The Northern Princesses (not a post about Frozen)

Excuse the naked SEO-baiting title for this post, but now we must talk about two northern princesses (and one northern prince). We have spoken before about how Childers takes Carruthers and Davies north to Flensburg for a very clear reason: a real-world history lesson for the reader, taking us to one of the places in the world where the rise of German power was most apparent. On September 28th, in fact, they sail into the Danish part of Schleswig-Holstein and take a drink in Satrup, surrounded by Danes who politely agree to speak German to these English interlopers, which can’t have been comfortable for them:

Nothing loth, we followed in the dinghy, skirted a bend of the Sound, and opened up the lights of a village, with some smacks at anchor in front of it. We were escorted to the inn, and introduced to a formidable beverage, called coffee-punch, and a smoke-wreathed circle of smacksmen, who talked German out of courtesy, but were Danish in all else.

But, in fact, Denmark at this time is even more interesting, by virtue of its extraordinary royal family. The king of Denmark, Christian IX, had been made Prince of Denmark (now, there’s a title to conjure with) in 1852 as part of the London Protocol which attempted to settle the blessed Schleswig-Holstein question, which we have discussed before. At the time, Christian was a distant cousin of the incumbent king, Frederick, who had been through two marriages already, had no children, and was widely believed to be infertile. Essentially, the Danish throne had become an instrument of international realpolitik, a way of trying to sort out Schleswig-Holstein.

Dagmar, Vilhelm, Christian and Alexandra - an extraordinary family.
Dagmar, Vilhelm, Christian and Alexandra – an extraordinary family.

Christian became king of Denmark in 1863, and the following year the Schleswig-Holstein question was answered by a more direct route: Prussian arms. Schleswig-Holstein became a province of the German Reich. But by then, the Danish royal family had become even more enmeshed in European dynastic affairs.

Here’s where it becomes rather medieval – and it seems astonishing to modern eyes the extent to which princesses (and, to a lesser extent, princes) were still instruments of diplomatic relations as late as 1863. That was the year in which Princess Alexandra, Christian IX’s eldest daughter, was married to Albert Edward, the future Edward VII. She became a hugely popular queen-consort, mother to the future George V, and a stoic bearer of her husband’s infidelities.

The following year, Alexandra’s sister Dagmar was betrothed to the Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia, son of Alexander II and the heir to the Russian imperial crown. But only months later, Nicholas Alexandrovich died of meningitis, and declared as one of his dying wishes that Dagmar be betrothed to his younger brother, the future Alexander III (we warned you this was medieval). Alexander proposed to Dagmar in June 1866, and that September she travelled to Russia to be married in November. She converted to the Orthodox church, and changed her name to Maria Feodorovna.

So, the Danish royal family’s daughters were now the wives of the future king of England, and tsar of Russia. But it didn’t end there. In the same year that Christian became king of Denmark, the Greeks chose (under British influence) his son, the brother of Alexandra and Dagmar, to be their king. The Greek National Assembly had deposed their king Otto, and were keen to butter up the British. The suggested replacement was the 17-year-old son of what had been until then an obscure Danish royal line, and on 30 March 1863, young Prince Vilhelm became George, King of the Hellenes. His grandson is the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip.

It’s hard not to be swept away by this story. The relatively obscure house of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg of Denmark moved from being a modest household in royal Copenhagen, with an income of only £800 a year, to occupying the Danish throne, and to having its children seated on the thrones – or at least, next to the thrones – of the United Kingdom, Russia and Greece. The joke ran that if Victoria was the grandmother of Europe, thanks to her dynastic shenanigans, then Christian IX was Europe’s father-in-law. At the outbreak of the First World War the grandchildren of Victoria and Christian sat on the thrones of Denmark, Greece, Norway, Germany, Romania, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom. Their influence is felt even today: the descendants of Victoria and Christian occupy the modern thrones (if such a phrase is possible) of Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

And our SEO-baiting Frozen reference is somewhat justified. When they were growing up in their townhouse in Copenhagen, the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg girls Alix and Dagmar – and their brother George – would receive a regular visitor, who read them bedtime stories and wrote movingly of Dagmar’s departure for Russia. He was, of course, Hans Christian Andersen. And he needn’t have worried about Dagmar. The cold never bothered her anyway.


2 thoughts on “The Northern Princesses (not a post about Frozen)

  1. Doesn’t George Macdonald Fraser mine the S-H question/the Danish Court ( and an organisation called the Sons Of The Volks-something) for the setting of one of the Flashman novels? Manages to work in Lola Montez and Ottoman Von Bismark as well, I seem to remember.


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