Alexandra Caroline Mary Charlotte Louise Julia 1844-1925, of Denmark, queen-consort of King Edward VII, was born at the Gule Palace, Copenhagen, 1 December 1844, the eldest daughter and second of the six children of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, by his wife, Louise, daughter of the Landgrave William of Hesse-Cassel. Her parents lived in modest circumstances at Copenhagen, but her mother, as niece to King Christian VIII (1839-1848), was the natural heiress, after her childless cousin King Frederick VII (1848-1863), and subject to the renunciations of her mother and brother, to the throne of Denmark. In the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, however, the Salic law had not been repealed, and, with the Duke of Sonderburg-Augustenberg ready to reassert his claim, trouble was already brewing over them. At the instigation of the Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, a correspondence was circulated through the courts of Europe, as the result of which a protocol was signed in London in 1852 which set out that, failing male issue to the reigning king, the crown of Denmark, together with the duchies—under a nominal German supervision—should revert to Prince and Princess Christian.
Princess Alexandra was brought up very simply with her brothers and sisters at Copenhagen and at the château of Bernstorff, ten miles from the capital. She was taught foreign languages, including English, and showed a marked aptitude for music. Hans Andersen was a friend of her parents and on intimate terms with the children. She was only thirteen years old when negotiations were set on foot which ultimately issued in her coming to England. In 1858 the question of a bride for Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, was under discussion, and Leopold, King of the Belgians, on whose advice Queen Victoria and Prince Albert largely relied, sent to Windsor a list of seven eligible young princesses with the name of Prince Christian's daughter heavily underlined [see Edward VII]. The project was, however, allowed to simmer until, on 24 September 1861, a meeting between the two young people in the cathedral town of Speier was ingeniously arranged by the crown princess of Prussia, the eldest sister of the Prince of Wales. We hear nothing but good of Princess Alexandra; the young people seem to have taken a warm liking to one another, Prince Albert wrote to the crown princess on 4 October. The untimely death of her husband on 14 December only sharpened Queen Victoria's determination to carry out what he had clearly wished. The formal betrothal took place on 9 September 1862 at the palace of Laeken, near Brussels. The princess landed at Gravesend on 7 March 1863, and on 10 March the marriage was solemnized in St. George's chapel, Windsor. Queen Victoria, clad in deepest mourning, witnessed the ceremony from the royal closet above the chancel.
The self-enforced seclusion of the queen quickly gave to her son and daughter-in-law a virtual sovereignty over the social world, and under their kindly sway English society soon assumed a gayer complexion, while the English aristocracy, on which the Prince Consort had looked with scant favour, resumed its former importance in royal circles. The princess was no less desirous than her husband that Marlborough House, their London home, and Sandringham—the Norfolk estate bought in 1861 with the savings from the duchy of Cornwall revenues which had accumulated during the prince's minority—should be open to any one who could claim real and honourable distinction; they both delighted in entertaining and were quite willing, in certain well-recognized circumstances, to be entertained themselves. Their hospitality was large, and at one time a malicious rumour spread that the Prince and Princess of Wales had outrun their income and that the prince was rather heavily in debt. The Times was inspired to give an explicit contradiction to a report which was without foundation, but the public was reminded that the prince and princess were carrying out official and social duties which had scarcely been contemplated when their marriage settlement was drawn up.
Meanwhile the Princess of Wales had secured, seemingly without an effort, the affections, not only of those with whom she came in contact, but of the British people at large. Her perfect simplicity played no small part in her perfect correctness. Her presence at any gathering involved no stiffness, but she carried to it a peculiar dignity, not easy to define but impossible to deny. Unlike some of her predecessors in the same position, she never allowed herself to be caught in the labyrinth of politics—though she numbered Mr. Gladstone among her closest friends—but certainly no foreign princess ever did half so much to mould the social life of the country of her adoption or strove more eagerly to better and brighten the lot of the poorer classes.
In the first year of her marriage two events occurred to dignify further Alexandra's position. The death in November of King Frederick VII placed the princess's father on the throne of Denmark as Christian IX, and her second brother, William, was chosen by the European powers to be king of the Hellenes, and crowned under the name of George, the patron saint of Greece. The crown proved no easy one to wear; from his accession to his assassination fifty years later, King George's chequered fortunes were a source of constant anxiety to his sister, whose sober advice and substantial help were frequently invoked.
The close of the year 1863 was to be embittered for the princess by the outbreak of the struggle in which three parties were engaged and which issued in the triumph of Prussian might over Danish claims. By signing the new Danish constitution which his predecessor had proclaimed shortly before his death, King Christian had asserted his claim to the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein, which was promptly disputed both by Frederick, Duke of Augustenberg, who repudiated the renunciation made by his father in 1852, and by King William I of Prussia, who induced the Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria to join him in expelling the Danes from the coveted territories, with the understanding that after the struggle they should be the joint possessors. Queen Victoria, though bent on peace, remembered the Prince Consort's desire for a powerful Prussia; her eldest daughter, the crown princess of Prussia, favoured the pretensions of Duke Frederick; while the Princess of Wales, whose anxiety for her country was painful to witness, imposed silence on herself, except when at Windsor she reminded her English relations that the duchies belonged to her father by right and could only be wrested from him by force, a remark which caused the queen to forbid the subject to be mentioned again in her presence.
The reticence of the princess was the more laudable—and cost her no less effort—because she was aware that the Cabinet seriously contemplated armed interference on behalf of Denmark, and that a word spoken by her would have roused the sympathy of many. Her hold over the affections of the English people was further strengthened when on 8 January 1864 she gave birth to a son, Albert Victor, afterwards Duke of Clarence, who stood as successor to the throne in the second generation.
The humiliations which her parents and her country were to suffer at the hands of Prussia were bitterly resented by the princess, but she found much solace in the whole-hearted support of her husband, who shedding for the moment political restraints, openly proclaimed his sympathy with his wife. The war over (August 1864), Alexandra was anxious to go to Denmark to see her parents, but Queen Victoria, who had forbidden her son to visit Copenhagen at the time of his betrothal, again imposed the same veto on him, and it required the intervention of Lord Palmerston—the princess's constant champion—for the queen to withdraw it. The prince and princess left England in September, but the prince had to give his written undertaking that he would say nothing and do nothing which would savour of Danish leanings; and it was further stipulated that the visits to Copenhagen and to Stockholm—to which the tour was to be extended—should be regarded as strictly private. This proviso King Charles XV of Sweden, to Queen Victoria's annoyance, brushed aside when he organized a public reception for the royal travellers and insisted on their being state guests at his palace.
For Bismarck the seizure by Prussia of the duchies of Schleswig-Holstein was but a stepping-stone, and in 1866, after the battle of Sadowa (3 July) had closed the contest between Austria and Prussia, the princess was to see her family further despoiled. By the terms of the Treaty of Prague (23 August), not only did Hesse-Darmstadt, of which her favourite sister-in-law, Princess Alice, was grand duchess, and Hanover pass into Prussian hands, but Hesse-Cassel, where she had found a second home, ceased to be the domain of her uncle and became an incorporated Prussian province. Once more the princess suffered in silence, but through the ensuing decades indignation smouldered in her breast and the very word Prussia would cause her to tighten her lips lest some injudicious expression should escape them. She clung tenaciously to the clause in the Treaty of Prague which gave Denmark the hope of recovering some portion of her lost provinces—viz. the northern district of Schleswig. In vain the people of this area pleaded for a referendum, and for forty years their grievance rankled in Alexandra's mind. Her joy was manifest when she learned that the Treaty of Versailles (1919) provided for an immediate transference of territory to Denmark, while a year later, under the plebiscite for which she had constantly pleaded, Northern Schleswig was handed over to the country of her birth.
Le Prussianisme, voilà l'ennemi, was Gambetta's dictum, and while the Princess of Wales would entirely have endorsed it, she would not allow her subsequent mistrust of Germany or her dislike of Kaiser Wilhelm II to deter her from taking a cheerful part in any occasion which, by improving Anglo-German relations, might promote the peace of Europe. She visited Berlin whenever circumstances demanded it of her, and in later life formed a close friendship with her sister-in-law, the Empress Frederick. At Windsor, Sandringham, and Cowes she would play to perfection the part of hostess, and offer to her imperial nephew a welcome with which he could find no fault.
On 3 June 1865 Alexandra gave birth to her second son who, forty-five years later, was to succeed his father on the throne of England as King George V. Four other children were born to the Prince and Princess of Wales: Louise (20 February 1867) afterwards Duchess of Fife and princess royal; Victoria (6 July 1868); Maud (26 November 1869) afterwards Queen of Norway; and John (born 6, died 7, April 1871). In 1867, immediately after the birth of Princess Louise, Alexandra was severely attacked by an acute form of rheumatism which lodged in the knee-joint, causing her intense pain and for some time baffling the skill of her doctors. So long as there existed any public anxiety Marlborough House was besieged by anxious inquirers. Recovery was slow, and the illness, of which the patient herself was disposed to make light, left a permanent, though almost imperceptible, mark. The princess was a bold and skilful horsewoman, and for more than a quarter of a century afterwards was still a forward figure in the hunting field, but she had to ride on the reverse side.
Mr. Disraeli, on assuming office in February 1868, pressed the queen to allow the Prince and Princess of Wales to be the guests of the newly appointed viceroy of Ireland, the Marquess of Abercorn, who was about to be advanced to a dukedom. The queen showed some hesitation, partly because the prince and princess had been indirectly approached on the subject before her own wishes had been consulted, and partly because she feared lest the presence of the heir to the throne across the Irish channel might be used for political purposes. There was also the element of risk to be considered, since Fenianism was rife, nor was the queen sure whether her daughter-in-law had sufficiently recovered from her illness to undergo the fatigue of the visit. But the princess discounted both the fatigue and the risk in her desire to see Ireland and to let the Irish see her. Accordingly, on 15 April the prince and princess landed at Kingstown and carried out, with evident enjoyment, a nine-days' programme, which included the installation of the prince as a knight of St. Patrick, the unveiling of Edmund Burke's statue in College Green, a review in Phoenix Park, and races at Punchestown; the princess struck a happy note by insisting that her husband should wear a green tie whenever possible, and by herself appearing on every appropriate occasion in Irish poplin with a mantilla of Irish lace. The whole visit, unpunctuated by any manifestation of ill will, proved such a success that before leaving Dublin a message was sent to the queen urging her to come over to Ireland and ‘satisfy yourself on the force of affectionate feeling’. The princess was to cross again to Ireland in 1885, and to pay three visits there as queen consort; on each occasion she received the same enthusiastic welcome, which was no less emphatic because of a rumour that she had not been altogether averse from Mr. Gladstone's more moderate schemes of Home Rule.
At Balmoral in the autumn of 1868 the prince and princess informed the queen of their wish to spend the winter abroad and travel to the Near East. The princess had not altogether shaken off the effects of her illness, and change of scene and climate was strongly recommended; they were both anxious to see the Suez Canal, then approaching completion, and thought that it would be polite, and politic, to return the recent visit to London of the Sultan of Turkey. The princess, too, had been annoyed by foolish stories about the high play in which the prince was, quite erroneously, supposed to have indulged, and by ill-founded rumours as to the ‘fastness’ of some of those who composed the, so-called, Marlborough House set; for these and other reasons both Edward and Alexandra were anxious to leave England for a time, and they cheerfully accepted the terms with which the queen qualified her consent. They set out in November and were absent from England until the following May [see Edward VII]. The tour of Egypt (February-March 1869)¾the only occasion on which the princess quitted Europe¾was extended to Wadi Halfa, and as, in the meanwhile, threatened hostilities between Turkey and Greece had been averted, Queen Victoria, rather grudgingly, permitted the travellers on their way back in April to accept a very cordial invitation from the sultan and to pay a visit¾the first of many¾to the newly married king and queen of the Hellenes.
The princess was on a visit to Denmark when, in July 1870, war between France and Germany was declared. Queen Victoria, knowing that France looked to Denmark as a possible ally, and deprecating as usual her daughter-in-law's ‘Danish partisanship’, insisted on Alexandra returning to England at once. The misfortunes of France provoked the liveliest sympathy in the Princess of Wales, the more so, perhaps, because, with the victories of the German army, the letters of the crown princess of Prussia to her mother assumed an increasingly provocative tone. As often happened, the princess's outlook differed sharply from that of the queen whose expressed view that ‘a powerful Germany can never be dangerous to England’ she found it difficult to comprehend; the proclamation of the King of Prussia as German Emperor filled her with forebodings.
Except where the country of her birth, or Greece, were concerned, the Princess of Wales made no intrusion into foreign politics, although in 1877, when Russia declared war on Turkey, the report ran that the royal family was as sharply divided in its sympathies as the Cabinet. The queen, leaning wholly on Lord Beaconsfield, and the Prince of Wales, irritated by the trend of events in Russia, were admittedly Turcophil, while the princess was said to take her cue from Lord Salisbury and Lord Derby and to affirm Russia's right to save Christian states from the clutches of the infidel. While the suggestion of any attempt to exercise political influence was wholly unfounded, the princess certainly regarded herself as bound to Russia by family ties; her visits to Russia were frequent and often protracted, and with characteristic disregard of danger, she insisted in March 1881 on travelling to St. Petersburg to be beside her sister, the Empress Marie, after the assassination of the Emperor Alexander II, although at that moment even the police force was known to have Nihilist conspirators in its ranks. Throughout the Empress Marie's troubled life Alexandra was wholeheartedly in sympathy with her, and after the revolution of 1917 her Russian relations became her constant care and proved to be no small strain on her resources.
In 1889 the princess's eldest daughter, Louise, was married to Alexander, Earl of Fife, whom the queen promptly advanced to a dukedom. Five years elapsed before her surviving son, George, was united to Princess Victoria Mary of Teck, the daughter of Francis, Duke of Teck and her favourite cousin, Princess Mary Adelaide, of Cambridge. Meanwhile she had suffered a blow from which she never wholly recovered. On 14 January 1892 her elder son, who had been created Duke of Clarence two years previously and was betrothed to the princess who was yet to become her daughter-in-law, died at Sandringham of an especially vicious form of influenza then prevalent. While the second daughter, Princess Victoria, remained her mother's constant companion, the youngest, Princess Maud, was in 1896 married to her cousin, Prince Charles, the second son of the crown prince of Denmark, an alliance which later proved to have some political significance. When, in 1905, the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were separated, the Norwegian vote for a new king was accorded by general count to Prince Charles of Denmark, who, largely under Queen Alexandra's advice, declined to leave Copenhagen until summoned to Christiania in virtue of a referendum.
On 19 January 1901 the Princess of Wales, with other members of the royal family, was hurriedly summoned to Osborne, and, three days later, she was close to Queen Victoria's bedside when she died. Through forty years comment had not been infrequent as to the points of contact between a sovereign whose authority brooked neither criticism nor contradiction and a princess whose gentleness of manner concealed much strength of character. The contrast between them, both in outlook and method, was acute. Their divergence of views suffered little change in the passage of time, but in both of them loyalty of purpose was so deeply ingrained that mutual trust and wholehearted affection for one another grew stronger every year; the death of Queen Victoria was felt by the princess, on her own admission, as the loss of a second mother.
The accession to the position of queen consort could not do much to enhance the status of a princess whose popularity with society¾in the widest sense of the word¾had been supreme for forty years. But King Edward VII was determined to give his queen the most exalted rank it was in his power to bestow, and one of his first acts was to convene a special chapter of the Order of the Garter and to revive in favour of Queen Alexandra a custom instituted by Richard II but which had fallen into disuse since Henry VII ‘Gartered’ his mother. Both before and after her accession, Queen Alexandra's energies and a substantial slice of her income were spent in the relief of suffering and poverty. Her charities were perhaps dictated by her heart rather than by her head, and so far as she herself was concerned were wholly unostentatious, but her example unquestionably gave a great stimulus to beneficent work on the part of wealthy and influential people and went some way to solve certain social problems. The dinners which she gave to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897, when 400,000 poor people were her guests; the hospital ship which she equipped for the sick and wounded soldiers in the South African War; the tea given at her coronation to 10,000 maids-of-all-work; the fund¾amounting to over a quarter of a million sterling¾raised, on her initiative, in 1906 in aid of unemployed workmen; the institution of the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service in 1902; the introduction of the Finsen lamp into the London Hospital in 1899¾all these go to testify no less to her fertility in suggestion than to her insistence on the execution of her sometimes rather daring plans.
The death of King Edward occurred 6 May 1910; Queen Alexandra was in Italy and no news calculated to give her special anxiety had reached her, but she had a sudden premonition that the king's hours were numbered, and travelling rapidly from Venice, reached his bedside some thirty hours before he died. After his death the queen withdrew into comparative retirement. There remained plenty to occupy her, and her interest in the London Hospital and in many schemes to alleviate suffering only seemed to grow with her declining years; but she preferred now to help rather than to head any movement. In 1913, in order to mark what she described as ‘the fiftieth anniversary of my coming to this beloved country’, ‘Alexandra Day’ (in June) was instituted, with roses for its outward and visible sign; and ever since on every ‘rose day’ myriads of flowers have been sold, and British hospitals have benefited thereby to the extent of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The European War fired again Queen Alexandra's desire to help, and now especially to help the wounded; her time and her purse were constantly available for any calls made upon them. Her influence was incessantly invoked for this or that concession, but she declined to interfere at any point except to put in a plea for the mothers who had been doubly bereaved; and to her pleading was largely due a ruling that when two sons in a family had been killed, the others should, if possible, be kept behind the firing-line. Her friendship with Lord Kitchener was of long standing, and she greatly appreciated, and never divulged to any one, the daily bulletin of war news which he caused to be sent to her. Careless of danger for herself, her sense of danger for others was acute, and on learning of the proposed mission of the secretary of state for war to Russia in 1916, she was persuaded that disaster would attend it and begged, but of course in vain, that it might be cancelled. When, after the tragedy of the Hampshire, a memorial to Lord Kitchener was inaugurated, the queen mother at once placed herself at the head of the appeal, which quickly produced a sum never before approached by any memorial fund.
The last two years of Queen Alexandra's life were spent quietly at Sandringham, the home which she loved and which King Edward had bequeathed to her. There, without struggle or suffering, she died 20 November 1925. Prior to the burial at Windsor, the queen lay in state for twelve hours in Westminster Abbey, and a long line of 50,000 men, women, and children filed past the bier, headed by a band of ‘Queen Alexandra’ nurses.
The key to Queen Alexandra's life was her essential goodness, which showed itself not merely in her family relations and private life, but in the use which she made of her public position, alike as princess and as queen consort. All who gave their services to the sick or the sorrowful, who tried to help children, who cared for birds or animals, could rely on her practical sympathy and eager¾sometimes perhaps too eager¾readiness to help. Simplicity, charm of manner, and a keen sense of humour combined with her attractive character to make Queen Alexandra one of the best loved of British royal personages. Alone of all the royal consorts who have come to Great Britain from abroad she was never regarded as a foreigner.
Queen Alexandra's beauty often provoked the despair of the painter, the sculptor, and the photographer; the deep blue eyes, the swift play of expression, the smile, irresistible because it was absolutely genuine, seemed incapable of reproduction on canvas or in clay. ‘Alix looked lovely in grey and white and more like a bride just married than a silver one of twenty-five years’ is an entry in Queen Victoria's diary for 10 March 1888, and certainly for a quarter of a century successive years had only seemed to enhance her daughter-in-law's physical attractions. Perhaps the happiest picture of her is by Richard Lauchert, who painted the Princess of Wales at the age of eighteen; Luke Fildes executed the state portrait (1901) and another, painted some eight years earlier; while other, more or less successful, portraits were painted by F. Winterhalter, Sir W. B. Richmond, H. von Angeli, Benjamin Constant, and Edward Hughes. A drawing appeared in Vanity Fair 7 June 1911.
The Letters of Queen Victoria, first series edited by A. C. Benson, 3 vols., 1908, second and third series edited by G. E. Buckle, 6 vols., 1926-1928 and 1930-1932;
Sir Sidney Lee, King Edward VII, a biography, 2 vols., 1925;
Sir George Arthur, Queen Alexandra, 1934;
Contributor: G. Arthur.