Victoria's Granddaughters; the Five Who Became Queens in Their Own Right

Article excerpt


Some years ago, that inveterate chronicler of the royals, the late Theo Aronson, wrote a book about Queen Victoria's descendents called "Grandmama of Europe." At the dawn of the 20th century, Victoria's son King Edward VII was commonly known as "Uncle of Europe" because of an enthusiasm at least equal to hers for marrying off kinfolk into continental royal families.

"Born to Rule" takes us behind those sobriquets and tells the stories of Edward's youngest daughter and four of his nieces who by 1914 were the consorts of European monarchs: Queen Maud of Norway (1869-1938), Queen Sophie of Greece (1870-1932), Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938), Queen Ena of Spain (1887-1966), and Empress Alexandra of Russia (1872-1918).

An odd quintet, these women, but their stories provide an unusual take on aspects of European history in the first decades of the last century. Only Edward's daughter, Maud, might be said to have had a really good experience on her throne, although she had evidently neither hoped nor even expected to rise to that position. Married to her cousin, a young Danish prince serving in the navy, Maud was enjoying a life divided between Copenhagen and her beloved native England and thought of herself as the last princess suited to being a queen. She had reckoned without the dynastic ambitions of her father, however.

Never one to let an opportunity slip past him, Edward saw to it that his son-in-law was elected to the throne of Norway on its separation from Sweden in 1905. No one, apparently, was more surprised than his daughter: "Behold! I am a Queen !!! Who would have thought it! And I am the very last person to be struck on a throne ! I am actually getting accustomed to being called 'Your Majesty'! And yet often pinch myself to feel if I am not dreaming!"

Initially appalled, Maud discovered to her delight that Norway was just the sort of nation whose queen she was ideally suited to be: no court society to be bothered with and a populace who adored her down-to-earth manner, athleticism (she skied into her 60s), and lack of airs and graces. They didn't even mind her prolonged absences from Oslo when she indulged her passion for still simpler living at her house on the Sandringham estate back home in Norfolk.

Enormously popular for her 33 years as queen, her legacy is a monarchy that continues to this day to be a resounding success: Her grandson, Harald, is as popular today as she was in her day. As was her son, Olav, who, when told that he needed a bodyguard as he walked about Oslo, replied that he had millions of bodyguards: the people of Norway.

Queen Victoria's other crowned granddaughters did not fare as well in their adopted countries. Marie of Romania was one of the Allied heroines of World War I for her role in encouraging her kingdom's resistance to the aggression of the Central Powers. At the Versailles Peace Conference, her rather over-the-top charm failed to entrance Woodrow Wilson, but her superstar status with other politicians there and with the world press played an undoubted role in doubling the size of Romanian territory overnight.

Marie enjoyed another moment in the spotlight during a triumphal tour of the United States in 1926, but back home she was caught up in political intrigue and eventually frozen out of any influence by her notorious son, King Carol.

Sophie of Greece rode a rollercoaster from euphoric popularity after Hellenic successes in the Balkan Wars which preceded the global conflict of 1914-1918 to scapegoat as she and her husband sought to insulate their nation from involvement in the world war.

Because she was the sister of the German Kaiser, Sophie became the focus of Allied propaganda efforts which eventually led to her husband's abdication and exile. All this was quite unfair, since she was no fan of her impossible brother, having tasted his tyranny at first hand when he banned her from coming home after she converted to her husband's Greek Orthodox faith. …