Sophia was born at a turbulent time as Franco-Prussian relations had soured over the succession of the Spanish throne and Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on 19 July which made for a melancholic atmosphere at the princess’s christening. As it turned out, the conflict only lasted a few months but it ended with the proclamation of Sophie’s grandfather, Wilhelm I, as the first German Emperor on 18 January 1871.
Sophia and her sisters, Viktoria and Margaret, were closer to their parents than their older three siblings who had become increasingly estranged thanks to the influence of their grandparents. Sophia’s parents were more liberal in their thinking and their political differences had caused a rift in the family that would never be healed. Sophia and her sisters were raised in an English style nursery as their mother was keen to raise her daughters to be more sympathetic to England rather than Prussia. Sophia formed a deep attachment to her maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria, from a young age and she spent long periods in her care.
In the summer of 1887, Sophia met Crown Prince Constantine of Greece while staying in England for her grandmother’s Golden Jubilee and the match was encouraged by her grandmother. The following year, Tino, as he was familiarly known, arrived at the court in Berlin as a representative of Greece at the funeral of Kaiser Wilhelm I who had died in March. It was obvious the young couple had fallen in love and their engagement was announced on 3 September 1888, however it was not welcomed by Sophia’s older brother, Wilhelm II, who had ascended the imperial throne. There were also doubts in the Greek royal family as Queen Olga objected to Sophia’s Lutheran faith.
Sophia’s wedding was arranged to be held in Athens in October 1889 but her mother was already dreading the loss of her daughter as the past few months had been painful ones. Sophia’s father had only been emperor for 99 days before dying of throat cancer on 15 June 1888 but his suffering had been long and painful one. After Frederick’s death, the Empress Victoria was treated abominably by his son who disapproved of her liberal views and her pro-English stance. While Vicky was happy for her daughter, she was also saddened to be losing one of the trio of daughters she loved more than her other children.
Sophia married Constantine in Athens on 27 October 1889 in two different religious ceremonies, one Protestant and the other Greek Orthodox, and the wedding was embraced warmly by the Greek people even if the rest of Europe were wary. After the wedding, Sophia and Tino settled into a small French-style villa on Kifisias Avenue until Diadochos Palace, a gift from the Greek government, was finished. As happy as she was with Tino, Sophia struggled to settle in Greece where the court was much quieter, however she set about learning how to speak Greek and concentrated on furnishing her new home. Sophia became pregnant almost immediately after her marriage and her first child, George, was born slightly premature on 19 July 1890. The birth had been a difficult one with the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck but the German midwife acted quickly and the baby was unharmed.
After the birth of her son, Sophia decided to convert to the Greek Orthodox faith which delighted the Greek royal family and the princess received instruction from her mother-in-law. Unfortunately, the news infuriated Sophia’s brother and his wife, Empress Augusta Victoria, and a heated argument between the two women resulted in the empress going into early labour with her son, Joachim. Fortunately, both mother and child were unharmed but the empress never forgave Sophia. Wilhelm refused to listen when Sophia tried to explain why she wanted to convert and she was banned from returning to Germany for three years. Sophia officially converted on 2 May 1891, and even though Wilhelm didn’t carry out his threat to bar his sister from Germany, the relationship between them would never be repaired.
As her family grew, Sophia was also kept busy with her numerous charity organisations, involving education and development of hospitals and orphanages, although she had a particular interest in the wellbeing of Greek women. The political landscape in Greece was so turbulent it led to frequent outbreaks of war with the Ottoman Empire so Sophia worked with the Greek Red Cross in order to help wounded soldiers. Sophia founded numerous field hospitals, arranging for English nurses to help train young women volunteers, while actively nursing the wounded herself. Sophia and her fellow royal women were awarded with the Royal Red Cross by Queen Victoria in December 1897 in appreciation for their selfless work.
Unfortunately for Sophia, the work she had done wasn’t as appreciated by the Greeks who were highly critical of her since Kaiser Wilhelm had openly supported the Turks during the recent Thirty Days’ War. During his attempts to mediate between the two warring factions, Wilhelm had humiliated the Greek nation and the people believed he had done so with his sister’s backing. As a wave of anti-monarchial feeling swept the nation, an attempt was made on the life of Sophia’s father-in-law while he was out riding in a carriage with his daughter, however he survived unharmed. Angry at their defeat in the war, George I was asked to expel his sons from the military, however they resigned voluntarily to save their father any embarrassment. At this point, Sophia and Tino decided to spend some time in Berlin where Tino resumed his military training and was given command of a Prussian division while Wilhelm appointed his sister as Honorary Commander of the 3rd regiment of the Imperial Guard.
Sophia and Tino returned to Greece in 1889 where the crown princess resumed her charity work but she was preoccupied by the health of her mother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Sophia was distraught by the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 and she traveled to London to attend her funeral. A few months later, Sophia and her two sisters went to Friedrichshof to look after their ailing mother who finally died on 5 August after a painful battle. Sophia was devastated at losing two such close family members but she was pregnant with her fourth child and she gave birth to her second son, Paul, on 14 December.
The political situation in Greece was becoming increasingly turbulent so Sophia and Tino once again sought refuge in Germany while discussions got under way in Greece to banish the House of Glücksburg so the country could become a republic. When Eleftherios Venizelos became Prime Minister of Greece in March 1910, the royal family were allowed to resume their military posts with Tino as Chief of the Staff. Sophia remained suspicious of Venizelos though and accused her father-in-law of being weak by not standing up to the government.
The new regime meant the Greek army and navy were completely transformed with the help of the French and the British but the country really needed allies and the Balkan League, consisting of the kingdoms of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, was created in June 1912. So when Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 8 October 1912, the rest of the Balkan League states were obliged to join the First Balkan War. While Tino and his brothers took up military posts, Sophia and the other wives concentrated once more on providing aid to wounded soldiers and refugees.
While Tino had never been completely faithful to Sophia throughout their marriage, she had learned to turn a blind eye to his betrayal, however the cracks in the marriage began to widen in 1912 to the point the couple were living separate lives. Tino began having an affair with Countess Paola von Ostheim, an Italian actress, and the affair would last until Tino’s death. Sophia’s last child, Katherine, was born on 4 May 1913 and the precarious state of her marriage led to rumours the child was a result of an affair but Tino claimed paternity of the child.
The First Balkan War ended a few days after Katherine’s birth with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire but the victory was soon marred by arguments amongst the allied countries over territorial gains. George I moved to Macedonia on 8 December 1912 to affirm Greek sovereignty but he was assassinated by a Greek anarchist on 18 March 1913. Sophia’s first task as Queen of the Hellenes was to break the terrible news to her mother-in-law who received the news with stoicism. The Greek royal family travelled to Macedonia en masse to visit the murder scene and to bring the slain king’s body home to Athens.
After their succession, Sophia and Tino continued living the simple lifestyle they had maintained beforehand. When the First World War broke out, Sophia took the children to live at Eastbourne while Tino remained in Athens but she soon returned to her husband’s side as they realised the war was not going to be over soon. Greece, already weakened by the Balkan conflicts, quickly declared its neutrality, however the majority of the nation was not pleased with this decision and Venizelos was forced to resign when he attempted to bring Greece into the war without the consent of the Crown and the government. The stress of the crisis affected Tino’s health though and he developed pleurisy which left him bedridden for weeks, however Venizelos’ supporters spread rumours Sophia had stabbed her husband and he was actually recovering from a wound.
Sophia’s German ancestry also made her cause for suspicion, especially since she was still in close contact with her family in Berlin and malicious gossip began to spread Sophia did not care about the Greek people despite all her charity work. After Tino’s recovery, Venizelos reclaimed his post as Prime Minister after winning the election and he once more applied pressure on the king to join the war effort. Tino refused but did agree to mobilise troops as a purely defensive measure. The relationship between Tino and Venizelos continued to be fraught but the Greek people maintained their loyalty to the king and Tino used this to his advantage by calling for elections. Venizelos knew his party would fail to win so he denounced the elections as illegal. As expected, Venizelos lost the election and the new government formed under Spyridon Lambros.
Greece’s continued refusal to join the war made them an enemy of the Allies who spread propaganda accusing Sophia of collaborating with the Germans and their were numerous assassination attempts including a mysterious fire in the forest surrounding Tatoi which almost claimed the lives of Sophia and her youngest daughter, Katherine, who was two years old. The palace at Tatoi was ruined by the blaze and several members of the royal family, including Tino, were injured while many soldiers and staff members were killed. The incident at Tatoi haunted Sophia to the extent she began to harbour resentment over the Allies and she sent numerous telegrams to Kaiser Wilhelm asking when his troops would be able to help Macedonia.
Venizelos wasn’t staying quiet either and after his party’s loss in the elections, he established a a provisional government in Thessaloniki which instigated the beginning of the National Schism. At the same time, the Allies increased the pressure on Greece when a Franco-British fleet occupied the bay of Salamis which meant Athens was cut off and a famine began. Sophia and the Patriotic League of Greek Women distribute food, clothing, blankets, medicines and milk for children to help alleviate the suffering. Tino, realising the situation was only likely to become worse, finally bowed to French demands. The French, unaware Greek reservists had mobilised in Athens, came under heavy gunfire and many were killed. The French fleet retaliated by bombarding the palace with fire, forcing the royal family to take shelter in the cellars for hours.
On 10 June 1917, the Allied High Commissioner requested the Greek Government demand the abdication of Tino and his eldest son, George, on the grounds they were both pro-German. With the threat of an invasion hanging over him, Tino relinquished his power to his second son, Alexander, with the proviso he was not actually abdicating and the prince would be only acting as his regent. On 11 June, the royal family began their long journey out of Athens to Switzerland where they lived between St. Moritz, Zürich and Lucerne. Sadly, the stress took its toll on Tino who became seriously ill with Spanish flu and Sophia was distressed when she wasn’t allowed to contact Alexander as all communications were being blocked by the Greek government.
The end of the First World War didn’t improve the status of the royals in exile and Sophia was upset when Alexander decided to secretly marry a commoner, Aspasia Manos, on 17 November 1919. However, the marriage was the least of Sophia’s problems when Alexander was bitten by his pet monkey and died of sepsis on 25 October 1920. When Sophia first learned of Alexander’s illness, she begged to be allowed to be by his bedside but permission was denied as the government feared Sophia’s popularity with the loyalists. Sophia did manage to get permission for her mother-in-law, Olga, to journey to Athens to be with Alexander, however bad weather delays meant she arrived too late. Since Sophia and Tino were barred from attending their son’s funeral, Olga was the only royal in attendance.
Alexander’s death created a constitutional crisis as Venizelos did not want Tino or George to return to Athens so he offered the throne to Sophia’s third son, Paul, however he refused to accept unless a referendum was held. Venizelos’ popularity had declined steadily since the war and his party was defeated in the parliamentary elections of November 1920 which paved the way for the monarchy to be restored. The new Prime Minister, Dimitrios Rallis, asked Olga to assume the regency until Tino returned on 19 December 1920. Sophia and Tino’s return to Athens was met with great joy, however their presence didn’t lead to the peace the country so craved.
The former Allies had not forgiven the king and queen for their refusal to join with them during the First World War and their relationship with the Greek royal family remained tense so their support could not be counted on when Greece went to war with Turkey. Tino insisted on travelling to Anatolia to support the army but illness forced him to return to Athens and this was seen as a betrayal. Sophia’s main source of joy was the arrival of Alexander’s posthumous daughter, Alexandra, who was born on 25 March 1921 and she persuaded Tino to give her the status and titles reserved to members of the royal family.
The Greco-Turkish War resulted in a heavy defeat for Greece and the country was plunged into an economic crisis soon after the war ended in September 1922. Unhappy with the defeat, a faction of the Greek military demanded Tino’s abdication and the dissolution of the parliament. Tino abdicated on 27 September in favour of his eldest son who succeeded him as George II and the former king and queen once again went into exile to Sicily. Disturbed by the second abdication and exile, Tino fell into a deep state of depression which left him staring into space for hours at a time so Sophia made the decision to move to Florence but Tino died on 11 January 1923, shortly before their departure. Sophia fought to have her husband’s remains buried in Tatoi but the Greek government refused and his son was powerless to help.
George II’s hold on the Greek throne had been precarious from the start and he was finally forced to abdicate on 19 December 1923. When a republic was declared on 25 March 1924, the royal family were stripped of their Greek nationality but they retained their Danish royal status as descendants of George I and were issued with Danish passports. Sophia moved to Tuscany with her youngest daughters, Irene and Katherine, and they were soon joined by Aspasia and her daughter, Alexandra. Sophia’s home in Tuscany would also prove to be a refuge for Sophia’s daughter, Helen, who fled her disastrous marriage to Carol II of Romania.
Sophia refused to accept the monarchy would never be restored in Greece but she enjoyed making frequent trips to Germany to visit her sister, Margarete, and to the British royal family who retained a firm bond with the exiles. Sophia was diagnosed with advanced cancer in 1931 after a decline in her health and she died on 13 January 1932. Sophia’s body was initially taken to Friedrichshof Castle before being moved to an Orthodox Church in Florence where she was buried alongside her husband and mother-in-law. When the monarchy was briefly restored in 1936, George II arranged for the remains of any royals who died in exile to be repatriated to Tatoi so Sophia now rests in the royal burial ground at Tatoi Palace.