On September 1, 1918, a top-secret despatch from British spies in Archangel, Russia, reported devastating news: ‘After the Czechs took Ekaterinburg … a heap of charred bones was discovered in a mine shaft, about 30 versts north of the town. Among the ashes were shoe buckles, corset ribs, diamonds and platinum crosses … Amongst trinkets and buckles [were] articles belonging to the Empress, her four daughters and the Tsarevitch.’
The remains were discovered in a forest, battered, burned and covered in sulphuric acid. A solitary finger was found among the debris. ‘I think it must belong to the Empress. It is very difficult to tell because it is so very swollen,’ an eyewitness stated. ‘They probably wanted to take off the ring, and as the fingers were so swollen and they could not get it off, they cut off the finger. It was lying there in the ashes as were the false teeth.’
It was an horrific end for Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and son Alexei. The imperial highnesses, the Romanovs, one of the most resplendent families in the world, had been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned to death in a cellar on July 17, 1918.
Their murders would send shockwaves around the world and the details of their final gruesome moments still send shudders down spines to this day. One can only imagine how Limerick woman Margaretta Eagar must have felt when she heard the news.
For six years, Margaretta was nanny to the four little grand duchesses, and later published her biography, Six Years in the Russian Court.
Born in 1863, Eagar was trained as a nurse in Belfast and later worked as matron in an orphanage. In 1898, she was recommended to the Tsar as nanny to his growing brood, and so Margaretta gained an insight to a life of untold wealth and privilege.
On meeting the children, not all of whom were born by then, she wrote: ‘The little Grand Duchess Olga was at this time over three years of age. She was a very fine child, and had large blue-grey eyes and long golden curls. The Grand Duchess Tatiana was a year and a half; a very pretty child, remarkably like her mother, but delicate in appearance.’
The Winter Palace had over fifteen hundred rooms, with the children’s nursery particularly well catered for. One of the rooms there contained a ‘mountain’ down which the children would toboggan to amuse themselves.
Eagar describes the fabulous wealth that surrounded her. One room had eight pairs of doors in tortoiseshell embellished with gold. In another were collections of Rembrandts and Rubens, but it was the Empress’s jewels that seemed to outshine everything. ‘Her rubies and emeralds are very fine, and, of course, her diamonds are famous. The Grand Duchess Serge, sister to the Empress, is possessed of what are considered the finest sapphires in the world… but the Empress has some which run them very closely.’
In her memoirs, Eagar tells of the children’s reaction to their mother’s court dress for Mass one Christmas Day. The Empress was bedecked with ‘seven chains of diamonds around her neck, a girdle of the same sparkling gems around her waist… [and] a head-dress, decorated with large single stone diamonds.
‘The little girlies… circled round her in speechless admiration for some time, and suddenly the Grand Duchess Olga clapped her hands, and exclaimed fervently, “Oh! Mama, you are just like a lovely Christmas tree!”’
Ironically, it was these jewels which prolonged the suffering of the royal family in their final moments. During captivity, the royals secreted diamonds in specially made underwear, reinforced with toughened material. When it came to the executions, the bullets bounced off the garments or merely wounded the royals, resulting in the guards bludgeoning and bayoneting them to death.
Eagar clearly loved her charges, describing them as ‘my girls’ or’ my children’. Each one displayed a charming innocence. Olga feared she would go to prison after seeing a policeman write in a notebook on an occasion when she had been naughty. In a poignant hint at what was to come, she asked her father if he had ever been a prisoner, to which he replied he had never been quite naughty enough to go to prison. ‘Oh, how very good you must have been, too,’ she said.
Little Grand Duchess Maria was clearly besotted with her daddy. Eagar writes: ‘When she was barely able to toddle she would always try to escape from the nurseries to go to papa, and whenever she saw him in the garden or park she would call after him. If he heard or saw her, he always waited for her, and would carry her for a little.’
When she wasn’t playing with the girls and doting over them, Eagar was teaching them English – so successfully in fact that they developed a slight Limerick accent, which was eventually eradicated by another tutor.
All the girls were very close. When Olga had typhoid fever, her sister Tatiana cried with distress to see her sister so ill. On another occasion, Eagar recalls: ‘Grand Duchess Anastasie [sic] was sitting in my lap, coughing and choking away, when the Grand Duchess Marie came to her and putting her face close up to her said, “Baby, darling, cough on me.” Greatly amazed, I asked her what she meant, and the dear child said, “I am so sorry to see my dear little sister so ill, and I thought if I could take it from her she would be better”.’
In light of what was to happen just a few years later, little Duchess Olga’s musings on death seem quite heart-breaking. Eagar describes Olga’s reaction to a story from history of how the English beheaded a Welsh prince. The girl exclaimed, ‘I really think people are much better now than they used to be. I’m very glad I live now when people are so kind.’
The mayhem in that Ekaterinburg cellar would last 20 terrible minutes. The Tsar and his wife died instantly – most of the executioners were unwilling to be first to fire on the children, so targeted the parents instead. Other deaths weren’t so quick. The Empress’s maid, Anna Dermidova, was stabbed trying to defend herself with a cushion stuffed with jewels.
The Tsarevich Alexei was shot twice in the head after the killers noticed that he had survived the first bullet.
Grand Duchess Maria cowered against the wall, covering her head in terror before being stabbed. As the bodies were being hauled away, two of the duchesses were heard to be coughing. Bayonets soon put an end to that.
Margaretta Eagar left the royals’ service in 1904, long before the horrors of Ekaterinburg were visited on her charges. The love and pride she held for them remained undimmed as this entry from her memoir, published in 1906, shows…
‘Someone… lately said, “Olga has grace, wit, and good looks; Tatiana is a regular beauty; Marie [sic] is so sweet-natured, good and obliging, no one could help loving her; but little Anastasie has personal charm beyond any child I ever saw.”
‘It was… a true summary of the children as they would appear to a stranger, but there is a great deal more depth and strength of character in all the children than appears at first sight. I often wonder what use they will make of all the talents God has entrusted them with…’
Margaretta Eagar died in 1936 – no doubt, with that last thought plaguing her to her dying day.