Marie Alexandra Victoria, the beloved and controversial queen of Romania, was born as the Princess of Great Britain and Ireland on 29 October 1875 to Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria of England and Marie Alexandrovna, the only daughter of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Marie was brought up under the close supervision of her stubborn, independent and somewhat eccentric Russian mother, who was determined to make her a queen. As a young girl, Marie wished to marry her first cousin, Prince George of Wales, later King George V of the United Kingdom. But, her mother did not like the British royal family and was also against the idea of a marriage between first cousins, which was not allowed by her native Russian Orthodox Church. Her determination resulted in Marie marrying at the early age of seventeen to a man ten years her senior, whom she hardly knew and did not love. The man was Crown Prince Ferdinand, the German-raised nephew of the King Carol I of Romania and a distant cousin of the rulers of Prussia. They were married on 10 January 1893, as a result of which the heir to the Romanian throne was forced to give up a girl he had been madly in love with only shortly before. However, the uniting of the Romanian throne with those of England and Russia enhanced the prestige of the Romanian royal family and for better or for worse, set the course of Marie’s future life, whose letters to a close friend show her marriage was a disaster.
As Crown Princess of Romania, the highly intelligent, charming, outgoing, fluent in several languages, along with a gorgeous figure, golden hair, the bluest of eyes and a beautiful face, Marie was a classic fairy-tale princess and was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. When she was married, she had little idea about Romania and did not even know where the country was. However, gradually she developed a deep love for the country and its people. With her artistic mind, she helped to popularize Romanian folk art, skillfully decorated the interiors and gardens of several Romanian royal palaces, even designed her own clothes and wrote more than fifteen books.
Marie had the dream to put Romania on the map and she certainly achieved the goal. She earned her greatest praise for her tireless and heroic efforts among Romania’s sick and wounded during the Balkan Wars. During World War I, she volunteered as a Red Cross nurse to help the sick and wounded. Wearing the white uniform of a Red Cross nurse, in all kinds of weather and with almost no consideration for her own personal comfort and safety, she visited hospitals and cholera camps to pass out cigarettes, to comfort, encourage and console thousands of wounded and dying Romanian soldiers. With the country half-overrun by the German Army, she and a group of military advisers devised the plan by which the Romanian Army would choose a triangle of the country in which to stand and fight, instead of retreating into Russia.
After the end of the Great War, as the Great Powers decided to settle affairs at the Paris Peace Conference, Romania intended to secure the Romanian-inhabited territories of the now-defunct Austria-Hungary and Russian Empire, thereby uniting all Romanian-speaking people in a single state. However, as the Romanian delegation losing ground in the negotiations, Prime Minister Ionel Bratianu requested the Queen to travel to France and represent Romania in the negotiation. Queen Marie made an international media sensation, when she argued passionately that the Western powers should honour their debt to Romania, which had suffered a casualty rate proportionately far greater than the big forces, like Britain, France or the USA.
However, like the fairy-tale Cinderella, there was another side to the fairy queen Marie, which involved her numerous extramarital affairs. She was proud and confident about her physical charm and often talked about herself as if she was describing the Mona Lisa. In order to have photographs of herself, she posed for over two straight days, having over four hundred photographs taken from the simple to the sublime. Her affairs had extensive ramifications and like a Helen of Troy, helped to change the course of modern Romanian history. For years contemporaries and later historians have speculated on the juicy topic of Marie’s love life and it was also a common topic of gossip among the European aristocracy of her day.
Marie was an unfaithful wife and during her conjugal life with Ferdinand, she committed adultery repeatedly. She had physical relationship with numerous lovers and there were lots of gossip about her affairs with German envoys, Polish counts and Romanian politicians. She gave birth to three daughters and three sons and according to the Historians not all of them were Ferdinand's. It is said that her first born child, Prince Mircea, resembled more her lover Barbu Stirbei, than her husband. Lieutenant Gheorghe Cantacuzino, William Waldorf Astor and Canadian Joe Boyle are also said to have been on the list of her lovers. Although scandal after scandal exploded behind the thick and protective facade of the Cotroceni Palace and the Castle Peleş, Marie was desperate about her personal life and although Ferdinand was aware of her infidelity, he preferred to turn a blind eye due to political reasons. At the turn of the century, when she gave birth to her third child, Princess Marie Mignon, it was widely whispered all over Europe, even among the crown heads, that she was not Ferdinand’s child, she was the product of her illegal relationship with an officer, Lieutenant Gheorghe Cantacuzino. However, while in her diary Marie deftly sidetracked the scandal for posterity by tying it into her quarrel with one of Prince Carol’s governesses, a certain Miss Winter, in the reality of the situation was quite different. Finally, the episode ended, when King Carol I, egged on by Queen Victoria, stepped into smother the scandal by exiling Cantacuzino and Marie gave birth to a daughter, another Marie 0n 11 January 1900.
Marie was soon up to her impulsive tricks again in 1902, when she went to England with her husband for the coronation of her uncle, King Edward VII. This time, it was with a young American, Waldorf Astor, a handsome, charming and witty man, with whom she fell in love. The affair was still going strong in 1903 when Marie gave birth to her fourth child, Nicolas.
Marie in her diary described her cousin, the Russian Grand Duke Boris, as being gay, irresponsible, carefree and full of fun. He certainly was all that, along with apparently being the father of her third child. She never mentioned in her diary that, weeks before Mignon was born, she had a tough fight with old King Carol in which she clearly told him right to his face that Boris was her lover, the baby was his and if Ferdinand refused to accept the child as his own, she would divorce him.
In 1907, Barbu Stirbey, with his dark Romanian good looks and hypnotic personality, emerged as the new love of Marie's life. He was a self-made industrialist and commercial millionaire with a great interest in the political future of Romania. Soon it became an open secret that Prince Barbu Ştirbey was the love of her life and her youngest children, Ileana and Mircea, showed a curious resemblance to him. Ştirbey lived with the royal family and in addition to his official position at the Royal Court, he was the Queen’s special political adviser as well as liaison with the King for the Liberal Party and its leader, Ion Bratianu, who happened to be his brother-in-law. The palace staff was well aware of the prolonged sultry affair of Marie and Ştirbey, as they hardly bothered to hide their feelings for each other within the confines of the royal palaces. This was certainly a questionable atmosphere for a young, intelligent and highly sensitive boy to be brought up in and as a result, the Crown Prince, Carol came to detest Ştirbey and to a lesser degree, Biatianu. His attitude towards Stirbey, undoubtedly, helped to turn Carol, against the Liberal Party.
After several months in seclusion following her husband’s death, Queen Marie returned to public life in January 1928. However, she found herself more on the fringes of the Romanian monarchy, after her son Carol reclaimed the throne in 1930. She spent her remaining years enjoying the company of her grandchildren. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in1937 and died on 18 July 1938, in the presence of her son Carol, daughter Elisabeth, and grandson Michael.
Described by many as a classic fairy-tale princess, called by her contemporaries as the man-queen, Queen Marie of Romania was attributed by her biographer, Hannah Pakula, as the last Romantic. In fact, as an assertive woman of rare beauty, a brunette with piercing blue eyes, she was an enigma. Although sometimes she was mentioned as a twentieth century Catherine the Great or a Romanian de Medic, she was perhaps nearer to her own vision of herself, a modern Theodora, Empress of Byzantium.