Elizabeth, Duchess of Hesse and future Grand Duchess of Russia – “Ella” – was born on November 28, 1864 to Louis, heir to the ducal throne of German Hesse-Darmstadt, and Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. Although she was born into a loving family and the idyllic German duchy, the course of Ella’s life would be marked by personal tragedy and momentous historical events, and ultimately end as one of the victims of the Bolshevik firing squads.
Ella faced the challenges of her life with strength and a strong religious sensibility, which ensured that she is remembered for having been a spiritual and charitable woman, a representative of the best traditions of Christian charity.
The infant Ella would have been barely able to comprehend the first of those momentous events which affected her life: the brutality and destruction of the seven weeks Austro-Prussian war, which marked the demotion of Austria to the second rank of powers and brought the German principalities under Prussian hegemony.
The duchy had chosen badly and sided with Austria. Under the Grand Duke Louis, Hesse-Darmstadt was a rather quaint and ruritanian place, hardly fit to stand up to the might of Prussia. When a minister asked the Grand Duke how many cannon should be sent against the enemy he asked how many he had. “Two” replied the minister, “Send them all!” he said. And when he later learned that the victorious Prussians had taken over the state treasury he exclaimed, “Impossible, I have the key in my pocket!”
Ella’s father, Louis, was at the front fighting with the Hessian army. The Prussian victory saw enemy troops occupying Darmstadt and the new military power in the land was none too gentle with their fellow Germans. It was a traumatic time for Alice, who had just given birth to her third daughter, Irene. She wrote to her mother, Victoria, about the occupation: “ . . . I do not know where Louis is now. Please God he is safe, but the anxiety is fearful. I am well, baby too . . . we are complete prisoners. This goes so far, we have difficulty in getting any decent meat or the common luxuries of life, for the Prussians devour everything.”
On September 3, 1866, an armistice was signed and Louis returned from the warfront. The family’s Russian connection proved vital in saving the ducal family its throne. Tsarina Maria was a sister of Grand Duke Louis, and her husband, Tsar Alexander II, intervened personally with the King of Prussia, to insist that his brother-in-law keep his sovereignty and most of his lands. Nonetheless the Duchy emerged from the war its status reduced and its economy badly hit. A war indemnity of three million florins had to be paid and members of the ducal family had to use their own funds. In Alice’s case the last of the dowry she had brought from England disappeared.
Alice’s response to the disaster was to concentrate her efforts on nursing the sick and wounded. She founded the Women’s Union whose members were trained to assist in the hospitals. Alice attended medical lectures where she learned and saw things her mother believed far too indelicate for a princess, but she was a progressive minded and determined woman who followed her own path in life.
Louis became grand duke upon the death of his uncle, Grand Duke Louis, in 1877. In the same year Louis’ father had also died. By that time the family counted seven children: Victoria, b. April 1863; Elizabeth (Ella) Alexandra Louise Alice, b. November 28, 1864; Irene, b. June 1866; Ernst-Louis, b. November 1868; Frederick, b October 1870; Alix, b. June 1872 and Maria, b. 1874. Although life in Darmstadt was modest by royal standards, Alice’s lively and caring nature ensured that she was greatly loved by her husband and children. Alice, however, was not initially happy in the provincial atmosphere of the Darmstadt court.
As a British princess, Alice found the parochial nature of social life in the duchy rather stultifying and she did not enjoy the frivolities of balls and parties. Furthermore, Louis’ duties kept him away from home for long periods which meant she felt lonely and isolated.
Alice responded to these problems by gathering an enlightened circle of courtiers around her. Most notable was her relationship with David Freidrich Strauss, theologian, biblical critic and a follower of Hegel. In conservative Berlin he was loathed but Alice found an intellect she could relate to. He had hoped to dedicate a series of lectures on Voltaire to Alice, but feared that she would be criticised for associating herself with such a controversial figure. Alice insisted he did so but, in Berlin, Empress Augusta fumed that Alice was a “complete atheist.”
Alice’s cultured influence helped her children to develop their talents and little Ella proved to be good at drawing and also gifted with a very pleasant ‘alto’ voice.
Alice was deeply interested in the social welfare of the people and most Sundays she took the children to Darmstadt’s hospital to give presents and flowers to the patients. She installed in them a sense of compassion and love for the vulnerable. She also taught them personal discipline. Alice brought her children up to live in a very Spartan way. Their food and clothing was simple and the elder daughters made their own beds and cleaned their own rooms.
That did not mean that she was overly strict and the children played boisterously. A source of joy for the children were their visits to England to visit their grand mother, Queen Victoria. They all felt very much at home in England, partly because Queen Victoria had sent an English governess to the Hessian children and the family’s life in Darmstadt retained a large touch of the English way of life.
This tightly knit family life was scarred by the death of little Frederick. The first sadness regarding the child was learning that he had inherited haemophilia through his mother and grandmother. In 1873 he cut his ear and bled for three days. His life ended later that same year in a sudden tragedy. Frederick and Ernst Louis had come to wish Alice good morning. A favourite game of theirs was to race to the windows in her room. Frederick raced at full pelt to be first; as he reached the window he tried to stop himself by placing his hands on the frame. It gave way and he fell onto a stone balustrade below. By the evening he had passed away. Alice never recovered from the loss.
The second pivotal event of the childrens’ lives was the most telling. 1878 was a momentous year for Europe with the end of the Russian-Turkish war that had threatened to ignite a general European war, and a tragic year for Hesse-Darmstadt and the ducal family.
An epidemic of diptheria swept through the Duchy. All the children caught the illness, except Ella who, accompanied by the childrens’ governess, Margaret Hardcastle Jackson, was sent to stay with her grandmother.
On November 16 little Maria died aged four. The grief stricken Alice was at her lowest ebb and on December 8 she complained of feeling unwell. By the following morning it was apparent that she too had diptheria. Four weeks after Maria’s death her mother died.
Ella was just fourteen years and her grief transformed the young girl into a serious minded, thoughtful young woman who tried, along with her elder sister Victoria, to comfort their father, while they also tried to be mother figures to the younger children. Undoubtedly their mother’s death affected all the children deeply and Ella’s dawning religious feelings were heightened by the shattering loss.
At the same time Ella was maturing into a strikingly beautiful woman. She was tall, slender with graceful features and a pleasant and accommodating personality. She also had a love for the arts and, in particular, classical music. Her religious inclinations were also developing and she had become influenced by the story of Saint Elizabeth of Turingen and Hungary, a paternal ancestor in whose honour she had been named.
Elizabeth had been one of the founders of Hesse during the middle ages and was canonised by the papacy in the thirteenth century. She was known for her piety and selflessness, as well as for suffering a difficult relationship with her husband. After his death she continued her vocation of charity. Young Ella was filled with admiration for her ancestor and sought to emulate her goodness in her own life.
Still there were other, earthly, pleasures to enjoy. Ella and her sisters were approaching marriageable age and ready to join the social scene. They were also a handsome and much sought after bunch.
At the beginning of the 1880’s Victoria and Ella made their social debuts. Ella’s beauty could hardly go unnoticed by the many young men from the German noble houses, among them, her cousin, young Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, the future Kaiser of Germany. He was a very persistent young man and tried hard to woo her, but Ella was adamant he was not the man she could love. The mercurial Wilhelm was greatly hurt by her rejection and never forgave.
Ella had already met her future husband when quite young. Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna would bring her son, Sergei, to visit Darmstadt. Sergei, born in 1857, was the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II. His brothers were Nikolai, Alexander (Tsar Alexander III), Vladimir, Alexei and Paul.
Seven years older than Ella, Sergei was an attractive man. He was tall and of a fair complexion, with delicate features and green eyes. He was also intelligent and cultured and loved literature and music. His personality was rather shy; a trait he tended to over compensate for by adopting a reserved and haughty aspect to strangers.
The prospect of this marriage, as would that of Ella’s sister Alix to Tsarevich Nikolai, filled Queen Victoria with foreboding. Victoria greatly feared the political instability P P which afflicted Russia and had caused Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881. Furthermore, Victoria remembered that the two members of the House of Hesse who married into the Romanov dynasty had not been happy: Princess Wilhelmine, who became Grand Duchess Natalia Alexeyevna when she married Tsar Paul I and Maria, wife of Tsar Alexander II, whose infidelity had caused his wife much sorrow.
Queen Victoria finally gave her consent to the marriage and she subsequently grew very fond of Sergei when she realised that Ella was actually very much in love and that the marriage was a happy one. In 1887 Sergei, as the representative of Tsar Alexander III, went with Ella to the Jubilee Celebrations in Great Britain. Reciprocating Victoria’s goodwill, Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna became very fond of Ella. This, unfortunately, did not happen between Maria Feodorovna and Ella’s sister, Alix, when she married the Tsarevich.
Ella’s marriage in 1884 saw the whole Hessen family travelling to Russia for the wedding, and it was there that Ella’s sister Alix, aged only twelve, met her future husband, Tsarevich Nikolai.
Their journey was a triumphal procession through Ella’s new homeland. At every stop the train was met by government officials, clergymen and cheering crowds that had come to welcome Grand Duke Sergei’s future bride.
Leaving provincial Darmstadt for the glories of imperial Russia was a shock for Ella. When she entered the Winter Palace, where she was to stay prior to the marriage ceremony, the young Hessian found herself in a vastly different world from the modest comforts of Darmstadt. Now that she was to become a Grand Duchess of Russia and become related to the Tsar she saw that her life would change irrevocably.
Sergei and Ella’s wedding took place in the Winter Palace chapel. The Orthodox ceremony was followed by a service in the Protestant tradition in one of the reception halls. Ella had not been obliged to convert to Orthodoxy, although she would later do so for personal and spiritual reasons.
Sergei and Ella soon settled down to a contented and happy life at their residence Ilinskoye that he had inherited from his mother Tsarina Maria. It was situated some sixty kilometres from Moscow on the Moscow River. At Ilinskoye the newlyweds enjoyed the simple life of the country gentry. Court etiquette was kept to a minimum as Ella and Sergei spent their days boating on the river and walking in the fields and woods. Ella worked diligently to learn the Russian language as her greatest desire was to come closer to the Russian people.
Life in the Russian countryside revealed to Ella more of the true spiritual nature of the country than the splendours of St. Petersburg could. She began visiting the nearby villages where the extreme poverty of the peasants shocked her. Alleviating their condition filled her thoughts. Sergei, whilst also keen to see their lot improved, took a more down to earth view – the peasants addiction to vodka, he concluded, lay behind many of their problems.
Sergei and Ella’s characters, both as individuals and as a married couple, seem to have been complex and not sympathetic to all who knew them.
They had become guardians to the children of Sergei’s brother, the exiled Grand Duke Paul, Maria and Dimitry. In her memoirs Maria observed that Sergei treated Ella, “rather as if she were a child. I believe that she was hurt by this attitude and longed to be better understood . . . She and my uncle seemed never very intimate.” Sergei, Maria concluded, had a “unique personality and of a character that remained to me, to the very day of his dreadful death, incomprehensible.”
Maria admired Ella’s famed beauty: “Aunt Ella . . . was one of the most beautiful women I have seen in my life. She was tall and slight, of blonde colouring, with features of extraordinary finesse and purity. She had eyes of grey blue, on one of which was a spot of brown, and the effect of her glance was unusual.”
Ella did not share Sergei’s joy at becoming guardians to Paul’s children and, to Maria, Ella was not a sympathetic figure: “Throughout our early childhood, throughout indeed our uncle’s lifetime, Aunt Ella showed no interest in us or P P anything that concerned us, and saw as little of us as she could . . . At times she said things that wounded me.”
From Maria, Ella seems to have decided to keep a strict distance. Maria recalled a rather strange incident when she fell ill with diptheria and Ella’s mask of indifference for once slipped. Struggling with a temperature of 104 degrees Maria was sleeping fitfully. She heard Ella quietly approach her bed to look at her, her expression “mingled curiosity and anxiety. It was the first time in my life I had seen her face relaxed and natural.”
Ella’s apparent indifference to the children would only thaw after her husband’s death. Nonetheless the children found their formative years at Ilinskoye idyllic ones.
The mystic Russian spirituality, compensation for the people’s sufferings, soon began to attract Ella, whose serious and devout nature meant that she began to have doubts about remaining a Protestant. She also began to read deeply about the Orthodox religion.
A famous monument to the Orthodox faith led to Ella finally deciding to convert. Tsar Alexander III was a very religious man and he donated, along with his brothers, a large sum of money to begin the construction in the Holy Land of a church that would be called the Church of St Mary Magdalene, in memory of his mother, Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna.
The Tsar was unable to attend the consecration of the church and instead sent Sergei and Ella. It was after this trip to the Holy Land in 1888 that Ella felt she had received an answer to her uncertainties regarding embracing the Orthodox religion. The Church of St Mary and Magdalene is particularly beautiful, surrounded by olive groves and cypresses in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Ella felt so touched by the beautiful and mystical church that she said that, on her death, she wanted to be buried there.
Ella’s decision to convert caused a good deal of anguish for her family. Her father, brother Ernst and her sisters were quite shocked at the news, as was the Kaiser who hated Sergei for stealing the object of his affections. Fortunately, Queen Victoria again showed her understanding. It was a fact that helped stiffen Ella’s resolve.
In 1891 she took the Holy Communion with her husband according to the traditions of the Orthodox religion. Thereafter Ella immersed herself in her new faith.
With sister Alix’s marriage in 1894 and Nikolai Romanov’s accession to the throne in the same year, following the death of Tsar Alexander III, the Hessian princesses had become important members with the Romanov dynasty. Alix too would embrace the Orthodox religion fervently.
However these joyful connections were stalked by forebodings of tragedy for both sisters. Queen Victoria’s fears for the future of Tsarist Russia had been well grounded. Although the tragedy did not unfold until after her death, there were plentiful warning signs. One infamous incident involved Grand Duke Sergei.
In 1891 Sergei had been made Governor General of Moscow by Tsar Alexander III. It was a difficult and dangerous post and led to Sergei being held responsible for one of the pivotal disasters in Russian history, one that further alienated the people from the crown.
During Nikolai and Alexandra’s coronation celebrations in 1896 Sergei had organized the festivities. It was a beautiful spring day in May and it had been decided to give presents to the people gathered in Khodyanka Field. By sunrise over five hundred thousand people had packed themselves into the city, controlled only by a lonely squadron of bewildered Cossacks. The authorities had grossly under estimated the turn out and many were clearly going to leave empty handed.
The pale light of dawn disclosed pyramids of large cups with imperial monograms mounted on specially constructed stalls. A mighty roar rang out from the crowd as the people surged forward, nearly unseating the Cossacks from their horses. A belated warning was given to take care, that the field was full of ditches and trenches.
Most, however, took no notice and instead thought that they were being called to collect their presents. The people in front soon realised the danger, but forced forward by the people behind them they fell into the ditches and trenches. Five thousand were killed, many others maimed.
In the aftermath there were calls for Sergei’s resignation and for the cancellation of the festivities from Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich and his brother, but the elder grand dukes stood by Sergei. Sergei was held responsible by the people for the tragedy, which was seen as a sign of ill portent for Nikolai and Alexandra’s reign.
To the discontented, particularly the revolutionaries, Sergei’s governorship was seen as the worst the despised autocracy could offer. Strikes were becoming common occurrences, and the assassination attempts on government ministers and high ranking officials continued despite the repression.
Unrest reached a climax early in 1905, brought on by the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and the violent domestic repression. In January thousands of St. Petersburg workers, led by Father George Gapon, marched on the Palace to deliver a petition to the Tsar, who was absent from the city. Demonstrations had been banned and the panicking authorities responded by firing into the crowd and killing and wounding several hundred.
As the crisis escalated toward revolution Sergei fell victim to the growing terror. On February 18 he was on his way to the Governor’s Palace in Moscow for a conference. Knowing that the revolutionaries aimed to eliminate him he travelled alone.
Moments after his departure the Palace was shaken by a huge blast. Ella’s fears were immediately raised – had it been an attack on her husband? She rushed out of the Palace toward the direction of the explosion. The scene that greeted her in the city square confirmed her worst forebodings. Sergie had been killed by a terrorist’s bomb. As his carriage had passed by the Chudov Monastery, the Socialist
Revolutionary Ivan Kaliayev threw his bomb at the carriage. It hit Sergei in the chest before exploding. The only mercy at the horrible scene was that the Grand Duke’s face had been left untouched by the blast, but his body had been shattered.
Ella forced her way through the crowd. Although she had become used to the sight of the maimed during her nursing work during the Russo-Japanese war, the sight of her husband’s body, pieces of which were scattered all around, was too much for her. In a state of disbelief and shock, she tried to gather up Sergei’s remains and place them on the stretcher the soldiers had hurriedly brought. Along with the Grand Duke’s faithful coachman, who had been fatally wounded, Ella took Sergei’s remains to the nearest hospital.
Shortly after at the hastily held funeral at the Chudov Monastery, Ella fell to her knees and remained prostrate throughout the service as Sergei’s remains were given the last rites. As she left, Ella was met by Maria and Dimitry. Maria recalled that her aunt’s face was tearless, a mask of petrified grief. As they embraced Ella kept on repeating to them “He so loved you, he so loved you.”
True to her religious vocation, Ella forgave the assassin Ivan Kaliayev. She went to his prison cell to bring him her husband’s posthumous pardon and help him find peace. Kaliayev told her that he had held back during earlier opportunities as he had not wanted to kill her too. Ella replied that through her husband’s murder he had killed her spirit. She offered him the Holy Scriptures and a pardon if he repented. He refused: “I must die for my cause” he told her. As she left Ella told his guards: “My efforts were in vain, although he may perhaps, at the last moment, realise his sins and repent.”
The loss of Sergei was a decisive moment in Ella’s life, after which she determined to dedicate herself wholly to the church. If the joy of her life had been taken away, her strength of character was shown by her resolve to seek the spiritual path and help others.
In the immediate aftermath she retreated into a deep grief. She wore her mourning dress constantly and spent almost all of her time in church. A rather sad indication of her personal trauma was her newfound distaste for animal meat. The gruesome murder had left an indelible mark on her emotions and psyche. She became a vegetarian long before she turned to the monastic life. She did not, however, sink into self-pity and if anything increased her charitable efforts.
As the months wore on Ella gradually regained some of her zest, although all was clouded by the knowledge of the futility of this mortal existence. Acceptance of the evils of the world and a stoic commitment to the righteous path of religion were Ella’s salvation.
One unforeseeable consequence of Sergei’s assassination was that Ella’s relations with Grand Duke Paul’s children, which had not been happy, improved. Their shared suffering had united them and Ella, who had often appeared cold and reserved to Dimitry and Maria, now began to open up to them.
Throughout the year the revolutionary unrest grew and members of the Royal Family took extreme precautions to avoid assassination. However, Ella was consumed by her charitable work and took little care for her own safety. She had opened a new hospital in Moscow and would daily leave the Kremlin to visit the staff and patients.
When Ella returned on a particularly troublesome day, Maria had been so worried for her that she spoke angrily to her. Ella listened in silence until she broke down and began to weep. She told Maria how lonely she felt and that helping the needy was now her only mission in life. She did take note of Maria’s concern and in the future was more careful, not going to the hospital after dark.
Around the same time Ella wrote to her brother Ernst expressing her determination to stay in Russia regardless of the danger: “Nothing will force me to leave here. If the very worst happened, I can have Paul’s children sent to safety, but I will stay here till the end of my life.”
The remaining years of her life saw Ella driven by an undimmed religious zeal. An early sign of the decisive break with her past was giving away her wonderful collection of art and jewellery.
Some was given to the state treasury, some to relatives and the larger part to the realisation of a dearly held dream – the founding of a convent dedicated to the Saints Mary and Martha. The idea had probably come to Ella during her period of mourning, sometime during 1906.
On the banks of the Moscow River, Ella bought an estate with four buildings. She had decided that it was the ideal location for the Convent. In the main building there was a dining room for the sisters, a kitchen and a storeroom and rooms for services to be held. The other house was turned into a hospital with four wards and a room set aside for a chapel. Adjacent to the hospital were the Mother Superior’s rooms and the priest-confessor’s rooms were placed on the top floor of the fourth building. A pharmacy and dispensary were built to serve outpatients.
Ella’s decision to become a nun brought a renewed sense of purpose to her life, but Russia’s troubles meant that they were overshadowed by the looming, seemingly inevitable, cataclysm. Part of those troubles were sister Alix’s relations with Grigory Rasputin. Ella viewed Alix’s relations with the infamous monk as a dark and dangerous influence and always resisted Rasputin’s requests to see her. It was a point of dispute which caused a breach between the two sisters.
When World War One broke out, although she feared it not only morally but also believed it to be the designs of Russia’s enemies for the nation’s destruction, Ella took heart from the loyalty of the soldiers as they marched off to the frontlines. She felt Russia was fighting a crusade for the Orthodox faith and prayed for victory.
Despite this she was slandered along with the Tsarina as a German sympathiser. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Ella confided her feelings to Abbot Seraphim: “She said to me that the Tsar had not desired the war; it broke out despite his efforts . . . she blamed Kaiser Wilhelm . . . who disobeyed the teachings of Frederick the Great and Bismarck to live in peace and friendship with Russia.”
As chaos overwhelmed the nation Ella carried on working at the Convent. She felt no anger toward the angry mobs that roamed the streets: “The people are like children, they are not responsible for their actions . . . they are being deceived by Russia’s enemies.” Ella’s serenity was observed by Bishop Anastassy: “It was as if she were standing alone on a high and inaccessible cliff . . . overlooking stormy seas, she mentally turned her gaze to far off eternity.”
After the first revolution of 1917 Ella still managed to continue her work at the Convent, and the new authorities showed a degree of goiod faith by protecting it from extremist political elements. However, the typhus-like epidemic that swept through Moscow counted Ella among its victims. Although she recovered it was a much weakened and changed aunt that her niece, Maria, visited. Ella was a shadow of her energetic former self spent and most of her time sitting in her favourite chair, occupying herself with needlework or knitting.
The Provisional Government was in dire straits and the last weeks before its fall saw the Convent become a haven for the scared and destitute, many of whom came to pour out their feelings to the Grand Duchess. In November the short lived Provisional Government fell and the Bolsheviks took over control of the state.
As a wave of terror swept over the country, Ella forbade the sisters from leaving the Convent. An uneasy relationship with the Bolsheviks was maintained. The Moscow Soviet supplied the Convent with basic necessities, whose inhabitants reluctantly complied with the new authorities demands for lists of the names, age and sex of all those within its walls.
Ella, who had already turned down an offer of exile from Sweden, had one last opportunity to flee. Germany had imposed the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk on Russia and Count Mirbach informed her that he had Soviet permission to ask for her release. Ella refused: “I have never harmed anyone. Let God’s will be done.” Her faith in human nature was proved overly optimistic. The Bolsheviks arrested Ella along with the other members of the Royal Family. Latvian soldiers were sent to take her from her beloved Convent, the Bolsheviks fearing that Russians might be unwilling to act against the still loved Grand Duchess.
The liquidation of Russia’s royal era had begun. Those who did not flee were murdered, even those who were ready to accept the loss of their titles and the legitimacy of the new authorities were eliminated.
While the Tsar and Tsarina were being shot and bayoneted to death in the Ipatyev House, Ella, along with the sons of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovic, Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich and Prince Vladimir Paley, were held prisoner in the small Urals town of Alapayevsk. The day after her sister’s murder, on the night of July 18, 1918, they were taken to an abandoned mineshaft where they were beaten with rifle butts and thrown into the mine. The executioners then threw grenades in to finish the brutal job. Ella’s faith had not saved her but it had ensured that her memory would be honoured after the eventual fall of Communism.
(First published in Royalty Magazine Volume 18-06.)