Victoria’s curse

Sarah Jane I. Irawa
Parañaque City, Philippines (Winter 2015)

 

The dining room in an ancient hunting villa obscured in the verdant vastness of the Polish forest erupted in thunderous applause, if not rambunctious laughter. The two youngest grand duchesses just concluded their performance of two short scenes from Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme. That evening in Spala was spent reminiscent of its precedents.  The Tsar wined and dined with local noblemen who visited and hunted with him. The Tsaritsa, conversely, blithely chatted with quests and heartily smiled at her neighbors – a quintessential hostess.

But scarcely known to the visitors that the revelry was cramped within the stretch of the banqueting hall, for just its opposite was the room of the professedly dying heir, Alexei. While the suite doused with the finest refreshments, the boy resorted to intermittent groans and agonizing whimpers never failing to rip Alexandra apart. Both mother and child discerned the impending end.

Family of Queen Victoria in 1846 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

From left to right: Prince Alfred and the Prince of Wales; the Queen and
Prince Albert; Princesses Alice, Helena and Victoria.

Queen Victoria had a voracious craving for arranging dynastic marriages. She had herself married a first cousin, the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Their marriage was based on mutual love and affection, and when Albert died Victoria mourned him for the rest of her life, always wearing black, avoiding public appearances for years, and living a hermitic existence in Scotland. But her experience with a blood relative enthused Victoria to arrange marriages for her nine children1and forty-two grandchildren, convinced that royal intermarriages were the best means of upholding the peace of Europe.2 The Victorian matrimonial policy sounded reasonable: a war between kindred sovereigns was unimaginable.

But already before her descendants occupied the thrones of Europe, there had surfaced the earliest indications of a hereditary blood disease. Leopold, the Queen’s youngest son, was the casualty of hemophilia, a disorder “in which a patient’s blood does not coagulate properly.”3 Often referred to as “The Bleeder Prince,” Leopold behaved ineptly, appeared frail, and required strict attention as he bruised quickly even from the slightest bump.

Thus the arrangements Victoria once took pride in became a threat to the wellbeing of Europe’s courts. Alfonso XIII of Spain, unaware of the grave malady that already had claimed his fiancée’s uncle and two cousins, wedded Ena of Battenberg. When he discovered that his wife had spread the disease to the Spanish Royal Family, Alfonso became estranged from her and cautioned his daughters’ suitors of the perils of marrying them. Accordingly, the betrothal of Infanta Beatriz, his elder daughter, to Prince Alvaro of Bourbon-Orleáns was abandoned.4

Unlike Ena, whose worst misfortune of producing hemophiliac sons was her husband’s estrangement, her cousin Alexandra’s marriage contributed to the tragic extinction of the Russian Imperial Family. Alexandra was the sixth child of Victoria’s daughter Alice and of Louis IV of Hesse. When Alice died of diphtheria, her children developed a warm relationship with their grandmother, grew closer to their British cousins, and spent holidays with Victoria at Balmoral. In her later years, Alexandra would often allude to her idyllic childhood retreats in England.

She has at times been unjustly accused for being an imperial adulteress, a German spy, a scheming wife; but nothing was more true yet more tragic than being the bearer of the Romanov curse. At the beginning of her marriage to Nicholas, the birth of the Tsarevich augured well for the perpetuation of the Romanov dynasty. Pierre Gilliard, tutor to the imperial children, described Alexis as “the center of this united family, the focus of all its hopes and affections. When he was well, everything seemed bathed in sunshine.”5 But throughout, a familiar foe would cloud over this sunshine.

Hemophilia had killed Alexandra’s elder brother and, on the same year as Alexei’s birth, as if a harbinger of the heir’s fate, her nephew. Having been diagnosed as having the same disorder, the Tsarevich’s life and that of the Russian autocracy was hanging by a thread.6

Alexei’s birth was the consummation not only of Alexandra’s marriage to Nicholas but also of that duty universal to every royal consort. The births of four daughters delighted the parents, but that of a son exhilarated the nation. In a patriarchal culture like Russia, Alexandra’s anxiety was explicable,7   and the innate maternal desire to overprotect Alexei was unambiguous. The Tsarevich had two sailors flitting about him every minute – to keep him under their surveillance and catch him before he stumbled. This arrangement, would serve to shelter Alexei from any incidents that could cause bleeding. However, as Gilliard pointed at, it could “stifle the spirit, producing a dependent, warped and crippled mind.”6

For Alexandra, to see her son contort in pain and moan in suffering was a source of daily anxiety, compounded by the realization that the court physicians had found no means of allaying his distress. She recoiled from society and sought help from God. It was in these desperate circumstance that entered Grigori Rasputin. Born Grigori Efimovich,7 his rise was as  enigmatic as his “healing powers.” For the Imperial couple he was a “Man of God,” gifted with extraordinary healing powers; whereas his enemies were skeptical, accusing him of practicing hypnosis. When Felix Yussoupov feigned sickness in order to understand Rasputin’s methods of healing, he found he “gradually slipped into a drowsy state, as though a powerful narcotic had been administered to me.”8 Even two of Russia’s ablest ministers attested to the strangeness in Rasputin’s healing nature.

But when Alexei at last stopped bleeding during that frightening episode at Spala, the Tsaritsa attributed his recovery to Father Grigori, bolstering his footing within her sphere. At the height of Alexei’s suffering Alexandra had sent a telegram to Rasputin asking him to implore God for the heir’s salvation. His response was either a prophetical insight or a medical advice. “The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” Anyhow, it produced the desired consequence: the boy’s miraculous recovery.

Robert Massie suggested several explanations to account for the boy’s recovery. It could have been good timing for Rasputin’s involvement. The Tsarevich had already bled for several days, had lost an immense amount of blood, and the consequent fall in blood pressure may by itself have caused the bleeding to stop.9,10 Rasputin’s telegram may have arrived just at an opportune time. Then there was the message itself, “Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” On the night of the banquet, St. Petersburg had been deluged with telegrams ordering the Imperial doctors to come immediately to Spala. The four physicians arrived, lingered beside the Tsarevich, “taking his temperature, probing his leg and groin”,11 but could neither stop the hemorrhage nor assuage the pain. In fact, their constant probing may have hindered the development of clots and even contributed to further hemorrhage. Then it has also been speculated that Alexandra equanimity after receiving Rasputin’s message had a beneficial effect on the young boy, reducing his own stress, lowering his blood pressure and inducing clot formation.12-16

Subsequent events would further demonstrate the extent of Rasputin’s leverage over the Tsaritsa. She relinquished to Father Grigori not only Alexei’s fate, but also the fortunes of Imperial Russia. The Tsar’s flawed decision of taking military command after the military failures during the First World War have been blamed on the joint importunity of Rasputin and Alexandra. As the battlefront days dragged on, so did Russian casualties and losses. Nicholas failed to act, to boost his soldiers’ morale, and allowed Rasputin to intrude into Russian politics. When on many occasions the Tsaritsa asked her ‘Old Friend’ for advice on state matters, Nicholas often he acted in accordance with such advice. Decisions were made not in the Duma but within the walls of Rasputin’s apartment. Ministers were dismissed, officials promoted, not according to good policy but because of Father Grigori’s advice or “spiritual blessing.” The outcome was tragic. Russia’s age-old Romanov dynasty was extinguished, murdered by Lenin’s men, the empire itself collapsed. Would all this have been avoided had the heir to the imperial throne not been afflicted by Victoria’s curse?

 

Notes

  1. David Millward, “Queen Victoria hated her children, says academics,” The Telegraph, December 16, 2012 accessed on October 19, 2013 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9748492/Queen-Victoria-hated-her-children-say-academics.html
  2. Miranda Carter, “The Last Emperors,” The Guardian, September 12, 2009 accessed on October 19, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/12/queen-victoria-royal-family-europe
  3. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, “A Royal Shame: Prince Leopold’s Hemophilia and Its Effect on Medical Research,” Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, May 22, 2009 accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/spring-2009/a-royal-shame-prince-leopold%E2%80%99s-hemophilia-and-its-effect-on-medical-research#.UmNDH3CBlmM
  4. The Telegraph, “Infanta Beatriz Torlonia,” The Telegraph, November 25, 2002 accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1414174/Infanta-Beatriz-Torlonia.html
  5. Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra,(London: Phoenix, 2000), 129.
  6. Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra,(London: Phoenix, 2000), 145.
  7. Ibid., 184.
  8. Ibid., 181.
  9. Ibid., 177.
  10. Ibid., 173
  11. Ibid., 177.
  12. Ibid., 181.
  13. Ibid., 173.
  14. Hemophilia Society Bangalore Chapter, “Psychosocial Dimension of Hemophilia,” Hemophilia Society Bangalore Chapter, accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://hemophiliabangalore.org/Pdf%20%20File(H)/Psychosocial%20dimension%20of%20hemophilia.pdf.
  15. American Heart Association, “Stress and Blood Pressure,” American Heart Association, accessed on November 24, 2013 from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/PreventionTreatmentofHighBloodPressure/Stress-and-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301883_Article.jsp
  16. Robert K. Massie, Nicholas & Alexandra,(London: Phoenix, 2000), 178.

 

References

  1. American Heart Association. “Stress and Blood Pressure.” American Heart Association.  Accessed on November 24, 2013 from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/PreventionTreatmentofHighBloodPressure/Stress-and-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301883_Article.jsp
  2. Carter, Miranda. “The Last Emperors.” The Guardian. September 12, 2009 accessed on October 19, 2013 from http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/12/queen-victoria-royal-family-europe
  3. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. “A Royal Shame: Prince Leopold’s Hemophilia and Its Effect on Medical Research.” Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. May 22, 2009 accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/spring-2009/a-royal-shame-prince-leopold%E2%80%99s-hemophilia-and-its-effect-on-medical-research#.UmNDH3CBlmM
  4. Drotar, Dennis, Agle, David P., Eckl, C. Lucy & Thompson, Paul A.“Correlates of Psychological Distress Among Mothers of Children and Adolescents with Hemophilia and HIV Infection.” Journal of Pediatric Psychology 22, no. 1 (1997): 2
  5. Hemophilia Society Bangalore Chapter. “Psychosocial Dimension of Hemophilia.” Hemophilia Society Bangalore Chapter. Accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://hemophiliabangalore.org/Pdf%20%20File(H)/Psychosocial%20dimension%20of%20hemophilia.pdf
  6. Kasper, Carol K. & Buzin, Carolyn H. “Genetics of Hemophilia A and B.” The CSL Behring Foundation. 2007 accessed on October 20, 2013 from www.carolkasper.com/Monographs/genmonograph.pdf
  7. Massie, Robert K. Nicholas & Alexandra. London: Phoenix, 2000.
  8. Millward, David. “Queen Victoria hated her children, says academics.” The Telegraph. December 16, 2012 accessed on October 19, 2013 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9748492/Queen-Victoria-hated-her-children-say-academics.html
  9. The Haemophilia Society. “An Introduction to Haemophilia.” The Haemophilia Society. 2008 accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://www.hemophilia.ca/files/Chapter%2001.pdf
  10. The Telegraph. “Infanta Beatriz Torlonia.” The Telegraph. November 25, 2002 accessed on October 20, 2013 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1414174/Infanta-Beatriz-Torlonia.html

 


 

SARAH I. IRAWA is presently employed at a transnational financial institution as a transitions analyst. Having graduated from De La Salle University with a degree of in Finance, she decides to pursue a career relevant to what she has taken up back in college. On weekends or each time she gets leave from work, she commits herself to her hobbies – reading classical novels and history books and writing – the latter she esteems as the most pleasurable.

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