Maria Feodorovna (26 November 1847 – 13 October 1928), christened Dagmar, was a Danish princess who became Empress of Russia as spouse of Emperor Alexander III of Russia.
She was the second daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and Louise of Hesse-Cassel and sister of Britain’s Queen Alexandra, and King George I of Greece.
Among her children was the last Russian monarch, Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, whom she outlived by ten years.
Princess Marie Sophie 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 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 , the name which she took when she converted to Orthodoxy immediately before her 1866 marriage to the future Emperor Alexander III. She was known within her family as Minnie.
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 (one of whose sons would be elected as King of Norway).
Her elder, and favorite, sister, Alexandra married Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) in March 1863.
Alexandra, along with being queen consort of King Edward VII, was also mother of George V of the United Kingdom, which helps to explain the striking resemblance between their sons Nicholas II and George V. Within months of Alexandra’s marriage, Dagmar’s second older brother, Wilhelm, was elected as King George I of the Hellenes. Her younger sister was Thyra, Duchess of Cumberland. She also had another younger brother, Valdemar.
During her upbringing, Dagmar, together with her sister Alexandra, was given swimming lessons by the Swedish pioneer of swimming for women, Nancy Edberg; she would later welcome Edberg to Russia, where she came on royal scholarship to hold swimming lessons for women.
The rise of Slavophile ideology in the Russian Empire led Alexander II of Russia to search for a bride for the heir apparent, Tsarevich 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 homeland 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. 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.
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.
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.
Financial constraints had prevented her parents from attending the wedding, and in their stead, they sent her brother, Crown Prince Frederick. Her brother-in-law, the Prince of Wales, had also travelled to St. Petersburg for the ceremony; pregnancy had prevented the Princess of Wales from attending.
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 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 Crimean Peninsula.
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,” 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.
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 St. 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. 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 in Russia and almost 78 years after her death.