Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia
Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich
Spouse Countess Sophie of Merenberg
Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby
Nadejda, Marchioness of Milford Haven
Michael Mikhailovich, Count de Torby
House House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich of Russia
Mother Princess Cecilie of Baden
Born 16 October 1861(1861-10-16)
Peterhof Palace, Russian Empire
Died 26 April 1929(1929-04-26) (aged 67)
London, England, United Kingdom

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia (Russian: Михаил Михайлович; 16 October 1861 – 26 April 1929) was a son of Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia and a first cousin of Alexander III of Russia. He followed a military career, but was banished from living in Russia when in 1891 he contracted a morganatic marriage with Countess Sophie of Merenberg. He spent the rest of his life living in exile in England and in the French Riviera, escaping the Russian Revolution. His two daughters married within the British aristocracy.


Early life

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich was born at the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg on 16 October 1861, the third child and second son of the seven children of Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia and his wife Grand Duchess Olga Feodorovna (born Princess Cecile of Baden). Known in the family as “Miche-Miche”, he was a year old when, in 1862, the family moved to Tiflis, Georgia on the occasion of his father's being named Viceroy of the Caucasus. Grand Duke Michael spent his early years and his youth in the Caucasus, where his family lived for twenty years. He had a spartan upbringing that included sleeping in army cots and taking cold baths. He was educated at home by private tutors. The relationship with his parents was troublesome. His father, occupied in military and governmental endeavors, remained a distant figure. His demanding mother was a strict disciplinarian who did not show affection towards her children. He was a disappointment to his mother, who compared him unfavorably with his more intelligent eldest brother Grand Duke Nicholas. Michael was considered the least gifted of the seven children and his mother referred to him as “stupid.”[1]

During the years in the Caucasus, the Grand Duke excelled at horsemanship and started his military career.[1] As a young man, he served in the Russo-Turkish War and became a Colonel. He loved the military life and served in the Egersky (Chasseur) Regiment of the guards.[2] In 1882, when Grand Duke Michael was twenty years old, he returned with his family to St. Petersburg when his father was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers. Michael was shallow and not particularly bright, but he was tall and handsome. He became popular on the social circuit in the capital, spending a great deal of his time on endless parties, dancing and gambling. Tsar Alexander III referred to him as a ‘fool’.[1]


Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia in is youth

Grand Duke Michael lived in St. Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Palace with his parents, but he intended to marry soon, and to house his expected family he started building a large residence in the Imperial Capital. In his search of a wife, he made unsuccessful overtures for the hand of Princess Mary of Teck in 1886 [3] and later he asked Princess Irene of Hesse Darmstadt.[2] In 1887 he proposed to Princess Louise, the eldest daughter of the Prince of Wales and was turned down for a third time.[2] After that, he attempted to marry within the Russian Nobility, which caused confrontations with his parents. In 1888, he had an affair with Princess Walewski. Later he fell in love with Countess Katya Ignatieva, the daughter of the former minister of Interior, Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatiev.[4] He tried to get permission to marry her and he went with his father to talk to Tsar Alexander III.[5] However, his mother and the Empress Maria Feodorovna made it impossible for him to marry Katya. Olga Feodorovna opposed the misalliance vehemently. “He has so openly provoked me" she wrote of her son, mentioning his “lack of respect, affection and attention”.[6] To break off the relationship the parents decided to send him abroad.

While in Nice in 1891 Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich fell in love with Countess Sophie of Merenberg, daughter of Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm of Nassau and his morganatic wife, née Natalie Alexandrovna Pushkin. Sophie’s maternal grandfather was the renowned poet-author Alexander Pushkin; through him, she had black African ancestry (one part in 32) as a direct descendant of Peter the Great's protégé, Abram Petrovich Gannibal. The Grand Duke met Sophie when he saved her from a horse that had run away with her. He did not bother to ask for the necessary permission for the marriage from the Tsar or his parents because he knew it would not be granted. They were married in San Remo on 26 February 1891.

The marriage was not only morganatic but also illegal under the statute of the Imperial Family and caused a great scandal at the Russian court, despite the bride's dynastic paternal ancestry. Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich was deprived of his military rank and of his position as adjutant at the Imperial Court. He was also forbidden to return to Russia for life.[7] When his mother heard of his morganatic marriage, she collapsed with shock and went by train to the Crimea to recover, but then had a heart attack and died, for which Michael was blamed. Banished from entering Russia, Michael was not allowed to attend his mother's funeral.


Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia and his wife Countess Sophie de Torby, 1903

Because of his morganatic marriage, Grand Duke Michael would spend the rest of his life living in exile in England, France and Germany. His wife was granted the title of Countess Torby by her cousin the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.[7] The couple initially lived in Wiesbaden, Nassau, where Sophie’s family once reigned. Two of their three children were born there. In 1899, they settled more permanently, in Cannes where they had a villa, named Kazbek, after a mountain in Georgia. They lived comfortably. Five footmen, a butler, a valet, a lady’s maid, a governess, a nursery maid and six chefs attended them. Michael afforded this lifestyle by being the owner of a factory near Tiflis that bottled mineral water.

In 1900, the Grand Duke began renting Keele Hall, a stately home in Staffordshire, a few miles from Newcastle-under-Lyme. During the ten years he lived there, he entered the English social country life. Michael was very pleased when the town council of Newcastle-under-Lyme conferred him the distinction of Lord High Steward of the borough. He was also a frequent visitor of North Berwick, a seaside resort in Scotland.

Part of the year was spent at his villa in the south of France. The Grand Duke was the founder and president of the Cannes Golf Club, where he often played during the winter season. In the South of France, he usually met his relatives, particularly his sister Anastasia who owned a villa nearby. In 1903, Michael's father had a stroke and was moved to Cannes. The old Grand Duke was charmed by his daughter-in-law and his Torby grandchildren. The presence of Michael's father also frequently brought Michael's brother Alexander and his family to Cannes, and these were later followed by other Grand Dukes. He frequented many other European royals who also stayed at the Riviera. At the time of the Russo-Japanese war, Michael Mikhailovich shaved off his beard and stopped dyeing his hair. He was described as a born autocrat, single-minded, and a stickler for protocol.

In 1908, Michael published a novel, Never Say Die, about a morganatic marriage, written in resentment at not being allowed back into Russia. In the preface he wrote :" Belonging, as I do, to the Imperial Blood, and being a member of one of the reigning houses, I should like to prove to the world how wrong it is in thinking - as the majority of mankind is apt to do- that we are the happiest beings on this earth. There is no doubt that we are well situated, but is wealth the only happiness in the world ?".[8] While remaining "devoted" to Sophie, Michael nevertheless often fell in love with pretty girls.

At the death of his father in Cannes on 18 December 1909, Michael was allowed to come to Russia for the funeral; however, his wife refused to go with him as she still resented the insults which had marred their marriage so many years before. After leaving Keele, the Grand Duke moved with his family to Hampstead in 1909, taking a long lease on Kenwood, a manor house owned by the Earl of Mansfield, overlooking London’s Hampstead Heath.[7] Michael became President of the Hampstead General Hospital, to which he donated an ambulance, as well as President of the Hampstead Art Society. They lived in splendor, enjoying a privileged place in English society. Every year Grand Duke Michael and his wife would visit Edward VII in Windsor Castle or Sandringham and attend luncheons at Buckingham Palace.

After the death of Edward VII, Grand Duke Michael, pushed by his wife, tried in vain to obtain an English title for her. In 1912, King George V wrote to Nicholas II about "that good fool Michael, who I am sure bores you with as many grievances as he does me." Nicholas had written to George to tell him that Grand Duke Michael had asked his permission for his wife to accept a British title and that he had given consent, subject of course to George’s agreement. In his reply George pointed out "I have not the power to grant a title in England to a foreign subject and still more impossible in the case of a Russian Grand Duke." Gloomily accepting that the Grand Duke would be turning up to make a formal request for his wife’s title, George added that "I do not look forward to our interview with any pleasure, as I fear I have no alternative but to refuse his request”.[7]

Not only they did not get the title for Sophie, but the couple’s position in English society was threatened when in the same year Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, Nicholas II's younger brother, chose England for his exile after also contracting a morganatic marriage. The arrival in England of another and more senior Grand Duke Michael provided an uncomfortable reminder of the scandal which had once attached to Michael Mikahilovich and his wife. As a result, they never received the newcomers at Kenwood. Their refusal to open their doors to the couple meant that many others in English society followed suit, with the result that Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and his wife were effectively marginalized.[7]

In September 1912, Grand Duke Michael was allowed to visit Russia for the centenary (centennial) of the Battle of Borodino, and was restored to the honorary colonelcy of the 49th Brest Regiment.[9]

Last years

Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich of Russia (right) with his children (from left to right), Nadejda, Michael and Anastasia de Torby

During World War I, Michael was made a chairman of the commission to consolidate Russian orders abroad,[9] but was denied permission to come back to Russia and serve with its armed forces. On 31 October 1916 the Grand Duke wrote to Tsar Nicholas II warning him that British secret agents in Russia were expecting a revolution, and that he should satisfy the people's just demands before it was too late.[9] Excerpts of Michael's correspondence in French with the Emperor during his exile have been published (usually beseeching the Czar for money from his London exile).

With the war and later after the Russian revolution, the Grand Duke’s financial situation deteriorated. He lost a good deal of his money, which was tied up in the Romanovs' fortunes. He had to move to a more modest house at 3 Cambridge Gate, Regent's Park. However, King George V and Queen Mary helped with 10,000 pounds.[8]

In 1916 his youngest daughter, Nadejda (Nada) married Prince George of Battenberg, eldest son of Prince Louis and Princess Victoria Battenberg. The Battenberg family was itself the product of a morganatic marriage, but one whose members had been allowed to use the style 'His/Her Serene Highness'. A year after Nadeja and George's wedding, however, the English branches of the Battenberg family gave up their princely title, and Prince George, who was eventually to become 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, took the surname Mountbatten and bore the courtesy title of earl, his wife becoming known as Countess of Medina. Anastasia (Zia), the eldest daughter, in 1917 married the baronet Sir Harold Wernher, who was extremely wealthy. These marriages helped to alleviate the loss of income from Michael's imperial estates. Their son-in-law Sir Harold Wernher provided a good deal of financial support.

Their son, Michael Count de Torby (known as Boy Torby) lost his job and came to live with them but the relationship was difficult, not least because Boy suffered a recurring form of epilepsy. Between bouts of this he was a painter of some accomplishment. Once the World War was over, Michael Mikhailovich and his wife returned to Cannes after six years. After the news of the murders of so many close relatives came through, many people thought Michael became unbalanced. He had become short-tempered and rude to the servants and a great trial to his wife.[10]

By 1925, the Grand Duke had become so troublesome that his son-in-law Harold regarded him as "perfectly crazy." On 4 September 1927 his wife died, aged fifty-nine. King George V wrote a kind letter of condolence and the Prince of Wales attended her funeral. By November, according to Harold, the Grand Duke was again behaving well, as he no longer had his wife to argue with. He survived her for less than two years. Grand Duke Michael contracted influenza and died in London on 26 April 1929, aged sixty-seven. He was buried with his wife in Hampstead Cemetery.


Grand Duke Michael and the Countess of Torby had two daughters and one son.



  1. ^ a b c “White Crow”: Cockfield, Jamie H, p. 17
  2. ^ a b c “The Grand Dukes”: David Chavchavadze, p. 177
  3. ^
  4. ^ The Flight of the Romanovs : John Perry & Constantine Pleshakov, p. 33
  5. ^ “White Crow”: Cockfield, Jamie H, p. 102
  6. ^ “White Crow”: Cockfield, Jamie H, p. 103
  7. ^ a b c d e “Michael and Natasha”: Rosemary & Donald Crawford, p. 148
  8. ^ a b Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich Keel Hall and Kenwood :Marion, Wynn, ” in Royalty History Digest, Vol 11, Pg 326-327
  9. ^ a b c “The Grand Dukes”: David Chavchavadze, p. 178
  10. ^ “The Grand Dukes”: David Chavchavadze, p. 179
  11. ^ “Burke's Guide to the Royal Family”: edited by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, p. 221


  • Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia, Once a Grand Duke, Cassell, London, 1932.
  • Chavchavadze, David, The Grand Dukes, Atlantic, 1989, ISBN 0-938311-11-5
  • Crawford Rosemary and Donald, Michael and Natasha, Phoenix, 1998. ISBN 0-380-73191-6
  • King, Greg, The Court of the Last Tsar, Wiley, 2006, ISBN 978-0-471-72763-7.
  • Montgomery-Massingberd, Hugh (editor), Burke's Guide to the Royal Family, Burke's Peerage, London, 1973, ISBN 0-220-66222-3
  • Perry, John and Pleshakov, Constantine, The Flight of the Romanovs, Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 0465024629.
  • Wynn, Marion, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich Keel Hall and Kenwood ” in Royalty History Digest, Vol 11,322-131.

External links

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