Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)

Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)
Maria Feodorovna
Empress Maria Feodorovna
Portrait by Vladimir Makovsky
Gatchina Palace, 1885
Empress consort of All the Russias
Tenure 13 March 1881 – 1 November 1894
Coronation 27 May 1883
Spouse Alexander III of Russia
Nicholas II of Russia
Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich
Grand Duke George Alexandrovich
Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna
Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich
Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna
Full name
Marie Sophie Fredrica Dagmar
House House of Romanov-Holstein-Gottorp
House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg
Father Christian IX of Denmark
Mother Louise of Hesse-Kassel
Born 26 November 1847(1847-11-26)
Denmark Yellow Palace, Copenhagen, Denmark
Died 13 October 1928(1928-10-13) (aged 80)
Denmark Hvidøre
Religion Lutheran upon marriage Eastern Orthodox

Maria Feodorovna (26 November 1847 – 13 October 1928), born Princess Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and later Princess Dagmar of Denmark, was Empress consort of Russia as spouse of Emperor Alexander III. She was the second daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Louise of Hesse-Cassel. Among her children was the last Russian monarch, Emperor Nicholas II, whom she outlived by ten years.



Princesses Alexandra and Dagmar of Denmark.

Princess Marie Sophie Fredrica/Frederikke Dagmar was born at the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen. Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a member of a relatively impoverished princely cadet line. Her mother was Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.

She was baptized into the Lutheran faith and named after her kinswoman Marie Sophie Fredrica of Hesse-Kassel, Queen Dowager of Denmark as well as the medieval Danish queen, Dagmar of Bohemia. Growing up, she was known by the name Dagmar. Most of her life, she was known as Maria Feodorovna (Russian: Мария Фёдоровна), the name which she took when converting to Orthodoxy immediately before her 1866 marriage to the future Tsar Alexander III. She was known within her family as Minnie.

In 1852, Dagmar's father became an heir to the throne of Denmark, largely due to his wife, Louise's succession rights as niece of King Christian VIII. In 1853, he was given the title Prince of Denmark and he and his family were given an official summer residence, Bernstorff Palace. Her father became King of Denmark in 1863 upon the death of King Frederik VII.

Due to the brilliant alliances of his children, he became known as the "Father-in-law of Europe." Maria Feodorovna was the younger sister of Alexandra, Queen Consort of King Edward VII and mother of George V of the United Kingdom, which helps to explain the striking resemblance between Nicholas II and George V. Her older brother was King George I of Greece. Her eldest brother became King Frederik VIII. Her youngest sister was Thyra, Duchess of Cumberland.

During her upbringing, Dagmar, together with her sister Alexandra, was given swimming lessons by the Swedish pioneer of swimming for women, Nancy Edberg;[1] she would later welcome Edberg to Russia, where she came on royal scholarship to hold swimming lessons for women.

Twice a fiancée, ultimately a bride

Princess Dagmar and her ill-fated fiance Tsarevich Nicholas.
The marriage of Princess Dagmar of Denmark to Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovitch.
The Anichkov Palace in 1862.

The rise of Slavophile ideology in the Russian Empire led Alexander II of Russia to search for a bride for the heir apparent, Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia, in countries other than the German states that had traditionally provided consorts for the tsars. In 1864, Nicholas, or "Nixa" as he was known in his family, went to Denmark where he was betrothed to Dagmar. On 22 April 1865 he died from meningitis. His last wish was that Dagmar would marry his younger brother, the future Alexander III. Dagmar was distraught after her young fiancé's death. She was so heartbroken when she returned to her motherland that her relatives were seriously worried about her health. She had already become emotionally attached to Russia and often thought of the huge, remote country that was to have been her home. The disaster had brought her very close to "Nixa's" parents, and she received a letter from Alexander II in which the Emperor attempted to console her. He told Dagmar in very affectionate terms that he hoped she would still consider herself a member of their family.[2] In June 1866, while on a visit to Copenhagen, the Tsarevich Alexander asked Dagmar for her hand. They had been in her room looking over photographs together.[3]

Dagmar left Copenhagen on 1 September 1866. Hans Christian Andersen was among the crowd which flocked to the quay in order to see her off. The writer remarked in his diary: "Yesterday, at the quay, while passing me by, she stopped and took me by the hand. My eyes were full of tears. What a poor child! Oh Lord, be kind and merciful to her! They say that there is a brilliant court in Saint Petersburg and the tsar's family is nice; still, she heads for an unfamiliar country, where people are different and religion is different and where she will have none of her former acquaintances by her side".

Dagmar was warmly welcomed in Kronstadt by Alexander II of Russia and all his family. She converted to Orthodoxy and became Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. The lavish wedding took place on 9 November [O.S. 28 October] 1866 in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in St.Petersburg. After the wedding night, Alexander wrote in his diary, "I took off my slippers and my silver embroidered robe and felt the body of my beloved next to mine... How I felt then, I do not wish to describe here. Afterwards we talked for a long time."[4] After the many wedding parties were over the newlyweds moved into the Anichkov Palace in St.Petersburg where they were to live for the next 15 years, when they were not taking extended holidays at their summer villa Livadia in the Crimea.


Maria Feodorovna was pretty and popular. Early on she made it a priority to learn the Russian language and to try to understand the Russian people. She rarely interfered with politics, preferring to devote her time and energies to her family, charities and the more social side of her position. Her one exception was her militant anti-German sentiment due to the annexation of Danish territories by the newly created German Empire.

Empress of All the Russias

Empress Maria with her son, future Nicholas II
The family of Alexander III being blessed by Jesus Christ in a portrait by Makarov.

On the morning of 13 March 1881, Alexander II, aged sixty-two, was killed by a bomb on the way back to the Winter Palace from a military parade. In her diary, Maria later described how the wounded, still living Tsar was taken to the palace: "His legs were crushed terribly and ripped open to the knee; a bleeding mass, with half a boot on the right foot, and only the sole of the foot remaining on the left." [5] Alexander II died a few hours later. Although the people were not enamoured of the new Tsar, they adored Russia's new empress. As Maria's contemporaries said of her: "She is truly an Empress." She herself was not altogether pleased with her new status. In her diary she wrote, "Our happiest and serenest times are now over. My peace and calm are gone, for now I will only ever be able to worry about Sasha."[6]

Alexander and Maria were crowned at the Kremlin in Moscow on 27 May 1883. Just before the coronation, a major conspiracy had been uncovered, which cast a pall over the celebration. Nevertheless over 8000 guests attended the splendid ceremony. Because of the many threats against Maria and Alexander III, the head of the security police, General Cherevin, shortly after the coronation urged the Tsar and his family to relocate to Gatchina Palace, a more secure location, 50 kilometres outside St.Petersburg. The huge palace had 900 rooms and was built by Catherine II. The Romanovs heeded the advice. Maria and Alexander III lived at Gatchina for 13 years, and it was here that their five surviving children grew up.

Under heavy guard, Alexander III and Maria made periodic trips from Gatchina to the capital to take part in official events. Maria longed for the balls and gatherings in the Winter Palace. These also occurred at Gatchina. Alexander used to enjoy joining in with the musicians, although he would end up sending them off one by one. When that happened, Maria knew the party was over.[7]

During Alexander III's reign, the monarchy's opponents quickly disappeared underground. A group of students had been planning to assassinate Alexander III on the sixth anniversary of his father's death at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St.Petersburg. The plotters had stuffed hollowed-out books with dynamite, which they intended to throw at the Tsar when he arrived at the cathedral. However, the Russian secret police uncovered the plot before it could be carried out. Five students were hanged; amongst them was Aleksandr Ulyanov, older brother of Vladimir Lenin.

Empress Maria Fyodorovna and her husband Tsar Alexander III vacationing in Copenhagen in 1893

When Maria's eldest sister Alexandra visited Gatchina in July 1894, she was surprised to see how weak her brother-in-law Alexander III had become. He seemed to have shrivelled. Gone was the glow in his cheeks and his good cheer. At the time Marie had long known that he was ill and did not have long left. She now turned her attention to her eldest son, the future Nicholas II, for it was on him that both her personal future and the future of the dynasty now depended.

Nicholas had long had his heart set on marrying Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt. Neither Alexander III nor Maria approved of the match. Nicholas summed up the situation as follows: "I wish to move in one direction, and it is clear that Mama wishes me to move in another - my dream is to one day marry Alix."[8] Maria and Alexander found Alix shy and somewhat peculiar. They were also concerned that the young Princess was not possessed of the right character to be Empress of Russia. Nicholas's parents had known Alix as a child and formed the impression that she was hysterical and unbalanced.[9] Reluctantly they both agreed for Nicholas and Alix to wed.

Dowager Empress

Tsar Nicholas II and his mother Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna in 1896.

On 1 November 1894, Alexander III died aged just forty-nine at Livadia. In her diary Maria wrote, "I am utterly heartbroken and despondent, but when I saw the blissful smile and the peace in his face that came after, it gave me strength."[10] For a time Maria was inconsolable. Her sister, Alexandra, and brother-in-law, the future Edward VII arrived in Russia a few days later. The Prince of Wales planned Alexander's funeral and also set a date for the new Tsar Nicholas II's wedding to Alix.

Maria Feodorovna's grandson-in-law, Prince Felix Yusupov, noted that she had great influence in the Romanov family. Sergei Witte praised her tact and diplomatic skill. Nevertheless, she did not get along well with her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Feodorovna, holding her responsible for many of the woes that beset her son Nicholas and the Russian Empire in general.

Once the death of Alexander III had receded, Maria again took a brighter view of the future. "Everything will be all right," as she said. She had lived for twenty-eight years in Russia, including thirteen as Empress, and thirty-four years of widowhood still awaited her, the last ten in exile in Denmark. Maria continued to live in the Anichkov Palace in St.Petersburg and at Gatchina Palace. In late 1916, the Dowager Empress left St. Petersburg to live in the Mariinsky Palace in Kiev. She never again returned to St. Petersburg.

Empress Maria Fedorovna, the mistress of Langinkoski retreat, was also otherwise a known friend of Finland. During the first russification period, she tried to have her son stop the violation of the grand principality's autonomy and to recall the unpopular Governor-General Bobrikov from Finland to some other position in Russia itself. During the second russification period, at the start of the First World War, the Dowager Empress, travelling by her special train through Finland to Saint Petersburg, expressed her continued disapproval for the oppression of Finland by having an orchestra of a welcoming committee to play the March of Pori regiment and the Finnish anthem 'Our Country', which at the time were under the explicit ban from Franz Albert Seyn, the then Russifying Governor-General of Finland.

Revolution and exile

Revolution came to Russia in March 1917. After travelling from Kiev to meet with her deposed son, Nicholas II in Mogilev, Maria returned to the city. She quickly realized how Kiev had changed and that her presence was no longer wanted. She was persuaded by her family there to travel by train to the Crimea with a group of other refugee Romanovs. After a time living in one of the imperial residences in the Crimea, she received reports that her sons, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren had been murdered. However, she rejected the report publicly as rumour. On the day after the murder of the Tsar's family, Maria received a messenger from Nicky, "a touching man" who told how difficult was the life of her son's family in Ekaterinburg. "And nobody can help or liberate them - only God! My Lord save my poor, unlucky Nicky, help him in his hard ordeals!"[11] In her diary she comforted herself: "I am sure they all got out of Russia and now the Bolsheviks are trying to hide the truth."[12] She firmly held on to this conviction until her death. The truth was too painful for her to publicly admit. Her letters to her son and his family have since almost all been lost; but in one that survives, she wrote to Nicholas: "You know that my thoughts and prayers never leave you. I think of you day and night and sometimes feel so sick at heart that I believe I cannot bear it any longer. But God is merciful. He will give us strength for this terrible ordeal." Maria's daughter Olga Alexandrovna commented further on the matter, "Yet I am sure that deep in her heart my mother had steeled herself to accept the truth some years before her death."[13]

Despite the overthrow of the monarchy (1917), the former Dowager Empress Maria at first refused to leave Russia. Only in 1919, at the urging of her sister, Dowager Queen Alexandra, did she begrudgingly depart, fleeing via the Crimea over the Black Sea to London. King George V sent the warship HMS Marlborough to retrieve his aunt. After a brief stay in the British base in Malta and later London, she returned to her native Denmark, choosing her holiday villa Hvidøre near Copenhagen as her new permanent home. Although Queen Alexandra never treated her sister badly and they spent time together at Marlborough House in London and at Sandringham House in Norfolk in Great Britain, Maria felt that she was now "number two". This was not surprising as Maria was merely a former Empress while her older sister was a popular Dowager Queen.

In exile in Copenhagen, Denmark, there were many Russian émigrées. For them, Maria still remained the Empress. People respected and highly valued her and often asked her for help. The All-Russian Monarchical Assembly held in 1921 offered her to become the locum tenens of the Russian throne. She declined the request - she would not like to interfere in political games and gave the evasive answer, "Nobody saw Nicky killed" and therefore there is a chance. She rendered financial support to Nikolai Sokolov,[disambiguation needed ] the investigator who studied the circumstances of the death of the Tsar's family. They did not meet - at the last moment, Grand Duchess Olga sent a telegram to Paris requesting to cancel the appointment. It would be too difficult for the old and sick woman to hear the terrible story of her son and his family.[14]

Death and burial

In November 1925, Maria's favourite sister, Queen Alexandra, died. For Maria that was the last loss that she could bear. "She was ready to meet her Creator," wrote her son-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, about Maria's last years. On 13 October 1928 at Hvidøre near Copenhagen, in a house she had once shared with her sister Queen Alexandra, Maria died at the age of 80, having outlived four of her six children.[14]

Following services in Copenhagen's Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Church, the Empress was interred at Roskilde Cathedral. In 2005, Queen Margarethe II of Denmark and President Vladimir Putin of Russia and their respective governments agreed that the Empress's remains should be returned to Saint Petersburg in accordance with her wish to be interred next to her husband. A number of ceremonies took place from 23 to 28 September 2006. The funeral service, attended by high dignitaries, including the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, did not pass without some turbulence. The crowd around the coffin was so great that a young Danish diplomat fell into the grave before the coffin was interred.[15] On 26 September 2006, a statue of Maria Feodorovna was unveiled near her favourite Cottage Palace in Peterhof. Following a service at Saint Isaac's Cathedral, she was interred next to her husband Alexander III in the Peter and Paul Cathedral on 28 September 2006, 140 years after her first arrival to Russia and almost 78 years after her death.

Film and stage representations of the Dowager Empress

She was portrayed by Irene Worth in the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra, and by Jane Lapotaire in the 13-part 1975 British series Edward the Seventh, the story of her brother-in-law.

She was portrayed by Ursula Howells in the 1974 BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles.

She was portrayed by Helen Hayes in the London production of the play Anastasia and in the 1956 film based on the play.

The 1986 NBC-TV miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna, in which Olivia de Havilland portrays the Dowager Empress, represents the latter as considering a personal meeting with Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia. There is no evidence that the Empress Dowager ever had such an intention (or indeed that she had ever been requested to grant an audience to the woman).

The Empress was voiced by Angela Lansbury in the 1997 Fox Animation Studios feature film Anastasia.


Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna and their five children.

Tsar Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna had four sons and two daughters:


  • Her Serene Highness Princess Dagmar of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (1847–1853)
  • Her Highness Princess Dagmar of Denmark (1853–1858)
  • Her Royal Highness Princess Dagmar of Denmark (1858–1866)
  • Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, Tsesarevna of Russia (1866–1881)
  • Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of All the Russias (1881–1894)
  • Her Imperial Majesty The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia (1894–1917)
  • Her Imperial Majesty The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (1917–1928) - a title she was referred to as a courtesy by some foreign royal courts. In fact the title Dowager Empress of Russia had ceased to exist with the collapse of the Russian Empire. In the Crimea after the collapse of the Kerensky provisional government, Maria Feodorovna was publicly referred to by guards as Citizeness Maria Feodorovna Romanova. When asked to sign as former Dowager Empress she refused and signed herself as Widow of Tsar Alexander III.

Paintings by Maria Feodorovna


See also


  1. ^ Idun (1890): Nr 15 (121) (Swedish)
  2. ^ Empress Marie Feodorovna's Favorite Residences in Russia and in Denmark, p.55
  3. ^ A Royal Family, pp.171-172
  4. ^ ibid p.173
  5. ^ ibid p.175
  6. ^ ibid p.176
  7. ^ ibid, p.179
  8. ^ ibid, p.184
  9. ^ ibid
  10. ^ ibid, p.185
  11. ^ The Diaries of Empress Marie Feodorovna, p.239
  12. ^ A Royal Family, p.197
  13. ^ Vorres, I, The Last Grand Duchess, p.171
  14. ^ a b Empress Maria Fiodorovna, p.142
  15. ^


Little Mother of Russia: A Biography of Empress Marie Feodorovna, by Coryne Hall ISBN 978-0841914216 - a biographical account of Empress Maria Feodorovna

Empress Maria Fiodorovna, by A.I. Barkovets and V.M.Tenikhina, Abris Publishers, St. Petersburg, 2006

Empress Maria Feodorovna's Favourite Residences in Russia and Denmark, by Galina Korneva and Tatiana Cheboksarova, Liki Rossi, St. Petersburg, 2006

A Royal Family – The Story of Christian IX and his European descendants, by Anna Lerche and Marcus Mandal ISBN 87-15-10957-7 - chapter entitled "Love and Revolution - Maria Feodorovna's Fate during the Greatness and Fall of the Russian Empire" - an excellent account with privileged access to private royal archives and interviews with members of various European Royal Families

The Last Grand Duchess, by Ian Vorres, Finedawn Publishers, London, 1985 – the authorised biography of Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia, youngest daughter of Maria Feodorovna and Alexander III

The Court of the Last Tsar, by Gregory King ISBN 978-0471727637 - gives a viewpoint on the role of the Empress Dowager in the court of her son, Nicholas II, and an opinion about her feelings about Alexandra.

External links

Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)
Cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg
Born: 26 November 1847 Died: 13 October 1928
Russian royalty
Title last held by
Marie of Hesse and by Rhine
Empress consort of Russia
Title next held by
Alix of Hesse and by Rhine

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