Princess Alexandra of Denmark was born on 1 December 1844. Her younger sister, Dagmar, was born three years later, on 26 November 1847. Throughout their lives, much of what they did followed a pattern. They were born within three years of one another, married within three years of one another, and died within three years of one another.
Something else that the two Danish princesses had in common was their great beauty, which soon had the royal families of Europe competing for their hands in marriage. Both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II hoped to marry Alexandra to their eldest sons. The British side was victorious and, in 1862, Alexandra became engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales. They were married at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on 10 March 1863.
The following year, Alexander II’s eldest son and heir, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, proposed to Dagmar. The first to whom Dagmar broke the news was the Prince and Princess of Wales. Edward said: “The wedding will, of course, be in St Petersburg, and I shall certainly come to it.” Up until then, no member of the British royal family had ever visited Russia.
But tragedy struck in April 1865, when the Tsarevich died in the south of France, in the company of Dagmar and his brother Alexander. Unknown to Dagmar, Alexander was secretly in love with her and, the following summer, he proposed to the Danish princess. Dagmar converted to Russian Orthodoxy, taking the name of Maria Fyodorovna, and married Alexander in St Petersburg on 9 November 1866.
The Princess of Wales was unable to travel to Russia for the wedding, owing to her third pregnancy. Queen Victoria believed that “a visit to St Petersburg by one of the Prince of Wales’s gentlemen would be quite sufficient,” but Edward was determined and went alone to the Russian capital. Disturbing stories were soon filtering back to Britain about the playboy prince’s behaviour in St Petersburg, Moscow and at stops en route.
Arriving in St Petersburg three days before the wedding, Edward was greeted by Alexander and his brothers and immediately taken on a tour of St Petersburg’s bars and night clubs. Himself a connoisseur of London night life, the Prince of Wales particularly liked Novaya Derevnya in the notorious “Islands” region of the city. Nothing pleased the Russian hosts more than Edward’s confession that, in terms of vice and depravity, London could not compete with St Petersburg.
Everything Edward did in Russia was applauded. He appeared in Scottish Highland uniform at a ball given by the British Ambassador, taking the floor with Dagmar. Writing home to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales said that “every moujik in the streets seems anxious to show me some signs of goodwill.” On his return to England, the Prince of Wales painted his wife a glowing picture of life in St Petersburg.
The next time the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Russia was in 1869, when they called in at the Crimea on their way back from a tour of the Middle East. Alexandra visited the Crimean battlefields of Sebastopole, Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, while Edward rode on horseback through the Valley of Death, scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
The two families continued to meet regularly in Denmark. In summer 1873, the Prince and Princess of Wales decided to invite the Tsarevich and Tsarevna on an official visit to London. It was even agreed that Alexandra and Dagmar would dress alike throughout the entire visit, which was to last a month.
The Tsarevich and Tsarevna arrived in London in June 1873, bringing their two sons, Nicholas and Georgy. This was the only time that the future Alexander III visited Britain. The Prince and Princess of Wales entertained Alexander and Dagmar at their London home, Marlborough House. Queen Victoria met them briefly at Windsor and wrote in her journal on 21 June: “Bertie and Alix arrived with the Cesarevich and [Dagmar] ... He is very tall and big, good natured and unaffected.”
In London, the guests visited art galleries, hospitals, racecourses and the Tower. The Tsarevich was honoured with a naval review at Spithead and military parades at Windsor, Woolwich and Aldershot. He even visited a debate in the House of Commons, later claiming that he was impressed with the British parliamentary system. Alexander also spent an afternoon in the Court of the Lord Chief Justice, listening to the trial of the Tichborne case. Dining with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Elder Brethern of Trinity House, he delivered a graceful speech of thanks for his reception, expressing the hope “that our cordial and affectionate relationship may continue to the end of our lives.”
While Edward and Alexander attended official functions and openings, their wives went off on a tour of the East End slums, where they visited the various Houses of Refuge supported by the Princess of Wales.