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 Alexandra (1844–1925), by Symonds & Co., 1877 [on the royal yacht Osborne] Alexandra (1844–1925), by Symonds & Co., 1877 [on the royal yacht Osborne]
Alexandra [Princess Alexandra of Denmark] (1844–1925), queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the British dominions beyond the seas, and empress of India, consort of Edward VII, was born at the Gule or Yellow Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 1 December 1844 and was given the names Alexandra Caroline Mary Charlotte Louisa Julia. She was the eldest daughter and the second of the six children of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (1818–1906) and his wife, Louise, princess of Hesse-Cassel (1817–1898). Although unimpeachably royal, the family lived in modest circumstances, the prince having little income beyond his pay as an officer in the Danish guards. Prince Christian's position, if not his finances, changed in 1852 when he became heir to the Danish throne. King Frederick VII had succeeded his father Christian VIII in 1848 and he had no children. Prince Christian was far from being in direct line of succession but the choice of him as heir was greatly helped by the fact that, unlike other members of his family, he was a sound supporter of Denmark on the Schleswig-Holstein question.

The young princess's childhood was a happy one, within the security of a loving family. Prince Christian, although devoid of intellectual interests, was a fond husband and father while Princess Christian, the more dominant figure in the family, presided over a domestic world marked by music, a rather hearty gaiety, and simple religious faith. Alix, as she was known within the family, was not particularly close to her elder brother, Prince Frederick, later King Frederick VIII (1843–1912), and there was a big age gap between her and the youngest children, Princess Thyra (1853–1933) and Prince Waldemar (1858–1939). With her second brother, William, later king of the Hellenes (1845–1913), and Princess Dagmar (or Minny), later empress of Russia (1847–1928), Alexandra made up an intimate group within the family. The education the children received was limited, but the princess acquired a reasonable command of French and German, was carefully instructed in religion, and developed her aptitude for music.

Engagement

In 1858 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began to consider the question of a bride for their eldest son, Albert Edward, the prince of Wales [see ]. It had been decided that, as the carefully planned education given to ‘Bertie’ had not produced a paragon of virtue, an early marriage was the best hope of curbing his wayward inclinations. There seemed little likelihood of Princess Alexandra being seriously considered. On political grounds she appeared to be ruled out as the sympathies of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pro-German on the Schleswig-Holstein question. They also considered the Danish royal family to be unsuitable, largely because of the personal life of the thrice-married Frederick VII. The prince of Wales's refusal of a merely dynastic marriage and the shortage of eligible, attractive, protestant princesses led, nevertheless, to the contemplation of a match with the beautiful Danish princess. She was, as the prince's elder sister, , observed to Queen Victoria, ‘outrageously beautiful’ (Woodham-Smith, 407). A stilted and formal courtship was choreographed by the crown princess, who introduced the potential couple in September 1861 at the cathedral town of Speyer. It was not until the following September that the prince of Wales proposed, and was accepted by Alexandra, at the palace of Laeken outside Brussels. During the year much had happened: the prince's affair with the actress Nellie Clifton had made an early marriage seem even more desirable to his parents, and the prince consort had died in December 1861.

The princess was immediately approved by Queen Victoria, who had accompanied her son to Brussels, and whose impression of her as a ‘dear, lovely being’ (Fulford, 2.105) was reinforced by Alexandra's first visit to Britain. Staying at Osborne and Windsor in November 1862, the princess was undaunted by the atmosphere of deepest mourning, and effortlessly charmed the queen. When she returned to Britain for the wedding she was received with great enthusiasm by the public and by the ringing verses of the poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson:
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,
Alexandra!
The wedding, in deference to the mourning for the prince consort, took place, not in London, but in St George's Chapel, Windsor, on 10 March 1863. It was, however, preceded by a carriage procession through London which attracted enormous crowds.

Society and politics

Queen Victoria had hoped that marriage would have a steadying effect on the prince of Wales and that the princess would be ‘his salvation’. In the short term marriage did indeed see a faithful and uxorious prince, but the queen found much to disapprove of in the lifestyle of the newly married couple. A court in prolonged mourning found itself a foil to a prince and princess of Wales who epitomized all that was glamorous and fashionable and who were the acknowledged leaders of a high society which the queen disdained. The princess, not unnaturally, revelled in her acclamation as the most beautiful and elegant woman of the day. The invention of photography and the coming of illustrated magazines gave her image a currency denied to beauties of previous eras; her dresses, her hair styles, and the jewelled collars she wore to hide a scar on her neck were widely copied. In the early years of the marriage she was by no means retiring and was as eager as her husband for the round of fashionable occasions that centred on their London home, Marlborough House.

The couple also devoted much time to the rebuilding of Sandringham House in Norfolk, acquired by the prince a few months before their marriage. It was to become a much loved home for both of them, though the expense of its restoration led the prince into financial difficulties. He was in any case inclined to overspend and his extravagance was matched by that of Alexandra who had no money sense. Any doubts that Queen Victoria had about her daughter-in-law were assuaged, and the princess's popularity with the British public increased, by the birth of a son, (known to the family as Eddy), afterwards duke of Clarence (1864–1892), on 8 January 1864.

Alexandra's Danish patriotism and loyalty to her family were, however, to cause problems. Throughout her life she was to return frequently to her native land and identified strongly with its interests. Her father succeeded to the Danish throne as Christian IX in November 1863 and in 1864 Denmark was at war with Austria and Prussia over Schleswig-Holstein. Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia were outraged by Alexandra's open support for the Danish cause, especially as the prince of Wales associated himself with that support. The princess was to be, thereafter, vehemently anti-Prussian. So bitter were her feelings that in 1866, during a visit to Germany, she refused to meet the king of Prussia until forced to do so, in an atmosphere of great tension. The incident exacerbated difficulties in the relationship between Queen Victoria and her daughter-in-law. The queen already disapproved of the prince and princess of Wales's role as leaders of the fashionable Marlborough House set, and Alexandra's furious disapproval of Princess Helena's marriage with Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, who had sided with Prussia in the recent war in Schleswig-Holstein, had further infuriated the queen.

Prior to her father's accession to the Danish throne, Alexandra's brother William had become King George of the Hellenes in June 1863 and this provided the princess with a second foreign policy interest; she was, to the occasional embarrassment of the Foreign Office, to be the earnest advocate of British support for her brother and his kingdom.

Married life

On 3 June 1865 the princess gave birth to a second son, George, later . Four other children were to be born to the prince and princess of Wales: , afterwards duchess of Fife and princess royal (1867–1931); ; ; and John (born 6, died 7 April 1871).

The princess of Wales's third confinement, that of Princess Louise in 1867, was complicated by rheumatic fever that left her with a limp. The fever and pregnancy seem to have accelerated otosclerosis, a form of deafness she had inherited from her mother. The limp she was able to cope with, developing a glide rather than a walk and managing to skate, to ride, and to dance; but her increasing deafness was to change her life. She did not curtail her public duties but she could no longer enjoy the social world and withdrew into a private milieu of her family, close friends, and retainers. This resulted in the prince and princess of Wales living rather separate lives. The prince was not a faithful husband and perhaps this did not greatly worry the princess, who was more sentimental than passionate. But her husband's affairs might well not have been so open or on such a scale had it not been for the princess's withdrawal from the social round, which was so important to the restless prince who was denied any real responsibilities by the queen. One beneficial result of the princess's withdrawal into family life was the restoration of the good opinion of Queen Victoria, to whom she became once more a ‘real devoted sympathizing daughter’ (Hibbert, 150).

Alexandra's relations with her children were marked by a gushing affection that became less appropriate as they got older. When Prince George was a 25-year-old naval officer, her letters to him concluded: ‘With a great big kiss for your lovely little face’. To all her children she was ‘Motherdear’. She recreated much of the atmosphere of her own childhood in her family circle: a simple and uncomplicated Christianity, no great pride in being royal, and a sense of fun, much reliant on practical jokes. It was not an environment which provided her children with intellectual curiosity and it was perhaps too suffocatingly cosy, but it was secure and loving, in contrast to the family life of so many royal children.

The simplicity of the princess of Wales contrasted with her ability to get her own way. Her beauty and elegance and even her unpretentiousness and kindness could all be called upon as assets. Even her disabilities, her limp and her deafness, could be used to advantage. When called to account for her extravagance (in part due to generosity and in part to a self-indulgence that contrasted with her modest Danish upbringing), she would simply not hear. She ostensibly ignored her husband's barely concealed infidelities and gave him public support when he was involved in scandals. She herself attracted loyal male admirers, including her husband's younger brother, Prince Alfred, and Oliver Montagu, the brother of Lord Sandwich, but gave no cause for scandal.

The death of Alexandra's eldest son, the duke of Clarence, on 13 January 1892, shortly before he was to be married to Princess May of Teck, was a heavy blow. Prince Eddy had not been an adequate heir to the throne, but his mother had loved him dearly. In July 1893 Prince George, who had become duke of York the previous year, himself married Princess May. The duke and duchess of York lived for most of the year at York Cottage, in the shade of Sandringham House, and the shy and serious Princess May (later Queen Mary) did not fit easily into the close, but far from cerebral, family circle of her husband's demanding mother and proprietorial sisters.

The prince of Wales, notoriously, spent the greater part of his life waiting to ascend the throne, and his wife had to wait thirty-four years from her marriage until she became queen consort. By the nineties Alexandra, having brought up her family, had settled into a quiet domestic routine, delighting in her grandchildren. Although still beautiful, she was fifty-six and very deaf when Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901.

On the throne

Queen Alexandra rose to the challenge of her new position with aplomb and determination. She brooked no interference when it came to choosing her coronation robes, nor would she use the title ‘queen consort’, preferring to be simply ‘the queen’. Her only failing in her new position was her lack of punctuality, which had irritated her husband considerably for many years. Despite the king's reluctance to allow her to take a full share in the social and ceremonial duties of the monarchy, there can be no doubt that Queen Alexandra contributed greatly to the standing of the monarchy during his reign. If the king's taste made his court formal and splendid, the queen added a lighter and gayer touch. Her popularity with the public was enhanced by her association with charitable work. Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service was established in 1902, and she presided over the first council meeting of the British Red Cross Society in 1905. A favourite charity was the London Hospital, which she referred to as ‘my hospital’. The Alexandra Rose day in aid of hospitals was instituted in 1913 and continues to commemorate her work. Alexandra must be given much credit for her part in developing one of the most important roles of the modern monarchy, the patronage and encouragement of charitable institutions and societies.

The king and queen led largely independent lives for much of every year but this was a tacit acceptance of their different tastes—the king's for a crowded social life and the queen's for a quiet domesticity at Sandringham and holidays in Denmark—rather than an estrangement. The king's association with Alice Keppel, mistress and companion of his later years, was quietly accepted by Alexandra, who ensured that it did not detract from her position as queen nor encroach on her own harmonious relationship with her husband.

Widowhood

Edward VII's death in 1910 was a bitter blow and left Queen Alexandra miserable. Influenced by her sister, the dowager empress of Russia, who enjoyed precedence at St Petersburg over the wife of the reigning sovereign, she was reluctant to accept the diminution of her position in the new reign. George V and Queen Mary tactfully acquiesced in breaches of protocol such as taking precedence at her husband's funeral, continuing to fly the royal standard over Buckingham Palace (which she was slow to vacate), and addressing her letters to her son to ‘King George’ rather than to ‘The king’. She took the new title of queen mother, and in her widowhood she lived once more at Marlborough House and retained Sandringham. The upkeep of two large houses would have been beyond her income, even if she had not continued to be extravagant and generous. As it was, the king had to make her a private allowance; her finances improved in 1920 when the Treasury reduced the tax it levied on her income.

The First World War brought out all Alexandra's fervent anti-German feeling, despite the fact that she had relatives fighting on both sides of the conflict. She was aghast at the shabby treatment of the first sea lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, because of his German origins; but demanded that the king take down the Garter banners of the enemy sovereigns in St George's Chapel. As her war work, she took on hospital visiting, an activity for which her charm and sympathy made her well suited. Revolution in Russia resulted in the murder of her nephew, the tsar, and his family and concern for the safety of her sister, Empress Maria, who was rescued by a British warship from Yalta.

By this time Queen Alexandra had become very frail and was completely deaf and almost blind. In the last years of her life she had frequent visits from the Empress Maria and was looked after devotedly by her unmarried daughter, Princess Victoria, and two elderly courtiers, Sir Dighton Probyn and the Hon. Charlotte Knollys. She died of a heart attack at Sandringham House on 20 November 1925, and was buried at Windsor.

Queen Alexandra remains an icon of feminine beauty. She was described by her prospective sister-in-law in 1861 as having:
a lovely figure but very thin, a complexion as beautiful as possible. Very fine white regular teeth and very fine large eyes—with extremely prettily marked eyebrows. A very fine well-shaped nose, very narrow but a little long—her whole face is very narrow, her forehead too but well shaped and not at all flat. Her voice, her walk, carriage and manner are perfect, she is one of the most ladylike and aristocratic looking people I ever saw! (Fulford, 1.337–8)
Her beauty, which remained remarkably unaltered throughout her life, was probably her best-known characteristic. Far from clever, married to a notorious philanderer, increasingly isolated from all but her family by her deafness, perhaps more than any other royal consort she embodied the importance of the image over the substance of royalty.

A. W. Purdue

Sources  

G. Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra (1969) · P. Magnus, King Edward the Seventh (1964) · A. McNaughton, The book of kings: a royal genealogy, 3 vols. (1973) · F. Ponsonby, Recollections of three reigns (1951) · K. Rose, George V (1983) · K. Rose, Kings, queens and courtiers (1985) · C. Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: her life and times, 1: 1819–1861 (1972) · Dearest child: letters between Queen Victoria and the princess royal, 1858–1861, ed. R. Fulford (1964) · Dearest mama: letters between Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia, 1861–1864, ed. R. Fulford (1968) · C. Hibbert, Edward VII (1976)

Archives  

Central Archives, Moscow · NL Scot., corresp. · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., letters · Royal Arch., personal papers and letters, engagement diaries · Wolferton Station Museum, letters and drawings from her and her children to a former nanny |  BL, letters to Carpenter, Add. MS 46722 · BL, letters to Lady Holland, Add. MS 52113 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Henry Burdett · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Esher · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Fisher · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord and Lady Hardinge · NA Scot., letters to sixth duchess of Buccleuch · NAM, letters to Earl Roberts · Staffs. RO, letters to duchess of Sutherland


Likenesses  

W. P. Frith, group portrait, oils, 1863 (The marriage of the prince of Wales), Royal Collection · J. Gibson, marble bust, 1863, Royal Collection · R. Lauchert, oils, 1863, Royal Collection · G. H. Thomas, group portrait, oils, 1863 (The marriage of the prince of Wales), Royal Collection · A. Graefle, oils, 1864, Royal Collection · H. N. O'Neil, oils, 1864, NPG · F. X. Winterhalter, oils, 1864, Royal Collection · M. Noble, marble bust, 1866, Gowsworth House, Cheshire · W. P. Frith, oil miniature, 1867, Royal Collection · P. D'Epinay, marble bust, 1868, Gov. Art Coll. · M. Thornycroft, marble bust, 1868, Royal Collection; repro. in Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra · Count Gleichen, marble bust, 1875, Royal Collection · H. von Angeli, group portrait, oils, 1876, Royal Collection · Symonds & Co., photograph, 1877, NPG [see illus.] · Count Gleichen, marble bust, 1879, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool · H. Garland, marble bust, 1883, NPG · C. J. Turrell, miniature, exh. RA 1884, Royal Collection · L. Tuxen, group portrait, oils, 1884, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum paa Frederiksborg, Hillerod, Denmark · L. Tuxen, group portrait, oils, 1887 (The royal family at the time of the jubilee), Royal Collection · Count Gleichen, marble statue, 1891, Royal College of Music, London · W. B. Richmond, oils, 1892?, Royal Collection · L. Fildes, portrait, 1893, Royal Collection · L. Fildes, oils, 1894, NPG; replica, NPG · F. G. M. Gleichen, marble bust, exh. RA 1895, Constitutional Club, London · Lafayette Ltd, print, 1901, NPG · J. Gilbert, double portrait, oils, c.1902 (with Edward VII), Royal Collection · G. W. de Saulles, bronze medal, 1902, Scot. NPG · L. Tuxen, sketch, 1902, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum paa Frederiksborg, Hillerod, Denmark · J. H. F. Bacon, oils, 1903, NPG · L. Fildes, oils, 1905, Royal Collection · F. Flaming, oils, 1908, Royal Collection · G. E. Wade, bronze bust, 1908, Whitechapel High Street, London · E. Hughes, three oil paintings, Royal Collection · oils (after L. Fildes), Osborne House, Isle of Wight · photographs, Royal Collection · photographs, NPG · prints, BM, NPG · two photographs, Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark