Saturday, March 21, 2020

"A being in close contact with the ineffable and divine..."

Grand Duchess Elizabeth in her nun's habit
Photo courtesy of Klimblim

"Although she is approaching fifty, she has kept her slim figure and her old grace. Under her loose white woolen hood, she was as elegant and attractive as in the old days before her widowhood when she still inspired profane passions… Her face in the frame of her long white woolen veil was alive with spirituality. Her delicate features and white skin, the deep, far-away look in her eyes, the low, soft tone of her voice and the luminous glow round her brow all betrayed a being in close contact with the ineffable and divine."

- From the memoirs of Maurice Paleologue about the Grand Duchess Elizabeth as a nun.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Marie of Saxe-Altenburg, Queen of Hanover

Queen Marie of Hanover
Portrait by Joseph Stieler
In the middle of the 19th century, the German kingdom of Hanover was ruled by King Ernest Augustus, a British prince by birth, who was also the Duke of Cumberland. Long before Ernest Augustus became king, he had married the rather controversial and scandalous Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Although their marriage can be said that it was out of love, their relationship with his family was quite sour. Frederica was disliked by most members of the British royal family and when Ernest Augustus became King of Hanover, he and Frederica wasted no time in setting up their court in Hanover. Frederica had only four years as queen and she died after an illness. She failed to endear herself with the people and as a result she did not become a popular queen.

Fortunately, her successor, the daughter-in-law she never met, was immensely popular with the people of Hanover.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, First German Empress

Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach,
Queen of Prussia and Empress of Germany
Empress Augusta, consort of Emperor William I and the first empress of Germany, was born a Princess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach on September 30, 1811. She was the youngest daughter of Grand Duke Carl Frederick of Saxe-Weimar and Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, a granddaughter of Catherine the Great.

Princess Augusta spent her formative years in the literary court of Weimar. She received a well-rounded education that was carefully supervised by her mother. Maria Pavlovna was a highly-cultivated woman who presided over the cultural development of Weimar, while Augusta's father was a simple and timid man who nevertheless enjoyed the works of Goethe. Maria Pavlovna instilled in her daughter the strict observance of etiquette and courtly manners, and above all else, the importance of performing one's duties. Thus, while Augusta grew up in the romantic atmosphere of the Weimar court, where Goethe and other well-known writers and musicians throughout Germany frequented the grand ducal palaces, she also turned into an intelligent and well-read woman who possessed a firm and independent character.

From October 1824 to September 1825, Augusta and her older sister Marie accompanied their parents on a visit to their mother's homeland, Russia. Augusta enjoyed her adventures in there, but she never became fond of Russia. Instead, she developed a great fondness of France and all things French, and she learned to speak French fluently.

Augusta met her future husband, the then Crown Prince William of Prussia, on the occasion of her older sister Marie's wedding to William's younger brother, Prince Charles. Marie was considered by everyone to be more beautiful than Augusta, but William thought Augusta as having an excellent personality. He was at that time very much in love with Elisa Radziwill, a Polish princess whom he had known ever since they were children and whom he fiercely wished to marry. But his parents, although fond of their relationship, were against the marriage; they deemed the princess not noble enough to marry the heir to the Prussian throne.

When it became apparent that William and Elisa could not possibly marry, William's father pressed him to consider Augusta as a bride. William, who was still heavily in love with Elisa, was forced to give up his feelings and asked Augusta's hand in marriage. She happily agreed; she loved William and expected to have a happy marriage life with him, but at the same, she understood very well that she could never possibly replace Elisa in William's heart.

Watercolor portrait of the 19-year-old Princess Augusta.
Courtesy of the Royal Collection.
On June 11, 1829, William and Augusta were married in the chapel of Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin. While the first years of their marriage were relatively harmonious, William was emotionally distant. And this was generally ascribed to William's affection for Elisa. He confessed in a letter to her sister, the Empress of Russia, that: "One can love only once in life, really." And wrote that Augusta was "nice and clever, but she leaves me cold". He had a great deal of respect to his intelligent wife, but could not bring himself to love her. Nevertheless, Augusta gave birth to their first child, Frederick William, in 1831, and it was followed by a daughter, Louise, named after William's beloved mother, in 1838.

Augusta had moved into a city and country which was larger than her homeland but its cultural horizon much smaller and had married a man who was ahead of her in age and experience but, as people said, inferior in wit. Her sharp intellect, William complained to his sister, would give her an “undesirable touch of femme d’esprit." It was apparent that she and William had different inclinations and temperament. They also had different political views. Her unhappy marriage and the rigid military sobriety of the Prussian court took a toll on Augusta's health and she began suffering from manic-depression. However, she consoled herself by inviting people at the palace who shared her artistic and scientific interests. She was very interested in politics, and being liberal-minded, hoped that on the accession of her brother-in-law, Frederick William IV, he would continue his liberal approach as he had while he was still the heir to the throne. However, he refused to grant a constitution to Prussia and this led into a more conservative government. 

In 1861, King Frederick William IV's died, and William and Augusta became the new King and Queen of Prussia. Augusta tried her best to give advice to her husband when it comes to politics. And yet, he just did what he thought as right as he always thought her advice an annoyance – which she tended to give like a schoolmistress, and usually in written form in order to avoid misunderstandings or a fight. But when William faced a massive setback with the parliament and was even considering to hand the power over to his son, the one who came to his rescue and would be his most important partner from then onwards: Otto von Bismarck.

Augusta considered Bismark as her biggest enemy. His pragmatic Realpolitik with ‘blood and iron’ was, for her, the most terrifying and wrong way to gain more power for Prussia. She believed that there were more ideal ways to rightful rule. Their hatred was mutual. As she showed her disdain not only for him but also to his rather timid wife, Bismarck was in for payback. He did not shy away from giving journalists material on her and publicly called her old bat or nag.

Augusta hoped for Prussian leadership in Germany. But what Bismarck eventually gained after three wars and what earned her the title of an Empress, to her remained a mixed blessing. It was not the kind of moral conquest which she had considered not only ideal but possible, instead the wars waged for her just bore the seed for further conflicts. Most Germans caught in nationalist euphoria would not see it that way. As something of a pacifist there were, after all, some few ideas which she could successfully realize. They happened to be within her official role and female ‘job description’. She started a charitable organization that care for those who were wounded in war and a school for girls orphaned by the war. But for her, that was not enough. At some point, her will to discuss and shape politics got obsessive. She eavesdropped on William’s political meetings and in order to do that, her maids had to make her hair while sitting on the stairs close by to his office. What she told her few confidants about her moods, can only be read as massive signs of manic depression.

To the people, she seemed inaccessible and her behavior contrived and insincere. The natural charm that she had possessed in her youth, seemed all gone. Her husband and others commented on her lack of sensuality and femininity. Few would see it like her French reader Jules Laforge in the 1880s: “As simple and somewhat palish the personality of the emperor is, so complicated, distinct and impressive is she, the empress.”

Augusta died on January 7th, 1890, and was put to rest alongside her husband in the mausoleum of Charlottenburg. She also rests alongside the famous Queen Louise, her sweet and beautiful mother-in-law who was deceased long before Augusta arrived in Berlin. While Louise's beautiful image was further sugar-coated and idealized since her death at the age of 34, the serious and 78-year old empress was forgotten by most.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

A Mother's Advice to Her Daughter

Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Prussia as a Grand Duchess of Russia.

 Below is an excerpt from a letter of Queen Louise of Prussia to her eldest daughter, Princess Charlotte. Queen Louise never saw her daughter eventually become Empress of Russia as consort of Nicholas I as the Queen died when Charlotte was only 12 years old.

"Dear Charlotte, listen to these cheerful cries and the bells ringing with reverence... Those who want to deserve this, must respond with love to the love of their people; must have a heart capable of sharing their sufferings and joys; and the most important thing - one must be with the people... Remember this, my daughter, and if you ever get to wear a crown, remember this solemn hour."


Queen Louise of Prussia

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From a letter of Queen Louise to her daughter - Princess Charlotte, future Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Nicholas I of Russia

New Year 2020

Happy New Year everyone! I apologized for the lack of updates for a very long time. So many events have happened in the past years - I got married, switched jobs, moved to a new place... But that does not mean that I will not be continuing this blog anymore. I love history and I love writing, and this blog is a labor of love, so it will still continue as it is. There will be articles that I will still be posting so you can check my blog from time to time. In the mean time, I wish everyone a happy and blessed new year ahead!

- Gem
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