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Popular Princesses of Wales - December 1997/January 1998 British Heritage Feature

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1997 
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Popular Princesses of Wales
Popular Princesses of Wales

By Brenda Ralph Lewis

British Royalty has always had glamour. Recently, despite a growing sense that the monarchy is anachronistic, the Princess of Wales held a unique position in the affections of a people deeply imbued with a romantic regard for its "Royals".

Princesses of Wales, in general, occupy a place in the Royal entourage that, in many ways, invites public sympathy. The born Royal, it is presumed, grows up with and becomes accustomed to the status, its trappings, and its limitations. By contrast, the young woman who marries the Prince of Wales chooses to enter the charmed Royal circle, and to accept the pros and cons of the rarefied Royal existence relatively late in life. In particular, she accepts a future as Queen Consort, a premier position with often onerous obligations to lead an exemplary life devoted to the family and the social leadership of the country.

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A Princess of Wales is required, therefore, to relinquish what might otherwise have been a more private existence in a wider world, which caters rather better for individualism and personal freedom. Quite apart from her considerable good looks and the way she consummately learned how to play her public role, the enormous popularity of Princess Diana, came from a feeling that she gave up as much, if not more, than she gained by her lustrous marriage.

Although they lived in quite different, much more circumscribed worlds this same sentimental concept also applied to Diana's immediate predecessors, Alexandra of Denmark, wife of the later King Edward VII, and May of Teck, who became Queen Mary, wife of King George V. Together, the three form a special group among the nine young women who have married heirs to the English throne since the title Prince of Wales was created in 1301.

Alexandra, May, and Diana married into a British Royal family that had been remade and elevated to new respectability by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Victoria and Albert set a new standard of close, home-loving family life, high moral tone, and self-discipline, which represented a total break from the rumbustuous scandals, vicous infighting and blatant self-indulgence that marked the Royal family in the 18th century.

The 18-year-old Danish Princess Alexandra, who arrived in Britain in March 1863 to marry Victoria's heir Prince Albert Edward, known as "Bertie", was to a great extent ammunition in the fight to preserve the new Royal image. At 21 Bertie was already a "bit of a lad" and, despite his mother's hopes that he would settle down with his beautiful young wife, he never stopped sowing wild oats. At the same time, Bertie's warm heart and genuine concern for people ensured that his amorous escapades received more affection than censure from his mother's subjects. This was a delicate situation for Alexandra and she in her turn earned the regard of the British by acting at all times with dignity and patience. She visibly stood by her wayward husband through some of the more dangerous scandals in which he was involved, such as nearly being cited as correspondent in the Mordaunt divorce case of 1869-1870. Alexandra often received in her drawing room ladies whose rank earned them that honour but whose charms had already led them to the Prince's bed.

Queen Victoria had not taken Alexandra's character greatly into account when she chose her from a gaggle of European Princesses who aspired to marry her son. Reports from Bertie's elder sister Vicky, who had married into the Prussian Royal family in 1858, spoke warmly of Alexandra's mild temperament, unspoiled nature, good health, and great beauty. It was, however, the beauty that clinched the marriage as far as Queen Victoria was concerned: the womanizing Bertie could hardly be expected to settle down with a plain wife. Alexandra was, of course, of suitable status, the daughter of Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, heir to the Danish throne and later Christian IX of Denmark. She was also a Protestant, a vital factor since Roman Catholics had been barred by law from the line of succession to the English throne since 1689.

The British people took enormous interest in the girl who was destined to marry 'their' Prince and enthusiastic crowds greeted Alexandra when she reached London in 1862. In Alexandra's Danish nationality, the British welcomed a counter-balance to the overly German tone of the Royal court, a legacy of Prince Albert's influence and Victoria's preference.

Unlike the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, which glued millions the world over to their television sets 118 years later, the marriage of Edward and Alexandra on 10th March, 1863 was a very private affair at St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Queen Victoria, then 15 months into her lifelong mourning for Albert, who had died on 14th December, 1861, watched the ceremony clad in black from the grilled balcony known as 'Catherine of Aragon's Closet'. Alexandra was stunning in a lavish white crinoline decorated with flowers and leaves; Edward a fine figure in his uniform with velvet cloak and ribboned orders. The irritation caused by Victoria's refusal to invite certain 'doubtful' members of Alexandra's family and, indeed, her insistence on cramming the guests into the confines of the Chapel so as to preserve her own privacy–all were for the moment forgotten.

Not, however, for long. Too many antipathies were built into Alexandra's new situation. In November 1863, when Prussia invaded her native Denmark, the British Royal family was for a while divided between the warring camps. Edward and Alexandra, naturally enough, were for Denmark. Queen Victoria, herself of German stock and with her eldest daughter married to the heir to the Prussian throne, was in firm opposition.

The strain of these months was so great that on 8th January, 1864, Alexandra gave birth prematurely to her first child, Albert Victor Christian Edward, later known as Prince Eddy. Her relations with Queen Victoria, which had started out so well, slumped considerably until Alexandra was being blamed for not holding her husband back from the dazzling parties, extravagant entertainments, and less-than-respectable social rounds to which he was so devoted.

If anything, Victoria rather than Alexandra connived at Bertie's trivial way of life. First, she blamed him for his father's death, which had occurred shortly after Bertie's first sexual adventure had been revealed to his shocked family. And though he was heir to the throne, Victoria barred her son from all affairs of the state, giving him little of great significance to do. Alexandra had, therefore, acquired a husband with no serious outlet for his intelligence and energies as well as no intention of being kept on the straight and narrow by his wife.

Though the Prince was discreet and the Princess loyal and dignified, a distance inevitably developed between them as she concentrated on her children, her Court duties and her social life, and he escaped into a less salubrious world in High Society boudoirs, gambling dens, and a series of affairs with other men's wives. At the same time, Bertie never ceased to appreciate Alexandra's positive qualities or admire her perennial beauty, though his patience could be strained by her vagueness, unpunctuality, and stubborness. Boisterous and robust himself, Bertie shrank from the increasing sick-room atmosphere that resulted from Alexandra's lameness, a legacy of an attack of rheumatic fever in 1867, and her deafness, which became quite pronounced by the time she reached middle age. In addition, the shortcomings of her marriage helped turn Alexandra into an underdevoted and cloying mother. She shamelessly spoiled her children and in the end turned suffocatingly possessive.

Nevertheless, the rift was by no means unbridgeable and Edward and Alexandra drew closer when he nearly died of typhoid in 1871 and they shared the grief of losing two of their three sons–John, who died within a few hours of his birth in 1871, and the eldest, Prince Eddy, who died in an influenza epidemic in 1892. Eddy's death at age 28 had an extra poignancy for it occurred only a few weeks before his wedding to Princess May of Teck. This marriage, like Alexandra's own, had been part of a campaign to provide a steadying influence for the rather unstable Prince, who had followed in his father's dissolute footsteps but entirely lacked his father's charm and strong sense of Royal obligation. Princess May, in total contrast, was serious-minded, self-disciplined, and dutiful.

Queen Victoria had approved the match, first because May's background was a convenient mixture: though born and partly brought up in England, she came of a German family, like Victoria and her adored Albert. In addition, at age 25, May was already the fine, upstanding, "superior", young (but not too young) woman who could be relied on to tame the feckless Eddy. May, who was pleasant-looking, if no great beauty, was also a realist with a sensible unromantic view of her place in life. She was far too down-to-earth to imagine she would find in marriage the "grand passion" that Eddy had once hoped for with the "unsuitable" Catholic Princess Helene of Orleans. If anything, May seems to have accepted Eddy more from a sense of duty than from any stronger emotion.

It could hardly have been otherwise with a girl more suited to the old royal custom of dynastic marriage in which couples were paired for politico-diplomatic reasons, rather than the concept of the 1890s, which required them to have affection if not love for each other. Princess May was in fact so cool emotionally that she was later unable to show affection for her own children and in the early days of her marriage to Prince George, Eddy's younger brother, could express her feelings for him only in an exchange of letters.

Prince George was equally tongue-tied and reticent but he was nonetheless far more suitable a husband for May. The two were remarkably alike, both constant, somewhat stolid, but extremely high principled and utterly respectable. This is not to say that neither George nor May was untouched by Eddy's untimely death. In the way of younger brothers, George had admired and loved Eddy. He had even forgiven him his bouts of ill temper and his dubious morals, quite a concession in a young man who disapproved of his own father. Just as important, Eddy's sudden removal had placed George unexpectedly second in line to the Throne after the Prince of Wales. With that came the unwelcome prospect of having to relinquish the life he loved in the Royal Navy. May, in her turn, can hardly have been unmoved by the extravagant scenes of grief and suffering she witnessed at Eddy's deathbed nor by the abrupt fashion in which the course of her life had been changed.

So, with a melancholy experience to share, and given George's natural solicitude, bereaved brother and bereaved fiancee developed sufficient closeness to become engaged in May 1893. The wedding that followed on 6th July took place at the Chapel Royal, St. James, rather than at St. George's Chapel, Windsor, where May and Eddy were to have been married and Eddy's funeral had taken place. The 'move' to London ruled out the privacy that had marked the wedding of Edward and Alexandra 30 years earlier and allowed Londoners, visitors, and the newspapers to make the day more like the Royal gala that attends the marriage of first-line Royalty today.

In fact, many of the features seen in the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981 appeared also in 1893 due to the then fast-increasing interest in Royal doings, a more lavish use of photography that had made Royal portraits a regular feature in the press, and especially the growing popularity of women's publications. These magazines produced special Royal Wedding issues that included details of Princess May's trousseau and much discussion of the wedding dress, which was of satin brocade festooned with silver love knots, lace and orange blossoms. The bridal route was liberally decorated with flowers strung between "Venetian masts". The wedding gifts–all L300,000 worth–were put on display at the Imperial Institute. Under these circumstances, the wedding became a public entertainment performed, as today, before teeming, cheering, tightly packed crowds.

Although Prince George and Princess May had their ceremony to themselves and their guests, the jubilant crowds took over as soon as they emerged from the Chapel. For the first time, the reigning Sovereign, Victoria, presented the new Royal pair to the people from the central balcony of Buckingham Palace, a feature now taken for granted on all important Royal occasions.

By her marriage, Princess May became Duchess of York, a Dukedom customarily given to the second son of an English Sovereign. Apart from that, her situation partly paralleled that of Alexandra in 1863 since her new husband had no specific role to play in national life. Queen Victoria was still on the Throne, still excluding the now elderly Prince of Wales from state affairs, and Prince George with him. George had by now given up his naval career and was obliged, with his wife, to exchange it for representing the Queen at Royal Family weddings abroad or in minor ceremonial duties at home. A characteristic for which May was criticized–her unmaternal nature–was in fact a benefit to George at this frustrating time. May unfailingly put him and his needs before those of their children, the first of whom, the future King Edward VIII, was born on 23rd June, 1894. He was followed in 1895 by Prince Albert, the future King George VI, and by the couple's only daughter, Mary, and three more sons. George naturally came to rely on May and his devotion to her was such that he hated being separated from her. Conversely, their children suffered from an over-disciplined upbringing that was strong on strictures about duty but low on warmth, and to some extent reflected May's positive hatred of pregnancy and childbirth.

Queen Victoria's death in 1901 produced a fundamental change in circumstances for George and May. George's father became King Edward VII and George himself direct heir to the Throne. Remembering his own frustrations, the King insisted on his son's seeing every important Cabinet paper and Foreign Office dispatch and even told George to show these highly confidential documents to May.

In this, the King, who appreciated intelligence in women as much as beauty, recognized his daughter-in-law's intellectual qualities even though those same qualities sometimes put May at odds with the rather lowbrow tastes of other members of the Royal Family. In-law relations were not improved, either, by May's shyness, which made her ill at ease with the noisy frivolity of her husband's sisters nor by a distinct contrast between her and Alexandra. Even as a girl, Alexandra had known how to play the gracious, serene, smiling Royal figure. May, however, was gauche and awkward in public, with a stiff, distant manner and a "shy nod", which many people found disconcerting. Prince George was not much better at commending himself in public, never having quite lost the quarter-deck bluster he had acquired in the Navy.

This ill-adapted pair were put to something of a test in 1901 with their 45,000-mile tour of the then-extensive British Empire. The tour, which lasted eight months, was all the same a great success and at least enabled George to get away from his still-clinging mother. It also enabled May to consolidate her own influence over her husband, which far from being a substitute for maternal power, was aimed at helping him in some important ways. May advised her husband on the speeches he had to deliver–a creative task he always found difficult–and despite his dislike of what he called "abroad", encouraged him to read up on the places they visited.

The considerable responsibility implicit in the tour had been an indication of King Edward's regard for his son and daughter-in-law. So were the new titles of Prince and Princess of Wales that he conferred on them at the end of 1901. Even so, personality differences between the more free-and-easy Edward and Alexandra and the quieter, rather stuffy George and May were quite pronounced. May, in fact, found her father-in-law rather intimidating. She also realized the differences between herself and George, for despite her efforts to make him more cultured, George was something of a Philistine. The beauties of art, the thrills of foreign travel, the revelations of history, particularly the Royal history that May took pains to impart to her children, even the exotic sights and experiences of the couples' tour of India in 1905–all these washed over George and left him unimpressed while May found them endlessly fascinating.

As far as possible, May relieved the situation by following her own interests, which also included interior decoration and design, her carefully catalogued collection of objets d'art and a passion for the theatre. Her intelligence showed, however, in the way she never let their disparate tastes become a source of rancor between herself and her husband. Their meeting place, so to speak, was in the most important area of their lives, their public roles. As both Prince and Princess of Wales and after the death of King Edward in 1910 as King George V and Queen Mary, they presented a united front firmly based on the area where they were in total agreement: the sacrosanct nature of the English Monarchy and the need to live up to that exalted ideal in their public and personal lives.

To a large extent, King George and Queen Mary reinforced the values of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Queen Mary set a standard of service for the present Royal Family, and in particular, Princess Diana. In this demanding context, it was imperative that before marriage Princess Diana had to have a blameless past and undergo tests to make sure she could provide heirs. After marriage, she had to undertake Royal duties, interest herself in the lives and cares of the people, and identify herself with "good works".

Perhaps in such circumstances, the idea of self-sacrifice, which may seem far-fetched in so privileged a young woman, is nearer the mark than at first appears. Princess May was a hard act to follow, but Diana may have done her one better, by demonstrating that a Princess of Wales can enhance the image of the Monarchy in ways quite apart from those dictated by tradition and strict protocol.



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