Naval Daughter

Marie Alexandra Victoria was born on 29 October 1875 at Eastwell Park, Kent, and was the eldest daughter of Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Maria Alexandrovna of Russia.

Marie, known as Missy, and her siblings were raised by their mother since their father was often absent due to his naval career but Maria didn’t waste a lot of time on the education of her daughters as she didn’t believe they were very bright. When Marie was eleven, the Duke was named commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet and the family took up residence at San Antonio Palace in Malta. Marie always spoke fondly of her time in Malta, believing it to be the happiest time of her entire life, however this may have been down to the fact she fell in love with Maurice Bourke, the captain of the Duke’s ship, and she would have fits of jealousy if he spoke to her sisters instead of her.

In 1889, Marie was devastated when the family relocated to Coburg after her father was confirmed as heir to Ernst II as it was the start of a far more austere lifestyle. Maria appointed a German governess to oversee the education of her daughters and had them confirmed in the Lutheran faith. On a more positive note, the girls received more lessons in painting and music, something they enjoyed greatly, and they were allowed to attend the theatre. As the girls grew older, their attention was inevitably diverted towards the young men who paraded in and out of their lives, courtesy of their brother, Affie.

Unhappy Marriage

Marie was considered highly attractive in her youth and she had several young men vying for her hand in marriage, however one young man had already stolen her heart – George, Duke of York. Marie had known George for the majority of her life since he was also in the navy and had been a frequent visitor of the family while they were in Malta. George seemed to be just as fond of Marie, and when the prospect of marriage was raised, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria heartily approved of the match. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Alexandra, Princess of Wales and Maria who had a longterm enmity towards each other. When George proposed to Marie, she reluctantly turned him down and hoped they could remain friends.

Maria had another bridegroom in mind for her daughter, Ferdinand, the nephew of Carol I of Romania, and the Duchess arranged for a meeting. Ferdinand, a decade older, was rather shy but Marie liked him and they were soon engaged much to Queen Victoria’s dismay as she felt her granddaughter was still too young. Queen Victoria liked Ferdinand enough but Romania was not a stable country and she feared for her granddaughter’s future.

Marie and Ferdinand were married on 10 January 1893 at Sigmaringen Castle and nine months later, Marie gave birth to her first child, Carol, on 15 October 1893. The birth of her son was not a happy experience for Marie as the Romanian doctors were reluctant to use chloroform, believing the agony of childbirth was a woman’s punishment for Eve’s sins, but they relented after the intervention of Maria Alexandrovna. Marie had a hard time adjusting to life in Romania, finding court life rather austere, and Queen Elisabeth’s constant reminders that childbirth was the most important part of a woman’s life only had Marie thinking the opposite. When Marie fell pregnant with her second child, Elisabeth, she longed for her mother to be with her. The King and Queen felt Marie was incapable of raising her children by herself so they were promptly removed from her care.

Marie and Ferdinand did not have a particularly happy marriage and it took them a while to learn how to live with each other, however once they had come to a mutual understanding, their relationship became more comfortable and their lives only intertwined when necessary. In 1896, Marie and Ferdinand moved into Cotroceni Palace but Marie became frightened when Ferdinand contracted typhoid fever and seemed close to death. Afraid of losing her husband, Marie was relieved when Ferdinand made a full recovery and during his convalescence, Marie got to spend time with her children.

Around this time, Marie met Lieutenant Zizi Cantacuzene who shared her passion for horse-riding and they began having an affair which was soon stopped when the information went public. Marie fled to Coburg to stay with her mother when rumours began to circulate she was pregnant and historians have speculated she either had a stillbirth or gave a child away. Marie went on to have a series of affairs, and it is possible that more than one of her later children had different fathers. Historians agree that Barbu Stirbey, with whom Marie had a longterm affair, was the father of her youngest son, Mircea, and possibly Ileana. The paternity of Maria is uncertain, but Marie herself claimed the girl was the daughter of her cousin, Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich of Russia. There is also a great deal of speculation Nicholas was fathered by Waldorf Astor, a close friend and confidante of Marie’s. Regardless of the truth, the children were acknowledged by Ferdinand to avoid a scandal.

Queen of Romania

In 1914, Carol I died and Ferdinand ascended the throne but the coronation didn’t take place until 1922 due to the First World War. Most agree Ferdinand was too mild-mannered to make his mark as king, and it was really Queen Marie who ruled Romania. Queen Marie contributed widely to the war effort in her country, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse and raising funds for them. Marie also had a pivotal role in devising plans for the Romanian army to fight against the Germans who had invaded most of the country.

At the end of the war, Marie travelled to Paris and bullied the Allies into ensuring Romania was given back territories it had lost to Russia and Austria-Hungary in the past, arguing that the Allies owed a huge debt to Romania who had suffered more casualties than any other country during the war. Her negotiations were successful and Romanian territories more than doubled in size.

After the war, Marie contented herself arranging for suitable marriages for her children and was delighted when her daughter, Elisabeth, became engaged to George of Greece. George’s sisters, Helen and Irene, also spent some time with Marie’s family until they had to return to Greece after the death of their father. However, the visit wasn’t in vain as Marie’s eldest son, Carol, eventually married Irene. Marie had been in despair of her eldest son every marrying as he already had an illegitimate son by his mistress and had seemed content. In 1922, Marie married her second daughter, Maria, to Alexander I of Serbia and was soon delighted at the prospect of having two reigning grandsons, Michael of Romania and Peter of Yugoslavia.

Over the next few years, Marie took several trips abroad to promote the interests of Romania and completed a very successful tour of the United States. On 5 January 1926, Marie was devastated when her son renounced his rights to the Romanian throne and also surrendered his parental rights to Michael who was proclaimed heir apparent. However, Ferdinand was already dying from the cancer that would lead to his death in 1927 and his grandson succeeded him at the age of six. Marie’s eldest son, who had fled Romania with his mistress, Magda Lupescu, had grown bored and made several attempts to return to Romania. Carol arrived in Bucharest on 6 June 1930 and usurped the throne from his son as Carol II.

Initially, Marie was happy her son had retuned, however he did not seek his mother’s counsel much to her displeasure. Carol had sworn to uphold the constitution at his coronation, however he began meddling in political affairs at the start of his reign to increase his own power. He believed what Romania really needed was a dictatorship and he set up an informal body known as the camarilla with Magda as the most important member. Magda was deeply unpopular with the Romanian people and Carol resisted all attempts to reconcile him with Helen who he had divorced in 1928. At a time when most Romanians were struggling with the cost of living, Magda was spending a lot on French clothes, cosmetics and jewellery. Marie turned towards religion and steadfastly refused to meet Magda.

Carol made several attempts to push his mother out of Romania but she refused to leave and she settled in Bran Castle in southern Transylvania where she spent time writing her memoirs or tending her gardens. In 1937, Marie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she spent some time at sanatariums in Italy and Dresden where she was visited by her daughter-in-law, Helen, and her estranged son, Nicholas, who had married against her wishes. When it became clear she was dying, Marie decided to return to Romania where she died in Peles Castle on 18 July 1938.

Marie was the last Queen Consort of Romania as Carol was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, however Michael’s reign would be a short one as he was forced into exile in 1947 when the monarchy was abolished.