The Russian Tsar’s Hut

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The Swallow’s Nest villa, once owned by the Russian Emperor Alexander III, has been preserved in Denmark

By Nadia Knudsen, a journalist, International Press Centre, Denmark

Contrary to the popular opinion about the love of the incredible luxury of the decoration of summer palaces and castles, where Emperor Alexander III and his spouse Maria Feodorovna spent their holidays, in Denmark the royal couple lived in their own ‘hut’ built near the Fredensborg Palace, the summer residence of the Danish monarchs of the Glücksburg Dynasty, who succeeded the Oldenburg family.

This wonderful house, hidden on a hillock at the edge of a forest near the splendid palace, was initially chosen for the numerous guards of Alexander III. He would come here to spend a fortnight in the summer in the company of his Danish relatives – King Christian IX, who was nicknamed the ‘father-in-law of all Europe’, and his wife Queen Louise, nee Princess of Hesse-Darmstadt. The emperor also enjoyed fishing on Lake Esrum beside the palace. The following phrase immediately comes to mind: ‘When the Russian Tsar is fishing, Europe can wait!’

Svalereden (“Swallow’s Nest”) was the name of a villa built in the then popular Swiss style. It was bought by Alexander III and then rebuilt in the Russian style – with intricate carved patterns on the facade, gilded doorways and spectacular interior decoration. It stood on an elevation, on granite boulders, safely hidden behind a beech grove from prying eyes.

Portrait of Alexander III by I. N. Kramskoy. 1886

At that time the royal Fredensborg Palace was the official summer residence of the Danish kings of the Glücksburg Dynasty, who succeeded the Oldenburg family. This palace was set up in 1721 by the architect Johan Cornelius Krieger by order of the Danish King Frederick IV and called the ‘Peace Palace’ on the occasion of the end of the Great Northern War, which had lasted almost two decades.

The Great Northern War did not prevent Frederick IV from making a long trip through Italy and, admiring the beauty of breathtaking landscapes and paintings by medieval artists, to make an impressive collection of Venetian glass. Following the wise advice of his gesants (as ambassadors were called at that time), he stayed away from battles. And only when the Russians defeated the Swedes did the King of Denmark declare war on Sweden and on 12 November 1709 invade its southern lands with 15,000 troops. However, having been defeated in March 1710, he fled to Denmark and, handing over command of the troops to his valiant generals, he returned to his usual pursuits: ruled the kingdom, built the magnificent Fredensborg Palace and won the hearts of charming ladies – here his victories were won much more easily than on the battlefield. Despite the fact that the king had been married since 1695 to Louise of Mecklenburg, the queen Consort and the mother of the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Christian (VI), he married the aristocrat Elisabeth von Vieregg, becoming a bigamist. Unfortunately, she died in childbirth a year later. But soon the King had a new mistress.

In 1711 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Denmark, which wiped out a third of Copenhagen’s population, almost 20,000 people. The king with his retinue and most of the aristocrats and nobles had moved in advance to the Jutland peninsula, where they waited until the epidemic was over.

And there, at a high-society fancy-dress ball in the medieval Koldinghus Castle, King Frederick IV fell in love with the young Anne Sophie Reventlow, the Grand Chancellor’s daughter. Knowing that the king was frivolous, her mother took her to their family manor of Clausholm to prevent her from becoming one of his favourites. But this only fueled the king’s boldness, and he simply kidnapped the nineteen-year-old beauty, later marrying her and becoming a bigamist again. In Denmark it is called “a left-handed marriage” and, by the way, according to the law of 1683, “anyone who has a legitimate husband or a wife and commits bigamy shall be beheaded.”

But the king is above all laws. So, Frederick IV built himself a wonderful family nest, the Fredensborg Palace, in a far and remote place, and there he hoped to live out his days in love and happiness, far from the rumours of this world.

So, he called his new luxurious residence the “Peace Palace” also because he wanted peace of mind. And there Frederick IV, who had twice become a bigamist, just waited for the death of his queen consort. That happened in 1721, and on the following day he crowned his favourite Anne Sophie queen.

Exactly nine years later, the amorous monarch passed away at the age of fifty-nine. His son from the first marriage, Crown Prince Christian, ascended to the throne and immediately sent his stepmother Anne Sophie to her family manor of Clausholm (depriving her of the crown and all the privileges), where she spent her widowhood until her death in 1743, albeit with a good monetary allowance.

The Fredensborg Castle was forgotten and, as if in a fairy tale, fell asleep for 100 years like a sleeping beauty. The monarchs avoided it until one day there was a fire in another ancient royal palace – Frederiksborg. The Danish king Frederick VII, married to the ballerina Louise Rassmussen (his third wife) from 1850, chose this beautiful medieval palace as his winter residence and, like many Danish monarchs from the Oldenburg family who ruled Denmark for 400 years, tried not to contradict his spouse, a flighty ballerina. She ordered the servants to light up all the fireplaces on the frosty night of 17 December 1859, and the curtains in the knights’ hall caught fire, and the lake by the palace was covered with ice, so there was nothing to put out the fire with! Throwing their clothes hastily into the carriages, the king and his wife fled to another palace, the very ‘Peace Palace’, which was fifteen kilometres away. A couple of days later they returned to Copenhagen, to the elegance and comfort of the official residence of Amalienborg.

In 1863, King Christian IX, Princess Dagmar’s father, appreciated the luxury and splendour of the palace’s interior, making it his summer residence, where he cordially welcomed his adult daughters and sons.

Louise of Hesse, Christian IX’s wife, knew much about the practice of royal intermarriage and managed to become related not only to the English and Swedish royal families, but also to secure strong family bonds with the Romanovs, giving Princess Dagmar in marriage to Tsarevich Alexander in 1866, and marrying her middle son Wilhelm (from 1863 – King George I of Greece) in 1867 to the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna Romanova, the Tsarevich’s cousin. Dagmar became the Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1881, and Olga Constantinovna became the Queen of the Hellenes in 1867.

Judge for yourselves how successful the marriages of the other children of Christian IX were. The eldest daughter, the beautiful Alexandra, was married in 1864 to Prince Edward of Wales, who, having ascended the throne in 1901, gave her the crown of Great Britain. The youngest son, Prince Valdemar of Denmark, was married in 1885 to the French Princess Marie of the Orleans family, and the daughter Thyra was married to the German Duke Ernest Augustus of Hanover in 1878. In 1869 Crown Prince Frederick married Princess Louise, the Swedish king’s daughter, in order to strengthen the bonds of marriage with the neighbouring powerful country, his eternal enemy.

This is why Europe’s fate was sometimes decided here, in the Fredensborg country palace, when everyone was staying in their Danish home in the summer. For example, as long as Alexander III was alive, Empress Consort Maria Feodorovna would spend summer holidays with her husband and children at the royal Fredensborg residence, thirty-five kilometres away from the Danish capital.

And this is what Alexander III’s youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, wrote about it in her reminiscences: “At the end of the summer we would travel either to the Crimea (to Livadia) or to Denmark – my mother’s homeland. We would get to Copenhagen on the royal yacht-ship. I remember that at first it was a beautiful steamer, which started rocking violently once the sea was slightly stormy, which, however, was almost always the case in the Baltic Sea!

The journey from Kronstadt or from Peterhof usually took between four and five days in my early childhood. Later we would get there in thirty-six hours on the Polar Star yacht. The Imperial ship was always accompanied by two or more military destroyers. But what surprised me most when I was a child was the fact that we always had a cow on board. It was supposed to supply us, the royal children, with fresh milk in the morning, which it did, as a rule, though it was terribly seasick on the voyage, as were, indeed, some other passengers on the royal ship as well.

When our yacht entered the harbour of Copenhagen, bypassing ancient forts, and was anchored at the old royal customs house of Toldbold, a cannon salute was immediately heard and a royal boat was lowered to us from the shore on oars. King Christian IX of Denmark and Queen Louise were on it – they would go up on deck to greet us on our arrival and then, taking everyone, they would send us to the Fredensborg residence, which is thirty-five kilometres northeast of Copenhagen. There we could frolic and play with our grandfather, King Christian, who enjoyed it, and he did it often, unlike Queen Louise, our grandmother, who did not allow herself to do this, but I still loved her very much.

As a rule, many of us children came to visit the “grandfather of all Europe” from Russia, England, Greece, Austria and Sweden, in addition to the little Danish princes and princesses. There were often over twenty or even two dozen grandsons and granddaughters. My grandmother, Queen Louise, would sometimes take me with her to the park where there were plenty of roses, and there she taught me how to pick a beautiful bouquet.

Most of all as a child I was attached to my uncle, Prince Valdemar, and his French wife Marie, whose children I adored. They lived nearby in the Bernstorff Palace and often came to us for dinner. I would carry their baby Viggo piggyback and run around with him merrily – he was very lovely.

Emperor Alexander III’s family. 1889

But when we children fell ill, then all two dozen simultaneously. One day my cousin, the Danish prince and the future King Christian X, caught chickenpox and came to the Fredensborg Palace, infecting all of us, the other children, one by one. My three English cousin sisters were lying in one hall with a fever, while their two older brothers and a couple of Greek cousin brothers were lying in beds in another guestroom of the palace, etc. And we were allowed to see them in order to catch it as soon as possible and get over it. Misha [Grand Duke Mikhail, the youngest son of Alexander III and Maria Feodorovna – N. K.] and I were the last children who contracted chickenpox. And oddly enough, all of us had the most joyful impressions.”

This is how the historian Inger-Lise Klausen wrote about the Russian royal couple’s summer holidays, referring to the diary of the Danish royal court’s chamberlain Peter Rerdam: “On 25 August 1883 the Fredensborg Palace, everybody at the royal court is ready to receive guests and members of the royal family from Europe. Representatives of aristocracy in the small town where the palace is situated gladly share this news with each other and say that it is rumoured that over time it will become the summer residence of the Russian Kaiser [as the Danes called the Russian tsar – N. K.].

On 30 August 1883, on board the royal yacht Emperor Alexander III with Empress Maria Feodorovna and their children arrived in the harbour of Copenhagen. They were warmly welcomed by King Christian IX of Denmark with his wife Queen Louise, as well as King George I of the Hellenes and Prince Valdemar of Denmark, who for some time had been going side by side with them on the royal ship Dannebrog, escorting them to the port of the Danish capital.”

The same evening after the banquet the royal chamberlain noted in his diary: “The summer at the Fredensborg residence has commenced. The royal couple attracts the attention of all guests. Maria Feodorovna is charming, young and fresh; and the Russian Emperor is still tall and slender, like a knight, with blue eyes and feels at ease here, though I noted a decent retinue of his personal guards, who follow him so discreetly that it is sometimes quite hard to notice them. All in all, this Indian summer is sunny and is seething with fun, smiles and joyful meetings at home. Everything is so picturesque that Queen Louise after a successful photo session on the steps of the palace has already sent for the famous Danish artist Laurits Tuxen to Amsterdam so that he could come and paint everyone together on canvas in the garden living-room of Havesalen.”

And further:

“On 9 September 1883 there is peace and quiet in the Fredensborg Palace. In the morning the royal couple and most of the guests went to Copenhagen to take part in the consecration ceremony of a Russian Orthodox church, which Emperor Alexander III built in the city centre as a gift to his wife, the Tsarina. They had the church consecrated in honour of St Alexander Nevsky, and with its three gilded domes it immediately became an exotic curiosity amid the grey facades of mansions owned by aristocrats.

And it was very expensive – it cost the Russian government 300,000 roubles to build it, and 70,000 roubles – from the Tsar’s personal pockets.

On 11 September 1883 the whole royal family was back at the Russian church, this time to celebrate the name day of Alexander III. And by the evening everybody gathered for the so-called ‘tafel’, a sumptuous dinner party at the Fredensborg Palace for such an occasion. And it was opened by King Christian IX. With a glass of champagne in his hand he greets his dear son-in-law with the words: ‘Let’s celebrate this wonderful day together with joy, harmony and happiness!’ At these words the musicians played the national anthem of the Russian Empire, God Save the Tsar! And on 18 September 1883 Many guests from England arrived in Fredensborg, apart from the heir to the throne, Prince Edward (VII) of Wales, with his wife Alexandra and nineteen-year-old son, Prince Albert, who are already there. Including the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mr William Gladstone, with his wife, daughters and entourage of gentlemen, and on his English steamer Pembroke Castle.

Though, in my view, he resembles the owner of the restaurant in Copenhagen where I often have dinner, but everyone with one voice calls him ‘the grand old man’. and it’s a rare fortune to have a European representative of this rank as a guest.

After a dinner party at the Fredensborg Palace everyone was invited for the next day to an equally exquisite reception on board his English ship, where champagne and Rule Britannia delighted the guests inexpressibly and immensely.

The summer was nice, and the guests did not leave the Fredensborg summer residence until early October. In addition, all thirty-two members of the large royal family with their children and household managed to sit for the artist L. Tuksen, who miraculously persuaded the Russian Emperor to stand for forty-five minutes for his sketch, and he painted the charming little one-year-old Olga in pink from memory.”

Alexander III’s “hut” in Denmark

Such a strong interest in the personality of the Russian Tsar Alexander III is quite understandable because on 15 March 1883 at the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin a glorious ceremony of his coronation took place. And the Danish Princess Dagmar, who had married Tsarevich Alexander in 1866, converted to Orthodoxy and changed her name to Maria Feodorovna, received the royal crown fifteen years later to the great pride of King Christian IX and Queen Louise, who became related to such a great power.

According to Danish historians, Emperor Alexander III was happy to visit his European relatives in Denmark. The same chamberlain wrote in his diary: “The little ones just adored him, and he knew how to treat them properly. They surrounded him once he went out for a walk in the park after breakfast, and followed him down the alley to the skipper’s bridge, where they made toy boats and yachts together with the skipper Petersen, drew them on paper, and then launched them in a stream. Tall (height: 1 m 87 cm) and strong, the emperor always ‘cut the fairway’ of the palace alleys with a bunch of nephews holding his hands, with the rest of the princes and princesses running after him, adjusting to his running stride, and listening to his stories with fascination. When he started running at full speed, a flock of princes and princesses would tear along after him, racing with one another, and, unable to catch up with him, would fall on the grass while laughing. Then he would sit down on a park bench and put the little ones on his lap, bouncing them up and down.

Sometimes the older children caught up with him on children’s carts pulled by two donkeys. And when they invited him to ride with them, he agreed, got into the cart, and then everybody fell about laughing, because the poor donkeys could not even move. The Russian sovereign was a strong man! And the children adored him.”

One day the emperor decided to buy a villa in Denmark. And, as Danish historians write, on 10 September 1885 during summer holidays at the Fredensborg Palace he announced this at a royal banquet, addressing King Christian IX: “The warm welcome here is so dear to me that I want to purchase land with a villa nearby to own it. Is there one in the area?” And the “Kaiser” chose the Swallow’s Nest villa for himself. Once it had been intended as a wedding gift to the Danish Prince Valdemar, Maria Feodorovna’s younger brother, who in June 1885 married Princess Marie of Orleans. But he became the owner of an English villa, closer to the seaside. Over time the villa was owned by a royal judge named A. Grove, who at first did not want to part with it in any way. But on 20 October 1885, after two months of bargaining and persuasion, the Russian Emperor, adding gold coins to the price with his generous hand, obtained the villa for 25,000 krones.

It took some time to rebuild it. Craftsmen decorated its attics and pediment with elegant patterned woodwork, and the Danish Swallow’s Nest began to look very ‘Russian’. The living-rooms were furnished with elegant fittings, the floor was covered with wonderful Persian carpets, and the walls were adorned with splendid paintings.

The villa immediately changed its name to “Kaiser’s villa” and after all the alterations, in 1889 it was ready to receive the Russian Tsar and his family for summer holidays. Maria Feodorovna was delighted with the villa and immediately dubbed it her “Gatchina in miniature”.

The Russian Emperor Alexander III loved his “hut” so much that at Easter in 1890 he presented his wife Tsarina Maria Feodorovna (following a well-established tradition) a golden Faberge egg with a model of the villa inside!

It is known that on 17 September 1891 in the “hut” the emperor arranged a dinner party in honour of his mother-in-law, Queen Consort Louise of Denmark, to celebrate her birthday with the family. In reality her birthday was 7 September, but the most important thing was that it was a wonderful joyful celebration, at which the Russian Tsar Alexander III was both a cook and a servant. He graciously served dishes to his dear guests, wearing an apron, as did his brother–in-law Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark and his three daughters – princesses: the sixteen-year-old Louise, the thirteen-year-old Ingeborg and the eleven-year-old Thyra. They acted as real cooks, set the table and served the guests with delicious food with jokes. It was a lavish feast, wine flowed like water, and it was a great fun!

In that year, which was later dubbed at the court the “Kaiser’s year”, the royal couple stayed in Denmark, as usual, for almost six weeks. They arrived on two royal yachts, the Polar Star and the Tsarevna, which on 24 August 1891 were met in the Copenhagen harbour by King Christian IX of Denmark with King George I of Greece and Crown Prince Frederick (VIII), heir to the Danish throne. And all three of them, the monarchs and the crown prince, who had had come to the capital by a special train from the Fredensborg Palace, were unrecognisable, as the Danish royal court’s chamberlain noted in his diary: “Goodness gracious! I can’t tell who is who. They are wearing the uniforms of Russian military cavalrymen, and the Russian Emperor Alexander III himself came on deck in The blue uniform of the Royal Danish Guards! Well, I never!”

The fact is that at one time Alexander III had awarded his Danish father-in-law the rank of honorary colonel and presented him with a uniform of the Seversk Dragoon Regiment (a dark frock coat of a colonel and a service cap with a red band), which is now kept at the War Museum in Copenhagen. Judging by Danish historical documents, King Christian IX used to sport this uniform at receptions and dinner parties, was very proud of it and usually wore it to holes. Here is what Tsarina Maria Feodorovna wrote about it in a letter to her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark on 29 January / 10 February 1898: “…Send me dad’s sizes immediately, because I promised him a new uniform for his birthday, and he keeps forgetting to send me his size and his head circumference for the cap, which, by the way, has become moth-eaten, but he went to the table and everywhere in it; to my horror, right in the middle of the red cloth the hole was fixed with black silk, which doesn’t befit royals!”

Incidentally, the royal couple later replaced the yacht with a new one, and, of course, they ordered it in Denmark, which was famous for its shipyards and expert shipbuilders. The choice fell on the then famous Burmeister & Wain (B&W) company.

Fredensborg Palace, the Danish royal family’s summer residence

In 1893 Alexander III ordered this ship, which was called the Standard and he personally took part in the keel laying for it at the shipyard. This is how the royal chamberlain wrote about this event in his diary: ‘Members of the royal family were present at the keel laying ceremony for the ship at Refshaleøen, at the docks of the shipyard, and at the celebration, which was held with great pomp to the Russian orchestra’s music.

Empress Dagmar solemnly placed a silver plate with an inscription against the keel; the talisman, blessed by such hands, will undoubtedly attract good spirits to guard the new luxurious vessel, which by the design should surpass the Polar Star both in size and grandeur, which already means a great deal.

Then Emperor Alexander III hammered a couple of nails into the keel. Many royals who were present there followed his example and each of them hammered a nail into the keel and wished the Standard good luck. When the celebration was over, all the members of the royal family returned to Fredensborg.”

Alexander III never saw his yacht finished. He passed away on 20 October 1894. Nicholas II decided that the ship should be launched on his father’s birthday, 26 February.

After her husband’s death, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna never returned to her Danish “Gatchina in miniature”. Like the Fredensborg Palace, the villa was full of memories that discouraged the soul and prevented the trauma from healing. And though thanks to the efforts of the staff and the servants the villa was ready to receive royal guests from Russia, the dowager Empress avoided visiting the villa. Coming to her native Denmark for summer holidays, she and her younger children – the daughter Olga and the son Misha – preferred to stay at the Bernstorff Palace, where her brother, Prince Valdemar (with whom she was on friendly terms), lived.

After returning to her motherland after the Revolution and the Civil War in 1919, the Dowager Empress made her home at her Villa Hvidøre by the sea, where she passed away on 13 October 1928 aged about eighty-one.

And the ‘Kaiser’s villa’, according to the will, was inherited by Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. But Olga, the Russian Tsar Alexander III’s beloved daughter, did not like this villa either, and in 1929 she sold it to new owners. They renovated it in their own manner both inside and outside and then sold it. Later it changed hands more than once until in 2010 it was acquired by the spouses Henrik and Maria Christensen, the current owners, through whose efforts the historic villa almost returned to its former glory, albeit without traces of royal splendour.

As for the Fredensborg Palace, which was so loved by King Christian IX and his wife Queen Louise, its status has not changed since then. And just like them, now the eighty-three-year-old ruling monarch, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Christian IX’s great-great-granddaughter, uses the palace’s grand chambers as her summer residence and entertains her sons and their families here, following the tradition. And all of them pose for the Danish press and artists. The queen always treats guests to tea, using an old dark blue tea set of fine Russian porcelain with gilding, and, as the Illustreret Tidende Danish magazine wrote back in 1889, “it is so amazing that you can’t take your eyes off it!”

The Russian factory-owner Kornilov’s unique tea set and the “hut” of the Russian Tsar Alexander III have been preserved in Denmark thanks to the Danes’ economy, which is sometimes confused with stinginess.

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