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Sunday 28 December 2008

The Average Family Gathering

If, in the midst of organizing Christmas gatherings and accommodating various - sometimes contrary - characters in families, it is worth sparing an amused thought for Queen Victoria and the challenge she faced in the organization of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Apart from the representatives from so many corners of her Empire, the more pressing concern was where to house and seat different members of her own family.
Buckingham Palace itself was bursting at the seams; the Duke of Edinburgh had offered the use of Clarence House, and the Prince of Wales was open to guests at Marlborough House. Nonetheless, it would require very careful and tactful planning to ensure that everyone was housed with 'suitable' companions.
Her grandson, the future Wilhelm II, was originally not invited, since his father, the future Frederick III, would be representing the Kaiser. 'Willy' however was angling for an invitation and, to keep Willy's mother, Crown Princess Victoria, happy, Queen Victoria agreed to invite him. He would have to be kept away from his aunt, Beatrice, and his cousin, Victoria of Hesse, since their husbands were 'Battenbergs' and, to Willy's mind, not sufficiently royal or 'of the blood'. His own sister, Moretta, was as that time, still hoping to marry a third Battenberg brother, Sandro - a notion which Willy and his paternal grandfather refused to even consider.
Willy's father, diagnosed with throat cancer, needed to be housed in a place where he could enjoy quiet after the celebrations; and then there was Willy's sister, Charlotte, who was known for making a scene and for whom, the Queen decided, the possibility of staying with her Uncle Bertie - with his 'fast set' - at Marlborough House was hardly appropriate.
Much as the Queen was looking forward to meeting Ella (Grand Duchess Elizabeth) again, she was certainly not so enamoured at the prospect of having to entertain Ella's husband, Serge.
On top of a myriad of other children and grandchildren and their spouses, were the Indian Maharajas and the splendid Queen of Hawaii (whose position in the order of precedence irked Willy, who ridiculously believed that a European prince should come before a black Queen!).
All things considered, the average family gathering is very easily arranged!

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas!

Thank you to everyone who has visted this blog over the past year!

If you are visiting now, I wish you every blessing of the season and all the loveliness and beauty in your life that you long for!

Whether or not we have met, Merry Christmas to you!

With love,


Sunday 21 December 2008

A Little More of Ella's Childhood Christmas

(From The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Baroness Sophie Buxhoevden:

"Christmas was celebrated partly in the English and partly in the German way, and was a family feast in which all the household shared. A huge Christmas tree stood in the ballroom, its branches laden with candles, apples, gilt nuts, pink quince sausages, and all kinds of treasures. Round it were tables with gifts for all the members of the family. The servants came in and the Grand Duchess gave them their presents. Then followed a family Christmas dinner, at which the traditional German goose was followed by real English plum pudding and mince pies sent from England. The poor were not forgotten, and Princess Alice had gifts sent to all the hospitals. Later, the Empress continued the same Christmas customs in Russia."

Grand Duchess Elizabeth's Childhood Christmas

From the letters of Princess Alice to Queen Victoria:

Christmas Day 1868:

"Louis [Ella's father] thanks you a thousand times for the charming presents for the children. They showed them to everyone, shouting, "This is from my dear English Grandmama;" and Ella, who is always sentimental, added, "She is so very good, my Grandmama." Irene could not be parted from the doll you gave her, nor Victoria from hers....We spent a very happy Christmas Eve, surrounded by our dear children and our kind relations."

December 23rd 1870 [in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War]

"This morning I have been at the Alice Hospital, which is prospering. I have been taking my gifts for Christmas to one hospital after another. Your two capes have delighted the poor sufferers, and the one wounded for the second time is very bad, alas! My wounded officer in the house is recovering, next to a miracle. For the two wounded in the house, the children, our household, and the children of our servants at the war, I arranged Christmas trees. We grown-up ones of the family have given up Christmas for ourselves. We have too much to do for others, and my parents-in-law, like me, feel the absence of the dear ones who are always here for Christmas."

Christmas Day 1872

"We gave all our servants presents - the whole household and stable - under the Christmas tree, which we made for the children; and when the tree is divided, the children of all our servants come and share it with ours. It keeps the household as a family and is so important. We have fifty people to give to!
...I am so glad Vicky gave such a flattering account of Baby [the future Empress Alexandra of Russia]. She is quite the personification of her nickname 'Sunny' - much like Ella but a smaller head and livelier, with Ernie's dimple and expression."

Sunday 14 December 2008

Dear Papa

On December 14th 1861, England lost the greatest king we never had, and Queen Victoria was plunged into mourning for the untimely death, at the age of 42, of her 'beloved angel', Albert.
The mourning continued for many, many years; his night shirt was laid out on his bed ever evening and his shaving water changed each day, and Queen Victoria withdrew from public life for so long - unable to 'face the world alone' - that public patience ran out and a sign was placed on Buckingham Palace gates, saying: "Situation Vacant".
In the immediate aftermath of his death, his second daughter, Alice - mother of Grand Duchess Elizabeth - was the one who held the family together and sustained her mother through those early weeks. Alice was particularly close to her father and resembled him in many way - both exhausted themselves in the service of their countries, and had an overriding sense of the responsibility that came with their privileged positions.
Two years after Prince Albert's death, Alice - now married to Louis of Hesse - write to her mother:
"Pray for me when you kneel at his grace - pray that my happiness may be allowed to last long; think of me when you kneel there where on that day my hand rested on your and Papa's dear hands, two years ago. That bond between us is so strong, beloved Mama. I feel it is a legacy from him."
Seventeen years to the day after her father's death, Alice - having exhausted herself caring for her family who had been struck with diphtheria, succumbed to the illness herself. She had been virtually unconscious for some days when, on 14th December 1878, she opened her eyes and murmured, "Dear Papa!" He had come to take her home.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Those Who Cannot Learn From History....

"Those who cannot learn from history," wrote George Santayana, "are doomed to repeat it."
In the wonderful BBC series: "World War II, Behind Closed Doors", more of the truth of what actually happened while hundreds of thousands of people were being killed becomes apparent. Of course, so vile a regime as Hitler's had to be stopped, but, as the programme shows the behind the scenes subterfuges between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill - often playing each other off against the others - there is the overriding sense of three power-hungry little boys moving toy soldiers around in a game. Sadly, the game is all too serious and not one of the three little boys in old men's bodies seems to have any care whatsoever for the millions who are dying. The usual presentation of immediate history is usually a gloss over a power-seeker's plans and the truth only come to light years after the event.
All of this really begs the question - how long before individuals stop being led by those playing out their games on the world stage? How long before we stop being told and start to think for ourselves?
Hitler could never have done what he did, on his own. Nor could Stalin. Nor, for that matter, could Churchill. And each of those people, in their own country, convinced the masses of ordinary people that they were acting for their benefit, for the good of the country and on their behalf. Supposing the people had just said, "We live our own lives. We have no reason to attack another country, or to be governed by another country. We just get on and do what we do - not told what to do, not telling anyone else what to do. We care for and respect one another." Then the boys would have had to return to their toy boxes.
Of course, that is so simplistic and I am merely naive. But to my mind the real naiveté lies in thinking we cannot think for ourselves. For centuries millions of people have gone to their deaths in someone else's cause - and the ultimate cause, when all the propaganda is stripped away, is usually some weakness in the leader, that he desperately tries to hide behind a mask of strength. Jealousy, fear, something from childhood he never outgrew. Millions more people have willingly handed over their power to other - we need to be told what is good for us, what is bad for us; how we should raise and educate our children...and who knows these things better than we do ourselves?
To return to the original point; it seems that history is now to be played down in Primary Schools. How will have any sense of identity, and means of learning from the mistakes of our forebears, any means of knowing who we are? Without history, we are like people with no idea where we came from; no past experience to guide us. Perhaps that's the plan - after all, in so many regimes where tyrants rule, history is re-written or wiped out altogether.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

The Dashing Prince of Battenberg

The Princes of Battenberg were among the most handsome princes in Europe - and none was more dashing that 'Sandro' (Alexander), who, at the recommendation of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was briefly appointed as the Sovereign Prince of the newly-autonomous Bulgaria.
Moretta fell head-over-heels in love with Sandro and, during a visit to Potsdam, he reciprocated her feelings but - alas! - in the eyes of the proud Prussian court, Sandro, whose mother was a 'commoner' (albeit a brilliant one!) was not of sufficiently royal blood to become the husband of a daughter and sister of a future Kaiser.
For seven years, fluctuating between despair and hope, Moretta prayed that they would be allowed to marry but, the death of Sandro's advocate, Tsar Alexander II, and the turmoil in Bulgaria only added to the intransigence of the Prussian Court. It mattered not that Sandro's brothers had married a daughter and a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Sandro was ousted from Bulgaria and, returning to Darmstadt, married an opera singer.
The death of Moretta's beloved father increased her despair, and, in her depression she decided he was 'too ugly' and 'too fat' to ever find a husband and embarked upon a drastic diet, bordering on anorexia. It was left to Queen Victoria to take her in hand, inviting her to England in the summer of 1889, with a view to restoring her to health.
And now, another Sando was suggested as a possible husband - the Russian Grand Duke Sandro Mikhailovich.
"I am thinking a great deal about this 'sailor-boy'," Moretta wrote to her mother, "I wonder if anything will come of it - perhaps by the time we meet, I shall know something.".....

Monday 1 December 2008

Moretta's Mourning...

Moretta, I think, longed more than anything for love. She wanted something so simple, really - a husband and children - nothing more. She had no real interest in politics or even in being a princess. She loved her parents, was a very dutiful daughter, was born at a time of mourning - her father, the future German Emperor Frederick III, had left for battle, and her mother, Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, the brilliant Empress Frederick - was distraught over the death of her little boy, Sigismund. No wonder little Moretta had such a horror of old ladies in black dresses. I imagine that from her cradle, she was surrounded by women in mourning dress, frantic and broken-hearted, bringing with them an atmosphere of gloom which seemed to haunt Moretta for the rest of her life.