Being Queen of Spain isn’t the easiest royal role around. Ask the two women who currently hold that title – neither Sofia of Greece nor Letizia Ortiz have enjoyed totally smooth sailing. And a century ago, the woman who reigned as Spanish consort had more than her fair share of problems. She was Victoria Eugenie, known as Ena, and she was the youngest of the women who were granddaughters of Queen Victoria.
Ena perhaps realized the turbulence ahead of her just minutes after her wedding. She walked into the Royal Monastery of San Jeronimo in Madrid on May 21st 1906 as a princess and left as a queen having said ‘I do’ to King Alfonso XIII of Spain. But as the newlyweds travelled back to the reception their procession was attacked by an anarchist, Mateu Morral, who threw a bomb at the coaches. Alfonso and Ena escaped injury but many others were killed and hurt. It was hardly an auspicious start and married life proved just as traumatic.
Ena’s life before her marriage could hardly have been more different. It was quiet and restrained to the point of suffocation and her childhood was spent at the beck and call of ‘grandmamma’ as she and her parents lived with Queen Victoria. She was born at Balmoral on October 24th 1887, the only daughter of Victoria’s youngest girl, Princess Beatrice and her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg and christened Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena. Her last name was a mistake – it was meant to be Eua but was written down incorrectly. No matter, she came to be known by that name for most of her life.
But the troubles that can come with a crown already coloured Ena’s life at this early stage. The name Eugenie had been given in honour of one of her godparents, the exiled Empress of France who now lived in England. It is striking that this little girl who would grow up into a queen forced to flee her husband’s kingdom began life in the arms of a woman who had already endured that same fate.
Young Ena may well have encountered her godmother as she grew up for Eugenie spent a lot of time with the British royals. And Ena spent a lot of time with Queen Victoria for her mother had promised to be granny’s lifetime companion. The queen had wanted her youngest child to remain unmarried but Beatrice had other ideas. The compromise reached was that once wed she and her husband would remain at Victoria’s side. And that meant their children were raised with granny.
Ena grew up in the cloistered world of Victoria’s later years, spending her days at Windsor or at Osborne or wherever her grandmamma chose to go. She had three brothers – one older and two younger – but her reliance on female relatives only increased when, in 1896, her father died. Henry had persuaded Victoria to let him leave the family briefly to go to modern day Ghana to serve in the Ashanti wars. He died there after catching malaria.
Henry’s desperation to get to west Africa perhaps indicates the stifling surroundings in which he and his family lived. And that craving for something new can be seen in his only daughter’s actions almost a decade after his death when, against a healthy dose of opposition, she decided to accept the proposal of the King of Spain.
Queen Victoria was, of course, dead by then. Following her passing and funeral Princess Beatrice had begun to dedicate her life to editing her mother’s journals while Ena’s older brother joined the Navy and her younger brothers persued their educations. When she met the dashing and rather keen Spanish monarch, Ena was swept off her feet.
Alfonso XIII had been Spain’s king since the day of his birth, his father having died six months before the arrival of his only son. In 1905, now aged 19, Alfonso decided he needed a wife and on a visit to Britain he met several of King Edward VII’s nieces. He was particularly struck by Patricia of Connaught but she was even more struck by the instability besetting Spain at the time and made it clear this princess did not want to be pursued. Alfonso then began to woo Ena and after a dull lifetime in grandmamma’s house, she was smitten with his attentions and the prospect of a new life far away.
But others weren’t so keen on the match. Alfonso’s mother, Maria Cristina, wanted her son to marry into the Hapsburg family. One of her main reasons for that was religion – Alfonso needed a Catholic wife and Ena was very definitely a Protestant. Those issues had been raised in England as well with Princess Beatrice writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury about a possible wedding only to be told that he was against any link with this Catholic monarchy. But uncle Edward did give his backing, raising Ena to the status of Her Royal Highness, and in early 1906 she went to Spain where she converted to Catholicism and wed her king.
There had been one other issue much discussed before their marriage but prior to saying ‘I do’ Alfonso seemed to have reconciled himself to it. Ena, as a descendant of Queen Victoria, had a chance of carrying the gene for haemophilia, the condition which causes uncontrollable bleeding in male bearers. The couple had concluded it was only a possibility that Ena might pass this hereditary condition on to any male children and they put it to one side. But not long after the birth of their first son, Alfonso, just a year after their marriage it became clear that Ena did carry the gene. The new Prince of Asturias had haemophilia and his father blamed his mother completely. The affection between the king and queen disintergrated.
They went on to have another six children but of their three other sons who survived to adulthood another, Gonzalo, also had haemophilia while the second born of their boys, Jaime, suffered ongoing health problems. And Ena raised her children in an increasingly fragile and fractious political situation as her husband gave his support to unpopular wars to retain Spanish possessions in Africa. In 1923 an army general, Miguel Primo de Rivera, seized power and established a dictatorship with the support of King Alfonso. After the fall of de Rivera, in 1930, the king became even more unpopular and when republican parties won elections in April 1931 he left Spain.
He and his family went into exile. He and Ena fell apart and they lived largely separate lives in exile with the queen spending her time in the UK and Switzerland. In 1934 their youngest son, Gonzalo, died of a hemorrhage following what had appeared to be a minor car crash. Four years later, Ena lost her eldest son in similar circumstances. The relationship between her and her husband was largely non existent by the time he died in 1941 and Ena spent the following decades on her own.
But despite her exile, in later life her royal connections only continued to grow. When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956 it was Queen Ena who offered support and advice to the new royal and helped her as she made a new life as a princess. Several photos from Ena’s later life show her holding hands with Grace and the Princess of Monaco thought so highly of her friend that she asked her to be godmother to her son, Albert, in 1958.
He’s not the only head of state in Europe today to count this youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria among his sponsors. Victoria Eugenie, then the last queen of Spain, returned to her adopted country just once after exile. She touched down in Madrid in February 1968 and soon afterwards acted as godmother to her new great grandson, a boy called Felipe. At the time there wasn’t even a monarchy in Spain for him to inherit but in a famous photo of his baptism he lies in Queen Ena’s arms. Seven years later the monarchy was restored on the death of Franco and Felipe became Spain’s king on June 19th 2014 on the abdication of King Juan Carlos.
But Ena never saw the troublesome crown which had been such a large part of her life restored. She passed away on April 15th 1969, the 38th anniversary of her flight from Spain. Her funeral was held in Lausanne and she was buried there. But Ena’s story wasn’t done yet. Six years after her death, the monarchy in Spain was restored and in 1985 her grandson, Juan Carlos I, had her remains moved to the royal burial vault at El Escorial just outside Madrid. She was interred next to her husband and the three sons who died before her. Eight years later her other son, Juan, was buried there too with all the rights due to a King of Spain.
Victoria Eugenie, a quiet princess from Scotland and last of the granddaughters of the great queen empress, had worn a crown of her own but her life was very far from the stability her grandmother cherished so dearly. Ena was Spain’s queen for twenty five years but spent far longer in exile and the personal sadnesses of her life were at times almost unbearable. For the baby of the family life was very far from a royal fairytale.
Photo credit: By Braganza18 at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], Luis Menéndez Pidal (1861-1932) and another image by an unknown author in the public domain, all via Wikimedia Commons