Biography of Queen Alexandra

The Danish princess who waited decades to be queen

Portrait of Alexandra circa 1880
Portrait of Alexandra as Princess of Wales, circa 1880. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Queen Alexandra (December 1, 1844 – November 20, 1925) was the longest-serving Princess of Wales in British history. She was the wife of King Edward VII, the successor to Queen Victoria. Although her public duties were limited, Alexandra became a style icon and did significant charity work in her lifetime.

Fast Facts: Queen Alexandra

  • Full Name: Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia
  • Occupation: Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India
  • Born: December 1, 1844 in Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Died: November 20, 1925 in Norfolk, England
  • Known For: Born a princess of Denmark; married Queen Victoria's son and heir; as queen, held little political power but was influential in fashion and charity work
  • Spouse: King Edward VII (m. 1863-1910)
  • Children: Prince Albert Victor; Prince George (later King George V); Louise, Princess Royal; Princess Victoria, Princess Maud (later Queen Maud of Norway); Prince Alexander John

Princess of Denmark

Born Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia of Denmark, Alexandra was known to her family as “Alix.” She was born at the Yellow Palace in Copenhagen on December 1, 1844. Her parents were minor royalty: Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and Princess Louise of Hesse-Kassel.

Although they were members of the Danish royal family, Alexandra's family lived a comparatively low-key life. Her father Christian’s income came only from his army commission. Alexandra had several siblings, but was closest to her sister Dagmar (who would later become Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia). Their family was close with Hans Christian Andersen, who occasionally visited to tell the children stories.

The Danish royal family became more complicated in 1848, when King Christian VIII died and his son, Frederick, became king. Frederick was childless, and because he ruled both Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, which had differing succession laws, a crisis arose. The ultimate outcome was that Alexandra’s father became the heir to Frederick in both regions. This change elevated Alexandra’s status, as she became the daughter of a future king. However, the family remained outside of court life, partially due to their disapproval of Frederick.

Princess of Wales

Alexandra was not Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s first choice to marry their son, Prince Albert Edward. Nevertheless, Alexandra was introduced to the Prince of Wales by his sister, Princess Victoria, in 1861. After a courtship, Edward proposed in September of 1862, and the couple were married on March 10, 1863 at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The wedding was a less festive occasion than many had hoped for, since the court was still in mourning for Prince Albert, who had died in December 1861.

Alexandra gave birth to their first child, Prince Albert Victor, in 1864. The couple would go on to have a total of six children (including one who died at birth). Alexandra preferred to be a hands-on mother, but she also continued to enjoy her social life, carrying on hobbies such as hunting and ice skating. The couple were the center of society, bringing a youthful fun to a court long-dominated by a strict (and now mourning) queen. Even after rheumatic fever left her with a permanent limp, Alexandra was noted for being a charming and cheerful woman.

Although most accounts seem to show that Edward and Alexandra had a fairly happy marriage, Edward's affection for his wife did not stop the prince from continuing his infamous playboy ways. He carried on several affairs throughout their marriage, both flings and long-term extramarital relationships, while Alexandra remained faithful. She became increasingly isolated, due to a hereditary condition that caused her to slowly lose hearing. Edward ran in scandalous circles and was very nearly implicated in at least one divorce hearing.

As Princess of Wales, Alexandra performed many public duties, taking on the burden of some of her mother-in-law Victoria’s public appearances such as opening ceremonies, attending concerts, visiting hospitals, and otherwise conducting charity works. She was a popular young addition to the monarchy and was almost universally liked by the British public.

In the early 1890s, Alexandra and her family suffered multiple losses that would also change the course of two monarchies. Prince Albert Victor, her eldest son, died in 1892 at the age of 28 after falling ill during a flu pandemic. His death devastated Alexandra. Albert Victor's younger brother, George, became the heir and even married Albert Victor’s former fiancée, Mary of Teck; it is from this line that the current British monarchy descends.

Alexandra’s sister Dagmar also suffered a major loss in 1894: her husband, the Russian Tsar Alexander III, died. Dagmar's son took the throne as Nicholas II. He would be the last tsar of Russia.

Queen At Last

Edward was the longest-serving Prince of Wales in history during his lifetime. (He was surpassed by his descendant Prince Charles in 2017.) However, he finally ascended to the throne upon Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. By this time, Edward’s taste for excess was catching up to him and his health, so Alexandra had to appear in his place for a few events.

This was the only time that Alexandra was permitted to be involved in matters of importance. She held political opinions (for example, she was wary of German expansion from the beginning) but was ignored when she expressed them in both public and private. Ironically, her distrust proved prescient: she urged against the British and Germans “swapping” dominion over a pair of islands, which the Germans ended up using as a fortified stronghold during the world wars. Edward and his ministers went so far as to exclude her from trips abroad and forbid her to read briefing papers so that she would not try to exert any influence. Instead, she poured her efforts into charity work.

On one occasion, however, Alexandra broke protocol and appeared publicly in a political context. In 1910, she became the first queen consort to visit the House of Commons and watch a debate. She would not be queen consort for long, though. Only a few months later, she was on a trip to Greece, visiting her brother, King George I, when she received word that Edward was seriously ill. Alexandra made it back in time to say goodbye to Edward, who died on May 6, 1910 after a bout of bronchitis and a series of heart attacks. Their son became King George V.

Later Years and Legacy

As the queen mother, Alexandra mostly continued her duties as she had as queen consort, focusing her efforts on charity work with a side of anti-German cajoling. Her generosity was renowned, as she willingly sent money to anyone who wrote to her asking for help. She lived to see her fears about the Germans realized with the outbreak of World War I, and rejoiced when her son changed the royal family’s name to Windsor to avoid German associations.

Alexandra suffered another personal loss when her nephew, Nicholas II, was overthrown during the Russian Revolution. Her sister Dagmar was rescued and came to stay with Alexandra, but her son George V refused to offer asylum to Nicholas and his immediate family; they were murdered in 1917 by the Bolshevik revolutionaries. In the last years of her life, Alexandra’s health declined, and she died from a heart attack on November 20, 1925. She was buried at Windsor Castle next to Edward.

A popular royal in life and death, Alexandra was mourned deeply by the British public, and she became the namesake for everything from palaces to ships to streets. Although she was not permitted any political influence, she was a style icon for the women of her time and defined an entire era of fashion. Her legacy was not one of politics, but of personal popularity and boundless generosity.

Sources

  • Battiscombe, Georgina. Queen Alexandra. Constable, 1969.
  • Duff, David. Alexandra: Princess and Queen. Wm Collins & Sons & Co, 1980.
  • “Edward VII.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/edward_vii_king.shtml.