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Born to Rule
Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria
By Julia P. Gelardi
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Julia P. Gelard
All rights reserved.
"MORE MOTHER THAN GRANDMOTHER"
The story of queen victoria s five special granddaughters begins with the birth of the eldest of the group, the future Queen Maud of Norway. As the third daughter and youngest surviving child of Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Alexandra of Denmark, Maud was not expected to occupy the same vaulted position as her eldest brother, Albert Victor ("Eddy"). But like her other brother, George, Maud came to occupy a throne unexpectedly, becoming in 1905 the first Queen Consort of a newly independent Norway. Maude was born on 26 November 1869 in Marlborough House, her parents' palatial London home; her siblings included Eddy (b. 1864), George (b. 1865), Louise (b. 1867), and Victoria ("Toria," b. 1868).
When Maud was christened (Maud Charlotte Mary Victoria) in the inner hall of Marlborough House, her aunt and godmother, Vicky (the Crown Princess of Prussia), was not in attendance as she was already enceinte with her seventh child. A little more than six months after Maud's birth, on 14 June 1870, Vicky presented her mother, Queen Victoria, with another grandchild, Princess Sophie Dorothea Ulrike Alice of Prussia. Vicky gave birth amidst the marble splendor of the Neues Palais, her Potsdam home. The newborn Sophie was to bring much joy to the her parents, Crown Prince Frederick of Germany ("Fritz") and his wife, Victoria, the Princess Royal. At the age of seventeen, the highly intelligent and forthright Vicky had married Fritz and made a new life for herself in the vapid and antagonistic Berlin court. Surrounded by suspicious and reactionary relations of the ruling House of Hohenzollern, the liberal-leaning Fritz and Vicky sought valiantly to raise their children in a loving atmosphere.
At Sophie's christening in July 1870, Prussia had just declared war against France in what became known as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, a conflict that had great ramifications for Prussian and German history. Most of the men present at Sophie's christening were dressed in their uniforms, prepared to go to the front, including Fritz. Describing the occasion to her mother, Vicky noted that "the Christening went off well, but was sad and serious; anxious faces and tearful eyes, and a gloom and foreshadowing of all the misery in store spread a cloud over the ceremony, which should have been one of gladness and thanksgiving." Among those present was the chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, largely responsible for the upcoming conflict with France, who was dressed as a major of the dragoons.
The crown prince returned home from war in 1871 after Paris had surrendered to the victorious Germans. As Bismarck predicted, the South German states united with the North German confederation, led by Prussia. Bismarck's dream of a Prussian-dominated Germany was born. To cement this major accomplishment, Bismarck engineered an impressive ceremony to take place at Versailles, the former palace of France's Louis XIV There, amid a sea of military uniforms resplendent with shining medals, Princess Sophie's paternal grandfather, King Wilhelm I of Prussia, was solemnly proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors. The House of Hohenzollern became the preeminent power of continental Europe.
The English environment in which the young Princess Maud of Wales thrived was far less constricting and certainly far less militaristic than the one in which her cousin, Sophie, was immersed. Nevertheless, all was not bliss in the Wales household. The marriage of Maud's parents was far from ideal. For all her famed beauty and feminine charms, Princess Alexandra found herself unable to compete for her husband's undivided attention. The Princess of Wales had to tolerate an unending string of mistresses who streamed in and out of her husband's bedroom. But while she endured the pain of her husband's constant infidelities in private, there were never any acrimonious fits of jealous outrage from Alexandra in public, for she knew that duty came above all else. Decorum must be maintained.
Princess Alexandra was not without her faults. In order to compensate for her unhappy marriage, she lavished affection on her offspring, prompting the Prince of Wales to admit to Queen Victoria that his wife's "whole life is wrapt up in her children." The Princess of Wales, in turn, expected her children to reciprocate her love unequivocally. "Motherdear," as she was affectionately called by them throughout their lives, saw to it that her own children were raised to be as dependent on her as possible. And to enforce this dependency, Alexandra treated all of them as if they had never left the nursery. The princess also encouraged her daughters' insularity. Outside of an intimate circle of friends and family, no one knew how fun-loving and unpretentious the Wales girls could be. At seventeen, for instance, Maud wrote to a childhood friend in a distinctly juvenile, jocular, and self-deprecating tone: "my darling little Evie, how dare you call me 'dear Madam' you nasty little monkey ... I am sending you a horrible little photograph of myself which I thought you might like. Ever your loving little friend, Maud."
For Maud, growing up with her brothers and sisters in the 1870s meant fun, interspersed with schoolwork, amidst a variety of homes. In London, home was a massive redbrick pile, Marlborough House. Located near Buckingham Palace, Marlborough House proved a suitable setting for a future queen. Whenever Princess Maud and her parents were in residence there, no less than eighty-five servants attended them; in addition, at the stables, which held forty-five stalls, some forty individuals worked full-time maintaining the horses and paddocks.
In the autumn, the family went off to their well-loved Norfolk estate at San-dringham. Of all her homes, Sandringham was to hold a special place in Maud's heart. Like her brother George, Maud would come to love Sandringham and the surrounding flat landscape which the children knew so well. They also enjoyed playing with the many animals that roamed the grounds, including an elephant, a bear, and a favorite miniature Indian pony.
* * *
Since her marriage in 1862 to Prince Louis of Hesse, Princess Alice (Queen Victoria's second eldest daughter) had given birth to a succession of children: Victoria in 1863, Elizabeth ("Ella") in 1864, Irene (1866), Ernst ("Ernie," 1868), and Friedrich ("Frittie," 1870). On 6 June 1872, another girl — Victoria Alix Helena Louise Beatrice — was born, named after all of Queen Victoria's daughters. But this princess would always be Alix. So cheerful was young Alix's disposition that she was known too as "Sunny" and "Alicky"
Alicky's home centered on the cobblestoned medieval city of Darmstadt, its buildings decorated with elaborate wood carvings. There, the Hesse family had possession of the New Palace, where Alice ensured that they were surrounded by reminders of England. Alice was very proud to have inserted touches of her native land; she boasted to Queen Victoria that "the decoration and domestic arrangements were so English that it was hard to realise one was in Germany"
Alix's childhood was not too dissimilar from that of her cousins Maud of Wales and Sophie of Prussia; all three enjoyed playing outdoors, amusing themselves with a menagerie of animals. Alix's congenial childhood did not last long, however, for in 1873 tragedy intruded. While playing with his brother, Ernie, two-and-a-half-year-old Frittie fell out of a second-story window. Frittie, who suffered from hemophilia passed on to him by his mother, died soon afterwards. This bitter loss resigned Alice to the fact that "all is in God's hands, not in ours." Hemophilia, the painful bleeding disease that strikes males but is passed to them by their mothers, was marked by its high mortality rate. The defective gene made its appearance in Queen Victoria, who passed on the disease to her son, Leopold, who died in his early thirties in 1884. Victoria also passed the deadly gene to two of her daughters, who became carriers.
When Maud of Wales was almost six, Sophie of Prussia five, and Alix of Hesse three, another child joined the rarefied circle of Queen Victoria's granddaughters. This time, a beautiful baby girl had been born on 29 October 1875 to Victoria's second eldest son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and his wife, the formidable Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna, daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. The baby, born at her parents' home, Eastwell Manor in Kent, was given the names Marie Alexandra Victoria. But this fair-haired baby would be known to her intimates all her life as "Missy," while to the rest of the world she would come to gain fame as Queen Marie of Romania.
Upon arriving at Queen Victoria's court in 1874, after her marriage, Marie Alexandrovna found to her horror that as Duchess of Edinburgh, she ranked low in precedence among the immediate family. Because of her husband's position as the second son in the British royal family, Marie had to give way to other more senior members. The duchess despised what she perceived to be a humiliating position. Proud of being the powerful Tsar of Russia's daughter, Marie never forgave the British court, and in time this perceived snub developed into a lifelong antipathy toward all things English. Her own marriage to Prince Alfred degenerated into an unhappy union, and the Duchess of Edinburgh soon yearned to flee from England. Because she refused to hide her true feelings, Marie gained a reputation for being haughty and difficult. But Marie, a strong and forceful character, did not care what anyone thought, including her mother-in-law.
Curiously, though the Edinburgh marriage turned sour, it nevertheless produced a healthy number of children. Besides Missy, there were four others: Alfred (b. 1874) and the Princesses Victoria Melita ("Ducky," 1876), Alexandra ("Sandra," 1878), and Beatrice ("Bea," 1884).
Missy's arrival did not cause much discomfort for the duchess. Her husband told a family friend, two weeks after the happy event, that "The confinement itself was of the shortest possible duration barely over an hour in all, although warnings about three hours before. The baby was born in the most natural and easy manner without any sort of assistance and nobody was with Marie but Mrs. Johnson and myself; we had not even time to call the Doctor from the other room. Dr. Farre did not arrive from London till half an hour after it was over." As for Missy, the proud father added that his new daughter "promises to be as fine a child as her brother and gives every evidence of finely developed lungs and did so before she was fairly in the world."
The Duchess of Edinburgh also described Missy's birth. "Everything has happily ended," she reported to her former governess. Writing in French, the proud mother continued: "La gentille petite j'ai produit, avec de grands yeux et un grand nez, et une petite bouche, et beaucoup de cheveux et un appetit monstre. En un mot, je suis très fière de ma production et une fille, après tout et surtout après toutes ces predictions!" And she added, in a tender tone, "la petite faisant un concert épouvantable et messant ses dix doigts dans la bouches, car elle avait déja faim. J'étais stupefaite et ne voulais pas croir à mes oreilles!"
* * *
When Princess Alix of Hesse was five, her paternal grandfather died, making her parents the new reigning Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Hesse. This thrust Alix's mother into the much more visible position of first lady of the land. Even though she derived some satisfaction from implementing improvements in the health and welfare of her subjects, Princess Alice did not really enjoy the role of Landsmutter Like Vicky, her sister in Berlin, who always pined for England, Alice never could feel completely at home in Darmstadt — a place she found to be dotted with "narrow-minded ... intolerant interfering people."
Though comfortably off, the grand ducal family was never extravagantly wealthy, and economizing was high on the agenda. The children's holidays inevitably took them annually to their grandmother in England. In time, Victoria's homes became familiar places for Alix. The princess grew up moving between the sweet-smelling roses and sea breezes of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, the thick walls and towers of Windsor Castle, and the heather-clad hills and gray baronial castle of Balmoral in Scotland.
These visits gave Alix the chance to get to know her English cousins. She became fast friends with the Wales family, including Maud. "Do you like little Alix?" Maud wrote to her cousin, Tsarevitch Nicholas, in 1884 about her friend and relative from Hesse who was then visiting Russia. "She is my best friend, we always go for walks together when we meet. They say I am very much like her, but I do not think I am like her at all."
Presiding over the everyday rearing of Alix, who grew up on a staple of rice puddings and baked apples, was the inevitable English governess. Princess Alice brought other English traditions to Darmstadt, such as the consumption of mince pies and plum puddings at Christmas. Sadly, the family was rent asunder in November 1878 when a virulent strain of diphtheria struck. Nearly everyone in the family, including Alicky, came down with the illness, which killed Alix's three-year-old sister, May. When Alice broke the news of his sister's death to Ernie, she was so overcome by his grief that contrary to doctor's orders, she clasped the little boy in her arms as any loving mother would be moved to do. It was literally a fatal move. Within a fortnight, Princess Alice was dead.
The deaths in quick succession of her youngest sister and mother shattered Alix. The distraught girl could not even take comfort from her favorite toys: to prevent the disease from spreading, they were burnt. In one fell swoop, everything that had been familiar and comforting to the six-year-old Alix was suddenly and permanently wrenched from her. Alicky withdrew into herself — setting a pattern that would mark her propensity to withdraw and brood. From then on she was always cautious with her affections. Alicky would find comfort solely among a small and select group of family members and friends; only then would she show any semblance of that once cheerful girl who had earned the nickname "Sunny."
* * *
In England, Princess Maud and her siblings thrived. Their parents sparkled as the leaders of society, while the children settled into a routine, receiving an adequate but unspectacular education at home. Thanks to Princess Alexandra's influence, paramount in the Wales household was a strong sense of merriment, which suited the boisterous Maud. Her fearlessness earned the tomboyish Maud the nickname "Harry," after her father's friend, Admiral Sir Henry Keppel.
Visitors to Sandringham were startled to find the Wales brood on the warpath, sliding on tea trays downstairs and ringing bells to call the servants needlessly. Invited to a formal dinner at their Norfolk home, Benjamin Disraeli was surprised to feel one of the princesses pinching his legs under the table. These shenanigans were sedate when compared to the time when astonished visitors were greeted by ponies inside Sandringham. It was a prank very much to Princess Alexandra's liking. After all, "I was just as bad myself," exclaimed their amused and indulgent mother.
To the queen, Maud and her siblings seemed too unruly. A much more disciplined atmosphere reigned for the Wales children when it came time to visit their grandmother; in fact, Maud once refused to visit Queen Victoria. Princess Alexandra related how just before her daughters were due to set off for Balmoral, "they all cried floods." "Little Harry," noted Alexandra, "declared at the last minute 'I won't go,' with a stamp of her foot."
Maud's fearlessness among her young relations and her tomboyish ways did not abate as she grew older. Though sickly, the sports-mad princess delighted in riding horses every day, and cycling became another favorite sport. When she insisted on riding out in public — the first British princess to be seen doing so — Queen Victoria was unamused. The queen reprimanded her granddaughter for such a daring move. Maud replied simply, "But grandmother, everyone knows that I have legs!"
Maud's intransigence was never allowed to get the better of her. For despite their unruliness, Princess Alexandra had also instilled good qualities into her children, as Queen Victoria acknowledged and praised, saying there is "one thing, however she [Alexandra] does insist on, and that is great simplicity and an absence of all pride, and in that respect she has my fullest support."
As a child and young woman, Maud regularly visited her mother's native Denmark and so became close friends with her first cousins, the Tsarevitch Nicholas and his younger brother, Grand Duke George, sons of Alexandra's sister, Empress Marie of Russia. As teenagers, Nicholas and George corresponded with Maud. She addressed Nicholas as "Mr. Toad" or "Darling little Nicky" (often underlining the "little"). George took on the more lyrical nickname of "Musie," while Maud often signed off as "Stumpy."
Excerpted from Born to Rule by Julia P. Gelardi. Copyright © 2005 Julia P. Gelard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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