If there is one word that could safely characterise the life of Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia it would be “exile”. Even her birth happened in the margins of royal protocol and rules.
Her parents, King Alexander of Greece and Aspasia Manos, a commoner and daughter of a Greek colonel, fell in love in 1915 and got secretly engaged due to the expected refusal of the royal family to recognise the relationship of Alexander I with a woman who did not belong to one of the European ruling dynasties. Some sources even mention that they got married in 1919, despite strong opposition not only from the Greek royal family but also from the government in Athens who would have very much liked that their King married to a British princess.
Aspasia was pregnant when the King died suddenly following a monkey bite. Five months after his death, Alexandra was born, and the royal family agreed to be godparents of the little girl, who was baptised at the royal palace. Still, neither Alexandra nor Aspasia received official recognition: from a legal point of view, they were commoners without any rights in the royal family. Things changed in 1922 when the government passed a new law recognising the marriages of the members of the royal family with commoners. The little princess obtained the style of Royal Highness and the title of Princess of Greece and Denmark, although she had no right to inherit the throne.
The political situation in Greece went from bad to worse, and in 1924, Alexandra and her mother were forced to leave Greece and take the hard path of exile. They found refuge with Queen Sophia, Alexandra’s paternal grandmother in Italy. Alexandra spent some happy childhood vacations with her aunts, Crown Princess Helen of Romania, Princesses Irene and Katherine of Greece, and her cousins Prince Philip of Greece (the future Duke of Edinburgh) and Prince (later King) Michael of Romania, who became her playmates. Her friendship with the future husband of Queen Elisabeth would last a lifetime.
In 1927, Alexandra went to boarding school in England, and she hated the educational system to the point that when her mother refused to take her home, she stopped eating. The school doctor became worried about her health and advised Aspasia to take her daughter home. The girl contracted tuberculosis, and mother and daughter went to Switzerland for treatment.
Alexandra finished her studies in Paris, and she settled with her mother in Venice. The first marriage proposal came from King Zog of Albania who, according to palace sources, fell in love when seeing her photo. Alexandra’s mother thought her daughter was too young and was relieved when King George II of Greece refused permission for the match.
Like all women of her age and class, Alexandra participated at numerous receptions and events, which aimed to introduce her to the European elite. In 1937, she was presented in Paris, where she danced with her cousin, the Duke of Windsor, installed in France with Wallis Simpson since his abdication. There was also a rumour that she was briefly engaged to Philip (later Duke of Edinburgh). However, the one who would finally marry her was King Peter of Yugoslavia. Aspasia was delighted but less so was Peter’s mother, Queen Marie (formally Princess Maria of Romania). Her sharp opposition to the marriage would postpone the wedding for almost two years, and the two lovers would have only brief meetings in the London house of the Marina, Duchess of Kent, for all this period.
The couple finally married on 20 March 1944. The ceremony, at which the King’s mother refused to participate, was held at the Yugoslav embassy in London. The wedding was very well attended by no less than four reigning kings and queens and important members of the European royalty. Due to a difficult financial situation and war restrictions, the bride had to borrow a wedding dress from a relative.
Unfortunately, the marriage was not a happy one. Added to their financial hardships, both husband and wife’s inability to manage their budget and make wise decisions about their household led to bitter frustrations and continuous conflicts. King Peter turned to alcoholism and tried to forget his problems by conducting a number of affairs with younger women. Alexandra developed anorexia and a body dysmorphic disorder, which led her – according to sources – to undergo removal of the breasts because she was convinced that her husband didn’t like her chest. Increasingly unstable, she made her first suicide attempt during a visit to her mother in Venice in the summer of 1950. Another two unsuccessful suicide attempts were to follow in the years to come.
The couple had a son, Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia who was born in London, in 1945, at the Claridge’s hotel. To enable the child to be born on Yugoslav soil, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly asked King George VI to issue a decree transforming, for a day, Suite 212 at Claridge’s hotel into Yugoslav territory, which was to be the only time Alexandra was in Yugoslavia as queen. Her adopted country became a republic in the same year (1945).
Alexandra died in 1993, in London, following a painful battle with cancer. On 26 May 2013, her remains were transferred to Serbia for reburial in the crypt of the Royal Mausoleum at Oplenac, where the remains of other members of the Yugoslav royal family were also transferred.
Alexandra, Princess of Greece and Denmark, was the last queen of Yugoslavia. Her life was as tormented and difficult as that of the country she never had the chance to know and love.