Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria, by Julia P. Gelardi

Nine stars

A prominent sub-theme that has become apparent during this biography binge would have to be the long reach of the English monarchy around Europe. It came up in a piece on George III’s daughters, as well as a biography of Queen Victoria (a George III granddaughter), and now with Julia Gelardi’s piece on five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who rose to prominence as consorts in various kingdoms. Gelardi offers a wonderful look into the lives of Princesses Alix (Russia), Maud (Norway), Sophie (Greece), Marie (Romania), and Ena (Spain), weaving together their personal lives with some of the historical goings-on in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That these cousins were both so similar and vastly different is greatly apparent in this book, which boasts an interconnected biography of each. Below I will offer only a very brief snapshot, in hopes of luring others into reading and discovering many more details about these five women of monarchical prominence. Gelardi’s attention to detail and smooth narrative are not lost on the attentive reader. Perfect for those who love history and how small nuances can cause revolutionary change in short order.

Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice (eventually Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna) is likely the most well-known of the Consort Five. A feisty child and close to her grandmother, Alix was soon won over by the eventual Tsar Nicholas II in 1894. As Gelardi notes, Alix was required to convert to Orthodoxy in order to marry and eventually serve as Empress. She did so with little fuss and never looked back. Russia was a powerful entity in Europe and held much sway going into the 20th century. Alix was able to make much headway with her Russian family and gave birth to five children, the youngest, Alexei, who inherited the haemophilia gene. It was around the time of Alexei’s struggles that Alix sought the help of a peasant preacher, the now infamous Rasputin. Their connection, while not sexual, proved to open a tear in the marriage with Tsar Nicholas II. As the people of Russia began uprisings, the role of the Tsar and the Romanov Empire dwindled, leaving Nicholas to stand down and dissolve his autocratic power. Russia was in the middle of fighting the Great War, a battle they were forced to leave to deal with the revolution in full swing at home. In the spring of 1918, after having handed power over to the people, Alix and her entire family were brutally assassinated. As Gelardi writes, perhaps one of the most gruesome and draw-out political assassinations ever undertaken. She made her mark, though paid the ultimate price.

Marie Alexandra Victoria (eventually Queen Marie of Romania) was born in 1875 and played a powerful role as well. An early love interest to England’s Prince George (eventually George V), Marie had a life-long affinity for the great monarch, her cousin. Marrying Ferdinand I of Romania in 1892, Marie helped support the kingdom by supporting her husband, though their marriage was strained from the early stages. While Marie did have six children, Gelardi posits that at least one came from a lover, though Ferdinand was by no means free from his own indiscretions. Marie attempted to remain above the fray, but did push for a strong Romania, especially in territorial expansion at the turn of the 20th century, when she sought the acquisition of Transylvania. With the onset of the Great War, Marie and Ferdinand had to make a choice about entering the fight and on whose side, with the Balkan sentiment rooted in Russia, but Marie having strong ties to her homeland and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The winds of change also blew as revolution amongst the people grew and eventually the monarchs were forced to abdicate and flee. Thankfully, their lives were spared, leaving the country in the hands of the next generation, as Gelardi recounts in her narrative.

Sophia Dorothea Ulrica Alice (eventually Queen Sophie of Greece) was another German-born princess whose early years were strongly influenced by her upbringing and her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, pushed for a strong support of her homeland. When she married Constantine I of Greece, the couple soon began their family, which numbered six children. After Constantine’s father was assassinated, they rose to the Throne and faced a similar struggle to that of Marie, on which side to place their support during the Great War. Equally troubling was the Greek people’s revolutionary fervour, as Gelardi emphasises, which saw Constantine I abdicate and leave the country as Greece flirted with a republic. Sophie fought hard to stand by her husband, but also struggled with her nationalistic lineage, which found her torn between Germany and England. While Constantine was briefly welcomed back to Greece, he was forced to leave again in 1922, never to return. Sophie spent her latter years liaising with family in England and trying to bask in what glory remained at her disposal.

Maud Charlotte Mary Victoria (eventually Queen Maud of Norway) was the youngest daughter of Edward VII, making her a sister of England’s George V. An intellectual child, Maud eventually agreed to marry Prince Charles of Denmark (her mother’s country of birth) and began a somewhat quiet life. When Charles was asked to become King of Norway after the country sought independence from Sweden, they rose to become King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway. Remaining far from the battlefields of the Great War, Gelardi posits that Maud was likely the only consort who was never forced to entertain entering the war. Watching the tumult around them, Haakon and Maud interacted with their relations, but were spared bloodshed and revolution throughout their time on the Norwegian Throne.

Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena (eventually Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain), known as Ena to her family, was the youngest and likely entered the consort fray much after her other cousins. Content to remain at home, Ena eventually caught the eye of King Alfonso XIII and agreed to marry him. Unlike the required conversion that her cousin Alix underwent, Ena’s marriage required that she denounce her Protestant past and accept Catholicism. Ena did so, though received much criticism by the British and even her own family. Marrying Alfonso came also with accepting his philandering ways, though she sought to put this aside and reign as best she could. Six children joined their family and they weathered the storm of the Great War without being required to send troops to the front lines. Instead, they sought to begin an imperial exploration of Africa. With the revolutionary sentiments building across Europe, Alfonso XIII left Spain without abdicating in 1931 for a life of exile. Ena was left with her children to determine how Spain might see another generation return to reign. Ena got her wish when her grandson, King Juan Carlos I, ascended at the end of Franco’s fascist rule in 1975.

While only a snippet of the biographical information provided, Gelardi presents the reader with much on which to ponder. As noted briefly above, there were two other cousins who played a particularly powerful role during these times, George V of England and Wilhelm II of Germany. That these seven of Victoria’s grandchildren proved to be so prominent in 20th century politics is no small feat. What might be interesting to the reader is that the various consorts and rulers mingled with such ease and regularity. I admit that I am not up on my royal lineage or correspondence, but one does not likely see that nowadays. Still, as Geraldi argues throughout, the interconnectedness of the five female consorts shows both the strong parallels and obvious differences in their reigns throughout Europe. That the continent was shaped in vastly different ways is not lost on the observant reader. Gelardi said it best in this book: “Maud of Norway, Sophie of Greece, Alexandra of Russia, Marie of Romania, and Victoria Eugenie of Spain may have been marked out by their illustrious positions and glittering marriages. But it is ultimately their dignity, devotion to duty, strong sense of responsibility, and steadfastness in the face of adversity that distinguishes them and makes their stories both compelling and timeless.”

Gelardi’s brilliant piece offers readers a wonderful glimpse into the lives of these five women as well as the continent’s vast array of political and social differences. With a strong narrative that ushers the story forward, Gelardi weaves together a strong biography of all five consorts, using detailed research and history as her guide. Each chapter is full of interesting tidbits and superimposes the lives of all five, rather than offering individual glimpses. Gelardi should be praised for this, as it strengthens the argument of the connection these cousins had, even if their lives differed greatly. I found myself wanting to know more and yet stunned at all that I did ascertain from this piece. The perfect piece for me that offers a wonderful survey of Europe at the time, which is bolstered with what little knowledge I have. Geraldi is surely one historian to keep in mind when looking to expand one’s horizons. 

Kudos, Madam Gelardi for such a wonderful biography. I wish I had found this sooner in my journey, though am now left to scramble to read more about these women, their lives, and the other royals who influenced them at the time. You are now on my permanent radar for biographical pieces.