Grand Duchess Elizabeth was born Her Grand Ducal Highness Princess Elisabeth Alexandra Louise Alice of Hesse and by Rhine on November 1, 1864, the second child of Grand Duke Ludwig IV and his wife, born Princess Alice of Great Britain, a daughter of Queen Victoria. Elizabeth had a happy childhood which was marred by the sudden death of both her sister May and her mother from diphtheria. This early sorrow affected her family deeply, and forced the young woman into becoming a second mother to her remaining siblings. Exceptionally beautiful, Elizabeth was courted by many important members of European Royalty, but Elizabeth chose the handsome and aloof Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovitch, brother of Emperor Alexander III. Although Queen Victoria was opposed to the match, Elizabeth won her family over.
The young Grand Duchess was adored by the Imperial family and the Russian court for her beauty, kindness, and her ready adoption of Russian language, customs, and her ardent conversion to Orthodoxy. Her marriage to Grand Duke Serge puzzled the court, but the love between the two was real and highly intellectual—they ardently debated maters of faith and religion, and Serge admired his wife as a paragon of virtue. Childless, the couple adopted the children of the disgraced and morganatically married Grand Duke Paul, and Elizabeth looked upon Grand Duchess Marie and Grand Duke Dimitri as her own children.
Elizabeth and Serge moved to Moscow in 1894, when Serge was made Governor General of Moscow. Though Elizabeth had loved life in Saint Petersburg, it was not until her move to Moscow that began to see and understand what she was able to do for the less fortunate. She became very conscious of her role in helping the impoverished of Moscow, and sponsored benefits and charities in Moscow to help the poor and unfortunate.
While Muscovites praised her efforts, and admired her sterling character, they were less kind to her husband. Responsible for pogroms against the jews, and a tightening of police control, Grand Duke Serge was more than unpopular, and in 1905, while driving through the Kremlin, an anarchist threw a bomb beneath his carriage, which exploded, tearing him to pieces, and killing him instantly.
Devastated by the assassination, Grand Duchess Elizabeth went to see the murderer in his cell, and forgave him for the murder. It was from this moment that Elizabeth began her path towards her sacred purpose.
Elizabeth remained in mourning, and in 1909, she took the veil and founded the Convent of Martha and Mary in Moscow. Elizabeth sold or gave away all her jewelry and possessions, and assembed the funds to build the convent. Modeled on German convents,where the sisters were actively involved ourside the walls with the poor, ministering to their needs, the Convent of Martha and Mary originally ran afoul of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy, but with the assistance of her nephew and borther-in-law Tsar Nicholas II, Elizabeth was able to create a new and modern convent which held cloistered and uncloistered sisters who moved among the poor, and provided them with school for children, advanced medical care, and modern comforts and aid. The convent grew, and even during her lifetime, the Grand Duchess was called a saint by the poor of the capital. The convent, based on old Novgorod models, was an architectural jewel, which owed much to the art nouveau and to the Russian arts and crafts movements or Abramtsevo and Talashkino, featuring works of art by Vasnetsov, Konnenkov, and Sorin.
The convent grew and prospered until the Revolution. Though the Grand Duchess avoided arrest and imprisionment for some time due to her popularity within the capital, by 1918, her presence was finally no longer tolerated by the Revolutionary government, and she was arrested. They then exiled her first to Perm, then to Yekaterinburg, where she spent a few days and was joined by others: the Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; Grand Duke Sergei’s secretary, Feodor Remez; and Varvara Yakovleva, a sister from the Grand Duchess’s convent. They were all taken to Alapaevsk on May 20, 1918, where they were housed in the Napolnaya School on the outskirts of the town.
At noon on July 17, Cheka Officer Petr Startsev and a few Bolshevik workers came to the school. They took from the prisoners whatever money they had left and announced that they would be transferred that night to the Upper Siniachikhensky factory compound. The Red Army guards were told to leave and Cheka men replaced them. That night the prisoners were woken and driven in carts on a road leading to the village of Siniachikha. Some 18 kilometres from Alapaevsk there was an abandoned iron mine with a pit, twenty metres deep. Here they halted. The Cheka beat all the prisoners before throwing their victims into this pit, Elizabeth being the first. Hand grenades were then hurled down the shaft, but only one victim, Feodor Remez, died as a result of the grenades.
According to the personal account of Ryabov, one of the assassins, Elizabeth and the others survived the fall into the mine, prompting Ryabov to toss in a grenade after them. Following the explosion, he claimed to hear Elizabeth and the others singing hymns from the bottom of the shaft. Ryabov threw down a second grenade, but the singing continued. Finally a large quantity of brushwood was shoved into the opening and set alight, upon which Ryabov posted a guard over the site and departed.
Early on July 18, 1918, the head of the Alapaevsk Cheka, Abramov, and the head of the Yekaterinburg Regional Soviet, Beloborodov, who had been involved in the murders of the Imperial Family, exchanged a number of telegrams in a pre-arranged plan saying that the school had been attacked by an “unidentified gang”. A short time later, Alapaevsk fell to the White Army.
On October 8, 1918, the Whites discovered the remains of Elizabeth and her companions, still within the shaft where they had been murdered. Elizabeth had died of wounds sustained in her fall into the mine, but had still found strength to bandage the head of the dying Prince Ioann. Her remains were removed and ultimately taken to Jerusalem, where they lie today in the Church of Mary Magdalene.
In 1918, the convent was disbanded, and the sisters dispersed.
Elizabeth was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in 1981, and by the Patriarchal Russian Orthodox Church in 1992 as the New-Martyr Elizabeth. Her principal shrines are the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, and the St. Mary Magdalene Convent on the Mount of Olives, which she and her husband helped build, and where her relics (along with the Nun Barbara) are enshrined. The convent was returned to the church and reopened in 1992 and the cathedral church in 2006, continuing St. Elizabeth’s work.