Queen Victoria is rightfully known as the “Grandmother of Europe” thanks to how many of her descendants found themselves on European thrones by the dawn of World War I. The role of her junior male counterpart rightfully belongs to King Christian IX of Denmark. Less well-known than his British peer, four of Christian’s six children would end up crowned heads, while the remaining two played equally as important roles in the makeup of Western Europe as it careened into the 20th century.
It’s hard to say who his most famous offspring is – my inclination is to say Alexandra, who married the future Edward VII in 1863 and eventually became his queen consort, but her younger sister, Dagmar (or Marie Feodorovna), who married the Alexander III of Russia and became the mother of Nicholas II might take the edge when it comes to global recognition. Regardless, when you overlay Christian’s children with those of Victoria’s, you essentially get a pretty solid road map for how Europe’s royal families evolved from the height of their popularity in the 19th century to an age of revolution that ravaged Western Europe and saw many scurrying from their gilded palaces for safety in Switzerland and France (the latter having solved their little royalty issue centuries ago).
This isn’t a profile of Christian, but let’s put him in some context. He was born in Schleswig (of what is now Germany), the fourth son of Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Beck. In other words, relative royal obscurity. His father was a brother-in-law to King Frederick VI of Denmark, whose son, Frederick VII, ascended the throne in 1848. Frederick married three times, the first two ending in acrimonious (and scandalous) divorces. His third marriage was similarly tinged with impropriety as it was believed to cover up a homosexual relationship he was having with his best friend (and the father of his new wife’s child). Suffice to say, Frederick didn’t have any legitimate children and the succession of the Danish monarchy entered crisis mode.
Christian, meanwhile, tried his luck for the hand of Queen Victoria, but as we know, she chose a different German, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in 1840. In 1842, Christian married Louise of Hesse-Kassel, whose mother was Princess Charlotte of Denmark and, as such, was a niece of King Christian VIII. In 1852, the powers that were came together and effectively “elected” Christian to succeed Frederick to the throne in the London Protocol. Their logic was premised on Louise’s ties to the Danish Royal Family, but Christian’s availability put him in an uncomplicated position to take on the crown.
Christian and Louise established themselves by quite literally waiting in the wings. His number was called on November 15, 1863 and he ascended the throne as Christian IX, ruling until 1906. So, with that, let’s tick through his children:
Christian and Louise’s eldest child was Frederick, born in Copenhagen on June 3, 1843. Like any good 19th century prince, he was provided with a military education, which was followed up by a stint in England at the University of Oxford. His higher education was cut short by his father’s accession in 1863, but for a few brief months he was in England just as his sister, Alexandra, was establishing herself as Princess of Wales. By the end of the year, he returned to Copenhagen. His mother was eager to marry him off – more specifically, she was hopeful that he might marry one of Queen Victoria’s unmarried daughters. Unfortunately, yet another alliance with Denmark – as opposed to Germany – wasn’t doable for Britain and he instead married Princess Louise of Sweden in July 1868.
The union was meant to promote better relations between Denmark and Sweden, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Not only did Louise fail to get along with her husband, but she constantly rubbed her mother-in-law, the Queen, the wrong way, too. The marriage was fruitful, producing six children.
Frederick succeeded his father to the Danish throne in 1906. His eldest son, Christian X, succeeded him just six years later in 1912 – it is from this line which the current Danish Royal Family is descended. His second son ended up King Haakon VII of Norway and married Edward VII and Alexandra’s daughter, Maud. More on them next month.
Christian’s second child was his eldest daughter, Alexandra. As mentioned, she married Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Bertie, the Prince of Wales, in 1863 – just a few months before her father ascended the throne. Thanks to Victoria’s longevity the two continued as the Prince and Princess of Wales until her death in January 1901. Their rule lasted just nine years, though Bertie’s skills as Edward VII are best-remembered for his role as diplomat in the years leading up to World War I.
The couple had six children – two sons, three daughters and a third son, John, who died young. Their eldest son, Albert Victor, died prematurely in 1892 and it was their second son, George V, who succeeded his father in 1910. As discussed, their daughter, Maud, married Frederick VIII’s son, Haakon VII of Norway. Alexandra lived in England with her children until her death in 1925.
Christian’s third child and second son was George, a man we’ve actually discussed in some detail here before. Much like his father before him, he found himself on a throne despite not being born with any expectation of it. In 1863 (big year for the family), he was named King of the Hellenes and duly moved to Athens, Greece. He married Princess Olga Constantinovna of Russia and the couple produced eight children. The eldest son, Constantine, succeeded his father to the throne and married Princess Sophie of Prussia (granddaughter of Queen Victoria via her eldest daughter, the Empress of Germany). His youngest son was Andrew, none other than the Duke of Edinburgh’s father.
George was assassinated in March 1913, ushering in a period of even greater instability for the Greek Royal Family, which would see itself forced out the country twice before its final reinstatement.
Christian’s fourth child and second daughter was Dagmar, born on November 26, 1847. Incredibly close with her elder sister, Alexandra, the two were inseparable during their childhoods in Copenhagen. In 1864, the year after her sister left for Britain, she became engaged to Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich of Russia, who unexpectedly died in 1865. His last wish was reportedly for his betrothed to marry his younger brother, Alexander. They did just that on November 9, 1866. Together they produced six children, the eldest of whom was Nicholas II, famous for becoming Russia’s last tsar and his assassination in 1918.
Alexander and Dagmar (who became Marie Feodorovna upon her marriage) ascended the throne in 1881, a time cut short by Alexander’s death in 1894. Dagmar insisted on remaining in Russia after the Revolution and World War I until, in 1919, she was convinced by Alexandra to leave. She spent a few years with her sister in England, but couldn’t stomach living as second fiddle in her sister’s country. She ended up leaving for Denmark, where she remained until her death in 1928. Though she was told of her son’s murder (along with her daughter-in-law and five grandchildren), she refused to believe it, holding on firmly to the belief that they had managed to escape and the Bolsheviks were covering up the truth. According to one of her daughters, Dagmar likely realized the truth at some point, but couldn’t bring herself to publicly acknowledge it.
These first four certainly mark the best-known of Christian’s children, making up the crowned heads of the UK, Denmark, Greece and Russia. His fifth child and third daughter, Thyra, was born on September 29, 1853. In December 1878 she married Ernest Augustus, Crown Prince of Hanover, though there was little chance of him ever ascending the Hanoverian throne. In 1866 Hanover was annexed by Prussia after it sided with Austria in the Austro-Prussian War and Ernest Augustus’s father, George V, a cousin of Queen Victoria, was deposed.
The marriage was certainly not as lofty as Alexandra’s and Dagmar’s, but there’s a reason for that – as well as how relatively late in life Thyra married. In her adolescence she fell in love with a soldier and became pregnant. Her family arranged for her to move to Athens and have the baby – she duly gave birth to a daughter, Maria, in November 1871. Less than two months later, the soldier, after a confrontation with Thyra’s father, killed himself. The baby was adopted by a Danish couple and renamed “Kate.”
Due to her lack of virginity and the possibility of scandal, Thyra was forced to make do with a lesser match. She spent much of her adulthood living with her husband in respectable exile in Austria. The couple had six children, the youngest of whom, Ernest Augustus, married a daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Thyra died in Austria in 1933.
Christian’s youngest child and third son was Valdemar, born on October 27, 1858. In October 1885 he married for love to Princess Marie d’Orleans, a (nominal) French princess and a Catholic. The wedding was attended by Queen Louise and Alexandra with an agreement that the couple’s sons were raised Lutheran and daughters Catholic.
Over the course of his life, Valdemar was offered the thrones of Bulgaria and Norway, but was forced to turn them both down for political reasons. He dedicated his career to the Navy and lived out the rest of his life with his family in Denmark. When he died in 1939 he was the last surviving of Christian IX’s children.