Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia. The Love That Saved His Life

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich

Year 1918. The most brutal and terrifying period in Russia if you are a Romanov Grand Duke. It was the height of the Russian civil war and the revolutionists made a killing rampage on the imperial house of Romanov, the last ruling family in that country.

In February 1917, at the height of World War I, Russia officially left the war to concentrate on looming home problems, the rise of the Russian revolutionists called the Bolsheviks. 

On the following month, Emperor Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. He was held prisoner by the revolutionists with his wife, Empress Alexandra, their children, Grand Duchesses Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, and only son, Tsarevich Alexei. 

In July 1917, the emperor sought an asylum in England, but his first cousin (through King Christian IX of Denmark), King George V (also first cousin of Empress Alexandra through Queen Victoria), refused to grant his request due to the bitter anti-German sentiment in England and because at that time, Empress Alexandra, who was German by blood and birth, was unpopular in Russia.

King George V feared that it might cost his throne. So he kept his distance from his cousins. To make good of his intention, he changed his royal house name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (a German name) to Windsor.

The emperor's family and servants were then brought to the mountain of Ekaterinburg and the revolutionists began the crackdown of all blood relations of the emperor in Russia, ensuring they could not escape the border.

The remaining grand dukes were all arrested and given no option for their liberty. In 1918, all of them would be dead, including Grand Duchess Elisabeth, older sister of the empress who married Nicholas's uncle, Grand Duke Sergei. Elisabeth was not spared even though she was already in  the convent long before the revolution began.

The fateful escape

However, there were Romanov Grand Dukes who escaped death during the revolution.

Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich who married the emperor's sister, Grand Duchess Xenia escaped to England. Grand Duke Kiril, his wife, Princess Victoria Melita (first cousin of Empress Alexandra and granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and their daughters, escaped to Finland.

But there was at least one Romanov who was lucky enough to leave Russia before the revolution erupted in 1917. 

He did not leave Russia on his own free will, he was banished from the country and forced to live in exile. All because of an inappropriate marriage. 

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich, the older brother of Grand Duke Alexander.

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich

He was the second son and third child of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, younger son of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. His mother was Princess Cecile of Baden. As such, he was the first cousin of Queen Olga of Greece, the grandmother of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Known in the family as Miche, Grand Duke Michael was born on October 16, 1861 at Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg. He spent most of his life in Tiflis, Georgia where his father had served as Viceroy of the Caucasus. 

As per tradition of the imperial court for grand dukes, he trained in the military at an early age and became an expert horseman. He would serve at the Russo-Turkish war later and promoted to the rank of Colonel.

In 1882, they returned to St. Petersburg when his father was appointed as Chairman of the Council of Ministers. Grand Duke Michael would endure humiliation with in his family. 

He was considered the least intellectually gifted among his siblings and was often compared unfavorably to his intelligent older brother, Grand Duke Nicholas. His mother called him stupid and his cousin, Emperor Alexander III, regarded him as "fool".

But Grand Duke Michael delighted most people in the imperial court with his humor. He was tall and handsome and one of the most sociable among the Romanov grand dukes

Rejection and Failed Love

For Royals of Europe, before the 20th century, getting married was more of an affair of the state than an affair of the heart. For taking a spouse means building dynastic alliances.

As they expected to marry within their circle, taking a spouse below their ranks, and worst, commoners, was considered inconceivable worthy of banishment from the country.

Grand Duke Michael was aware with this responsibility so when it was time for him to find a wife, he knew better how to follow imperial rules.

In 1886, he traveled to England in search for a royal wife and was determined to marry within the British royal family.

He first proposed to Princess Mary of Teck, but her grandfather, Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, and her father, the Duke of Teck, strongly opposed due to Romanovs reputation of being "bad husbands". Princess Mary would later marry her second cousin, the future King George V, in 1893.

Grand Duke Michael traveled to Germany to propose to Princess Irene of Hesse and by Rhine, older sister of Empress Alexandra, but the princess was in-love with her cousin, Prince Henry of Prussia. 

She turned him down.

On the following year, 1887, determined to be part of the British royal family, he went back to England and sought the hand of Princess Louise of Wales, elder daughter of the future King Edward VII, for marriage. 

But Princess Louise was discouraged when she heard him declared he could not fully love her as he was just doing his duty of marrying into royalty.  

She eventually turned him down. 

Princess Louise would marry a British nobleman later, Alexander Duff, Earl of Fife, who was elevated by Queen Victoria to the rank of a Duke after the marriage.

Grand Duke Michael felt the worst sting of love as he suffered from rejection after rejection. Unsuccessful to find a wife in the British royal court, he decided to return to Russia and looked for someone in the Russian nobility. Much to the irritation of his family.

He fell in love with Countess Catherine Nikolaevna Ignatieva and sought the permission from his cousin, Tsar Alexander III. But his mother and the emperor's wife, Empress Marie, made sure no approval could be granted as the woman he wanted to marry belonged to Russian minor nobility.

Determined to break the relationship, his parents sent him abroad.

Finding True Love

In 1891, he visited Nice, France. During his stay in the French Riviera, he would meet someone that would ultimately change his life forever. And something that would spare him from imminent death during the Russian revolution.

The meeting was sort of a scene in a fairytale movie.

While enjoying his day in the French Riviera, the grand duke saw a woman fell from her runaway horse. As a cavalry officer and an expert horseman, Grand Duke Michael came to the rescue and was introduced to Countess Sophie von Merenberg.

Countess Sophie of Merenberg, later Countess de Torby

As with most fairytale stories on first meeting, they instantly fell in love. But there was trouble in paradise. Countess Sophie was of unequal rank.

Though she was a daughter of a German royal, Prince Nikolaus Welhelm of Prussia, her mother was a member of the Russian minor nobility, Natalie Alexandrovna Pushkin, which made her the product of a morganatic (unequal social rank) marriage. 

Natalie was not even given the title equivalent to her husband's status as a Prussian prince but was made Countess of Merenberg by a relative, Adolphe, Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

Grand Duke Michael and Countess Sophie de Torby

Grand Duke Michael was unconcerned with this mismatch. He was in love and that was all that matters. He did not seek approval from Alexander III because he was certain it would not be granted. 

On February 26, 1891, he secretly married Countess Sophie von Merenberg in Italy. The marriage was illegal under the imperial laws in Russia because it had no approval from the emperor. 

It caused scandal in the imperial court and upon hearing the news, Grand Duke Michael's mother was extremely shocked. And fell ill. To recuperate, she traveled to Crimea but suffered a massive heart attack and died. 

The imperial Romanovs blamed Grand Duke Michael over the death of his mother. As a punishment, he was barred from returning home and was not able to attend the funeral of his mother.

He was also stripped of his military ranks and honors and was banished from Russia forever. All because of marrying someone from unequal birth.

Banishment from the imperial court

The punishment meted on Grand Duke Michael was harsh. Apart from the stripping of his military ranks, he was not also allowed to enter Russia. 

Nonetheless, he remained an imperial Grand Duke and his allowances were not cutoff. But he was forced to live in exile for the rest of his life, spending time in England, Germany and France, then back to England. 

As his wife could not be granted the title of Grand Duchess, her uncle, Adolphe, Grand Duke of Luxembourg, made her Countess de Torby, with a special remainder to her children and grandchildren in the male line.

Life in Exile

In 1899, they settled permanently in Cannes, France where they purchased a beautiful villa called Kazbek. They lived comfortably surrounded by footmen, butlers, house maids, private nurses and chefs. 

Grand Duke Michael built a factory for mineral water in Southern France, this fortune afforded them a luxurious lifestyle of royalty. 

Though rejected many times by British princesses, Grand Duke Michael maintained his connection with the British royals. 

He frequented England and leased a stately home in Staffordshire called Keele Hall. King Edward VII made him Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in 1901. 

In 1902, the town council of Newcastle-under-Lyme conferred him the title, Lord High Steward of the Borough. Though shunned by his imperial relatives in Russia, he lived a life of royalty in England.

He would travel between England and France and became the founder and president of the Cannes Golf Club. He also helped finance the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.

In later years, he reconciled with his Russian imperial family when in 1903, his father, Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich, who suffered from stroke, moved in Cannes to recuperate. 

The presence of his father at his Cannes home brought his other siblings to his place. His only sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia, and brother, Grand Duke Alexander, became frequent visitors. 

In 1909, his father died and the remains were brought back to Russia. Grand Duke Michael was allowed to enter the country for a brief period to attend his father's funeral.

Blessing in disguise

After his father's death, Grand Duke Michael and Countess Sophie de Torby with their three children, moved to England and settled in Hampstead.

They lived an affluent life in Britain, socializing with the British aristocracy. They became frequent visitors of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Sandringham estate, Windsor castle and Buckingham palace.

In 1912, Nicholas II finally forgave him, allowing him to return to Russia for the centennial celebration of the Battle of Borodino. 

The emperor also restored his military ranks and honors but still was not allowed to serve in the Russian armed forces. 

Nonetheless, during World War I, he was appointed Chairman of the Commission to Consolidate Russian forces abroad. And remained in England.

A blessing in disguise. 

A year later, the Russian empire fell to the hands of the Bolsheviks and all the captured Romanov grand dukes, including his three brothers (Grand Duke Nicholas, Grand Duke George and Grand Duke Sergei), were murdered in 1918 and 1919.

Grand Duke Michael with his three children. From left: Nadejda, Michael and Anastasia

Entering the British royal family

Though all his attempts to marry a British princess in the past resulted to failures. Grand Duke Michael's daughter would eventually marry a member of the British royal family.

He and his wife had three children but none inherited his imperial title because they were products of a morganatic marriage. 

The children took their title from their mother and became known as Countess Anastasia de Torby, Countess Nadejda de Torby and Count Michael de Torby. 

Wedding of Prince George of Battenberg and Countess Nadejda de Torby, later Marquess and Marchioness of Milford-Haven

In 1916, Countess Nadejda (known by her nickname Nada) married Prince George of Battenberg, elder son of Prince Louis of Battenberg, who in 1917, became Louis Moutbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford-Haven, and Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, the older sister of Empress Alexandra.

Prince George was the maternal uncle of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and his first guardian when he moved to England in 1931.

In 1917, Countess Anastasia married a wealthy aristocrat, Sir Harold Wernher, a British military officer and a son of a Baronet. They had three children including Georgina Wernher, who would become Lady Kennard in 1992.

Grand Duke Michael and his eldest daughter, Countess Anastasia de Torby

Lady Kennard was the mother of Sacha Hamilton, the Duchess of Abercorn (married the great uncle of Princess Diana - James Hamilton, 5th Duke of Hamilton), and Natasha Grosvenor, the Duchess of Westminster (mother of Britain's wealthiest aristocrat, Hugh Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster) through their daughter, Lady Kennard.

Lady Kennard was one of the closest cousins of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip and a godmother of their second son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York.

Lady Kennard and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. They are cousins through Tsar Nicholas I of Russia

Prince Philip himself grew up in the household of his uncle George, who would become the 2nd Marquess of Milford-Haven in 1921, and aunt Nadejda. 

After Prince George's death in 1938, the guardianship of Prince Philip was transferred to Lord Louis Mountbatten, youngest brother of George.

Life after Russian revolution

The extravagant life of Grand Duke Michael ended in 1918 when his cousin Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and the imperial properties were sequestered by the revolutionary government. 

As his wealth tied up with his family's imperial estates in Russia, his finances were greatly affected following the revolution.

He was forced to live in a modest household and relied on the financial support of his wealthy son-in-law, Sir Harold Wernher. 

Upon hearing of the murders of his relatives in Russia which included his three brothers, Grand Duke Michael gradually became erratic, short-tempered and rude to his servants. 

He was described as unbalanced, emotional, desperate and cruel during the remaining years of his life, living in guilt of not being able to help his brothers and relatives slain in Russia, 

In September 1927, his wife died and on April 26, 1929, he contracted influenza and died in London. He was buried beside his wife at Hampstead cemetery.

A Love That Endures

Prohibited from returning to Russia because of marrying someone of unequal birth, Grand Duke Michael, in resentment, published a book in 1908, "Never Say Die", a story about morganatic marriage. 

In the book's preface, he wrote:

"Belonging, as I do, to the imperial blood and being a member of one of the reigning houses, I would like to prove to the world how wrong it is in thinking 0 as the majority of mankind is apt to do - that we are the happiest beings on this earth. There is no doubt that we are well situated but is wealth the only happiness in the world?".

More than the story of misfortune and disobedience, barred from returning to his own country, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich found fulfillment and happiness living in a foreign land. All because of following the desire of his heart and turned back on the trappings of royalty.

His story of choosing love over duty is just one of those stories of love that knows no bound. A love that endures. A sacrificing love worth fighting for. 

For Grand Duke Michael, and royals like King Edward VIII, King Carol II of Romania, and other European royal princes, who renounced their rights to the throne because of love, what is left in the world of the living if you can't be with the one you loved?

Indeed, choose love that's worth fighting for.

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Happy Valentine's Day everyone. May your day be filled with peace, love, and joy. And may the desire of your heart wins. Have a safe celebration!

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