Sophie Marie Viktoria was born on 7 August 1862, at Karlsruhe Castle in Baden, Germany. Her parents were Grand Duke Frederick I of Baden and Princess Louise of Prussia. Through her marriage to King Gustav V of Sweden, she was Queen from 1907 until her death in 1930. The couple married in 1881, shortly after meeting each other at a royal wedding in Germany. Pushed by family members, the union is said to have been a disaster. Between 1882 and 1889, Victoria gave birth to three children, but rumours of her husband’s sexuality strained the relationship. In an attempt to save their marriage, she travelled to Egypt with Gustav on two occasions during the 1890s but ended up having an affair with one of her husband’s courtiers.
Another factor causing friction in the relationship was Victoria’s poor health. After the birth of the couple’s first child in 1882, she suffered from depression. Her physical health was deteriorating as well, and on doctor’s orders, she began spending the winters in warmer climates around southern Italy. This did not sit well with the in-laws; King Oscar II and his wife Sofia worried the Crown Princess’ long stays abroad would damage the family’s reputation. Nevertheless, Victoria continued to spend time in Italy, and would only return to Sweden during the summer time. Despite this, she was able to maintain certain control; it was she who had arranged the marriage between her son Wilhelm and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia in 1908, and she dictated the Swedish court, as she maintained political influence over her husband.
In 1892, physician Axel Munthe was hired by the Swedish royal family as personal physician to the Crown Princess. Victoria had been diagnosed with bronchitis and was suffering from a possible case of tuberculosis. Munthe was living in Capri at the time and had just purchased the Villa San Michele. He would invite Victoria over for morning walks around the beautiful island, and together they would attend local concerts and spend time in the garden, dining and drinking wine. They shared a love for animals, art and music, and became close friends. Surviving letter correspondence between the two suggests they were more than that; Munthe is rumoured to have been profoundly in love with the Swedish royal.
Victoria was deeply unhappy in her marriage, and in a letter to Axel, she wrote:
“Whenever I read of a divorce case in the newspaper, I envy both parties. I am not certain of how all of this will end, but that it will take a turn for the absolute worst, of that, I am convinced.”1
She would find consolation in playing the piano and painting with watercolour, and she was a skilled photographer. Her trips to Egypt resulted in more than 3000 professional photographs.
Inspired by Villa San Michele, Victoria ordered the construction of Solliden Palace in 1903. Located on the Swedish island of Öland, she hoped the relatively warm climate would improve her health, sparing her chronically ill lungs from the cold air in Stockholm. She never truly cared for her hometown, and would refer to the royal palace as “the state prison”. The construction was completed in 1906, and Victoria could finally move into her new dream home. Munthe helped her bring antique statues from Italy, and together they created an oasis reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, filled with flowerbeds and greenery.
In 1907 however, things drastically changed. King Oscar died, Gustav and Victoria were declared King and Queen, and Munthe married one of his other patients, an English aristocrat. Regardless, they continued to write to each other, and Victoria would regularly receive romantic gifts, including silk stockings.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Victoria’s trips to Italy ceased, and the political situation in Europe would lead to disagreements between her and Axel. German by blood and strictly conservative, the Queen would refer to the Social Democrats of the Swedish parliament as “rabble”. Munthe, a liberal, reserved his sympathies for the British. They wouldn’t see or speak to each other for years.
In 1921, they were reunited, this time in Rome. Barely on speaking terms with her husband the King, Victoria was seeking a permanent stay away from home, and with financial help from Munthe, she purchased a house in the Italian capital. She named it Villa Svezia. The Swedish royal family had stopped paying for Victoria’s stays abroad, and the stress of the situation took its toll on the Queen’s already weakened health.
Victoria visited Sweden for the last time in 1928 for the King’s 70th birthday, although she did not show herself in public. Two years later, the Queen passed away in her home in Rome at the age of 67. The King, their son Wilhelm, and Munthe were all present. To her alleged lover of 37 years, she is said to have whispered her last words: