Today, Queen Victoria has a reputation for perfect propriety—but her granddaughter Princess Victoria Melita did not live up to her royal namesake. Thanks to her disastrous marriage and the even more controversial aftermath, many consider this bad girl princess the first modern royal scandal-maker. Read on and find out why she puts Meghan Markle to shame.
Right from birth, Princess Victoria was dealing was a serious pedigree. Not only was her paternal grandmother the Queen Victoria of England, but on her mother’s side, she was descended from the Russian Tsar Alexander II. From the beginning, then, people expected big things of little Victoria—only, her family was hiding a ruinous secret.
Although everything looked dazzling and extravagant from the outside when it came to the royal family, Victoria’s parents were absolutely miserable. Her father Prince Alfred was often away cavorting with other women instead of spending time with his family, and her mother Marie, while a constant figure in Victoria’s life, could be emotionally withdrawn.
With this poor-little-rich-girl upbringing, it wasn’t long before Victoria started acting out.
As a young girl, the palace began to notice worrying traits in Victoria. As she grew up, she took on some of her parents’ worst proclivities, turning inward and reserved. Yet underneath the surface, she was roiling with passion, often felt misunderstood, and could easily become temperamental and moody when someone crossed her. And oh, they were about to cross her.
In 1889, Victoria’s father became heir presumptive to the German duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, leading the family to relocate to Bavaria. It was one rude awakening for Victoria. German customs were much stricter, simpler, and duller than the British ways of living she was used to, and the headstrong Victoria chafed under the new social mores.
In fact, this dissatisfaction fueled her next controversial move.
By the time Victoria was 15 years old, she possessed “the assuredness of an Empress and the high spirits of a tomboy”. Tall, sharp, and looking older than her tender age, she traveled with her mother to the funeral of one of her Russian aunts. It was supposed to be a routine royal trip to pay respects to the Romanovs. It ended in a total disaster for the crown.
While at the funeral, Victoria laid eyes on her handsome Romanov cousin, the Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, and fell in love practically at first sight. More than that, the feeling was mutual: Everyone around them could see the two young royals shared an intense and immediate attraction—and it certainly didn’t escape the notice of Victoria’s mother Marie. But this wasn’t a good thing.
Victoria and Kirill were young, dumb, and in love, but they were doomed to heartbreak. For one, the Russian Orthodox faith forbid marriage between first cousins, making Victoria and Kirill’s attraction illicit. More than that, Victoria’s mother distrusted her Romanov lineage and despised what she thought were the loose morals in Romanov men.
In short order, Victoria’s mother crushed her hopes, declaring the Romanovs would never make good husbands and she should forget about Kirill. But before Victoria had time to grieve, her mother hit her with another curveball.
Spurred on by Victoria’s inappropriate crush, the royal family began to look feverishly around for someone—anyone—who was an eligible bachelor and could distract her from the forbidden Kirill. Just months after the two cousins met in Russia, Victoria was visiting her grandmother Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle…and along someone would nearly destroy her life.
While visiting with her grandmother, Victoria met another house guest of Balmoral: Prince Ernest Louis of Hesse. At first blush, the two of them were pleasingly compatible, with both royals enjoying fun and games, artistic pursuits, and even sharing the same birthday—though Ernest was nearly a decade older than the still-impressionable princess.
Soon enough, Queen Victoria began to get designs to marry the two off. Yet there was a cruel twist.
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Incredibly enough for poor Princess Victoria, Prince Ernest was also her cousin, just like Kirill. But this time, her grandmother’s Anglican religion had no qualms about the first cousins intermarrying. In fact—with no Romanov blood for Ernest to speak of—the princess’s mother was also dead-set on the match and began exerting huge pressure to hear wedding bells.
No one realized it at the time, but Victoria was now headed down a dark path.
It took a long while—three years, to be exact—for Victoria’s family to wear her down and convince her to marry Prince Ernest. But as memories of Kirill faded, so too did her resolve, and the pair wed in a lavish ceremony in April 1894, with luminaries from almost all the royal families in Europe attending. But out of nowhere, the day turned sour.
For a brief moment at the royal wedding, everyone’s eyes were on Victoria—until, that is, one of her new relatives took it all the attention away. On the same day of the wedding, the future Tsar Nicholas II announced his engagement to Prince Ernest’s sister Alix, upstaging Victoria’s little nuptials big time. But what started as a petty jab ended as a dark omen.
Victoria tried to be dutiful in her marriage to Prince Ernest; she even bore him a child, a daughter they named Elisabeth, less than a year after their wedding night. But behind closed doors, everything was falling apart. What surface-level compatibility Victoria and Ernest started with quickly eroded away, and soon the emotionally deep, yearning Victoria came to see that her husband had almost no passion for her.
What he did have passion for was even more hurtful.
As time went on, Victoria began to realize she had competition when it came to Ernest’s affections—competition from her own daughter. Elisabeth was the apple of Ernest’s eye, and he spent most of his time doting on the girl instead of doting on his wife. To add insult to injury, Elisabeth also preferred her father’s company to her mother, leaving Victoria feeling like the odd man out.
Unfortunately, instead of talking about their troubles, Victoria and Ernest took to self-destruction.
In the midst of their marital troubles, the young royals developed naughty habits. They became famous around Europe for throwing raucous parties, where anyone over 30 was considered “old and out” and not invited. Instead, they filled their ornate halls with artists and intellectuals, dispensing with any stuffy formality and then merry-making until the early hours of the next day.
Eventually, though, unhappiness has a way of catching up with you—and Victoria quickly turned volatile.
During this time, Victoria’s husband Ernest managed to balance his hard-partying with hard work, putting in his time shaking hands and kissing babies as a prominent member of the royal family. Victoria…did not. She avoided and procrastinated on answering important letters, talked only to people she liked at balls, and even refused to visit some of her more crotchety elderly relations.
In short, she wanted nothing to do with royal duties. Well, this backfired hard.
Eventually, Ernest began to take notice of Victoria’s complacency and confronted her about it more and more. Victoria’s response was vicious. She refused to back down, and their arguments would often turn physical, with Victoria screaming and throwing tea trays and priceless China willy-nilly around the room, or else at Ernest himself.
When that didn’t help, she had an even more dangerous way of letting off steam.
For all her cold exterior, Victoria had always been a hot-burning flame inside, and the strictures of her marriage drove her to seek out ever more intense forms of catharsis. Although she had always loved horses, she began to develop an interest in only the most hard-to-tame stallions, with her particular favorite being an ornery and temperamental steed named Bogdan.
Victoria would go for long, grueling rides on Bogdan, trying to exorcise her demons. They only got louder.
In the early months of her marriage, Victoria traveled back to Russia to witness the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II—he was, after all, related to her both through blood and by marriage. But the trip brought a sharp sting with it. While in Russia, Victoria inevitably ran into her old love, the Grand Duke Kirill…and the former crushes didn’t handle it well.
Stuck in an unhappy marriage she never wanted in the first place, Victoria was no match for the persistent feelings she had for her Russian cousin. As the new Tsar’s coronation festivities went on, a scandalized aristocracy watched as Victoria and Kirill, drawn together like magnets, proceeded to flirt with each other at every ball and gala.
Still, all things come to an end, and eventually, Victoria found herself back in Hesse and her quietly crumbling marriage—until one shocking event triggered its total demise.
In 1897, Victoria had just come back to Hesse from a visit with her sister in Romania. She may have been hoping for a pleasant reunion with her husband. But as she walked into the house, she made a disturbing discovery. Victoria claimed that she caught her Ernest red-handed and cheating on her…and that wasn’t the worst part.
According to Victoria, she found Ernest in bed with another man—one of the household servants. This would have been shock enough, but Victoria then realized these power dynamics and proclivities had been going on for quite some time. She later confessed to her niece that "No boy was safe, from the stable hands to the kitchen help. He slept quite openly with them all”.
With these revelations dropped in her lap, Victoria now desperately wanted out of her marriage for good. Instead, it was about to get even more tragic.
Fired up, Victoria went to her grandmother Queen Victoria and begged her to help dissolve the marriage. The answer broke her heart. The Queen was appropriately distressed to hear of their marital troubles, but not enough to grant permission for a divorce, especially not when they had their young daughter Elisabeth to think of.
With nothing left to do, Victoria trudged back to her loveless union and tried to make it work. Bad idea.
Princess Victoria was nothing if not dedicated to whatever task she set in front of her, and in 1900, she and Ernest had reconciled at least enough that she was pregnant again. The couple looked forward to the due date, hoping that maybe this would help seal their happiness and secure their marriage once and for all. But when that day came, it ended in tears.
When Victoria went into labor on May 25, the baby boy was stillborn. The consequences were devastating. While Victoria grieved the loss of her newborn, it must have also seemed like a sign of the true, disastrous state of her marriage. Around this time, even Ernest—who had previously wanted to prevent any talk of divorce—caved to the idea of a split.
But there was still one major hurdle in the way, and it would take a cataclysmic change to remove it.
With Queen Victoria of England still alive and forbidding divorce, Victoria and Ernest took to spending long months apart, with Victoria in particular taking up an unsavory and expensive habit of obsessively playing cards in Monte Carlo. But in January of 1901, the Widow of Windsor finally brought the Victorian period to a close, passing at the age of 81.
It was literally the end of an era—and Victoria seized on her chance.
Now that the last obstacle for divorce was out of the way, Princess Victoria acted fast. Despite the years of waiting and suffering, the Supreme Court of Hesse granted them an official split before 1901 came to an end. To those closest to the couple, it was a good thing—Ernest’s own sister wrote that "Though both had done their best to make a success of their marriage, it had been a failure”. But then came the backlash.
Divorce might have been theoretically possible for the Victorian aristocracy, but it just wasn’t done, and European courts were immediately scornful of the former couple. Tsar Nicholas II went so far as to write to his mother and confess that he would have preferred if one of them had died, rather than having them face "the general disgrace of a divorce”.
Suddenly, Victoria’s name was mud in the public eye…but this was nothing compared to what was going on in her private life.
In the wake of the divorce, Victoria and Ernest split custody of their six-year-old daughter Elisabeth, each taking the girl for six months out of the year. It was far from a smooth transition. Elisabeth placed all the blame for the divorce on her mother, and would often hide under furniture, sobbing, before she had to switch to visiting her.
At one point when Ernest was trying assure the girl her mother loved her, Elisabeth snapped, "Mama says she loves me, but you do love me”. Even more painfully, Victoria never got the chance to fully reconcile with her daughter—because unimaginable tragedy struck first.
In 1903, Elisabeth fell ill with typhoid fever while off visiting Tsar Nicholas II in Poland. Horrifically, for one reason or another, the Tsar and Tsarina delayed telegramming Victoria about her daughter’s illness—and when she did find out, it was too late. The girl perished just before Victoria could pack her things and rush to Poland.
It was a massive and final blow to Victoria’s life in Hesse. But instead of a new beginning and a clean break, Victoria’s life only got messier.
With her daughter growing cold in the ground, a ghost from Victoria’s past came back to haunt her. Throughout the years, she had always stayed in touch with her first love, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, and after her divorce, the intensity of their connection ramped up even further. Only, this was no fairy tale—and it was about to turn very grim, very fast.
By this time, everyone in Europe and Russia knew about Victoria and Kirill’s continuing crushes on each other…but just as many people were against the match. Kirill’s entire family tried to forbid him from seeing or corresponding with her, and when that failed, they begged him to just take her as a mistress and not even think about walking her down the aisle.
If things had been different, maybe that would have been the end of that. But the star-crossed lovers were about to hit a major plot twist.
Kirill was an active Navy man, so when the Russo-Japanese war broke out, he was sent to defend the Russian seas. Then the unthinkable happened. The Japanese attacked the ship he was on, blowing it to smithereens and killing nearly everyone on board. By some miracle, Kirill was one of the only survivors…and his first thoughts after the accident led right back to Victoria.
As he wrote of the near-death experience, "It is like daylight. And I was now within visible reach of fulfillment of the dream of my life. Nothing would cheat me of it now”. The result was the scandal of the decade.
On October 8, 1905, just months after the attack, Victoria finally married her Grand Duke in an all but secret ceremony. Only Victoria’s mother, sister, and a friend attended the sparse nuptials, which took place in the remote Bavarian city of Tegernsee. Yet for all the secrecy, the truth would have to eventually come out. And when it did, all hell broke loose.
Victoria and Kirill hadn’t gotten permission from Tsar Nicholas II to marry—quite the opposite, in fact—and their union was an enormous act of rebellion. When they finally found out about the nuptials, the Russian royal family got a bitter revenge. Nicholas pulled Kirill’s allowance, leaving him financially vulnerable, and even expelled him from the Navy.
Yet for all these harsh punishments, it was the Tsarina whose bite stung the most.
Lest we forget, the Tsarina was born Alix of Hesse, and was the sister of Victoria’s first husband Prince Ernest. So she took none too kindly to her former sister-in-law divorcing her brother and then causing drama in her own royal court. The Tsarina was beside herself with rage at Victoria, swearing never to admit "a woman who had behaved so disgracefully” into her presence.
Well, she’d soon eat her words.
In the aftermath of their wedding, Victoria and Kirill slunk away to Paris, living off their parents’ allowances and eventually having two daughters together. But one day, everything flipped over once more. Thanks to a string of untimely deaths in the Russian royal family, Kirill found himself third in line to the throne, and Tsar Nicholas was forced to humble himself.
He had to ask the naughty couple to come back to Russia to perform official duties. Victoria and Kirill accepted…but they would live to regret it.
Victoria tried to make the best of her new situation. Having already converted to Russian Orthodoxy, she took up her new title, Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna, with aplomb, decorating her home impeccably and hosting fashionable parties. All the same, no amount of careful hostess duties could repair her relationship with Tsar Nicholas and his wife, who still treated her coldly.
But before long, Victoria and the rest of Russia had a lot more than petty family drama to worry about.
In 1914, WWI broke out, and with it came lasting turmoil to the life Victoria had painstakingly rebuilt for herself. Not only did Russia take a huge economic hit during the conflict, but the infamous Grigori Rasputin also showed up on the scene, claiming he could heal the Tsarina’s only son of his hemophilia and turning both the common people and the aristocracy against the royal family in the process.
Victoria watched in horror as the Tsar and Tsarina’s hold over their nation weakened. Until the day it finally snapped.
For years, Victoria worked tirelessly behind the scenes to try to help “fix” the Russian monarchy, even supporting Rasputin’s eventual assassination in 1916 and begging the Tsar to be lenient with his attackers. But just months later in February 1917, it was all over: Nicholas was forced to abdicate, and a new government took over.
And at this point, the real danger came knocking at Victoria’s door.
With the Russian monarchy irrevocably destroyed, Victoria got a brutal lesson in politics. Despite the fact that she had supported many of the protests around Tsar Nicholas, she was still a member of the royal family, and a mob soon surrounded her house in St Petersburg. With enemies on both sides, Victoria was driven to despair, writing to her sister that she had "neither pride nor hope, nor money, nor future…nothing is left, nothing".
At the end of her rope, she came up with a desperate plan.
Victoria and Kirill could see the wave of revolution growing ever higher and, fearing for their lives, they fled to Finland shortly after Nicholas abdicated. The new Russian government forbid them from taking any valuables along, and although they managed to smuggle out some jewels in their clothes, it was hardly enough to start a new life. Within weeks, it all began to fall apart.
When Victoria fled Russia, she was actually pregnant again with her and Kirill’s third child, and in August of 1917, she gave birth to a boy they named Vladimir. In some ways, it was an intense blessing. Victoria and Kirill had been desperately hoping for a boy, and now they had an heir to carry on the faltering Romanov dynasty. Still, even the miracle of Vladimir’s birth couldn’t hide the dark truth.
As Victoria holed up in Finland, she began to run dangerously low on supplies. It led her to a humiliating act. With a new baby to feed, she broke down and wrote to her cousin, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, begging her to send over baby food so that her son and heir could thrive. Then, at almost the very moment she wrote this plea, the single worst incident of her life happened.
In July 1918, the reality that Victoria was born into came to a crashing halt. That summer, after taking over the government of Russia, the Bolsheviks killed the entire Romanov Imperial family—the Tsar and Tsarina, but also their four daughters and son. It was a move that shocked the entire world, and Victoria’s tense relationship with the couple didn’t make it any less gut-wrenching for her.
Soon enough, these devastating years began to take an enormous toll.
Victoria’s marriage with Kirill was supposed to be her ride off into the sunset, but it turned out to be anything but a happy ending. After enduring these unrelenting tragedies, a cruel change took place in Victoria. When the British minister in Finland saw her again for the first time in a long time, he was astounded at her physical transformation—and not for the better.
As he put it, she "looked aged and battered and has lost much of her beauty, which is not astonishing considering all that she has gone through". Sadly, there was still more to endure.
Over the next months and years, the strain of living in exile—first in Finland, then later in Germany, and finally in the south of France—took its toll on Victoria’s husband Kirill, too. After witnessing the inexorable rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia from his remote and helpless position, Kirill suffered a massive nervous breakdown in 1923.
Victoria tirelessly nursed him back to health while taking care of her young son. But to get through it, an unhealthy desire began to grow inside her.
Through these lean years, Kirill and Victoria nursed an unhinged fantasy. With all the other legitimate Romanovs dead and gone, the couple thought they must be the ones to restore the monarchy. Shortly after recovering from his breakdown, Kirill even declared himself the official “Guardian of the Throne”. And the Russian nobles didn’t stop there.
If Victoria was delusional about her husband’s hope of becoming Tsar of all Russia, she was even more deranged when it came to her son Vladimir. She kept the boy in a virtual bubble, refusing to let him attend school and hiring a tutor instead. She did this for fear of his safety, but also because that’s what the Imperial Romanovs would have done for their own children.
By the mid-1930s, Victoria was in her 50s and deeply ensconced in her dreamland. Then one last time, her world fell apart.
Victoria had sacrificed almost everything in her life for her love of Kirill. But in 1933, she discovered his unforgivable act. She found out that her husband regularly went into Paris “for the occasional fling”, straying from his marriage whenever the urge struck. The blow hit her hardest of all in a life full of hardships, and her response was truly pitiful.
After finding out about Kirill’s casual affairs, Victoria could no longer see her love for her husband as a fairy tale. Although she kept her discoveries from her children—even from Vladimir, who was still living with them—she found she couldn’t forgive Kirill’s wandering eye. While they stayed together, something felt permanently fractured in her union.
If they could have repaired things, though, we’ll never know. Once more, tragedy struck first.
In 1936, while Victoria was still reeling from the loss of her idealized love for Kirill, she suffered a stroke just after coming home from one of her grandchildren’s christenings. And unlike Kirill’s nervous breakdown over a decade earlier, this time doctors were certain there was no hope of recovery. It led to one tear-jerking moment.
Hearing of her precarious and likely fatal condition, Victoria’s closest sister, Queen Marie of Romania, rushed to her bedside to say her goodbyes. When someone in the room asked Victoria if she was happy to see Marie, the ailing princess managed to croak out with difficulty, “It makes all the difference”. But even with this happy reunion, Victoria did not go gently.
Her sister's devotion deeply comforted Victoria, but even the presence of death itself couldn’t ease the pain of her husband’s betrayal. Rage filled some of her last moments. Reportedly, while her heart-sick husband stayed by her bedside and tried to take care of his wife, Victoria “shuddered away from Kirill’s touch”.
On March 1, 1936, just a handful of days after having the stroke, Victoria passed in her bed, surrounded by her family and the husband she could no longer bear to look at. The intense, mixed emotions of the moment didn’t escape her sister Marie, either. She wrote, “The whole thing was tragic beyond imagination, a tragic end to a tragic life. She carried tragedy within her—she had tragic eyes—always—even as a little girl—but we loved her enormously”.
And there was a coda to this tragedy.
Despite his affairs, Kirill never did stop loving his wife. Loneliness and longing filled the remaining years he had without Victoria. He spent the time after her passing writing a memoir about the life they had together, writing among many other heartfelt passages: "She had it all, and more”. In the end, Kirill only survived his beloved by a bare two years.
Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was a truly formidable woman who witnessed one of the most tumultuous periods in history. But her legacy hides an extremely dark secret. In the 1920s, spurred on by her hatred of the Bolsheviks, Victoria attended a Nazi rally, particularly showing interest in the party’s hope to re-establish the Russian monarchy.
Although historians today believe Victoria likely didn’t understand or perceive the party’s more vicious agenda, it is still a black mark on her record.
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Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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