May 22, 1908
The Marquise de Fontenoy reports today on a recent decree, dated April 1, by Nicholas II, which could eventually affect the succession to the Russian throne.
The text of the decree is as follows: "Our much loved, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, having realized the truth of the Orthodox faith, and having recognized the justice of its teachings, has following the dictates of her heart, desired to join us in church and sacrament. This day she has to our great satisfaction adopted our orthodox belief and received the holy anointment. In communicating to all our loyal subjects these welcome tidings we command that her imperial highness shall be described from henceforth as an orthodox grand duchess."
The Marquise was right to note that this decree had a "political as well as a purely ecclesiastical bearing. But she got it wrong when she said that Marie Pavlovna, a Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was the only distaff member of the Imperial Royal Family to not have adopted the Orthodox faith. Grand Duchess Elisabeth, the wife of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstanovich, never abjured her Lutheran faith. Grand Duchess Elisabeth Feodorovna, the wife of Grand Duke Serge, joined the Orthodox church some years after her marriage.
The Marquise was also wrong when she stated that Vladimir's children did not have succession rights because Marie was not Orthodox. The Fundamental Laws require that the wives of the Emperor and heir apparent must be Orthodox at the time of the wedding. The children of Grand Duchess Marie and her husband, Grand Duke Vladimir, were born with succession rights. This was noted following the Borki train crash in 1888, when Alexander III and his family were nearly killed when the imperial train derailed. Twenty-three people were killed in the crash. Russian constitutional experts at the time acknowledged that if Alexander and his sons had been killed, the throne would have passed automatically to Grand Duke Vladimir, despite the fact that his wife was not Orthodox. Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna would have been required to convert at that time, however.
Fundamental Law 185 states: "The marriage of a male member of the Imperial House who might succeed to the Throne to a person of another faith may not take place until she embraces Orthodoxy." Thus, Vladimir was permitted to marry Marie, who did not convert at the time of marriage, because he was not the heir to the throne.
Marie's decision to convert in 1908 was probably a political, rather than a spiritual decision. The Marquise notes that it was difficult to believe that Marie "was prompted in the matter of religious principles." She was seen as the "most worldly" member of the Imperial family, who introduced the "roulette as an indispensable article of furniture of leading houses" in St. Petersburg.
But her retention of the Lutheran faith "implied that she retained her German sympathies."
The relationship between the Vladimirs and Nicholas II was strained. Many rightly assumed that the Vladimirs "were held to be largely responsible for the ill will displayed in St. Petersburg society" against the young Empress Alexandra.
There appears to be a change in atmosphere, however. Nicholas II has largely forgiven Grand Duke Wladimir's eldest son, Kirill, who married his first cousin, Princess Victoria Melita of Edinburgh, the divorced wife of the Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine. [The fundamental laws make no reference to the marriage of divorced persons.]
Victoria Melita, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was recognized as Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna. She converted to Orthodoxy shortly before the birth of the couple's first child, Marie Kirillovna.
In 1908, Grand Duke Vladimir was third in the line of succession, after Nicholas' only son, Alexis, and his younger brother, Grand Duke Michael, who was unmarried. The public did not know that the Tsarevich suffered from hemophilia, but other family members knew that something was wrong with the child. It became apparent, even before the revolution, that the succession might pass to Vladimir's line. In 1910, Grand Duke Michael fathered a son, George, by his mistress, Natalia Wulfert, whom he married without permission two years later in a clandestine ceremony in Vienna. Michael retained his rights, but his son, Count George Brassov, was not a dynast.
It was certainly a perspicuous decision by Marie to join the Orthodox church. It was not necessary for Grand Duke Constantine's wife to convert because her family was not as close to the throne. Her children certainly had succession rights, as Princess Tatiana renounced her rights in when she married Prince Konstantin Bagration in 1911.
But in 1908, the Grand Duke Vladimir's family were already making contingency plans if the young heir apparent did not survive childhood, and if Grand Duke Michael did not make an appropriately acceptable marriage. They were not making plans for a succession following a revolution and the murders of Nicholas II and his family.