Thursday, 7 March 2019

Dagmar, a Danish princess who became a remarkable Tsarina

One problem with being born as a royal princess in past centuries was that you rarely had much choice as to who your life partner would turn out to be. In the case of Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she did not even get the royal prince that had originally been chosen for her, but his far less desirable younger brother.
Dagmar was born in 1847 as the second daughter of Prince Christian, who became King of Denmark in 1863. Christian had made an excellent match for his eldest daughter Alexandra, who in 1861 became engaged to the British heir to the throne, Prince Edward, and in 1864 he landed another prestigious prize by offering Dagmar as the prospective bride of the Russian Tsarevitch, Nicholas, and their engagement was duly announced. 
However, this did not last long due to the death of Nicholas from meningitis in April the following year. He was only 21.
On his deathbed, Nicholas expressed a wish that Dagmar should marry Alexander, his younger brother who was then aged 19. Dagmar therefore acquired a second prospective husband, whom she duly married on 9th November 1866, shortly before her 19th birthday.
The couple might have expected to enjoy a much longer period as crown prince and princess than they did, given that Alexander’s father, then reigning as Tsar Alexander II, was in excellent health and not yet 50 years old at the time of the younger Alexander’s and Dagmar’s wedding. However, tragedy intervened in 1881 when the Tsar was assassinated by bombs that were thrown into his carriage as he drove through the streets.
The crown prince was now Tsar Alexander III, and Dagmar, who had taken the names Maria Feodorovna on her marriage, was now the Tsarina. By this time she had had six of her seven children, although one had died in infancy. Her eldest son would become the last Tsar of Russia as Nicholas II.
With her husband Alexander as the nation’s ruler, the atmosphere of social and political life in Russia underwent a marked change. His father’s assassination had not been the first attempt on his life, and the new Tsar was determined to avoid becoming the next victim of the revolutionary mood that was building in the country. He therefore did everything he could to suppress all opposition to his autocratic rule, and to use whatever methods were needed to this end.
This attitude to politics suited his temperament, which was nothing like that of his somewhat mild-mannered father. He was a large, unwieldy man with gruff manners and a fierce temper. The Tsar’s word was law. The story is told that he was consulted about the route that a section of the proposed Trans-Siberian Railway should take. He took a ruler and drew a line on the map in front of him. However, his fingers projected over the top of the ruler and the line was straight with two small bumps on it. These were translated into two completely unnecessary diversions to nowhere that the railway was thus forced to take.
Physically, Alexander dwarfed his wife Maria, who was a small woman with delicate features. As a couple, the Tsar and Tsarina were completely mismatched. Maria had gone out of her way to understand the Russian people, not only learning their language but engaging in charitable and social events and becoming very popular as a result. Alexander had nothing but contempt for ordinary Russians, all of whom he regarded as potential assassins.
Alexander therefore spent much of his time listening to reports from his secret police about plots and threats, and passing judgment on the fate of people who were arrested as suspected terrorists. His worries were no means always baseless. One plot that failed involved a group of students who were hanged in 1887, one among their number being Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother would prove to be a far more successful revolutionary in later years, having assumed the nom de guerre of Lenin.
So what qualifies the former Princess Dagmar for the title of “great woman”? Perhaps nothing, but if one story is true – and it may well not be – there is certainly an element of greatness about her.
As mentioned before, Alexander gave much thought to the fate of potential suspects. His officials would produce lists of these and ask for decisions on what should happen to them. Occasionally, it might be thought that a relatively minor offence did not deserve the sanction of exile to the wilds of Siberia, where prisoners were often worked to death in terrible conditions. A piece of paper bearing the suspect’s name, with a recommendation for a pardon, would therefore land on Alexander’s desk to await his comment and signature.
The Tsarina took very little interest in politics, and she knew better than to challenge her husband in such matters. Nonetheless, she knew well what exile to Siberia meant, and she could relate to the heartbreak that such a fate would mean to the family of the person involved if the victim simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
On one occasion she walked into Alexander’s office to ask him a question, but he was not there. However, in his out-tray of signed papers she spotted a command concerning a prisoner for whom a pardon had been sought. Under the name of the man Alexander had written “Pardon impossible” on one line, and underneath “to send to Siberia”. Quick as a flash, Maria grabbed a pen and simply inserted a comma on the sheet, which now read:
“Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.
This is one of those stories that one wishes was true, even if it isn’t!
Alexander died of natural causes in 1894 at the age of 49, leaving the throne to his son Nicholas, who was eventually unable to prevent the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When this happened and the Bolsheviks took over, Maria left Russia, eventually ending her days back in Denmark and resuming her old name of Dagmar. She died in 1928 at the age of 80.
There is an interesting parallel between Dagmar’s story and that of a much earlier royal bride in another country. Catherine of Aragon was a foreign princess who was due to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, who unfortunately died at a young age before the marriage had been consummated. Catherine was then passed on to Arthur’s younger brother, who became King Henry VIII. It might also be thought that there were some similarities, both physical and temperamental, between Henry and Alexander, both of whom were absolute monarchs who would demand obedience and accept no opposition.
Was Dagmar a great woman? She was certainly a woman of compassion who may just possibly have saved a life thanks to a piece of quick thinking and the stroke of a pen.
© John Welford