Book Review: “An Unbroken Unity: A Memoir of Grand-Duchess Serge of Russia – 1864-1918” by E.M. Almedingen

Every now and then, it’s possible to find a book that inspires and moves you and this book did that for me. While reading a biography of Princess Alice, mother of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the author mentions her aunt, Grand-Duchess Elizabeth as having a profound influence on Alice with her foundation of a convent and nursing and feeding the poor. The author highly recommended Ms. Almedingen’s biography of Elizabeth and I was lucky enough to find a used copy of this book, published in 1964.

There are few books published on the Grand-Duchess. This author, of Russian, English and German heritage, spent some time in Russia before the first World War and had relatives and friends who knew the Grand-Duchess personally. This book is a biography but it’s in the style of a memoir and includes many first hand stories. The life of the Grand-Duchess is filled with happiness, hope and tragedy and these personal stories deepen the narrative.

Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her parents were Princess Alice of the United Kingdom and Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse. Her sister was Alexandra, Tsarina of Russia, wife of Tsar Nicholas II. Indeed, Elizabeth was instrumental in her sister marrying the Tsar, something she may have later regretted. Elizabeth married Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, an uncle of the last Tsar. It was a love match and a successful, though childless marriage, which ended when Serge was tragically assassinated.

Widowhood opened up an opportunity for Elizabeth to create a life of piety and charity. She grew up Lutheran in her home country but once in Russia, she came to love the Russian Orthodox church and converted. After careful consideration, she began wearing a habit and built a convent and community to nurse, feed and teach the poor in Moscow. This was a thriving community and did significant charitable work. It was most unfortunate that the Romanov dynasty’s fall and the rise of communism had a deleterious effect on the community and on the life of Elizabeth.

I’m very impressed with Ms. Almedingen’s writing. She has keen insight into Russian society at the turn of the century as well as in the mind and motives of the Grand-Duchess. Her personal stories are fascinating. This is a mindful, conscientious, and considerate recounting of the Grand-Duchess’ life. Almedingen obviously cares deeply about her subject. She has a couple of other books about the Russian Imperial family that I might need to look into.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen” by Arlene Okerlund


One of the latest trends in history is to examine the lives of medieval women to shed light on and reassess the records with an open mind. In 2005, Tempus Publishing began a series of books called England’s Forgotten Queens with Alison Weir as the series editor. This book was the first to be published and a biography of Anne Neville was published in the fall of 2007. That same year, Tempus Publishing was absorbed into The History Press. It appears there were no more biographies in the series which is a shame.

Okerlund is a professor of English at San Jose State University in California. It says on the book jacket she first learned of Elizabeth Wydeville, the mother of the two princes murdered in the Tower from Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”. She discovered her bad name arose from slander spread by enemies and became determined to reveal the lies in an effort to restore Elizabeth’s reputation. It is very clear from this book Okerlund has succeeded.

Okerlund has examined the numerous sources related to this queen and considered all the possibilities and probabilities. Elizabeth had a reputation for being very beautiful. Her mother was from the nobility of Luxembourg. Her father had a long and chivalrous career serving the Lancastrian kings. She came from a pious, cultured and loving family. Yet she was slandered as being low-born and grasping. Her brother, cousin, and three sons died in the turmoil and violence that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up dying in poverty. She left an enormous legacy as the ancestor of King Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and every other English monarch down to the present day.

Elizabeth’s life is an incredible story. With her meticulous research, Okerlund covers all the propaganda and incidences of Elizabeth’s life giving all the possible explanations. Many of the slanders against her just don’t hold up under great scrutiny. Marrying King Edward IV brought many privileges and advantages but it also brought great heartache. Many members of her family were promoted during Edward’s reign. Although Elizabeth was accused of being grasping and greedy, none of these promotions could have happened without Edward’s sanction and authority. Elizabeth was forced into the proverbial rock and a hard place many times. She was compelled to turn over her second son and to release her daughters from sanctuary to Richard III, the man who had declared her marriage to his brother as null and void and pronounced her children as illegitimate.

When it comes down to it, Elizabeth just had no choice. Once Edward died, her position was difficult if not dire. Okerlund covers all this in great detail and makes very forceful arguments. She maintains that Elizabeth was not the arrogant, grasping woman her enemies portrayed. This book includes an impressive collection of photos, genealogical tables and a thorough bibliography. She also includes a nice collection of charts. There is a timeline of Edward IV and the Wydevilles, a listing of the Wydeville family and who they married, a list of Elizabeth’s children and a timeline of events and battles of the Wars of the Roses. If you are interested in getting a different perspective on Elizabeth Wydeville’s life, I highly recommend this book.