Alexandra Anastasia Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn, is known to her friends as Sacha. And, most likely, that’s how one of her ancestors, Alexander Pushkin, was known to his close circle, too.
Her family tree can be traced back to Natalya, the youngest daughter of Russia’s most famous poet. Natalya married Prince Nicholas of Nassau (a German prince) in 1868. Since the marriage was considered unequal as Natalya was not of royal blood, a new morganatic title was created for her and her children by Furst Georg III and acknowledged by HIM King Wilhelm of Prussia (Genealogy of the Imperial Family of Russia), and Natalya became the Countess of Merenberg. (Note: There were quite a few morganatic marriages in the past, however today it has become a common practice, the most recent example being the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The Queen bestowed upon William the English title of Duke of Cambridge, the Scottish title of Earl of Strathearn, and Northern Irish title of Baron Carrickfergus. After the wedding Kate Middleton became HRH The Duchess of Cambridge).
The daughter of Natalya and Prince Nicholas of Nassau, Countess Sophie of Merenberg married HIH Michael Mikhailovich Romanov in 1891. (Note: Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich was a grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and brother of the last Tsar of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II. Famously, it was Tsar Nicholas I who informed Pushkin that he (the Tsar) would be his censor. It is ironic, therefore, that the descendants of Tsar Nicholas I
and Pushkin would marry each other. In other words, Tsar Nicholas I and Pushkin after their deaths became grandfathers -in-law.) Because of the morganatic nature of the union, a new title was created for Countess Sophie of Merenberg and her children. Sophie became the Countess de Torby.
Her great-grandparents’ morganatic marriage – Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich and Countess Sophie Merenberg – cost them dearly: they were exiled from Russia to Germany. Later, Sophie and Michael would settle in England.
Paradoxically, branches of the Pushkins, Romanovs, and Windsors would be joined together in her family tree. Natalya’s descendnats would intermarry with wealthy, noble families: Sophie’s daughter, Nadejda’s marriage to Prince George of Battenberg (later 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven, uncle of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, now the Duke of Edinburgh and spouse of Queen Elizabeth II) would draw her closer to the British royal family. Later, Nadejda’s son, David Michael Mountbatten, would be best man to Prince Philip at his marriage to The Princess Elizabeth. Sophie’s elder daughter, Anastasia (also known as Lady Zia) would marry the industrialist Sir Harold Wernher and become one of the wealthiest women in England. By Royal Warrant of the British monarch George V Lady Zia would be accorded the precedence of a daughter of an earl.
One of sister of Sasha Natalia Ayesha Phillips married Sir Gerald Grosvenor 6th Duke of Westminster. Thus making Natalia the Duchess of Westminster. (The 6th Duke of Westminster is Britain’s wealthiest aristocrat and the sixth richest man in Britain. The Duchess is also known as Tally. She was a friend of Princess Diana of Wales and she is the godmother to Prince William – the son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Alexandra (Sasha) Anastasia Phillips married Sir James Hamilton, the 5th Duke of Abercorn. Alexandra became Duchess of Abercorn. They were married in 1966. Their children are:
James Hamilton, Marquess of Hamilton (godson of Prince Charles), Lady Sophia Hamilton, Lord Nicholas Hamilton.
Alexandra is keeping her family heritage alive through her work with children. She set up the Pushkin Prize in Ireland to encourage children to express their thoughts and feelings by creative means. Northern Ireland had been suffering from much violence at that time and she felt it was important to listen to the voice of the child. This Prize would also bring children and teachers together from both the Catholic and Protestant tradition and it also connected N. Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Pushkin became a kind of passport! Children in primary schools from all over Ireland (9 – 10 years of age) began to write short stories and poems beginning with writing their own fairy-tale.
How did your family escape from Russia?
My great-grandmother Sophie married Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovitch and because of this morganatic marriage they were exiled. First they went to Baden-Baden. When the revolution started, whatever allowance they were receiving was cut off, and suddenly they had no money. I think it was King George V who helped them to get the house. My grandmother married a wealthy diamond magnet whose father, Sir Julius Wernher had discovered the Kimberley diamond mine in South Africa along with Cecil Rhodes and Sir Alfred Beit – their money helped to rescue the family.
Didn’t it all seem a bit like a fairytale when you were a child?
These stories were told me by my grandmother when she was showing me her jewellery, Fabergé eggs and furs. I found them fascinating. It all became a reality when I first visited Russia in 1971, during the times of the Iron Curtain. The chairman of Christie’s, an expert on icons, took the whole group on the icon trail. We did a very big tour – St Petersburg, Moscow, Armenia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. During my first time in St Petersburg I suddenly felt like I had arrived home – I felt I knew it in my bones.
What is the Pushkin Prize competition that you set up?
We start working with children, aged nine and 10 – of course,
they’re not studying Onegin –we start with the fairytales. The children like them so much, they start their own research on Pushkin. They write – we’re not looking for a new Pushkin but we’re helping them to find their own voice, give them a possibility to say who they are. What they need is inspiration and there is very little inspiration at schools – it’s more about the rules, the red pen goes over everything. Next year the Pushkin Prize in Ireland will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary. The children who were not successful academically suddenly start leading the way.
Does anyone in your family speak Russian?
Nicholas, my youngest son, studied it, and he is married to a Russian girl – Tatiana. She speaks to their daughter, Valentina, in Russian. They are coming back to Ireland from the States to work. They will run one of our stately homes – Belle Isle. It’s very much a family place on the lakes. Nicholas and his wife are both artists, so maybe soon they’ll start programmes for artists
Do you think the figure of Pushkin has relevance in literature today?
Of course, but what is also relevant is what he did through his presence – his spirit is so strong and alive that he has an enormous influence on people. He became a creative catalyst for the children I work with, and now their teachers are finding their inspiration too.
When do you feel you have a little Russian blood in you?
It’s when I hear Russian music – its like another world comes alive in me. Many years ago we started the Anglo-Russian Foundation to support the Mariinsky Theatre. I love opera and ballet, I love Russian paintings and of course the natural world – everything is so vast and extreme, just like the emotions of the Russians – it’s all tears or all laughter.
Nicholas and Tatiana Hamilton
Sacha Abercorn’s son and his wife, Tatiana, are mixed-media artists. They met in the USA and recently came back to the UK to set up an artists’ cooperative at the Abercorn family home in Northern Ireland.
Nicholas, when you first met your wife-to-be, did you know she was Russian? Was it important for you?
Of course, my family’s history is closely connected to Russia but the fact that Tatiana is Russian was a happy coincidence. Another coincidence is that she’s from St Petersburg – a city that’s very important to my ancestors. There was an attraction between us, and it wasn’t based on nationality.
Do you speak Russian?
I did a short, four-week intensive course at Columbia University just to learn the basics.
Tatiana, did you know Nicholas was from the Pushkin family?
No, and he didn’t mention it straightaway. But as soon as he did, I immediately realised that he looked like Pushkin. I think that knowledge added to the romance. From the age of 14, I have lived in New York where my family wasn ‘t part of a Russian diaspora, so in a way I found my Russian roots in Nicholas. When we met, I was doing a lot of photographic work based on Russian myths, and meeting Nicholas was almost mythical. I saw his face, talked to him, and felt as if I had known him before, as if he was one of us.
Nicholas, though your ancestors were Russian, the language hasn’t been spoken in your family for generations. Now you’re married to a Russian, do you think the Russian language will come back into your family?
Yes, through our daughter. She’s only eight months but she will speak both languages. Tatiana speaks Russian to her, all her books are in Russian. She hasn’t spoken a single word yet, we are all waiting – I hope it will be a Russian one!
You’ve both moved from the USA to run Belle Isle, a 17th-century castle in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.Tatiana, there are rumours you’re going to turn it into an artists’ residence. Is that true?
Yes, it is. Belle Isle is a big manor house located on an island, with art studios and accommodation for writers and filmmakers. The place is very beautiful and very isolated, When you get to this island, the population consists of about ten people – it’s an ideal place for work and to concentrate on creativity. We’re probably going to operate as a public charitable organisation in order to find sponsorship for creative people. People will send through applications with samples of their work, and some of them could stay on Belle Isle for some time. But now you can simply come to the island and rent the castle for a few days or even a week, and have a rest, enjoy the fresh lakeside air, and even go for a cruise around the nearby islands on our old wooden cruiser.
Belle Isle Estate & Cookery School