History Remarkable Women

Maria Feodorovna (Remarkable Women #27)

Birth and family relations

Princess Dagmar, Prince Vilhelm, Christian IX of Denmark and Princess Alexandra

Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar was born on 26 November 1847 at the Yellow Palace, an 18th-century town house at 18 Amaliegade in Copenhagen.[8] Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a member of a princely cadet line and her mother was Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.

Marie was baptised as a Lutheran and named after her kinswoman Marie Sophie of Hesse-Kassel, Queen Dowager of Denmark as well as the medieval Danish queen, Dagmar of Bohemia. Her godmother was Queen Caroline Amalie of Denmark.

Growing up, she was known by the name Dagmar. In 1852, Dagmar‘s father became heir-presumptive to the throne of Denmark, largely due to the succession rights of his wife Louise 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. Dagmar‘s father became King of Denmark in 1863 upon the death of King Frederick VII.

Due to the brilliant marital alliances of his children, he became known as the “Father-in-law of Europe.” Dagmar‘s eldest brother would succeed his father as King Frederick VIII of Denmark while her elder and favourite sister, Alexandra married Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) in March 1863.


Due to the rise of Slavophile ideology in the Russian Empire, Alexander II of Russia searched for a bride for the heir apparent, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, in countries other than the German states that had traditionally provided consorts for the tsars.

In 1864, Nicholas went to Denmark and proposed to Dagmar. Her future mother-in-law Maria Alexandrovna gave her a pearl necklace and Nicholas gave her diamonds.

Dagmar unsuccessfully asked her future father-in-law to help Denmark against Prussia over the disputed territory of Schleswig-Holstein. In a letter, she asked Alexander II of Russia: “Use your power to mitigate the terrible conditions which the Germans have brutally forced Papa to accept… the sad plight of my fatherland, which makes my heart heavy, has inspired me to turn to you.”

As Nicholas continued on his journey to Florence, he and Dagmar exchanged daily love letters for months. When he grew ill, Nicholas sent fewer letters and Dagmar teasingly asked him if he had fallen in love with “a dark-eyed Italian.”

In April, Nicholas grew gravely ill with cerebrospinal meningitis. Alexander II of Russia sent a telegram to Dagmar: “Nicholas has received the Last Rites. Pray for us and come if you can.”

On 22 April 1865, Nicholas died in the presence of his parents, brothers and Dagmar. His last wish was that Dagmar would marry his younger brother, the future Alexander III.

Dagmar was devastated by Nicholas‘ death. His parents struggled to “pull Princess Dagmar away from the corpse and carry her out.” She was so heartbroken when she returned to her homeland that her relatives were seriously worried about her health.

Many were sympathetic towards Dagmar. Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge wrote of “poor dear Minny’s sorrow and the blight which has fallen upon her young life.” Queen Victoria wrote “how terrible for poor Dagmar… the poor parents and bride are most deeply to be pitied.”

Alexander II of Russia and Maria Alexandrovna had grown fond of Dagmar and they wanted her to marry their new heir, Tsarevich Alexander.

In an affectionate letter, Alexander II told Dagmar that he hoped she would still consider herself a member of their family. Maria Alexandrovna tried to convince Louise of Hesse-Kassel to send Dagmar to Russia immediately, but Louise insisted that Dagmar must “strengthen her nerves… [and] avoid emotional upsets.”

In June 1866, Tsarevich Alexander visited Copenhagen with his brothers Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duke Alexei. While looking over photographs of Nicholas, Alexander asked Dagmar if “she could love him after having loved Nixa, to whom they were both devoted.”

She answered that she could love no one but him, because he had been so close to his brother. Alexander recalled that “we both burst into tears… [and] I told her that my dear Nixa helped us much in this situation and that now of course he prays about our happiness.”

Dagmar left Copenhagen on 1 September 1866. Hans Christian Andersen, who had occasionally been invited to tell stories to Dagmar and her siblings when they were children, was among the crowd which flocked to the quay in order to see her off.

Dagmar was warmly welcomed in Kronstadt by Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaevich of Russia and escorted to St. Petersburg, where she was greeted by her future mother-in-law and sister-in-law on 24 September. On the 29th, she made her formal entry in to the Russian capital dressed in a Russian national costume in blue and gold and traveled with the Empress to the Winter Palace where she was introduced to the Russian public on a balcony.

Catherine Radziwill described the occasion: ”rarely has a foreign princess been greeted with such enthusiasm… from the moment she set foot on Russian soil, succeeded in winning to herself all hearts. Her smile, the delightful way she had of bowing to the crowds…, laid immediately the foundation of …popularity”

Dagmar converted to Orthodoxy and became Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia. The lavish wedding took place on 9 November 1866 in the Imperial Chapel of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Financial constraints had prevented her parents from attending the wedding and in their stead, they sent her brother, Crown Prince Frederick.

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.”[

After the many wedding parties were over the newlyweds moved into the Anichkov Palace in Saint 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 Crimean Peninsula.

Maria and Alexander had an exceptionally happy marriage. She was widely recognized as “the only person on the face of the earth in whom the Autocrat of all the Russias puts any real trust. In his gentle consort, he has unlimited confidence.”

As Tsarevna

Tsarevna Maria Feodorovna of Russia (1870s)

Maria Feodorovna was beloved by the Russian public. Early on, she made it a priority to learn the Russian language and to try to understand the Russian people. Baroness Rahden wrote that: “the Czarevna is forming a real, warm sympathy for that country which is receiving her with so much enthusiasm.” In 1876, she and her husband visited Helsinki and were greeted by cheers, most of which were “directed to the wife of the heir apparent.”[21]

Maria rarely interfered with politics, preferring to devote her time and energies to her family, charities and the more social side of her position. She had also seen the student protests of Kiev and St. Petersburg in the 1860s, and when police were beating students, the students cheered on Maria to which she replied: “They were quite loyal, they cheered me. Why do you allow the police to treat them so brutally?”

Her one exception to official politics was her militant anti-German sentiment because of the annexation of Danish territories by Prussia in 1864, a sentiment also expressed by her sister, Alexandra. In 1866, while visiting Denmark, Maria suffered a miscarriage while she was horseback riding.

Maria arranged the marriage between her brother George I of Greece and her cousin-in-law Olga Constantinovna of Russia. When George visited St. Petersburg in 1867, she contrived to have George spend time with Olga. She also convinced Olga‘s parents of her brother’s suitability. In a letter, her father Christian IX of Denmark praised her for her shrewd arranging of the marriage: “Where in the world have you, little rogue, ever learned to intrigue so well, since you have worked hard on your uncle and aunt, who were previously decidedly against a match of this kind.”

On 18 May 1868, Maria gave birth to her eldest son, Nicholas. Her next son, Alexander Alexandrovich, born in 1869, died from meningitis in infancy. She would bear Alexander III four more children who reached adulthood: George (b. 1871), Xenia (b. 1875), Michael (b. 1878) and Olga (b. 1882).

As a mother, she doted on and was quite possessive of her sons. She had a more distant relationship with her daughters. Her favorite child was Nicholas, while Olga and Michael were closer to their father. Maria was lenient towards George, and she could never bear to punish him for his pranks. Her daughter Olga remembers that “mother had a great weakness for him.”

Maria’s relationship with her father-in-law, Alexander II of Russia, deteriorated because she did not accept his second marriage to Catherine Dolgorukov. She refused to allow her children to visit their grandfather’s second wife and his legitimized bastards, which caused Alexander‘s anger. Maria confided in Sophia Tolstaya that “there were grave scenes between me and the Sovereign, caused by my refusal to let my children to him.”

At a Winter Palace reception in February 1881, Maria refused to kiss Catherine and only gave Catherine her hand to kiss. Alexander II was furious and chastised his daughter-in-law: “Sasha is a good son, but you – you have no heart”.

In 1873, Maria, Alexanderr and their two eldest sons made a journey to the United Kingdom. The imperial couple and their children were entertained at Marlborough House by the Prince and Princess of Wales. The royal sisters Maria and Alexandra delighted London society by dressing alike at social gatherings.

The following year, Maria and Alexander welcomed the Prince and Princess of Wales to St. Petersburg, who had come for the wedding of the Prince’s younger brother, Alfred, to Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II and the sister of the tsarevich.

Empress of Russia

On 13 March 1881, Maria‘s father-in-law Alexander II of Russia was killed by a bomb on the way back to the Winter Palace from a military parade. In her diary, she described how the wounded, still living Emperor 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.”

After her father-in-law’s gruesome death, she was worried about her husband’s safety. 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.” Her favorite sister and brother-in-law, the Princess and Prince of Wales, stayed in Russia for several weeks after the funeral.

Alexander and Maria were crowned at the Assumption Cathedral in 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 new emperor and empress 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 was a universally beloved Empress. Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin wrote that Maria‘s “bearing, her distinguished and forceful personality, and the intelligence which shone in her face, made her the perfect figure of a queen… She was extraordinarily well-loved in Russia, and everyone had confidence in her… and [was] a real mother to her people.”

Maria was active in philanthropic work. Her husband called her “the Guardian Angel of Russia.” As Empress, she assumed patronage of the Marie Institutions that her mother-in-law had run: It encompassed 450 charitable establishments. In 1882, she founded many establishments called Marie schools to give young girls an elementary education. She was also the patroness of the Russian Red Cross.

Maria was the head of the social scene. She loved to dance at the balls of high society and became a popular socialite and hostess of the Imperial balls 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.

Her daughter Olga commented: “Court life had to run in splendor, and there my mother played her part without a single false step”.

As tsarevn and then as tsarina, Maria had something of a social rivalry with the popular Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna, wife of her Russian brother-in-law, Grand Duke Vladimir. This rivalry had echoed the one shared by their husbands and served to exacerbate the rift within the family. While she knew better than to publicly criticise both the Grand Duke and Duchess in public, Maria referred to Marie Pavlovna with the caustic epithet of “Empress Vladimir.”

Nearly each summer, Maria, Alexander and their children would make an annual trip to Denmark, where her parents, King Christian IX and Queen Louise, hosted family reunions. Maria’s brother, King George I and his wife, Queen Olga, would come up from Athens with their children and the Princess of Wales, often without her husband, would come with some of her children from the United Kingdom.

In contrast to the tight security observed in Russia, the tsar, tsarina and their children relished the relative freedom that they could enjoy at Bernstorff and Fredensborg. Maria also had a good relationship with the majority of her in-laws, and was often asked to act as a mediator between them and the tsar.

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 in 1887, amongst them was Aleksandr Ulyanov, older brother of Vladimir Lenin.

However, the biggest threat to the lives of the tsar and his family came not from terrorists, but from a derailment of the imperial train in the fall of 1888. Maria and her family had been at lunch in the dining car when the train jumped the tracks and slid down an embankment, causing the roof of the dining car to nearly cave in on them.

When Maria’s sister Alexandra visited Gatchina in July 1894, she was surprised to see how weak her brother-in-law Alexander III had become. At the time Maria 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 and by Rhine, a favourite grandchild of Queen Victoria. Despite the fact that she was their godchild, 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.”

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. They had known Alix as a child and formed the impression that she was hysterical and unbalanced, which may have been due to the loss of her mother and youngest sister, Marie, to diphtheria when she was just six.

It was only when Alexander III‘s health was beginning to fail that they reluctantly gave permission for Nicholas to propose.

As Empress Dowager

Emperor Alexander III and Empress Maria Feodorovna in the family circleo n the porch of their home at Kotka, Finland

On 1 November 1894, Alexander III died aged 49, 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.”[38]

Two days later, the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived at Livadia from London. While the Prince of Wales took it upon himself to be involved in the preparations for the funeral, the Princess of Wales spent her time comforting grieving Maria, including praying with her and sleeping at her bedside.

Maria‘s Feodorovna’s birthday was a week after the funeral and, as it was a day in which court mourning could be somewhat relaxed, Nicholas found the opportunity to marry Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, who took the name Alexandra Feodorovna.

As Empress Dowager, Maria was much more popular than either Nicholas or Alexandra. During her son’s coronation in Moscow on 26 May 1896, she, Nicholas, and Alexandra arrived in separate carriages. She was greeted with “almost deafening” applause.

A visiting writer Kate Kool noted that she “provoked more cheering from the people than did her son. The people have had thirteen years in which to know this woman and they have learned to love her very much.” American journalist Richard Harding Davis was surprised that she “was more loudly greeted than either the Emperor or the Czarina.”

During the first years of her son’s reign, Maria often acted as the political adviser to the Tsar. Uncertain of his own ability and aware of her connections and knowledge, Tsar Nicholas II often told the ministers that he would ask her advice before making decisions and the ministers sometimes suggested this themselves.

Maria herself estimated that her son was of a weak character and that it was better that he was influenced by her than someone worse. Her daughter Olga remarked upon her influence: “she had never before taken the least interest … now she felt it was her duty. Her personality was magnetic and her zest of activity was incredible. She had her finger on every educational pulse in the empire. She would work her secretaries to shreds, but she did not spare herself. Even when bored in committee she never looked bored. Her manner and, above all, her tact conquered everybody”.

After the death of her husband, Maria came to be convinced that Russia needed reforms to avoid a revolution. According to courtier Paul Benckendorff there was a scene when Maria asked her son not to appoint the conservative Wahl as minister for internal affairs: “during which one [the empress dowager] almost threw herself at his [the tsar’s] knees’ begging him not to make this appointment and to choose someone who could make concessions. She said that if Nicholas did not agree, she would ‘leave for Denmark, and then without me here let them twist your head around'”.

Nicholas did appoint her favored candidate and she reportedly told her favoured candidate the liberal reformist Peter Sviatopolk-Mirsky to accept by saying: “You must fulfil my son’s wish; If you do, I will give you a kiss”. After the birth of a son to the tsar the same year, however, Nicholas II replaced his mother as his political confidant and adviser with his wife, Empress Alexandra.

Despite Maria’s social tact, she did not get along well with her daughter-in-law, Tsarina Alexandra, holding her responsible for many of the woes that beset her son Nicholas and the Russian Empire in general. She was appalled with Alexandra‘s inability to win favour with public and also her inability to give birth to an heir until almost ten years after her marriage.

The fact that Russian court custom dictated that an empress dowager took precedence over an empress consort, combined with the possessiveness that Maria had of her son, and her jealousy of Empress Alexandra only served to exacerbate tensions between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Empress Dowager Maria Feodorovna (right), with her sister, Queen Alexandra (centre) and her niece, Princess Victoria (left) in London, 1903

In 1892, Maria arranged Olga‘s disastrous marriage to Peter, Duke of Oldenburg.[47] For years Nicholas refused to grant his unhappy sister a divorce, only relenting in 1916 in the midst of the War. When Olga attempted to contract a morganatic marriage with Nikolai Kulikovsky, Maria and the tsar tried to dissuade her, yet, they did not protest too vehemently.

Maria Feodorovna was a known friend of Finland. During the first russification period, she tried to have her son halt the constraining of the grand principality’s autonomy and to recall the unpopular Governor-General Bobrikov from Finland to some other position in Russia itself.

In 1899, Maria‘s second son, George, died of tuberculosis in the Caucasus. During the funeral, she kept her composure, but at the end of the service, she ran from the church clutching her son’s top hat that been atop the coffin and collapsed in her carriage sobbing.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Maria was spending increasing time abroad. In 1906, following the death of their father, King Christian IX, she and her sister, Queen Alexandra, purchased the villa of Hvidøre. The following year, a change in political circumstances allowed Maria to be welcomed to England by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.

Following a visit in early 1908, Maria was present at her brother-in-law and sister’s visit to Russia that summer. A little under two years later, she travelled to England yet again, this time for the funeral of her brother-in-law, King Edward VII, in May 1910.

During her nearly three-month visit to England in 1910, Maria unsuccesfully attempted to get her sister, now Queen Dowager Alexandra, to claim a position of precedence over her daughter-in-law, Queen Mary.

In 1912, Maria faced trouble with her youngest son, Michael, when he secretly married his mistress, much to the outrage of both herself and Nicholas.

Maria was concerned that Rasputin‘s activities damaged the prestige of the Imperial family and asked Nicholas and Alexandra to send him away. Nicholas remained silent and Alexandra refused. Maria recognized the empress was the true regent and that she also lacked the capability for such a position: “My poor daughter-in-law does not perceive that she is ruining the dynasty and herself. She sincerely believes in the holiness of an adventurer, and we are powerless to ward off the misfortune, which is sure to come.”

When the Tsar dismissed minister Vladimir Kokovtsov in February 1914 on the advice of Alexandra, Maria again reproached her son, who answered in such a way that she became even more convinced that Alexandra was the real ruler of Russia.

She called upon Kokovtsov and said to him: “My daughter-in-law does not like me; she thinks that I am jealous of her power. She does not perceive that my one aspiration is to see my son happy. Yet I see we are nearing some kind of catastrophe and the Tsar listens to no one but flatterers… Why do you not tell the Tsar everything that you think and know… if it is not already too late”

During the second russification period, at the start of the First World War, Maria, travelling by her special train through Finland to Saint Petersburg, expressed her continued disapprobation for the russification of Finland by having an orchestra of a welcoming committee play the March of the Pori Regiment and the Finnish national anthem “Maamme”, which at the time were under the explicit ban from Franz Albert Seyn, the Governor-General of Finland.

World War I

In May 1914, Maria travelled to England to visit her sister. While she was in London, World War I broke out, forcing her to hurry home to Russia. In Berlin, the German authorities prevented her train from continuing toward the Russian border. Instead she had to return to Russia by way of (neutral) Denmark and Finland.

Upon her return in August, she took up residence at Yelagin Palace, which was closer to St. Petersburg than Gatchina. During the war she served as president of Russia’s Red Cross and also financed a sanitary train.

Great concern arose within the imperial house about the influence Empress Alexandra had upon state affairs through the Tsar and the influence Grigori Rasputin was believed to have upon her, as it was considered to provoke the public and endanger the safety of the imperial throne.

On behalf of the imperial relatives of the Tsar, both Maria‘s sister Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna and her cousin Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna had been selected to mediate and ask Empress Alexandra to banish Rasputin from court to protect her and the throne’s reputation, but without success. In parallel, several of the Grand Dukes had tried to intervene with the Tsar, but with no more success.

During this conflict of 1916–1917, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna reportedly planned a coup d’état to depose the Tsar with the help of four regiments of the imperial guard which were to invade the Alexander Palace, force the Tsar to abdicate and replace him with his underage son under the regency of her son Grand Duke Kirill.

There are documents that support the fact that in this critical situation, Maria Feodorovna was involved in a planned coup d’état to depose her son from the throne in order to save the monarchy. The plan was reportedly for Maria to make a final ultimatum to the Tsar to banish Rasputin unless he wished for her to leave the capital, which would be the signal to unleash the coup.

Exactly how she planned to replace her son is unconfirmed, but two versions are available: first, that Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich would take power in Maria’s name and that she herself would thereafter become sole empress of Russia while the other version further claims that Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich would replace the Tsar with his son, the heir to the throne Alexei, upon which Maria and Paul Alexandrovich would share power as regents during his minority.

Maria was asked to make her appeal to the Tsar after Empress Alexandra had asked the Tsar to dismiss minister Polianov. Initially, she refused to make the appeal, and her sister-in-law Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna stated to the French Ambassador: “It’s not want of courage or inclination that keeps her back. It’s better that she don’t. She’s too outspoken and imperious. The moment she starts to lecture her son, her feelings run away with her; she sometimes says the exact opposite of what she should; she annoys and humiliates him. Then he stands on his dignity and reminds his mother he is the emperor. They leave each other in a rage”.

Maria left St. Petersburg to live in the Mariinskyi Palace in Kiev, where she engaged in the Red Cross and hospital work. In September, the 50th anniversary of her arrival in Russia was celebrated with great festivities, during which she was visited by Nicholas II, who came without his wife.[16]

Empress Alexandra wrote to the Tsar: “When you see Motherdear, you must rather sharply tell her how pained you are, that she listens to slander and does not stop it, as it makes mischief and others would be delighted, I am sure, to put her against me…” Maria did ask Nicholas II to remove both Rasputin and Alexandra from all political influence, but shortly after, Nicholas and Alexandra broke all contact with the Tsar’s family.

When Rasputin was murdered, some members of the Imperial family asked Maria to return to the capital and use the moment to replace Alexandra as the Tsar’s political adviser.

Maria refused, but did admit that Alexandra should be removed from influence over state affairs: “Alexandra Feodorovna must be banished. Don’t know how but it must be done. Otherwise she might go completely mad. Let her enter a convent or just disappear”.

Revolution and exile

Revolution came to Russia in 1917, first with the February Revolution, then with Nicholas II‘s abdication on 15 March. After travelling from Kiev to meet with her deposed son, Nicholas II, in Mogilev, Maria returned to the city, where she quickly realised how Kiev had changed and that her presence was no longer wanted. She was persuaded by her family there to travel to the Crimea by train 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. 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.” She firmly held on to this conviction until her death. The truth was too painful for her to admit publicly.

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.”

Despite the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917, Empress Dowager Maria at first refused to leave Russia. Only in 1919, at the urging of her sister, Queen Dowager Alexandra, did she begrudgingly depart, fleeing Crimea over the Black Sea to London. King George V sent the warship HMS Marlborough to retrieve his aunt. The party of 17 Romanovs included her daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia and five of Xenia‘s sons plus six dogs and a canary.

After a brief stay in the British base in Malta, they travelled to England on the British ship the Lord Nelson and she stayed with her sister, Alexandra. Although Queen Alexandra never treated her sister badly and they spent time together at Marlborough House in London and at Sandringham House in Norfolk, Maria‘s position as a deposed empress dowager made her feel inferior to her popular queen dowager sister, and she eventually returned to her native Denmark.

After living briefly with her nephew, King Christian X, in a wing of the Amalienborg Palace, she chose her holiday villa Hvidøre near Copenhagen as her new permanent home.

There were many Russian émigrées in Copenhagen who continued to regard her as the Empress and often asked her for help. The All-Russian Monarchical Assembly held in 1921 offered her the locum tenens of the Russian throne but she declined with the evasive answer “Nobody saw Nicky killed” and therefore there was a chance her son was still alive.

She rendered financial support to Nikolai Sokolov, who studied the circumstances of the death of the Tsar’s family, but they never met. The Grand Duchess Olga sent a telegram to Paris cancelling an appointment because it would have been too difficult for the old and sick woman to hear the terrible story of her son and his family.


In November 1925, Maria‘s favourite sister, Queen Alexandra, died. That was the last loss that she could bear.

She was ready to meet her Creator

Maria’s son-in-law, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, about her last years

On 13 October 1928, Maria died at the age of 80 at Hvidøre near Copenhagen, in the house she had once shared with her sister Queen Alexandra. Following services in Copenhagen’s Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Church, the Empress was interred at Roskilde Cathedral.

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