3 Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (1864–1918)

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (1864–1918)

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine
Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia
Spouse Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia
Full name
Elisabeth Alexandra Louise Alice
After marriage: Elisabeth Feodorovna Romanova
House House of Hesse
House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse
Mother Princess Alice of the United Kingdom
Born 1 November 1864(1864-11-01)
Bessungen, Hesse, Germany
Died 18 July 1918(1918-07-18) (aged 53)
Alapaevsk, Russia
Burial Church of Maria Magdalene, Jerusalem, Israel
Grand Ducal Family of
Hesse and by Rhine
Louis IV
   Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven
   Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia
   Irene, Princess Heinrich of Prussia
   Ernest Louis
   Prince Friedrich
   Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia
   Princess Marie

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia (Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova, Russian: Елизавета Фëдоровна Романова) canonized as St. Elizabeth Romanova (1 November 1864 – 18 July 1918) was a German princess of the House of Hesse, and the wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia and Princess Marie of Hesse and the Rhine. An older sister of Alexandra, the last Russian Empress, Elizabeth became famous in Russian society for her beauty and charitable works among the poor. After the Socialist Revolutionary Party's Combat Organization murdered her husband with a dynamite bomb in 1905, Elizabeth publicly forgave Sergei's murderer and campaigned without success for him to be pardoned. She then departed the Imperial Court and became a nun, founding the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent dedicated to helping the downtrodden of Moscow. In 1918 she was arrested and ultimately buried alive by the Bolsheviks. In 1981 Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and in 1992 by the Moscow Patriarchate.


Princess of Hesse

The Hessian family in 1876

Grand Duchess Elisabeth was born Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Louise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine on 1 November 1864. She was the second child of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and by Rhine and British Princess Alice. Through her mother, she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Princess Alice chose the name "Elisabeth" for her daughter after visiting the shrine of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, ancestress of the House of Hesse, in Marburg. Alice so admired St. Elizabeth that she decided to name her new daughter after her. Elizabeth was known as "Ella" within her family.

Though she came from one of the oldest and noblest houses in Germany, Elisabeth and her family lived a rather modest life by Royal standards. The children swept the floors and cleaned their own rooms, while their mother sewed dresses herself for the children. During the Austro-Prussian War, Princess Alice often took Elisabeth with her while visiting wounded soldiers in a nearby hospital. In this relatively happy and secure environment, Elisabeth grew up surrounded by English domestic habits, and English became her first language. Later in life, she would tell a friend that, within her family, she and her siblings spoke English to their mother and German to their father.

In the autumn of 1878, diphtheria swept through the Hesse household, killing Elizabeth's youngest sister, Marie on 16 November, as well as her mother Alice on 14 December. Elizabeth had been sent away to her paternal grandmother's home at the beginning of the outbreak and she was the only member of her family to remain unaffected. When she was finally allowed to return home, she described the meeting as "terribly sad" and said that everything was "like a horrible dream".[citation needed]

Admirers and suitors

Charming and with a very accommodating personality, Elizabeth was considered by many historians and contemporaries to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe at that time. As a young woman, she caught the eye of her elder cousin, the future German Emperor William II. He was a student then at Bonn University, and on weekends he often visited his Aunt Alice and his Hessian relatives. During these frequent visits, he fell in love with Elizabeth, writing numerous love poems and regularly sending them to her. Flattered as she may have been by his attentions, Elizabeth was not attracted to William. She politely declined him, and the resulting heartbreak caused him to give up his studies and return to Prussia.

Photo of the young Elizabeth taken in 1880s

Besides William II, she had many other admirers, among them Lord Charles Montagu, the second son of the 7th Duke of Manchester, and Henry Wilson, later a distinguished soldier.

Yet another of Elizabeth's suitors was the future Frederick II, Grand Duke of Baden, William's first cousin. Queen Victoria described him as "so good and steady", with "such a safe and happy position," that when Elizabeth declined to marry him the Queen "deeply regretted it". Frederick's grandmother, the Empress Augusta, was so furious at Elizabeth's rejection of Frederick that it took some time for her to forgive Elizabeth.

Other admirers included:

  • Elizabeth's husband's cousin, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (the poet KR). He wrote a poem about her first arrival in Russia, and the general impression she made to all the people present at the time.
  • Prince Felix Yussupov considered her a second mother, and stated in his memoirs that she helped him greatly during the most difficult moments of his life.
  • As a young girl, Queen Marie of Romania was very fascinated with her Cousin Ella, and would later describe her beauty and sweetness in her memoirs as "a thing of dreams".
  • The French Ambassador to the Russian court, Maurice Paleologue, wrote in his memoirs how Elizabeth was capable of arousing what he described as "profane passions".

But it was a Russian Grand Duke who ultimately won Elizabeth's heart. Elizabeth’s great-aunt, Empress Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, was a frequent visitor to Hesse. During these visits, she was usually accompanied by her youngest sons, Sergei and Paul. Elizabeth had known the boys since they were children, and she initially viewed them as haughty and reserved. Sergei, especially, was a very serious young man, intensely religious, and he found himself attracted to Elizabeth after seeing her as a young woman for the first time in several years.

At first, Sergei made little impression on Elizabeth. But after the death of both of Sergei’s parents within the same year, the shock of his loss caused Elizabeth to gradually see Sergei “in a new light”. She had felt this same grief after the death of her mother, and their other similarities (both were artistic and religious) began to draw them closer together. It was said that Sergei was especially attached to Elizabeth because she had the same character as his beloved mother. So when Sergei proposed to her for the second time, she accepted—much to the chagrin of her grandmother Queen Victoria.

Grand Duchess of Russia

Sergei and his wife

Sergei and Elizabeth married on 15 (3) June 1884, at the Chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She became Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. The new Grand Duchess made a good first impression on her husband’s family and the Russian people. “Everyone fell in love with her from the moment she came to Russia from her beloved Darmstadt”, wrote one of Sergei's cousins. The couple settled in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace in St. Petersburg; after Sergei was appointed Governor-General of Moscow in 1892, they resided in one of the Kremlin palaces. During the summer, they stayed at Il’yinskoe, an estate outside Moscow that Sergei had inherited from his mother.

The couple never had children of their own, but their Il’yinskoye estate was usually filled with parties that Elizabeth organized especially for children. They eventually became the foster parents of Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Sergei’s niece and nephew.

Although Elizabeth was not legally required to convert to Russian Orthodoxy from her native Lutheran religion, she voluntarily chose to do so in 1891. Although some members of her family questioned her motives, her conversion appears to have been sincere.

Photograph of Ivan Kalyayev taken just after the assassination. I threw the bomb from less than four steps. I was taken by the explosions, I saw the carriage flew to pieces...My overcoat was strewn with splinters of wood all around, it was torn and burnt, there was blood on my face...

On 18 February 1905, Sergei was assassinated in the Kremlin by the Socialist-Revolutionary, Ivan Kalyayev. The event came as a terrible shock to Elizabeth, but she never lost her calm. Her niece Marie later recalled that her aunt’s face was “pale and stricken rigid” and she would never forget her expression of infinite sadness. In her rooms, said Marie, Elizabeth “let herself fall weakly into an armchair...her eyes dry and with the same peculiar fixity of gaze, she looked straight into space, and said nothing.” As visitors came and went, she looked without ever seeming to see them. Throughout the day of her husband's murder, Elizabeth refused to cry. But Marie recalled how her aunt slowly abandoned her rigid self-control, finally breaking down into sobs. Many of her family and friends feared that she would suffer a nervous breakdown, but she quickly recovered her equanimity.

According to Edvard Radzinsky,

"Elizabeth spent all the days before the burial in ceaseless prayer. On her husband's tombstone she wrote: 'Father, release them, they know not what they do.' She understood the words of the Gospels heart and soul, and on the eve of the funeral she demanded to be taken to the prison where Kalyayev was being held. Brought into his cell, she asked, 'Why did you kill my husband?' 'I killed Sergei Alexandrovich because he was a weapon of tyranny. I was taking revenge for the people.' 'Do not listen to your pride. Repent... and I will beg the Sovereign to give you your life. I will ask him for you. I myself have already forgiven you.' On the eve of revolution, she had already found a way out; forgiveness! Forgive through the impossible pain and blood -- and thereby stop it then, at the beginning, this bloody wheel. By her example, poor Ella appealed to society, calling upon the people to live in Christian faith. 'No!" replied Kalyayev. 'I do not repent. I must die for my deed and I will... My death will be more useful to my cause than Sergei Alexandrovich's death.' Kalyayev was sentenced to death. 'I am pleased with your sentence,' he told the judges. 'I hope that you will carry it out just as openly and publicly as I carried out the sentence of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Learn to look the advancing revolution right in the face.'"[1]

Kalyayev was hanged on 23 May 1905.

Religious life

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna as a nun after her husband's death

After Sergei’s death, Elizabeth wore mourning clothes and became a vegetarian. In 1909, she sold off her magnificent collection of jewels and sold her other luxurious possessions; even her wedding ring was not spared. With the proceeds she opened the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary and became its abbess. She soon opened a hospital, a chapel, a pharmacy and an orphanage on its grounds. Elizabeth and her nuns worked tirelessly among the poor and the sick of Moscow. She often visited Moscow’s worst slums and did all she could to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.

For many years, Elizabeth's institution helped the poor and the orphans in Moscow by fostering the prayer and charity of devout women. Here, there arose a vision of a renewed diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. Although the Orthodox Church rejected her idea of a female diaconate, it did bless and encourage Elizabeth's many charitable efforts.


In 1918, Lenin ordered the Cheka to arrest Elizabeth. They then exiled her first to Perm, then to Yekaterinburg, where she spent a few days and was joined by others: the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; Grand Duke Sergei's secretary, Feodor Remez; and Varvara Yakovleva, a sister from the Grand Duchess's convent. They were all taken to Alapaevsk on 20 May 1918, where they were housed in the Napolnaya School on the outskirts of the town.

At noon on 17 July, Cheka Officer Petr Startsev and a few Bolshevik workers came to the school. They took from the prisoners whatever money they had left and announced that they would be transferred that night to the Upper Siniachikhensky factory compound. The Red Army guards were told to leave and Cheka men replaced them. That night the prisoners were awakened and driven in carts on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha, some 18 kilometres from Alapaevsk where there was an abandoned iron mine with a pit, twenty metres deep. Here they halted. The Cheka beat all the prisoners before throwing their victims into this pit, Elizabeth being the first. Hand grenades were then hurled down the shaft, but only one victim, Feodor Remez, died as a result of the grenades.

The remains of Grand Duke John and Grand Duchess Elizabeth

According to the personal account of Vassili Ryabov, one of their killers, Elizabeth and the others survived the initial fall into the mine, prompting Ryabov to toss in a grenade after them. Following the explosion, he claimed to have heard Elizabeth and the others singing an Orthodox hymn from the bottom of the shaft.[2] Unnerved, Ryabov threw down a second grenade, but the singing continued. Finally a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and set alight, upon which Ryabov posted a guard over the site and departed.

Early on 18 July 1918, the head of the Alapaevsk Cheka, Abramov, and the head of the Yekaterinburg Regional Soviet, Beloborodov, who had been involved in the murders of the Imperial Family, exchanged a number of telegrams in a pre-arranged plan saying that the school had been attacked by an "unidentified gang". A month later, Alapaevsk fell to the White Army of Admiral Alexander Kolchak.


Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia. Monument in Marfo-Mariinsky Convent

On 8 October 1918, White Army soldiers discovered the remains of Elizabeth and her companions, still within the shaft where they had been murdered. Elizabeth had died of wounds sustained in her fall into the mine, but before her death had still found strength to bandage the head of the dying Prince Ioann. Her remains were removed and ultimately taken to Jerusalem, where they lie today in the Church of Maria Magdalene.

Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981, and in 1992 by the Moscow Patriarchate as New Martyr Elizabeth. Her principal shrines are the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent she founded in Moscow, and the St. Mary Magdalene Convent on the Mount of Olives, which she and her husband helped build, and where her relics (along with the Nun Barbara) are enshrined. She is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London, England.

A statue of Elizabeth was erected in the garden of her convent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its inscription reads: "To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna: With Repentance."

Titles and styles

  • Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and the Rhine (1864–1884)
  • Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna of Russia (1884–1918)



  1. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, The Last Tsar, page 82.
  2. ^ Murder of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth at www.serfes.org

Further reading

  • Paleologue, Maurice. An Ambassador's Memoirs, 1922
  • Grand Duchess Marie of Russia. Education of a Princess, 1931
  • Queen Marie of Romania. The Story of My Life, 1934
  • Almedingen, E.M. An Unbroken Unity, 1964
  • Duff, David. Hessian Tapestry, 1967
  • Millar, Lubov, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, US edition, Redding, CA., 1991, ISBN 1-879066-01-7
  • Mager, Hugo. Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia, 1998, ISBN 0786705094
  • Zeepvat, Charlotte. Romanov Autumn, 2000, ISBN 5827600342
  • Belyakova, Zoia. The Romanovs: the Way It Was, 2000, ISBN 5827600342
  • Warwick, Christopher Ella: Princess, Saint and Martyr, 2007, ISBN 047087063X
  • Croft, Christina Most Beautiful Princess — A Novel Based on the Life of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, 2008, ISBN 0955985307

See also

  • Canonization of the Romanovs

External links

Orthodox sources

Orthodox hymns to St. Elizabeth

Secular sources

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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