Alexandra of Denmark was a rags-to-riches royal and the unlikeliest fashion icon of all time. Through bizarre circumstances, the Danish-born Queen consort of the United Kingdom even caused a limping pandemic in London! But as her fortunes—and outfits—changed, her life became one marred by tragedy after tragedy…after tragedy. Dive into these trendy and tragic facts to find out how Alexandra of Denmark went from sleeping in a dusty old attic to living it up in a palace.
Alexandra of Denmark, or Alix as her family called her, was born in 1844 in Denmark. In her early years, Alexandra and her five siblings weren’t on anyone’s radar. They were only a small and insignificant cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg, the royal house in Denmark. She lived the first 18 years of her life in near-total obscurity. Her family was comfortable, but they weren't exactly living it up—though all of that would change before long.
They say that the best things in life are free. While I haven’t personally gotten any of life’s luxuries free of charge—Caribbean cruise, anyone?—Alexandra definitely did. The penniless princess still lived a pretty charmed childhood. Alexandra grew up with her siblings in Copenhagen’s famed Yellow Palace, rent-free. And, to sweeten the deal, the palace came with some serious perks.
Alexandra’s childhood was short on luxuries—free palaces notwithstanding—but she still enjoyed the best things in life. Even her bedtime stories were epic. The famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen used to come to the palace to personally read his stories to Alexandra and her siblings. This is the same guy who wrote The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and Thumbelina. Doesn't get much better than that!
Despite enjoying some creature comforts, Alexandra couldn’t escape the reality of her impoverished family. Having a world-famous writer as a bedtime storyteller might have been more of a necessity than a luxury—she wasn’t sleeping on a bed of roses. Alexandra’s bedroom was a draughty old attic that she shared with her sister, Dagmar.
And, to make matters worse, she suffered other indignities no princess ever should.
Alexandra was so poor that she had to do what few other royals—if any—have ever done. She had to do the unthinkable. The unimaginable. She had to, gulp...work for a living. Before her fortunes turned in her favor, Alexandra waited on tables. Picture a waitress in a stained apron with frazzled hair and a tiara. Oh, the indignity.
Alexandra must not have been the best waitress, or maybe her customers just weren’t very big tippers. Either way, waiting tables didn’t earn Alexandra enough money to live like the royal she was—or even like a commoner. Poor Alexandra couldn’t afford to buy the latest fashions, so she made her own clothes. Don't you worry though: It wouldn’t be long before she was the one setting the trends.
After Alexandra’s spendthrift early years, her fortunes finally took a turn for the better in 1852. A political crisis of succession in Denmark made her father, of all people, next in line for the throne. Just like that, Alexandra and her family went from the bottom to the top. Suddenly, Alexandra and her sisters were extremely important royals on the European scene. While their status upgrade didn't change their financial fortunes much, it attracted the eyes of some very wealthy suitors.
But, unfortunately for Alexandra, not all of that attention was for the best.
Over in England, Queen Victoria was on the hunt for a wife for her son Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII. She enlisted the help of her daughter, who just so happened to be friendly with one very poor—but recently elevated—Alexandra of Denmark. After their families made contact, Alexandra met her prospective husband in a small town in Germany. It was just the beginning of a rocky relationship.
If Alexandra had dreamed of her Prince Charming, Edward, AKA "Dirty Bertie," definitely wasn't it.
Queen Victoria eventually settled on Alexandra as the right match for her son, but she wasn't the Queen’s first choice—and she never would be. Apparently, after exhausting a long list of potential matches, the British royal family called Alexandra “the only one to be chosen.” That’s the British way of saying, “I guess you’ll do.”
Poor Alexandra—if only she knew what she was getting herself into.
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With the match agreed upon, Edward VII proposed to Alexandra less than a year after meeting her. Finally, Alexandra would have the money to match her royal title, but she had no idea what traumas lay ahead. She would have a fairy tale wedding—and a nightmare marriage. But through all the tragedies that would come, she'd at least dress to impress.
Alexandra received the kind of royal welcome that could have been plucked right out of one of her bedtime stories. When she arrived in England—on a royal yacht, no less—she did so to the sound of music composed specifically for her arrival. Without even trying, Alexandra had become an overnight sensation in her new home, and she didn't stop there.
She would be the cause of more than a few fashion frenzies in due time.
Alexandra wasn’t accustomed to the huge fanfare that she encountered. After all, just a few years earlier, she had been sleeping in an attic and waiting tables. So, to the disappointment of the excited crowds, the ever-modest Alexandra and her new fiancé, Edward VII, opted for a smaller wedding. But smaller didn’t mean less impressive.
Alexandra’s days of darning her own shabby dresses were all behind her. Even before she officially married into the British royal family—and a whole lot of money—Alexandra had her first moment as a fashion icon. She posed for widely circulated photographs in her wedding dress, sporting a pearl necklace and three diamond bracelets.
If only her marriage had ended up as glamorous as her wedding.
Alexandra definitely developed some serious skills as a seamstress from her dusty-attic days, but there was no way she could have sewn her own wedding dress. The train for Alexandra’s silk-satin dress was so long that it required eight ladies to carry it down the aisle. And she was going to need all of the support she could get if she was going to survive being married to one of the biggest scoundrels in all of Europe.
Alexandra wasn’t the only member of her family moving up in the world. Her siblings were making moves too. In just two years, her father had ascended to the Danish throne, her brother had become King of the Hellenes, and her sister, Dagmar, was married to the Russian Tsarevich. Yet it wouldn’t be long before they'd each beg to have their simple life back.
Alexandra’s new mother-in-law wasn't her biggest fan. That's bad enough for anyone, but it's a whole lot worse when she's Queen Victoria, a.k.a. the most powerful person in the world. While the kingdom might have been singing Alexandra’s praises, Queen Victoria saw right through her couture clothing. The Queen resented Alexandra’s Danish loyalties—but it wasn’t her loyalties that the Queen should have been concerned about.
Accounts of Alexandra’s and Edward VII’s marriage differ. According to some historians, the couple enjoyed a happy union. Others say that their relationship was a little “Victorian”—you know, because Queen Victoria was practically the third wheel in their marriage. But one thing is for certain: Alexandra kept some dark marital secrets hidden in the folds of her gowns.
Alexandra was a devout Christian all throughout her life and she took her wedding vows very seriously. Particularly that one vow about fidelity. Her husband, on the other hand, ignored that particular vow almost daily. Maybe if Queen Victoria wasn’t so busy worrying about Alexandra’s “loyalties,” she could have kept her son in line.
Alexandra might have tried to hide her husband’s affairs behind her many oversized 19th century dresses, but she failed terribly. It was an open secret at the time that Edward VII carried on multiple affairs throughout his marriage. He might have had as many as 55 different mistresses. And Alexandra kept tabs on every single last one of them.
Alexandra was a social butterfly who enjoyed a lot of physical activities. She was an “expert horsewoman” and often ice-skated and danced. But it was her love of other hobbies that had Queen Victoria shaking in her crown. To Queen Victoria’s consternation, Alexandra was an avid hunter. And she was fixing her crosshairs on her mother-in-law.
When he wasn’t too busy with one of his 55 mistresses, Edward VII actually showed affection towards Alexandra. Seriously, the guy must have been a stallion, because on top of all his affairs, Alexandra and Edward VII had six children together. However, in a strange coincidence, every single one of those kids was born premature—or was it a coincidence?
It was no secret that Queen Victoria didn’t much care for her daughter-in-law—and the feeling was mutual. Alexandra might have tolerated her husband’s endless lineup of mistresses, but his mother was too much to bear. But, obviously, she couldn’t exactly get rid of the Queen of all England. However, she came up with a devious plan to get even with her meddling mother-in-law.
Alexandra might have used her dresses to hide her secrets—literally. Her six premature deliveries might not have been premature at all. Some historians suggest that Alexandra deliberately lied about how far along she was in her pregnancies so that Queen Victoria would miss the birth of her grandchildren. You’d think the Queen would have clued in after, I don’t know, five early pregnancies?
Of course, the tug-of-war between Alexandra and Queen Victoria for control over her marriage didn’t end there. Alexandra might have stripped the Queen of the opportunity to witness the birth of her grandchildren, but she couldn’t strip her of her legacy. Queen Victoria attempted to tell Alexandra what to name her children.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Alexandra had to put the Queen in her place.
Alexandra was the queen of premature deliveries—if only Amazon could learn from her example—but it might not have been intentional. While it’s fun to imagine Alexandra lying in order to dupe Queen Victoria, she might not have been that clever. From the sounds of it, Alexandra had a hard time with childbirth. Her third pregnancy nearly ended her life.
During her third pregnancy, Alexandra suffered from a terrible bout of rheumatic fever. To make matters worse, her errant husband seemed particularly uninterested in her rapidly deteriorating situation. But Alexandra had survived poverty, she could survive a fever. She recovered and delivered a healthy child—though she didn't come through unscathed. She suffered a permanent disfiguration.
Somehow, Alexandra managed to survive her run-in with rheumatic fever and her third pregnancy, but she still paid a terrible price for it. Rheumatic fever left the once-glamorous princess who had strutted down the aisle in the most fashionable dresses with a terrible limp. But for Alexandra, this just meant that she found her signature walk for the runway.
Alexandra was a princess of Britain, but a queen of fashion—and not even a terrible disfigurement could dethrone her. Instead of becoming a laughingstock, Alexandra became the envy of every woman in the kingdom. Her new limp became a fashion trend known as the “Alexandra limp.” High-society ladies all over London walked around with a pretend limp for years.
What would have happened if she had had the leg amputated?
Alexandra’s influence on fashion, high society, and culture got way out of hand. The “Alexandra limp” was so popular and fashionable that even the shoemakers got in on the fad—eat your heart out Nike. All throughout London, shoemakers began making mismatched shoes to better allow women to copy Alexandra’s signature limp.
I suppose that’s easier than catching a fever and surviving a pregnancy by the skin of your teeth.
Not all of the fashion trends that Alexandra started were as strange as limps. Alexandra also made it fashionable to wear chokers and dresses with high necklines. But once again, Alexandra had started the trend as an accident. She wore chokers and high necklines because she wanted to conceal a hideous and embarrassing scar on her neck.
Alexandra’s health got progressively worse after each of her pregnancies—and her good fortunes were just beginning to sour, too. Alexandra began to lose her hearing due to a hereditary illness. She stopped socializing as much and spent more time isolated with her children and pets. But her days of suffering had just started.
Childbirth had never been easy for Alexandra, but she had managed to produce five healthy and beautiful babies. Number six would be tragically different. Alexandra’s sixth child, a baby boy, only survived for a single day. In her grief, a weakened Alexandra pleaded with Queen Victoria for privacy but once again, the two royals bickered bitterly.
Queen Victoria insisted on a very public display of court mourning for the infant royal’s passing. Alexandra, not as popular as she had once been, took all of the blame for the showy display. The press described Alexandra’s pregnancy as “a wretched abortion” and the funeral arrangements as “sickening mummery.” It was the lowest moment in Alexandra's life so far—and her trials weren't over yet.
Despite her declining health and immense grief at the loss of her infant son, Alexandra carried on her royal duties, even if everyone hated her for it. On a trip to Ireland, thousands of angry nationalists booed Alexandra and Edward VII as they waved. Alexandra found the strength to smile through the whole ordeal.
And she managed to finally gain the respect of her long-time nemesis.
Despite their differences, there might actually have been some respect between Alexandra and Queen Victoria. The Queen said of Alexandra’s tireless efforts, “She opens bazaars, attends concerts, visits hospitals in my place...she not only never complains, but endeavors to prove that she has enjoyed what to another would be a tiresome duty.”
That’s high praise coming from the woman who had spent the last decade or so making her life miserable.
Just as it seemed like Alexandra was about to move on from her infant son’s passing, she suffered another blow. Tragic as the loss of her sixth-born son was, it was nothing compared to what she had to endure next. She was about to lose her favorite child in the prime of his life—and there was nothing that could ever make that pain go away.
Alexandra had arranged for her eldest son, Prince Albert Victor, to become engaged to Princess Mary of Teck. The young couple were just about to tie the knot when Albert Victor suddenly fell ill with influenza. Just days before his 28th birthday, the strapping young prince succumbed to his illness. Alexandra would never recover from the loss—mostly because there was more tragedy in store.
Alexandra was totally devastated by her eldest son’s passing, and everyone could see it. Princess Mary of Teck, Prince Albert Victor’s fiancé, wrote to Queen Victoria about Alexandra. She said, “The despairing look on her face was the most heart-rending thing I have ever seen.” To say that Alexandra kind of lost it would be an understatement.
Alexandra said of her son’s passing, “I have buried my angel and with him my happiness.” She was totally grief-stricken and couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye to him. So, she made his room into a shrine to his memory and left it totally untouched. Thankfully, "dusty old rooms" was one trend that did not catch on with the broader society.
Just a couple of years later, Alexandra suffered another devastating loss. Her brother-in-law, Emperor Alexander III of Russia, suddenly passed. Alexandra knew the feeling of grief all too well and went to her sister’s side. She spent two weeks with Dagmar in Russia, even sleeping by her side. It was just like the old days in the draughty attic.
Alexandra’s losses just kept piling up. In 1901, she lost her long-time “frenemy,” Queen Victoria. While Alexandra must have felt some relief at having her crotchety old mother-in-law kick the bucket, it also put her right back where she did not want to be—i.e., in the spotlight. With her mother-in-law gone, her husband ascended to the throne and Alexandra became Queen consort.
The one-time nobody from Denmark was now married to the King of England. I'd say she did pretty well for herself.
You can take the girl out of the dusty old attic, but you can’t take the dusty old attic out of the girl. Even after becoming Queen consort, Alexandra kept her thrifty ways. She wasn’t sewing her own dresses anymore, but she still pinched her pennies. She re-used her old stockings and had her old dresses turned into furniture covers.
For all of her frugality, though, she still spent money like crazy—though for a heartwarming reason.
Though Alexandra was now rich beyond her wildest dreams, she didn't spend all that money on herself. No: She spent it on others—and she spent a lot of it on others. She was a total softie, and she'd open the checkbook for just about any sob story she heard. Her grandson even went so far as to say, "Her generosity was a source of embarrassment."
When her financial advisers talked to her about it, she would either wave them off or pretend that she hadn’t heard them. Though, considering the fact that she was practically deaf, she might actually not have heard them.
Just nine days after her 59th birthday, Alexandra had a close call that nearly ended her reign, and her life, prematurely. While the new Queen consort slept peacefully in her bed, her room quietly filled with smoke. Thankfully, one of her attendants, Charlotte Knollys, rushed in and whisked her away to safety at the last second. It was a terrifying close call—but the next time death came calling, she wouldn't be so lucky.
Alexandra was visiting her brother in Greece when her husband, Edward VII, fell ill. Unlike when he had ignored her when she had rheumatic fever, Alexandra rushed to her husband’s side. She made it back to England without a moment to spare. The very day she returned, he passed away. She wrote, "I feel as if I had been turned into stone, unable to cry, unable to grasp the meaning of it all.”
He might have been an incorrigible womanizer and a scoundrel, but Alexandra still cared deeply for her husband, and now he was gone.
Alexandra was related to just about every single royal in all of Europe, either by blood or by marriage. And just like any family, Alexandra’s family fought bitterly. Only, when her family had a falling out, entire nations got involved. Alexandra despised her nephew, the German Emperor Wilhelm II, and called him, “inwardly our enemy.”
During WWI, he would become outwardly her enemy.
During WWI, no one was safe from the fighting—not even the Queen mother. If Alexandra thought that being the aunt of the German Emperor would make him look upon her with mercy, she was sorely mistaken. The German forces launched a Zeppelin air raid on Sandringham House when she was still inside. Luckily, Alexandra survived the attack.
Other members of her family did not make it out of WWI alive.
Tragedy seemed to run Alexandra’s family. She wasn’t the only one of her siblings to lose a child. Alexandra’s nephew, Tsar Nicholas II, the son of her closest sister Dagmar, suffered a terrible fate. Alexandra had the comfort of knowing that her son had passed peacefully—but her nephew and his entire family were brutally butchered by revolutionaries.
After all of those years of hardship, Alexandra’s age finally caught up with her. She was no longer the youthful fashion icon that she had once been—and aging gracefully just didn’t sound like fun. Alexandra tried to maintain her looks by plastering her face with heavy makeup, but her days of setting odd fashion trends were long gone.
The same people who used to copy her every move—including her limp—started calling her appearance “enameled.”
In her last few years, Alexandra’s health and mental state had deteriorated significantly. She had endured poverty, prominence, and providence, but it was finally time to throw in the towel. Alexandra passed from a heart attack less than a month shy of her 81st birthday. She was laid to rest next to her husband—presumably in an elaborate dress and wearing mismatched shoes.
Over the years, Alexandra had a remarkably civil relationship with many of her husband's mistresses—but when Edward VII was on his deathbed, one of them took it too far. Alice Keppel, Edward's longtime mistress, heard that he was ill and rushed to his bedside. Completely unable to control herself, Keppel made such a scene that even the infinitely patient Alexandra had had enough.
The Queen consort muttered, “Get that woman away,” and had her guards escort Keppel out. Hey, what can we say, Edward had a certain effect on the ladies!
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