Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin's Tiara

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin’s Tiara: Part 1

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Gossip, a grudge, a ghost, a fire…and the girl who survived them all.


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This is part one of the story of Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and her tiara. It was supposed to be a simple story about a tiara – a pretty hat made of diamonds. I didn’t expect it to take me to the darkest places of the 20th century. From war and betrayal to the Third Reich, Soviet prisons, and nuclear war, this story has it all – including a happy ending.

Because unlike the story of many royal jewels, this one ends with the tiara safe and sound.

I wish I could say the same for all the people in this story.

The Tiara

Our story begins in the spring of 1904, when Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV of Mecklenburg-Schwerin needed a wedding present for his bride.

Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV of Mecklenburg-Schwerin 1882-1945 - future husband of Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

His mother, a Russian grand duchess, pointed him straight to her favorite jeweler, Fabergé.

But Friedrich Franz was apparently a bargain shopper.

With a month to go before the June wedding, his Grand Ducal Cabinet and Eugène Fabergé were still arguing over the price. Fabergé had given Friedrich Franz two choices: an all-diamond tiara for 10,000 rubles or an aquamarine and diamond tiara for 7,600 rubles. He’d even sent his only sketches of the designs to help Friedrich Franz pick a winner. But something must have gone haywire, because Friedrich Franz never wrote back.

As days passed with no response, Eugène Fabergé looked at the calendar, crossed his arms, tapped his foot, and started freaking out. With only two weeks to go, he wrote to Friedrich Franz again – he needed an answer.

Carved stone business storefront with Faberge name etched onto the side.
The Fabergé storefront in St. Petersburg as it appears today. Image by DIMSFIKAS, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This time, the Grand Ducal Cabinet replied and asked Fabergé to confirm that the tiara would be ready in time for the wedding. “As if,” Fabergé said. He suggested Friedrich Franz give his bride the drawing of her new tiara in place of the real thing. No word on how well that went over as a wedding present.

The Grand Ducal Cabinet asked Fabergé to confirm that the tiara would be ready in time for the wedding. “As if,” Fabergé said.

There is a bit of a mystery about this tiara, though. Its inventory number is 73828. According to Wartski London, that number dates this piece to late 1903 or early 1904 – before Fabergé’s May 10 letter that proposed an aquamarine and diamond tiara. Since Fabergé items received an inventory number when they were taken into stock, not when they were designed, this indicates the tiara was already complete…and if that was the case, it should have been ready to ship by the date of the wedding. Did Fabergé hold it back, pissed that Friedrich Franz and his cabinet had taken so long to get back to him? We may never know.

In any case, a month after the wedding, the tiara arrived.

It was worth waiting for.

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in a lacy off-the-shoulder evening gown. She's wearing the aquamarine and diamond tiara as well as a multi-strand pearl choker and three more pearl necklaces.
Grand Duchess Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in her Fabergé tiara. Image public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That delicate, lacy design is full of good-luck symbols. The forget-me-not flowers represent eternal love. The arrows represent Cupid. The base contains cushion- and rose-cut diamonds, topped with nine pear-shaped aquamarines.

So who was the lucky owner of this Fabergé tiara?

Princess Alexandra of…it’s complicated.

Daddy Issues

The problem started with Prussia.

In 1866, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck picked a war with Austria to take over as shot caller among German-speaking countries in Europe. King George of Hanover, a cousin of Queen Victoria, sided with Austria. But just in case Austria lost, he sent Hanover’s treasury – 90 trunks full of gold, silver, cash, and stocks – to the Bank of England for safe keeping. (Stehlin, 28-9)

George wearing an ivory military tunic embroidered with gold and red. He holds a silver helmet with a white plume.
King George V of Hanover. Painting by Carl Jagerspacher, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Turns out, that was a smart move. Prussia trounced Austria, and two weeks later, Hanover surrendered – and was promptly annexed by Prussia. Now homeless and jobless, the Hanoverian royal family settled in Austria near their defeated ally, Emperor Franz Josef.

But Bismarck wasn’t done tormenting King George. He demanded George give back the treasure he’d sent to England. His argument? That was state property, not personal property. We own your state, so we own your treasury, too.

But George disagreed. He went onto his balcony, faced the general direction of Prussia, and gave Bismarck a one-fingered salute.

George went onto his balcony, faced the general direction of Prussia, and gave Bismarck a one-fingered salute.

“So that’s how you want to play it,” Bismarck said. Then he confiscated everything the royal family had left in Hanover: palaces, lands, artwork, jewelry, and cash. “I’ll just keep an eye on this for you,” he said, watching the interest on George’s confiscated millions grow and grow and grow.

Bismarck is seated, wearing a dark 3-piece suit with a matching cravat tied in a tiny bow.
Otto von Bismarck in 1870. Image public domain from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

To end the stalemate, all George had to do was abdicate—a formality really, since Prussia had already formally annexed Hanover. But George refused. It was the principle of the thing. He’d been crowned and anointed, and no one could change that, not even Bismarck. He refused to give up hope that he’d get his country back someday.

But the longer he held out, the less anyone cared. Yes, it was unfair what had happened to Hanover. Yes, Bismarck was a dick. But what could anyone do about it?

Yes, it was unfair what had happened to Hanover. Yes, Bismarck was a dick. But what could anyone do about it?

It wasn’t just the dethroned king whose life was never the same. He had a son – our heroine’s father – who was now in a very strange position. Crown Prince Ernst August of Hanover was now a prince without a country or a crown.

But in 1872, everything changed when Ernst August met a beautiful princess running from a devastating tragedy: Princess Thyra of Denmark.

Mommy Issues

If the Danish royal family were the Brady Bunch, Thyra was Jan.

Big sister Alix was the beautiful one. Middle sister Minnie was the vivacious one. With her calm and quiet demeanor, Thyra was easier to overlook. Although both of her sisters married future kings, no such fate awaited Thyra. There’s a legend that says a gypsy once told her she would be a queen without a crown. Turns out, that prediction came true.

Thyra, Alix, and Dagmar posed together, wearing ruffled day dresses and hats with small plumes.
Minnie, Alix, and Thyra photographed by Georg Emil Hansen, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Both of Thyra’s sisters were older, so when they married and left home, Thyra clung to her brother Waldemar. But when he joined the navy, she was left alone with their parents. Lonely and looking for a friendly face, Thyra made friends with one of her oldest brother’s staff officers, a cavalry lieutenant named Vilhelm Frimann Marcher.

Marcher in his cavalry uniform, with lots of braiding on the jacket and cap. He has pale eyes and thick blond hair.
Vilhelm Frimann Marcher. Image via CarolathHabsburg on Facebook.

But according to most sources, that relationship went far beyond friendship. It’s said that in early 1871, at the age of 18, Thyra fell in love with Marcher. She got pregnant and, once her mom found out, was swept away to Greece to have the baby. Her child, a girl, was given up for adoption. Marcher committed suicide.

Thyra in profile, with long dark braided hair. She's wearing a ruffled off-the-shoulder dress, a black choker, and golden bracelets.
Young Thyra. Image via CarolathHabsburg.tumblr.com.

Now nineteen and heartbroken after her tragic first love affair, Thyra made her way home from Greece. On the way, her parents took her to Rome for some sightseeing, thinking it would cheer her up. There, she met Ernst August, our prince without a throne, now known as the Duke of Cumberland, thanks to a British title passed down from his grandfather.

Ernst August in a simple military uniform with four medals. He has short, dark hair, a full, short beard. and a curved mustache.
Crown Prince Ernst August of Hanover – er, the Duke of Cumberland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He fell for Thyra right away, but there was a problem.

Bismarck took Ernst August’s crush as a personal insult, as if those feelings had been engineered just to piss him off. At the time, Denmark had bad blood with Prussia, too. If Thyra and Ernst August were to marry, it would look like their families were ganging up on Prussia. No one liked the optics here, so King Christian IX of Denmark’s advisors suggested he ghost Thyra’s new suitor.

And he did.

So six long years went by.

Finally, in 1878, Thyra’s older sister Alix decided something had to be done. She and their mother, Queen Louise, arranged a secret meeting for Thyra and Ernst August. By the end of that meeting, they discovered Thyra in Ernst August’s arms – he had accepted her proposal of marriage. Yes, that’s right – she proposed to him.

Close-up of Thyra with a flower in her hair, lacy day dress, and a thick black ribbon choker around her neck.
Young Thyra. Image via Pinterest.

They married in Copenhagen on December 22, 1878 and settled in Gmunden, Austria, where Thyra gave birth to six kids in nine years. They built a gothic castle called Schloss Cumberland, which became a Hanoverian court in exile. Prussia was still a four-letter word in their household, as Ernst August stubbornly refused to give up the idea of someday regaining his kingdom.

This is the legacy and the family into which our heroine was born.

It’s a lot of setup, but it’s worth it.

Meet Alix

Now I can introduce our tiara wearer – Princess Alexandra Louise Marie Olga Elisabeth Therese Vera, nicknamed “Alix.”

Princess Alexandra of Hanover 1882-1963 - later Grand Duchess Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

She was Thyra’s second daughter, born on September 29, 1882 and named for her godmother, Thyra’s sister Alexandra, the Princess of Wales.

Family portrait with Ernst August, Thyra, and their 6 kids. Alix is standing on the right, in a ruffled skirt, short-sleeved blouse, holding a posy in her left hand.
That’s Alix on the bottom right. Image from the studio of E. Rohrmann, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Like most royal children, Alix’s life had a routine. The family spent most of their time in Gmunden and Vienna, with occasional trips to visit family in Germany and Denmark.

When she was five years old, her mom went through a particularly bad case of post-partum depression, followed by another pregnancy. It’s said that Thyra had a nervous breakdown. She stayed for six months in the Doebling Asylum, a clinic for the rich and royal just outside Vienna. If you’ve seen my video on Princess Louise of Belgium, you know this is the same place her husband had her interned after the scandal of her affair with a younger man.

Thyra was one of the lucky ones who got to go home.

Thyra in an evening dress with a lace bertha and sleeves. She's wearing a diamond choker with a cross hanging from it.
Thyra by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But Thyra wasn’t the only one in the family having some health issues.

In the winter of 1896, Alix’s family checked into the Park Hotel in sunny Cannes in the south of France because of her brother Georg Wilhelm’s poor health.

They weren’t the only royals chasing sunshine that winter. The Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was there with his wife and three kids. Alix met the grand duke’s son and heir, Friedrich Franz, and befriended his two sisters.

Anastasia sits between her two daughters, and Friedrich Franz stands behind them. Only Cecilie, the youngest, is smiling.
Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna with her 3 kids, left to right: Alexandrine, Friedrich Franz, and Cecilie. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But tragedy struck her new friends that spring. Their father, the grand duke, was sick – he had chronic asthma and a weak heart.

Friedrich Franz III wearing an elaborate military tunic with gold braid at the shoulders. He has an elegant curled mustache and a small pointed beard.
Grand Duke Friedrich Franz III of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Image by Schröder, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On April 10, 1897, he was too sick to have any visitors. That night, while his family was eating dinner, he went into the garden to get some air. Something – maybe vertigo, maybe an asthma attack – made him lightheaded. He fell over the high wall that bordered the garden, landing in the street below.

A three-story Italianate mansion with a garden sloping down to a 90-foot wall.
Villa Wenden. The people standing at the garden wall show you how high it was. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He survived the fall and was carried home, but no one could save him. An hour later, after a tearful goodbye, he died. To this day, you’ll see the rumor – often accepted as fact – that he committed suicide, jumping to his death. But there’s no real evidence that this was what actually happened.

At the time, 14-year-old Alix grieved with her new friend Cecilie – and had no idea how close their families would become.

Hi, Society

On January 10, 1901, 18-year-old Alix attended her first ball – the annual Viennese hofball. It was also the debut of Archduchess Henriette, the sister of Archduchess Maria Anna, whom you might remember from this post.

The hofball was a glorious riot of choreographed color, sparkle, sweat, and champagne. The emperor’s brother, Archduke Ludwig Viktor, escorted her into the ballroom, where she was one of the first ladies on the floor to dance after the opening waltz.

Alix in an off-the-shoulder pale dress with a large corsage at the neckline. She's wearing one strand of pearls and a gold chain.
Alix by an unknown photographer, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As happens with every eligible princess, engagement rumors soon began to fly. And why not? Alix was striking – slim, with dark hair and greenish eyes. That “greenish” description came years later, courtesy of her son, Christian Ludwig.

Like many royal women, she was shy and reserved in public but much more open and relaxed in private. She was definitely an outdoor girl – hiking, climbing, and sailing were her favorite pastimes. For the rest of her life, she’d talk about how much she loved climbing the hills around Gmunden. In fact, a friend who saw her decades later remarked on how she still walked with her toes pointing out, the way old-fashioned climbers used to do.

The village of Gmunden, nestled in a valley with rolling hills and then tall mountains in the background.
Gmunden photo by Eweht, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We know she didn’t like the detail-oriented pastimes usually associated with royal women: knitting, embroidering, or lace making. But she did tackle bigger projects, like weaving rugs. We also know that she played the violin and must have been pretty good at it – her instructor left her a valuable antique violin dating back to 1771.

Alix making yarn, dressed in folk costume consisting of a black bodice, striped skirt, apron, and cap with long tassels.
Alix in folk costume. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Alix’s father had no crown and no kingdom, there was always the chance that he’d settle his quarrel with Bismarck and get his family’s sequestered fortune back. That fact made Alix and her sisters good prospects on the European marriage market.

Alix and Olga wearing matching off-the-shoulder dresses with corsages, updos, and corsages on their bodices.
Alix and her younger sister, Olga. Image via the Grand Ladies site.

For two years, European newspapers obsessed over the idea of a Prussian husband for Alix. I picture Ernst August tapping his mic and going, “Is this thing on? Can you hear me now? The Prussians are assholes, you guys. I thought you knew that about me.”

I picture Ernst August tapping his mic and going, “Is this thing on? The Prussians are assholes, you guys. I thought you knew that about me.”

Those newspapers gave varying descriptions of Alix: some called her tall, some called her beautiful, others said she was good looking but specifically not beautiful. Some said her prospective bridegroom was Prince Albert of Prussia, one of the richest members of the Prussian royal family. Others said she was about to marry the crown prince.

Now, it is true that Kaiser Wilhelm II needed a bride for his eldest son. There were several English princesses available, but much like Great White, Wilhelm was once bitten, twice shy – he remembered how unpopular his liberal English mother had been.

Princess Victoria wearing an off-the-shoulder lacy dress with purple ribbons and pearl jewels: drop earrings, necklace, brooch, and pearls wound through her braided hair.
Wilhelm’s mom, Victoria – Princess Royal of Great Britain & Ireland. Painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Everything came to a head in March of 1903. Twenty-one-year-old Alix and her family were in Copenhagen for a party. When news broke that Kaiser Wilhelm was stopping by, everyone thought this was it – he was coming specifically to see if Alix was cut out to be the future empress of Germany.

But Ernst August wasn’t having it. He packed up his family and left early just to avoid Wilhelm. Officially, Ernst August said they left because Alix’s brother was sick. Unofficially, it was a case of “Man, I fucking hate that guy.”

That fall, they were back in Denmark for a family visit at Fredensborg Castle. There, Alix saw a few familiar faces – Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV and Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, her old friends from Cannes. They were visiting their sister, Alexandrine, who’d married into the Danish royal family.

Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in a long-sleeved high-necked white wedding dress with Prince Christian of Denmark in an ornate military uniform including a saber.
Alexandrine and Prince Christian of Denmark on their wedding day. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

During that trip, Friedrich Franz and Alix got engaged. Here’s what we don’t know: was it love? Or just a question of being in the right place at the right time? They’d seen each other on and off over the years, so they weren’t strangers. And his mom, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia, reportedly thought he was getting too serious and too stubborn and he needed a wife sooner rather than later.

Friedrich Franz in a 3-piece suit and checkered bow tie with his mom, Anastasia, in a dark dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves and a tall hat with multiple plumes.
Friedrich Franz and his mom, Anastasia Mikhailovna. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But whether the match was based on love, familiarity, or just convenience, those feelings deepened over time. Years later, Anastasia’s lady-in-waiting had this to say about it: “How happy the Grand Duchess was about her son’s choice, how proud she was of her daughter-in-law…” (von Reibnitz-Maltzan, 93) I’m clinging to the phrase “her son’s choice.” That tells us this wasn’t a completely arranged marriage, and Alix made the whole family – even her mother-in-law – very happy.

Their engagement was announced on December 20, 1903 at Schloss Cumberland – the day before her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.

“See?” Ernst August said. “Told you I wouldn’t let my daughter marry a Prussian.”

Alix is seated, wearing a lacy high-necked white day dress. Friedrich Franz stands beside her in a military uniform, complete with saber.
Alix and Friedrich Franz – possibly an engagement photo. Image via the Grand Ladies site.

When Alix and her family made their usual visit to Vienna that February, Friedrich Franz joined them – and Franz Josef himself met Alix’s fiancé at the train station. The next morning, the emperor took Friedrich Franz down to the Habsburg crypt to lay wreaths on the coffins of his dead wife and son, Empress Elisabeth and Crown Prince Rudolf. At a ball the next night, Franz Josef congratulated Alix and Friedrich Franz, who gallantly replied with a toast to the old emperor’s health.

Everything was all set for a perfect spring wedding on June 7. But because this is the Cumberland family, something had to go wrong.

Three days before the wedding, Alix’s beloved aunt, Princess Marie of Hanover, went into surgery for appendicitis. She didn’t make it.

Princess Marie of Hanover in a pale lace-trimmed day dress reading a book next to her mom, Queen Marie of Hanover.
Marie (left) reads a book to her mom, Queen Marie of Hanover. Image by Carl Jagerspacher, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It was too late to call off the wedding—all the hotels in Gmunden were booked and the guests were on their way. But it was also rude to party when your dead aunt’s body was laid out in the nearby church. So they cancelled two days of pre-wedding festivities, including the wedding ball, out of respect.

Newspapers across the world seemed to be very confused about who had actually died. One New York Times article said it was Alix’s sister, Marie Louise, who had died. Another said it was her grandma, Queen Marie of Hanover. This is what happens when you name everyone Marie.

Guests poured into Gmunden from Baden, Württemberg, Hanover, Denmark, and Great Britain. Schloss Cumberland’s kitchen couldn’t feed everyone, so they had to eat in shifts at the various hotel restaurants in town. I don’t know about you, but I love strange little details like that!

Alix in a high-necked long-sleeved white wedding dress. Friedrich Franz is in a military uniform. He holds his saber and helmet.
Alix and Friedrich Franz’s wedding. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

On the morning of June 7, Alix and Friedrich Franz had a civil wedding in Schloss Cumberland. Then, at 12:15 pm, they had a church wedding. Alix wore a white dress with a nearly 10-foot train. Holding her veil was the Hanoverian nuptial crown, a small diamond coronet made in 1761 for the wedding of King George III of England and Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (of dubious Bridgerton fame).

Diamond crown with an ermine base, four arched tiers, and cross and orb on top.
The Hanoverian nuptial crown, from a larger painting of Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

That afternoon, they left for her family’s hunting lodge to begin their honeymoon. A few days later, however, they were due in Homburg, Germany for the Gordon Bennett International Motor Races. Friedrich Franz and his mom both loved cars, and they’d already bought tickets before the wedding. Plus, her new mother-in-law was also the patroness of the German Automobile Club. No word on how Alix felt about having her honeymoon interrupted by an auto race.

Decorated grandstands beside a racing straightaway with a 1904 racing car zooming down the homestretch.
This is the actual 1904 Gordon Bennett race – and you can see the German imperial box on the center right. Image by La Vie au Grand Air, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After the honeymoon, it was time to face the fate that awaited most princesses –starting a new life in your husband’s lands…with his family and his customs.

The good news? She had this tiara as a symbol of her new home and her new life. It arrived about a month after the wedding, in early July. She wore it for the first time on July 8, 1904 for a court ball put on by the city of Schwerin. That night, she wore pink, her favorite color, and this tiara. I gotta say, I love her for this – because as a little girl, my two favorite colors were pink and turquoise.

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in a pink dress, pearl necklaces, and this diamond and aquamarine tiara. She's holding a fan.
Alix in this tiara and her pink dress. Image by Fritz Heuschkel, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mommy Issues, Part Deux

If you’re like me before I researched this, you don’t know much about Mecklenburg other than the fact that it exists. Located on the northeast coast of Germany, it was divided into two duchies in 1701, possibly just to fuck with those of us pronouncing and typing these words hundreds of years later. In 1815, Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz became grand duchies thanks to the Congress of Vienna.

Map of imperial Germany with Mecklenburg-Schwerin - on the Baltic coast below Denmark - highlighted.
That’s Mecklenburg-Schwerin highlighted in mauve. Map by Milenioscuro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Alix’s new home, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was the larger of these two duchies.

As for her new in-laws, we already know that Friedrich Franz’s father had died in 1897. But what about his mom? I won’t say too much about her here, because I’m going to do a post on her shortly – and her story is a lot more complex than most contemporary gossip gave her credit for. But here’s how she was perceived at the time.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia 1860-1922, mother-in-law of Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna spent most of her time on the French Riviera. She’d developed a reputation for partying and high-stakes gambling, often with her father and brothers. In late 1902, she’d disguised an out-of-wedlock pregnancy by calling it a tumor. When it was time to give birth, she told everyone she had chicken pox and went into quarantine. Later, a little boy was seen playing in her garden.

Obviously, this wasn’t the kind of scandal-free life a royal widow was supposed to live. Anastasia didn’t care, like, at all. But other royals did, and trouble was brewing because of it.

The Times They Are a Changin’

In 1904, something happened that hadn’t happened for decades: a member of the Hanoverian royal family set foot in Berlin.

Every fall, Kaiser Wilhelm II held an annual review of his Guards Army Corps. That year, Friedrich Franz and Alix attended as his guests. On the review field, Wilhelm named Alix an honorary colonel of the 8th Regiment of Grenadiers. Not everyone thought it was a great honor, however. A British newspaper published an article titled “Lady Colonels Most Numerous in Germany,” with the line, “The Kaiser creates them in batches every time he has nothing else to do.”

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in military uniform (including helmet), riding sidesaddle on a horse.
Postcard painted by Storke, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Clearly, the author didn’t understand what a big deal this was.

Maybe, just maybe, it was a sign that this was the time to bury the hatchet between Hanover and Prussia.

Alix was in Prussia again in 1905 for the social event of the year: her sister-in-law Cecilie’s wedding to the kaiser’s son and heir.

There was total drama behind the scenes, though. It started with the fear of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s parents that gossip about Cecilie’s mom, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna, would tarnish the Prussian court. Kaiser Wilhelm II allowed Anastasia to attend the wedding on one condition: she could return to Berlin only once for the rest of her life – for the birth of Cecilie’s first child. Other than that, she would never be allowed to come visit her daughter in Berlin.

Anastasia, in what must have been a humbling moment, agreed. Cecilie married Crown Prince Wilhelm on June 6, 1905.

Cecilie in an off-the-shoulder white wedding dress - her arm is linked with  Wilhelm's. He wears a military uniform.
A later image commemorating Cecilie and Wilhelm’s wedding. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

For better or for worse, Alix and her adopted country now had closer ties than ever to Prussia and imperial Germany.

Maybe, Baby

For most of human history, royal women have had one job – provide their husband with an heir. But years went by with no cradle in the Schloss Schwerin nursery.

In newspapers around the world, the gossip columnist Marquise de Fontenoy speculated on who might inherit the throne next, already assuming Alix and Friedrich Franz would never have children. Did Alix know people were talking about her like this, as if she were already irrelevant? I wish I could tell you.

Did Alix know people were talking about her like this, as if she were already irrele­vant? I wish I could tell you.

Then, in late 1909 – five years after getting married – Alix realized she was pregnant.

On April 22, 1910, Alix gave birth to a boy: their son and heir. A shoemaker in Schwerin postponed his own son’s baptism so he could give his son the same name as Alix’s: Friedrich Franz Nicholas Wilhelm Michael Franz Josef Ernst August Hans. The shoemaker wanted to give his baby every single one of those names, but the local pastor was like, “Seriously?” They compromised with “Friedrich Hans.” The shoemaker’s wife had the most practical perspective of all of them: “Who cares what the baby’s name is? He’s only ever going to be called Fritz anyway.” (The Globe, July 19, 1910)

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in a pale dress holding her baby, dressed in a long christening gown.
Alix and her son, Friedrich Franz. Image by Fritz Heuschkel, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A year and a half later, Alix was pregnant again.

But a few months into her pregnancy, tragedy struck. On May 20, 1912, her oldest brother died in a car accident in Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent two of his sons to keep watch over the body until it could be moved to Gmunden. When Alix’s other brother went to thank the kaiser in person, Wilhelm’s only daughter fell head over heels in love with him. It was imperial Germany’s version of Romeo and Juliet – the children of warring families offering both sides a chance to reconcile.

It was imperial Germany’s version of Romeo and Juliet – the children of warring families offering both sides a chance to reconcile.

Luckily, the tragedy didn’t seem to affect Alix’s pregnancy. That September, she gave birth to a second son, Christian Ludwig. It was touch-and-go for awhile, since he had the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, but in the end, mama and baby were just fine.

Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin holding her two sons, Friedrich Franz - about 2 years old - and Christian Ludwig - a few months old.
Alix and Friedrich Franz (left) and Christian Ludwig (right). Image by Fritz Heuschkel, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As Alix and Friedrich Franz got used to hearing the pitter patter of a new set of feet, her brother continued trying to cut through the red tape and political ill-will that was holding up his engagement to Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia.

For once, true love prevailed and the couple married on May 24, 1913 in Berlin.

Viktoria Luise holding a rose, standing beside Ernst August, dressed in a military tunic.
Viktoria Luise and Alix’s brother, Ernst August. Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, their two families agreed on something…but Alix’s father, Ernst August, still refused to abdicate the non-existent Hanoverian throne. Too bad it was about to become a moot point, like arguing about which song the band on the Titanic should play next.

Ghost Story

In December of 1913, the family’s main residence, Schloss Schwerin, caught fire. A few newspaper reports hinted that it might have been set intentionally by a servant, but it wasn’t anything like that. In order to show movies, they had installed a screen and a projector – and someone put the wires behind the room’s wallpaper. According to Alix’s son, it had smoked for a week and no one could figure out where the smoke was coming from until the wall burst into flame.

Schloss Schwerin bordered by a lake with several small boats around it.
Schloss Schwerin in about 1900. Image public domain from Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

When the fire broke out, Alix and Friedrich Franz were playing billiards with a few guests. When they realized what was happening, they called the local fire department. But it was such a small department that there wasn’t much they could do. So they called the Hamburg fire department, which sent two fire trucks by train that arrived two and a half hours later.

Alix’s sister-in-law Cecilie later wrote about how brave Alix was, attempting to save a precious Gobelin tapestry in the dining room. She says Alix only gave up when a staircase collapsed beside her and a set of double doors also collapsed, cutting off another escape route.

Alix only gave up when a staircase collapsed beside her and a set of double doors also collapsed, cutting off another escape route.

In the end, the entire family got out safely, but something very strange happened during the fire.

Alix said she’d seen a fireball shoot past her, and that a castle ghost – called the “Petermännchen”  – had been perched in or on the fireball. This was a friendly ghost, a dwarf who protected the castle, rewarded good people, and tried to annoy the evil ones. This was the next-to-last official sighting of the ghost; he supposedly appeared to a policeman in 1930, and hasn’t been seen since.

Painting of a very small man with long, flowing hair dressed in 17th century attire with a metal breastplate and boots with wide tops. He is the ghost seen by Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Schloss Schwerin’s Petermännchen. Image by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

You have to wonder where the ghost went, and why he didn’t warn people what was about to happen. Because by the time Alix’s family moved back in, it was the spring of 1914.

The War to End All Wars

When Germany declared war on Russia, France, and Great Britain in 1914, Friedrich Franz and Alix did what they could to support the war effort. Although he was technically a cavalry officer, Friedrich Franz didn’t command any troops. Instead, he visited soldiers from Mecklenburg posted on both fronts.

Friedrich Franz in a grey military coat surrounded by similarly dressed German officers.
Friedrich Franz (center) with officers of Grenadier Regiment No. 89. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Alix and her family dug up the castle’s flowerbeds and planted a veggie garden. Rationing and food shortages affected everyone, and Schwerin’s royal residents had to become more self-sufficient.

Alix’s son Christian Ludwig told one funny story about a wartime medal ceremony. Friedrich Franz was awarding an Iron Cross to a former Schwerin servant, when someone turned on the hose used to water the veggie garden. The stream of water hit Friedrich Franz in the face, lifting his hat right off his head. So Christian Ludwig offered his dad his tiny military cap as a replacement so the ceremony could continue.

The stream of water hit Friedrich Franz in the face, lifting his hat off his head. Christian Ludwig offered his dad his tiny military cap as a replacement.

But Friedrich Franz’s hat wasn’t the only casualty that day. There was an artist in the garden, painting. The stream of water knocked her and her painting back into the bushes. Christian Ludwig remembered the painting later hanging in Alix’s room.

In early 1916, as the war raged on, Alix got pregnant. Her baby girl, Olga, was born on December 28. A British newspaper announced the new arrival with weary resignation and an underwhelming headline: “One More German Princess.”

Screenshot of the Western Daily Press's headline: "One More German Princess" born to Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Western Daily Press, found in the British Newspaper Archive.

But six weeks later, little Olga died. I don’t have any information on what caused her death…but we know Alix was devastated. She established the Olga Foundation, which raised money for a State Committee for Infant and Young Child Care. Its mandate was to train nurses and midwives, improving care for all children in Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

As the war stalled and conditions in Germany worsened, Mecklenburg had to adapt. Both duchies had started working on a constitution before the war, and in 1917, they were still dicking around with revisions and had failed to accomplish anything useful.

Both duchies had started working on a consti­tution before the war. In 1917, they were still dicking around with revisions.

Massive strikes in the spring of 1918 revealed just how angry people were. And that November, when Germany surrendered and ended the war, a revolution engulfed the country.

A long parade of people marching down a Berlin street. One man holds a sign with a political slogan.
A demonstration in Berlin in 1918. Image public domain from Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

First, the Hohenzollern monarchy fell and Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands. Germany’s principalities and grand duchies began falling like dominoes, with rulers issuing abdication announcements daily.

Friedrich Franz didn’t want to be one of them.

On November 8, he and the Minister of State formed a new government. That guy told him to lay low while he negotiated with the newly formed Schwerin Soldiers’ Council. Maybe…just maybe…there would still be a place for the grand duke in the government.

But when the negotiations took days instead of hours, Friedrich Franz got sick of waiting. On November 14, he poked his head into the government building. When the leader of the revolutionaries spotted him, he asked Friedrich Franz to sign his abdication: “It’s a matter of your head and your life,” he said. (Mayer, Revolution) With no other option, Friedrich Franz signed.

The written and signed text of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz IV of Mecklenburg-Schwerin's abdication.
Friedrich Franz’s abdication letter. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If there’s a lesson here at all, it’s that when someone asks you to lay low for your own good, you should do it.

The new Free State of Mecklenburg-Schwerin demanded Friedrich Franz and his family leave the duchy. Two days after the abdication, Alix and her family boarded the royal train for the last time. It carried them out of Schwerin to a slaughterhouse, where they transferred from the royal train to a public saloon car.

The royal train carried them out of Schwerin to a slaughter­­house, where they transferred from the royal train to a public saloon car.

A slaughterhouse, you guys. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Their destination in exile was Denmark, where Friedrich Franz’s sister, Queen Alexandrine, had agreed to take them in. There, Alix and her family moved into the Amalienborg Palace and, later, Sorgenfri Castle.

Alexandrine wearing a loose, layered day dress with a pearl necklace.
Queen Alexandrine of Denmark. Image by Bain News Service, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Not long afterward, Alix realized she was pregnant again. Her baby was born on June 18, 1919 – a girl named Thyra, after her mom. If it was a normal 9-month pregnancy, Alix must have been pregnant during the scary days of the German revolution. Now we know it was largely bloodless, but at the time…no one knew that’s how things would shake down.

Friedrich Franz negotiated with the new government, which had confiscated all their assets. When could they come home? Would they be able to get any of their property back? There were castles, furnishings, artwork, and archives that all had to be sorted out and separated, just like in a divorce.

The marble-clad throne room of Schloss Schwerin. A gilded brocade chair sits under a canopy and a golden chandelier, in front of portraits of ancestors.
The throne room of Schloss Schwerin – part of what Friedrich Franz was fighting to keep. Image by Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, Friedrich Franz tried to play hardball. He refused to give up Schloss Schwerin, writing: “What does the government want with the large kitchen and all the many rooms? Surely they do not want to give parties and receive guests!” (Bock, 20)

A government that throws parties? Perish the thought.

But in the meantime, life went on.

One of my favorite stories about this time involves Alix’s son, Christian Ludwig. He’d just learned what happens when you scuff your feet on carpet and touch someone. When the German ambassador came for a visit, Christian Ludwig shocked the hell out of the poor guy.

Two boys in white winter gear playing outside in the snow with a sled - the sons of Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
Christian Ludwig (left) and his brother Friedrich Franz. Image by Ferdinand Esch, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Even in the midst of revolutions, kids will be kids.


And that’s where I’m going to leave Alix’s story for the moment. There’s so much more to tell, and I want to do it justice instead of cramming it all into one post or video.

In part two, I’ll tell you what happened to Alix and her family once they returned to Germany…and how they fared during the rise of the Nazi party. At the end of World War II, Alix’s story dovetails with a robbery and a manhunt for a famous Nazi. As if war weren’t terrifying enough, Alix also had to deal with a missing son, and the threat of nuclear war. It’s all coming in the next post – which will be released in two weeks.

Stay tuned for more on Alexandra of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and her tiara!

Click or tap here to continue the saga – part 2 is waiting for you!

The End


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Sources

Books & Articles

Bismarck and the Guelph Problem 1866-1890: A Study in Particularist Opposition to National Unity by Stewart A. Stehlin

Daisy Princess of Pless by Herself (read for free on Archive.org)

Dancing in Petersburg by H.S.H. The Princess Romanovsky-Krassinsky

Erzählungen aus Meinem Leben by Christian Ludwig Herzog zu Mecklenburg

A Family of Kings by Theo Aronson

Friedrich Franz III., Grossherzog von Mecklenburg-Schwerin, aus seinem Leben und aus seinen Briefen by Carl Schröder

From My Private Diaries by Daisy, Princess of Pless

Gest Alten vom Letzten Zarenhof: Und Andere Personliche Begegnungen by Baroness Louise von Reibnitz-Maltzan

The Grand Dukes by David Chavchavadze

The Heir Apparent by Jane Ridley

Huset Glücksborg by Bo Bramsen

The Kaiser’s Daughter by Viktoria Luise

Kunst in Schloss Ludwigslust by Sabine Bock

Little Mother of Russia by Coryne Hall

A Measure of Understanding by Friederike, Queen of the Hellenes

Memoirs of the Crown Prince of Germany by Frederick William, Crown Prince of Germany

The Memoirs of the Crown Princess Cecilie by Cecilie, Crown Princess of Germany (digital 1-hour check out from Archive.org)

The other Anastasia – a woman who loved and who lived” by Charlotte Zeepvat (Royalty Digest Quarterly, no. 2 2006)

Queen Alexandra by Georgina Battiscombe

Tatiana: Five Passports in a Shifting Europe by Tatiana Metternich

White Crow: The Life and Times of the Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich Romanov, 1859-1919 by Jamie H. Cockfield

Online Sources

Fabergé Tiaras and the Unveiling of an Acquisition” by Christel Ludewig McCanless and Kristin Mills (Fabergé Research Site Newsletter, Fall and Winter 2019)

Museum News” by Christel Ludewig McCanless and Kristin Miss (Fabergé Research Site Newsletter, Summer 2018)

Rare Aquamarine and Diamond Tiara, Fabergé” – Auction listing, Christie’s

Revolution in Mecklenburg: Der letzte Großherzog dankt ab” by Heike Mayer

A Royal Family, Episode 6: Uncrowned Marriages” – Documentary, available on YouTube

Scherzo for Piano Quintet” – The Music of Gustav Mahler: A Catalogue of Manuscript and Printed Sources

Newspapers

  • Aberdeen Press and Journal
  • Belfast News-Letter
  • Billings Gazette
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Dundee Courier
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph
  • The Globe
  • Hampshire Telegraph
  • Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail
  • Isle of Wight Observer
  • Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wisconsin)
  • Leicester Daily Post
  • London Evening Standard
  • Los Angeles Times
  • Manchester Evening News
  • The New York Times
  • Northern Whig
  • The Queen
  • Sport und Salon
  • The Times-Democrat of New Orleans
  • Truth
  • Walsall Advertiser
  • Western Daily Press
  • West Sussex County Times

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Credits

  • Header image, Alix: Gogmsite.net
  • Header image, background: Schloss Schwerin, print no. “6812” from the Detroit Publishing Co., catalogue J-foreign section. Detroit, Mich.: Detroit Photographic Company, 1905. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
  • Music, post audio:Serenade for String Orchestra, Op. 20” by Edward Elgar, performed by the US Army Strings. “Larghetto” from Lute & Harp Concerto Op/6 by Georg Friedrich Handel. “Concerti Grossi, Op. 6 (HWV 319-330)” by Georg Friedrich Handel, performed by Isolde Ahlgrimm, Robert Veyron-Lacroix, Hans Pischner, and Zuzana Ruzicková. All public domain via MusOpen.org.

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