Today marks the birthday of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia - a much loved, legendary royal who is also a 20th century martyr and saint. (I've always associated Nov. 1st with All Saints Day- so now I'll always remember it as this royal's b-day too!)
I have the (Grand;) pleasure of having Christina Croft honor us with her Guest Post. If you don't know much about the Grand Duchess, read on- her story is amazing!
Christina Croft writes:
Above the West Door of Westminster Abbey, stands a series of statues dedicated to 20th Century Martyrs – among them a Russian Orthodox nun, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918 by being thrown down a mineshaft and left to starve to death. Of the thousands of tourists and visitors who enter the Abbey each month, very few seem to be aware of this woman’s remarkable story, nor would they suspect at first glance that ‘Saint Elizabeth of Russia’ once entered the Abbey to attend the celebratory service to mark the Golden Jubilee of her grandmother, Queen Victoria.
‘Ella’ as she was known in the family, was the second daughter of Queen Victoria’s daughter, the unconventional Princess Alice, who married the heir to the Grand Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt and immediately caused a sensation by inviting various unorthodox thinkers to her home, and venturing into the homes of the poor and the sick to scrub their floors, make meals and tend to their needs, following the advice of Florence Nightingale, whose works she studied avidly. Queen Victoria was not amused by her daughter’s studies of nursing and biology, but was even more shocked when she discovered that she was breast-feeding baby Ella. So disgruntled was the Queen, that she immediately sent word that a cow in the Royal Dairy should be named ‘Alice’!
Unperturbed, Alice continued her ‘wayward’ pursuits and was keen to instil her own values of service into her children. From their earliest years she took them with her to hospitals, where she performed the most menial tasks, and, at the same time ensured they received a broad-ranging education. Alongside academic studies, they were taught gardening and cooking and were expected to take full responsibility for themselves, without relying on servants. Ella enjoyed a wonderfully happy childhood but, when she was fourteen years old, a diphtheria epidemic broke out, affecting all the rest of her family. For her own safety, Ella was sent to stay with her paternal grandmother but during her absence her youngest sister, May, died and shortly afterwards Alice, who had been personally tending the rest of the family, contracted the disease and died at the age of only 35.
Queen Victoria’s heart went out to Alice’s children and, promising ‘to be a mother to them’, she did everything possible to support them, and she did not fail to notice that Ella was blossoming into a very beautiful young woman. At this time, Ella’s cousin, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, fell madly in love with her and the Queen was eager to promote a match but, as Ella adamantly refused his proposal, the Queen resigned herself to finding alternative suitors all of whom Ella rejected. By now she had the reputation of being ‘the most beautiful princess in Europe’ and combined with her striking beauty, she was seen as the ‘personification of kindness’. Queen Victoria was certain that she would find a suitable husband but was totally unprepared for Ella’s sudden announcement that she intended to marry Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich – a younger brother of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. The Queen was horrified. Russia, she said, was unstable, the climate was appalling and the Romanov Court was decadent but Ella stood firm and, at the age of 19, married the Grand Duke in a lavish ceremony in St. Petersburg.
Now, one of the wealthiest and most beautiful women in the world, she appeared to have stepped into a fairy tale but, within a short time, rumours began to circulate that her marriage was desperately unhappy. Her shy and highly-strung husband’s aloof manner made him very unpopular, and gossips revelled in spreading stories of his cruelty to his innocent wife. The fact that the couple had no children fuelled the (totally unsubstantiated) rumours that he was homosexual and increasingly prurient tales about their relationship spread through all the Courts of Europe. For twenty years this continued, despite Ella’s frequent protestations that she loved him and was ‘perfectly happy’, but throughout that time her many talents were being stifled in the endless routine of balls and receptions; and even though, after converting to Orthodoxy, she spent a good deal of time and money supporting and founding various charities, as a Romanov Grand Duchess she was not permitted to venture far beyond the walls of her palaces or to visit the poor or the sick as she had done throughout her childhood.
1905 was a year of great tumult in Russia and, as discontent and violence spread through the country, Serge became the object of hatred. One February morning, as Ella was working on a project for the relief of soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War, an anarchist hurled a bomb at Serge’s carriage. Hearing the explosion, Ella hurried to the scene to find what was left her husband: his arm, leg and head had been blown off, and the blast was so great that days later his fingers were found on the Kremlin roof. With her own hands, Ella gathered his remains, and a couple of days later went to the prison where her husband’s assassin was being held. She handed the assassin a Bible and an icon, and told him she had come to forgive him and to ask what had driven him to such violence. He spoke of the terrible poverty of the people and his words clearly resonated with Ella who throughout her life had – according to her own account - ‘a longing to help those who suffer; particularly those in moral suffering’.
Within days of their meeting, she began to dispense with all her vast wealth and made plans to establish a hospital, orphanage and convent in the poorest part of Moscow. Establishing a new religious order, she trained as a nurse and personally tended the most abject patients whom other hospitals refused to take, and devoted the rest of her relatively short life to improving the lives of the poorest Russian people. Having grown up and lived amid beauty for so long, it was her intention to create beauty in the lives of those who had only known drudgery and poverty. Her hospital was designed and decorated by the finest architects and artists in Russia, and was open to anyone in need of help; the gardens were well-tended and her intention was to establish similar places throughout the country. In fact, such was her devotion to her cause that she was, in a gentle way, far more revolutionary than the revolutionaries who arrested and murdered her in 1918, simply because she had married ‘a Romanov’.
In my novel - Most Beautiful Princess – I have endeavoured to remain as true to history as possible. There are no fictional characters in the book, which is based on my earlier unpublished biography, and my intention in writing it was to make this remarkable woman better known. The novel is available in paperback, Kindle and Apple format.
Should you pass the West Door of Westminster Abbey, do look up and see the statue of ‘the most beautiful princess’, Queen Victoria’s saintly granddaughter.
If you'd like a chance to win Most Beautiful Princess, enter a giveaway here
|From History and Women|