Because I’ve been spending the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, there will be no weekly jewel roundup this week. Instead, please enjoy this glimpse of an incredible royal jewel moment that took place today in history!
On this day in 1894, more than a century ago, the eyes of the world were on Russia. Tsar Nicholas II, the young man who had become emperor only three weeks earlier, was preparing to marry a German princess. They couldn’t have known then that this imperial wedding, held under a cloud of mourning, would be the last nuptials of a Russian emperor and empress. Today, let’s look back on the unusual day, and the traditional jewels worn by the bride.
Nicholas, the eldest son of Emperor Alexander III and Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia, had wanted to marry Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine for years. Shy and pretty, the German princess was rumored as a possible match for numerous heirs across Europe. Her grandmother, Queen Victoria, had hoped that Alix would marry the Duke of Clarence and one day become Queen of the United Kingdom. (Alix wasn’t interested.) Victoria was extremely wary about the possibility of a Russian marriage for Alix, largely because she worried about the stability of the Russian throne. Nicholas’s parents also weren’t thrilled at the idea of the match. But when his father became ill, and it was clear that Nicholas wasn’t interested in marrying anyone else, the emperor and empress relented and allowed him to propose.
Securing Alix’s hand wasn’t that simple, though. She was in love with the Russian prince, but she turned down Nicholas’s initial proposal on religious grounds, as she felt she couldn’t give up her Lutheran faith to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Nicholas was distraught, reportedly exclaiming, “Do you think there can exist any happiness in the whole world without you!” It took the encouragement of her sister, Ella, who had married one of Nicholas’s Russian cousins, plus the urging of a mutual cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, to make Alix reconsider her stance. She accepted Nicholas’s second proposal in April 1894. The couple’s engagement was celebrated with presents, including a delicate tiara, and portraits, one of which can be seen above.
The wedding was planned for the following year, but in the months after the engagement, the family was rocked by the death of Nicholas’s father, Alexander III, on November 1, 1894. Alix had been able to meet with her father-in-law shortly before his death, but most of her first real experiences as a member of the family were related to his funeral, which took place on November 19. In the wake of his father’s death, and with the weight of the throne resting heavily on his shoulders, Nicholas decided that he wanted to marry Alix as soon as possible. She was received into the Russian Orthodox Church (a move that didn’t require her to give up her Lutheran faith) the day after Alexander III’s death, and she had taken the new name Alexandra Feodorovna. Nicholas wanted her to become Russia’s empress immediately.
But how could an imperial wedding be held in the midst of the mourning period for the late tsar? Every option was considered, including a small, private wedding. But several member of the Romanov family convinced Nicholas that a grand wedding in St. Petersburg was still the most appropriate move. The family took advantage of a quirk in the imperial mourning rules—the relaxation of mourning on imperial birthdays—and scheduled the wedding for November 26, Empress Marie Feodorovna’s birthday. The wedding would be held with all the necessary imperial pomp at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, but the Russian people felt like the timing was a bad omen: their new empress had “come to us behind a coffin.” Alix was uncomfortable with the plans as well, telling her sister Ella, “Our wedding seemed to me, a mere continuation of the funeral liturgy for the dead Tsar, with one difference; I wore a white dress instead of a black one.” Indeed, in the photograph of Nicholas above, taken on their wedding day, he’s wearing a black mourning band on the sleeve of his military uniform.
No photographs seem to have been taken of Alexandra Feodorovna in her wedding gown, perhaps because of the odd and unusual atmosphere surrounding a grand wedding in the midst of a funereal time. We have to be satisfied with descriptions, sketches, and paintings of the wedding instead. The elderly Queen Victoria couldn’t make the trip to Russia, so Grand Duchess Ella obligingly wrote her grandmother a letter containing a description and sketches of Alix’s wedding clothes and jewels. Ella knew the ensemble well: the bridal attire of the Romanovs was standard, dictated by imperial code, and Ella had essentially worn the very same thing for her own wedding.
All Romanov imperial brides wore dresses made of cloth of silver or gold, with jeweled buttons down the skirt, topped by a velvet and ermine mantle. Their diamond accessories included the grand tiara made for Empress Elizabeth, which featured the Paul I Pink Diamond, as well as the Nuptial Crown, the Cherry Earrings, the Diamond Necklace, the Diamond Bracelet, and the Cloak Clasp, which had been made for Catherine the Great. Here, Ella sketches Alix’s wedding dress without the jewels and the velvet cloak. In the letter, she discusses the lace veil worn by Alix as her bridal veil. It was the same lace wedding veil that had been worn by her mother, Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, and her sisters, Princess Victoria, Grand Duchess Ella, and Princess Irene.
Ella’s renderings of the bridal ensemble are charming, but even better depictions were made by a pair of painters. Danish artist Laurits Tuxen painted the wedding scene above, completing it in 1895. The painting is now part of the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which is housed in the Winter Palace, where the wedding actually took place. Tuxen was a favored court painter of the extended Danish royal family, often completing commissions for Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom and her sister, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia. You’ll note both Marie and Alexandra in the center of the painting’s background, as well as their father, King Christian IX of Denmark. Queen Victoria also commissioned a version of the same painting from Tuxen. It is still part of the Royal Collection today.
And here’s another version of the same scene, painted by the Russian artist Ilya Repin. The painting is now part of the collection of the Russian Museum, which is housed in several former royal residences in St. Petersburg, including the Mikhailovsky Palace. This depiction shows two of the crown bearers holding nuptial crowns over Nicholas and Alexandra’s heads. The bearers at the wedding were all royal relatives: Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (Nicholas’s younger brother), Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich (Nicholas’s first cousin), Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich (Nicholas’s first cousin and Alexandra’s brother-in-law), and Prince George of Greece and Denmark (Nicholas’s cousin, who famously saved his life during an assassination attempt in 1891).
Contemporary newspapers also tried to paint a picture of the ceremony for their readers in words. One reporter described the ceremony as follows: “When all the wedding guests were assembled, the marriage ceremony was carried out according to the rites of the Greek Church. The service was begun by the singing of the 127th Psalm, and lasted nearly two hours. After a few words of instruction to the couple, admonishing them in marriage to live acceptably unto God, the Metropolitan turned to the Czar, and said: ‘Hast thou, Nicholas, a good and unconstrained will, and a firm determination to take unto thyself this woman, Alix, whom thou see’st before thee?’ The Czar made reply: ‘I have, most reverend father.’ The Metropolitan asked: ‘Thou has not avowed to another bride?’ To which the Czar answered: ‘I have not avowed myself, reverend father.’ Similar questions were asked of Princess Alix, with similar responses.”
The report continued, “Then the Metropolitan took two crowns, and placing the first one upon the head of the Czar, said: ‘The servant of God, Nicholas, is crowned for the handmaid of God, Alix, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ Placing the other crown upon the head of the bride, he said: ‘The handmaid of God, Alix, is crowned for the servant of God, Nicholas, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ The prelate then blessed the couple thrice, saying, ‘O Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honour.’ After anthems and prayers, the ‘common cup’ was brought and blessed. The cup was filled and handed first to the Czar and then to the Princess, each taking a sip of the wine. The Metropolitan then took the couple by the hand, the groomsman and bridesmaid walking behind and holding the crowns over their heads, and led them three times around the dais, the choir meanwhile singing a troparion. The rings were exchanged for the third and last time. The priest then offered up a prayer, after which he pronounced the blessing.”
Above is a gorgeous detail of the Tuxen painting, showing the Metropolitan holding up the couple’s rings as they hold candles. The detail nicely shows the silver cloth of Alexandra’s gown, the sparkling diamond jewels, and the lace veil over her cloak. Interestingly, newspaper reports from the time describe Alexandra’s mantle as being made of purple velvet, but Tuxen renders it in the same gold shade as the garments worn by the priests. The wedding, with the glittering couple and the royals dressed in their finest court gowns and shining uniforms, was indeed a golden moment of respite from the dark gloom of mourning. But it was only a moment. The couple processed through the streets of St. Petersburg after the wedding, but then it was straight back to strict court mourning: no wedding breakfasts or receptions, and no honeymoon trips. Meanwhile, back in England, Queen Victoria decided to keep the party going. She held a banquet at Windsor Castle to celebrate the wedding, toasting the bride and groom and reading telegraphs from the new Empress Alexandra and from the Prince and Princess of Wales, who had traveled to Russia as her representatives.