Downton Abbey - The Dowager and the Russians

Downton Abbey - The Dowager and the Russians (Illustration) Russian Studies Nineteenth Century Life Civil Wars Film Revolutionary Wars Victorian Age World History

In this “Downton Abbey” still shot, by Nick Briggs—Carnival Films/PBS—the Dowager Countess of Grantham (portrayed by Maggie Smith) realizes that one of the Russian emigres, visiting the Abbey, is someone she met when visiting Russia in 1874. As it happens, he is far more than a passing acquaintance.


When the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia, during 1917, three hundreds years of Tsarist rule, by the Romanov family, came to an end.  By the following year, Tsar Nicholas II and his immediate family (often referred to as the “Imperial Family”) were dead.

It wasn’t just members of the Imperial Family who were at risk after the Bolsheviks took power. So were many Russian aristocrats and lesser-ranking members of the nobility. Refugees poured out of the country.

Historians estimate that by 1922, five years after the Revolution, about 967,793 people had fled Russia. (See A Right to Flee, by Phil Orchard, Table 5.1 at page 107.)

By 1923, the Soviet government was making it difficult for Russian emigres to ever return to their homeland.  Among other things, people who had fled—no matter their prior status—were stripped of citizenship rights.

Once-wealthy people, who left with their lives but without their property, were unable to cross a now-sealed border to claim what was once theirs. Their plight, for the most part, was irreversible.

In 1924—the year featured in Downton Abbey’s Season 5—the United Kingdom recognized the Soviet Union. What did that mean for Russian refugees?

Not only were these stateless refugees trapped in limbo, but as both the British and French governments began to back away from providing assistance, their positions were increasing perilous.  Many groups were close to starvation. A crisis existed, and the states most directly involved with helping these refugees - France and Great Britain - could not foresee any form of long-term unilateral or bilateral solution. (See Orchard, page 108.)

Against this historical backdrop, we investigate how it was that a now-impoverished Russian refugee could have known Violet Crawley (the Dowager Countess of Grantham). The short answer?  A wedding, between a royal Brit and a royal Russian, which took place (in Russia) during 1874.

It all started as a love story.  

Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred Ernest Albert, was also known as the Duke of Edinburgh in the summer of 1871. While visiting Jugenheim (Germany), with his brother and sister-in-law (the Prince and Princess of Wales), Alfred (whom his family called “Affie”) began spending time with Maria Alexandrovna (the daughter of Tsar Alexander II).

As a member of Russia’s Imperial Family, Maria held the rank of Grand Duchess.  She was very close to her father, the Tsar, who showered her with gifts.

During that summer, Affie and Maria (who was nine years younger than the Duke) fell in love.  Although their parents opposed the match, the two were intent on getting married.

Maria, who had been raised by English nannies, was the first Russian princess who could speak fluent English. She wanted to become the first Romanov to marry into the British royal family.

By July of 1873, Affie could wait no longer. He traveled back to Jugenheim, were the Tsar was visiting relatives. Two years to the summer after he fell in love with Maria, Affie proposed (after getting permission from Alexander II). He sent a telegram to his mother, the Queen, containing these words:

Maria and I were engaged this morning. Cannot say how happy I am. Hope your blessing rests on us.

What was Victoria to do?

After she gave her blessing, too, the couple began planning their wedding.  It would take place the following January, at the Winter Palace (in St. Petersburg, Russia), and would be a sensational event.

Members of the British aristocracy—people like the Dowager Countess of Grantham and her husband, Robert Crawley’s father, Lord Grantham—were among the invited guests who arrived, in St. Petersburg, around the 18th of January, 1874.

The wedding would have two separate religious parts ... one for the Russian Grand Duchess (who was Russian Orthodox) and the other for the Duke of Edinburgh (who was Anglican).  

The Graphic, a British newspaper, described the “glittering fairytale wedding” for its readers:

...The most picturesque portion of the ceremony was the placing of the two massive golden crowns on the heads of the bride and bridegroom, which were subsequently held above them by the groomsmen, Prince Arthur and the Grand Duke Vladimir.

After this they partook of the “common cup,” each drinking thrice from a goblet of wine ... the service concluded with an act which renders the marriage indissoluble. [This work of art, by Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902), depicts the Russian Orthodox ceremony.]

Joining hands under the priest’s stole, the bridal pair followed the Archbishop three times round the altar, in commemoration of the Trinity ... The procession then proceeded to the Alexander Hall, for the ceremony according to the Anglican rites.

Among other things, the Tsar gave his daughter some of Catherine the Great’s jewelry. Much of it was even-more beautiful than the jewels owned by Queen Victoria and her daughters (a point of future consternation).

Despite the Tsar’s desire for his daughter to live in Russia, the young couple moved to England. Things did not go well, for many reasons, including Maria’s distaste for English food, English weather and English protocol.

The daughter of a Tsar, Maria did not like the rank she had in Britain.  She never understood why she should rank behind the Princess of Wales (not to mention Queen Victoria’s daughters).

When tensions between their two countries inevitably surfaced, a rift grew between Affie and Maria.  By 1889, they were living apart.

When the Russian Revolution occurred, Maria was still living. She was unable to return to her homeland, at all, and died, in Switzerland, during 1920.

And that ... as part of the story line goes ... is how the Dowager Countess knew the Russian aristocrat.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jan 25, 2015

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2016

Media Credits

Image, depicting the Downton Abbey cast, including Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, by Nick Briggs—Carnival Films/PBS. Copyright, Nick Briggs-Carnival Films-PBS, all rights reserved. Image provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the program.


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"Downton Abbey - The Dowager and the Russians" AwesomeStories.com. Jan 25, 2015. Jul 17, 2018.
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