Sophie Karlovna von Buxhoeveden,
(The Untold Life of Tsaritsa Alexandra’s Lady-in-Waiting.)
‘I think she didn’t show too much, she held herself back. She felt terrible sadness from what she had had to endure in Russia.’
Isa’s London friend, Sonia Goodman
In May 1919, after having been received by Alexandra, the Queen Mother at Marlborough House, Isa travelled on to Copenhagen where she was finally reunited with her widowed father and she lived with him there for the next year or so. In the Danish capital Baron Buxhoeveden enjoyed ‘a position of great respect’ according to Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, for having honourably resigned after Nicholas’s abdication. In August Isa was eager to see the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna who had decided to settle in Denmark after being evacuated from Crimea to England. She and her father were in the reception party on the quayside that welcomed Maria Feodorovna when she arrived in Copenhagen on the Danish ship Fionia. The Dowager later recorded in her diary how Isa had visited her several times at her home at Hvidøre on the Danish coast during 1919–20, when she ‘told me a great deal about her time in Siberia and everything that she had had to endure’. On one occasion they met with the Dowager’s daughter, Grand Duchess Xenia, and Isa entertained them both with an account of her ‘difficult journeys’ in Siberia and out of Russia. Everyone wanted to hear her story and Isa was in demand, recounting more of her experiences over tea with Princess Thora (daughter of Prince and Princess Christian). Early the following year came an invitation to visit Tsaritsa Alexandra’s sister Irene, Princess Henry of Prussia, at her home on the north German coast at Hemmelmark.
Princess Henry of Prussia
Her sister Victoria, Marchioness of Milford Haven
One should perhaps pause here to note that since her arrival from Russia, Isa had been invited not just into the inner circle of the British royal family, but also the Russian expatriate and Danish ones to share her memories of their murdered Russian relatives. Would any of this have happened if Isa had in some way ‘betrayed’ the Imperial Family to save her own skin? Is it likely she would have received such a warm welcome and so many invitations from the Romanovs’ relatives, particularly the Dowager Empress had there been any hint of disloyalty attached to her?
Isa and the False Anastasia
It would seem, on investigation, that many of the denigratory rumours about Isa have their origins in 1922, when a concerted campaign was launched against her by the false Anastasia claimant, ‘Fräulein Unbekannt’ as she was first referred to.
A very rare photograph of Isa [2nd left] — at Hemmelmark with Princess Henry [3rd left] and other members of her family, March 1922
Isa had been at Hemmelmark with Princess Henry when an urgent message had arrived in March 1922 from the All-Russian Monarchical Council asking the princess to go to Berlin to identify a woman patient at the Dalldorf Insane Asylum who was claiming to be a Russian Grand Duchess having miraculously escaped the massacre at Ekaterinburg. With her long and close association with the Romanov sisters, Buxhoeveden went on Irene’s behalf. There are no accounts of what happened at that first encounter on 11 March, beyond Isa emerging from Ward B flushed with anger and emphatically pronouncing that this was ‘no Grand Duchess’.
Fräulein Unbekannt aka Anna Anderson aka Franziska Schankowska
Zinaida Tolstaya, a former friend of the empress, who was inclined to believe Fräulein Unbekannt, begged Isa to go back and take another look. But the minute she entered the room the young woman hid herself under the bedclothes. Losing patience, Isa pulled them back and immediately said that the woman was ‘too short for Tatiana’ (at the time the assumption was that she was Tatiana not Anastasia).
Isa Buxhoeveden’s categorical rejection of Anna Anderson – as the false claimant became known – carried a lot of weight with émigré Russian circles in Europe and the news rapidly spread that the claimant was a fraud. Supporters in Denmark, where the Buxhoevedens were well known and respected, gathered behind Isa’s challenge. In retaliation, Fräulein Unbekannt and her followers, some of whom were Russians, were equally determined in their attack on ‘the Buxhoeveden woman’, as Anderson’s acolyte, Clara Peuthert referred to her. As Isa later noted in her defence of the Empress Alexandra in her biography of her, ‘a word may set the ball of calumny rolling’ and it would appear that the words of Anna Anderson now set the ball rolling against Isa herself.
As a result of the gossip against her, Isa came to deeply mistrust many of the Russian emigres in Europe, and despised the backbiting that went on among them. She never publicly responded to attacks made on her, which may well explain why the charges laid against her posthumously, and repeated in 2003, have been allowed to fester, to the point where it has been confidently stated that Baroness Buxhoeveden was ‘intimately involved in the betrayal of the Romanovs’ [my italics] – an extremely bold accusation. And if that were not sufficient, she has also been vilified for ‘running from’ Nikolai Sokolov during his official investigation into the Romanovs murders in the early 1920s, the assumption being that she had a guilty conscience and deliberately avoided him ‘rather than face questioning’.
The Campaign to Discredit Isa
But where is the proof of this? In the many hundreds of interviews that Sokolov conducted and published, no one questioned by him is recorded as having cast aspersions on Isa’s integrity. Perhaps Isa’s avoidance of him was more a sign of her determination not to be drawn into discussion of the private affairs of the Tsar and Tsaritsa, a point on which she had always been scrupulous. A former Spanish diplomatic colleague of Karl Buxhoeveden, Francisco Gutiérrez de Agüera, spoke of the ‘long and extremely arduous journey’ she had had to endure in 1919 to reach Copenhagen, where he himself had met her and confirmed that ‘the baroness isn’t prone to talking about the Imperial Court’ with people she did not know or trust.
So far, the only ‘evidence’ that Sokolov doubted Isa’s motives for not talking to him comes from ‘private information’ given to the authors of Fate of the Romanovs (2003). The accusation can also be found in the 1983 book Anastasia written in support of Anna Anderson, by Peter Kurth, he being one of the first to argue that ‘the Baroness’s refusal to acknowledge [Anastasia] had been motivated by a guilty conscience’ [my italics] and the fear of being exposed for having revealed the supposed rescue plan to the Bolsheviks.’ Isa, very rightly, was ‘furious when she heard that she had become the villainess in Anastasia’s piece’. Another unsubstantiated rumour directed at her is that Grand Duchess Xenia wrote to Princess Henry at Hemmelmark warning that Isa was ‘not to be trusted’ and also told Victoria Milford Haven, to whom Isa became a devoted companion, not to employ her for the same reason. But where is the documentary proof of this claim? And why did both women place so much trust in her despite this? Xenia was not a witness to events in Tobolsk and Ekaterinburg and could only have got this negative view from the grapevine of expatriate gossip.
Isa’s London Friends
We do at least have a reliable character witness in someone whose parents knew Isa Buxhoeveden very well when she settled in London in the 1920s. Count Vladimir Kleinmichel and his wife Marika – both from the cream of the old Russian aristocracy – frequently welcomed Isa into their home and Vladimir became Isa’s legal executor. He also, coincidentally handled Grand Duchess Xenia’s personal affairs. A few years ago, when preparing the first Russian translation of Isa’s biography of Tsaritsa Alexandra, the Russian editor, Tatyana Manakova, interviewed their daughter Sonia Goodman in London. (I too have in the past talked with Sonia at length about her family’s close connections to the Romanov family and can attest to the quality of her vivid recall). Sonia was quite young when Isa first arrived but remembered that she seemed broken by the tragedy that she had witnessed. Isa, she insisted ‘was very good, true, a wonderful person. People loved her. She was always forthright and confident in what she said’, but she was highly cautious about who she talked to, was reserved and ‘seemed to belong to a completely different society’. For this reason, some people found her standoffish and cold but that was not so. ‘I think she didn’t show too much, she held herself back. She felt terrible sadness from what she had had to endure in Russia.’ Sonia said; and she thought that she had grown old quickly as a result.
It seems that when she first arrived in England Victor Cazalet’s family befriended Isa and even invited her to stay. But Isa never gave a personal account of her life and social circle after she returned from Siberia in 1919. It is possible, however, to reconstruct the outline of it from the 1920s until her death from newspaper articles and the Mountbatten Papers at Southampton. Apparently, she destroyed all her letters and diaries after she had written her memoirs, including the many letters between December 1917 and February 1919 that she had written to her father from Russia and was never able to send due to the disrupted postal service.
Isa Joins Victoria Milford Haven’s Household
By around 1927 she was spending most of her time at Kensington Palace, after being asked by Princess Henry’s sister Victoria, Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven [VMH from here on], to serve as her companion and ad hoc secretary. But she also continued to travel extensively in Europe, visiting friends such as Lascelle Meserve and her husband, the former Russian ambassador Nicholas de Basily, who were living in exile on rue Alfred Dehodencq in Paris. Lascelle recalled Isa telling her ‘many things about the [Romanov] family and their life at Tsarskoe Selo’, but noted that Isa was ‘absolutely discreet and did not speak of them generally.’ In her Memoirs of a Lost World, she recalled Isa with great affection as
A person with rare qualities of soul, elevation of character, and loyalty. I admired her greatly and we became very good friends. Her loyalty and devotion to the Imperial Family were without limit.
Does that sound like the description of a traitor?
During the 1920s and 1930s Isa visited Pierre Gilliard and his wife in Paris; she also stayed in touch with Sydney Gibbes, despite any bad feeling he might once have had toward her, until her death. She made regular visits to her father Karl who had retired to Belgium, as well as travelling for cures to spas in France, Germany and Italy, suffering as she did from poor health. But from the late 1920s she was increasingly preoccupied with earning her living by writing: in 1928 she published her biography Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia for which she had gained special access to the Hesse family archives in Darmstadt. The book was well received and extensively and favourably reviewed in the British press. It was particularly noted for its ‘emphatic repudiation’ of the suggestions of an improper relationship between the empress and Rasputin, as well as refuting the slanderous accusations of pro-German sympathies that had been made against her. In 1928 Isa once more rejected the claims of Anna Anderson, who was persisting with her legal case, and signed a joint declaration to this effect with Gilliard and Gibbes, backed up by Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia Alexandrovna and other members of the Romanov family. But Anna Anderson refused to abandon her claim; nor did other false Anastasias, who kept coming, including Eugenia Smith in the 1930s. Isa briskly dismissed her as ‘labouring under a mental delusion’ and reported back to Grand Duchess Xenia who, contradicting her earlier supposed doubts, now appears to have put her trust in Isa’s opinion.
Earning a Living
During the 1930s Isa supplemented her modest stipend from Victoria Milford Haven, and a trickle of royalties on her books (she had published Left Behind in 1929) with occasional journalism, mainly about the Romanovs and Russia, such as an article on ‘The Beginning of Bolshevist Russia’ in the Sphere, ‘The Crown of Thorns’ in Britannia and Eve and ‘Russian Country Life before the Revolution’ in the National and English Review. In 1932 she published A Cavalier in Muscovy about an ancestor who had been in the service of Peter the Great. Curiously, she even went on an extended trip to Northern Morocco in 1934, publishing an account ‘Behind Harem Walls’ in Britannia and Eve. In 1938 she produced a third volume of memoirs Before the Storm, mainly about her childhood in Kazan up to her joining the Imperial Household.
Isa’s Defence of the Reputations of Nicholas & Alexandra
Through all this time, Isa remained a fierce defender of the reputations of the Tsar and Tsaritsa against continuing insinuations of pro-German sympathies. In 1936 she fired off a letter to The Times on publication of a book High Treason by former double agent, Colonel Victor Kaledin, considering it ‘my duty to refute the aspersions cast in the book on [their] characters’. ‘I feel bound to rectify the unfair insinuations against the character of my sovereigns, who are no longer alive to be able to defend themselves’, she wrote.
A century later Isa still waits for somebody to defend her.
Since fleeing Russia, she had grown to love the English countryside and the English people. Being effectively stateless, she had been issued with a Nansen passport but, as a friend observed, ‘She has felt herself a woman without a country [who] will be happier as a British subject’. And so, after her father’s death in 1935, and now firmly established in London society, she applied for British naturalization. Her sponsors were her two old friends from the Omsk train: Victor Cazalet (now a Tory MP) with whom she had remained in regular contact and Sir Alfred Knox, as well as Victoria Milford Haven. Notice of Isa’s application was widely circulated in the British press. It was granted in December 1937, the Metropolitan Police report accompanying it noting that the applicant was ‘a respectable person and highly regarded by numerous persons holding official positions in His Majesty’s Diplomatic Corps.’ No whiff of traitorous behaviour here.
Isa’s Social Life in London
In the newspapers of this period Isa appears in the lists of guests attending receptions, such as that hosted by Lord Hoare the Secretary of State for India, and fund-raising parties supported by Russian exiled royals such as Prince Andrew, Grand Duchess Xenia, Prince Galitzine and so on. Again one has to ask: would Grand Duchess Xenia have wanted to mix with her if Isa had been such a traitor? She was also of course a regular guest in Victoria Milford Haven’s household at Kensington Palace. VMH found her wonderful company, one of the mainstays of her old age; her granddaughter Patricia later recalled Isa as being ‘a charming woman who told great stories’. Privately, the Mountbatten siblings looked upon her as something of a comical maiden aunt figure of whom they made affectionate fun, referring with juvenile inuendo to her latest book as ‘Baroness Buxhoeveden’s left behind’.
Victoria Milford Haven, who was a shrewd judge of character and was adamant about helping Isa out financially, placed great confidence in her, recruiting her to take down her ‘Recollections’ and, with her authorial experience, put them into shape. In the run up to the wedding of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth in 1947 Isa assisted VMH with an increased volume of correspondence. During the war, for her safety, Isa left London for Hampshire and a grace favour cottage on the Broadlands estate, returning in around 1946 to a flat at Albert Mansions close to the Royal Albert Hall and a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace. Here she lived out her days in a home described as being ‘filled with reminders of Russian elegance of the last century’. She kept it impeccably tidy and, as Sonia Goodman recalled when she visited, the table was ‘always laid with a tablecloth, good china and a silver teapot’. Some of these items were given to her by the emperor and empress when they were in Tobolsk; others may well have come down to her through her father, and many of them were later bequeathed to various royals in her will.
Albert Hall Mansions near Kensington Palace where Isa lived after World War II
When VMH died in September 1950 Isa was one of a select few who attended the small private funeral service at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. She soon made herself indispensable in helping VMH’s son, Lord Mountbatten, in sorting through his mother’s papers, becoming a close and trusted friend to him. Mountbatten and his family returned Isa’s loyalty and were determined to look after her and Mountbatten honoured the deed of covenant in VMH’s will that provided her with a stipend. Indeed, the marchioness had stipulated in her will that any money that might finally come to the Mountbattens from the Tsar’s estate should go to help Isa and Pierre Gilliard.
Isa’s Final Years & Legacy
In her final years, Isa was delighted to be asked by Lord Mountbatten, for a small remuneration, to sort and bring together material about VMH’s life but in a letter to him in May 1952, she insisted:
I could not write a biography of her as she would have disliked the idea intensely, as I was so much with her. She spoke very openly to me on all sorts of private matters, saying she knew I was so discreet, all she said would go no further. She knew I kept a diary up to this war, but on principle, I never entered anything she told me as I never mentioned any private talks I had with the Empress in old days
But she was happy to translate letters from German and assemble material on the genealogy of the Russian side of the family and made visits to Langenburg and Wolfsgarten to work on papers relating to VMH’s mother, Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, for she was planning to write her biography. Although her health was now in serious decline, in January 1953 Isa attended the memorial service for Queen Alexandrine of Denmark as Grand Duchess Xenia’s representative. That same year in a significant mark of the respect Isa had garnered in the royal family, Prince Philip invited her to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, asking her to stay at Buckingham Palace to attend his mother Princess Alice of Greece as lady in waiting during the celebrations.
Any plans Isa might have had to pursue her Princess Alice biography were interrupted, however, in April 1955 by a serious accident in Rome, when she slipped on a marble floor, fell and broke her right arm and elbow and hurt her back. At the Salvator Mundi International hospital her right arm was put in a plaster cast and she had to train herself to write letters with her left hand. Returning to London Isa never recovered her health; she died at the Princess Beatrice Hospital after an operation, on 26 November 1956.
The Mountbatten family had difficulty finding a venue for Isa’s funeral as the only Russian Orthodox Church then available that was undamaged from the war belonged to the Soviet Embassy and she would not have wanted that association. The Polish Church was mooted but in the end permission was given for the best compromise – a memorial service in the Chapel Royal, conducted in English but by a Russian priest, for Isa had requested a Russian Orthodox funeral. The Times Court Circular page announced the service, held on 19 December. It was attended by many representatives of the old Russian émigré community: Prince and Princess Lieven, Prince Vsevolode, Prince Alexander Romanoff, Count and Countess Kleinmichel. Victor Cazalet’s sister Thelma came, Victor having been killed in a plane crash during the war. The Duke of Edinburgh sent a representative, as did Lord Mountbatten’s sister the Queen of Sweden. Mountbatten was there alongside his daughter Lady Pamela.
Probate of Isa’s will was granted to Count Kleinmichel. It contained a detailed list of bequests specifying several treasured Romanov mementoes given to her in Tobolsk. These included a green enamel Fabergé pencil from the Tsaritsa and a white china cup used by the Tsar both of which she left to Grand Duchess Xenia. Her book royalties went to her cousin and godson Baron Boris Buxhoeveden in Stockholm, as well as the rights to all lands and property owned by her father in the former Russian Empire that had been confiscated by the Soviets. Isa’s personal correspondence with the Mountbattens – along with her Romanov photographs and postcard album from her time in Russia – are in the Mountbatten Archives. Her few papers relating to the Romanov family, including small pencilled notes from the Tsaritsa – and all dating to their captivity in 1917 – were bequeathed to the Royal Archives at Windsor ‘because the Empress was in the British line of succession’.
Isa, as we have seen, was dutiful and punctilious to the last. And that should be her epitaph. She was buried in the Russian section of Brompton Road Cemetery. During her long years in exile from 1919 she had never allowed any photographs to be taken of herself and had remained a determinedly private person. In the burial register at Brompton, however, someone has added that the Sophie Elisabeth de Buxhoeveden in Grave 200434, was in fact ‘Lady in Waiting (Author) to the tsarina and the Royal Family prior to the Russian Revolution’.
Isa’s grave at Brompton Road cemetery, London, her date of birth wrongly given as 1885 not 1883
Notification of her memorial service in The Times, 20 December 1956
With special thanks to the archival team at the University of Southampton for access to the Sophie Buxhoeveden material in the Mountbatten Papers and to the many Romanov authors and researchers with whom I consulted on Isa’s story and who shared material with me. I will be happy to provide full citations for the sources used in this article, on request. If anyone has any new or interesting information on Isa Buxhoeveden, do please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org