Dukes of Saxe-Meiningen

Where would you go if you wanted an incredible musical or theatrical experience in the later 19th century? One of Europe’s great music capitals—Vienna, Paris? The theatres in London? The capital cities of several small German principalities had either an orchestra or a theatre that punched well above its relative weight, like Weimar or Detmold, but also Meiningen, which excelled at both. The Court Orchestra and Court Theatre of the small duchy of Saxe-Meiningen were leading arts organisations, led by one of the 19th-century’s most cultured prince, Duke Georg II, known to contemporaries as the ‘Theatre Duke’. His Meiningen Ensemble influenced the history of theatre through its professionalism and dedication to authenticity; while the Meiningen Orchestra attracted the best composers in the German music world to premier their new works, notably the artistic giant Johannes Brahms.

Duke George II of Saxe-Meiningen. He even looks a bit like Brahms

As German principalities go, Saxe-Meiningen is pretty small, and mostly unknown to non-specialists in this historical period or region. But, as is often the case, the name does ring a bell with those interested in British royal history, as one of its daughters, Princess Adelaide, became a queen-consort of the United Kingdom, as wife of William IV (reigned 1830-37). This is her family’s story.

Queen Adelaide, by William Beechey

I have written in a previous blog post about the origins of the Duchy of Saxony and the House of Wettin (https://dukesandprinces.org/2020/07/02/dukes-of-saxe-coburg-and-saxe-gotha-families-of-two-british-consorts/ ). This branch splits off from those detailed there (Saxe-Gotha and Saxe-Coburg), after the section on Duke Ernst the Pious. When he died in 1675, his estates were divided amongst his numerous sons (by an agreement of 1680). The southernmost parts, including the town of Meiningen, went to one of the younger sons, Bernhard.

the town of Meiningen in the 17th century

The region around Meiningen, today the southwestern corner of the state of Thuringia, once formed the core of the powerful medieval county of Henneberg. Centred on the valley of the upper Werra river, this county lay at the crossroads between the ancient regions of Franconia and Saxony. But for a long time the Henneberg possessions didn’t include the town of Meiningen itself. The important trading town, founded at a key ford in the river in the 10th century, was for many centuries an exclave possession of the bishops of Würzburg, further to the south in Franconia. It was finally purchased by the counts of Henneberg in 1542, but only forty years later that dynasty became extinct, and most of its properties passed to the Wettins of Saxony. This heritage was commemorated in the coat of arms for the new duchy created for Bernhard in the 1680s, by the incorporation of the old Henneberg arms (literally, a chicken on a hill!). Their ancient castle, on a hill outside the town of Meiningen, was already by this point abandoned, and it remains a romantic ruin today.

the Henneberg today
an old border stone of the Duchy, with the coat of arms for Thuringia, Henneberg, Römhild, Meissen and Saxony overall

Instead of renovating Henneberg Castle, Duke Bernhard I (1649-1706) swiftly built a new ducal residence for himself and his family in Meiningen, the Elisabethenburg, named for his second wife, Elisabeth Eleonora of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. The site had initially been occupied by a fortress built in the 11th century by the bishops of Würzburg, which was replaced in 1511 with a building in Renaissance style. This new building would be a grand Baroque edifice, more in line with the palace built by Bernhard’s father, Duke Ernst, in Gotha. It was given three wings which formed an E. A new ducal church of the Holy Trinity would serve as the family mausoleum. Today the Elisabethenburg palace is a museum, but also houses civic ceremonial spaces for the town and the Thuringian State Archives, as well as a music school and concert hall.

Elisabethenburg Palace

This concert hall was put to use right away, as Duke Bernhard established his own court orchestra—today it is considered one of the oldest still performing in Europe. In 1711, Bernhard’s son employed as court music director Johann Ludwig Bach, a cousin of the soon-to-be-more-famous Johann Sebastian. Over three centuries later, another Bach is at the helm (Philippe Bach), though he is Swiss and (I think) unrelated.

Duke Bernhard I

Like his father, Bernhard did not believe in strict primogeniture. But rather than subdivide the state further, he decreed in his will that his sons would have to rule together (which, as you might guess, rarely works very well). Duke Ernst Ludwig I, the eldest, soon pressured his two younger brothers to let him rule on his own, but his reign was relatively short, and when he died in 1724, his brothers were able to re-assert their authority as uncle-regents for his young sons. First reigned the child Ernst Ludwig II (1709-1729), and then Karl Friedrich (1712-1743), who didn’t leave much of a mark. Uncle Friedrich Wilhelm survived his nephew and reigned as senior duke from 1743 to 1746, finally leaving the youngest brother, Anton Ulrich to rule on his own.

Duke Anton Ulrich

Duke Anton Ulrich (1687-1763), not expecting to become the head of the family, had travelled abroad and married in secret in the Netherlands in 1711, a woman of unequal rank, Philippine Caesar (one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting). After she died in 1744—and following the death of his nephew—the Emperor decreed that their many children were unable to succeed to the duchy. So Anton Ulrich married again and produced even more children, this time of the correct rank. Still, he neglected Meiningen and preferred to live in Frankfurt.

Anton Ulrich built a country house for himself, in the northern part of the duchy, in the hills separating Meiningen from the other Wettin duchies (Eisenach, Gotha, Weimar). Altenstein had (as its name suggests) long been the site of an old stone fortress, but it was destroyed by a fire in 1733, and the young duke decided to rebuild it with more comfort and stylistic whimsy. His son, Georg I would re-design the building and its setting around 1800, in a more English country gardens style. This was then expanded and again re-designed in 1846 for a visit by the Dowager Queen Adelaide—again along the lines of English landscape design. The house itself was similarly redesigned in 1888-89 by Georg II, now as a late Tudor style country manor. Altenstein Castle remained the ducal summer residence until the fall of the German monarchies in 1918, and thereafter the main residence for the dynasty once the Elisabethenburg had been ceded to the state. In about 1940, it too was sold to the state. After the war it became a convalescent home for craftsmen, and in 1979 a monument to the history of landscape and garden design. A bad fire in 1982 gutted the interior, and it was only partly restored by the East German authorities. As part of the Thuringian State Castle and Gardens Foundation since 1995, it has been slowly and steadily restored since then.

Altenstein in a postcard from 1900

When Duke Anton Ulrich died in 1763, he was succeeded by his eldest son from the second marriage, Karl Wilhelm, with his mother, Princess Charlotte Amelia of Hesse-Philippsthal, as regent. The young duke died only a few years after his emancipation, in 1782, and was succeeded by his brother, Georg I.

Duke Georg I

Duke Georg I (1761-1803) was considered by his contemporaries to be one of the best examples of a reforming Enlightenment prince. In his twenty-year reign he built schools and healthcare facilities for the poor, opened the ducal library to the public, established a forestry academy, and introduced a number of reformed social policies (for example abolishing the practice of ‘penance’ for unwed mothers). He even wrote philosophy essays under a pen name. Duke Georg established an English Garden just north of the centre of Meiningen shortly after his accession. Unlike many of his princely contemporaries, he did not become involved in the revolutionary wars of the 1790s, and his state was left unmolested by Napoleon’s armies. When he died in 1803 he left three very young children, again under the watchful eye of their mother, Princess Luise Eleonore of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. The eldest of these was Princess Adelheid, the future queen-consort, then Princess Ida (who became a princess of Saxe-Weimar), and finally Bernhard II.

The children had been raised in one of the most liberal states in Germany, which affected their later lives. Adelaide (to use her English name) was chosen to marry the younger brother of the Prince Regent, William, Duke of Clarence, in 1818 when the race was on to produce a Hanoverian heir—in fact it was a double wedding between the dukes of Clarence and Kent and their Saxon brides, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Clarence was 27 years older than his bride, and already had ten children (the FitzClarence family) by his mistress Dorothea Jordan. His naval career already long over by 1818, he and Adelaide settled in Hanover for a time (where it was significantly cheaper to run a royal household), then resided in Clarence House in London and Bushy House near Hampton Court once she started giving birth to potential heirs to the throne. Unfortunately all of these were either miscarriages, stillbirths or soon died, and once the Duke of Clarence succeeded as King William IV in 1830, it was assumed the royal couple would have no more children. Queen Adelaide was popular with the British public, who appreciated her piety, modesty and great charity. The new city of Adelaide in Australia was named for her in 1836. She survived her husband by over a decade, enjoyed good relations with her niece the new queen, Victoria, and died at Bentley Priory in Middlesex in 1849.

Adelaide as Queen of the United Kingdom

Adelaide’s brother Duke Bernhard II reached his majority in 1821. His estates were augmented a few years later when the various pieces of the Wettin duchies were re-distributed by family pact in 1825: he received the duchy of Saxe-Hildburghausen and the Saalfeld parts of the duchy of Saxe-Coburg. The new state was about 2,500 square kilometres (roughly forming a thin crescent shape), with about 150,000 people in the 1830s. It remained mostly rural, though the town of Meiningen developed as a regional banking hub.

Saxe-Meiningen after 1825 (with Meiningen as a red dot) alongside the other Saxon duchies of Thuringia in grey

Amongst the new properties that accrued with these new domains were the town palaces of Hildburghausen and Saalfeld. The ducal residence in Hildburghausen was built in 1686 by its first duke, but was mostly abandoned as a residence by the new ruling house after 1825 and used instead as a garrison for troops; it was completely destroyed in World War II. The residence in Saalfeld was a much more impressive palace (also built at the end of the 17th century), but had long before been given to the town as its administrative buildings by previous dukes, as early as the 1730s, since Coburg served as their residence. A much more significant addition to Saxe-Meiningen was the mighty fortress of Heldburg. Veste Heldburg sits atop a volcanic plug and dominates a small region called the Heldburger Land, which gave its name to the town and duchy of Hildburghausen. Its rulers had transformed a medieval castle into a Renaissance schloss in the 16th century. At first ignored by its new owners from Meiningen, in the 1870s Heldburg was restored and renovated by Duke Georg II and his wife, who played up its more romantic side. After the fall of the German monarchies in 1918, Heldburg remained the property of the former ruling dynasty, and became the family home of some of its younger members in the 1920s and 30s, as well as a new family burial site. It was confiscated by the East German government after the Second World War, and used for a time as a garrison for Soviet troops, situated as it was so close to the border with West Germany. It then became a children’s home until a bad fire in 1982 gutted much of the interior. In 1995, it became part of the Foundation for Thuringian Castles and Gardens, and since 2016 has housed a new museum dedicated to the history of German castles.

Veste Heldburg

Bernhard II did not just inherit older residences, he also built several new ones. In 1823 he built a palace in Meiningen for his mother, the now retired regent, Duchess Luise Eleonore. This gracious neo-classical building was known as the ‘widow’s palace’, and served as an anchor for the new district being developed just north of the old town, at the entrance to the Englischer Garten. It was later enlarged and remodelled and rebranded as the ‘prince’s palace’ once Bernhard moved here himself with his wife after abdicating his throne in 1866. It was later the residence of the hereditary prince, and is now known as the Großes Palais, to distinguish it from the nearby Kleines Palais, built about the same time, as a summer residence for the Duke. This small house, also known at times as the ‘princess’s palace’, was also used to host prominent guests visiting Meiningen, like Brahms. Both the large and small palaces were retained as private property by the family after 1918, but were confiscated in 1945. Today the grand palace houses some civic and medical offices, while the small palace is a bank.

Großes Palais
Kleines Palais

Finally, Bernhard II should be remembered as the builder of Landsberg Castle, on a small hill just north of the city, overlooking the Werra valley. Bernhard had travelled to England to visit his sister the Queen in the early 1830s, and in 1836 hired architects (both local and English) to make for himself a typically English neo-gothic romantic country house. Its style resembled a crenelated medieval castle (and indeed incorporated the ruins of a tower from a previous genuine medieval castle on the site), and its interiors included a rustic great hall with large-scale murals depicting Wettin and Saxon history. Landsberg was sold by the dynasty in the 1920s, and it passed through several hands before being opened by the GDR as a luxury hotel in the 1970s. Briefly repurchased by a member of the former ruling dynasty in the ‘90s (still to be run as a hotel), then acquired for a time by the Meiningen Architectural Monuments Foundation, it is now in an uncertain position, between being re-opened again as a luxury hotel or permanently opened as a heritage site by the city of Meiningen or the state of Thuringia.

Landsberg Castle

Duke Bernhard II thus kept himself busy with building projects, and was fairly moderate politically in this time of nationalist tumult in Germany between the 1840s and ‘60s. But he valued the freedom of smaller states like his own against the rising dominance of Prussia, and backed the wrong horse when Austria challenged this dominance in 1866, being forced to abdicate in his son’s favour following Austria’s defeat.

Duke Bernhard II

The new duke, Georg II (1826-1914) was a prince much more in tune with the new romantic, nationalistic age, and supported Prussia in 1866. He had also been previously attached by marriage to the Prussian royal family, through his first wife, Charlotte of Prussia, niece of King Wilhelm I—though she had died in 1855. Georg was rewarded for his loyalty in the war of 1866 not just with his father’s throne, but the rank of lieutenant-general in the Prussian army, with which he served in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. At this time, he was married to a niece of Queen Victoria, Princess Feodora of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (daughter of Victoria’s half-sister). But she too died, in 1872.

Duke Georg II

In 1873, Georg II married an actress, Ellen Franz, who was created Baroness von Heldburg by the Kaiser, though he was much against the match (as was the Duke’s father and most of the local court—they resigned, refused to salute her, etc). But the people of Meiningen loved her, and the couple became renowned across Europe for their passion for theatre and the arts. Together they revived the court theatre, and created the Meiningen Ensemble, which championed a new style of realism: authentic sets and costumes, historical accuracy, and an overall ‘directorial vision’, something new in the history of theatre. The Duke was not just a distant patron: he designed much of these sets and directed scenes himself, earning his nickname of ‘Theatre Duke’.

Ellen Franz, Baroness von Heldburg

Georg, Ellen and their Ensemble travelled all over Europe in the 1870s-80s. When the original court theatre from the 1830s burned down in 1908, the Duke rebuilt it on a monumental scale, matching the neoclassical style he had been supporting in the town of Meiningen’s redevelopment since the 1870s.

The Meiningen Theatre
Bernhardstrasse’s neoclassical strand

Duke Georg II also revived the Court Orchestra, with a similar attention to rigorous professionalization. A notable benchmark was hiring in 1880 the most famous conductor in Germany of the era, Hans von Bülow, himself from an ancient noble house. Von Bülow championed in particular the work of Johannes Brahms, whose mighty 4th Symphony was premiered here in 1885, and that of up-coming new talents like Richard Strauss, who was employed as an assistant conductor for a short time. A later leader of this orchestra was the composer Max Reger, whose archive is still housed in Meiningen. The Duke’s daughter, Princess Maria Elisabeth became herself an admired musician and composer, having been given piano lessons by Brahms himself, and was later a patron of young artists in the region.

the Meiningen Court Orchestra with Hans von Bülow conducting

As a particular cruelty, Duke Georg II became deaf later in life, and he retired from public affairs. He died on the eve of World War I in June 1914. All three of his sons, Bernhard, Ernst and Friedrich had served in the Imperial armies in the years leading up to the war, but only the youngest was still in active service in 1914—Prince Friedrich was given a command in the invasion of Belgium and was killed on August 23, one of the first casualties of the war. His own second son, Prince Ernst, was killed only a few days later.

The new duke, Bernhard III, having been a general before his retirement in 1913, was disappointed at not being appointed to high command in 1914 (especially as he was both cousin and brother-in-law to the Kaiser). In 1878 he had married Princess Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of Crown Prince Friedrich and Victoria of Great Britain. Severed from his friendly English relations by the war, and disappointed by his German relations as well, the Duke withdrew from society and politics even before he abdicated the throne in November 1918, and lived quietly at Schloss Altenstein until his death in 1928.

Hereditary Prince Bernhard and Princess Charlotte of Prussia
Duke Bernhard III

The duchy of Saxe-Meiningen was briefly the ‘Free State’ of Saxony-Meiningen, 1918-20, then was incorporated into the new state of Thuringia. As seen above, some of the properties of the former ruling family were maintained as private property. Bernhard III had only a daughter, so headship of the house passed to his brother Ernst, who was also living in Altenstein. He had married morganatically, the daughter of a painter and a poet, so none of his children (known as the barons and baronesses von Saalfeld) were eligible to succeed as head of the house when he died in 1941.

Duke Ernst

Ernst’s nephew (Prince Friedrich’s son), Georg (III), lived at Veste Heldburg, with his wife and two children (another son, Anton, had been killed in the first year of the war). Georg had studied law and served as a district judge for a time in the 1920s. In the 1930s he became a member of the Nazi Party, so when the Soviet Army invaded in 1945, the castle was seized and his family fled, though he himself was captured, and died in a Prisoner of War camp in northern Russia a year later.

Duke Georg III as a young man

Duke Georg’s son Friedrich renounced the succession in 1946 and became a monk (their mother had raised the children as Catholics). His sister, Princess Regina, married one of the most famous royal exiles of the era, Archduke Otto von Habsburg, at a ceremony in Nancy (Lorraine, France) in 1951. Regina and Otto had met when she was working in a care home for Hungarian refugees after the war. They had seven children and over twenty grandchildren by the time she died in 2010.

Princess Regina and Archduke Otto von Habsburg

Meanwhile, the succession as head of the family passed to Regina’s uncle Bernhard (IV), who lived in a castle in Austria, Pitzelstätten, near Klagenfurt in Carinthia. Bernhard and his wife Margot made headlines as far away as America in 1933, when they were arrested by the Austrian government for plotting with Nazi authorities in Germany. He was held in prison for several weeks, then they escaped to Italy.

Duke Bernhard IV
Pitzelstätten Castle

After the war, Bernhard divorced his first wife, which had been an ‘unequal’ marriage, and re-married someone deemed of more appropriate rank. When he died in 1984, the headship of the family thus skipped his elder son from the first marriage, Friedrich Ernst (who was, interestingly, briefly engaged in the early 1960s to a dear friend of my family from Cologne), and passed instead to the younger son, Konrad (b. 1952) who is the current head of the Meiningen family. Konrad is unmarried and has no children, so it is thought he will formally adopt his half-brother’s son (who has impeccable princely lineage anyway, as his mother is a Saxe-Coburg), Prince Friedrich Constantin (b. 1980).

Konrad of Saxe-Meiningen

In the line-up of currently extant branches of the ancient princely house of Wettin, the House of Meiningen is second in rank, behind Weimar and before Coburg (which includes the royal families of Belgium and Great Britain). The age of the Ruritanian principalities is long over, but Saxe-Meiningen has left behind a cherished legacy of support for the performing arts and monuments to 19th-century architectural and landscape design of which it can be proud.

(images from Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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