The art of monarchy: the web of royalty

A new Radio 4 series, in collaboration with the Royal Collection, is exploring Britain's monarchs through the works of art they have acquired. One of the featured images is this Victorian royal portrait. Sophie Gordon, a senior curator at the Royal Collection, considers what it tells us

A photograph of Queen Victoria and her descendants, taken in April 1894 in Coburg, Germany. The photograph shows Queen Victoria's position at the centre of a network of alliances created by strategic marriages, which gave her the name 'the grandmother of Europe'. (Alamy)

This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Queen Victoria and descendants, Coburg, 1894

This photograph was taken in April 1894 in Coburg, Germany. Queen Victoria sits at the centre of a group, including five of her children, ten grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. Family members had gathered to celebrate the wedding of two of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren: Ernest Grand Duke of Hesse (son of Princess Alice) and Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (daughter of Prince Alfred). This marriage joined the British, Russian and Hessian royal families. The photograph shows Queen Victoria’s position at the centre of a network of alliances created by strategic marriages, which gave her the name ‘the Grandmother of Europe’. Here we take a look at 10 of the individuals featured…


Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia (1853–1920)

Married to Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, from 1874

She was the daughter of Tsar Alexander II. Three of her brothers – the Grand Dukes Sergei, Pavel and Vladimir – attended the wedding of her daughter Victoria Melita and they appear in the photograph.


Princess Feodora of Saxe-Meiningen (1879–1945)

Queen Victoria’s first great-grandchild

Her mother was Charlotte of Prussia, the eldest daughter of Victoria, Princess Royal. She suffered throughout her life from various unspecified illnesses and eventually committed suicide. Recently it has been suggested she inherited porphyria, the illness that affected King George III.


The Dowager Empress Frederick of Germany (born Victoria Adelaide, 1840–1901)

The eldest child of Queen Victoria

She married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858, eventually becoming empress in 1888. Her marriage was intended to cement ties between Britain and Germany. Mother and daughter exchanged thousands of letters discussing their family, often suggesting suitable marriages for children and grandchildren.


Princess Alix of Hesse (1872–1918)

The sixth child of Victoria’s daughter Princess Alice

Shortly before this photograph was taken, her engagement was announced to Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. By November 1894, Alix was Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Her life at the Russian court was difficult, particularly after the birth of her son Alexei in 1904 who had inherited haemophilia.


Nicholas II of Russia (1868–1918)

The eldest son of Tsar Alexander III

Nicholas became tsar only a few months after his engagement was announced. His rule was beset with difficulties, including Russia’s disastrous involvement in the First World War. The February revolution of 1917 led to Nicholas II’s abdication. In July 1918, the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas, Alexandra and their children.


Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (1864–1918)

The second child of Princess Alice

She attended her brother’s wedding with her husband Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, son of Tsar Alexander II. Her husband’s assassination in 1905 shocked her deeply and she took up a religious life, becoming abbess of a convent. Following the revolution, she was murdered in July 1918. She was canonised in 1981.


Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany (1859–1941)

The son of Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest child

He became emperor in 1888. Wilhelm’s increasing unpopularity at home and abroad, together with his lack of control during the First World War and the beginnings of the German revolution, contributed to his abdication in November 1918 and lifelong exile to the Netherlands.


Count Albert von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichstein (1861–1945)

‘Cousin’ of Queen Victoria through his paternal grandmother Sophie, the sister of Queen Victoria’s mother

Count Mensdorff worked for the Austro-Hungarian diplomatic service, and in 1889 transferred to London. He was appointed ambassador in 1904. He left London during the First World War and later worked for Austria at the League of Nations.


Marie Crown Princess of Romania (1875–1938)

The daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (son of Queen Victoria) and Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia

She married Prince Ferdinand of Romania in 1893, becoming Queen of Romania in 1914. Despite an unhappy marriage, Queen Marie became the public face of Romania during the First World War and helped Romanian politicians achieve their objectives at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.


Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

Ascended the throne in 1837

Her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840 produced nine children, of whom all except one had children. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, the queen devoted much energy to organising the lives of her family. Marriages were arranged with royal families from Russia, Prussia, Romania, Greece, Denmark, Sweden and Spain.


Sophie Gordon is senior curator of photographs at the Royal Collection