Queen Alexandra (1844-1925) was the long suffering Princess of Wales to her serially unfaithful husband the future King Edward VII. A relatively poor Danish Princess from a modest home in Copenhagen, she married her prince in 1863 and took centre stage in royal public life. Queen Victoria had withdrawn from all state occasions since the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 and, much to her displeasure, the Prince and Princess of Wales stepped in to become the popular and ever-present face of the British monarchy.
Princess Alexandra was a great beauty and became the fashion leader for a society starved of a glamorous royal leading lady. Her influence on the modes of the mid-to-late Victorian era and her interiors at Marlborough House and Sandringham were followed slavishly. Though she was partially deaf and lame, the Princess was a noted equestrian, a hostess famed for her high spirits and was considered the most elegant princess in Europe. Princess Alexandra was a giddy, childlike woman and Queen Victoria blamed the premature birth of her eldest sons Prince Albert Victor and Prince George (the future King George V) on her refusal to rest during pregnancy.
The monarchy was unpopular with an absent queen and a Prince of Wales who seemed to career from one scandal to the next. Like the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra became the focus of national affection; aided not least by her beauty and her philanthropic works establishing hospitals and nursing corps. With a less than attentive husband, Princess Alexandra surrounded herself with a loyal court at Marlborough House. She was devoted to her two sons and three daughters who called her ‘Motherdear’ until the day she died.
Equerry Oliver Montagu was a platonic swain to the princess. As Louisa, Lady Antrim said of him ‘he shielded her in every way, not least from his own great love, and managed to defeat gossip’. General Sir Dighton Probyn, Comptroller of the Household, referred to Princess Alexandra as ‘the dear lady’ and erected a monument in her honour at Sandringham when she died. The princess was not, however, naïve. She defied her husband ‘Bertie’ on many occasions, risked Queen Victoria’s displeasure with her hatred of her Prussian relatives by marriage and fought for the interests of her family who occupied the thrones of Denmark, Greece and Russia.
Tragedy blighted Princess Alexandra’s life in 1892 when her eldest son Prince Albert Victor died of pneumonia aged twenty-eight. Prince Eddy’s bedroom at Sandringham was preserved in its entirety as a shrine to the king who never was and a magnificent Art Nouveau monument sculpted by Alfred Gilbert in black and white marble is the most dramatic royal tomb in St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The Princess increasingly relied on her spinster daughter Princess Victoria who never married and remained a companion to her increasingly deaf motherdear.
When Edward VII ascended to the throne in 1901, Queen Alexandra initially refused to move into Buckingham Palace. But once ensconced in the Palace and Windsor Castle, Queen Alexandra set about decorating the private apartments and state rooms that had barely been touched for half a century. It is her taste that can largely be seen today. As a tribute to his wife, King Edward VIII made Queen Alexandra the first Lady Knight of the Garter since the 15th century. The King continued to dally with his maitresse-en-titre Mrs Keppel who Queen Alexandra tolerated as had Alice Keppel’s predecessors.
In 1907 Queen Alexandra and her sister the Dowager Empress of Russia would buy a private retreat called Hvidore north of Copenhagen where the sisters would decamp to escape an increasingly darkening Imperial world. The German newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung claimed the sisters were ‘at the centre of the international anti-German conspiracy’ and Queen Alexandra was repelled by ‘Cousin Willy’ (Kaiser Wilhelm II) who she rightly called ‘inwardly our enemy’. Queen Alexandra was holidaying on Corfu in 1910 with her brother King George of Greece when a telegram announced King Edward VII’s final illness. She returned to Buckingham Palace and allowed Mrs Keppel a final farewell at the royal bedside.
As Queen Mother, Alexandra was reluctant to cede Buckingham Palace to her son King George V and also tried to take precedence over the new queen her daughter-in-law Mary. Though she was persuaded to move back to Marlborough House, she kept possession of the big house on the Sandringham Estate until her death. As her hearing faded, the Dowager Queen retreated to Sandringham in the company of Princess Victoria, Sir Dighton Probyn and her loyal Lady of the Bedchamber Charlotte Knollys. Her legendary beauty did not survive the First World War and in the last years of her life the Queen Mother was only seen in public heavily veiled and made-up. She died in 1925.
The Princess of Wales’s relationship with Poole’s lasted from her marriage until her widowhood. She arrived in London in 1863 with a modest wardrobe mostly tailored by herself. She became a customer of Henry Poole & Co within weeks of her wedding. Her first order is for a fine black (riding) habit lined in silk and bound with braid. As Queen, some of her more extravagant orders from Poole’s include a lavender dress doeskin ladies’ jacket lined with silk and bound with velvet, a rich figured silk shawl dressing gown lined in quilted silk for Sandringham and a violet twill short jacket quilted and trimmed with astrakhan fur provided by herself.