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Born Royal and Died a Martyr. The Brutal Murder of Europe's Most Beautiful Princess

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia

She was born a princess, grew up in Windsor Castle, became a Grand Duchess by marriage, lived a life of a nun, died a martyr, and was declared a Saint. 

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine, later known as Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, was born into privilege and wealth but gave it up to devote her time to the poor.

A granddaughter of a British Queen

Grand Duchess Elizabeth, one of the granddaughters of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and the maternal great-aunt of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, was murdered during the Russian revolution, just because she was a blood relative of the Tsar and Tsarina. 

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia
Colorized photo of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia

She was born Her Serene Highness Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine on November 1,1864 in Darmstadt, Germany, as the second daughter of Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse, and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. She was known in her family as Ella. 

Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom
with their children

She had four sisters, Princess Victoria, who married Prince Louis of Battenberg (later Louis Mountbatten, 1st Marquess of Milford-Haven), Princess Irene, who married Prince Henry of Prussia (son of their maternal aunt, Princess Vicky, and paternal uncle, Frederick III of Germany), Princess Alix (later Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholas II of Russia), and Princess Marie, who died young.

Ella had two brothers, Ernest Louis who succeeded their father as Grand Duke of Hesse, and Prince Friedrich, who died young due to hemophilia.

The Hessian princesses, seated from left: Princess Alix, and Princess Ella. Standing: Princess Victoria and Princess Irene. Getty Images

Her older sister, Princess Victoria, was the maternal grandmother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, making her the maternal great-aunt of Prince Philip.

Family Tragedies

A series of family tragedies struct Princess Elisabeth's life early on. In 1873, her younger brother, Prince Friedrich, nicknamed Frittie, just two years old, fell off the window of their home in Darmstadt.

Princess Elisabeth (Grand Duchess Elizabeth) and her younger sister, Princess Alix (Empress Alexandra)

The infant prince died later due to internal bleeding brought by hemophilia, a blood disease that was present in the female line of Queen Victoria and passed through their sons.

In November 1878, an infectious disease called diphtheria, swept the Grand Ducal household. Only Princess Elisabeth did not fall ill with the disease because she was sent by her mother to the household of Princess Elisabeth of Prussia, her grandmother.

Her younger sister, Princess Marie, became seriously ill with the disease and died later. Her mother, Princess Alice, later caught the disease and died on December 14, 1878, on the 17th death anniversary of her grandfather, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Queen Victoria deeply mourned the death of her second daughter who was the first of her nine children to die. Shocked by Alice's death, the British Queen wrote a letter to her eldest daughter, Princess Vicky, who would later become Empress of Germany:

 "My precious child, who stood by me and upheld me seventeen years ago on the same day taken, and by such an awful and fearful disease. She had darling Papa's nature, and much of his self-sacrificing character and fearless and entire devotion to duty"

Following the death of Princess Alice, Princess Ella and her sisters, Princesses Victoria (the future Marchioness of Milford-Haven), Irene, and Alix were taken by Queen Victoria to live with her in Windsor Castle. 

Most Beautiful Princess in Europe

Princess Elisabeth was the toss of many eligible suitors in the continent, willing to ask her hand for marriage. She was beautiful, charming, attractive, and had a very accommodating personality.

Princess Ella of Hesse, later Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna

She was considered by many historians and contemporaries to be one of the most beautiful women in Europe at that time, and the most beautiful among European princesses of her time.

Her cousin Princess Marie of Edinburgh (daughter of Prince Alfred who would later become Queen Marie of Romania) wrote: "one could never take one's eyes off Ella" and that her features were "exquisite beyond words, it almost brought tears to your eyes."

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and Princess Ella

The future Wilhelm II of Germany described his cousin as "exceedingly beautiful, in fact, she is the most beautiful girl I ever saw." And wanted to marry her but she turned him down. 

Apart from Wilhelm II, Lord Charles Montagu, the second son of the 7th Duke of Manchester, also courted her but was turned down.

The future Frederick II, Grand Duke of Baden, also proposed to Princess Elisabeth but without success. Her grandmother, Queen Victoria, highly favored this match and described Frederick as "good and steady with such a safe and happy position"But Princess Elisabeth expressed no interest in Frederick. 

Grand Duchess of Russia

In June 1884, Ella married her second cousin, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, the fifth son of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Sergei's mother, Princess Marie of Hesse, was a cousin of her father.

Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia and Princess Ella

It was at their wedding that her younger sister, Princess Alix, met Sergei’s nephew, the future Tsar Nicholas II. Ten years later, Alix and Nicholas got married.

Following her marriage, Ella changed her name to Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia. She also switched religion, from Lutheran to Russian Orthodox. 

Later, she became deeply attached to charitable works, helping to improve the lives of the displaced people in Russian society.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Grand Duke Sergei

Ella and Sergei did not have any children but they stood as second parents to Grand Duchess Maria and Grand Duke Dmitri, children of Sergei's younger brother, Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich.

Grand Duke Sergei and his niece and nephew, Maria and Dmitri

Grand Duke Paul's first wife, Princess Alexandra of Greece and Denmark (paternal aunt of Prince Philip), died shortly after giving birth to Dmitri in 1891. 

Widowhood

In 1905, her husband was assassinated by Ivan Kalyayev, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party's combat detachment, while Sergei's carriage was passing through Nikolskaya Tower of the Kremlin.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Empress Alexandra

Grand Duchess Elizabeth rushed to the scene and helped pick up the pieces of her husband's remains which were scattered through the grounds due to the impact of the explosion. 

The assassin was captured and later executed, although Grand Duchess Elizabeth managed to forgive him during her visit to his prison. 

Grand Duchess Elizabeth deeply mourned the passing of her husband. Following Sergei's death, she retired from imperial life and sold all her royal possessions to build a convent. 

She totally consecrated herself to religious life, and in 1908, she founded the Charity of Martha and Mary in the Order of Mercy in Moscow. She also took her Holy Vow and became a nun. And immersed herself in feeding the poor.

Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow

However, dark moments in the Grand Duchess's life began to unfold when Russia plunged into Civil War during World War I. 

In March 1917, her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II, was forced to abdicate the Russian throne and his family and servants were put under house arrest.

An appeal for asylum in England was denied by their cousin, King George V, due to the British king's fear of putting the United Kingdom at risk.

Arrest and Murder

After the fall of the Russian empire, the Romanov grand dukes were arrested but spared the grand duchesses, so it came as a surprise when Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who already left her imperial life before the war and consecrated her life to religious and charitable activities, was arrested.

On May 7, 1918, Vladimir Lenin ordered the Cheka (Bolshevik's police) to arrest Grand Duchess Elizabeth without any clear reasons as to why she was arrested. Her friend, Sister Varvara Yakovleva, refused to leave her side and accompanied her to her detention cell.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth in her religious habit

They were brought to the city of Perm, and then to Yekateriburg, joining other Romanovs, but there was no indication she had met the Tsar and Tsarina during their stay in Yekaterinburg. 

The Bolsheviks decided to scatter the Romanovs, and on the 20th of May, Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her husband's relatives - Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, Prince John Konstantinovich, Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, Prince Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley (son of Grand Paul from his second marriage) were moved to Alapayevsk, together with other prisoners, Grand Duke Sergei's secretary, Fyodor Remez, and Sister Varvara.

On July 17, 1918, the Tsar, Tsarina, their children, and their servants were murdered in the mountain of Yekaterinburg. It was not known if Grand Duchess Elizabeth, or any of the grand dukes were informed on the death of their relatives.

On the night of July 17, Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her companions were transferred to the Upper Siniachikhensky factory compound and were driven by carriage on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha. They were ordered to walk into the forest, and to an abandoned iron mine, which was half-filled with water.

According to the memoir of one of the executioners, Vasily Ryabov, the Cheka hit the head of all the prisoners before pushing them down the pit. Grand Duke Sergei Mikhaelovich, who resisted, was the only one who was shot in the head before he was pushed into the pit.

The executioners then threw a hand grenade into the pit. Following the explosion, Vasily Ryabov claimed to have heard Ella and Sister Varvara singing an Orthodox hymn from the bottom of the shaft.

Ryabov threw a second grenade, but the singing continued. Finally, a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and was set on fire.

Controversy on the manner of her death

The account of Ryabov was contradicted by a Russian author, Lyudmila Kulikova, who published a book in 2019: The Way of the Cross of the Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna to the Alapaevsk Golgotha.

She claimed that all those theories published about the manner of the Grand Duchess's death, and those of other prisoners murdered in Alapeyevsk, were purely myths.

Presenting her research output related to the murders, Kulikova claimed there was no document that could prove the singing in the mineshaft existed.

She also claimed based on her research that Grand Duchess Elizabeth was already dead when she was thrown down the mine shaft.

Alapeyevsk was liberated by the Allied Army in September 2018. The authorities searched the imperial prisoners in the school where they first stayed but locals directed them to the abandoned iron mine in the forest. 

The Allied soldiers retrieved the eight bodies from the mineshaft. After conducting an autopsy, the eight bodies were placed in wooden coffins and brought to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Alapeyevsk, placing them in the crypt.

Materials of the forensic medical examination and autopsy later showed that all the prisoners were first inflicted with fatal blows, and then the bodies were thrown into the mine. 

Grand Duchess Elizabeth suffered a horrible death. According to Kulikova's research, she was already dead when she fell into the mine with her arms folded over her body. 

Her face was wrapped in a scarf, and her hands were tightly clenched, her fingers bent, and her nails sunk into the skin, which indicated that she was in severe pain when she died.

Burial

A year after the murder, the coffins were removed and transferred to a Russian Mission chapel in Beijing, China, for safety. 

But in 1921, the remains of Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Sister Varvara were taken to St. Mary Magdalene Church on the Mount of Olives in Gethsemane, Jerusalem in Israel. 

final resting place of Grand Duchess Elizabeth in Mount Olives

A visit by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, in 2018

So why Grand Duchess Elizabeth was taken to Jerusalem to be buried permanently? The theory that she wished to be buried there was based on Ella's words in 1888 during a visit to Jerusalem with her husband, Grand Duke Sergei.

Grand Duchess Ella was heard saying: "How good it was here. I'd like to be buried here". The transportation of her remains and Sister Varvara was reportedly arranged by her older sister, Princess Victoria, the Marchioness of Milford-Haven, with the British authorities in Jerusalem.

St. Mary Magdalene Church was built by Emperor Alexander III, the brother-in-law of Grand Duchess Elizabeth, as a memorial for his mother, Empress Marie.

Ella's wish was contradicted by Kulikova, saying it was not the last wish of Ella to be buried in Jerusalem and that the Grand Duchess's wish was in fact to be buried in Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow.

“I ask you to bury me in a crypt under the church I have now built in the name of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos in my possession on Bolshaya Ordynka in Moscow" -words of Grand Duchess Elizabeth in 1914 according to Kulikova's research.

Prince William visited Princess Alice grave in Jerusalem
Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge visited the final resting place of Princess Alice and Grand Duchess Elizabeth in St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, Jerusalem in 2018.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth's niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, requested to be buried beside her aunt in Mount of Olives. Princess Alice also followed her aunt in consecrating her life to religious works after her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark fell apart.

Prince William visited Princess Alice grave in Jerusalem
Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge visited the final resting place of Princess Alice and Grand Duchess Elizabeth in St. Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane, Jerusalem in 2018

Princess Alice died in 1969 and was buried in St. George's Chapel in Windsor. In 1988, her two surviving children, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Sophie of Hanover fulfilled her wish and brought her remains to Mount of Olives beside the Grand Duchess.

The Prince of Wales and his son, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, had visited the crypt at a separate time.

Sainthood

In 1981, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Sister Varvara, and the imperial grand dukes killed with them in the mineshaft were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as new martyrs. 

St. Elizabeth statue in Alapaevsk outside the church where she was first buried in 1918

In 1992, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate. She was one of the ten Modern Martyrs of the 20th century depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London, England.

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

St. Elizabeth statue in the grounds of Martha and Mary Convent in Moscow

On 8 June 2009, the Prosecutor General of Russia officially posthumously rehabilitated Elizabeth Feodorovna, along with other Romanovs who were murdered in Alapevsk.

"All of these people were subjected to repression in the form of arrest, deportation, and being held by the Cheka without charge," said a representative of the office.

One hundred four years later after her brutal murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth remained Europe's most beautiful princess. Her beauty remained unmatched up to the present time.

Her devotion to the poor, religious activities and charitable works remained the most unique in the world of royalty. After her niece, Princess Alice of Battenberg, none among the current royals emulated their charitable works and consecration to religious life.

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