Marie of Saxe-Altenburg was born on 14 April 1818 as the daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Duchess Amelia of Württemberg. She would be the eldest of six sisters, though two of them would die in infancy. Marie was only seven years old when her younger sister Pauline died at the age of five. When Marie was 15 years old, Louise died at the age of only 14 months.
Marie spent the first seven years of her life in Hildburghausen before the entire family moved to Altenburg. Marie and her sisters received their religious education primarily from the Lutheran priest Carl Ludwig Nietschze (father of the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche). Marie spent a lot of time with her family on the island of Norderney, and her future husband also visited it several times.
George was the eldest son of Ernest Augustus, King of Hanover (uncle of Queen Victoria and her heir presumptive until the birth of the Princess Royal) and Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. While the United Kingdom operated on the basis male-preference primogeniture, which allowed Queen Victoria ascend the throne, the Kingdom of Hanover allowed only males to succeed and so Ernest August became King of Hanover – dissolving the personal union between Hanover and the United Kingdom. George was a delicate child and benefitted greatly from the sea air. In 1828, he lost the sight in one eye due to a childhood illness and the sight in the other eye in 1833 after an accident.
Marie and George met for the first time on 14 July 1839 at Schloss Montbrillant just outside Hanover. It is said they fell in love, and Marie’s cheerful disposition managed to lift his spirits, even after the death of his mother in June 1841. In April 1842, George travelled to Altenburg to be a part of the silver wedding celebrations of Marie’s parents. He took the opportunity to propose marriage to Marie. Ernest Augustus officially asked Queen Victoria’s permission for the marriage under the Royal Marriages Act 1772, and she gave her permission on a magnificent piece of parchment which is still housed at Marienburg Castle. Their engagement was announced in July 1842.
The wedding took place on 18 February 1843 in Hanover. Marie had only arrived in Hanover two days before the wedding. The ceremony took place in the chapel of the Leineschloss, and cannon shots were fired as the rings were exchanged. Marie wore a white and silver silk and brocade dress with a long white train. On top of a green myrtle wreath, she wore the Hanoverian bridal crown. The newlyweds first lived at the Fürstenhof in the Calenberger Neustadt district of Hanover, but they also spent the summers at Schloss Montbrillant. These were the happiest days of their marriage. Soon after her arrival in Hanover, a politician wrote, “The Crown Princess is behaving well; she was well-received by the nobility, who know of nothing against her, she seems to be very well managed by the female need to please people. The Crown Prince is understandably entirely dependent on her. She will rule, for better or worse.”1
Their first child – a son named Ernest Augustus – was born at the Fürstenhof on 21 September 1845. He was presented to his proud grandfather on a velvet cushion trimmed with lace. George’s father had initially criticised George and Marie’s retiring lifestyle – blaming Marie for it – he now described his grandson’s day of birth as the happiest day of his life. He said to Marie, “Marie, how happy you make me.”2 However, he continued to find ways to criticise Marie. He abhorred the company she kept – non-noble people like artists and scholars – she nursed her own children and George, and she had nicknames for each other – “Männi” and “Engelmausi.” Her father-in-law banned her from attending his court while she was nursing her children. He also criticised the fact that the couple always arrived together in one carriage, rather than separately. Nevertheless, the couple was immensely popular with the people for their more bourgeois lifestyle. Two daughters were also born to the couple: Frederica (born 9 January 1848) and Marie (born 3 December 1849).
In the autumn of 1851, her father-in-law’s health began to deteriorate. In the early hours of 7 November, George and Marie rushed to be by his side as he suddenly became worse. However, he rallied enough to play with his grandchildren, even hugging his grandson and saying, “God bless you, my child!”3 He lost the ability to speak a few days later and fell into unconsciousness. He died on 18 November 1851 at 6.45 in the morning in the presence of George and Marie. George now became King George V of Hanover and Marie his Queen.
Marie turned her attention to her charitable work and founded the Henriettenstift in Hanover with money left to her by her grandmother Henriette. She was deeply pious and also championed the founding of several houses of worship. She also sponsored several musicians and was a talented singer herself. George loved hearing her sing, and he even composed songs for her to sing.
For her 39th birthday, George gave Marie a plot of land to build a new castle on. He stipulated that it should be called Marienburg and that she should use it as a summer residence. It was to be her personal property. Marie began planning for it with great enthusiasm and on 9 October 1858, the foundation was laid. Each of their three children took a turn with the hammer. They were finally able to stay for a few weeks in the summer of 1865.