“I am leaving a glittering world where I had a glittering position, but with all of you I am descending into a greater world – the world of the poor and the suffering.”
-Grand Duchess Elizabeth Romanova to her group of nuns in 1909, following her husband’s 1905 assassination when she decided to take the veil.
Princess Elizabeth was born in February 1864 to Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and by Rhine, a German principality, and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. A noble and thoroughly English granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Elizabeth was widely praised as the most beautiful princess in Europe, and the beloved older sister of Russia’s last Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Nicholas II’s consort). In 1884 Princess Elizabeth married Grand Duke Serge (Sergey), fifth son of the assassinated Emperor Alexander II (1818-1881) and brother to the then-reigning Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894). She thus became by marriage the aunt to Nicholas II, her sister’s husband, when Nicholas and Alexandra married in 1894.
Shortly after her marriage, Elizabeth voluntarily chose to become Orthodox, horrifying her Lutheran and Anglican Protestant relatives and delighting her brother-in-law Emperor Alexander III. Her beloved grandmother Queen Victoria supported her in her decision. Having no children of their own, Ella and her husband raised the young orphaned children of one of Serge’s relatives as their own.
Grand Duke Serge served his nephew Nicholas II as the Governor General of Moscow; in this capacity he was, like his father Alexander II in 1881, literally blown to pieces by a nihilist terrorist in February 1905. In the Kremlin at the time of the murder, Princess Elizabeth rushed outside and somehow summoned the strength to collect parts of her husband’s body which lay strewn about in the snow. She then visited her husband’s killer in prison, imploring him to repent of his crime so that her nephew the Emperor Nicholas II might show him clemency. The killer refused and was subsequently hanged.
Giving up her luxuries and possessions to the poor, the widowed Elizabeth became an Orthodox nun, devoting the rest of her life to serving Russia’s poor and needy, and endowing the Martha and Mary House in Moscow as a women’s shelter and home for the poor. This house and attached convent served all classes of Moscow society, and became a center for charitable noblewomen and wealthy matrons to serve Russia’s poor.
During World War I, along with her sister Empress Alexandra and her nieces the Imperial Princesses, Sister Elizabeth tended tirelessly to wounded soldiers. She was so beloved among all segments of Russian society that, upon coming to power in 1917, the godless Bolsheviks initially did not dare touch her.
Ultimately the Bolsheviks exiled Sister Elizabeth to the Urals, closed down her convent, and on July 18, 1918 — a day after they murdered her sister Empress Alexandra and her entire family — murdered her, her loyal friend and fellow nun Varvara (Barbara) and several royal princes by throwing them alive down a mine shaft in Alapaevsk. The martyrs sang Church hymns as they lay dying in the mine shaft, so the Bolsheviks threw burning brushwood and grenades down the mine shaft.
Elizabeth’s remains along with those who died with her were soon recovered by the anti-communist White Army, and sent first to the Russian expatriate community in China, before ultimately finding rest in the Russian church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a church she and her husband had endowed in memory of his mother Empress Maria Alexandrovna, Emperor Alexander II’s consort. Grand Duchess Sister Elizabeth was glorified (canonized) as a new martyr by the Russian Church Abroad in 1981 and in Russia itself in 1992. Grand Duchess St. Elizabeth’s saintly reputation is such that the Anglican clergy of Westminster Abbey even erected a statue of this illustrious princess (German-British by birth, Russian by marriage) in July 1998, eighty years after her death, on the west facade of that illustrious church. May the Holy New Martyr Saint Elizabeth, and Saint Barbara murdered with her, pray to God for us all!
Please see below the sources I used for this short article. They are well worth reading in their entirety!
Christopher Warwick. Ella: Princess, Saint and Martyr. John Wiley & Sons. 2006.
“Elizabeth the New Martyr”. Orthodox Wiki.
Father Demetrios Serfes. “Life of the Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Lives of the Saints.
Metropolitan Anastassy. “Life of the Holy New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Orthodox Christian Information Center.
Rita Childe Dorr. “1917 Interview with Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Alexander Palace. Alexander Palace Time Machine.