How a French princess almost became the last Empress of Russia

PHOTO: Princess Hélène of Orleans (1871-1951)

It was Peter the Great who started the tradition of marriages with German princesses, which was continued by his successors. This is explained both by the religious issue – Protestants easily accepted Orthodoxy, unlike Catholic princesses – and by political unions, because the German principalities were the closest neighbours of the Russian Empire. The only exception was Emperor Alexander III, who married a Danish princess.

When Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich – the future Emperor Nicholas II – fell passionately in love with Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, he received an unexpected rebuff from his parents, who had their own arguments against such a union. At the end of the 19th century, Russia once again changed its foreign policy ally – France replaced Germany and Austria.

This political union was the main project of Alexander III, who began cordial relations with France, eventually entering into an alliance with the French in 1892. Best of all, an alliance would strengthen a marriage. And although France at that time was already a republic, she could offer Princess Hélène of Orleans (1871-1951), a representative of the Orleans branch of the Bourbon dynasty, as a bride. Hélène was the third of eight children born to Prince Philippe, Count of Paris, and Infanta Maria Isabel of Spain.

Moreover, the fact that the princess did not belong to a ruling house was considered as a plus, because in this case she would not be able to influence her husband in the interests of her family. And Empress Maria Feodorovna, being a Dane, simply did not want to see a German princess as her daughter-in-law. She held strong militant anti-German sentiment because of the annexation of Danish territories by Prussia in 1864.

Therefore, Hélène had long been considered the main contender for the crown of the Russian Empress. Hélène of Orleans was known for her beauty, knew several languages, and she loved sports. Journalists referred to her as a model of women’s health and beauty. Of course, one can only speculate whether Nicholas’s marriage with Hélène would have changed the course of Russia’s history?

For one, Hélène would not have passed on to her children, namely, her son, the haemophilia gene, which played a fatal role in the history of the Russian Imperial Family. It was Alexei’s morbidity that led the odious Rasputin to the pinnacle of power. Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, trusting the elder with the most valuable thing – her son. According to some historians, the Empress began to consult with him in those matters where he could not be competent in any way, often influencing her husband. Nicholas adored his wife too much to ignore many of her requests.

Historians believe, that if he had treated his wife more calmly, he could make decisions on his own and remain calm in acute situations. In addition, Hélène was French, and would not have caused such antipathy as the German Alexandra Feodorovna, when in 1914 Russia entered the war against Austria and Germany.

Nicholas, never pursued his parents choice for the French princess as a bride, as he was already in love with Princess Alix of Hesse. It is quite possible, that the strong willed Alexander III could have forced his son to marry Hélène, but his health failed him. Fearing that he would not have time to marry his son personally, and feeling completely ill, he yielded to Nicholas request to marry the woman he loved. The subsequent events are known, but Alexandra Feodorovna was never able to please either the court, or the people, or the relatives of her beloved husband.

Hélène of Orleans eventually married Prince Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, cousin of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. In marriage, she gave birth to two sons, was engaged in charity, left many travel notes on her travels in Europe and Africa. She outlived Nicholas II , her husband and both her sons. She died on 21st January 1951 (aged 79), in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy.

© Paul Gilbert. 12 February 2022