I’ve been reading Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004) and am doing a series of posts on Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters, all of whom went on to be European queens themselves. All quotations are from that book.
Today is my last post, and we’re going to talk about Princess Victoria Eugenie (called “Ena”) of Battenberg, who went on to become Queen of Spain. She was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s youngest child, Princess Beatrice.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR DISCUSSIONS OF HISTORICAL TERRORIST ATTACKS AND BOMBS
Y’all, Ena (and her future in-laws) had TRAGIC lives.
This is Ena with her future husband, King Alfonso XIII of Spain. Before we talk about Ena, let’s talk a little bit about Alfonso. The pressure on him was immense, from the very moment of his birth:
“On 17 May 1886, a collective sign of relief was let out in Spain when it was officially announced that Queen Maria Cristina [Alfonso’s mother] had given birth to a boy . . . . The fact that the child was a male was all the more reassuring to the nation because just six months before, the child’s father, King Alfonso XII, had died suddenly, leaving a widow and two daughters. The birth of a posthumous son also meant that Spain might more than likely be spared the violence that had marred the country for much of the earlier part of the nineteenth century” (31).
“Unenviable, then, was King Alfonso’s task when he came of age in 1902 and assumed the reins of power. Alfonso was never to know a moment’s peace ruling his kingdom. In the first four years after reaching his majority, he had to deal with ‘no less than fourteen ministerial crises, and with eight different Prime Ministers. The rest of Alfonso’s reign would prove no less volatile. Just as in Russia, Spain’s hothouse politics would wreak havoc on the country’s dynasty – in the process bringing down the happiness of Queen’ Victoria’s youngest granddaughter” (130).
As discussed in my other posts, a European ruler marrying one of Queen Victoria’s relatives (even one of her many, many grandchildren) could have massively political sway. It’s hardly surprising that one of the most eligible men in Europe, King Alfonso XIII, picked Ena when he could have married just about any woman in the world.
In 1905, the king made a state visit to Britain, at which point various royals and aristocrats started pushing their daughters in his path, ensuring that he sat next to them at dinner, etc. It became a proper ‘Cinderella-style’ competition for the King’s hand. Ena, who was the youngest of all the princesses in attendance, knew she’d never have a shot over all of the other more beautiful and sophisticated princesses, so she didn’t bother trying. Whenever she needed to speak to King Alfonso, she was friendly, cheerful, and without artifice.
He’d probably never been around a woman before who was single, eligible, and utterly without an ulterior motive. He fell for her pretty hard. It helped that Ena was quite pretty, as well.
However, not everyone was thrilled about the match: “As eligible as she was a royal bride, an elusive but sinister shadow nevertheless hovered over Princess Ena of Battenberg. That shadow was the possibility that she might be a carrier of haemophilia. Ena’s own brother, after all, was a haemophiliac.
“The issue did not escape the notice of Alfonso’s Spanish advisers. Once his intentions toward the Battenberg princess became obvious, a whispering campaign broke out in order to try and dissuade the eager king from marrying a descendant of Queen Victoria with a brother who was a haemophiliac. So besotted was he with Ena that he carelessly ignored these warnings. In his eyes, such a beautiful and obviously healthy-looking creature could not possibly carry that dreaded disease. But if she was a carrier, Alfonso was prepared to take the risk. He was, after all, one who never flinched from peril. All his adult life, the king gravitated toward danger. He clearly did not seek out the numerous assassination attempts against him, but when they threatened, Alfonso met them courageously. His hobbies included driving cars at fast speeds and playing a hard game of polo” (132).
“Alfonso spared no expense in seeing that Ena was clothed in splendour. Rumour had it that the king paid no less than £4,200 for the all-white satin gown, cut in Louis XVI style” (147).
Guys. £4,200 in 1906 would be almost half a million pounds today.
“Nearly everything had appeared to go off as planned. The excited throng packed along the wedding route, in the region of 300,000 people, was loudly cheering but well behaved. As the procession arrived at the Calle Mayor, some two hundred yards from the Royal Palace, the king and queen’s coach stopped. Curious about the delay, Ena asked Alfonso what was wrong. He told her not to worry, ‘in five minutes we shall be home’.
“At that moment, a huge floral bouquet was thrown from a nearby balcony, falling just to the right of their carriage. In an instant, a bright red and orange flash blinded everyone in its path . . . Hidden amongst the flowers was a powerful bomb, which exploded with tremendous ferocity. In that split second, thirty-seven people were killed and over a hundred injured, many seriously. So potent was the bomb that ‘all that was found of one of the footmen on the royal carriage was his boots’ . . . . But miraculously, Alfonso escaped, and so did she. Their carriage was so damaged it could not move farther. Several of the eight white horses pulling it were killed . . . . As luck would have it, at the moment of the explosion, Alfonso had drawn Ena’s attention to the Church of Santa Maria, visible from his side of the carriage. Because she turned toward her husband, the queen escaped serious injury. But the effects of the explosion around them were horrifying” (148).
“Throughout the wedding meal, people strained to bring some semblance of normality to the proceedings. But it was difficult. Nevertheless, Ena’s composure was exceptional. Ironically, a number of individuals already were reacting to the queen’s calmness with suspicion and misunderstanding. Some remained unimpressed by Victoria Eugenie’s lack of hysterics. They would now watch her every move with great care. Unluckily for her, she was being labelled as ‘distant'” (150).
This is exactly what happened to her cousin, Princess Alicky, who became Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. What they considered queenly British dignity was considered cold and unfeeling by the people in their respective countries.
That said, Ena was a brave soul. Only just surviving an assassination attempt the day before, Ena was thrust again out into a crowd:
“The day after their wedding, Ena and Alfonso drove unattended through Madrid’s streets in an open car, to the delight of their subjects. The queen remained dignified in her demeanour. Still reeling from all that had happened, a smiling Ena could not shake off her natural reserve and visibly shrank back when the crowds came close to her. Ena’s biographer has noted, ‘She thus failed to gain, then or ever, a deep rapport with the Spanish masses’. It was an understandable reaction considering that the drive with Alfonso nearly frightened Ena out of her wits. People fought to be near her, and ‘the Queen’s dress was actually torn to shreds by the multitude who sought to kiss the hem of her garment” (151).
“Critics had been given ammunition in the very early days when Queen Ena made her first appearance at a bullfight in celebration of her wedding. Fresh-faced, young and poised, the queen looked exquisite in her white mantilla, seated in the royal box with King Alfonso and Queen Maria Cristina. In front of thirteen thousand people, Ena had to dig deep within herself to show her subjects that she was different from most of her nation, who were known to be revolted by the gory spectacle of Spain’s quintessential sport. Ena, who loved animals, tried to mask her disgust, but this only served to disappoint some subjects, particularly as her first bullfight turned out to be relatively unexciting. In order not to offend the queen’s sensibilities and those of the foreign guests, the bulls were reputedly drugged, and lost their violent edge. Victoria Eugenie was never to overcome her intense dislike of bullfighting. She took up her brother’s suggestion by having special shaded field glasses made. The queen would raise the glasses to her eyes at critical moments; the crowds, in turn, believed she was taking a closer look when in fact she was shielding her eyes” (178).
Despite not fully connecting with the public, Ena did receive her share of good press: “During Ena’s early years in Spain, many found her to be the very embodiment of [the beautiful queen]. Members of the press vied in their rapturous descriptions of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Victoria Eugenie, who looked every inch a queen. Much to Ena’s credit, she did not let such compliments go to her head. On the contrary, a mischievous streak occasionally surfaced. She once asked Alfonso if he had read the newspaper she was holding. When he answered, ‘No, is it anything of important?’ Ena quipped back, ‘Certainly. I demand the instant execution of the editor; he has omitted to hint that I am the most beautiful woman in the world!‘
“Considering how effusive the Spanish were in the early years, Ena’s remark was not without basis. In Seville, for instance, the young Queen Ena was met with shouts of ‘Viva!’ Flattering phrases poured forth . . . . trying to keep her composure, Ena accepted these compliments. Only when someone loudly proclaimed, ‘you are not only Queen of Spain; you are Queen of all beautiful women‘, did she burst out laughing” (174-75).
She also received good press by fulfilling her ‘duties’ as queen. She became pregnant fairly quickly and gave birth to a boy the year after their marriage:
“The queen’s labour pains began in the early morning of 10 May; they were intense and lasted twelve hours. Like her cousin Missy of Romania before her, Ena was encouraged to get on with it and bear the excruciating pain. Her well-meaning but overbearing mother-in-law was not much help, urging: ‘We Spaniards do not cry out when we bring a King into the world.’ Exasperated, Ena could only murmur to herself, ‘and now they will see what an Englishwoman is like!‘ . . . . Every care was taken to ensure the safe delivery of Ena’s child and the life of both mother and baby. Sacred relics were delivered from different parts of Spain and placed in the queen’s room, in accordance with a centuries-old custom. Ena most certainly had not experienced anything quite like it: according to one historian, the relics consisted of ‘the arm of John the Baptist and the girdle of the Virgin from Tolosa’. The latter ‘is handed to the Queen at certain critical moments, and a prayer while it is held in the hands or being kissed, insures a safe and happy delivery'” (158).
“The new father’s pride was understandable. Ena had given him an heir who showed every promise of being a fine, healthy son. According to one eyewitness, the baby prince, who had ‘an abundance of fair hair, was beyond question an unusually strong and healthy-appearing infant’. Another, describing the presentation ceremony, reported ‘the almost phenomenal physical strength of this baby, looking as if strong enough, like the infant Hercules, to strange serpents in his cradle‘” (159).
“Queen Ena’s happiness in her baby son and King Alfonso’s pride in his heir was dealt a tremendous blow when court doctors carried out a circumcision on the Prince of the Asturias and it was discovered that the baby’s bleeding would not stop. Shock and consternation set it” (171).
Alfonso was distraught and furious, never really forgiving his wife for being ‘diseased’ and endangering the life of his son. Ena and Alfonso would go on to have four more sons and two daughters, but their marriage would never fully recover.
“Of all the changes Ena faced in Spain, the most painful was Alfonso’s infidelities. In order to compensate for his frustration with Ena, and in keeping with his own restless nature, Alfonso had no compunction in betraying his marital vows with numerous women.” (177).
Alfonso and Ena’s hopes were rekindled by the birth of their second son, Jaime, who (unlike his older brother) had not inherited haemophilia. “The Infante Jaime was a normal child who came to be a close companion of his older brother. Together, Jaime and Alfonsito were a delightful pair, with the blond Alfonsito so obviously taking after his mother while the dark-haired Jaime resembled his father. In health, Jaime was everything his brother was not – the dreaded haemophilia being absent. If the heir was sickly, then at least ‘the spare’ was robust.
“However, tragedy struck. The boy was felled with acute pain in his ears. The diagnosis was double mastoiditis, required an immediate operation. The procedure went badly, and the auditory bones broke, causing Ena’s second son to become a deaf-mute” (180). In addition to worrying about their son’s health, this was another massive blow to the security of their throne. As seen in the film The King’s Speech, speech and hearing disabilities create significant obstacles to a mandatory career in public speaking and diplomacy. And this is especially true given that it was the turn of the century and horrific eugenicist discourses were very prevalent around the globe. With their country generally tumultuous, their first son unlikely to survive to adulthood, and their second son a target for pseudo-scientific death wishes, it’s hardly surprising that Ena and Alfonso were concerned.
The questions of rulership after Alfonso never came into question: Spain was thrown into revolution and became a republic. The royal family lived in exile for the rest of their lives. Eventually the monarchy was restored through the family line, with their third son (Juan’s) son taking the crown.
Ena and Alfonso eventually separated and Alfonso went on to have six illegitimate children with five different women. Alfonso died in 1941. Ena outlived him by almost 30 years, dying in 1969.
Alfonsito, their haemophiliac heir, died at age 31 after sustaining mild injuries in a car accident. He was twice married, but had no children.
Jaime, due to his disabilities, renounced the Spanish throne but upon the death of his father retracted his renunciation and ALSO declared himself to be the rightful heir to the French throne as well (being the senior legitimate male heir to the House of Capet). Obviously France was a republic, so this declaration didn’t really do anything. There continue to be pretenders to the throne, including Jaime’s grandson, the Duke of Anjou, who calls himself Louis XX. He is celebrated for being one of the handsomest royals in Europe today.