Anyone who is interested in the history of the British monarchy is familiar with the names Saxe-Coburg and Saxe-Gotha: Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria is certainly a well-known figure; Princess Augusta, the mother of George III, probably less so. Those who have read about monarchies in the 19th century more generally are also aware that the House of Saxe-Coburg extended its reach from a tiny principality in the centre of Germany to the thrones of Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. A pretty amazing dynastic success story. But who were these Coburgs? Like many consorts in British history, popular history generally recalls their names, but not much more about them.
In the middle of the first World War, King George V wanted to change the name of the royal dynasty of the United Kingdom from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to something much more English-sounding. Before they settled on Windsor, his advisors looked to ancient history for ideas: much like the House of Hanover had sometimes been referred to by the much older dynastic name of Guelph, the Saxe-Coburgs thought perhaps they could use the name Wettin. Wettin Castle was built by Saxon lords in the 10th or 11th century as Germans began to spread eastward into the Ostmark, fortifying lands they took over from the Slavs. Legend says they descended from the Saxon warrior-king Widukind himself (d. 785), but they were undoubtedly kin to the Saxon dynasty that controlled much of this region now known as Saxony, the Ascanians. Gradually the family took over a larger territory, again on the frontier, and were called the Margraves of Meissen (a castle further to the east, and closer to the border with Bohemia), and later added the title Landgrave of Thuringia. Thuringia, to the west and south of Saxony, was a land much more central to the core of medieval Germany, and its towns were important centres of trade between east and west. But until the 1920s when the name re-appeared as a political unit, Thuringia became subsumed within the territories of the Saxon princes.
The House of Wettin ruled here from the 1240s, but acquired the much greater prize, the title Duke of Saxony, in the 1380s, followed by their elevation to the position of one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire in 1423. Being German princes, however, they adhered to a traditional inheritance practice whereby each son was entitled to a share in the patrimony, and the territory was divided and re-divided it into smaller and smaller units: Gotha, Weimar, Eisenach, Meiningen, etc. This post will focus only on the first of these, Gotha (plus a territory acquired a little later, Coburg), rather than attempt to cover the entire history of all the various Saxon duchies.
The largest part of these Wettin territories, the old Margraviate of Meissen, was held more or less together by one branch of the family, known as the Albertines (named for the founder Duke Albert) and ultimately became the Electorate of Saxony with its capital at Dresden. Its dukes were propelled into the highest ranks of the European princely society through election to the throne of Poland-Lithuania in the late 17th century, and a century later, in 1806, Saxony itself was elevated to the status of a kingdom. The other branch of the family, the Ernestines (named for Duke Ernest), was actually senior and was initially given the richer lands (Thuringia) and the electoral title, but lost it in 1556, thanks to their support for Martin Luther and their leadership of the revolt against the Emperor Charles V. The sons of the last of the Ernestine elector retained the title ‘Duke of Saxony’, but were restricted to governing much smaller territories named for their chief residences. Technically, their titles should be ‘Duke of Saxony in Gotha’ or ‘Duke of Saxony in Weimar’, but English usage over the centuries has adopted the French system of shortening this to ‘Saxe’ (French for the German word Sachsen), followed by the relevant subdivision: Gotha, Weimar, etc. This is essentially where our story begins.
One of these smaller Saxon duchies in the later 16th century was actually not in Thuringia, but across the forested ridge in the region directly to the south, Franconia. This was based in the town of Coburg, inherited by the Wettins in the 15th century, but transformed into a real princely capital in the 16th. Over the years, the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg became affiliated with Thuringia and the other Saxon states, but it reverted to its earlier status after the fall of the German monarchies in 1918, and today is part of Franconia within the larger state of Bavaria. Its grand fortress, known as Veste Coburg, guarded ancient roads that crossed the Thuringian Forest, the low mountain range that divides Thuringia from Franconia (and once divided East and West Germany). But these roads also connected the rulers of Coburg with one of their territories on the other side of the ridge, the Abbey of Saalfeld. The abbey, founded in the 11th century on the River Saale (hence the name), was secularised in the Reformation, and acquired by the first prince to settle in Coburg, Duke Johann Ernst (1521-1553), a younger brother of the Elector of Saxony. Saalfeld and Coburg would be tied to each other for several centuries, as we will see again below.
Johann Ernst also sheltered Luther for a time in his castle at Coburg, for his safety, during the negotiations taking place in 1530 at the Diet of Augsburg to decide the fate of the Church in Germany. In the 1540s, the Duke moved his household out of the old fortress and into the town, constructing a grand Renaissance palace, Ehrenburg, on the site of a former Franciscan monastery. The Ehrenburg Palace would remain the primary residence of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg until 1918. Much of it was burned in 1690, so it was rebuilt in the newer baroque style, and a chapel added. In the early 19th century it was remodelled again, in the style of the English Gothic Revival, by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, with a new sandstone façade which is still a notable feature today.
Duke Johann Casimir (1564-1633) completed the construction of the palace, and developed many of the institutions of the fledgling state in Coburg. For his court, he built up a library and patronised artists and a composer; for the state, he formally established the Lutheran Church, reformed the judiciary system, and, most famously, encouraged higher education for his subjects, constructing the Casimirianum in 1605, which remains in use to this day as a specialist high school.
Johann Casimir had his cruel side too, avidly supporting the persecution of witches in his territories, and keeping his wife prisoner for her lifetime after divorcing her for adultery. When he died with no children, in 1633, Coburg passed to a brother, then a nephew, before passing by marriage to the youngest son of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Ernst of Saxe-Gotha.
Ernst der Fromme (‘the Pious’) (1601-1675) is one of the most important figures in the history of this family, and indeed in the history of baroque Germany. Ruler of the town of Gotha after a partition with his brothers in 1640, like Johann Casimir, he is considered the father of his small state, and a model of good governance for German princes. The town was very old, named ‘Gotoha’ or ‘good waters’ by early Thuringian settlers in the 8th century. Unlike Coburg, it is located in a flatter terrain, and developed in the middle ages as a cloth town, on one of the main east-west roads across this region. Ernst brought back prosperity after the devastations of the Thirty Years War, and was noted for his piety and fairness, keeping taxes low and rooting out corruption. He also built schools, even for peasants, namely the Ernestium, which became a model for Germany. His most enduring legacy is a new ducal palace at Gotha, built on the site of a destroyed medieval fortress, which he named Friedenstein, or ‘peace rock’.
Completed in the 1650s, the Friedenstein was the first, and remained one of the largest, palaces in the new baroque style in the Europe, designed to house not just the ducal family, but the government administration as well (an idea later adopted by Louis XIV at Versailles). It also housed the Duke’s growing art collection and his library, one of the largest in Germany, and a theatre, one of the only baroque theatres that survives today, even with its original machinery for moving scenery intact.
Unlike the other residences of the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in the 19th century this palace was mostly ignored, so it retains its 17th-century flavour, though in the parks surrounding the palace, later dukes did construct a pleasure palace, Friedrichsthal, c1715, and a fashionable orangerie and English garden in the 1770s. They also constructed a porcelain factory, and a large ducal museum in the town for the edification of its citizens. Ever interested in progressive ideas like literacy and education, the 18th-century dukes established a printing press within the Friedenstein. The world-famous Almanach de Gotha was printed here from 1763 until 1944, the indispensable handbook for anyone wishing to know who formally was or was not accepted as a ruling prince or upper nobility, how to rank them, how to address them, etc.
Despite the name Gotha’s reputation as the supreme arbiter of the high aristocracy, Gotha itself remained a centre of the Liberal movement in the 19th century—supported by its dukes—and was the birthplace of the German Socialist Party in 1875. Today the palace is cared for by the Thuringian association of castles and gardens, and still houses an important library for historians and the state archives for Thuringia.
Ernst der Fromme had a wider vision for his ideas: he wanted to evangelise, and supported Lutheran missions in Russia and in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). When he died, much of this died with him, and of his 18 children, 9 survived to adulthood, and they continued the traditional practice of subdivision of lands. Ernst’s reasonably large state was divided into Gotha & Altenburg for the eldest son, Coburg for the second, Meiningen for the third, and on—seven in total. None of these sons really distinguished themselves. The eldest, Friedrich I (1646-1691) ruined the Duchy’s finances with extravagant expenses for the court, but also in maintaining a standing army which he contributed to the Emperor’s ongoing wars against the Turks and against Louis XIV. On the plus side, he was one of the first to implement primogeniture in Saxe-Gotha, in 1685, ending the centuries old practice of division and subdivision. Several of Friedrich’s younger brothers died without heirs, and those who remained squabbled over the pieces until a family agreement was laid down in 1735, after arbitration by the Emperor. From this point there were four ducal lines established for the 18th century: Gotha-Altenburg, Meiningen, Hildburghausen, and Coburg-Saalfeld. In totality for the Wettin dynasty, there also remained the two more senior Ernestine ducal lines of Saxe-Weimer and Saxe-Eisenach (which merged in the 1740s), plus the more distant electoral (Albertine) line of Saxony, based in Dresden.
In Gotha, Friedrich I was succeeded by Friedrich II (1676-1732), who continued to spend a good deal of money on improving the ducal residences, supporting the composer Stölzel, maintaining an army, and supporting an overly large family. There is certainly something about these north German Protestant dynasties—they really loved breeding. Friedrich and his wife, his first cousin, Magdalena Augusta of Anhalt-Zerbst (a cousin of the father of Catherine the Great, future Empress of Russia), had 19 children! Nine of these survived, including the youngest daughter, Augusta (1719-1772), who in 1736 married Frederick, Prince of Wales. Augusta had been chosen in part as a compromise in the growing rift between the Houses of Hanover (in Great Britain) and Hohenzollern (in Prussia). The daughters of good Lutheran Saxon dukes were seen as good marriage material, of ancient lineage, mostly neutral in diplomatic alliances, from states too small to threaten the balance of power, and demonstrably of fertile stock. They also provided useful family conduits for informal diplomacy: one of Augusta’s brothers commanded in the Imperial army in Austria, and one went to serve his cousin Catherine as a general in Russia. Yet another brother spent time studying in England and maintained a presence at the court of his sister the Princess of Wales. What could be said to be the ‘Coburg system’ of spreading its influence around and punching above its weight in the 19th century, perhaps had as its model the ‘Gotha system’ in the century before.
Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha did not fail to deliver, literally, delivering nine children for the royal house of Great Britain between 1737 and 1751. Her husband the Prince of Wales died in the Spring of 1751, however, so Augusta never became queen. Like many royal mothers, she tried to influence the next reign, that of George III (from 1760), but was seen as too overbearing, too foreign, and too much under the influence of her friend (and suspected lover), John Stuart, Earl of Bute, and was sidelined. She is remembered, at least, in the names of the town of Augusta, Georgia, and Augusta County, Virginia.
Augusta’s eldest brother, Duke Friedrich III, had a long reign, 1732-1772, but doesn’t stand out much in history. Far more well known are his son and grandson, Ernst II and Augustus. The second Duke Ernst of Saxe-Gotha seems to have finally taken up the mantle of his famous ancestor, and was a strong advocate of education and learning, rebuilding Gotha’s collections and libraries and constructing an observatory in 1787 that was in its day the most advanced in Europe. He was a supporter of the Enlightenment, even joining the movements of the Freemasons and the Illuminati, groups often seen as antithetical to the rule of hereditary princes. He generally supported the changes taking place in France, and died at the height of the Napoleonic wars in 1804.
Ernst II’s son, Augustus (1772-1822), went even further, and became a bit obsessed with Napoleon, redecorating some of his residences in ‘Empire’ style, and enthusiastically joining the pro-French Confederation of the Rhine in 1806. Gotha was, as a result, not occupied by French armies as some of its neighbours were, but this enthusiasm did mean the Duke was pretty unpopular after Waterloo. Augustus was also considered a bit extravagant, enjoying some eccentric cross-dressing at court (and hints of homosexuality). He married twice, but only produced one daughter, Louise (see below), and when he died he was succeeded by his brother, Frederick IV, whose death in 1825 led to a great re-distribution of the states of the Ernestine branch of the House of Saxony.
Backing up a bit, we can examine the line of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in the 18th century. The Youngest son of Duke Ernst the Pious, Johann Ernst IV, was given Coburg as his share in 1680, but wanted more, so gradually took over other parts of the inheritance, including Saalfeld (with its residence, built on the old Benedictine abbey noted above) in 1699.
Johann Ernst’s two sons ruled together, until the elder, Christian Ernst, adopted a different lifestyle and settled in Saalfeld where he wrote Pietist hymns and hosted the religious reformer Count Zinzendorf. He married unequally, so when he died in 1745, the succession passed smoothly to his brother, Franz Josias (1697-1764), who lived in Coburg. One of the first acts of Duke Franz Josias was to secure approval of his legislation bringing primogeniture to his duchy, as Gotha had done more than half a century before.
The next dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Ernst Friedrich and his son Franz, lived relatively quietly, and completed the transferral of the court from Saalfeld back to Coburg. Unlike his cousin in Gotha, Franz opposed the advances of Napoleon into Germany, and joined his forces to those of Britain and Hanover, which resulted in Coburg’s occupation in 1806.
He married a princess from the House of Reuss, another small princely state in Thuringia, but not one of the Wettin duchies. Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf (who would become the grandmother of Queen Victoria) came from a family who are mostly remembered today for their eccentric tradition of naming all their sons Heinrich—all of them, and not just one per generation…so Augusta’s father, for example, was Count Heinrich XXIV. Franz and Augusta had 10 children, of whom seven survived and mostly did very well on the marriage market. One of the daughters, Juliane, became a Russian grand duchess, but the 4th daughter, Victoria, is more famous, as the Duchess of Kent, mother to Queen Victoria.
Of the sons, Ernst succeeded as Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1806. The second son, Ferdinand, joined the Imperial army in Austria, married a Hungarian countess and founded the Catholic branch of the family, kings of Portugal from 1837 to 1910, and the kings of Bulgaria from 1887 to 1946 (and include the family in exile today, headed by Simon Sakskoburggotski, who was briefly ‘restored’ to power as prime minister, 2001-2005). The youngest son, Leopold, at first had the brightest future, as consort to the future Queen of England, Charlotte, who died in 1817, thus paving the way for the accession of Princess Victoria of Kent. ‘Uncle Leopold’ instead was invited to become the first king of a newly independent Belgium, in 1831. The House of Saxe-Coburg still reigns in Belgium today. The distinctive heraldic emblem of the House of Saxony, the green band of trefoil leaves known formally as a crancelin, spread across Europe. Legend has it that an early ruler of Saxony was appointed by means of the Holy Roman Emperor placing a coronet of rue across the Duke’s shield of gold and black bars.
Duke Ernst I (1784-1844) served in the Prussian army against Napoleon, then was restored in 1815, and given a small augmentation to his territory with the addition of the Principality of Lichtenberg—though its location in the Palatinate, west of the Rhine, made integration difficult with the lands in Thuringia, so it was sold to Prussia in 1834. The Duke’s status was augmented in 1826, after the senior line of Gotha died out and he was given that dukedom, though he had to give up Saalfeld in exchange. The new Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha maintained his family’s tradition of liberal values, and he granted a constitution to Coburg (though oddly, not to Gotha, which continued to be governed as a separate duchy). He established a house order of chivalry in 1833, the Ernestine Order, jointly with the dukes of Altenburg and Meiningen. He also redesigned Ehrenburg Palace in Coburg, as well as two other important family residences nearby, Schloss Callenberg and Schloss Rosenau.
The castle at Callenberg was originally a hunting lodge, about 4 miles from Coburg, purchased by Duke Johann Casimir in the 1580s and used as a summer residence. It was re-acquired by the Coburg line in 1825, remodelled by Ernst, then remodelled again in the 1850s. It was lost in 1945, but re-acquired at the end of the 20th century, and is now the current residence of the family, and its chief dynastic burial place.
Rosenau is perhaps the most famous Coburg residence to an English readership, as the birthplace of Duke Ernst I’s second son, Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, in 1819. It was originally the residence of the Rosenau family, then sold to the line of Saxe-Altenburg, and purchased by Duke Franz of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1805, as a summer house and a residence for his heir, Ernst. Ernst then gave it a full renovation, in fashionable Gothic style, starting in 1808, using the same architect as at Ehrenburg, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Known almost as a physical embodiment of the German Romantic movement, its most famous features include the Marble Hall and its Englischer Garten. Rosenau became the preferred residence of the ducal family at the end of the 19th century; it was taken over by the state in 1918, but leased to the family until 1938.
The image of the ideal family life projected at Rosenau for Duke Ernst and his two sons, Ernst and Albert, and very much carried on by Prince Albert for his own family in England, was in fact far from reality. Neither the Duke nor his wife, his cousin Louise of Saxe-Gotha, were particularly interested in each other, and they separated after less than ten years of marriage and formally divorced in 1826. She was sent to live in the part of Saxe-Coburg that was most remote, Lichtenberg, where she had a secret re-marriage, then died at only 30 years of age.
Ernst II succeeded his father as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1844, and was also never particularly interested in his own marriage, to Princess Alexandrine of Baden. He was passionate about painting, music and natural history, in restoring an ancient abbey acquired by his father, Reinhardsbrunn, and remodelling the ancient fortress of Coburg in the Gothic Revival style. A typical Coburg, he was a supporter of Liberalism, and in the national unification of Germany. He confirmed the written constitution for Coburg, granted one finally to Gotha, then unified the two into one state in 1852. His popularity meant he weathered the storms of the 1848 revolutions easily. But after this, he began to shift his politics, still in favour of unification, but now under the heavier hand of Prussia, which led to alienation from his British family, particularly as it became clear from the 1860s that one of Prince Albert’s sons needed to be groomed for the Saxe-Coburg succession, as Ernst had no children.
The unification of the United Kingdom and the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was seen as undesirable, so Albert’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII, renounced his rights in favour of his younger brother, Prince Alfred. Alfred was torn between his British and his German futures, but ultimately did rule in Coburg and in Gotha from 1893 to 1900.
Duke Alfred’s son pre-deceased him, and the next two British princes (the Duke of Connaught and his son) renounced the succession, so the throne passed to another nephew, Prince Charles Edward of Albany, who became Duke Carl Eduard. He was a young man when he succeeded in 1900, only able to rule on his own from 1905, then threw himself into renovation projects of the various Coburg residences, notably Veste Coburg, trying to undo some of the Romanticism of the 19th century to restore a more ‘authentic’ medieval look. After the first World War the castle was taken over by the State of Bavaria, but he was allowed to continue living there until his death.
The war also caused Carl Eduard to lose his status as a Prince of Great Britain, and he abdicated as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in November 1918. Abandoned by his British family, he avidly supported the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s, and encouraged his sons to serve in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. Imprisoned for a year by the Americans, fined for his war crimes, and having lost half of his estates to the Soviets—Gotha lay within the Soviet Zone of occupation, while Coburg was in the American Zone—he died penniless in a flat in Coburg in 1954.
The recent history of the House of Saxe-Coburg has seen a slow restoration of their reputation, aided by having close relatives on the thrones of Britain and Sweden (Carl Eduard’s grandson is the current King of Sweden). The Duke’s eldest son married unequally and renounced the succession, and his second son was killed in the war, so the third son, Friedrich Josias became titular duke, until 1998, when he was succeeded by his son, Andreas (b. 1943). Duke Andreas was born and raised in New Orleans (by his mother and American step-father), but now lives in the old family residence at Callenberg and at Greinburg Castle in Austria. He has been unsuccessful in reclaiming properties in Thuringia, but remains a patron of art and history institutions in the town of Gotha, and manages the remaining family estates in Bavaria and Austria, including farms and forests, and in 2006 re-created a House Order of knighthood as a charity foundation.
From a purely dynastic, genealogical perspective, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha can be said to have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of any small princely state, with sovereigns in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Bulgaria and Portugal (all four at once between 1901 and 1910). Queen Elizabeth II will be the last Coburg monarch in the United Kingdom, but even if the throne itself will soon pass to the House of Oldenburg (aka Greece & Denmark), there remain nevertheless several junior lines ion the UK who descend in the male line directly (or so the myth goes) from Widukind: the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Kent and Prince Michael of Kent and their numerous heirs.
(images from Wikimedia Commons)