On this day, 126 years ago, a shy young woman married a man almost two decades older than her in London. But this was no ordinary wedding. The bride was Princess Louise of Wales, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and her marriage had set tongues wagging for her groom was a mere earl. It is an exciting headline but like much of Louise’s life – her lofty position in the line of succession, the brief months where she was talked about as a possible future queen and a dramatic shipwreck that would ultimately leave her a widow – the drama was obscured by her quiet and rather reticent personality. Princess Louise, later Princess Royal, is perhaps the most low-key of all of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters.
It all started with great fanfare. Louise’s parents were the Prince and Princess of Wales, Edward and Alexandra, king and queen consort in waiting. Although they already had two sons to secure the succession the birth of their third child, on 20 February 1867 at Marlborough House in London, was still a massive event. The new fourth in line to the throne was given Victoria as one of her names (like just about every other baby girl in her family). Her first name honoured her maternal grandmother as well as a paternal aunt. Two of her other middle names also paid tribute to her mother’s family. The baby princess was christened, on 10 May 1867, as Louise Victoria Alexandra Dagmar. And that maternal influence lasted – Princess Alexandra kept her children very close to her indeed.
That led to a happy childhood for Louise, and she grew up mostly at Sandringham in Norfolk with holidays to her mother’s home country of Denmark. She was close to her two younger sisters, Victoria and Maud, but soon came to be regarded as quiet and rather shy. And her mother remained very close to the girls, so much so that she began to insist that they needn’t get married at all but rather stay at home with their mama.
What Louise thought of this is anyone’s guess as her reticence and quietness continued to grow as she turned from a teenager into a young woman. It was observed that making conversation with this princess was hard work, and the nickname of Her Royal Shyness was attached to her. But however, timid and reserved she may have been when she wanted something she got it. Going against her mother’s advice not to wed and her grandmother’s determination to matchmake her grandchildren with royals across the continent, Louise of Wales said ‘I do’ for love.
Her decision to marry a man eighteen years her senior and described as a ‘subject’ at that was controversial. But the fact that he was hugely rich helped as did the fact that the aunt with whom she shared her first name had done exactly the same thing in 1871. On 27 July 1889, Princess Louise of Wales married Alexander Duff, Earl of Fife at Buckingham Palace. And her grandmamma came up with a wedding present that was hard to beat – she made the bridegroom a duke. But that wasn’t enough to stop parts of society talking, very loudly, about the suitability of Louise’s choice of husband.
It didn’t matter a jot to the newlywed princess who seemed to blossom after her marriage. Her husband, despite the age gap, appears to have been a source of strength to her. He certainly brought a whole new range of experiences to royal life having served as a Scottish MP in the 1870s and been actively involved in business. He was also a descendant of Queen Victoria’s uncle and the man she had succeeded on the throne, William IV. The new Duke of Fife had no claim to the throne as he traced his family tree back to one of the most famous affairs in royal history – that of William with the actress, Dorothea Jordan. But Louise and Alexander were about to make some royal history of their own.
Very early on in their marriage the couple lost their first child, a little boy called Alastair who was stillborn. They went on to have two daughters, Alexandra and Maud, and the little family lived happily in their selection of rather grand residences. But the absence of a son meant that the dukedom that Victoria had created for Alexander would die with him as it was to pass to his male heirs. So the Queen Empress changed the rules and allowed the title to go to women as well. Quiet, shy, retiring Louise would be the mother of one of the few women to inherit a title in her right.
Louise also got a personal taste of how women in positions of power were gossiped about. From the moment of her birth, it was always assumed that she would never be queen as she had two older brothers in the line of succession ahead of her. But then in January 1892 the first of them, Albert Victor, died of pneumonia just weeks after announcing his engagement. The next in line, George, had been ill with typhoid and furthermore was still unmarried himself. Louise was suddenly third in line to the throne and seen by some as having a good chance of inheriting her grandmother’s crown. And her quietness and the fact that she was a woman with a non-royal husband and a daughter as her heir meant that the prospect of Queen Louise filled many with apprehension.
This quiet princess may have shared that nervousness. Louise’s public persona up until that point had shown her to be ill at ease with the demands of a high-profile royal role. However, she was soon able to return to the quiet life in the shadows that she preferred – George recovered his strength, married his brother’s fiancee and went on to be king. The title awaiting his sister was just as traditional.
By the time Louise’s father became Edward VII in 1901, she was happily settled into family life with her husband and two children. In fact, in the census of that year her royal title is scribbled almost illegibly above Duchess of Fife, and she is described as the wife of a man ‘living on his own means’. That may have suited Louise but as the eldest daughter of a monarch she was in line to be Princess Royal and her father bestowed that title on her in 1905. It made a little ostensible difference to Louise’s life, and the brief nature of her father’s reign meant that she could soon retreat even further into the shadows. When he died in 1910 and her brother became George V, a whole new royal family entered the spotlight leaving Louise to fade gently into history.
But there was one more dramatic chapter to be written. In 1911, Louise and her family travelled to Egypt for health reasons but on their way there, their ship ran aground off the Moroccan coast. While the phrase ‘a shipwrecked princess’ sounds romantic, the truth was anything but as the family had to endure terrible weather as they walked miles to safety and the Duke of Fife developed plurisy as a result. He died in January 1912 in Egypt and his widow seemed to lose some of the confidence that he had given her.
In fact Princess Louise, Princess Royal became so low key again that when she died, on January 4th 1931, one newspaper used a photograph of the aunt who shared her name in the obituary by mistake. It told the tale of a woman who had held a title few others have called their own, who was the daughter of a king, the wife of a duke and the mother of a duchess. However, ultimately Louise was the low key one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters.
Photo credit: the lost gallery via Flickr