The Romanoffs and the Bagrations
By Daniel Sargis, and used with kind permission of the author.
This article was first published in 1998, and it reflects the fact that Nicholas Romanovich Romanov
was then living and had recently declared himself both a dynastic male and "Head of the Imperial Family."
a position which was recently assumed by his brother Dimitri Romanovich Romanov in 2015.
Nicholas Romanoff, a man in his seventies, has a very distinguished ancestry.
His father, the late Prince Roman of Russia, was of royal birth, a member of the Russian Imperial Family. His mother, although not of royal birth, was a commoner from an old Russian noble family. Nicholas Romanoff has recently claimed to be the head of the Russian Imperial Family, thus contesting the legal position of the rightful head of the dynasty, the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia. Mr. Romanoff might have had a good claim to be the head of the dynasty, except for one insuperable problem: he is not a member of the Russian Imperial Family and therefore can hardly claim to be its head. In other words, he is not of royal birth.
Why is he not of royal birth? The answer to this question is simple: because Russian dynastic law makes it impossible for him to be a member of the dynasty. Every royal dynasty has its own laws governing membership in the dynasty. In Great Britain, for example, having a commoner mother does not prevent one from being of royal birth. The prince of Wales married a commoner, but his two sons are both royal princes. In certain continental dynasties, however, the rules were clear that in order to be of royal birth one had to be born of an equal marriage: that is, one’s father and one’s mother both had to be of royal birth. The legal term for this is a German word, Ebenbuertigkeit , meaning the quality of being of equal royal birth. This requirement of equal birth was and is the rule of the Russian Imperial Family, as provided by Articles 36 and 188 of the Russian succession laws. It was also the rule of the royal families of Spain, Austria-Hungary, and Germany. Because Mr. Romanoff’s father, a prince of royal blood with full rights, married a commoner, Mr. Romanoff was born of an unequal marriage and thus under Russian law is not of royal birth. Therefore, any claim of his to be head of the dynasty or merely even a member of the dynasty is null and void. Further, his self-assumption of the title of "Prince" Romanoff, a title which never existed in Russian under the monarchy, is similarly without legal basis.
The same is true of the other men who are now members of the organization Mr. Romanoff created and heads, the so-called Romanoff Family Association. Aslthough their fathers were of royal birth and members of the Russian Imperial Family, these men all had commoner mothers. Thus, they are "out" under the dynastic laws. While their imperial fathers and grandfathers were alive, these men never dared to claim membership in the dynasty or the right to call themselves Princes of Russia. In fact, their fathers never would have permitted it. The attempt of these men to do so now is both undignified and unnecessary. Even though not of royal birth, they already have a secure place in society as the morganatic sons of royal princes. For them to pretend that clearly worded dynastic laws do not exist smacks of the proverbial second class passengers trying to elbow their way into the first class compartment. It is unseemly.
The rightful head of the Russian Imperial Family is the Grand Duchess Maria. Her father the late Grand Duke Wladimir (son of the Grand Duke Kirill of Russia by his royal wife, Princess Victoria-Melita of Great Britain and Ireland), was head of the Russian Imperial Family from 1938 until his death in 1992. He was at his death the last male in the male line of the Russian Imperial Family. Grand Duchess Maria’s mother is also of royal birth, a member of the Bagration royal house of Georgia.
Grand Duchess Maria’s position is dictated by the laws of the Russian dynasty. These laws state that the throne (in other words, the position of head of the dynasty) passes in the male line by primogeniture, until such time as the male line dies out, as happened in 1992. At that point, the succession passes to the female int he dynasty who is most closely related to the last emperor. Whether one considers that the last emperor was Nicholas II or, as do the legitimist monarchists, that he was her father Grand Duke Wladimir, Grand Duchess Maria is clearly the sole rightful successor. The only other living members of other branches of the dynasty, Princess Vera of Russia and Princess Ekaterina of Russia, both now in their eighties, come from a junior line and were not closely related either to Nicholas II or to Grand Duke Wladimir.
Before his death, Grand Duke Wladimir made quite clear that his daughter was his rightful successor as head of the dynasty, given the fact that by 1989 he was the last make in the male line. He also made clear that Nicholas Romanoff and his morganatic cousins were not members of the dynasty. These pronouncements have been confirmed by various officials in Russia, including the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexis II of Moscow and all Russia, as well as the heads of the Russian Nobility Association in Moscow and the Supreme Monarchist Council in Moscow.
It is not my purpose here to write an article on the Romanoffs. What prompts my essay is a recent statement by Nicholas Romanoff. In an interview, he stated that, whilst he freely admits that his own mother was a commoner, he wishes also to assert his opinion that Grand Duchess Maria’s mother was a commoner too. In other words Mr. Romanoff has expressed the opinion that he does not consider the Bagratid dynasty - the Bagrations of Georgia - to be of royal birth.
As somebody whose grandparents were born in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, I must object that Mr. Romanoff’s remarks are nonsensical from the point of view of history and are also a slur on my ancestral land and its Bagratid kings.
Georgia is a mountainous country of 27,000 square miles and 5 million people, located on the Black Sea at the eastern edge of Europe. It is bordered by Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and on the north by the Caucasus mountains and Russia. Its people have a deep sense of the uniqueness and antiquity of their nation, and they are fiercely devoted to their language and culture. Georgia was christianized in the fourth century A.D., more than 550 years before Russia became Christian.
Georgia’s royal house, the Bagrations, and France’s royal house, the Bourbons, are the oldest Christian dynasties in Europe, much older than the royal families that trace their reigns to before the year 1000 A.D., such as the ancient German royal dynasties of Bavaria, Saxony and Hanover. And it goes without saying that the Bagrations, who became nobles in the third century A.D., are much older than the Romanoffs, who only began their reign in Russia in the year 1613 A.D.
The Bagrations have had royal status for over one thousand years, having occupied the throne of the independent Kingdom of Georgia untl that kingdom was illegally devoured by Russia in the nineteenth century. As such, the Bagrations today are no different legally from other dynasties that remain royal families, despite having lost their thrones in the nineteenth century. Most prominent among such dethroned royal families is the Bourbon dynasty of France (dethroned in 1830), but the list also includes the Bourbon-Sicilies dynasty of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (dethroned in 1860), the Bourbon-Orleans dynasty of France (dethroned in 1848), and the Bonaparte dynasty (which ruled France twice for short periods, from 1804-1815 and from 1852-1871).
For Nicholas Romanoff to claim that the Bagrations are not a royal house because their dynasty was dethroned must raise the eyebrows of a group of people who consider themselves decidedly royal: namely, the present heads of the deposed royal families of such countries as France, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. It also smacks of throwing stones when one lives in a glass house, because of course the Russian dynasty itself has been without a throne since 1917. But logic seems to be at a discount in Mr. Romanoff’s various pronouncements, including his claim to be royal when he isn’t while at the same time contesting the royal status of Georgia’s ancient Bagration dynasty. The late nobiliary law expert, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, PhD., LL.B, who was a member of the royal household of Queen Elizabeth II, perhaps summed things up best when he wrote: "[The] Bagration…dynasty had reigned in the male line as Kings from 886 until the 19th century, before the 17th century boyar family of Romanoff dispossessed them. Both Bagration and Romanoff are now dispossessed: which needs the official recognition of which?"
Georgia lost its independence in the nineteenth century, regained it briefly from 1918 to 1921 (when Soviet Russian troops invaded), and became an independent country again in 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Like other independent European countries, it has ts ow. This monarchist movement was in the news in 1995 when the head of the Georgian Royal Family and pretender to the Georgian throne, Prince George Bagration, made his first visit to Georgia.
Prince George Bagration, born in Rome in 1944, now lives in Marbella, Spain. As a professional race car driver in his youth, he won more than twelve Spanish championships. He is a friend of King Juan Carlos and is related by marriage to the Spanish Royal Family: his stepmother was the late Princess Maria de las Mercedes Bagration (born H.R.H. Infanta Maria de las Mercedes of Spain). Prince George carried with him to Georgia a personal letter from King Juan Carlos to Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze.
The purpose of the Prince’s visit was to escort the remains of his grandfatehr, also named Prince George Bagration, the late head of the Georgian Royal Family, who died in 1957 as an exile in Spain. A solemn funeral mass was sung in Sioni Cathedral in Tblisi by the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. President Shevarnadze attended the mass. Also present were the younger Prince George’s aunt, the Grand Duchess Wladimir of Russia (born Princess Leonida Bagration of Moukhrani ) and his first cousin, the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia. The remains were then interred in the royal crypt of the Kings of georgia at Svetitskhovoi.
The Bagrations began their reign in Georgia in 886 A.D. They intermarried frequently with the royal dynasties of various Byzantine emperors. The Bagratid dynasty’s reign ended in the nineteenth century. The Bagrations thus fulfilled the only real requirement under international law to qualify as a royal dynasty: they occupied a sovereign throne. By the way, Georgia, like England but unlike Russia and Germany, never required its royal princes to marry royal princesses in order to transmit royal status to their children.
The Bagrations of Moukhrani, the branch of the dynasty from which Prince George Bagration and the Grand Duchess Maria descend, were in fact doubly royal. First they were a younger branch of the Georgian royal house. (They did not become the senior line until the twentieth century, when elder lines died out.) Second, they were also sovereigns of the Georgian principality of Moukhrani in their own right until 1801.
The first sovereign Prince of Moukhrani was Prince Bagrat Bagration of Moukhrani, a younger brother of two Georgian monarchs, King David VIII and King George IX. The last sovereign Prince of Moukhrani (from whom Prince George descends) was Prince Constantine Bagration of Moukhrani (died 1842), son of Ivan Bagration, prince of Moukhrani by his wife Princess Tamara, daughter of King Irakly II of Georgia.
In view of the tangled history of relations between Georgia and Russia, it is intriguing that Mr. Nicholas Romanoff would try in the 1990s to dispute the royal status of the Bagrations.
In the late eighteenth century, King Irakly II of Georgia, an Orthodox Christian, was threatened by the Islamic rulers of Persia and Turkey. He turned to Russia, his Christian neighbor, for protection. In 1783, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and King Irakly II signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, in which Russia guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Georgian kingdom in return for control of Georgia’s foreign policy. The treaty also guaranteed the royal status of the Bagratid dynasty. To cite the actual words of the treaty, Catherine II promised "to respect the independence of Georgia and that henceforth Irakly II, as a believer in the same faith as Ours and as an ally of Russia, bears the title of King of Georgia, in which title and rights he and his issue are confirmed by Russia forever and for all time."
In 1795, the Persian shah, Aga Muhammad, demanded that King Irakly acknowledge Persian suzerainty over Georgia. King Irakly, declining to break his treaty with Russia, refused. The Persians then invaded. No Russian assistance was provided, but the old King more than eighty years old, managed to repulse the invaders three times before he was outnumbered and defeated. Finally, the Russians intervened and pushed out the Persians.
In 1798 Irakly II died and was succeeded by his son, King George XII. Fearing the Persian threat, King George suggested to Empress Catherine’s son and successor Tsar Paul I, that he incorporate Georgia into the Russian Empire while allowing the Bagrations to continue to bear the title of King. (A similar arrangement existed in Germany in the late nineteenth century, when the German emperor ruled over an empire in which he was the suzerain of the Kings of Bavaria, Wurttenberg, and Saxony.) At first, Emperor Paul agreed, but in the end he simply seized the country, putting an end to the long reign of the Bagrations.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (1992 edition) summarizes the facts succinctly in its article on the Treaty of Georgievsk of July 24, 1783: "Agreement concluded by Catherine II the Great…and Erekle [Irakly] II…by which Russia guaranteed Georgia’s territorial integrity and the continuation of its reigning Bagratid dynasty in return for prerogative in the conduct of Georgian foreign affairs…Under the terms of the treaty, Catherine and her heirs were to defend Georgia against enemies and Erekle [Irakly] renounced dependence upon iran or any other power. Though the treaty was to have permanent validity, Emperor Paul I’s manifesto of Dec.18, 1800, unilaterally declared the annexation of [Georgia] to Russia, and on Sept. 12, 1801, his successor, Alexander I, formally reaffirmed this determination."
After annexing Georgia illegally, the Russian Empire embarked on a program of forced Russification that lasted until the late nineteenth century, including sustained attempts to suppress teaching of the Georgian language and culture. The Bagrations tried without success to resist, especially Prince Alexander (son of King Irakly II of Georgia) who eventually fled to Persia, but also Queen Miriam (widow of King George XII of Georgia) and Dowager Queen Daria (widow of King irakly II of Georgia). Other princes of the blood royal were deported to Russia.
Part of the Russification campaign included a specific attempt to undermine the royal status of and to weaken nationalist loyalty to the Bagration dynasty. This was because a number of the many nationalist insurrections which took place in Georgia throughout the nineteenth century were monarchist in inspiration and purpose. The most famous was the 1830 plot to restore the Bagrations. Moscow eventually sent Grand Duke Michael of Russia, son of Tsar Nicholas I, as viceroy of the Caucasus and also began to list the Bagrations in the nobility books not as royal princes but as mere "titled" nobility". The Bagrations, however, mindful both of their ancient rights and of Russia’s solemn obligations under the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk to maintain the royal status of the Georgian dynasty, never renounced their royal status.
It was not until the twentieth century, during the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, that Russia began to make amends. This occurred in 1911, when a member of the Russian Imperial Family, Princess Tatiana of Russia (daughter of Grand Duke Constantine of Russia), married a member of the Georgian dynasty, Prince Constantine Bagration of Moukhrani, later an aide-de-camp to Emperor Nicholas II. Prior to the wedding, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra personally told Grand Duke Constantine, the father of the bride, that "they would never look upon her marriage to a Bagration as morganatic, because this House, like the House of Orleans [of France], is descended from a once ruling dynasty." (November 30, 1910 entry, From the Diaries of Grand Duke Constantine Constantinovich, published in Moscow, February 1994). The bride was also asked to renounce her rights to the Russian throne, as was customary when a female of the Russian Imperial Family married a foreign prince. (Another example was the renunciation of Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna of Russia upon her marriage to the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin). The late prince Theimouraz Bagration of Moukhrani, only son of this 1911 Georgian-Russian marriage, frequently described Emperor Nicholas II’s suggestion that the groom sign the marriage register as "Prince of Georgia".
Despite his private comment to Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar never issued a decree formally clarifying that he considered the 1911 union to be an equal marriage. The First World War erupted in August 1914, and the young bridegroom, Prince Bagration, was killed in action at the front in May 1915. Less than two years later, the Romanoffs themselves were toppled from their throne.
The nagging question of Russia’s violation of its 1783 treaty obligations arose again
in exile. In 1946, Prince Irakly Bagration of Moukhrani, father of the present head of the Georgian royal house, married as his second wife a member of the Spanish Royal Family, Infanta Maria de las Mercedes of Spain, who was mentioned above. (Prince Irakly’s first wife had died in childbirth in 1944 giving birth to the present Prince George.) At the time of the 1946 marriage, the bride’s father, Infante Ferdinand of Spain, wrote to the Grand Duke Wladimir, head of the Russian Imperial Family, to ask what the Russian attitude was on the royal status of the Bagrations.
Grand Duke Wladimir examined the question, assisted by his uncle, Grand Duke Andrew of Russia, who then was next in the line of succession. He was also advised by a prominent Georgian historian. The Grand Duke recognized immediately that the Bagrations had sat on a royal throne and therefore were ipso facto of royal status. His conclusion was re-inforced by his study of the 1783 treaty, especially the provision guaranteeing forever the royal status of the Bagration dynasty. One suspects too that he must have realized that Russia’s treatment of the Bagrations was based purely on "power politics", not on legal reasoning; indeed, as stated before, the 1783 treaty obligations made Russia’s actions illegal.
Grand Duke Wladimir issued the following decree:
"Act of the Head of the Imperial House, 5th December 1946: His Royal Highness the Infante Don Ferdinand…, when his daughter Maria Mercedes was about to contract a marriage with Prince Irakly Bagration of Moukhrani, asked me whether…I could consider the proposed marriage to be an equal one. My reply, which was conveyed to the Infante through the intermediary of the Spanish minister in Berne, the Conde de Bailen, was in the affirmative, inasmuch as, after prolonged and diligent study of the history of Georgia and the Georgian question, and after consulting my uncle, His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Andrew, brother of my late father,…I consider it right and proper to recognise the royal status of the senior branch of the Bagration family, as well as the right of the members to bear the title of Prince of Georgia and the style of Royal Highness. The present head of the family is Prince George. If Almighty God, in His Mercy, allows the rebirth of our great empire, I consider it right that the Georgian language should be restored for use in the internal administration of Georgia and in her educational establishments. The Russian language should be obligatory for general relations within the Empire. (Signed) Wladimir."
By his 1946 declaration, Grand Duke Wladimir carried to completion what had been begun in 1911 by his father’s first cousin , Nicholas II: namely the rectificationof Russia’s violation of those provisions of the 1783 treaty guaranteeing the royal status of the Bagrations. It is always within the authority of the head of a formerly reigning dynasty to be the final arbiter on the question of whether a marriage is equal for purposes of the dynasty’s laws. Archduke Otto, head of the deposed Austrian-Hungarian imperial House of Habsburg,and Prince Louis-Ferdinand, late head of the deposed German imperial house of Hohenzollern, have exercised the same authority with respect to the marriages of members of their dynasties.
It was in connection with his examination of the "Georgian question" in 1946 that Grand Duke Wladimir came to know Princess Leonida Bagration, sister of Prince Irakly and sister-in-law of the Spanish Infanta. (The Grand Duke had close relations of his own within the Spanish Royal Family: Infanta Beatrice of Spain was his mother’s sister and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain was his mother’s first cousin). Grand Duke Wladimir contracted an equal marriage when he wed Princess Leonida in 1948. Their ony child, Grand Duchess Maria, was born in 1953. Their marriage lasted 44 years, until the Grand Duke’s death in 1992.