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Pocket Profiles – Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha

Today is Queen Victoria’s 203rd birthday, so let’s check in on one of her granddaughters. This is a long one, but I just couldn’t find a way to shorten such an eventful life. Get your coffee ; ).

If you don’t like shortened forms of names, you might want to avert your eyes from this Pocket Profile. All the granddaughters of Queen Victoria had their nicknames. Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe Coburg was known as Ducky and it’s too good not to use!

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Victoria Melita (center) with her sisters Beatrice (left) and Marie (right).

Born in 1876, Ducky was the late nineteenth-century version of an army brat. Her father, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, served in the Royal Navy and the family moved every few years. Her mother was Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, making Ducky the granddaughter of both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II. Named for her grandmother and the place of her birth, Malta, she would eventually be the middle child of five. She would always be closest to her older sister, Marie (later Queen of Romania).

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The family in Malta with Victoria Melita at the far right.

Ducky’s mother, proud of her intellect, strongly Russian, and the only daughter of a Tsar, never warmed to her place in the English royal family. She was not fond of the English language, and she would not teach Ducky to write in English until she was eight years old. They were an active family, though, and excellent at horseback riding. Ducky’s sister Marie remembered “Our ideas about riding were anything but civilized. We were entirely fearless, and our chief pace was full gallop, quite regardless of the ground.”* Blonde Marie would always be a cheerful foil to her dark-haired, more serious sister.

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The family often traveled to Russia to see their mother’s family, and there Ducky met and fell in love with her cousin, Cyril Vladimirovich Romanov, also a grandchild of Alexander II. Word of this got back to Queen Victoria, as everything did, and was met with the old Queen’s strong disapproval. Queen Victoria was not a fan of Russia, considering it too “foreign”, and had not been at all pleased with her son’s marriage to Maria Alexandrovna. She pushed Victoria-Melita toward another cousin, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse. Ernest was the brother of Alix of Hesse, who would eventually be Tsarina and will become very important in Ducky’s story.

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Victoria Melita Circa 1895

Neither Ernest nor Victoria Melita was excited about the prospect of marriage to each other, but the pressure being what it was, they married in 1894. (Note for jewelry fans – she was reported to wear an actual tiara “a diadem of emeralds.”) Ernest was rumored to be homosexual, and whether this is true or not (he would marry a second time and have two sons), what was apparent was that the couple was unsuited for each other. Regardless, Victoria Melita became pregnant and a daughter, Elisabeth, was born in 1895.

Ducky and Ernest Wedding Day by James Russell & Sons, albumen cabinet card, 19 April 1894

It was rumored that Victoria Melita, still in love with her cousin Cyril, petitioned her grandmother for permission to divorce, but the Queen would not allow it. Word got back to Alix, who was now married to Nicholas and Tsarina. The highly moral Alix was scandalized by the idea of divorce and appalled at the rumors about her brother’s sexual preferences. She firmly blamed Victoria Melita for the marital discord. After Queen Victoria’s 1901 death, Ducky and Ernest were quickly divorced by mutual agreement. Adding to their sadness, their daughter Elisabeth died of typhoid in 1903.

Both Ducky and Ernest grieved her death deeply. In Ducky’s case, her old flame Cyril was there to provide comfort. They decided to marry in 1905. There was no hope of getting permission from the Romanovs, so they simply wed quietly at the end of the year. The response from the Tsar, no doubt influenced by the Tsarina, was decisive. Cyril was stripped of his titles, removed from his commission in the navy, and the couple banished from Russia.

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Grand Duke Cyril, between 1910 and 1920

They spent the early years of their marriage in Nice and Tegernsee. It was a pleasant exile. Their lives were filled with joy and they would have two daughters, Maria and Kira. In Russia, tensions were rising and life within the Tsar and Tsarina’s circle was becoming more difficult. The Tsar was feeling isolated. In 1909 he invited the family back, and Ducky would officially become Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna.

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Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna with her daughters Maria and Kira.

They say that timing in life is everything, and this was particularly bad timing. Civil unrest within Russia intensified, and the pressure leading to World War I was building in Europe. The Tsarina had not warmed to Ducky in the least and was particularly unwelcoming. Ducky turned to social causes. When World War I did break out, she spearheaded the formation of an ambulance unit which she took to the Polish front.

Postcard of the Ducky and Cyril in Russia

In 1917 the Russian government fell apart and Tsar abdicated. Cyril, seeing the way the wind was blowing, was one of the first Romanovs to break with the Tsar. Even though he pledged his allegiance to the new government, the couple decided it would be prudent to leave for Finland. Ducky was now forty and pregnant for the last time. Although not destitute, they found themselves living in difficult and dangerous circumstances with their newborn son Vladimir and two daughters. Ducky had to appeal to her cousin, Crown Princess Margareta of Sweden, for baby food.

The couple with their two youngest children, Kira and Vladimir. Wikimedia Commons

In the chaotic aftermath of the two Russian Revolutions, the deaths of the Tsar’s family were not confirmed for many years. Even in royal circles hope remained alive. The exiled Ducky and Cyril moved to Germany, and Cyril spent much of his social capital on getting his children recognized as Romanov heirs. In 1924 he declared himself Guardian of the Imperial throne. It was not a popular move in the exiled Romanov community because the late Tsar’s mother, Maria Feodorovna, had never publicly recognized her son’s death.

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Victoria Melita in the Twenties

Quite sadly, Ducky would eventually discover that her cherished Cyril had an affair of long-standing. Her last years were spent quietly, devoted to her children and grandchildren. When she died in 1936, her loyal sister Marie declared “the whole thing was tragic beyond imagination, a tragic end to a tragic life. She carried tragedy within her – she had tragic eyes – always – even as a little girl – But we loved her enormously, there was something mighty about her -she was our Conscience. But when he betrayed her, she did not know how to forgive, so she allowed him to murder her soul. From then onwards, her strength became her weakness, her undoing – she was too absolute, she could not overcome herself.”*

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Victoria Melita in the Thirties

As for the Romanov restoration, the effort is still carried out today by Ducky’s granddaughter, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, the daughter of Ducky’s son Vladimir Cyrillovich.

* From the book “Princess Victoria Melita”, author John Van Der Kiste