Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant?

The French still cannot agree on whether Napoleon was a hero or a tyrant.

In a 2010 opinion poll, French people were asked who was the most important man in French history. General Charles de Gaulle, who governed Free France from exile during the German occupation in World War II was voted number one, followed by Napoleon.

Only two statues commemorate Napoleon in Paris: one beneath the clock tower at Les Invalides (a military hospital), the other atop a column in the Place Vendôme. No grand boulevard, square, or place bears Napoleon’s name. Just a narrow street—the rue Bonaparte.

“It’s almost as if Napoleon Bonaparte is not part of the national story,” said professor Peter Hicks, a British historian with the Napoléon Foundation in Paris.

Join me as we explore some of the reasons why Napoleon was such a controversial figure.

Then vote below whether you think Napoleon was a hero or a tyrant.

Napoleon the Hero vs Napoleon the Tyrant

Napoleon Hero vs Tyrant
Napoleon: Hero or Tyrant?

Napoleon the Hero

Napoleon enthusiast David Chanteranne, editor of a magazine published by Napoléonic Memory, France’s oldest and largest Napoleonic association, cites some of Napoleon’s achievements: the Civil Code, the Council of State, the Bank of France, the National Audit office, a centralized and coherent administrative system, lycées, universities, centers of advanced learning known as école normale, chambers of commerce, the metric system and freedom of religion.

These were ambitions unachieved during the chaos of the revolution. He was a savior of France. If there had been no Napoleon, the Republic would not have survived.David Chanteranne

Many of the institutions started by Napoleon were copied in countries that he conquered—Italy, Germany, and Poland, and laid the foundations for the modern state.

The University of France was a central organizing body for education founded by Napoleon in 1808 and given authority over universities as well as primary and secondary education.

Napoleon set in motion a system of secular and public education reforms that are the foundation for the modern educational system in France and much of Europe. He founded a number of state secondary schools, called lycées, to provide a standardized education open to everyone. All students were taught the sciences, plus modern and classical languages. Advanced centers—notably the École Polytechnique—provided both military expertise and state-of-the-art research in science. The system offered scholarships and strict discipline and outperformed its European counterparts.

Clovis bell tower and cloister, Lycée Henri-IV, Paris. Credit Lucdew

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand is a public secondary school located in Paris, widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in France.

Napoleon is considered one of the greatest commanders in history—his campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Hundreds of groups study, discuss and venerate him; stage re-enactments of his battles in costume; throw lavish balls; and stage events. Napoleon was regarded by the influential military theorist Carl von Clausewitz as a genius in the operational art of war, and historians rank him as a great military commander. The Duke of Wellington, when asked who was the greatest general of the day, answered: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.” Israeli military historian and theorist, Martin van Creveld, described him as “the most competent human being who ever lived”.

Across Europe, Napoleon implemented several liberal reforms to civil affairs, including abolishing feudalism, establishing legal equality, religious toleration, and legalizing divorce. His lasting achievement, the Napoleonic Code, has been adopted by dozens of nations around the world. The Code forbade birthright privilege, granted freedom of religion and specified that government jobs should be awarded on merit alone.

The Napoleonic Code. Credit DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0

Prior to the Napoleonic Code, France did not have a single set of laws; the law was based on local customs, exemptions, privileges, and special charters granted by kings or other feudal lords. Although the Code has been altered since its inception, the general structure remains the same.

Napoleon implemented a wide array of liberal reforms in France and across Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, as summarized by British historian Andrew Roberts in his book Napoleon: A Life, p.33:

The ideas that underpin our modern world–meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on–were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.Andrew Roberts

Andrew Roberts also claims that, contrary to popular belief, Napoleon wasn’t a warmonger. He started two wars—the Peninsula War against Portugal and Spain, and later the Invasion of Russia—versus seven coalition wars declared against Napoleonic France.

In 1806, Napoleon emancipated Jews, (as well as Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries), from laws restricting them to ghettos, expanding their rights to property, worship, and careers.

I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.

Weakness in the French economy during the 1790’s caused a drop in foreign trade and soaring prices. Inflation and debt escalated with the issuance of more paper money until, by 1795, inflation reached 3500%. In 1800, Napoleon founded the Bank of France, which together with a revised tax code, finally brought inflation under control, eliminated the national debt within a year and balanced the budget for the first time since 1738.

After conquering Egypt in the expedition of 1798, Napoleon founded the Institut d’Égypte. Accompanying the voyage was an immense contingent of scholars, scientists, artists, and engravers who set about studying mummies, surveying temples, and recording their findings. They produced a monumental 24-volume document called Description of Egypta comprehensive scientific account of ancient and modern Egypt, which laid the foundation for the study of “Egyptology”. They also discovered the Rosetta Stone, which proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme
The true conquests, the only ones that leave no regret, are those that have been wrested from ignorance.Bonaparte

The last word goes to France’s foremost Napoleonic scholar, Jean Tulard, who said that Bonaparte was the architect of modern France.

If Napoleon had not crushed a Royalist rebellion and seized power in 1799, the French monarchy and feudalism would have returned. Like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome, Napoleon wanted a dictatorship of public salvation. He gets all the power, and, when the project is finished, he returns to his plough.Jean Tulard

Napoleon the Tyrant

Professor Chris Clark, a Cambridge University historian, said of Napoleon:

Napoleon was not a French patriot—he was first a Corsican and later an imperial figure, a journey in which he bypassed any deep affiliation with the French nation. His relationship with the French Revolution is deeply ambivalent. Did he stabilize it or shut it down? He seems to have done both. He rejected democracy, he suffocated the representative dimension of politics, and he created a culture of courtly display.Professor Chris Clark

Napoleon tried to represent himself as a Caesar: his coronation crown was a laurel wreath made of gold; his icon, the eagle, was also borrowed from Rome; and he wears a Roman toga on the bas-reliefs in his tomb.

From The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

Before crowning himself emperor, Napoleon sought approval in a rigged plebiscite in which 3,572,329 voted in favor, 2,567 against. A plebiscite was a national referendum, for which voters were not allowed to debate the issues involved. Napoleon didn’t trust voters’ opinions, so he had his loyal agents count the votes to make sure the results came out as desired. Furthermore, each “yes” or “no” was recorded, along with the name and address of the voter. The minister of police, Joseph Fouché, promptly suppressed any criticism. The combination of a ruthless police state and rigged elections became a staple of populist dictatorial regimes to the present.

Napoleon personally oversaw the productions of plays in the theaters of France. If Napoleon disapproved of a playwright’s work, his career was over. Napoleon also controlled the press, dropping the number of newspapers in Paris from over sixty in 1799 to four by 1814.

Considered a master of the use of propaganda, Napoleon recognized the power of manipulation of symbols to glorify his victories while blaming others for his failures. Like Caesar before him, he self-congratulated his military exploits and created the image of a dashing commander. Napoleon understood how to convince the population that sacrifice for one’s emperor and nation were more important than the rights of the individual. This is how he was able to assemble such large armies, no matter how bad things were.

His extravagant coronation in Notre Dame in December 1804 cost 8.5 million francs or $8.5 million in today’s money. He made his brothers, sisters and stepchildren kings, queens, princes and princesses and created a Napoleonic aristocracy numbering 3,500. By any measure, it was a bizarre progression for someone often described as “a child of the Revolution.”

“He guaranteed some principles of the revolution and at the same time, changed its course, finished it and betrayed it,” said Lionel Jospin, the Socialist former prime minister and author of The Napoleonic Evil, which has topped the best-seller lists. For instance, Napoleon reintroduced slavery in French colonies, revived a system that allowed the rich to dodge conscription in the military and did nothing to advance gender equality.

The grandiose image Napoleon created for himself, as well as the tightly controlled society that he established once in power, was a model for a totalitarian state that Hitler and Stalin would follow with such ruthlessness in the next century. Those who deified him were crushed under his iron hand. Joseph Fouche, the head of the secret police, extending Emperor Napoleon’s reach into every aspect of French society through a vast network of spies. Jean-Paul Bertaud, a Professor Emeritus of History at La Sorbonne in Paris, and a specialist on the French Revolution and military history explained what life was like under Napoleon’s iron rule:

You go to a salon, there’s a spy. You go a brothel, there is a spy. You go to a restaurant, there is a spy. Everywhere there are spies of the police. Everyone listens to what you say. It’s impossible to express yourself unless Napoleon wants you to.

Napoleon had no qualms about killing French citizens. In 1795, he mowed down the Parisian mob with cannons, an event known as the 13 Vendémiaire. He showed no hesitation in using extreme force to quell the uprising with what became known as “a whiff of grapeshot”—deadly slugs of metal packed into bags or canisters, then fired into the mob at close range, ripping through flesh with terrifying effectiveness.

In a PBS documentary, Owen Connelly Professor of History at The University of South Carolina said:

Napoleon was not one to pussy-foot around. He would use all his weapons. Nobody had really used cannon on the Paris mobs before. He was gonna shoot. He waited ’til he could see the whites of their eyes. Almost in one blast the whole thing was over. He probably killed a hundred people. He was not a very popular man with the rank and file, the man on the street in Paris after that.Professor Owen Connelly

Napoleon was famously worshiped by his troops, but did he return their loyalty? During the Egyptian campaign of 1798-1801, Bonaparte’s failed siege of the fortified city of Acre (now Akko in modern Israel) left his army poorly supplied and weakened by disease—mostly bubonic plague. To hasten the retreat back to Egypt, he ordered plague-stricken men to be poisoned. He later abandoned the remainder of his army—some 30,000—secretly returning to France to a hero’s welcome, while his loyal army remained in Egypt to fend for themselves. In exile on St Helena, he said:

I care only for people who are useful to me— and only so long as they are useful.

Later in 1812, Napoleon ignored advice from his closest advisors and invaded Russia. A doomed campaign, his inflated ego cost the lives of some 500,000 men, most dying not from fighting, but from starvation, sickness, and exposure during the long retreat back to France. When rumors of a coup in Paris reached him, he once again abandoned what remained of the Grande Armée—from the 600,000 men he took into Russia, only 93,000 survived.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow by Adolph Northen

As Napoleon’s power waned, his censorship was no longer able to hide his failures. He needed victories on the battlefield in order to maintain control of his empire. After his eventual defeat, his soldiers still considered him their true leader and helped him regain control of France. Under Napoleon’s command, he promised to raise them and make them all heroes once again.

The last word goes to former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from an article in Newsweek:

Napoleon was “an obvious failure”—bad for France and the rest of Europe. When he was shown the door, France was isolated, beaten, occupied, dominated, hated and smaller than before. What’s more, Napoleon smothered the forces of emancipation awakened by the French and American revolutions and enabled the survival and restoration of monarchies.Lionel Jospin

Hero or Tyrant? Cast Your Vote.

Cast your vote: was Napoleon a Hero or a Tyrant?

References (Contains some Amazon affiliate links)

Why Napoleon’s Still a Problem in France – Newsweek.
Napoleon – PBS.
Napoleon: A Biography – Frank McLynn.
Reforms Under Napoleon Bonaparte – Nicholas Stark.
Napoleon – Wikipedia.
A Short History of Europe –  Lisa Rosner, John Theibault
Napoleon and the Revolution – David P. Jordan

Lafayette—the Hero of Two Worlds

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was a French aristocrat and military officer.

To many of us, he is simply the famous Frenchman who fought in the American Revolutionary War.

But there is much more to this amazing man than meets the eye.

Here are 10 fascinating facts about the Marquis de Lafayette that you may not be aware of.

Lafayette was made a King’s Musketeer at age thirteen

At just 13 years old, Lafayette entered the King’s Musketeers as a junior commissioned officer.

He was in exalted company alongside legendary musketeers like Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan—the real-life historical basis for Alexandre Dumas’s character d’Artagnan in the novel The Three Musketeers.

Reserved for nobles, the Musketeers were among the most prestigious of the military companies of the Ancien Régime—the old political and social system that had been in place in France since the late Middle Ages.

D'Artagnan at the monument to Alexandre Dumas, Paris, France
D’Artagnan at the monument to Alexandre Dumas, Paris, France

Founded in 1622 to guard the king while he was outside of the royal residences, the uniform changed from the flamboyant cavalier style of d’Artagnon to the more utilitarian dress that Lafayette would have worn (shown as the two central figures below).

Uniforms of Musketeers of the Guard, 1660-1814
Uniforms of Musketeers of the Guard, 1660-1814

In 1664, the two companies were reorganized into “Grey Musketeers”, from the color of their matched horses, and “Black Musketeers”, mounted on black horses.

Lafayette’s six years in the Black Musketeers must have served him well for what lay ahead.

Lafayette was instrumental in the outcome of the American Revolutionary War

Not only was Lafayette effective as a military officer with hands-on engagement in several battles, for which he was commended by Washington himself, he was also instrumental in securing French finance, troops, and ships to aid the American cause.

Charming, tall, and idealistic, the 19-year-old Lafayette had defied the French king’s orders and enlisted to fight in America for the prospect of glory, chivalry, and liberty.

Nation Makers by Howard Pyle depicts a scene from the Battle of Brandywine
Nation Makers by Howard Pyle depicts a scene from the Battle of Brandywine

Shot in the leg at his first battle at Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t long before Lafayette was back on his feet again, spending the winter of 1777 camped at Valley Forge alongside Washington and the Continental Army.

Starvation, disease, malnutrition, and exposure killed more than 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.

Despite his privileged aristocratic upbringing, Lafayette willingly endured the hardship along with everyone else.

Lafayette (right) and Washington at Valley Forge
Lafayette (right) and Washington at Valley Forge

So severe were the conditions at times that even Washington was in despair.

unless some great and capital change suddenly takes place… this Army must inevitably… starve, dissolve, or disperse, in order to obtain subsistence in the best manner they can.

A year later, Lafayette returned to France, where his wife Adrienne gave birth to a son they named Georges Washington Lafayette.

And he also secured the promise of 6,000 French troops.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette (1759-1807)
Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, Marquise de La Fayette (1759-1807)

Lafayette sailed for America once more in March of 1780 in the frigate Hermione.

Lafayette became an American citizen before becoming  a French citizen

After the Revolutionary War in 1784, Lafayette visited America again.

He met Washington at Mount Vernon, addressed the Virginia House of Delegates and the Pennsylvania Legislature, and went to the Mohawk Valley in New York to help make peace with the Iroquois.

For his troubles and gratitude for his selfless service during the war, Harvard granted him an honorary degree, and the states of Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia granted him American citizenship.

Lafayette later boasted that he had become an American citizen before the concept of French citizenship even existed.

Greater coat of arms of the United States
Greater coat of arms of the United States

Lafayette was a lifelong abolitionist

Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784 by Rossiter and Mignot, 1859
Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784 by Rossiter and Mignot, 1859

Lafayette was a staunch opponent to the concept of slavery.

His writing was adopted as part of the French Constitution and included revolutionary ideas such as the freedom and equality of all men.

Although his work never specifically mentioned slavery, he made his views clear in letters to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Hoping that Washington and Jefferson might adopt his ideas to free the slaves in America, he proffered that slaves could be made free tenants on the land of plantation owners.

But his ideas fell on deaf ears, so in 1785, he bought a plantation in the French colony of Cayenne to put his experimental ideas into practice.

A lifetime abolitionist, he was also a pragmatist and recognized the crucial role slavery played in many economies.

George Washington did eventually begin implementing Lafayette’s practices in his own plantation in Mount Vernon.

And Lafayette’s own grandson, Gustave de Beaumont later released a novel discussing the issues of racism.

One of Lafayette’s publications was monumental in expediting France’s abolition of slavery in 1794—the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Lafayette helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Passed by Frances’ National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is an important document in the history of human and civil rights.

Directly influenced by Thomas Jefferson, it states that the rights of man are held to be universal and valid at all times and in every place.

It became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law.

Inspired by the Enlightenment, the Declaration provided the rationale for the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and worldwide.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Lafayette created the French Tricolor

After the French Revolution broke out, Lafayette was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Guard of France, tasked with maintaining order.

He proposed a new symbol for the Guard: a blue, white, and red cockade.

French revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps and tricolor cockades and sans-culotte carrying earlier tricolor
French revolutionaries wearing Phrygian caps and tricolor cockades and sans-culotte carrying earlier tricolor

Combining the red and blue colors of Paris with the royal white, it was the origin of the French tricolor.

Multiple French flags as commonly flown from public buildings
Multiple French flags as commonly flown from public buildings

Lafayette and his family narrowly escaped execution in the French Revolution

As the French Revolution deepened, it became ever more extreme.

Lafayette had tried to maintain order and steer a middle ground.

But when radicals asserted control, a Reign of Terror ensued that swept even Lafayette into mortal danger.

Lafayette criticized the growing influence of the radicals and called for their parties to be “closed down by force”.

It was a risky move in the political climate of the time.

Marie Antoinette's execution in 1793 at the Place de la Révolution

An escape attempt by King Louis XVI and his family dubbed the “Flight to Varennes” had extremists like Georges Danton pointing the finger at Lafayette for allowing it to happen on his watch.

And one of the most influential figures of all—Maximilien Robespierre—labeled Lafayette a traitor.

Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre
Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre

Sensing the public mood had changed against him, Lafayette left Paris and Danton put out a warrant for his arrest.

Lafayette spent 5 years in prison

Hoping to return to the United States, Lafayette traveled through the Austrian Netherlands in what is now Belgium.

Expecting right of passage as a fleeing refugee, Lafayette’s luck ran out when he was recognized by the Austrians and treated as a dangerous revolutionary.

Held prisoner until such time as the monarchy was reinstated in France, he tried to use his American citizenship to secure his release.

Lafayette in prison
Lafayette in prison

Although unsuccessful, Washington and Jefferson were able to use diplomatic loopholes to get money to Lafayette, which he was able to use to secure his family’s safety.

U.S. Minister to France and future president, James Monroe used his influence to win the release of Lafayette’s wife Adrienne and their two daughters.

Lafayette is reunited with his wife and daughters
Lafayette is reunited with his wife and daughters

Lafayette’s reputation was used to gain support for entry into World War I

Lafayette’s name and image were repeatedly invoked in 1917 in seeking to gain popular support for America’s entry into World War I.

In a speech given in Paris during the First World War, Charles E. Stanton included a memorable expression that would become the famous phrase, “Lafayette, we are here.”

WWI poster 'Lafayette, we are here now'
WWI poster ‘Lafayette, we are here now’

Stanton visited the tomb of Lafayette along with General John J. Pershing to honor the nobleman’s assistance during the Revolutionary War and assure the French people that the people of the United States would aid them in World War I.

America has joined forces with the Allied Powers, and what we have of blood and treasure are yours. Therefore it is that with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic. And here and now, in the presence of the illustrious dead, we pledge our hearts and our honor in carrying this war to a successful issue. Lafayette, we are here.

Sadly, Lafayette’s image suffered as a result when veterans returned from the front singing “We’ve paid our debt to Lafayette, who the hell do we owe now?”

Lafayette is buried under soil taken from Bunker Hill

Lafayette died on 20 May 1834, and is buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris, under soil taken from Bunker Hill.

For his accomplishments in the service of both France and the United States, he is sometimes known as “The Hero of the Two Worlds“.

Death of General Lafayette by Gondelfinger, 1834
Death of General Lafayette by Gondelfinger, 1834
US Marines Decorating Grave of Lafayette, Picpus Cemetery, Paris 1889
US Marines Decorating Grave of Lafayette, Picpus Cemetery, Paris 1889

American journalist, historian, and author, Marc Leepson, concluded his study of Lafayette’s life:

The Marquis de Lafayette was far from perfect. He was sometimes vain, naive, immature, and egocentric. But he consistently stuck to his ideals, even when doing so endangered his life and fortune. Those ideals proved to be the founding principles of two of the world’s most enduring nations, the United States and France. That is a legacy that few military leaders, politicians, or statesmen can match.
Statue of Lafayette on north end of University of Vermont Green, sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, 1883
Statue of Lafayette on north end of University of Vermont Green, sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, 1883

A Tale of Two Sisters

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

This is the tragic story of two sisters.

Two beautiful Russian princesses who lived fairy tale lives.

Until one fateful day in 1918.

The Best of Times

To be a princess in Victorian-era Europe meant you were born with a silver spoon and you joined a set of elites—life’s lucky lottery winners.

Endless balls and parties, changing from one costume to the next.

Life was a dream, a fairytale.

Ball in Honour of Alexander II by Mihály Zichy, 1864
Ball in Honour of Alexander II by Mihály Zichy, 1864

Theatre, ballet, opera, concerts, sporting events, afternoon tea.

Such a hectic social calendar and so little time.

Performance at the Bolshoi Theater by Mihály Zichy (1827 - 1906)
Performance at the Bolshoi Theater by Mihály Zichy (1827 – 1906)

Wealthy noble suitors professed their love, proposed, and showered you with the finest gifts.

Ball at the Noble Assembly in 1913 by Dmitry Kardovsky
Ball at the Noble Assembly in 1913 by Dmitry Kardovsky

These were halcyon days enjoyed by the few. The best of times.

The Worst of Times

Being poor in 19th-century Europe was not something to be recommended.

To be a peasant in Russia was about as harsh as it could get.

But life was a game of chance and if you were that unfortunate, you were not alone.

Busy Time for the Mowers by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1887
Busy Time for the Mowers by Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1887

Ninety-Five percent of Russians were poor peasants who owned no land.

They paid high rents to landlords who just happened to be members of the ruling aristocracy.

Living in little more than mud huts in villages cut off from the world, the illiterate peasants worked the land to scrape a living to survive and pay their rent.

Peasant Children by .Vladimir Yegorovich Makovsky, 1880
Peasant Children by .Vladimir Yegorovich Makovsky, 1880

When the Industrial Revolution came to Russia, poverty followed the people from the countryside to the cities.

Factories were dark, dirty, and dangerous.

Low wages and long hours kept the former peasants in their place and they were drawn to speeches by men with ideas on changing the world and the promise of a better life.

Vladimir Lenin at the Rally of Putilov Plant Workers in May 1917 by Isaak Brodsky
Vladimir Lenin at the Rally of Putilov Plant Workers in May 1917 by Isaak Brodsky

Against this backdrop were born two sisters—Princess Elisabeth, born 1864, and Princess Alix, born 1872.

They were part of a large noble German family of seven children.

The Hessian family in May 1875 (clockwise from far left)—Ella, Grand Duke Ludwig holding Marie, Alice, Victoria, Irene, Ernie and Alix in the center
The Hessian family in May 1875 (clockwise from far left)—Ella, Grand Duke Ludwig holding Marie, Alice, Victoria, Irene, Ernie and Alix in the center

But there was something connecting Elisabeth and Alix in particular.

It was as though they were marked by the hand of fate.

Four of the Hesse sisters (left to right)—Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix, 1885
Four of the Hesse sisters (left to right)—Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix, 1885

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse and by Rhine

Portrait of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, 1896
Portrait of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, 1896

Known as “Ella” within her family, Princess Elisabeth was named after St Elizabeth of Hungary, a princess herself and greatly venerated Catholic saint and patroness of the Third Order of St. Francis.

St Elizabeth, who was married at 14 and widowed at 20, built a hospital to serve the sick and became a symbol of Christian charity after her death just 4 years later.

The story of St Elizabeth would strangely touch the life of Princess Ella.

Stained glass from the Minorite Church (the Transfiguration Cathedral) of Cluj, representing St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Stained glass from the Minorite Church (the Transfiguration Cathedral) of Cluj, representing St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Growing up, she lived a modest life by royal standards, even though her father was from one of the oldest and noblest houses in Germany and her mother was Queen Victoria’s daughter.

She swept floors, cleaned her own room, and even accompanied her mother to care for soldiers at a nearby hospital when war broke out between Austria and Prussia.

Ella was charming and kind and considered to be one of the most beautiful of all the princesses in Europe.

Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, 1887
Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, 1887

Frequently visiting his Hessian relatives and not failing to notice Ella’s beauty was her elder cousin, the young man who would later become the German Kaiser Willhelm II.

Writing and sending her numerous love poems, he fell in love with her and proposed in 1878.

One cannot help wondering how her life would have been different had she accepted.

Wilhelm II. Emperor of Germany, 1888
Wilhelm II. Emperor of Germany, 1888

Ella’s heart was eventually won by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia—a choice her grandmother Queen Victoria did not approve of.

We must always listen to our grandmothers because they know things that we do not.

But such is young love.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, 1883
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, 1883
Everyone fell in love with her from the moment she came to Russia from her beloved Darmstadtone of Sergei's cousins.

They were married in June 1884 and at the wedding, fate also struck her little sister when she met 16-year-old Nicholas, the future Tsar Nicholas II.

Residing in one of the Kremlin palaces and a summer home outside of Moscow, they lived happily, hosting frequent parties.

Ella encouraged the young Nicholas to pursue her sister Alix, again much to the dismay of Queen Victoria, who somehow had a sixth sense for what was coming.

Grandmothers know.

Then on a cold February morning of 1905, Ella’s husband Sergei was assassinated inside the Kremlin by a Socialist-Revolutionary.

Sergei had previously rounded up 20,000 Jews and evicted them from their homes for no reason and without warning.

Devoutly religious, Ella herself prophesized that “God will punish us severely”.

It was just the beginning.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna as a nun after her husband's death, 1918
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna as a nun after her husband’s death, 1918

Consumed with sadness and guilt, Elisabeth became a devout nun.

Selling her possessions in 1909, she worked tirelessly for several years, helping the poor and sick in Moscow, often in the worst slums.

In 1916, Ella saw her sister for the last time.

The Murder of Elisabeth

It was July, 1918 when Lenin ordered the arrest of Elisabeth.

She spent a few days with other prisoners from Russian noble families before they were all carted to a small village with an abandoned mineshaft 66 ft deep.

Elisabeth was first.

She was beaten and hurled down the shaft.

Then the others followed and a hand grenade was thrown down to kill them, but only one man died.

According to one of the murderers, Elisabeth and the others survived the fall and after the grenade was tossed down, he heard Elisabeth and others singing a hymn.

Down went a second grenade and finally, brushwood shoved into the entrance and set alight.

After the revolution, her convent erected a statue of Elisabeth in the garden. It read simply:

To the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna: With Repentance.

Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine

Sixth child among seven and the fourth daughter, Alix was nicknamed “Sunny” by her mother and “Alicky” by her British relatives so as to distinguish her from her aunt, Princess Alexandra of Denmark who would become Queen of England as the wife of Edward VII.

Princess Alix of Hesse, 1881
Princess Alix of Hesse, 1881

Blossoming into a beautiful young woman with sparkling blue eyes and red gold hair, she was Queen Victoria’s favorite granddaughter.

The Queen had her in mind to marry Edward Prince of Wales’s eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, thus securing her a future position as Queen of England.

What is it about grandmothers just knowing what is best for us?

A very different course of events awaited Alix as she was destined to marry Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia.

Alexandra Fedorovna by A.Makovskiy (1903)
Alexandra Fedorovna by A.Makovskiy (1903)

Alix fell in love with Nicholas in 1889 and Nicholas wrote in his diary:

It is my dream to one day marry Alix H. I have loved her for a long time, but more deeply and strongly since 1889 when she spent six weeks in Petersburg. For a long time, I have resisted my feeling that my dearest dream will come true.
Alix of Hesse and Nicholas II of Russia, 1894
Alix of Hesse and Nicholas II of Russia, 1894

Nicholas had to propose twice because at first Alix did not want to convert to Russian Orthodoxy but was assured by her sister Elisabeth that it was very similar to her German Lutheranism.

After their engagement, Alix returned to England and was joined by Nicholas where they became godparents of the boy who would become the first British monarch to voluntarily abdicate the throne—King Edward VIII.

The last Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, spouse of Nicholas II
The last Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, spouse of Nicholas II

When Tsar Alexander III died in 1894, he left Nicholas as the new Emperor of Russia.

It was a whirlwind for Alix—she became Empress on her wedding day.

Shy and nervous, she was disliked from the beginning by the Russian people who saw her as cold and curt.

It set in motion a serious of events that would profoundly change the course of history.

Tsar Nicholas II with his family, Empress Alexandra, daughters Olga, Tatjana, Maria, Anastasia and son Alexej
Tsar Nicholas II with his family, Empress Alexandra, daughters Olga, Tatjana, Maria, Anastasia and son Alexej

Despite producing five beautiful daughters, the Russian people frowned upon her distaste for Russian culture and her inability to produce a male heir to the throne until Alexei, her little ‘sunbeam” arrived in 1904.

By this time, she had isolated herself from the Russian court, doting on her son and becoming a recluse.

She believed in the divine right of kings that it was not necessary to seek the approval of the people.

In a letter to her grandmother, Queen Victoria, her aunt wrote of her:

Alix is very Imperious and will always insist on having her own way; she will never yield one iota of power she will imagine she wields…Alix's aunt, German Empress Frederick

It was this thinking and her unwillingness to embrace her people that sealed her fate and that of her entire family.

The Murder of Alix

Dangerously weakened by World War I, Imperial Russia’s government could not bear the financial burden.

Mass hunger became the norm for millions of Russians who refused to accept it any longer and turned on their monarchy.

The entire family became prisoners in their own palace.

The provisional government hoped their foreign relatives might take them in.

Nicholas’s first cousin, George V of Great Britain, refused to offer the family asylum because the public sentiment was turning against royalty.

France was reluctant to accept them because the war with Germany was still raging and Alix was seen as a German sympathizer.

Hope abandoned the Romanovs.

The Bolsheviks seized power and moved the family to a more remote location.

It was Tuesday, 16 July 1918, a date that passed by peacefully without incident.

Nicholas walked with his daughters at 4 o’clock in the small garden.

Alix and Nicholas played cards until 10:30 and then retired to bed.

In the morning, everything changed.

Nicholas was shot in the chest several times and a bullet entered the left side of Alix’s skull just above her ear, exiting from the right side.

Their children were executed in a similar manner.

And that was the end of that.

Elisabeth and Alix were no more.

Two sisters caught up in the winds of change.

Two beautiful princesses whose lives were cut short because ideas changed.

And so it goes.


It is the oldest question known to mankind.

The mysteries of this world are often unfathomable.

But one thing is for certain.

The same question will continue to be asked until we find ways to live together in peace.