Sister in the Shadows.

Princess Margretha of Sweden and Norway was born on 25 June 1899 at her parent’s white-washed summer home, Villa Parkrudden, in Stockholm’s exclusive Djurgården. She was the eldest child of Prince Carl of Sweden and Norway, Duke of Västergötland (the third son of King Oscar II) and his wife Princess Ingeborg, sometimes referred to as “the happiest Princess”, the eldest child of King Frederick VIII of Denmark. The couple went on to have three more children, Martha (born in 1901), Astrid (1905) and Carl (born in 1911 and known in the family as ‘Mulle’.)

There was a brief flurry of excitment, in 1905, with the news that Prince Carl was being considered as a prospective ‘candidate’ for the Norwegian throne. However, that honour finally fell to Ingeborg’s brother, Prince Haakon of Denmark, who reigned for 52 years as King Haakon VII of Norway and earned the lasting respect and admiration of his subjects.

Margaretha had a happy upbringing in Stockholm and, with her sisters, spent the summers (and often Easter and Christmas too), from 1909 onwards, at the family’s newly-constructed Villa Fridhem, overlooking Lake Skiren, near Bråviken in Östergötland. One of the main features was a purpose-built solid brick “Wendy House” which featured chintz wallpaper, a scaled-down kitchen with impliments and white furniture. Visitors at Fridhem included Margaretha’s Swedish-born maternal grandmother, Queen Louise of Denmark and her daughter Thyra.

The three sisters became something of a public relations draw for the Swedish royal family, with their images featuring regularly on postcards and in magazines. The Swedish Court photographer Jaeger also produced wonderful photographic portraits of the family, both individually and in groups. The family often joined other members of the Swedish royal family at events such as the 60th birthday celebrations of King Gustav V, held at his summer residence, Tullgarn Palace, in 1918. This would be one of the final royal family gatherings for Margaretha before she departed her homeland.

Although Margaretha’s named had been linked with the Prince of Wales (‘David’), the Princess was already in love with Prince Axel of Denmark, a cousin of Princess Ingeborg. The couple married on 22 May 1919 at Stockholm’s historic Storkyrkan (Great Church). The newlyweds made their home at the Villa Bernstorffshøj (a wedding gift) in the shadow of Bernstorff Palace, at Gentofte. The royal duo had two children-both sons-Georg (born in 1920) and Flemming (born in 1922). Although Margaretha was now a Princess of Denmark, the family photographic portraits continued to be taken by the trusted Mr Jaeger from Stockholm.

Meanwhile, back in Sweden, Prince Carl and Princess Ingeborg were beset by financial problems when the Danish bank, Landmandsbanken, who managed Ingeborg’s private capital, crashed. For reasons of economy, Prince Carl moved his family from the Djurgården into an apartment in Stockholm’s Villagatan in the autumn of 1923. Fortunately, Fridhem remained in the family and truly became “home” to all of Prince Carl’s family, including Margaretha who was a frequent visitor there with her sons. However, this change in family circumstances did not deter Margaretha’s sisters from making excellent marriages. In 1926, Astrid married the wealthy Prince Leopold, the Duke of Brabant and heir to the Belgian throne; while, three years later, Märtha wed her cousin, Crown Prince Olav of Norway.

The sudden death of her youngest sister, Queen Astrid of the Belgians, in a car accident in Küssnacht, Switzerland, in August 1935, at the tender age of 29, proved to be a devastating blow for Margaretha. Astrid had been flung from a Packard convertible car, driven by her husband King Leopold, and tossed against a tree, resulting in a fatal blow to the head. Margaretha and her mother Ingeborg remained in Brussels, following the funeral, to help the widowed King Leopold care for his children, Josephine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert. This trio often visited Villa Fridhem in the summer and would have encountered their Aunt Margaretha, along with their teenage cousins Georg and Flemming, during these Swedish sojourns.

In 1936, Margaretha was shaken by another event: her beloved Villa Bernstorffshøj was severely damaged by fire. Prince Axel rose to the challenge and commissioned the architect Helweg Møller to design a new and much enlarged white-washed residence featuring wide, expansive windows, a charming library, a large drawing room (in which Margaretha hung family portraits) and a long, sweeping terrace. Large vases of flowers arranged artistically throughout the main public rooms added a welcome feminine touch. Each time the Princess travelled out to her home via the coast road from Copenhagen, she was afforded wonderful views of her native Sweden, so temptingly near across the sea.

Margaretha’s husband, Prince Axel, who had intially served in the Danish navy, now enjoyed a busy and varied business career: In 1921, he began working for the Copenhagen-based East Asiatic Company, which operated shipping services to Bangkok and the Far East. In 1937, he rose to the rank of Chairman and Managing Director. The Prince was also a member of the International Olympic Committee and Honorary Chairman of Scandinavian Airlines. While he zipped in and out of Copenhagen in his Bentley, usually accompanied by his latest pet dog, Margaretha preferred to remain at home and dedicated herself to raising her family. An avid letter writer, she also corresponded with her extended family in Sweden, Norway and Belgium. The Princess also undertook charitable work and was Chairperson of the children’s charity, Gentofte Børnevenner. Margaretha also accompanied her husband on some of his official and business trips overseas, including an extensive tour of Asia, in 1930, also in the company of Crown Prince Frederick of Denmark and his younger brother, Prince Knud. Yet the Princess was also a familiar sight in Copenhagen, her tall, angular frame invariably offset by a neat hat with a small veil, as she rushed to a lunch engagement or to take tea at the Amelienborg.

The period of the German occupation of Denmark in World War II was a difficult and risky time for the Princess. Her husband was an avowed Anglophile and he was said to have kept in touch with British intelligence sources in Stockholm. Furthermore, the Villa Bernstorffshøj was used as a meeting place for members of the Danish resistance, while weapons for use against the German occupiers were concealed nearby. This led to Prince Axel being placed under house arrest for a period. It also did not help that Margaretha’s sister, Crown Princess Märtha, had become an iconic symbol of Norwegian resistance against the Nazi cause, particularly in the United States, where she lived in exile with her children, throughout most of the war, under the benevolent protection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Observers, and in particular the writer James Pope-Hennessey, described the Princess as ‘stiff’, while others found her to be very conscious of rank, precedence and court etiquette. Margaretha would therefore have enjoyed attending the wedding, in London, in November 1947, of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth (a great-great granddaughter of King Christian IX of Denmark) to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten RN (born a Prince of Greece and Denmark and, like Margaretha, a great-grandchild of King Christian IX). This was the first major gathering of European royalty since before the outbreak of World War II. What she made of the marriage, in May 1949, of her younger son Prince Flemming to a commoner, Alice Ruth Neilsen, is best left to the imagination. Nevertheless, it must have been a bitter blow to the status-conscious Margaretha, as Flemming was required to relinquish the title of Prince of Denmark and was henceforth known as Count of Rosenborg. Then, in September 1950, her elder son, Prince Georg, married the British Queen Consort’s divorced niece, Lady Anne Bowes-Lyon. Unlike his brother Flemming, Georg cared deeply about his royal title and was able to remain a Prince of Denmark thanks to his successful plea to King Frederick not to revoke his royal status. It helped that Britain’s King George VI had also approached Frederick over the matter, probably at the urging of his wife Elizabeth. Although Georg’s new wife was now able to take the title of Princess Georg of Denmark, unlike ‘Lilibet’ and Philip’s marriage, this was certainly not a union of royal equals. Margaretha’s association with the British Royal family continued when she and Prince Axel officially represented the King of Denmark at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in Westminster Abbey, in June 1953.

After the death of her sister, Märtha in 1954 , “Aunt ‘Tha” became an important support to her nieces Ragnhild and Astrid, as well as to her nephew Harald. Indeed, following Prince Axel’s death in July 1964, the Princess invariably spent Christmas with her brother-in-law, King Olav of Norway, in Oslo. As the sole surviving sister of Crown Princess Märtha, in August 1968, she was seated in pride of place next to the bridegroom at the banquet to celebrate the nuptials of Crown Prince Harald to Sonja Haraldsen. In 1971, she attended a Gala dinner at Akershus Castle in honour of King Olav’s 70th birthday. Later that year, Crown Prince Harald asked his beloved Aunt to act as sponsor (godmother) to his daughter, Princess Märtha Louise, at her christening.

Margaretha had often visited Sweden over the years, particularly to celebrate the milestone birthdays of (or mourn the deaths of) members of the Swedish royal family. In widowhood, she usually attended the annual presentation of the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm’s Concert Hall on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. This ceremony was followed by a sumptuous banquet in the City Hall, where the press invariably captured the Princess in animated conversation with one or other of the winning Laureates. Another date in her Swedish calendar was attending a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at the Storkyrkan on the first Sunday of Advent.

Princess Margaretha survived her husband by 12 years. Following a stroke in December 1974 ,the Princess was obliged to make use of a wheelchair. She died after suffering another stroke on January 4, 1977, aged 77 at Tranemosegård in Zealand. She is buried beside her husband Axel in the grounds of their beloved home at Gentofte.

The writer of this blog is the author of a new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published by Grosvenor House Publishing and available to purchase now as a hardback or e-book through Amazon or other on-line outlets.

Crown Princess Märtha Eludes Nazi Regency plot.

Following the German invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940, King Haakon, his son Crown Prince Olav, daughter-in-law Crown Princess Märtha and three grandchildren (Ragnhild, Astrid and Harald) journeyed northwards by train, accompanied by members of the government, from Oslo’s Østbanen Station to Hamar in an attempt to evade capture. By the early evening, the royals had settled at an estate at Sælid, a few kilometres outside of Hamar, where they were just sitting down to dinner when word was received from the local police chief of the impending arrival of several busloads of German troops. The little group immediately set out by car towards Elverum, to rendezvous with members of the government who had fled there from Hamar, arriving at 10.30pm. However, the news there was equally uncertain and it was at this juncture that a decision was taken to send the Swedish-born Crown Princess Märtha and her three children over the border into neutral Sweden for reasons of safety. A royal convoy of three cars crossed the border into Sweden from Trysil, in the early hours of 10 April, and proceeded to the Høyfjellshotell in the ski resort of Sälen. As it was a glorious sunny day, the children spent most of the time skiing on the nearby slopes, while their mother remained at the hotel glued to the radio for news of events in neighbouring Norway. What she heard could hardly have lifted her spirits, as the Germans were now bombing Eleverum and Nybergsund, killing dozens of people. At one stage, King Haakon and his son Olav are forced to take shelter in a ditch to avoid being fired on by low-flying Heinkel bombers.

Crown Princess Märtha’s mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden arrived at Sälen a few days later, visibly tired yet ‘filled with a glowing hatred of the Germans’, according to one of the Norwegians, for her homeland of Denmark had also been occupied. Ingeborg was also deeply concerned for the welfare of her brother, King Haakon and her son-in-law (and nephew) Olav. Meanwhile, the Swedish authorities were nervous of the Norwegian royalty remaining so close to the border area so, thanks to Princess Ingeborg’s efforts, the royal party was able to take up temporary residence at Count Carl Bernadotte of Wisborg’s home at Rasbo near Uppsala.

After about two weeks, Märtha’s paternal uncle, King Gustav V of Sweden, who was known to have pro-German leanings (and had already refused a plea from King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav to cross the border into Sweden for fear of provoking Hitler) offered Crown Princess Märtha and her party accommodation at Ulriksdal Palace, on the outskirts of Stockholm. Although at dinner on the first evening, ‘everyone was terribly kind and friendly’, there was no discussion of the increasingly perilous situation in Norway, where King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav remained in constant danger from a crack unit of German commandos’ intent on their capture or possibly death. But Olav was also concerned for the safety of his children and wife in Sweden and wrote to President Franklin D Roosevelt from Trangen, Langvatnet, on 10 May, mentioning an offer which Roosevelt had made, in late April 1939, during the Crown Prince and Princess’ weekend stay at the President’s country home at Hyde Park, ‘to take care of the children’ if the war should reach Norwegian shores.

Märtha, meanwhile, spent time playing rummy and bridge each evening after dinner while the children and their nurse played games of tennis, swam in a nearby inlet or went picnicking. However, underneath, the minutiae of everyday Palace life, the Crown Princess was increasingly anxious about the future, for her sole communication with her husband was via courier and, as he was constantly on the move, that was sporadic at best. This left her in a very vulnerable position and soon Märtha was subjected to considerable political pressure from the Administrative Council (among others) in Oslo, who indicated that they wanted her and Prince Harald to return to Norway and cooperate with the occupying power in order to save the monarchy. This would, of course, involve King Haakon’s abdicating. The timing of this political intervention was no accident for, as the Germans were only too well aware, the Norwegian King was no longer in Norway as, following the decision of the Allied powers to withdraw from Norway, he and his son Olav had departed Norwegian soil at Tromsø, on 7 June, to settle temporarily in England and carry on the fight for Norwegian democracy there. To make matters worse, the Swedes also became involved in discussions over the future of the Norwegian monarchy. In a telegram to Hitler on June 16, the Swedish King openly encouraged the Germans to adopt a ‘Norwegian Regency’ model whereby Harald would be proclaimed king, although his mother would act as regent until the Prince reached his majority. Märtha was clearly aware of the growing danger and sent a telegram to London warning her husband and father-in-law that her Swedish family (i.e. King Gustav) and Hitler were conspiring to remove King Haakon and set up a regency.

It has to be said that there was now the very real danger that Prince Harald might be kidnapped and taken to Oslo. This must have crossed the mind of Crown Prince Olav for, on 22 June, he had written again to President Roosevelt from Buckingham Palace asking him to make good on his offer of sanctuary to his children, but this time he also included a request on behalf of his wife. Olav also made an approach to the US Secretary of State via the US Ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, entreating ‘if there is anything you can do in a hurry to get the [Crown] Princess out [of Sweden].’ On 12 July, the US Secretary of State sent a message to the US Minister in Stockholm saying that President Roosevelt was arranging for a naval transport vessel to be sent to Finland to evacuate the Crown Princess and her family along with a group of ‘stranded’ US citizens. Both the German and British governments had agreed to grant the ship safe passage. The US Minister was now instructed to meet with Märtha and ascertain if she wished to proceed with this offer.

Meanwhile, in Norway, word had reached the Administrative Council that King Haakon was refusing to abdicate, thus placing in doubt on the regency option. According to the US Minister in Stockholm, the Administrative Council were now trying to reach a satisfactory agreement with the German occupying authorities, whilst also being careful to avoid upsetting the local population by attempting to ‘dethrone’ Europe’s only elected Sovereign. A National Council was proposed to conduct state affairs while the King remained overseas.

On 18 July, Märtha received a telephone call from the Norwegian Minister in Washington, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. He informed a somewhat surprised Crown Princess (who, not unsurprisingly, seems to have been in the dark about Crown Prince Olav’s recent correspondence with Roosevelt) that an American warship was being sent Finland to transport her and her children to the US. On 20 July, Märtha received the US Minister to Norway, Mrs Florence Harriman, who was now ensconced temporarily at the US Legation in Stockholm, and indicated to her that she was happy to accept President Roosevelt’s offer. Nevertheless, Märtha was keen to emphasise that she wanted to enter the US ‘as quietly as possible’ and ‘would not be required to meet reporters or a reception committee’. The Crown Princess also clearly hoped the date of her arrival would be kept confidential.

On 22 July, Mrs Harriman was informed by the US State Department that a naval transport, the USS American Legion, was about to leave for the Finnish port of Petsamo (now Petsjenga, Russia) and should reach there around 5 August. It was also made clear that there was ‘no possible way’ the Crown Princess’ arrival in the US could be kept confidential. Indeed, soon after Märtha left Ulriksdal, on 12 August, the Norwegian Legation released a statement to the press, also broadcast over Radio Sweden, stating that the Crown Princess and her three children ‘will leave for the United States in the next few days to visit President Roosevelt’ who had issued ‘a personal invitation’ to the Norwegian royals. In the interim, the Crown Princess travelled northward into Finland and on to Petsamo where, on 15 August, she and the royal children embarked the American Legion which transported them across the Atlantic to New York. Märtha appeared on the ship’s manifest as ‘Mrs Jones.’ Others in the party included her Chief of Staff, Peder Anker Wedel Jarlsberg, a Lady-in-Waiting, Mrs Ragni Østgaard, the latter’s son Einar and the royal children’s nurse, Signe Svendsen. Touchingly, Prince Harald was pictured clutching his beloved teddy bear. However, in her luggage, Märtha also had a touching, splendid farewell gift from her mother: a magnificent suite of emerald and diamond parure which had once belonged to Queen Sophia of Sweden. The intention was that should the Crown Princess ever be in financial difficulties, during these difficult war years, she could raise cash by selling the parure.

The author of this blog takes a keen interest on the fate of royalty during World War II. He examines the wartime adventures of Princess Olga (the onetime Consort of the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia) in Africa (and much else besides) in the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.