Monday, 24 March 2014

24 March 1603: The Death of Elizabeth I

On this day in history, 24 March 1603, arguably England's greatest queen if not monarch Elizabeth I died at Richmond Palace, six months before her seventieth birthday. Elizabeth had perhaps suffered from depression since about 1601, the year her former favourite Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason. The deaths of close friends such as Katherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, and loyal advisers such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley, probably contributed to the Queen's low moods and depression. Certainly, the last two or three years of her reign were, by the standards of Gloriana's Golden Age, uninspiring; even pessimistic.

In January 1603, as Tracy Borman in her successful Elizabeth's Woman notes, Elizabeth made the decision to move to Richmond Palace out of consideration for her rapidly declining health. Richmond Palace occupied a special place in the heart of the Tudors: it had been Henry VII's favourite palace. In March that year, however, the Queen fell into what Black terms "settled and unremovable melancholy". The Queen refused, however, to retire to bed; perhaps because she feared never waking up. When Robert Cecil, son of Lord Burghley and Elizabeth's chief minister, entreated his mistress to go to bed, she retorted charismatically: "the word must is not to be used to princes.. little man. Ye know I must died, and that makes ye so presumptuous". Obviously, Elizabeth's sharp tongue hadn't deserted her even on the brink of death!

Elizabeth did, however, eventually agree to retire to her bed and by 23 March it was clear that death was imminent. Archbishop Whitgift visited his mistress and entreated her to name her successor, an act she had famously refused to do for nearly five decades. She gestured with her hands, however, to signal that she agreed that James VI of Scotland, son of her former arch-enemy Queen Mary Stuart, should become king of England on her death. Between two and three in the morning the next day, the Queen died. John Manningham recorded poetically:

"This morning, about three o'clock her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree... Dr Parry told me he was present, and sent his prayers before her soul; and I doubt not but she is amongst the royal saints in heaven in eternal joys".

Above: Bette Davis as Elizabeth I. (left)
A more controversial portrayal. Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth" (1998).

Historians speculate as to the cause of Elizabeth Tudor's death in 1603. Obviously, dying aged sixty-nine, she had lived to a great age most of her subjects never attained. G. J. Meyer suggests that the Queen could have died of anything of the following: bronchial infection that developed into pneumonia; streptococcus; the failure of one of her vital organs; or poisoning from ceruse (the mixture she used as her make-up). Meyer does agree, however, that the Queen's depression probably worsened whatever it was she was suffering from. On 28 April 1603, Elizabeth's funeral took place and she was interred in Westminster Abbey in a tomb to be shared with her infamous elder sister Mary I. The chronicler John Stow reported of the crowds gathered at the former Queen's funeral procession: "...there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man". England's great queen had died, bringing to an end the rule of the Tudors - England's ruling dynasty since 1485 - and perhaps the Golden Age.

Above: Elizabeth I's parents. King Henry VIII (1491-1547) and Queen Anne Boleyn (c.1501x1507-1536).

Elizabeth has regularly been viewed as England's greatest monarch. Her reign ushered in a Golden Age, when England's literary, artistic and musical achievements flourished and established it as a real player in European cultural exchange. Elizabeth's defeat of the Armada and her relative religious tolerance were both achievements that have been long appreciated by historians. A charismatic and yet mysterious woman, she remains a hugely popular subject among biographers, historians, filmmakers, dramatists, and novelists. It is perhaps Elizabeth's glamour that most appeals to a modern audience today. But it is perhaps the Queen's tolerance and desire for peace that most marks her out, in an age in which political and religious violence was endemic and monarchs frequently intolerant towards subjects they regarded as heretical or dissenting. As the Queen herself stated:

"...when wars and seditions with grievous persecutions have vexed almost all kings and countries round about me, my reign hath been peaceable, and my realm a receptacle to thy afflicted Church. The love of my people hath appeared firm, and the devices of my enemies frustrate".

It is also the mystery of Elizabeth that appeals. We don't know what she really looked like - her portraits were strictly controlled and censored by the government, and produced a prototype of how the Queen wished to appear rather than presenting what she viewed as unfavourable - and perhaps more truthful - renditions of her appearance. We do not know how she felt about her mother, Anne Boleyn. We do not know why she never married. We do not know her true attitudes to Mary Queen of Scots or her sister Mary. Perhaps most controversially of all, we do not know if she truly was a virgin queen. It is this mystery, glamour and charisma of Queen Elizabeth I that continues to make her such an exciting figure to study; especially in view of the cultural, political, religious and social achievements achieved in her reign as "Gloriana".

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Death of Anne Neville, Queen of England

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On this day in history, 16 March 1485, Queen Anne Neville of England died aged twenty-eight at Westminster Palace. According to legend, the day she died saw an eclipse which was viewed by the superstitious as an evil omen of her husband Richard III's imminent fall from grace. Although rumours credited the king with poisoning his consort as part of his schemes to marry his niece Elizabeth of York, reports indicated that he had wept at her funeral. She was buried at Westminster Abbey, having reigned as queen for only two years.

Anne was the second daughter of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, and Anne Beauchamp, the daughter of the thirteenth earl of Warwick. She was born at Warwick Castle and most likely spent her formative years growing up in Warwick. Her family fortunes were splendid: the Nevilles exercised considerable influence in the northern parts of England and later became loyal adherents to the House of York. At Middleham Castle in Yorkshire, Anne and her sister Isabel became acquainted with the two younger brothers of Edward IV: George (later duke of Clarence) and Richard (later duke of Gloucester). 

Above: Middleham Castle.

In 1469, Isabel Neville married George, thus integrating the Nevilles into the royal family, for George was the younger brother of the Yorkist king Edward IV. The following year, aged fourteen, Anne herself was married but to the Lancastrian heir, Edward of Westminster, rather than to a Yorkist prince. This occurred as a result of her father's schemes, for the disaffected Warwick, resentful of the Woodville family (a Woodville was married to the king) had decided to switch sides and support the defeated Lancastrians in an attempt to attain financial and political power. Anne perhaps resided in the household of the vanquished English queen Margaret of Anjou in the immediate aftermath of her marriage, but at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 the Lancastrian prince was defeated and killed and Anne left a widow aged fifteen.

Because Clarence was married to Anne's sister, he took it upon himself to take custody of both Anne and her mother and attained possession of the dead Warwick's possessions in the north. Anne was deprived of her inheritance as part of these greedy endeavours, and it is possible that he even sought to prevent her remarrying. Sometime between 1472 and 1474, however, Anne took it upon herself to seek marriage with Clarence's younger brother, Richard duke of Gloucester, who has traditionally been regarded as both more loyal and closer to King Edward than the ambitious Clarence. Whether Anne directed these plans as an ambitious attempt to regain her inheritance, or whether the alliance with Richard was based on love, is impossible to say.

The newly married couple resided chiefly in the north, where loyalty to the Nevilles was strong. Perhaps in 1473, and by 1476, Anne delivered a son, Edward, who became heir to the dukedom of Gloucester and a potential claimant to the throne; although the birth of two sons to King Edward meant that it looked virtually uncertain that either Edward or his father or uncle would acquire the throne.

Having been a Princess of Wales and later a Duchess of Gloucester, in 1483 Anne became a queen. Gloucester usurped the throne in the summer of 1483 and Anne was crowned alongside her husband at Westminster Abbey. Whether she had any knowledge of matters pertaining to the Princes in the Tower is uncertain, although novels such as The Kingmaker's Daughter explore such issues imaginatively. Anne's queenship, however, was not to prove happy. In 1484 her only son died and it is perhaps significant that she seems to have had no other pregnancies, although she may have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths. As Michael Hicks remarks: "Anne seems to have been a particularly insignificant queen, perhaps because she suffered from ill health". Certainly, in contrast to the active and auspicious queenships of the charismatic Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville, Anne appears a shadowy and perhaps ineffectual consort.

At Christmas 1484 court rumours credited that Richard was engaging in an affair with his eighteen-year old niece Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV and later, wife of Henry VII. Rumours that the king would set aside Queen Anne in favour of the younger and more attractive Elizabeth were rampant. Following Anne's death, Richard publicly denied any intention of marrying his niece.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

13 March 1881: The Assassination of Alexander II

On this day in history, 13 March 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by Nikolai Rysakov, a twenty-year old Russian revolutionary and member of the left-wing terrorist organisation Narodnaya Volya. The Tsar, as he was prone to do on Sundays, had travelled that day to the Mikhailovsky Manege for the military roll call by a carriage. Rysakov threw a bomb at the carriage which killed one of the Cossacks accompanying the carriage. There were two further bombers, Hryniewiecki and Emelyanov, involved. The Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg where he was given Communion and last rites before dying later that day, in a horribly mutilated condition.

What drove numerous assassination attempts against the Tsar? Alexander II has traditionally been characterised by historians as successful, in comparison with both his predecessors and successors. Born on 29 April 1818 in Moscow to Nicholas I and his consort Alexandra Fyodorovna, Alexander was emperor for twenty-six years before his reign came to a grisly and bloody end in St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia at that time.

Alexander was tutored by Vasily Zhukovsky, a noted translator and liberal romantic poet. Under his tuition the Tsarevich became familiar with several European languages. Alexander is famous for being the first heir to the throne to visit Siberia, as part of a six-month tour of Russia in which he visited 20 provinces. In 1855, aged thirty-seven, Alexander succeeded the throne following the death of Nicholas I. He continued to prosecute the Crimean War then occupying Russia, before suing for peace aided by his councillor Prince Gorchakov.

Russia had been badly hit by the Crimean War, leading the new Tsar to enact a phase of reforms. Alexander is perhaps most famous for instigating the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This deeply affected the economic, political and social future of Russia as a nation, for the emancipation involved far greater issues than merely the freedom of serfs. Led by Konstantin Romanov, Yakov Rostovtsev and Nikolay Milyutin, the serfs gained freedom that year. The Russian government also reorganised and rearmed both the army and navy as a result of the devastating effects of the war, and universal military conscription was introduced in January 1874. Security of tenure was also enacted alongside a new penal code and a simplified system of civil and criminal procedure. In all, Alexander II's judicial reforms have by and large been considered successful.

Alexander II and his wife Marie Alexandrovna. 

The Tsar is also famous for encouraging Finnish nationalism, Finland traditionally being a part of the Imperial Russian Empire. At the same time, separatist movements were suppressed, leading to the January Uprising of 1863-4 in which hundreds of Poles were executed and thousands deported to Siberia. Territories of the former Poland-Lithuania were excluded from Alexander's reforms. Native languages alongside Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian were banned from printed texts, while the Polish language was banned in oral and written form in all provinces except Congress Poland.

The Tsar's reign, despite the relative success of his reforms, was however plagued by repeat assassination attempts. In 1866 Dmitry Karakozov attempted to assassinate the emperor in St. Petersburg, but failed and was executed at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Repeat attempts followed in the following years. The Tsar's reforms were met with criticism and hostility by many of his subjects; some believed he had gone too far while others argued that he had not gone nearly far enough.

Following Alexander's death his son, Alexander III, acceded to the throne. The "Liberator Tsar" had reigned for 26 years and his death was a setback for the reform movement. It is possible that, had he lived, Russia might have become a constitutional monarchy instead of becoming more oppressive during the reign of Alexander III. The assassination inspired anarchists to advocate "propaganda by deed" - ie. using spectacular violence to incite revolution or rebellion. The striking Church of the Saviour on the Blood was built, construction beginning in 1883, on the site of the Tsar's assassination and was dedicated to his memory. Alexander III used the Church to commemorate both his father's death alongside symbolising a return to Russian nationalist spirit and a rejection of the reforms and traditions associated with Peter the Great.

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Above: The Church of the Saviour on the Blood was built on the spot of Alexander II's assassination in 1881.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

International Women's Day and the Tudors

Today, 8 March, is International Women's Day. It concentrates on, and celebrates, the collective efforts of women's struggle for equality. Love and respect for women, ostentatiously, is celebrated while women's political, cultural and social achievements are recognised. The first Women's Days were held in the early twentieth century, and some observers nowadays regard International Women's Day as "redundant". Continuing inequalities persist for women. Sexual violence is rampant across the world - in South Africa, it is estimated that a woman is raped every 26 seconds while 500,000 rape cases take place in the country every year. 44 per cent of all UK women state that they have experienced physical or sexual violence since they were 15. In Egypt, 99.3% of women and girls have been subjected to sexual harassment. The customary form of insult directed against women is both sexually charged and explicitly gendered: "whore" or "slut".

Above: Anne Boleyn (portrait - left) is still often seen as a temptress who got what she deserved (right).

The Tudors didn't celebrate International Women's Day - in fact, the very notion would have been downright unthinkable. This was a patriarchal society which viewed women with contempt as lustful, empty-headed, sexually voracious inferiors who needed to be constantly controlled and regulated by their menfolk. Sexual violence, assault and murder - then as now - were pervasive at all levels of society. But the case of Tudor noblewomen and queens is especially important in demonstrating that these trends and views of women have continued to infiltrate modern society. Anne Boleyn, second and most famous wife of Henry VIII, is a clear example of this.

In a disturbing article written recently, feminist scholar Susan Bordo questioned why "the lethal, calculating social climber has been our default Anne Boleyn". Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl famously inaugurated a perception of Anne as a malicious, spiteful and evil witch who plotted the murders of her enemies, slept with her brother, delivered a deformed child borne by the Devil and bullied and harassed anyone who crossed her path. Hilary Mantel took this one step further in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; providing a depiction of the Queen that has been described by The Telegraph as "vile and manipulative" and The Morning Star as "so spitefully ambitious" that "one feels any king would be justified in beheading" her. This last statement is especially disturbing and unsettling. Not only is it explicitly suggested that a woman who dares to transgress accepted norms actually deserves death; but it also both presupposes, and accepts, that the real Anne Boleyn may have been very close to the modern depiction of her - in this case on stage - and so might have deserved her awful fate. Even the mostly sympathetic performance given by Natalie Dormer in The Tudors subscribes to this archetype in the first series in presenting Anne as a manipulative seductress who orders Henry to "seduce me!"

It's worth saying, as Bordo does, that actual historical evidence doesn't bear this point out. Professor Retha Warnicke, a noted Tudor historian, recently criticised Gregory for manipulating Warnicke's evidence to provide a sensationalist and controversial portrayal of Anne. As she writes: "the Anne Boleyn of The Other Boleyn Girl is not an early modern woman". Both Gregory and Mantel provide fantasies that are explicitly modern. The real Anne Boleyn would never have brazenly seduced Henry, staring at him openly in front of the court or invited him to put his hand up her dress, as in The Tudors. She was both educated and religious, and would surely have both read, and subscribed to, literature prevailing in educated culture that explicitly warned women to preserve their virtue, behave modestly, and dress circumspectly. But Anne Boleyn continues to be regarded as both the villain and the temptress who destroyed a good marriage and, whether guilty of adultery or not, deserved her death. As Gareth Russell writes: "There is a pervasive view in modern literature and history that holds that although Anne Boleyn probably was not guilty of the crimes for which she perished in 1536, she nonetheless basically deserved her eventual fate. To paraphrase a popular television show, Anne played the game of thrones - and lost. She was a game player, who deserved neither pity nor special treatment". As feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin once noted, for a woman to be "good" in our culture, she needs to conform to the same criteria set forth in fairytales: she must be like Sleeping Beauty, quiet and quiescent to the point of practically being unconscious; and the passive object of events, neither their initiator nor their agent. Because Anne Boleyn has been seen as neither passive nor quiet, she has been termed a "bad" woman who got her comeuppance.

But what is perhaps most disturbing of all is that these stereotype exists within a wider cultural perception of women as sexually aggressive and manipulative. The shocking statistics of sexual assault and rape given earlier in this article demonstrate that this belief has not resided - in fact, it remains an entrenched part of modern society. Even today, women are usually viewed as to blame in cases of sexual assault: they are usually deemed to have been "asking for it". I read an article written by a student recently which described how, following her experiences of sexual assault, she was incredulously asked by teachers why she had not sought to stop it. She was not believed and nothing happened to the culprit. Statistics indicate that 97% of rapists get away with it.

Above: Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII and quintessential victim of the early modern culture of misogyny, patriarchy and sexual assault.

A quote is worth giving because it essentially encapsulates the premise of this article:

"Women nowadays are not supposed to be victims, it's considered somehow demeaning, but when one looks at the extraordinary misogyny of the sixteenth century and the crushing physical, emotional, biological and social burdens these women were subjected to on a daily basis... they were victims." (Gareth Russell, 2012).

Anne, of course, has not been the only Tudor woman misinterpreted, misrepresented and essentially despised because of the prevailing dictates of cultural misogyny and receptions of female sexuality. Katherine Howard is an example both of the very real physical assault and sexual abuse experienced by women, both then and now; and more pertinently of the ways in which women continue to be deemed the instigators or, at least, facilitators of these sexual encounters. When she was 12 or 13, Katherine was seduced by a musician in her step-grandmother's household who invited her to meet him in dark places, where no one else was present, and then proceeded to fondle and, I would argue, harass her. Other women in the household became extremely concerned about this musician's behaviour and sought to protect the young Katherine. It is, of course, true that girls were married off at exactly this age in the Tudor period, and notions of child abuse were completely different to the twenty-first century (some would argue the concept of childhood didn't even exist in the early modern period); but that shouldn't necessarily then mean that experiences of sexual abuse, even violence, should run the risk of being invalidated simply because they were interpreted differently in different cultures. That Katherine was unwilling there is no doubt, for she requested the musician not to go any further. When she was 15, she was probably sexually abused, even raped, by another gentleman in the household who maintained a frightening and aggressive hold over her even when she became queen.

When Katherine was executed in 1542, it was effectively accepted that she was not only guilty of the crimes for which she died but that she was a common whore who deserved never to be spoken of again. Silence surrounded her name in this culture of shame. Bordo speaks of "our default Anne" - well, one could argue that we only have one prevailing conception of Katherine Howard. Unless she's been termed a victim, as one or two historians have suggested, she is almost always presented as a promiscuous whore who cheated on an ageing husband and, like Anne, deserved her grisly fate. But if one bears in mind the continuing perceptions of female sexuality and culpability in the modern world, then it can only be imagined how much worse the situation was almost 500 years ago for these women. It was culturally and socially ingrained that these women were licentious beings who used witchcraft to seduce and emasculate men. They were viewed as followers of the Devil, and men were explicitly warned to be wary of them.

From this perspective, it becomes nonsensical to think that the documents relating to Katherine's downfall are accurate representations of what really happened. Her "promiscuity" actually derives from the language and discourse used by men and women in these interrogations to explain and account for what had happened. Not only, as Lyndal Roper notes, did early modern men and women talk about sex differently, but if women were deemed to be promiscuous and aggressive as a fundamental part of their nature, then is it any wonder that Katherine was repeatedly described as a seductress who initiated meetings with Culpeper, or who invited Dereham into her bedchamber? To me, at least, these interrogations reflect not so much the truth as the early modern culture of female sexuality and blame.

Women continue to be objectified.

Today is International Women's Day and it goes without saying that the monumental achievements of women across the world should be recognised and celebrated. But let us not forget that levels of sexual violence, objectification, and humiliation of women remains a disturbing phenomenon across the modern world. Tudor women were subjected to this on a regular basis and were always viewed as to blame. This therefore raises the unsettling question: just how far have women really come?

Monday, 3 March 2014

Alexandra Feodorovna, Last Russian Tsaritsa

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The doomed last Tsaritsa of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna, has not fared well amongst historians. Jonathan Bromley dismissed her as "an awkward figure". Gareth Russell, in a sympathetic article exploring parallels between the Russian Empress and Marie Antoinette, queen of France and fellow victim of a political revolution, believed that Alexandra's poor reputation is "tragic", but also suggests that she was "a difficult personality". In 1976, Edward Crankshaw criticised her "instant and implacable hostility to the family into which she had entered" and believed that "she never made a worthy friend". Sixteen years earlier, popular historian Barbara Tuchman characterised her as "weak-witted", "hysterical", "morbidly suspicious" and criticised her for "hating everyone but her immediate family" - a view which somewhat contradicts Crankshaw's suggestion.

Hostility and dislike of Alexandra has not been confined to historians, of course. Her Russian subjects despised her as a "German bitch". She was resented and disliked for her supposed coldness - it has, however, convincingly been conjectured that this apparent reserve conveyed less a coldness than an unease or shyness. Her failure to give birth to a son also caused unrest and contempt; thus the birth of the Tsarevich Alexei in 1904 must have been of considerable relief to the royal couple. The context of the First World War played an essential role in fuelling dislike of the Empress; for her German birth alongside her devotion to the controversial and hated Grigory Rasputin intensified hostility to the Empress and played a significant role in the events which led to the demise of the ruling family, the Romanovs.

Above: The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg. Empress Alexandra never took to the palace, finding it cold and inhospitable.

On the other hand, Russian court memoirs, such as that written by the Empress' closest friend and lady-in-waiting Anna Vyrubova, paint a picture of a warm-hearted, kind woman devoted to her family and passionate about Russia. She was, famously, extremely religious and devoted to Nicholas II's cause. Theirs was a true love match, and of course, the two were together until the very end - mercilessly killed in the brutal tragedy at Ekaterinburg in 1918 alongside their young children. Possibly, Alexandra is one in a long line of unfortunate female consorts resented and disliked by their contemporaries on account of their foreign birth and because they were deemed responsible for their husbands' faults - one need only look at Margaret of Anjou and Marie Antoinette to discover that Alexandra's bitter experiences were hardly unusual.

It is important to separate facts from fiction. Alexandra was born on 6 June 1872 at the New Palace in Darmstadt to Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice of Great Britain, and was baptised Princess Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice of Hesse - though she was later known simply as Alix of Hesse. By virtue of her birth, she was granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Alix became close to her British grandmother, spending holidays with the British royal family. She espoused Victorian values and, according to some, was more suitable for rule as a British consort than as a Russian empress.

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Above: Alexandra was born in Darmstadt in 1872.

In 1884, aged twelve, Alexandra met Nicholas Romanov, son of Tsar Alexander III, for the first time at the wedding of Grand Duke Serge, uncle of the Tsarevich, to Alix's sister Elizabeth in St. Petersburg. When Alexandra returned to Russia five years later she and Nicholas fell in love, an enduring romance that was to blossom into a relationship set to last for the next thirty years. Nicholas admitted in his diary at this time: "I have loved her for a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg."

Initially, Nicholas' father opposed the marriage, for he wished his son to marry Helene, daughter of the Comte de Paris. However, the Catholic Helene refused to countenance a marriage to Nicholas, for it would have meant renouncing her faith in favour of the Russian Orthodox religion. Victoria herself also expressed misgivings about Alexandra's desire to marry Nicholas. Despite this, in 1894 Nicholas proposed to Alexandra and the two became engaged. In November of that year, Nicholas' father died and he became Tsar of Russia. Three weeks later, the new Tsar married Alexandra who, at twenty-two years of age, was now Empress of Russia. Her tenure would last twenty-three tumultuous years. In May 1896 the two participated in a lavish coronation in Moscow.

Above: The marriage of Nicholas II and Alexandra, by Laurits Tuxen.

The new Empress, as mentioned earlier, experienced difficult relations with her subjects. She seems to have found court protocol uncomfortable, and failed to establish warm relationships with her ladies-in-waiting and amongst Russian aristocratic women. Her preference for the plain Anna Vyrubova caused resentment and hostility. Despite these issues, Alexandra proved a fertile bride, giving birth to four daughters within the early years of her marriage: Olga (1895); Tatiana (1897); Maria (1899) and perhaps the most famous, Anastasia (1901). The long awaited male heir, Alexei, was born in August 1904. He was born with hemophilia, a tragic condition that was to culminate in the downfall of the ruling family, for it was this condition that led Alexandra to seek out the controversial guidance and support of Rasputin.

Hemophilia was fatal in the twentieth century. It was transmitted from Alexandra, who had had tragic personal experiences of the disease - her brother Frederick had died from it alongside an uncle, Leopold of Albany. Her sister also carried the disease. As a result, it was decided that Alexei's condition should be kept secret from the royal couple's Russian subjects. As Robert K. Massie makes clear in his famous study Nicholas and Alexandra (1967), this desire to maintain secrecy was tragically misinterpreted by the Russian peoples, who perceived an evil conspiracy at the heart of the palace concocted by the ruthless tsar and his evil German wife. They never understood that Nicholas and Alexandra were personally devastated by their son's condition and merely wished to retain discretion with regards to it.

Above: Alexandra and her son, Tsarevich Alexei.

It was Alexei's condition that provoked Alexandra into seeking the support of Grigory Rasputin, a reputed holy man and mystic who haled from Siberia. Alexandra was to regard him as a saint, but his closeness to the royal family provoked unease and hatred in Russian society. Disparaging remarks were made about the Empress' supposed relationship with Rasputin, and letters written from her to him were published in society, causing contempt and outrage. Nicholas was more reserved in his judgement of Rasputin, but he appears to have retained him at court as a means of pleasing and subjugating his wife. It is possible that he was unsure what other solutions were possible. Certainly Rasputin inspired controversy, for while some condemned him as a fraud, heretic and nymphomaniac, others regarded him as a saint and a living prophet. The crucial event came in 1912 when Alexei suffered a life-threatening haemorrhage in Spala, Poland. Rasputin sent a telegram stating: "The Little One will not die". Alexei miraculously survived, and from then on, Rasputin's advice was followed while his influence was assured at court. Eventually, Rasputin was murdered in 1916. The Empress' reputation by then was severely damaged, especially on account of her reliance on Rasputin.

The weakness of government, economic instability and the collapse of agricultural production caused unbearable living conditions in Russia during the First World War. The Tsar was blamed for military losses, having taken control of the military. The Empress was left in charge of government, an act that caused further hostility and resentment. One can only feel sorry for Alexandra, for she was acting on account of what she perceived to be her husband's, as well as her country's, best interests. Caught in an impossible situation, she faced hostility and censure from all quarters. There are several parallels with her life and that of Marie Antoinette, but this is perhaps the most disturbing one - the fact that she was embroiled in impossible circumstances with no way out, caught in the public eye. The spring of 1917 saw riots across Russia, and eventually, the royal family was placed under arrest at Tsarskoe Selo.

The last photograph of the Empress. She sits with her daughters Olga and Tatiana.

Alexandra was removed with her family to Tobolsk that August and remained there until after the Bolshevik Revolution in November of that year. In April 1918, she arrived with her daughter Maria at the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, her final journey. The commander of the house, Alexander Avadeyev, regularly referred to the imprisoned Empress as a "German bitch" while criticising the deposed Tsar as "Nicholas the Blood-Drinker". The royal family led an unbearable existence here, paralysed by fear and uncertainty as to what the future held. In July 1918, plans were finalised to murder the royal family. On 17 July, the former tsar and tsaritsa were shot alongside their five children in the basement of the Ipatiev House by a detachment of Bolsheviks led by Yakov Yurovsky. The Empress' body was later stripped alongside that of her husband, children and some retainers, and was thrown down a disused mine-shaft at Ganina Yama before being buried under some railway sleepers. In the 1990s, the bodies of the majority of the Romanovs were discovered, and were reinterred in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg. In 2000, Alexandra was canonised as a passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church together with her husband, children, sister and the nun Varvara.

Ekaterinburg's "Church on the Blood" was built on the spot where Ipatiev House, execution site of the Romanovs, once stood.

As we have seen, history has not been kind to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. She has been criticised and condemned as a cold, irresponsible, suspicious, hysterical, even paranoid woman who cared for nothing but her family and resented her subjects. However, the truth is more complicated than that, as recent studies of the last Romanov rulers illustrate. Certainly, she suffered a brutal fate she in no way deserved; her life bloodily cut short with a loss of dignity. Her husband, the love of her life, had been killed only moments before. It was a tragic end for the last Romanov ruling couple in Russia. They deserve our sympathy and compassion. Although Alexandra had many faults, and was not a particularly successful politician, she was in many ways a devoted wife, a successful mother, and a good woman caught in impossible circumstances that devastated Russia and destroyed the royal family.