BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
ELLA: Princess, Saint and Martyr, by Christopher Warwick
, August 4, 2007
A glimpse into a vanished eraELLA: Princess, Saint and Martyr
by Christopher Warwick
(John Wiley & Sons)
Hardcover: 352 pages
Rec. price: AUD$46.95Acclaimed by some as one of the most beautiful members of European royalty, Elisabeth of Hesse lived an extraordinary life, chronicled here in Christopher Warwick's biography.
A German royal, she married into Russia's royal family. In 1905 her husband was assassinated by a revolutionary, after which she gave away all her possessions and worked with the poor, until 1918 when she was killed by the Bolsheviks.
Elisabeth was born in 1864, daughter of Louis of Hesse, who was to become the Grand Duke of Hesse. Elisabeth's mother was Princess Alice, the third child of Britain's Queen Victoria. (Because of the intermarriage of non-Catholic European royal families, Queen Victoria ended up as grandmother of a number of Europe's crowned heads, such as George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II).
As a child, Elisabeth was deeply impressed by the example of her mother, who spent countless hours performing charitable works for the poor, an example which was to inspire Elisabeth's religious vocation.Marriage
As a young woman, she rejected the future German Kaiser Wilhelm II's advances and, instead, chose to marry Russian Prince Serge, the son of her great aunt, Maria Alexandrovna. Although she initially thought Serge arrogant, she eventually came to admire him.
They were married in St Petersburg in 1884, despite Queen Victoria's opposition. Although Elisabeth was to retain a close relationship with her grandmother, going against her wishes on this occasion was to cause her pain.
Her husband became governor-general of Moscow, and was widely loathed, not only for the autocratic and repressive way in which he wielded power, but also for accidents, such as the deaths of some 1,300 people who made a mad rush for the souvenir stand at Nicholas II's coronation.
Elisabeth became involved in a number of charitable works. Although she and Serge loved each other, their marriage was childless. Instead, they became the guardians of their nephew and niece when Serge's brother Paul, remarried.
Although at the time of her marriage she remained a Lutheran, Elisabeth became convinced of the teachings of the Orthodox Church and converted to orthodoxy in 1891. Her visit to Jerusalem in 1888 for the consecration of the Russian Church had a profound impact on the development of her faith.
Her strong attachment to her faith and her desire to perform charitable works were to bear fruit a few years after her husband's death in 1905, when he was assassinated by a socialist-revolutionary.
In 1909, she sold off all her possessions, including her wedding ring, and with the proceeds opened the Convent of Saints Martha and Mary in Moscow, becoming its first abbess.
The form of religious life she established was similar to that of Roman Catholic orders dedicated to charitable works among the poor and the sick, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose work Elisabeth had observed prior to establishing her order.
However, this was a new form of religious life for the Russian Orthodox Church, whose nuns were enclosed contemplatives. She met much opposition from some of the Orthodox hierarchy, but with the support of her brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II (husband of her sister Alexandra), the Holy Synod eventually approved of the rule of her order.
Attracting many recruits, the order had a significant impact on the lives of the destitute Muscovites to whom they ministered — a ministry that continued during World War I and the two Russian revolutions of 1917.
After the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II early in 1917, her cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, sensing the danger Elisabeth was in, urged her, via a Swedish minister, to leave Russia.
He again urged her to leave in 1918, after diplomatic relations between Russia and Germany were resumed following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
However, Elisabeth refused to abandon the Russian people and her convent. She was arrested by the Bolsheviks with a companion, Sister Barbara, and deported to the Urals where she, Sister Barbara and a number of other members of the imperial family were murdered by being bashed and thrown down a water-logged, abandoned mine-shaft.
Like the Tsar and his family, they were massacred, partly because the Bolsheviks rightly feared that the area would soon be liberated by White troops in the Civil War.
The bodies were soon recovered by White troops and transported to Peking. A chance reading about this by the British royal family led to her body being relocated to Jerusalem, where it was entombed in the Russian Church, the consecration of which Elisabeth had witnessed years before.Ella: Princess, Saint and Martyr
is a fascinating and well-written biography that gives the reader a glimpse into the vanished era before World War I when the monarchs of most European countries were related.
It is extremely well researched, the author having had access, for example, to the royal archives at Windsor. However, a chronological timeline, together with family trees, as appendices, would have been helpful additions.