In 1887 a trio of British royal princesses were recorded in the Henry Poole & Co measure book: Princesses Victoria, Alexandra and Marie of Edinburgh. Their father, Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, was Queen Victoria’s second son and their mother Grand Duchess Marie the daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The twelve-year old Princess Marie (1875-1938), for whom Poole’s made riding habits, was destined to become the last queen of Romania, a fearless wartime consort and the woman royal circles knew as mother-in-law of the Balkans.
The future King George V called the Edinburgh Princesses ‘the three dearests’ but it was the vivacious, exceptionally pretty Marie who was his favourite. Queen Victoria and the Duke of Edinburgh approved of the match that would have made Marie queen of England but the Duchess did not. The Russian Orthodox Church would not countenance a marriage between first cousins and the Duchess of Edinburgh rather despised her British family who did not give her the precedence she thought due to a Russian Grand Duchess.
The Duchess of Edinburgh chose Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania as a suitable dynastic match for Princess Marie. ‘Nando’, reigning King Carol I’s nephew, was bookish, introspective and inclined towards intellectual pursuits. When she married him in 1891, Princess Marie was a flirtatious, mischievous sixteen-year old who danced with abandon and rode like a daredevil Hussar. The old Duke of Cambridge’s verdict was blunt: ‘It does seem too cruel a shame to cart that nice pretty girl off to semi-barbaric Romania and a man to the knowledge of all Europe desperately in love with another woman’.
The love in question was a lady-in-waiting to Prince Ferdinand’s mother Queen Elizabeth. King Carol had exiled both women before Princess Marie’s wedding. The new Crown Princess of Romania’s early years in the Royal Palace of Bucharest (the marble sarcophagus) were melancholy and lonely. King Carol was an autocrat and a tartar. His wife Queen Elizabeth (the poet queen known as Carmen Sylva) dabbled in the occult and had pretensions as an aesthete.
When an heir, Prince Carol, was born in 1893 he was taken away from Princess Marie who the King considered ‘too English, too free and easy, too frivolous, too fond of dress, of riding, of outdoor life, too outspoken, with not enough respect for conventions or etiquette’. Isolation and her husband’s infidelities led Princess Marie into the arms of Lieutenant Zizi Cantacuzene; the first of many amours.
Queen Victoria’s daughter the Empress Frederick read the situation correctly. ‘I think Missy of Romania is more to be pitied. The King is a great tyrant in his family and has crushed the independence in Ferdinand so that no one cares about him. His beautiful and gifted little wife, I fear, gets into scrapes and like a butterfly, instead of hovering over the flowers, burns her pretty wings by going rather near the fire’.
In 1896 the Crown Prince and Princess were released from the Royal Palace in Bucharest and given their own household Cotroceni. Princess Marie resolved to fashion Cotroceni to her own high-spirited, flamboyant taste. As Julia Geraldi writes in Born to Rule (2004) ‘Visitors gaped at the fantastic décor; intricate Byzantine artwork in gold evoking true Oriental splendour vied with the sleeker more modern lines of Art Nouveau in a riot of styles’.
Princess Marie did consider divorcing Frederick. Her mother the Duchess of Edinburgh spirited her away to Coburg where she bore a third daughter Maria (the future Queen of Yugoslavia) in 1900 who may or many not have been Crown Prince Ferdinand’s. He accepted the child and Princess Marie returned to Romania. As she wrote of the marriage, ‘it is such a shame that we had to waste so many years of our youth just to learn how to live together’.
In 1902 Princess Marie visited England to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. It was there that she met and formed an attachment with American heir Waldorf Astor. Though Astor would go on to marry England’s first sitting MP Nancy Astor, he remained devoted to Princess Marie. Princess Marie described her lot in a letter to Lady Astor (who called her ‘the lunatic Princess): ‘we solitary royalties have a heart like other human beings and need love and affection like others, but we seldom get it as we are supposed to be happy enough in our so cold grandeur’.
Princess Marie’s epiphany came after the peasant uprising of 1907 that shook King Carol’s throne. She formed an attachment to Prince Barbo Stirbey (who bore a striking resemblance to Waldorf Astor) who schooled Princess Marie in Balkan politics and began to prepare her for the throne telling King Carol ‘it is essential not to break her will. If we can persuade her to take herself and her duties more seriously, her natural intelligence will do the rest’.
Princess Marie showed her metal during the Second Balkan War (1913) when she served as a field nurse ministering to an army plagued by a cholera epidemic. Of this experience, she declared ‘I am a changed person’. Facing the horrors of war prepared her for the German invasion of Romania in the later stages of the First World War. King Carol and Prince Ferdinand were scions of the Hohenzollern (German) dynasty and Queen Elizabeth declared herself ‘a daughter of the Rhine’. But the Romanian government refused to countenance a German alliance.
Prince Barbo Stirbey broke the news of King Carol’s death in 1914 to the new Queen Marie of Romania. Her response was magnificent: ‘I knew that I had won, that the stranger, the girl who had come from over the seas, was a stranger no more. I was theirs with every drop of my blood’. It was she who persuaded King Ferdinand to fight with the Allies in 1916. Her opposition to the Treaty of Bucharest earned her the moniker ‘truly the only man in Romania’.
When the Germans bombed Bucharest, Queen Marie was forced to flee and resumed her duties as a nurse on the front line earning her the love of the Romanian people. ‘The queen is our mascot’, a serviceman declared, ‘her presence immunises us better than all the vaccines’. At the height of hostilities, German forces occupied three quarters of Romania. The American Ambassador believed ‘there is no doubt in my mind that if she could have led the soldiers, the Romanian army would have been unconquerable’. Queen Marie privately told her cousin King George V ‘my English blood refuses to accept disaster’.
On Armistice Day in 1918 Queen Marie was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Ambassador. She sallied forth to attend the Paris Peace Conference and signed the treaty that united Romania and Transylvania. Her mother the Duchess of Edinburgh said of Queen Marie ‘by her charm, beauty and ready wit (she) could obtain anything she desired’.
Romania’s Achilles heel was Queen Marie’s eldest son Crown Prince Carol. In 1918 he abandoned his military post and eloped with a commoner Zizi Lambrino. Their marriage was annulled a year later. In 1921 Prince Carol bowed to his parents’ wishes and married Princess Helen of Greece & Denmark. Though they had a son, Michael, the marriage broke down when Prince Carol began an affair with divorcee Elena ‘Magda’ Lupescu. He renounced his right to the throne in 1925 suggesting to Queen Marie that it be announced he had drown in Lake Maggiore.
King Ferdinand and Queen Marie’s Transylvanian coronation in 1922, expertly stage managed and modelled on medieval rites and costume, dazzled the world. Within five years, King Ferdinand died shortly after Queen Marie had returned from a triumphant tour of the United States. Their grandson Michael was proclaimed king under a Regency council but the reign of a boy king in the volatile Balkans was doomed. Prince Carol made a triumphal entrance into Bucharest in 1930 and revoked the act of succession proclaiming himself King Carol II of Romania.
King Carol’s revenge on his family was calculated to cause maximum damage. His former wife Princess Helen was put under house arrest and Michael removed from her. Prince Stirbey was exiled from Romania and Magda Lupescu installed in the Royal Palace. Dowager Queen Marie was starved of finances, forced to live in a reduced household and surrounded by her son’s spies.
Queen Marie had begun writing her first memoir The Story of My Life in 1929. Her verdict on King Carol II was withering. ‘He wasted and smashed up and tore up by the roots. He worthlessly set aside, changed, persecuted and humiliated those who had worked before him. Out of jealousy he set his family aside, hurt their feelings, sacrificed them to a horrible set of low adventurers who had grouped around him’.
Queen Marie lived to see the Anschluss of Austria and Germany and died of liver failure in 1938. She was accorded a State Funeral by King Carol II whose popularity was waning and in a valedictory letter to her people wrote ‘I became yours through joy and sorrow, And now, I bid you a fond farewell forever…remember my people that I loved you and that I bless you with my last breath’.