Biographer Melanie Clegg tells Historia about the close relationship between Queen Victoria and Alix of Hesse, which included Victoria’s meddling in her granddaughter’s marriage plans. Two strong-willed women; who would win?
As, like many other biographers, I am fundamentally nosy at heart and love nothing more than having a good old pry into other people’s letters and journals, I absolutely loved researching my latest book about the relationship of Queen Victoria and her granddaughter Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia.
While I have often been frustrated in the past by the paucity of actual personal written material left by my subjects, there were no such issues with Victoria and her family, who left an extraordinary wealth of diaries, letters and memoirs in their wake. In fact, I almost had too much material and had to be really disciplined while I worked my way through it.
Of course, the best resource of all is Queen Victoria’s own journal, which she diligently kept for most of her life and which is replete with information about her daily life, family events and general thoughts about numerous events and personalities.
Sadly, Victoria’s youngest daughter Princess Beatrice heavily censored and edited the original journal after her mother’s death in January 1901, removing all of the most juicy bits, but there’s still more than enough left to interest a biographer – especially one like myself who is particularly interested in Victoria’s relationship with her Hesse grandchildren, the offspring of her second daughter Princess Alice.
Victoria took a special interest in the Hesse children after the tragically premature death of their mother Princess Alice from diphtheria in December 1878. She insisted that Alice’s four surviving children and their devastated father should come to her in England as soon as possible so that she could comfort and console them.
Alice’s youngest surviving daughter, Alix (her name was a Germanic variation on ‘Alice’), who was just six years old when she lost her mother, had always been one of Victoria’s favourites and the tragedy of her mother’s death only served to increase the Queen’s interest in her. From this point onwards, Victoria would insist upon Alix and her siblings looking upon her as a surrogate mother and would insist upon being kept informed about everything they did.
In many ways this was a happy arrangement for the Hesse children – they benefited greatly from Victoria’s generosity, which included lovely presents, regular letters and frequent holidays at Osborne, Windsor Castle and Balmoral.
However, much to the frustration of her family, the Queen could also be extremely overbearing, domineering and meddlesome, which involved treating her relatives to an apparently endless stream of advice and criticisms. She naturally expected complete obedience at all times and, to the despair of her children and grandchildren, would often become extremely vexed when they did not behave exactly as she wished or appeared to be ignoring her advice.
Unsurprisingly, this well-meaning interference became especially irksome when she enthusiastically involved herself in the wedding plans of her numerous descendants which in some cases even extended to taking it upon herself to select potential candidates, often from within her own family.
Having taken on the position of a surrogate mother to the motherless Hesse children, Victoria took an especially close interest in their marriage plans and was exceedingly annoyed when the three eldest girls, Victoria, Elisabeth and Irene all made marriages that she did not quite approve of, even if in the case of the latter, it was to another one of Victoria’s grandchildren.
When it came to her favourite, Alix, she was determined to have full control over the affair and having decided that she wanted her granddaughter to live in Great Britain, it was only a matter of time before she resolved to make a match between Alix and her first cousin, Prince Albert Victor of Wales, who was heir to the throne after his father, the Prince of Wales and known within the family as ‘Eddy’.
“I must tell you… that my heart and mind are bent on securing dear Alicky for either Eddie [sic] or Georgie,” she wrote to Alix’s eldest sister in spring 1887. “You must prevent further Russians or other people coming to snap her up.”1
Although she loved him and appreciated his many good qualities, his grandmother Victoria was under no illusions about Eddy’s shortcomings and had long ago perceived that it was of the upmost importance to select the perfect wife for him as the success of his future reign might very well depend on the calibre of the woman who ruled beside him – and who could be more suitable for such a weighty task than her favourite granddaughter Alix of Hesse?
If Eddy was not personally good enough for the pretty, intelligent and virtuous Alix then Victoria certainly did not allow this to deter her – as far as she was concerned, the fact that he was one of the most eligible bachelors in the world and would one day rule over an Empire definitely compensated for any deficiencies that he may have had.
Having made her mind up, Victoria engineered a meeting of the pair at Balmoral in the late summer of 1888 (at the exact same time, incidentally, when, according to some conspiracy theorists, Eddy was murdering women in Whitechapel under the guise of Jack the Ripper), after strongly advising Eddy to make himself agreeable to Alix.
To their embarrassment, the cousins were forced together at every possible opportunity, including during a series of elaborate dramatic tableaux arranged to celebrate a family birthday – although even Victoria balked at putting them together as bride and groom during one that featured a wedding.
However, although Alix was almost certainly tempted by the prospect of spending the rest of her life in Britain, she had already long since lost her heart to Eddy’s first cousin, the handsome young Tsesarevich Nicholas of Russia and had no desire to marry anyone else, let alone the distinctly unprepossessing Eddy.
When the trip to Balmoral failed to result in a proposal, Victoria was disappointed but not defeated and simply invited them both back again the following summer for another attempt. In the meantime, however, Alix had visited Russia and reignited her romance with the Tsesarevich Nicholas, which meant that she was even less likely to give in to her grandmother’s wishes – which was awkward as the unfortunate Eddy, who was absolutely terrified of his grandmother and desperate to please her, had decided that he was madly in love with Alix after all and therefore travelled to Scotland determined to propose to her, although he was not sure how successful he would be.
However, before Eddy could make his move, Alix’s brother Ernie, who had doubtless been persuaded to do so by his mortified sister, swooped in and took him aside for a private chat, during which he revealed that contrary to whatever their grandmother had been saying, Alix was not interested in receiving a proposal of marriage from Eddy and would be very upset if he did so as although she was very fond of him as a cousin, her feelings could not go any deeper.
The mortified Eddy immediately backed down and would soon fall in love with someone else, but his grandmother Victoria was deeply disappointed by the failure of her plans. However, despite all this, she couldn’t help but be impressed by Alix’s quiet self assurance and stubborn refusal to allow her grandmother to steer her into a marriage that she did not want.
“It is most sad about Alicky and Eddy,” she wrote with regret to Alix’s eldest sister. “We still have a faint lingering hope that she may – if he remains unmarried, after all when she comes to reflect and see what a sad and serious thing it is to throw away such a marriage with such a position and in such an amiable family in her Mother’s country, where she would be received with open arms.”2
However, Victoria’s last faint lingering hopes that Alix might one day marry Eddy were destined never to come to fruition and in 1895, just as her grandmother had always feared, she became engaged to the Tsesarevich Nicholas – a match that didn’t overly thrill Queen Victoria but which she bore with relative equanimity – although perhaps she might have pushed harder for an alternative match had she known just how badly things would end for her favourite granddaughter and her family.
Empress Alexandra: The Special Relationship Between Russia’s Last Tsarina and Queen Victoria by Melanie Clegg is published on 30 September, 2020.
Melanie Clegg has written four books for Pen and Sword, including biographies of Marie de Guise, Margaret Tudor and Henrietta Anne of England. She is currently working on three books about Madame Élisabeth of France, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, and women guillotined during the Terror. She lives in Bristol with her family.
Find out more about Empress Alexandra.
Read Queen Victoria: a dark, if splendid, monster?, in which Miranda Carter examines Victoria’s lifelong conviction that she was always right – especially when she was completely wrong.
There’s more about Victoria’s schemes for marrying off her extended family in Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, a feature for Historia by historian Deborah Cadbury.
If you’re interested in the Romanov family, have a look at Gill Paul’s Historia feature, Stockholm Syndrome in Ekaterinburg?.
The Wedding of Ceremony of Nicholas II and Grand Princess Alexandra Fyodorovna at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894 by Laurits Regner Tuxen: Hermitage Museum, via Wikimedia
Queen Victoria, 1882: via Wikipedia
Young Princess Alix of Hesse by Friedrich August von Kaulbach, 1880s: via Wikipedia
Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale: via Wikipedia
Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia, 1880s: via Wikipedia
Engagement photograph of Princess Alix of Hesse and Tsarevitch Nicholas Alexandrovitch, later Nicholas II of Russia: via Wikipedia