In a corner of a burial ground in the remote marshland town of Lydd in Kent is a lonely grave, set a little apart from the others. It is the final resting place of a a soldier’s wife – there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary in that, as Lydd is home to a military base, but her unusual name has attracted attention over the years and rumours spread that this mysterious woman may in fact have been a member of the Russian imperial family.
The grave of Larissa Feodrovna is situated in a corner of Lydd’s burial ground, an extension of the churchyard belonging to the wonderful old church of All Saints, which traces its origins back as far as the late Roman period (part of what’s thought to be a Roman basilica can be seen in one corner of the present church). Lydd feels like a long way from anywhere; its position on Romney Marsh, not far from the spectacular bleak landscape of Dungeness, makes it an unlikely setting for rumours of a lost Romanov Grand Duchess. I had wanted to visit this grave for a long time, as the stories told about it captivated me when I was growing up.
When I was young, someone bought me a book about the children of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, which as well as containing many beautiful photographs of the Imperial family, mentioned some of the people who claimed to be Romanov Grand Duchesses in the years after the family was murdered, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia.
Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in 1917, bringing Imperial rule in Russia to an end and ushering in the short period of rule by a provisional government, which was overthrown later in 1917 by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Nicholas and his family were exiled to Siberia, first to a house in the town of Tobolsk and later to Ekaterinburg. It was there, in July 1918, that they were murdered by Bolshevik soldiers. As the Romanovs were murdered during the confusion of a bloody civil war, and their bodies not discovered for 70 years, many rumours persisted that some members of the family had escaped. I was history-mad even as a child, and for a time I read whatever I could get my hands on about the Romanovs.
One of the books I got hold of was called The Romanov Conspiracies, by Michael Occleshaw, which was published in 1993. In this book Occleshaw investigates the theory that one of the Romanov daughters, Tatiana, was rescued from the family’s captivity in Siberia and may have later married an English officer before dying tragically young.
Where, then, does the occupant of this sad grave in Lydd come in to the story?
Larissa Tudor was the wife of an officer of the 3rd Hussars, Owen Tudor. They were married in London in 1923, after Owen had met her whilst serving with his regiment in Constantinople. Larissa had reportedly been working as a dancing girl in Constantinople, and Owen married her against the wishes of his superiors in the 3rd Hussars, which led to him leaving the regiment and instead taking up a post with a battalion based in Lydd.
By all accounts Owen and Larissa had a happy marriage, but their time together was limited by Larissa’s increasingly poor health. She died on 18th July 1926, and was buried in the local churchyard. Local people were intrigued by the grave of “My very beloved Larissa Feodorovna” and rumours began to spread that this mysterious, beautiful woman who had died so young had in fact been a lost Russian princess.
Tatiana’s mother Alix was known as Alexandra Feodorovna after her marriage to Nicholas, and the use of the name “Feodorovna” on Larissa’s grave is one thing that fuelled the rumours about her. In Russia, people use a patronymic name as well as their given name – a patronym being based on their father’s name. Alix’s patronym of Feodorovna translates as “daughter of Feodor”, and her daughters used the patronym “Nikolaevna” (daughter of Nikolai, or Nicholas). The use of the patronymic name “Feodorovna” is of course incorrect for Tatiana, but its link to her mother’s name was seen as significant. It was also mysterious: Larissa’s maiden name was Haouk on her marriage certificate, not Feodorovna, and her father’s name was listed as Adolph Haouk. The age given on Larissa’s gravestone does not correlate with the age given on her marriage certificate, either: in 1923, the year she was married, her age was given as 27, yet on her grave – she died three years later – her age is set in stone as being 28. In addition, neither of those ages correspond with Tatiana Romanov’s date of birth – she was born in June 1897, which would have made her 29 on 18th July 1926.
The 1991 discovery and exhumation of members of the Romanov family in woodland near Ekaterinburg, the place where the family was murdered in July 1918, did not stop the rumours of one or more family members surviving – analysis of the remains found that two of the Romanov children – the Tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters – were not present. If anything, rumours of possible rescues or escapes intensified, and the case got another huge dose of publicity with the successful animated film Anastasia in 1997, which was inspired by the possibility that the youngest daughter of the imperial family had escaped the fate of her parents and siblings.
The discovery of the remains of the two missing Romanovs in 2006, close to where the rest of the family had been exhumed 15 years earlier, threw cold water over the long-running conspiracies, including Occleshaw’s. DNA testing indicated that the bones, which were found close to where the other bodies were discovered, were indeed from members of the Romanov family – thought to be Grand Duke Alexei and his sister Grand Duchess Marie.
So where does this development leave Larissa? Even if she wasn’t a Romanov princess – and she never claimed to be one – many details about her life are conflicting and it’s really not clear at all exactly who she was.
When the Bolsheviks took power in the former Russian Empire late in 1917, the new regime began a brutal campaign against the former social and political elites of the Tsarist era. Members of Russia’s aristocracy and nobility were stripped of their titles, estates and possessions, and were referred to as ‘former people’. Many were forced to do public labour in order to earn food rations, and some were murdered. Some were able to flee Russia – Frances Welch’s book The Russian Court At Sea describes the journey made in 1919 by 17 members of the Imperial family from Crimea to Malta, via Constantinople. Perhaps Larissa was another Russian refugee who had attempted to escape the violence in her homeland, taking a similar route to Constantinople before meeting and falling in love with Owen Tudor there.
Poor Larissa died tragically young, of tubercolosis; although Owen Tudor later remarried, he continued to visit the grave of his first wife for the rest of his life. The plastic flowers on her gravestone were laid by him some time before his death in 1987. Michael Occleshaw interviewed a number of people who had lived near Owen and Larissa in Lydd, and they remembered the couple laughing together in their garden, seemingly very much in love and happy in each other’s company. This must have been a real comfort to Larissa, who became severely disabled as her tubercolosis progressed.
Even though it’s now been proved that the occupant of this grave is not the Grand Duchess Tatiana, an air of mystery remains. Too many things about Larissa simply don’t add up, but whoever she really was, she seems to have found some happiness with an English officer before her early death. For me, it was satisfying to finally visit the place she was buried after reading so much about her when I was young. Lydd must have seemed like such a strange place for a young woman coming to England as a soldier’s wife after the turmoil of post-war Europe, but whatever it was that she was escaping from – revolution, poverty, war, who knows? – at least she found some love and peace in the end.
References and further reading
Bones found by Russian builder finally solve riddle of the missing Romanovs, The Guardian, 25th August 2007
Michael Occleshaw – The Romanov Conspiracies: the Romanovs and the House of Windsor, Orion, 1993
Frances Welch – The Russian Court at Sea, Short Books Ltd, 2011
Douglas Smith – Former People: the last days of the Russian Aristocracy, Pan, 2013