The Wedding of Grand Duchess Maria of Russia and Prince Franz-Wilhelm of Prussia

by Seth B. Leonard

Originally published in the European Royal History Journal, Issue CXXV, Volume 23.1 – Spring 2020.

When asked about her private life in an interview with a Russian daily paper, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna briefly touched upon a subject that is normally verboten: her marriage to a fellow royal nearly forty years ago. “I married for love,” she said, before elaborating on the unique intricacies that surrounded the union with her former husband. “When I got married, my husband, Prince Franz-Wilhelm of Prussia, out of love, understanding, and respect for our traditions and for my future role, fulfilled every request made of him by the [Pauline] Law: he converted to Orthodoxy, took the Russian title of grand duke with the name Mikhail Pavlovich, and pledged to raise his children in the Orthodox faith. Unfortunately, after nine years, the marriage ended in divorce. But then, such things happen not only in royal families, as you may have noted.” Of course, there was no way of knowing that the glittering marriage between the young, attractive grand duchess and blue-eyed, blonde-haired prince would not stand the test of time. 

Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna of Russia was born on 23 December 1953, at the Nuestra Señora de Loreto Clinic in Madrid. She was the only child of Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich of Russia, Head of the Imperial House of Romanov, and his wife Leonida. Nearly forty-years-old, Leonida began to fear that she would be unable to give her husband a much-needed heir. Increasingly desperate, Leonida made a pilgrimage early in 1953 to the relic of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker at Bari, Italy, and, several weeks after returning to Spain, she was thrilled when her doctor informed her that she was expecting. “My pregnancy was very difficult,” Leonida remembered. “I had to stay on bed-rest for eight months, which for a woman with a rather dynamic temperament, presented me with an additional challenge. Fortunately, Queen Giovanna of Bulgaria was kind enough to come and spend many an afternoon at our home to keep me company. The doctor told me that the child could only be saved if I stayed in bed. The sacrifice was worth it.” Needless to say, Grand Duchess Maria’s parents always rather regarded their daughter as something of a miracle (“a child from God”), and the three formed an exceptionally close familial bond. Upon being baptised into the Russian Orthodox faith on 3 February 1954, the infant was given the name Maria; the chosen godparents were her great-uncle Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich, who due to poor health was represented at the event by Prince Nicholas of Romania; and Queen Giovanna, Queen Mother of Bulgaria. 
The Romanov trio spent the year rotating between their various homes. In Spain, they resided in a comfortable apartment on the rue Velasquez that was just around the corner from the home of Maria’s maternal grandparents, who had relocated to the country after the fortuitous marriages of their children. At some point, the family exchanged the apartment for a more spacious villa in the posh Madrid suburb of Puerto de Hierro. The French residences included Ker Argonid in St. Briac, built by a retired Breton seaman in the 1880s and acquired by Grand Duke Kirill in 1926, and a flat in Paris. Hélène Kirby, Maria’s half-sister, also lived with her mother and stepfather, who granted Hélène the title of Countess Dvinskaya in 1976. 
Grand Duchess Maria has recalled her early years: “I had a very happy childhood. There was such a harmony between my parents. They very much loved each other. They never quarrelled or were separated. I was thus raised in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect.” When she was a toddler, Maria was often taken by her parents to visit her great-uncle Andrei and his wife Mathilde at their “enchanting” Villa Molitor in Paris, with its “big windows and conservatories.” There, Maria enjoyed playing with the Grand Duke’s pet turtle, Rosalie, who was kept in one of the gardens and was one of Maria’s earliest guests at her childhood tea parties. 
Other companions included her slightly older Leiningen and Prussian cousins, the numerous children of her aunts, the grand duchesses Maria Kirillovna and Kira Kirillovna, respectively. Along with her parents, Maria witnessed wedding of her cousin Marie-Cécile of Prussia with Duke Friedrich August of Oldenburg in 1965. Two years later, in August 1967, the Romanovs were joined at Ker Argonid by Kira and her husband, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, and their brood of children to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of Grand Duke Vladimir. Amid the celebrations, Princess Kira began to feel ill: when she was transported to hospital in nearby St. Malo, she passed away from a heart-attack. Her death made the immediate family circle a bit smaller, as Maria’s other paternal aunt, Dowager Fürstin Maria of Leiningen, had already died in 1951, also from a heart-attack, and also while visiting her brother Vladimir and his wife, though her unfortunate passing occurred in Madrid. 
Like most royal children of a bygone era, Maria was partially raised by a nurse: a Swiss-German woman by the name of Hanny Vögelin. Described as “firm but fair,” Vögelin taught the little girl how to read and write, and stayed on with the family until Maria went to primary school at the age of seven. After completing primary school, Maria went on to the British Institute in Madrid. Passionate about languages, she then made the choice to enter Oxford University, where she began her studies in 1972 at Lady Margaret Hall. Maria spent her first year at university living with her parents at a house they let in Boars Hill; thereafter, the grand duchess moved into the dormitories so that she could share the same life as the other students. Ever the protective parents, Vladimir and Leonida continued to rent a cottage close-by for the remainder of Maria’s time at Oxford. 
One of the most memorable occasions during this British sojourn was when the family received an invitation from Buckingham Palace for tea with Queen Elizabeth II. Although three servants were in plain sight, the Queen herself poured the tea, which was “of the celebrated British brand Twinings,” and served it “with a thin slice of lemon in a Worchester cup.” As the Romanovs shared this rare tête-à-tête with their Windsor cousin, they were sitting next to a window and gazed out to see the Queen Mother boarding a helicopter on the Palace grounds. “Oh, Mummy is a phenomenon!” the Queen exclaimed, “I hate helicopters, they frighten me, and she…she takes them like one would take a bus or a taxi!” 
In early 1975, Grand Duchess Maria left Oxford an accomplished polyglot, fluent in English, French, Russian and Spanish, as well as possessing a thorough knowledge of Russian literature. Around this time, she had also made up her mind as to the man with whom she wished to spend the rest of her life. This handsome suitor was none other than her third-cousin once-removed: Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia. Theirs was to be the third—and, to date,—final, dynastic match between a Romanov and a Hohenzollern.

Undoubtedly, Franz Wilhelm and his relatives had not experienced the same sheltered existence that his future fiancée had known. Prince Joachim of Prussia, Franz Wilhelm’s grandfather, experienced a collapse of his fragile mental state by the combined effects of the failure of his marriage to Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt and the fall of the German Empire after World War I. As a result, he committed suicide in Potsdam on 18 July 1920. His only child, Prince Karl Franz Joseph of Prussia, was born during the height of the Great War on 15 December 1916. His father’s untimely death meant that Karl Franz Joseph ended up being raised by his mother. The boy’s grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm II desired that his childless son Prince Eitel Friedrich be the one to raise the fatherless Prussian prince. After several court battles, Princess Marie Auguste, backed by her father the Duke of Anhalt, eventually received custody of her son Karl Franz Joseph. 

On 6 August 1940 at his residence at Doorn, the former German kaiser Wilhelm II officially announced the engagement of his grandson Prince Karl Franz Joseph with his stepdaughter, Princess Henriette of Schönaich-Carolath. Ever since his remarriage, the Kaiser had generally stayed out of his stepchildren’s affairs, with the exception of Henriette, Kaiserin Hermine’s youngest child, who was born on 25 November 1918 at Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm possessed a genuine affection for Henriette. She came to be known as “the general.” Of all Hermine’s children, only Henriette had come to live at Haus Doorn, where she “performed the role of resident grandchild, passing the sugar when coffee was served” at the Kaiser’s table. 
Karl Franz Joseph and Henriette were civilly married on 1 October 1940 at Doorn, The Netherlands; the ceremony was performed by the Mayor of Doorn. The religious ceremony followed on 5 October 1940 in Berlin. Kaiserin Hermine and Princess Marie-Auguste, the mothers of the bride and groom, respectively, both appeared in the official wedding photographs with the young couple. The groom’s grandfather and the bride’s stepfather died shortly after their wedding: Wilhelm II passed away at Haus Doorn on 4 June 1941.
Prince Karl Franz Joseph and Princess Henriette had three children: Franz Wilhelm. Friedrich Christian, and Franz Friedrich (b.17 October 1944). Princes Franz Wilhelm and Friedrich Christian were twins, both being born at Schloß Saabor on 3 September 1943. Sadly, only Franz Wilhelm survived, as Friedrich Christian died several weeks after birth on 26 September 1943. The union of their parents did not last; Karl Franz Joseph and Henriette’s marriage was dissolved by divorce on 5 September 1946. 
Prince Karl Franz Joseph went on to marry twice more. The prince contracted a morganatic marriage with his second wife, Luise Dora Hartmann (1909—1961), on 9 November 1946 in Hamburg. This marriage ended in divorce in 1959. Karl Franz Joseph remarried in Lima, Peru, on 20 July 1959 to Doña Eva Maria Herrera y Valdeavellano (1922—1987), with whom he had two daughters, Princesses Alexandra (b.1960) and Désirée (b.1961). Prince Karl Franz Joseph, a grandson of the last German Kaiser and a descendant of Queen Victoria, died in Arica, Chile, on 23 January 1975. He was fifty-eight. The prince was eventually buried at Furstenfriedhof Maria-Zell, Hechingen, on 1 June 1981. 
Sometime after her divorce, Princess Henriette of Schönaich-Carolath had another son, Udo (b.1956), although she never remarried. The princess died in Neuendettelsau, West Germany, on 16 March 1972. Henriette was fifty-three years-old; she was buried at Haseldorf bei Pinneberg, Holstein.   

In his earlier years, Prince Franz Wilhelm was raised by his maternal grandmother, Kaiserin Hermine. The prince went on to study law and business administration at the universities of Mainz and Frankfurt am Main. He then worked in both Europe and South America. 
By the time Franz Wilhelm’s engagement with Grand Duchess Maria of Russia was announced, they had been seeing one another for some time: they had originally met at a soirée in Germany organised by Maria’s uncle, Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. In the spring of 1975, the pair had come to the decision that they wanted to marry. Maria and Franz Wilhelm were first publicly photographed attending the religious wedding of King Leka (I) of Albania and Miss Susan Cullen-Ward, which was held on 10 October 1975 in Toledo. Among the guests at this union were Queen Margarita of Bulgaria, Queen Farida of Egypt, Prince Nicholas and Princess Thereza of Romania, Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duchess Leonida of Russia, the Duke and Duchess of Cadiz, and the Count and Countess d’Érveux. Juan Carlos and Sofía, then Prince and Princess of Spain, had to decline their invitation for reasons of security due to tensions that existed at that time in the country. 
On 9 July 1976 at Ker Argonid in France, Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duchess Leonida formally announced Maria’s engagement to her third-cousin once removed, Franz Wilhelm. Grand Duke Vladimir stated: “I must say that this event fills us with joy. Our daughter could not make a better choice.” When Grand Duchess Maria was asked if she could elaborate on the plans for the wedding, she responded: “We had originally decided, with my parents, that the wedding would take place in Geneva, where there is a large Orthodox church, and because it is a more central location in Europe for all our cousins and friends to come. The wedding will likely take place at the end of September. However, King Juan Carlos, my cousin, let us know that he wanted to attend the celebration. Since he can not leave Spain in September, we will get married in Madrid, but the Orthodox Church here is quite small. As for the date, it is the king who will fix it, since being here, we can not decide what day will work best for his schedule.” Interestingly, linguistics played a role in the communication between the engaged couple: Maria spoke fluent Russian, French, English and Spanish; Franz Wilhelm spoke fluent German and English. Therefore, the couple conversed in English — though Maria expressed a desire to improve her German so as to add a second language to their means of discourse. 
On 21 July 1976, a degree was drawn up to cement the alliance between Grand Duchess Maria, heiress presumptive of the Russian Imperial House, and Prince Franz Wilhelm. In the document, Grand Duke Vladimir took several steps to guarantee the survival of his house. Firstly, Vladimir granted his permission for the marriage between his daughter and her fiancé. Secondly, he made known the fact that Franz Wilhelm had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith on 8 July 1976 at the Saint Sergei Church (l’église Saint-Serge de Radonège) in Paris. Thirdly, it was announced that upon baptism Franz Wilhelm had adopted the name Michael Pavlovich. Fourthly, Vladimir granted his soon-to-be son-in-law the title of Grand Duke of Russia. Fifthly, Vladimir made clear that Michael Pavlovich had agreed to raise any children born of his union with Grand Duchess Maria in the Russian Orthodox Faith. Finally, the Grand Duke expressed his desire that any children born of Maria and Michael’s union would bear the surname of “Romanoff” and the title “Grand Duke/Grand Duchess of Russia,” while they would secondly bear the surname “Hohenzollern” and the title “Prince/Princess of Prussia.” The negotiations concerning the marriage contract took place between Grand Duke Vladimir and his brother-in-law, Prince Louis Ferdinand, Head of the Royal House of Prussia. 
On 4 September 1976, Grand Duchess Maria and Prince Franz Wilhelm were married in a civil ceremony at the Hôtel de Ville of Dinard. It was presided over by Yvon Bourges, the mayor of Dinard and former French Minister of Defence under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The witnesses for the grand duchess were Michel Schupoff, the son of a Tsarist general, and Loyola de Palacio, who later became a minister in the Spanish government and then a member of the European Commission. The witnesses for the prince were H. Munich and Baron Peter von Recum. After the civil ceremony, the father of the bride offered a celebratory luncheon for some fifty persons at the family home of Ker Argonid in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer on the Breton coast. 
The religious wedding was attended by an American couple from Eureka, California: Dr Samuel P Burre and his wife (née Olga Alexandrovna Mahakovsky). Olga’s godmother Valentina Blagoy, a Russian emigrée and former actress, also accompanied the couple to the imperial celebration in Spain. 
The Burres recalled their introduction to Grand Duke Vladimir, Grand Duchess Leonida and the engaged couple shortly before the wedding: “Shortly after we arrived in Madrid, we received an invitation to tea at the residence of the Grand Duke and Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia. The grand duke’s chauffeur picked us up at our hotel in Madrid and we traveled at a snail’s pace through the 6 o’clock traffic of a Saturday afternoon. The grand ducal villa, about five miles from the hotel, dwelled on the outskirts of Madrid, densely arbored in an area of modern Spanish mansions. The residence was enclosed by a tall stone wall. As we reached the iron gate, the chauffeur gave a signal of his arrival. A young maid opened the gate with a key, much in the fashion of opening one’s front door. We were admitted by the maid to a very large living room — impressive with statues and family portraits in oil, large chandeliers and a large fireplace of white stone over which hangs a life size portrait of their daughter, the Grand Duchess Maria, whose nuptial ceremonies were to be held in a few days. After a brief wait, the grand duke and grand duchess entered and after an exchange of greetings seated themselves with us around a large coffee table where tea and sherry were served just as Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia entered with his widowed stepmother, and accompanied by the prince’s younger sister. (Members of the family came in relays.) The last to appear was the Grand Duchess Maria, the future bride, a beautiful brunette around 23 years of age. An accomplished young lady, a linguist and graduate of Oxford University, she joined the prince, 34, who is studying law, at the table and conversation continued.” 
The grand festivities to celebrate the most recent union of the Romanov and Hohenzollern dynasties took place on 22 September 1976. At 5:00 p.m., wedding guests began to gather at the Saint Demetrius Orthodox Church on the Calle de Nicaragua in Madrid. Shortly after 7:00 p.m., Grand Duchess Maria arrived with her father and was escorted to the altar. Wearing a diamond and pearl diadem atop her head, the bride was dressed in a white taffeta gown designed by French courtier Madame Grés. Grand Duke Michael was escorted to the altar of the church by Queen Giovanna, the Queen Mother of Bulgaria, the godmother of the bride. The wedding was attended by a deluge of the Gotha, with four kings and six queens present. The Russian Orthodox wedding was officiated over by Anthony Medvedev, archbishop of San Francisco and Western American Diocese. The Kursk Root Icon of the Sign, dating from the fourteenth century, was brought from its holding in the United States for the occasion. During the ceremony, the wedding crowns over the couple were held by Prince Bagrat Bagration-Mukhransky, Prince Alexander Bagration-Mukhransky, Baron Peter von Recum, Vladimir Kotliarewsky, Michel Kotliarewsky, and Prince Georg-Dietrich of Schönaich-Carolath, a maternal first cousin of the groom. The half-sisters of the groom, Alexandra and Désirée, acted as maids of honour and assisted in carrying the nearly fourteen-foot train of the wedding gown of Grand Duchess Maria. Amongst the guests were Queen Mother Geraldine of Albania, King Leka I and Queen Susan of Albania, Queen Mother Giovanna of Bulgaria, King Simeon II and Queen Margarita of Bulgaria, Queen Farida of Egypt, King Umberto II of Italy, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía of Spain, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia and his daughter, Princess Xenia; Princess Eva-Maria of Prussia and her daughters Princesses Alexandra and Désirée; Prince Franz Friedrich of Prussia, the Duke of Bragança and his brother Infante Miguel; Archduke Andreas Salvator of Austria, Fürst Ernst-Philipp and Fürstin Eva-Benita of Schaumburg-Lippe, Dukes Christian and Friedrich August of Oldenburg, Duke Peter and Duchess Marie Alix of of Schleswig-Holstein, the Infantas Pilar and Margarita of Spain with their husbands; Fürstin Eilika of Leiningen, Fürst Aloys-Konstantin and Fürstin Anastasia zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, the Duke and Duchess of Cadiz, the Duchess of Franco and her husband the Marquis of Villaverde; as well as by Princess Helen Bagration-Mukhransky (the maternal grandmother of the bride), her son Prince Irakli, his youngest son Prince Bagrat with fiancée doña María del Carmen de Ulloa y Suelvesand, Prince Irakli’s only daughter Princess Mariam Bagration-Mukhransky, and Miss Hélène Kirby, Countess Dvinskaya, the half-sister of the bride. 
At 9:00 p.m., the religious ceremony ended, and four hundred guests departed for a reception at the upscale Puerto de Hierro, where the guests took a seated dinner served in the gardens of the residence of the Grand Duke Vladimir and Grand Duchess Leonida. The table of honour was presided over by the nuptial couple, surrounded by the King and Queen of Spain. 
Once again, Dr and Mrs Burre from California provide a wonderfully detailed recounting of the event. “Immediately following the very formal ceremony we drove in a procession some five miles to the home of the grand duke and grand duchess of Russia, the site of the reception, where the newlyweds were in a receiving line with members of other royal families. At the formal reception dinner, all the royal heads of state were seated at the centre table, surrounded by 50 tables each seating high guests. A member of a royal family was at each table. The stepmother of the groom, Princess Eva Marie of Prussia, who came from Peru, was at ours… The serving of the dinner, by nearly 50 waiters, also in formal attire, was as impressive as the rest of this royal occasion. At an appointed time, all the waiters emerged from the house and marched into the garden, with trays of soup and punctually, with precision, placed the trays in chorus and served each table simultaneously. Each course duplicated the same action. Even the dessert, which was served in a very picturesque manner — pineapple sliced lengthwise and scalloped, with an ice cream cake and chopped fruit, raspberry and pineapple. Each party was served from the large pineapple container deftly onto its smaller plate. During the course of the dinner there were songs by the choir which had performed at the church. There were no orations or speeches except the conversation that took place at one’s table. And there was no table hopping! The tables were covered with white cloths, bouquets, crystal and sparingly silver — hanging electric lights from garden trees illuminated the areas. As we had entered the garden the newlyweds were congratulated in the receiving line and all guests were photographed shaking hands with them. The dinner menu included Vichyssoise, cold fish quenelles, boneless quail stuffed with pate and truffles with brandy sauce, potatoes au gratin, the dessert, as described, plus wedding cake, and black coffee, demitasse. Music and dancing followed in the garden room.” 

While she danced with her husband under the “beautifully serene night” sky, Grand Duchess Maria had changed into another Madame Grés creation: an asymmetrical white silk jersey dress consisting of mauve, red, lilac and pink hues on the left side. On the date of her marriage, the bride and heiress of the Imperial House of Romanov issued the following statement: “I and my husband, Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, have been deeply touched by the genuine outpouring of good wishes that so many of Our countrymen have offered Us on the occasion of Our marriage, and for which We convey to them Our heartfelt gratitude.” 

The union of Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Franz Wilhelm was crowned nearly five years later with the birth of their only child: Grand Duke George Mikhailovich, who was born on 13 March 1981 at the Loreto Clinic in Madrid. He entered the world exactly 100 years after the assassination on 13 March 1881 of his great-great-great grandfather Emperor Alexander II of Russia. His parents chose to name their son after Grand Duke George Alexandrovich (1871–1899), the brother of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia. George was born “Jorge prinz von Preussen Romanoff”; however, the year after the birth his mother filed a petition in France to have his last name changed to “Romanoff-grand-duc de Russie prinz von Preussen.” 
On 6 May 1981, the little grand duke was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church, the feast day of St. George. Grand Duke George’s godparents are King Constantine II of Greece, for whom the baby’s grandfather Grand Duke Vladimir stood proxy; and Hélène Kirby, George’s maternal aunt. The guests at the baptism included the King and Queen of Spain, King Simeon II and Queen Margarita of Bulgaria, Princess Hubertus of Prussia (née Princess Magdalena Reuß), Infante Luis Alfonso of Spain, Princess Marisol of Bavaria (morganatic wife of the late Infante José Eugenio of Spain), and Prince Georg-Dietrich of Schönaich-Carolath. Archbishop Anthony of San Francisco and Western America, who had presided at the wedding of the baby’s parents, officiated over the initiation of the Grand Duke George Mikhailovich into the Russian Orthodox faith. George was baptised in the gold basin used to baptise his great-great grandfather, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, as well as all of Grand Duke Vladimir’s children: Kirill, Boris, Andrei, and Helen. The basin had been tucked away in London by Grand Duke Kirill after his exile, and it was only brought out of its vault in 1954 when Maria Vladimirovna was baptised. At one point, Queen Sofía of Spain was photographed holding the infant grand duke while his mother Maria looked along adoringly. The future of the Romanov imperial dynasty was secured for another generation. 
Maria of Russia and Franz-Wilhelm of Prussia’s marriage deteriorated after the birth of their only child. The couple were separated in 1982, and a divorce followed in 1985. Franz-Wilhelm married his long-time partner Nadia Nour in 2019. Maria has never remarried.

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Chaffanjon, Arnaud. “A Dinard: Le mariage civil de la grande-duchesse Maria de Russie.” Point de Vue, No. 1468. p. 9.

Chaffanjon, Arnaud and Maurice Zalewski. “Le mariage d’amour de Maria Wladimirovna, héritière du trône impérial de Russie.” Point de Vue, No. 1471. pp. 2-9.

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Peñafiel, Jaime. “Boda de la gran duquesa Maria de Rusia con el Principe Franz Wilhelm de Prusia en Madrid.” ¡Hola!, No.1675.

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