Grand Duchess Elizabeth
Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt was born on 1st November 1864. She was named after Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Catholic saint of her own family. Her mother died when she was a child, and she came to England to live under the protection of her grandmother, Queen Victoria. If her childhood was Lutheran, the religious culture of her adolescence was distinctively Anglican. In 1884 Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Elizabeth found Orthodoxy increasingly absorbing, and in 1891 she adopted the faith.
Although her life had assurance and all the comforts of eminence, it rested on fragile foundations. The Tsarist state maintained its grip over a changing society by repression. Talk of revolution persisted, and grew louder. Acts of terrorism mounted. On 18th February 1905, the Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated.
This marked a turning point in Elizabeth's life. Now she gave away her jewellery and sold her most luxurious possessions, and with the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary home in Moscow, to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. Here there arose a new vision of a diaconate for women, one that combined intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. In April 1909 Elizabeth and seventeen women were dedicated as Sisters of Love and Mercy. Their work flourished: soon they opened a hospital and a variety of other philanthropic ventures arose.
In March 1917 the Tsarist state, fatally damaged by the war with Germany, collapsed. In October, a revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, seized power. Civil war followed. The Bolshevik party was avowedly atheistic, and it saw in the Orthodox Church a pillar of the old regime. In power, it persecuted the Church with terrible force. In time, hundreds of priests and nuns were imprisoned, taken away to distant labour camps, and killed. Churches were closed or destroyed. On 7th May 1918 Elizabeth was arrested with two sisters from her convent, and transported across country to Perm, then to Ekatarinburg, and finally to Alapaevsk. On 17th July the Tsar and his family were shot dead. During the following night Elizabeth, a sister from SS Mary and Martha named Varvara, and members of the royal family were murdered in a mineshaft.
In the Soviet Union Christianity survived in the face of periodic persecution and sustained oppression. But Elizabeth was remembered. In 1984 she was recognized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and then by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.
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.
Modern Martyrs of the 20th century
Grand Duchess Elizabeth is one of the ten Modern Martyrs of the 20th century. The Martyrs were unveiled in 1998 above the west door of the Abbey. The sculptor was John Roberts.
"Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia" by Lubov Millar, 1991
"Ella, Princess, Saint and Martyr" by Christopher Warwick, 2006