As you hurtle by foot or on horseback, or rattle by train across the west and towards the Byzantine lands, a strange thing happens to one of the iconic symbols of the Christian world.
The cross, a simple two-lined trinket on a chain or billboard sign, undergoes a transformation. The East takes it and adds layers of story, and with each layer the appearance of the simple western cross alters.
Above the crossbeam hangs a smaller sign, a plaque which would once have read INRI – ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’.
But far more enticing is the slanted footstool at the bottom, the place where the Messiah would have rested torn feet and listened to the jibes of onlookers; and, importantly for this story, to the two fellow-executed nearby.
The story goes that the nearest had things to say. One thief could not understand why this supernatural king could not do a thing to save himself, and told him so. The other asked for a place next to Jesus in Heaven.
And the footstool reflect thats: it slants upwards towards the good thief, downwards at the baffled one.
So much story in a few lines, hastily etched. We don’t see it often here in England,which is why I stopped short at the grave of the Romanov.
Old Windsor is a sleepy English bywater between Windsor and Runnymede,the site of the signing of the Magna Carta. It is as far away from the strange and entrancing mythology of the East as it is possible to be. Yet precisely because we are as safe and entrenched as Tolkien’s Shire, we were where some of the Romanov clan chose to settle.
In early 1917, the Romanov dynasty – whose indirect line could be traced back to the old Romanov boyars of 1613 – had 65 members. During the bloody revolution 18 of them were killed. The rest fled to safety.
One of them was a woman born in the Ukraine, the daughter of Fabrizio Ruffo, Duke of Sasso-Ruffo and Princess Natalia Alexandrovna Mescherskaya. An aristocrat to her fingertips, she made one marriage to a major general which ended in 1916, I can find no record of how; by the time she met her Romanov husband and married him she was 30 years old.
She was a Romanov, then, by marriage, and her name was Donna Elizabeta Fabrizievna Ruffo-Sasso Romanov.
She is not the only Romanov hanger-on to have settled in the area. Regulars will have read the story of the rescue of the family’s dog after the massacre at the House of Special Purpose.
I do not know why Donna Elizabeta chose this place. There are two alternative accounts of her death in 1940: some insist she died of cancer, others that she was a victim of the Blitz.
She rests in the little cemetery in Church Road, and her grave stands starkly out amongst the ornamental angels and other grand monuments.
Because there it is: a wooden cross to mark the spot. A head plate to define what a messiah figure thousands of years ago might have been called: and a slanted footstool to damn the baffled thief and elevate the good one.
An outlandish grave, as befits a Russian princess.