Queen Alexandra of Great Britain- Queen Victoria's Daughter-in-Law, Bertie's Patient Wife, and Her Own Person
Princess Alexandra of Denmark, later Queen Alexandra of Great Britain, enjoyed a historical heritage before her birth and a landmark life for 80 years afterward. In 1863, she married Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and she reigned as Princess of Wales from 1863-1901, the longest time anyone held that title. When Queen Victoria died in 1901, Albert Edward became King Edward VII, and Alexandra his queen-empress from 1901 to 1910. From the time of King Edward VII’s death in 1910 until she died in 1925, Queen Alexandra was the dowager queen and the queen mother of the reigning King, George V.
She set fashion trends all over the world and in England she tried to influence her husband’s family and British ministers to favor Greek and Danish interests. On a more personal level she withstood her husband’s infidelities, a domineering mother-in-law, the loss of two of her sons, and managed to develop her talents for woodworking and photography despite her extensive charity work and fulfilling the duties and obligations of being both the Queen and the Queen Mother.
Alexandra, the Danish Princess
The death of King Frederick VII of the Kingdom of Denmark in November 1863 marked the passing of the last Danish king of the older Royal branch of the House of Oldenburg. He was the last Danish monarch of the older Royal branch of the House of Oldenburg and also the last King of Denmark ruling as an absolute monarch. During his reign, he signed a constitution establishing a Danish parliament and making Denmark a constitutional monarchy. Frederick’s death created a succession crisis because he ruled in both Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein and the succession rules differed in both territories. Holstein law prevented inheritance through the female line, but predominantly German Holstein, proclaimed independence and called on Prussia for help. In 1852, the great powers of Europe-Austria, France, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom, called a conference in London to debate the Danish succession. They agreed to a settlement including the principle that Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg would succeed Frederick and the prior claims of others including Christian’s mother-in-law, brother-in-law and wife, were nullified.
Prince Christian received the title of Prince of Denmark in May 1852, succeeded the Danish throne as Christian IX in 1863, and received the title of royal highness for himself and his heirs. King Christian’s heirs included a wife and six children. On May 26, 1842, Christian had married Princess Louise Wilhelmine Friederike Caroline Auguste Julia, daughter of the Landgrave Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel, in Copenhagen. The couple had six children: Prince Christian Frederick William Charles; Prince Christian William Ferdinand Adolf George; Princess Marie Sophie Fredericka Dagmar; Princes Thyra Amalie Caroline Charlotte Anna; Prince Waldemar; and Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia, born December 1, 1844 at the Yellow Palace, an 18th century town house next to the Amalienborg lace complex in Copenhagen.
Although Princess Alexandra or Alix as her immediate family called her, and her brothers and sisters were born into royalty, she and her family lived a relatively normal life. The family moved into a new official residence, Bernstorff Palace, but Prince Christian received a modest income of 800 pounds or 1,346 dollars a year from an army commission which did not allow for an extravagant lifestyle. Alexandra shared a drafty attic bedroom with her sister Dagmar, who would marry to become princess of Russia, and made her own clothes and waited on table with her sisters. They inherited music and sewing talents from their mother and a classic photograph shows Queen Louise and her three daughters playing quartets at two pianos. Nancy Edberg, Swedish women’s swimming pioneer, gave swimming lessons to Alexandra and Dagmar. Occasionally, her parents invited Hans Christian Andersen to tell the children bedtime stories. The English chaplain at Copenhagen taught Alexandra English and she was confirmed into the Anglican High Church practice and remained a devout Christian all of her life.
Princess Alexandra Meets the Prince of Wales
When Princess Alexandra was sixteen, she met Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, called Bertie by his family and friends, the heir to Queen Victoria’s throne. A legendary story of their meeting finds Prince Albert Edward out shooting with a party of friends. One of his friends took a photograph of a beautiful girl wearing a white muslin gown and a loose white jacket with a black velvet ribbon around her throat and her hair smoothed back from her forehead. The Prince of Wales quickly discovered her identity and arranged to tour the Continent making a special stop in Denmark to meet Princess Alexandra. He met her at the Cathedral of Worms in southern Germany and while he talked to the princess, his personal servant took pity on a shy looking man wandering around the Cathedral. Thinking that the man was part of the retinue of the Princess, the servant spent some time chatting with the man. Later he learned that he had been talking to King Christian IX of Denmark, the father of Princess Alexandra.
The official story of the meeting of the future King and Queen of England is slightly less romantic. Acting on a request from her parents Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia introduced her brother Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales to Alexandra on September 24, 1861 in Speyer, a city of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. The Queen and King were searching for a suitable wife for their son Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, although they didn’t consider Alexandra one of their top choices. Queen Victoria had reservations about the suitability of the match because when the German Confederation invaded and annexed Schleswig-Holstein, Queen Victoria adamantly took the German side and Alexandra and her family just as adamantly embraced the Danish position. Albert Edward took some time to break off his affair with Nellie Clifden, but finally on September 9, 1862, he proposed to Alexandra at the Laeken Royal Palace, the home of King Leopold I of Belgium, his great-uncle.
After her engagement, Alexandra traveled from Denmark to Britain aboard the royal yacht Victoria and Albert II, arriving in Gravesend, Kent on March 7, 1863 to a royal and literary welcome when Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote an ode in her honor. Thomas Longley, the Archbishop of Canterbury, married Alexandra and Albert Edward on March 10, 1863, at St. George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle, a site that both the press and prospective guests considered too small. Invited wedding guests included only Alexandra’s closest relatives disappointing the Danish people, and since Queen Victoria was still in mourning for Prince Albert, the ladies could wear only grey, lilac, or mauve. When the newlyweds left Windsor for their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight, schoolboys at nearby Eton College, including Lord Randolph Churchill, cheered them. Alexandra’s father became Danish King Christian IX in 1863, and her brother George accepted the throne of Greece as George I.
After his marriage, Albert Edward continued his relationships with other women, including Lillie Langtry, the actress; Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick; Agnes Keyser, humanitarian; American Jennie Jerome, the future mother of Winston Churchill; and society matron Alice Keppel. Alexandra knew about most of her husband’s relationships and bore them with dignity, remarking, “He loved me the most.” She permitted Alice Keppel to visit Albert Edward on his deathbed. Alexandra remained faithful to Albert Edward.
Prince Albert Edward and Alexandra settled into Marlborough House as their London home and chose Sandringham House in Norfolk as a country retreat. The newlyweds entertained lavishly, and Queen Victoria disapproved what she considered their excessive socializing. Her contemporaries reported that Alexandra was dignified and charming in public and affectionate and fun loving in private. She enjoyed activities including dancing, ice skating, and she also was a skilled horsewoman and tandem driver. Much to Queen Victoria’s dismay, Princess Alexandra also enjoyed hunting although the Queen unsuccessfully tried to make her refrain from hunting.
According to Queen Victoria, Princess Alexandra also performed many public and charitable duties “to spare me the strain and fatigue of functions…” The Queen reported that Alexandra never complained about her round of opening bazaars, attending concerts, and visiting hospitals in the Queen’s place. Alexandra selected the London Hospital for special attention, visiting it frequently. During one of her visits she met Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man,” who was a patient there.
Besides her family, Alexandra pursued her own talents and interests. She excelled at woodcarving and specimens of her work were featured at various exhibitions. In England, Queen Alexandra often visited the Technical Schools at Sandringham where handicrafts like woodcarving were taught. Queen Alexandra’s chief hobby was photography and she took Kodak pictures during trips and tours. In 1908, Queen Alexandra published a book of her photographs called Queen Alexandra’s Christmas Gift Book to raise money for charity.
Because Alexandra had a small scar on her neck, she hid it by wearing choker necklaces and high necklines, inadvertently setting a fashion precedent that survived for fifty years. A bout with rheumatic fever in 1867 left her with a stiff leg and a limp, but society ladies even copied her limping walk which came to be known as the “Alexandra limp.”
Alexandra didn’t understand money well and she left managing her finances to her comptroller Sir Dighton Probyn VC, who performed the same role for King Edward VII. She practiced frugality when she had her old stockings darned for reuse and recycled her old dresses as furniture covers, but when her comptroller protested her more extravagant spending, she would wave her hand or pretend that she had not heard the complaints. Edward VIII, Queen Alexandra’s grandson who would later become the Duke of Windsor, summarized her attitude about money when he remarked that her generosity embarrassed her financial advisers because whenever she received a letter asking for money she would immediately send out a check without investigating the organization or people requesting the funds.
The Social and Political Alexandra
Even after the couple’s first child, Prince Albert Victor was born, Alexandra socialized as much as she had before which caused some problems with her mother in law the Queen, especially since Alexandra hated Prussians and Queen Victoria favored them.
Although the two women were genuinely fond of each other, the relationship between Alexandra and her mother-in-law Queen Victoria could at times be strained. From the beginning Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, enjoyed immense popularity with the British public, much like her 20th century counterpart Princess Diana. Her beauty captivated many of her subjects, but her enormous charm made them love her. For many years she and Prince Bertie were the public symbols of British monarchy, because Queen Victorian secluded herself after Prince Albert’s death and did not attend public functions. The Queen did not give the Prince of Wales any real responsibility, forcing him to serve his country in indirect ways and perhaps encouraging his womanizing. As the years passed, Alexandra endured her husband’s philandering with dignity, which further endeared her to the British public. For a long time, Alexandra was the most popular member of the royal family and at times the crowds would cheer her and boo the Prince of Wales. Queen Victoria must have noted this and perhaps resented her daughter-in-law’s popularity.
The Queen also gave the young couple unwanted advice on many matters, eventually including the names of their children. Albert Edward and Alexandra had six children. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale; Prince George who later would become King George V of the United Kingdom; Louise, Princess Royal and Duchess of Fife; Princess Victoria; Maud, Queen of Norway; and Prince Alexander John of Wales born in the spring of 1871, who lived only a few hours.
The births of Alexandra’s first two children, Albert Victor and George were premature, but she survived them in good health. The birth of Princess Louise on February 20, 1867, was quite different. After the delivery Alexandra became ill enough for the doctors to ask Queen Victoria and her own parents to come to her bedside. Her husband carried on his social life and flirtations, and did not appear. Alexandra survived, but recovered as a changed person, both physically and emotionally. She had been an active, outgoing young woman, but now had a noticeable limp and her illness had aggravated her otosclerosis, abnormal bone growth in the middle ear that causes hearing loss, and she became increasingly deaf. She used her charm and grace to deal with her otosclerosis that some biographers say she inherited from her mother.
The early years of Alexandra’s marriage were taken up with her husband and children and her siblings. Princess Alexandra spent the spring of 1877 in Greece visiting her brother King George. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Alexandra favored Russia and lobbied for a border adjustment between Greece and Turkey, favoring the Greeks. In 1881, Alexandra and Albert Edward travelled to Saint Petersburg after the assassination Tsar Alexander II of Russia to represent Britain and provide comfort to Alexandra’s sister Marie who had become Tsarina at Alexander’s death.
During a visit to Ireland in 1885, Alexandra and Albert Edward in the City of Cork encountered a crowd of over two thousand people waving sticks and black flags favoring Irish nationalism. She smiled her way through the crowd’s hostility and in the same visit accepted a Doctorate in Music from Trinity College in Dublin. Princess Alexandra placated the Irish, but she continued to hate Germans. Her biographers including David Duff in his 1980 biography Alexandra: Princess and Queen, contend that the Albert Edward and his advisers denied her access to his briefing papers and excluded her from some of his foreign tours so that she could not be involved in diplomatic matters.
She still distrusted Germans and opposed anything favoring German expansion or interests. In 1890, Alexandra wrote and distributed a memorandum to senior British ministers and military people warning them against exchanging the British North Sea island of Heligoland for the German colony of Zanzibar. She pointed out the strategic significance of Heligoland, arguing that either Germany could use it to launch an attack or Britain could use it to contain German aggression. The ministers and military ignored her warning and continued with the exchange. The Germans fortified the island which became a keystone in Germany’s maritime operations. Alexandra detested and distrusted her nephew Wilhelm II of Germany, calling him an “inward enemy.”
Alexandra never recovered from the death of their oldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, who died on January 14, 1892, during an influenza epidemic. Much like her mother-in-law Queen Victoria did for Prince Albert, she left her son’s room and possessions exactly as they had been the day he left them.
In 1894, her brother-in-law Alexander III of Russia died and her nephew Nicholas II became Tsar. Alexandra traveled to Russia to support her widowed sister Marie Sophie Fredericka Dagmar or Maria Feodorovna, Empress of all the Russias, as she was known in Russia. She slept, prayed, and stayed by her sister’s side until Alexander was buried and stayed on in Russia for some time despite the objections of her mother-in-law Queen Victoria. The death of her mother Queen Louise of Denmark in 1898 added to her mourning.
Princess Alexandra Becomes Queen Alexandra
After Queen Victoria died in January 1901, Albert Edward became King Edward VII and Alexandra his Queen-Empress consort. In March 1901, the King and Queen’s son George and their daughter-in-law Mary embarked on an extensive tour of the empire, leaving their young children with their grandparents. While George and Mary toured the Empire, Edward and Alexandra minded their grandchildren and prepared for the coronation of Edward Albert as King Edward the VII in June 1902.
A few days before the coronation, King Edward became seriously ill with appendicitis and Alexandra stood in for him at a military parade and attended the Royal Ascot races in his place so the public wouldn’t be alarmed at his absence. The coronation was postponed and Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital operated on Edward to drain his infected appendix. After he recovered, Alexandra and Edward were crowned together in August 1902, with the Archbishop of Canterbury Frederick Temple crowning Edward and the Archbishop of York, William Dalrymple Maclagan crowning Alexandra.
In 1910, Alexander set a precedent when she became the first queen consort to visit the British House of Commons during a debate. For two hours she sat in the Ladies’ Gallery that overlooked the chamber while members of Parliament debated the Parliament Bill which would remove the right of the House of Lords to veto legislation, a bill that Alexandra opposed. A few weeks later while Alexandra visited her brother, King George I of Greece in Corfu, her family sent her word that her husband had been stricken with several heart attacks. She arrived home on May 5, 1910, and on May 6, she personally administered oxygen from a gas cylinder to help him breathe. King Edward VII died on May 6, 1910, and Queen Alexandra observed that she felt like she had been turned into stone, “unable to cry, unable to grasp the meaning of it all.”
Edward VII and Queen Alexandra’s son George became the new King and later in the year Queen Alexandra moved out of Buckingham Palace to Marlborough House, keeping Sandringham in Norfolk as her residence. Her son, the new King George, immediately faced a decision about the Parliament Bill, and he reluctantly agreed to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s request to create an adequate number of Liberal peers after a general election if the House of Lords continued to block the legislation. Although she opposed the bill, Alexandra supported her son.
In 1911, Alexandra did not attend the coronation of King George because tradition dictated that a crowned queen should not attend the coronation of another king or queen, but she continued her charitable work. One of her favorite charities was Alexandra Rose Day, where women volunteers sold artificial roses that disabled people made to raise funds to aid hospitals.
World War I only intensified Alexandra’s dislike and distrust of Germans. She detested her nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II and voiced her revulsion in no uncertain terms during the controversy about the banners of foreign princes. During World War I, some people criticized the custom of hanging the banners of foreign princes awarded the Order of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of knighthood, in St. George’s chapel, Windsor Castle. The critics said that since the German members of the Order were fighting against Britain their banners should be removed. Bowing to public opinion, King George had the banners taken down, but he went a step further and ordered both the Prussian banners and Hessian banners removed. In Alexandra’s opinion, their Hessian relatives were just soldiers or servants acting under “that brutal German Emperor’s orders.”
On September 17, 1916, Queen Alexandra endured a Zeppelin air raid close to her Sandringham residence, but the Russian branch of her family suffered much worse. In Russia, the Bosheviks overthrew her nephew Tsar Nicholas II and murdered him and his wife and children. In 1919, HMS Marlborough rescued the Dowager Empress, Alexandra’s sister Marie, and brought her to England where she lived with Alexandra for some time.
In her senior years, Alexandra no longer traveled abroad and her health deteriorated. On November 20, 1925, at age 80 she suffered a fatal heart attack at Sandringham House in Norfolk. She was buried on November 28, 1925, beside her husband at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Tradition has it that when Diana became Princess of Wales on July 29, 1981, well-wishers handed her a biography of Queen Alexandra by Georgina Battiscombe. They believed it would be a helpful guide to coping with her new position, the same position that Alexandra had assumed on March 10, 1863 and filled so successfully.
Battiscombe, Georgina. Queen Alexandra. Constable First Printing Edition, 1969.
Hough, Richard Alexander. Edward and Alexandra: Their Private and Public Lives. St. Martin’s Press, 1st ed edition, 1993.
Ridley, Jane. The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince. Random House, 2013.