Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia was how she became more commonly known, however she was born as Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine. Her mother was Princess Alice, the third child of Queen Victoria and her father was Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse.
Both her parents died young, her mother in particular was only 36 when she contracted diphtheria and died along with Elizabeth’s youngest sister Marie. The impact of losing her mother when she was only 14 made Elizabeth keen for her own family. She was much admired throughout European Royal courts and had many suitors, including her own cousin the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. Having turned down several proposals she agreed to marry the dashing Grand Duke Sergei of Russia. He had showered her with gifts of great value, though this didn’t necessarily win over the princess, who initially said no to him. However his charm won her over and they were married in June 1885.
Upon Elizabeth’s arrival in Russia she was perceived by the people as a positive influence to the Romanov family. This was helped by her sincere conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church, a pinnacle part of many of the populations lives. Despite her popularity, there were issues in her marriage. Six years after the wedding, and no children to show for it, rumours circulated that the Duke was in actual fact homosexual. Whether or not this was the case, the couple fostered two children and created a family home in St. Petersburg. After his appointment as Governor of Moscow in 1892 they moved to the capitol, residing in Kremlin Palaces. It was while living here the political situation in Russia, which had always been troublesome, grew to an ultimately damning height. The autocratic power of Romanov family and the weakness of the Duke’s nephew and Elizabeth’s brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas II would play a major factor in the fall of the Russian Empire and the death of Elizabeth.
The Assassination of the Duke in 1905 by a notable revolutionary group signaled the end of royal life for Elizabeth. She made the drastic decision to become a nun and give up all her worldly possessions and riches and proceeded to devote her time to helping the poor and destitute living in abhorrent conditions throughout the city. She became Abbess of Saints Martha and Mary Convent, establishing orphanages and hospitals to support the sick and vulnerable. This work continued throughout the First World War with her pioneering nursing training to assist with vast number of casualties. Her efforts were not matched by her sister, the Tsarina Alexandra, who played an instrumental role in the failures of the war by her poor judgement and influence over her husband.
Alexandra’s demise came before her sister’s. The brutal murder of the Tsarina, the Tsar and their 5 children in 1918 by the Bolshevik’s, has been consider one of the worst atrocities of the War. Elizabeth, despite her pious living and care of the people, was not spared. The Bolshevik’s seized her from the monastery, and along with several other prisoners, dragged them to the a remote area, beat them then threw them into a deep pit. Elizabeth was pushed first, but survived the fall. The killers above, realised this and threw down a grenade, however an orthodox hymn could be quietly heard, led no doubt by Elizabeth. A second grenade was thrown, yet the singing continued. It was the use of flames that eventually silenced the victims. The later discovered bodies showed that Elizabeth had helped bandage the hurt other prisoners, even though she herself was badly injured.
In 1981 Elizabeth was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as Saint Elizabeth Romanov. In 1998, a statue of Elizabeth was included as one of the ten 20th century modern martyrs above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.