Tragic sisters: Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna

30 Dec

Grand Duchesses Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna were sisters, born only a year apart. They shared not only their parents but their destinies. They were both married as a teenagers and they both died young.

1795. Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna

c. 1795-1797. Grand Duchesses Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun.

Alexandra was born on 9. August 1783. in Tsarskoye Selo as a third child and a first daughter of Maria Feodorovna (Sophie Dorothea of Wurttemberg) and Paul I. of Russia. Her younger sister Elena was born on 24 December 1784. in Saint Petersburg. The two sisters were very close and they were often painted together.

They received a typical education of a Russian princesses, focused on music, languages and art. Grand Duchess Elena was very beautiful and her paternal grandmother Catherine II. named her after the famous Helen of Troy. Alexandra’s beauty is evident even on the later portraits. In the portrait above she’s shown on the right.

1790. A little Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna dressed in kokoshnik and sarafan

1790. A little Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna dressed in kokoshnik and sarafan.

Unfortunately, their innocent childhood was interrupted by marriages. Alexandra married Archduke Joseph of Austria on 30 October 1799. Her younger sister Elena married Frederick Louis, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin on 23. October 1799. Alexandra was sixteen years old at the time and Elena only fifteen.

When the marriage negotiations started for Alexandra, her paternal grandmother wished her to marry Gustav IV of Sweden. That would have solved the political problems between Russia and Sweden. The young king indeed came to visit his future wife, as he had thought. Alexandra and Gustav had fallen in love at first sight. He declared his love to her and went instantly to ask for her hand from the Great Empress Catherine II.

Empress was delighted but the question of religion was overlooked and that would cause serious problems later on. While reading the marriage contract, Gustav noticed that Alexandra was to keep her Orthodox religion. Furious, he broke off the marriage contract and a year later married Princess Fredericka of Baden, younger sister of Elizaveta Alexeievna, Alexandra’s sister in law. Alexandra was grief-stricken, but three years later she was married off in Austria, in order to cement the alliance between Russia and Austria.

1795. grand duchesse alexandra pavlovna

1796. Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna by Vladimir Borovikovsky.

Her life at the Austrian court was more than difficult. Empress Maria Theresa, second wife of Emperor Franz II, was jealous of Alexandra’s beauty and fine jewels she brought with her from Russia. On top of all that, Alexandra greatly resembled Franz’s first wife, Elizabeth of Wurttemberg, who was Alexandra’s maternal aunt.

Alexandra died on 16. march 1801., a year and a half after the marriage, of puerperal fever after giving birth to a daughter who died the same day. Her early death and her father’s murder at the same time were terrible blows for the Romanov family.

Портрет великой княжны Елены Павловны

In the late 1790s Elena was betrothed to Frederick Louis, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The marriage took place in palace of Gatchina on 23. October 1799. It was a custom for princesses to travel to their husband’s land to get married, but Russian Grand Duchesses were an exception. Tradition for them was to get married in their homeland as both Elena and, Alexandra a week later, did.

Elena and Frederick had two children. Their first child, a son, was born less than a year after the wedding and their second child, a daughter Marie Louise, was born only six months before Elena’s death. Elena named her daughter Marie after her mother Maria Feodorovna. Their son, Paul Friedrich, was named after his grandfathers; the Tsar of Russia and the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

1796. grand duchesse elena pavlovna

Elena found the new court in Schwerin quite different from the opulence of Saint Petersburg. As opposed to Alexandra, Elena was content with her marriage life and was even happier when the baby arrived. The year 1801. was extremely difficult for Elena; her loving and dearest sister Alexandra died and her father was assassinated.

Elena died suddenly on 24. September 1803. after she’d fallen ill the same month. She was buried in Helena Paulovna Mausoleum, named in her honour. Her husband, although deeply in sorrow, married seven years later to Princess Caroline Louise of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. He had three children with her and eventually died in 1819.; sixteen years after his loving first wife.

1802. Elena Pavlovna of Russia

I hope you found this story and tragic destinies of these unfortunate sisters as amusing and fascinating as I did.

One Response to “Tragic sisters: Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna”


  1. Women artists during the French revolution, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Constance Mayer | Dear Kitty. Some blog - 18th Jan 2014

    […] Tragic sisters: Elena and Alexandra Pavlovna […]


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