Today’s European Union, and its predecessor the European Economic Community (EEC), formed in 1957, emerged from the crucible of two world wars. But a century before that, there was another dream of European unity, born out of the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars in which up to 6 million people lost their lives. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a plan that they hoped might play a part in steering Europe from a potential battlefield to a haven of peace and prosperity.
After the Napoleonic Wars, British foreign policy aimed to achieve a balance of power in Europe; no single country should become sufficiently dominant to unleash such destruction across the continent ever again. In the mid-19th century, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria believed that dynastic marriages between their nine children and European royalty would provide a further safeguard. Each marriage was a form of soft power: a path to help spread British liberal values across the continent, and perhaps even push back against the destabilising forces of republicanism, revolution and war. Prince Albert glimpsed the possibility of a federal Europe, in which a series of strong, independent countries, stable under their own constitutional monarchies (and ideally modelled as closely as possible on the British constitution), could be united by common goals and interests.
Their grand scheme began to take shape in the autumn of 1855, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited the handsome second heir to the Prussian throne, Prince Frederick, to Balmoral. Although their beloved oldest daughter, Vicky, was just 14, they had long planned a great dynastic marriage for her. “Fritz” was looking very “manly”, the queen confided to her diary on 15 September, and she found the visit “makes my heart beat… as it probably will decide the fate of our dear eldest child”.
Sure enough, the romantic feelings of their daughter obligingly developed over a two-week courtship to mirror Albert’s political and strategic vision of Europe. When the Prussian prince plucked some white heather from the moors and proposed, Vicky accepted.
The ‘threat’ of a unified Prussian power
In the 1850s, Prince Albert grasped the potential of Protestant Prussia to unite all the German states under its banner, and the power this new country could wield in Europe. He did not want a newly unified Germany under Prussian domination to exert its influence as a military dictatorship or autocracy.
Vicky’s brilliant marriage to the future Prussian heir aimed at nothing less than to fashion the political development of Prussia-Germany along British lines and then to facilitate an Anglo-German alliance to keep the peace. The young princess was to nurture the seed of enlightened, liberal thinking on Prussian soil and help steer the new state towards a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Her marriage in 1858 was not just a question of her health and happiness, Albert warned. At stake was “the future of your country and people and thereby, one might almost say, the welfare of Europe”.
British people shared these high hopes, lining the streets despite the heavy January snowfall to cheer as Vicky departed for Prussia: “God Save the Prince and Bride! God keep their lands allied.”
Queen Victoria’s renewed mission
When Prince Albert died on 14 December 1861, his inconsolable wife and eldest daughter both felt charged with a renewed mission to carry out his wishes. Suitable dynastic matches had already been identified for Albert and Victoria’s next two children. Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Alice, married another German prince, Louis of Hesse, while her oldest son, the wayward Prince Albert Edward, or ‘Bertie’, married a Danish princess, Alexandra. These matches soon brought connections to the royal houses in Denmark, Greece and Russia.
Four more of Queen Victoria’s younger children would later marry into German royal houses. Each royal union seemed to hold great promise, a potential statement of allied national interests and ideas, bringing hope to the cheering masses – well before there was any concept of a ‘European Union’.
As the years passed, Queen Victoria had no fewer than 42 grandchildren and, in the second half of the 19th century, she watched the progress of the next generation flourish into a cousinhood so large it formed a unique network – “the royal mob” as she called it – which occupied a singular place at the top of European society.
Queen Victoria came to acquire an exclusive status in Europe; she was the great matriarch, the universal ‘mother figure’, her modest 4ft 11ins tall frame somehow growing in stature with Britain’s rising supremacy and known across the continent simply as ‘the queen’. And as her grandchildren reached maturity, she felt her own union with her beloved Albert took on even greater significance as royal connections could be extended and secured still further.
But even as the royal family reached the zenith of its power, an unconsidered human element was making its destructive way into Albert’s perfect plan. Although Germany was unified by 1871, Albert’s ‘noble’ vision that had inspired Vicky’s marital alliance unravelled in ways that her father could never have envisaged. Traumatised and isolated in the German court, Vicky poured out her heart in her revealing correspondence to her mother.
The world’s most exclusive dating agency
While Vicky’s experiences influenced Queen Victoria’s views on grand foreign alliances, her enthusiasm for matchmaking remained undimmed. The queen’s grandchildren gained automatic entry into what amounted to the world’s most exclusive dating agency, where one good-looking princess might find herself sought after by the heirs to several thrones. The queen felt uniquely placed to orchestrate the selection process and help her grandchildren navigate the mysteries of the European royal marriage market.
Yet for all their purported obedience to ‘Grandmama Queen’, Victoria’s grandchildren often had plans of their own, fuelled by strong wills and romantic hearts. Researching in the royal archives at Windsor Castle and reading the correspondence between the queen and her grandchildren, I came across a compelling cast of central characters in this family saga. Queen Victoria’s oldest British grandson, Prince Albert Victor, or ‘Eddy’, was the second heir to the British throne at the height of its power; in the words of his Aunt Vicky in Germany, of all the princes in Europe, Eddy was “first prize”.
But rumours of a most indelicate and unwelcome nature were beginning to wend their way down the corridors of Balmoral and Windsor. Eddy was accused of various unspecified ‘dissipations’ the records of which were destroyed by his Aunt Beatrice after the death of Queen Victoria. There were rumours of liaisons with ‘ladies of low standing’ or perhaps even affairs with men – a claim that has never been proved.
Although Eddy knew how to charm the queen, she was not fooled. Her investigations revealed a young prince who was far removed from being a carbon copy of his namesake, the illustrious Prince Albert. The young man on whose shoulders the whole great edifice would eventually descend had to be taken in hand.
The queen found much to concern her, too, in Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George. George’s most marked enthusiasms were for stamp collecting and shooting – neither pursuit enhanced by female company. Indeed, at first there appeared to be no princess available whose main interests quite matched those of George, whose daily life was agreeably free of the need to marry anyone.
The queen soon alighted on a solution to the problem of Prince Eddy in her favourite German granddaughter: Princess Alexandra or Alix. With her great beauty and sound education (which had been personally supervised by the queen), she appeared to have the very attributes that made her the ideal consort. But the queen encountered opposition from Alix’s older sister, Elisabeth of Hesse, or ‘Ella’. Ella herself did the exact opposite of what her grandmother advised, even when the queen wrote quite bluntly that her own proposed match “will be her ruin”.
Ella’s choices would have implications for her younger sister and to my delight, there was correspondence in the royal archives that shed light on just how Alix came to turn down the heirs to both the British and Russian thrones. The queen was strongly opposed to her marrying the Russian tsarevich, and Alix turned Nicholas down twice before changing her mind and reaching her final ill-fated decision.
Queen Victoria’s views were not easily ignored; her authority among the princes of Europe sometimes extended far beyond her role as head of the family as she juggled potential matches. To the surprise of those involved, she thought nothing of interfering in long-held arrangements, breaking off an engagement, seeking an annulment to an unsuitable match and even encouraging one prince to marry his dead brother’s fiancé.
A vision for stability
The 19th-century vision at the heart of Victoria and Albert’s matchmaking did not end with her death, but collided increasingly with an overwhelming and urgent impetus for change. Their wonderful dream of constitutional monarchies spreading across the continent, bringing order, peace and a stable form of political governance, was irresistible. It was an idyll somehow tinged with all the innocence of village England, the sound of leather on willow, the puritan work ethic and British stiff upper lip.
But in the early 20th century, this vision clashed with something altogether more brutal and immediate in which moderation was swept away by an overpowering impulse for change. The once distant threat of war could no longer be ignored as her grandchildren ascended Europe’s thrones in Germany, Russia, Norway, Spain, Greece and Britain. The seventh and last to accede to a throne became Queen Marie of Romania on 10 October 1914, “at a moment when the whole of Europe was on fire and flames were licking our every frontier”, Marie wrote in her memoirs.
It is not possible here to convey the scale of the tragedy that would engulf these royal first cousins or to describe all the events that would sweep away the Europe of their youth. Queen Victoria’s crowned descendants found themselves pitched not just cousin against cousin, but husband against wife and sister against sister.
Drawing on intimate letters and diaries, I explored how these seven grandchildren came to be elevated to their European thrones and how their marriages shaped history. At the heart of it all is Victoria herself: doting grandmother one moment; determined queen empress the next.
Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury travels through the glittering, decadent palaces of Russia and Europe, weaving in scandals, political machinations and family tensions, all set against the backdrop of the tumultuous years in the lead up to the First World War (Bloomsbury, £25).
This article was originally published by History Extra in January 2018