Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Coburgs of Europe by Arturo Beeche

The Coburgs certainly knew how to network and create strong marital alliances that would essentially create a strong bond among European dynasts.  It is unlikely that Duke Franz Friedrich of Saxe-Coburg-Saafeld (1750-1806) ever envisioned that his progeny, his descendants would sit on thrones throughout Europe.

The story begins with Franz Friedrich's second marriage to Countess Augusta zu Reuss-Ebersdorf.  They were the parents of nine children, seven of whom would make strong dynastic alliances.

At the time, Princess Juliane's marriage to Grand Duke Konstantin of Russia was considered to be a brilliant match, an arrangement between the daughter of a minor German duke and a member of the Russian Imperial family.  Although her own marriage was unhappy,  Juliane's position as a Grand Duchess afforded her own siblings a step up and a step out of tiny Coburg.

Juliane's marriage opened the door for her siblings, especially youngest brother, Prince Leopold, a charming, handsome man, who served in the Russian Imperial Army, fighting against Napoleon.  It was in London where he met Princess Charlotte of Wales, only child of the Prince Regent, eldest son of King George III.  Charlotte was the most eligible princess in Europe, as she was second in line to the throne. 

Many assumed Charlotte would marry Willem of Orange, but she decided she didn't want such a marriage, and rebelled against it.  She and Willem were guests at a reception at a London hotel for the visiting Emperor Alexander I of Russia, when she met one of his aide de camps.  The young man helped the Princess and her lady-in-waiting into their carriage.  Charlotte had seen the young man at several parties in honor of Emperor, and wondered why he had not presented himself to her.  All of the other princes had done.  Leopold apologized and introduced himself:  it was love at first sight.

It would not be easy for the young Princess Charlotte to convince her father and others that the penniless (but ambitious) Prince Leopold of Coburg was suitable.  She won the battle, and the marriage took place in May 1816.  

The young couple were popular.  Leopold, the youngest child of minor Duke, was now the husband of a future Queen Consort.  That was the plan.  But in November 1818,  Princess Charlotte died in childbirth.  Her son was stillborn.

The Coburgs were on the verge of dynastic greatness with Leopold's marriage.  Now he was a widower, left alone to his own devices.   He would prove to be the consummate networker.   Less than a year after the death of his wife,  Prince Leopold encouraged a marriage between his sister, Victoire, the widow of the Prince of Leiningen, and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III.  

The marriage between Victoire and Edward took place in May 1818.  A year later, on May 24,  at Kensington Palace, the Duchess of Kent gave birth to a daughter, Alexandrina Victoria, perhaps the most important player in the Coburg dynasty.  (Of course, I am biased toward Victoria and her descendants, but that's another story.)

Nearly three months after Victoria's birth,  Duchess Luise of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the young wife of Duke Ernst I, Victoire and Leopold's brother, gave birth to a second son, Albert.     Fast forward to February 1840, and Queen Victoria marries her first cousin, a dynastic (and a true love match) carefully engineered by dear Uncle Leopold, who had managed to secure a throne of his own, as the first King of the newly independent Belgium.

You must read Art Beeche's  The Coburgs of Europe: the Rise and Fall of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's European Family, a book that will truly become one of the definitive sources on Coburg dynasty.

The Coburgs were not confined to Great Britain and Belgium.   Leopold's eldest brother, Ernst I, inherited the duchy, which was inherited by his eldest son, Ernst II, who died without legitimate issue.  An arrangement was made to have the succession devolve on Victoria and Albert's second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, When his only son, young Affie, died, the next in line, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, and his son, Prince Arthur, renounced their rights in favor of the young Duke of Albany, Charles Edward, who succeeded his uncle Alfred in 1900.   His grandson, Prince Andreas of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, is the present head of the family.

Another brother, Prince Ferdinand, made a financially advantageous with a Hungarian noblewoman, Antoinette Kohary, an heiress.  Antoinette was Roman Catholic, thus leading to a Roman Catholic branch of the family, a branch that included Portugal and Bulgaria.   The eldest son, Ferdinand, married Queen Maria II of Portugal, sharing the throne, until her death in 1853.  The second son, Prince August, married the very formidable Princess Clementine of Orleans, a woman as cunning and ambitious as Uncle Leopold.   Her eldest son, Philipp, a most foul man, married Leopold's granddaughter, Princess Louise of Belgians, but Clementine's energies were largely expended on her youngest son, the effeminate Ferdinand, elected king of the Bulgarians.  

There also would be marriages with Braganzas, Hohenzollerns and Saxons, but of course the most successful marriage in spreading the Coburg genes was the marriage between Victoria and Albert. 

Their descendants would sit on the thrones of the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Romania and Yugoslavia.   These are the families we know a lot about,  but the Coburg destiny was not confined to Victoria and Albert's descendants.   The Belgians offer diversity and sadness, especially the life stories of the daughters of Leopold II.   His children, especially his elder daughters, suffered emotional abuse at his hands.  Neither Princess Louise nor Princess Stephanie were prepared for marriage, and neither could sustain successful marriages.  Leopold did  not consider Prince Philipp of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the son of Prince August and Princess Clementine (daughter of  Louis Philippe) as a suitable spouse for his eldest daughter.

The family ties were close.  Clementine's older sister, Louise, was the second wife of Leopold I of the Belgians, widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales.  Prince August was the son of Prince Ferdinand and Princess Antonia Kohary, thus making him one of the Kohary heirs.  August and Leopold II were first cousins.     Clementine was determined to secure an advantageous match for her eldest son, and pushed him toward Louise. 

Leopold thought Louise was too young to marry her cousin, but eventually, he gave permission, and the couple were married.  Clementine considered it a great coup to have her son marry the King of Belgium's daughter.   It was  not a happy marriage.  Louise was willful and independent (and largely ignorant about sex) and Philipp was a brute.  The marriage largely collapsed after the birth of the couple's two children, Leopold and Dorothea.  

On paper, Stephanie's marriage was grand.  She married Archduke Rudolf, only son of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth of Austria.  Stephanie was ill-prepared for her new position and marriage.  It was not a love match.  Rudolf infected his wife with a venereal disease, which rendered the young archduchess infertile after the birth of their only child, Elisabeth.   Rudolf ended his life in a murder-suicide pact with his mistress at Mayerling in 1889.

Art Beeche moves effortlessly among the different branches as he weaves the stories into gripping yet historic tales of real people caught up in a genetic tsunami. 

Perhaps because I know a lot about Victoria's line, I was more interested in the other branches, especially the Kohary branch: the descendants of Prince Ferdinand and Princess Antonia.   The Coburg -Kohary line was perhaps the wealthiest of all the branches, although the fortune and many of the palatial residences were lost to bad economics, national socialism, and communism, especially the residences in Hungary.

The Kohary inheritance passed to Prince Philipp's middle brother, Prince Ludwig August, who married Princess Leopoldine of Brazil.  (The youngest brother, Ferdinand, became King of Bulgaria.  King Simeon is his grandson.)  Ludwig August married Archduchess Carolina of Austria, a member of the Tuscan branch of the family.  The family fortune eventually devolved from Prince Philipp to his nephew, Prince Philipp Josias, as the latter became the "universal heir to the inalienable estates protected by the Coburg and Kohary Fideikommis."   Prince Philipp's own estate was divided between Prince Philipp-Josias and his cousin, Prince Kyril of Bulgaria,

Family and legal disputes led to the financial devastation of Kohary Coburgs.  Czechoslovakia ended the practice of Fideikommis in 1924.  This action led to a further breakup of the family's Czech properties and more law suits  Prince Philipp's daughter, Princess Dorothea, the widow of Prince Ernst Gunther of Schleswig-Holstein, filed suit to gain a share of the fortune, thus creating another level of family discourse, 

The family lost money and lost property,  marriages ended in divorce,  but the saddest story for me was the tragic deaths of Prince Rainer (Philipp Josias's older brother) and their sister, Princess Marie Karoline.   Prince Rainer and his wife remained in Budapest during the second world war.  In 1945,  Rainer was arrested by the Communists, imprisoned, and never seen again.  The family assumes that Rainer was executed by the Communists. He was declared dead in 1961.

Rainer's sister, Marie Karoline, who was mentally handicapped, was gassed by the Nazis in the early years of the second world war.

Philipp-Josias's son, Prince Philipp-August, remains committed to rebuilding the family's Austrian estates.

King Leopold, Queen Victoria and Princess Clementine were the quintessential networkers,  using not always tacit negotiation skills to effect ways to further the scope of Coburg power.

Friedrich Franz, Duke of Saxe-Coburg, died in 1806, nearly a decade before his youngest son, Leopold's marriage to Princess Charlotte of Wales.   Although the marriage ended with Charlotte's death in childbirth, Leopold remained at the forefront, ensuring that his niece and nephew marry, thus establishing a new Coburg dynasty in Britain.

The Coburgs of Europe is an amazingly well-researched book.  Take a look at the impressive bibliography in the back of the book.  Art Beeche took his time to make sure he didn't miss a source.  If I had a few quibbles ... okay I have a few quibbles .. it would be to ask why the many quotes used in the text were not cited with footnotes.  This certainly would enhanced the book's scholarly achievement.  Historians, writers, biographers and others would be able to refer a quote to the original source, such as a memoir, biography, newspaper articles, etc.

One weird little thing: on page 293. Mr. Beeche writes that Princess Kalina was the only "one of King Simeon's children convert to Catholicism."  This is incorrect.   King Simeon II married Dona Margarita Gomez-Acebo y Cejuela, a Spanish noblewoman.  Queen Margarita is Roman Catholic.  It was decided at the time of the marriage that their first son would be baptized into the Orthodox faith.  Their three younger sons and only daughter were all baptized and raised as Roman Catholics.  Is it possible that Kalina converted to the Orthodox faith.  She was married according to the rites of the Roman Catholic church.  The marriage was also blessed by the Orthodox church.  Kalina's son, Simeon, born in Bulgaria, was baptized in the Orthodox church.

A word of caution.  You will find it takes time to read this book. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)  There is so much information .. and the photographs!  Did I mention the photographs.  Hundreds of photographs, many of which will be seen for the first time in this book.

The Coburgs of Europe oozes with the history and personality of kings and dukes and queens and princesses.  There are two chapters shouting out the accomplishments of about a dozen Coburg women, including Queen Victoria's mother,  Victoire.  (Good thing she listened to her younger brother about that second marriage.)

The book is also visually stunning.  I won't be surprised if this book remains on coffee tables for some time to come, so you can pick it up and savor it again and again.  The Coburgs of Europe is a masterpiece, a true masterpiece, born out of a loving devotion to history.

Who needs social media when the Coburgs networked rather nicely without it!

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