.”
She would get her wish sooner than she would know.
41. Her Son Was Missing
Maria and Alfred “celebrated” (or fake-smiled their way through) their 25th wedding anniversary. Despite the tensions in their marriage, their entire family attended the probably very awkward affair. But there was one notable face missing from the crowd. Maria’s son, the younger Alfred, was not there. And there was a disturbing reason for his conspicuous absence.
42. She Couldn’t Save Her Son
Maria’s eldest child had always been troubled—too much like his father. But, while Maria and Alfred pretended to be enjoying their anniversary celebrations, things took a tragic turn. While it’s not entirely clear what happened, the younger Alfred had been spiraling for some time. He missed the anniversary because of an unexplained illness, then seems to have ended his own life mere weeks later at the business end of a revolver.
It must have been devastating for Maria and Alfred—and to make it even worse, it might have all been their fault.
43. She Lived One Big Lie
Maria had tried, in vain, to insulate her children from her crumbling marriage—kind of hard to explain why daddy is always talking “music” with another woman. The problem might have been even worse than Mary was letting on. Unverified rumors allege that the elder Alfred had married another woman in secret. The family lie might have been too much for Maria’s eldest son, hence the revolver make-out session.
44. She Collapsed Completely
Alfred—the older, philandering, probably-a-polygamist one—blamed Maria for their son’s demise. Whether or not she blamed herself, the grief of losing her eldest child and her only son was too much for her to bear. At the younger Alfred’s funeral, Maria fell to her knees, crying uncontrollably. There wouldn’t be much comfort in her later years.
45. She Lost Her Husband Unexpectedly
Not long after the passing of their son, the elder Alfred was diagnosed with an advanced case of throat cancer. Maria had to be the one to deliver the tragic news to her old enemy, Queen Victoria. Not even a month after the sudden diagnosis, Alfred passed and Maria became a dowager duchess. If she thought she couldn’t fall further, she was wrong.
46. She Chose The Wrong Side
At the outbreak of WWI, Maria found herself in an impossible position. She was a Russian by birth, a Brit by marriage, and a German by title. Seeing as though she couldn’t cut herself into thirds, Maria had to pick a side. In the end, she turned her back on her motherland and sided with Germany. But once again, her subjects showed her no love.
47. She Was Chased By A Mob
Anti-Russian sentiment in Germany was high during WWI, and that meant trouble for Maria. One evening, when returning home, an angry mob recognized the Russian-born German duchess and surrounded her vehicle. They harassed Maria and two of her daughters for over an hour before the authorities could safely rescue them.
Sadly, the end of WWI only spelled even more trouble for Maria.
48. Her “Ice” Melted Away
When the dust settled after WWI, Maria’s family, the Romanovs, had been ousted from power. Maria lost the sizeable dowry and considerable fortune that her father had left her and she was living off of her meager British income. To make ends meet, she had to sell off her most prized possession: her massive jewelry collection.
49. She Was Bitter In The End
Maria spent her later years in declining physical health, but her mind remained sharp. She wrote, “I am too utterly disgusted with the present state of the world and mankind in general…They have destroyed and ruined my beloved Russia, my much-loved Germany.” Notice, she made no mention of her adopted England…understandably.
50. She Finally Went Home
Maria celebrated her 67th birthday in October of 1920. Just over a week later, she suffered an unexpected heart attack in her sleep and passed. Her eldest daughter, the Queen of Romania, wrote, “I hope God will not disappoint her as most things and beings did in this life.” As long as she got her diamonds back, she was probably smiling.