By the late 19th century, Queen Victoria’s nine children had delivered her more than thirty surviving grandchildren, a remarkable family unit that was not just a British institution but one that was helping to shape the future of Europe.
Eight of Victoria’s children had married into Europe’s royal houses and now the ageing queen was busy matchmaking her brood of surprisingly biddable grandchildren into dynastic marriages in accordance with her late husband Prince Albert’s ambitions.
Albert and Victoria had long ago decided that their children and grandchildren would be vehicles to the peace and stability of Europe after the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars. Six million people died during this catastrophic conflict and the royal couple strongly believed that no one continental country should become sufficiently dominant to unleash such destruction across Europe again.
Each carefully arranged royal marriage would be ‘a path to spreading British liberal values across the continent’ and perhaps even help to push back against the destabilising forces of republicanism, revolution and war.
As we now know so poignantly, it was a vain hope that ended in the muddy, blood-filled battlefields of the First World War, and a political shift that would see the collapse of many of Europe’s royal houses and the rise of a very different world to the one that Victoria and Albert had imagined.
In her captivating and totally absorbing exploration of Queen Victoria’s role as matchmaking manipulator and grandmother, former BBC TV producer and now acclaimed author Deborah Cadbury whisks us back to some of the glittering and decadent palaces of Russia and Europe as we relive the scandals, political machinations and family tensions that beset the monarch’s best intentions.
The queen was noted for her markedly European outlook (most surely a very early ‘Remainer’) and used what Cadbury calls ‘her trusty Almanac de Gotha,’ a Who’s Who of European royalty, to not just arrange prospective marriages for her grandchildren but also to maintain and increase her own power in Europe.
Victoria felt uniquely placed to orchestrate the selection process and help her grandchildren navigate the mysteries of the royal marriage market where young dreams of romance and power often needed realistic guidance.
In the queen’s sights was royalty from all over Europe, but chiefly her beloved Albert’s German homeland. Yet for all their seeming obedience, her grandchildren often had plans of their own, plans that were fuelled by strong wills and romantic hearts.
And her matchmaking schemes were further complicated by their coinciding with tumultuous international upheavals beginning with the assassination in 1881 of Emperor Alexander II of Russia by revolutionaries trying to overthrow the country’s tsarist autocracy.
The brutal manner of his death undermined European royalty’s fragile façade of security, even challenging its very existence, and a distraught Queen Victoria wrote in her diary at the time that she had not ‘closed her eyes all night I was so shaken with horror.’
Revolution and war were already in the air but the queen ploughed on with her matchmaking plans for her grandchildren’s dynastic marriages, including Prince Albert Victor (known in the family as Prince Eddy), eldest son of the Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne.
His grandmother’s plans to pair him off with Alix, his German cousin Princess Alexandra of Hesse, fell apart when she caught the eye of Grand Duke Nicholas, heir to the throne of Russia, the man who would one day become the last Tsar of Russia and would die alongside Alexandra and their five children in a dank cellar in Ekaterinburg.
And it is the fates of Victoria’s seven grandchildren who married into European royalty at a critical point in their histories – and the siblings who played a role in their stories – that become the principal focus of this enthralling account.
Through revolution, war and anarchy, Cadbury gives us an intimate portrait of the lives and loves of Kaiser Wilhelm, the unstable, warmongering son of Victoria’s eldest daughter Vicky, the German Empress; Wilhelm’s sister Sophie who became Queen of Greece; Prince George who became George V after his elder brother Eddy’s sudden death; their youngest sister Princess Maud who became Queen of Norway; Marie (‘Missy’) of Edinburgh who became the last Queen of Romania; Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg who was crowned Queen of Spain; and the ill-fated Alix who married into the fantastically wealthy but doomed Russian royal family.
At the heart of all the scheming was Queen Victoria, the doting grandmother but also the manipulative, matriarchal figure who was feared and respected and whose determined matchmaking too often ended in disaster for her naïve and unworldly grandchildren.
Victoria has been condemned by some historians as ‘a control freak’ but Cadbury claims that the queen was shrewd and eminently adaptable, possessing a powerful instinct of survival for not just her family but for the continuation of the monarchy.
Cadbury is a skilled and vivacious writer, painting an engaging and memorable portrait of an indomitable queen in a real-life story of tragedy, scandal and catastrophe, threaded through with pathos, passion and melodrama.
Fascinating and revealing, this is a gripping read for fans of royal politicking, and anyone with a keen interest in British and European history.
(Bloomsbury, hardback, £25)