Alexandra of Denmark (Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia; 1 December 1844 – 20 November 1925) was Queen consort of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress consort of India as the wife of King-Emperor Edward VII.
Her family had been relatively obscure until her father, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, was chosen with the consent of the great powers to succeed his distant cousin, Frederick VII, to the Danish throne.
At the age of sixteen, she was chosen as the future wife of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the heir apparent of Queen Victoria.
They married eighteen months later in 1863, the same year her father became king of Denmark as Christian IX and her brother was appointed to the vacant Greek throne as George I.
She was Princess of Wales from 1863 to 1901, the longest anyone has ever held that title, and became generally popular; her style of dress and bearing were copied by fashion-conscious women.
Largely excluded from wielding any political power, she unsuccessfully attempted to sway the opinion of British ministers and her husband’s family to favour Greek and Danish interests. Her public duties were restricted to uncontroversial involvement in charitable work.
On the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Albert Edward became king-emperor as Edward VII, with Alexandra as queen-empress consort. She held the status until Edward’s death in 1910. She greatly distrusted her nephew, German Emperor Wilhelm II, and supported her son during World War I, in which Britain and its allies fought Germany.
Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia, or “Alix”, as her immediate family knew her, was born at the Yellow Palace, an 18th-century town house at 18 Amaliegade, right next to the Amalienborg Palace complex in Copenhagen. Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and her mother was Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.
Although she was of royal blood, her family lived a comparatively normal life. They did not possess great wealth; her father’s income from an army commission was about £800 per year and their house was a rent-free grace and favour property. Occasionally, Hans Christian Andersen was invited to call and tell the children stories before bedtime.
In 1848, King Christian VIII of Denmark died and his only son, Frederick ascended the throne. Frederick was childless, had been through two unsuccessful marriages, and was assumed to be infertile.
A succession crisis arose as Frederick ruled in both Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, and the succession rules of each territory differed. In Holstein, the Salic law prevented inheritance through the female line, whereas no such restrictions applied in Denmark. Holstein, being predominantly German, proclaimed independence and called in the aid of Prussia. In 1852, the great powers called a conference in London to discuss the Danish succession.
An uneasy peace was agreed, which included the provision that Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg would be Frederick’s heir in all his dominions and the prior claims of others (who included Christian’s own mother-in-law, brother-in-law and wife) were surrendered.
Prince Christian was given the title Prince of Denmark and his family moved into a new official residence, Bernstorff Palace.
Although the family’s status had risen, there was little or no increase in their income and they did not participate in court life at Copenhagen as they refused to meet Frederick’s third wife and former mistress, Louise Rasmussen, because she had an illegitimate child by a previous lover. Alexandra shared a draughty attic bedroom with her sister, Dagmar (later Empress of Russia), made her own clothes and waited at table along with her sisters.
Alexandra and Dagmar were given swimming lessons by the Swedish pioneer of women’s swimming, Nancy Edberg. At Bernstorff, Alexandra grew into a young woman; she was taught English by the English chaplain at Copenhagen and was confirmed in Christiansborg Palace. She was devout throughout her life, and followed High Church practice.
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were already concerned with finding a bride for their son and heir, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. They enlisted the aid of their daughter, Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia, in seeking a suitable candidate.
Alexandra was not their first choice, since the Danes were at loggerheads with the Prussians over the Schleswig-Holstein Question and most of the British royal family’s relations were German. Eventually, after rejecting other possibilities, they settled on her as “the only one to be chosen”.
On 24 September 1861, Crown Princess Victoria introduced her brother Albert Edward to Alexandra at Speyer. Almost a year later on 9 September 1862 (after his affair with Nellie Clifden and the death of his father) Albert Edward proposed to Alexandra at the Royal Palace of Laeken, the home of his great-uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium.
A few months later, Alexandra travelled from Denmark to Britain aboard the royal yacht Victoria and Albert II and arrived in Gravesend, Kent, on 7 March 1863. Sir Arthur Sullivan composed music for her arrival and Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote an ode in Alexandra’s honour:
Sea King’s daughter from over the sea,
Alexandra!Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in our welcome of thee,
A Welcome to Alexandra, Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Thomas Longley, the Archbishop of Canterbury, married the couple on 10 March 1863 at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
The choice of venue was criticised widely. As the ceremony took place outside London, the press complained that large public crowds would not be able to view the spectacle. Prospective guests thought it awkward to get to and, as the venue was small, some people who had expected invitations were disappointed.
The Danes were dismayed because only Alexandra’s closest relations were invited. The British court was still in mourning for Prince Albert, so ladies were restricted to wearing grey, lilac or mauve.
As the couple left Windsor for their honeymoon at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, they were cheered by the schoolboys of neighbouring Eton College, who included Lord Randolph Churchill.
By the end of the following year, Alexandra’s father had ascended the throne of Denmark, her brother George had become King of the Hellenes, her sister Dagmar was engaged to the Tsesarevich of Russia, and Alexandra had given birth to her first child. Her father’s accession gave rise to further conflict over the fate of Schleswig-Holstein.
The German Confederation successfully invaded Denmark, reducing the area of Denmark by two-fifths. To the great irritation of Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia, Alexandra and Albert Edward supported the Danish side in the war. The Prussian conquest of former Danish lands heightened Alexandra’s profound dislike of the Germans, a feeling which stayed with her for the rest of her life.
Alexandra’s first child, Albert Victor, was born two months premature in early 1864. Alexandra showed devotion to her children: “She was in her glory when she could run up to the nursery, put on a flannel apron, wash the children herself and see them asleep in their little beds.”
Albert Edward and Alexandra had six children in total: Albert Victor, George, Louise, Victoria, Maud, and John. All of Alexandra’s children were apparently born prematurely; biographer Richard Hough thought Alexandra deliberately misled Queen Victoria as to her probable delivery dates, as she did not want the queen to be present at their births.
During the birth of her third child in 1867, the added complication of a bout of rheumatic fever threatened Alexandra’s life, and left her with a permanent limp.
In public, Alexandra was dignified and charming; in private, affectionate and jolly. She enjoyed many social activities, including dancing and ice-skating, and was an expert horsewoman and tandem driver.
She also enjoyed hunting, to the dismay of Queen Victoria, who asked her to stop, but without success. Even after the birth of her first child, she continued to socialise much as before, which led to some friction between the queen and the young couple, exacerbated by Alexandra’s loathing of Prussians and the queen’s partiality towards them.
Albert Edward and Alexandra visited Ireland in April 1868. After her illness the previous year, she had only just begun to walk again without the aid of two walking sticks, and was already pregnant with her fourth child.
The royal couple undertook a six-month tour taking in Austria, Egypt and Greece over 1868 and 1869, which included visits to her brother King George I of Greece, to the Crimean battlefields and (for her only) to the harem of the Khedive Ismail. In Turkey she became the first woman to sit down to dinner with the Sultan (Abdülâziz).
The Waleses made Sandringham House their preferred residence, with Marlborough House their London base. Biographers agree that their marriage was in many ways a happy one; however, some have asserted that Albert Edward did not give his wife as much attention as she would have liked and that they gradually became estranged, until his attack of typhoid fever (the disease which was believed to have killed his father) in late 1871 brought about a reconciliation.
This is disputed by others, who point out Alexandra’s frequent pregnancies throughout this period and use family letters to deny the existence of any serious rift. Nevertheless, the prince was severely criticised from many quarters of society for his apparent lack of interest in her very serious illness with rheumatic fever.
Throughout their marriage Albert Edward continued to keep company with other women, including the actress Lillie Langtry; Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick; humanitarian Agnes Keyser; and society matron Alice Keppel. Alexandra knew about most of these relationships, and later permitted Alice Keppel to visit the king as he lay dying. Alexandra herself remained faithful throughout her marriage.
An increasing degree of deafness, caused by hereditary otosclerosis, led to Alexandra’s social isolation; she spent more time at home with her children and pets.
Her sixth and final pregnancy ended tragically when her infant son died only a day after his birth. Despite Alexandra’s pleas for privacy, Queen Victoria insisted on announcing a period of court mourning, which led unsympathetic elements of the press to describe the birth as “a wretched abortion” and the funeral arrangements as “sickening mummery”, even though the infant was not buried in state with other members of the royal family at Windsor, but in strict privacy in the churchyard at Sandringham, where he had lived out his brief life.
For eight months over 1875–76, the Prince of Wales was absent from Britain on a tour of India, but to her dismay Alexandra was left behind.
The prince had planned an all-male group and intended to spend much of the time hunting and shooting. During the prince’s tour, one of his friends who was travelling with him, Lord Aylesford, was told by his wife that she was going to leave him for another man: Lord Blandford, who was himself married. Aylesford was appalled and decided to seek a divorce.
Meanwhile, Lord Blandford’s brother, Lord Randolph Churchill, persuaded the lovers against an elopement. Now concerned by the threat of divorce, Lady Aylesford sought to dissuade her husband from proceeding but Lord Aylesford was adamant and refused to reconsider.
In an attempt to pressure Lord Aylesford to drop his divorce suit, Lady Aylesford and Lord Randolph Churchill called on Alexandra and told her that if the divorce was to proceed they would subpoena her husband as a witness and implicate him in the scandal. Distressed at their threats, and following the advice of Sir William Knollys and the Duchess of Teck, Alexandra informed the queen, who then wrote to the Prince of Wales.
The prince was incensed. Eventually, the Blandfords and the Aylesfords both separated privately. Although Lord Randolph Churchill later apologised, for years afterwards the Prince of Wales refused to speak to or see him.
Alexandra spent the spring of 1877 in Greece recuperating from a period of ill health and visiting her brother King George of the Hellenes. During the Russo-Turkish War, Alexandra was clearly partial against Turkey and towards Russia, where her sister was married to the Tsarevitch, and she lobbied for a revision of the border between Greece and Turkey in favour of the Greeks.
Alexandra and her two sons spent the next three years largely parted from each other’s company as the boys were sent on a worldwide cruise as part of their naval and general education. The farewell was very tearful and, as shown by her regular letters, she missed them dreadfully.
In 1881, Alexandra and Albert Edward travelled to Saint Petersburg after the assassination of Alexander II of Russia, both to represent Britain and so that Alexandra could provide comfort to her sister, who was now the Tsarina.
Alexandra undertook many public duties; in the words of Queen Victoria, “to spare me the strain and fatigue of functions. She opens bazaars, attends concerts, visits hospitals in my place … she not only never complains, but endeavours to prove that she has enjoyed what to another would be a tiresome duty.” She took a particular interest in the London Hospital, visiting it regularly. Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man”, was one of the patients whom she met.
Crowds usually cheered Alexandra rapturously, but during a visit to Ireland in 1885, she suffered a rare moment of public hostility when visiting the City of Cork, a hotbed of Irish nationalism. She and her husband were booed by a crowd of two to three thousand people brandishing sticks and black flags.
She smiled her way through the ordeal, which the British press still portrayed in a positive light, describing the crowds as “enthusiastic”. As part of the same visit, she received a Doctorate in Music from Trinity College, Dublin.
The death of her eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, in 1892 was a serious blow to Alexandra. His room and possessions were kept exactly as he had left them, much as those of Prince Albert were left after his death in 1861. She said, “I have buried my angel and with him my happiness.” Surviving letters between Alexandra and her children indicate that they were mutually devoted.
In 1894, her brother-in-law Alexander III of Russia died and her nephew Nicholas II of Russia became Tsar. Alexandra’s widowed sister, the Dowager Empress, leant heavily on her for support; Alexandra slept, prayed, and stayed beside her sister for the next two weeks until Alexander’s burial.