Hooray Heinrich! The House of Reuss and the complexities of being a very minor prince

Have you ever heard of a family where all the male members—and I mean all—were named Heinrich? Perhaps you have, as recently one of them (Heinrich XIII) had his 15 minutes of fame after trying to overthrow the German government and restore the old German Reich in December 2022. But although the English-speaking media described him as an ‘obscure aristocrat’, coming from a ‘minor noble’ family, the Reuss princes have an ancestry that is ancient, and their royal connections occasionally reached the very top of European monarchical society: one Reuss princess was the grandmother of Queen Victoria, one was Tsaritsa of Bulgaria, while another was the second wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Today’s princes are cousins of the Dutch and Danish royal families. In a completely different realm of popular celebrity, a rather unexpected person to appear in the lists of today’s Reuss princes is none other than Anni-Frid Lyngstad, otherwise known as one of the A’s in the Swedish pop group ABBA.

the arms of the House of Reuss

The territories ruled by the House of Reuss (also known as the House of Plauen) before the demise of the German Empire in 1918 were nevertheless miniscule. Their statelets in the nineteenth century were amongst the smallest in Germany. Multiple lines that developed in the Middle Ages ultimately coalesced into two principalities, known formally as Reuss Older Line and Reuss Younger Line (Reuß Ältere Linie and Reuß Jüngere Linie in German), though it’s a bit easier to call them by the names of their main seats: Reuss-Greiz and Reuss-Gera. These two counties were raised to the rank of imperial principalities: the elder in 1778 and the junior in 1806 (just in time for the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire later that same year). The rulers of both principalities abdicated in November 1918, and the Elder Line (Greiz) became extinct in 1927. The Younger Line (Gera) continued into the 20th century, and though its senior branch went extinct sometime around 1945, a junior branch (Köstritz) carried on the family name—the uniquely singular Heinrich, of course—up to the present. The two Reuss principalities joined to form a tiny republic in the Spring of 1919, the ‘People’s State of Reuss’, with just over 1,000 square kilometres of territory and about 200,000 inhabitants; but it soon merged with other small states to form the State of Thuringia in May 1920.

the components that made the State of Thuringia, with the two Reuss principalities in pink (Saxony to the east, and Bavaria to the south)

As with most German noble and princely houses, the Reuss dynastic history is complex, with various branches dividing and re-combining several times over. The main division that resulted in the modern Older Line and Younger Line took place in 1564. At certain points there was also a confessional divide, with one branch entering into Austrian ruling circles as Catholics, while another supported the predominant Lutheranism of Saxony and Thuringia, and still another embraced the more radical Protestant sect known as the Moravian Brethren. To add to the complexity, the systems for numbering all the sons as Heinrich differed: in the Elder Line the numbers restarted at the end of the 17th century and increased until the line died out at number XXIV (24); in the Younger Line many more branches increased the numbers of Heinrichs exponentially so they began to start the counting again at the start of each new century, with a dynastic high of LXXV (75) at the end of the 18th century (from what I see, sources that say one branch went to 100 then started again are not correct). But the early history of the family is even more confusing, since the name of the dynasty originally wasn’t Reuss at all, but Plauen, and Reuss was in fact just the nickname of one of its various Heinrichs. So we need to go back briefly to the very origins of the family, in part to see why they were so fond of the name Heinrich!

An older map of the Reuss territories, or Vogtland, showing the lands of the river Elster at right and river Saale at left

At the end of the 12th century, the German emperors were continuing a long-running policy of installing local strongmen as a vogt or administrator in keys zones of the eastern frontier where conversion of the Slavs to Christianity and colonisation of their lands was underway. One of these frontiers was on the eastern edges of the old German territory of Thuringia—to the east were the marches of Lusatia, territory of the Slavic Sorb people, and to the south was the powerful Slavic kingdom of Bohemia. So at first, this was a delicate region to govern—later the eastern areas came under the dominance of the dukes and electors of Saxony, but the southern border with Bohemia would remain strategic for several centuries. One of the local vogts (actually vögte in German plural; originally from Latin advocatus) was called (already) Heinrich, and he was given the castles and towns of Weida, Gera and Plauen to rule by Emperor Heinrich VI. In the Emperor’s honour, Vogt Heinrich decided that all three of his sons would also bear the name Heinrich (which originally was formed from ancient Germanic words haima ‘home’ and rīk ‘ruler’—and weirdly, the ancient Haimerik became Amerigo in Italian, and thus gives its name to the American continents!). Successive sons retained the appointment as vogt of this borderland, and their lands became known as the ‘Vogtland’—which it is still called today. Originally vassals of the counts of Everstein, in the 1290s they supported King Adolf of Nassau against the rival House of Wettin (the future dukes of Saxony) and were rewarded by making them direct imperial lords, with no feudal overlord but the emperor. They began to sport one of the more unique heraldic animals on their coat-of-arms, the crane, and the golden crane quartered with a golden lion would remain the symbols of the dynasty for 800 years.

princely arms in the 19th century

An early important moment in the family history was the foundation of the Priory of Cronschwitz by the wife of one of the earliest vogts, Jutta von Strassberg, in about 1240. Her husband was about to take a position within the Order of Teutonic Knights, which meant he had to renounce his marriage, and so his wife became founder of a new monastery and its first prioress. He was later buried there and it became the family sepulchre for several centuries. At the Reformation, the Priory was secularised and its buildings fell into ruin, and its farmlands became one of the many estates of the Electors of Saxony

In 1244, the three offices of vogt were divided between three sub-lineages: Weida, Plauen and Gera. The eldest carried on in Weida for the next several centuries, not making too much of an impact in history. Their main residence, the castle at Weida, was built from about the 1160s, and included a massive bergfried (a fighting tower), one of the tallest and oldest still standing in Germany, known since the 17th century as Osterburg (taking its name from this part of Thuringia, ‘Osterland’). The lords of Weida purchased other castles and lordships guarding over the Elster valley, and in the 1420s exchanged Weida itself for other properties with the Margrave of Meissen—the rising power in the region (the House of Wettin) who would soon become the electors of Saxony. Several members of the Saxon ducal family made Osterburg their seat in the 16th and 17th century, and by the 19th it became the property of a local count. By this point, this senior branch of the family of vogts had long died out.

Osterburg today

The youngest line, the vogts of Gera, were also fairly unobtrusive on the European stage. They also acquired further castles and towns in the region, notably Schleiz and Lobenstein, and when they too became extinct, with Heinrich XV, in 1550, these passed to the branch of Plauen. We’ll encounter Gera, Schleiz and Lobenstein again later.

It is the middle line of vogts, the Plauen line, that become the interesting focus for this dynasty’s story. The founder of this line, Heinrich I (d. c1303) already began to expand his branch’s influence by acquiring another lordship (Greiz) by inheritance, and lands and castles across the border in the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the region known as the Egerland, also known as the ‘Bohemian Vogtland’, today called the Cheb District in Czech), that were confiscated lands granted by Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg in thanks for Heinrich’s support against the Bohemian king, Ottokar II, in the 1270s. His son was appointed Captain of Eger in 1301 by King Albert of Habsburg, and married a Bohemian heiress, Katharina Schwihau von Riesenburg (Švihovski z Rýzmburka in Czech). He was nicknamed Heinrich ‘the Bohemian’, and his descendants were known as the Bohemian branch, though they also held on to the office of Vogt of Plauen (and adopted ‘von Plauen’ as their surname).

Plauen Castle was built in the 1250s (the ‘Castle of the Vogts’). It took its name from the town, a place-name with Slavic origins (Plavno or Plawe), and in fact it was for a time a fief of the King of Bohemia. After the castle itself passed out of the dynasty’s hands in the mid-15th century, it became the seat of junior members of the Saxon ducal house or its administrators. From the mid-19th century it served as a prison, and it was badly bombed in 1945. Today it is a pretty sad ugly ruin.

Plauen Castle in 1909

The first few generations of this branch continued to build connections with the kings of Bohemia and held various administrative posts there. At the end of the 14th century they acquired the lordship of Königswart (Kynžvart), and the lordship of Petschau (Bečov) in the 15th. Two brothers rose to prominent posts in the Order of the Teutonic Knights, crusaders fighting on the frontiers of Christianity in the Baltic: Heinrich von Plauen the Elder became Grand Master of the Order in 1410 but was deposed in 1413; Heinrich the Younger was appointed Commander of the Order’s stronghold at Danzig. The first of these was appointed following the disastrous battle of Grunwald (against Poland and Lithuania), in July 1410, with the task of putting the Order back to together. He had defended the Order’s capital at Marienburg through a long siege that summer, and was elected in November. He settled the peace with Poland in February 1411, and forced local cities under the Order’s rule in Prussia to pay a re-building tax (and to pay off a huge war indemnity). Already quite unpopular, when he then tried to launch a new war against Poland in 1413, he was removed from power.

Heinrich von Plauen, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order

The Grand Master’s cousin Heinrich I (starting the numbering again), was appointed Burgrave of Meissen in 1426—a burgrave being the count of a town, in this case Meissen, though the superior title of margrave (the territorial not urban lord) was held by the much grander Wettin dynasty (the future dukes of Saxony). Jealous of their rights over the city at the heart of their territory, the Wettins blocked the von Plauens from exercising any of the actual powers of the office, but eventually struck a deal which allowed them to keep their ranks amongst the ruling lords of the Empire. Heinrich had the support of Emperor Sigismund (who was also king of Bohemia) who appointed him an Imperial magistrate in the Egerland, and later Hauptmann (administrator) of the Pilsen (Plzeň) district, in 1425. The next generations kept the title Burgrave of Meissen, but gradually lost control of many of their oldest ancestral lands—including Plauen itself—absorbed by the Margraves of Meissen as they gradually constructed the Electorate of Saxony. Heinrich IV was appointed to one of the top positions at the royal court in Prague, Cupbearer, in 1530; and then in 1542 was named Supreme Chancellor of the Crown of Bohemia. His sons, Heinrich V and VI, raised the level of the family’s marriage patterns by each marrying a woman of princely rank (princesses from the houses of Brunswick, Pomerania and Brandenburg), but they left no children, and this branch came to an end in 1572.

arms of the Lords of Plauen, Burgraves of Meissen

The younger brother of Heinrich ‘the Bohemian’ became known as Heinrich ‘the Russian’ (or ‘the Ruthenian’) due to his travels in the east (what’s now western Ukraine) and marriage to a grand-daughter of Daniel, King of Ruthenia, and Princess Anna Mstislavna of Novgorod. He therefore gained the nickname ‘der Reusse’ (the Ruthenian or Russian), and descendants later adopted the surname der Reusse. This name was then applied to the dynasty as a whole and to the territory it ruled. This branch spent the 14th and 15th centuries as administrators and governors of territories in the borderland region between Germans, Czechs and Poles, often in the service of the dukes and electors of Saxony. Others entered the service of different rulers in the area, such as the archbishops of Mainz (who owned large amounts of land in Thuringia) or the Free Imperial City of Nuremburg across the hills in Franconia.

Several members of this branch of the family continued the tradition of serving as knights in the Teutonic Order, in their continuing mission to subdue and Christianise the Baltic peoples in north-eastern Poland. A younger son of Heinrich VII, and a nephew through his mother of one of the Grand Masters of the Order, took command of the Order’s army in its war against the King of Poland in the 1450s. He defeated that King’s army at Konitz (Chojnice) in 1454, and was elected Grand Master himself to succeed his uncle in 1469 (known as ‘Heinrich the Younger’ to distinguish him from the previous Grand Master from his family). Only a year later, he suffered a stroke while travelling back from peace talks with the Poles, and died.

Heinrich Reuss von Plauen, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order

The main base of this new House of Reuss (though they still also used the name ‘von Plauen’) was the town of Greiz. Anciently named Grouts, it took its name from the Slavic word for a fortification (gord, gorod or grad). The Upper Castle of Greiz was built in the 1220s and became the chief residence of this branch of the Plauen lords. It suffered a serious fire in 1540 and was rebuilt and expanded. In 1564, the lordship of Greiz was split between brothers into ‘upper’ and ‘lower’, and a new Lower Castle was constructed. In the early 18th century, the Upper Castle was converted from a feudal castle into a more comfortable residence appropriate for a prince, and in 1768 the two branches were reunited. In 1802, the Lower Castle burned, and was rebuilt, now in a neo-classical style, and by 1809, it became the chief seat of this branch of the Reuss dynasty, while the Upper Castle became an administrative centre for the principality. Both Upper and Lower castles were given to the city of Greiz following the abdication of the princes in 1918, and they form a museum complex open to the public today, alongside a large public garden.

Greiz, Upper Castle
Greiz, Upper and Lower Castles

In the early 16th century, this branch of the Reuss-Plauen family (Reuss zu Greiz) decided to start re-numbering their Heinrichs in every generation, so numbers were kept reasonably low. The senior branch acquired a nearby castle and lordship called Burgk, to the west of Greiz, and made it their chief residence until they died out in 1640. Burgk Castle is on a dramatic mountain spur in a curve of the river Saale. Built originally as a hunting lodge, it was expanded in the 15th century. It passed to the next branch of the House of Reuss-Greiz and was modernised in the 18th century and used a summer residence—though it retained (and retains still today) its medieval fortifications and a unique Renaissance-style ‘Red Tower’ with a half-timbered roof. Unlike the castles in Greiz, Burgk Castle was retained by the family after their abdication as ruling princes, and was the personal property of the Empress Hermine (see below) and her sister Princess Ida. Confiscated by East German authorities after 1945, it houses today a museum of princely life.

Burgk Castle

From the middle of the 17th century, the line of Reuss-Obergreiz had become the senior branch of the entire family (all the other branches of the old family of the Vogts of Plauen, in Weida or in Gera, now being extinct). A junior branch split off in the 1560s and formed the line of Reuss-Gera (or Reuss-Schleiz). In 1673, both branches were raised to the rank of Imperial counts. The full title for all male members, collectively, was now ‘High and well-born Heinrich Reuss, Count and Lord of Plauen, Lord of Greiz, Kranichfeld, Gera, Schleiz and Lobenstein’. But in fact each branch ruled its small territory from one of these main castles.

one of the first generatoin of Reuss counts, showing collective ownership over all the lordships (Pauen, Greiz, etc)

Several counts from the Elder Line (Reuss-Greiz) attained grand positions in the service of grander Imperial princes. For example, Count Heinrich VI of Upper Greiz (1649-1697) was a Privy Councillor for the Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, then Chamberlain and Chief Falconer for the Elector of Saxony. He was then a General of Artillery from 1694 and was killed in the plains of Hungary as a Polish Field Marshal. At about the same time, his cousins from the Lower Greiz branch, Heinrich IV and Heinrich V, were generals commanding the armies of Hanover and Austria respectively in the War of Spanish Succession.

Heinrich VI of Upper Greiz, Field Marshal

Two generations later, Heinrich XI united the lordships of Upper Greiz, Lower Greiz and Burgk in 1768. His reign of over 70 years was just about the only thing that distinguished him in terms of government or military careers. But he did obtain the key post of Imperial Councillor, and used this proximity to the Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II to obtain a major promotion: from count to imperial prince (Fürst), in 1778, and princely rank to all members of his family (for this branch only—the others had to wait). His principality was now a fully independent member of the Holy Roman Empire, with a vote on the imperial council of princes, just like his much larger and more powerful neighbours, Saxony, Brandenburg or Bavaria. Unlike other members of the House of Reuss, he was a Catholic, and his family would continue to have a close connection to the House of Austria for the next generations. Three of his sons, for example, were Austrian generals in the period of the French Revolutionary wars.

Heinrich XI, first Prince Reuss zu Greiz (Older Line) as a young man

The first Prince Reuss zu Greiz (or formally ‘Prince Reuss Older Line’) added to the family’s collection of residences through the construction of a Summer Palace a few miles to the north of town in the later 1760s. Like the other princely buildings in Greiz, the Summer Palace was given to the city in 1918, and was the first to open as a museum, displaying the family’s collections of artworks and historical objects. Since 1994 it has been owned and managed by the Thuringian Palaces and Gardens Foundation.

Greiz, Summer Palace

The 2nd Fürst of Reuss Older Line (Heinrich XIII) rebuilt the city of Greiz after a devastating fire of 1802 and moved his residence into the Lower Castle. He had been very close to Emperor Joseph II (only a few years older) and enjoyed Imperial favour in the army, rising to the rank of General of Artillery. His youngest brother Heinrich XV outshone him however, with a very long career: fighting versus the Turks in the 1760s, then versus the French in the 1790s; promoted to lieutenant field marshal in 1797 and general of artillery in 1809. In 1813, he played a key role in convincing the King of Bavaria to join the Allies, and after northern Italy was reclaimed from the French, was appointed Military Governor of Veneto and (according to some sources) briefly Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, 1814-15. He was later Captain-General of Galicia (the Austrian part of Poland) and retired as a full field marshal in 1824.

Heinrich XIII, 2nd Prince Reuss zu Greiz
Heinrich XV, Austrian Field Marshal

The 3rd and 4th Princes were brothers. Their marriages, and those of their brothers and sisters, reflect the family’s new position within the princely hierarchy, with marriages now exclusively to members of other ruling families of Germany. The Holy Roman Empire had ceased to exist since 1806, and many of these families lost their independence, but Reuss held on to its sovereignty, and joined the Confederation of the Rhine. In the revolutionary year of 1848, the 4th Prince was forced to issue a constitution for his state, but it was not enforced. Like his father and uncles, he served in the Austrian military.

Heinrich XX, 4th Prince Reuss zu Greiz

When he died in 1859, his wife took over as regent for their 13 year old son (Heinrich XXII). The Princess was staunchly anti-Prussian, so the principality was occupied in 1866 following Prussia’s short war with Austria. The 5th Prince took up the reins himself in the next year and continued to his mother’s anti-Prussian stance, though much more diplomatically. Though he joined the formation of the German Empire in 1871 (as the smallest principality, with lands of only about 310 square kilometres, and only about 70,000 subjects), he never fully supported the Hohenzollern Monarchy and refused to do formal mourning for Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1888. He could afford to be autonomous, since he was one of the wealthiest princes in the Reich, owning much of the principality outright, not simply as overlord. He was also well-connected, as his wife was first cousin of Queen Emma of the Netherlands—ties between Reuss and the Dutch Royal House would continue well into the 20th century.

Heinrich XXII, 5th Prince Reuss zu Greiz

Gradually, the 5th Prince healed relations with the House of Prussia, as he had served alongside Kaiser Wilhelm II when they were younger. He rose to the rank of Prussian general and was awarded the Order of the Black Eagle. He knew relations with the Emperor needed to be good, as it was already clear that his only son, Heinrich XXIV, was physically and mentally disabled, and Reuss would be unable to govern itself when he died. Accordingly, a regency was formed for the 6th Prince when he succeeded in 1902, headed by Prince Heinrich XIV of the Younger Line (more on him below), and then under his son Heinrich XXVII after 1908, when he became too old and feeble to govern. The Regent abdicated for himself as Prince of Reuss-Gera on the 10th of November 1918, and on behalf of his cousin as Regent of Reuss-Greiz on the next day. The disabled prince lived until 1927, bringing the Elder Line to an end.

6th and last Prince Reuss zu Greiz (Reuss Older Line)

This last prince of Reuss-Greiz was unmarried, but his two sisters had interesting marital careers, one tragic and one glorious (if somewhat strange). The elder, Princess Caroline, was pressed by the Emperor and Empress to marry the Grand Duke of Saxony-Weimar in 1903, against her will. She detested her husband and the strict court of Weimar, and fled to Switzerland within a year of the wedding. Convinced to return to Weimar, she fell into deep depression, and died in 1905, possibly of suicide. The younger sister, Hermine, married two years later a Silesian-Prussian prince, Johann Georg of Schönaich-Carolath, and had a happy marriage, raising five children before he died in 1920. In 1922, the widowed princess (aged 34) spent some time with her Dutch relatives and visited the exiled Emperor Wilhelm II in Doorn. By the end of the year, they married and she became, at least informally, ‘Empress’. Though he was nearly 30 years older than she, they formed a close companionship and she ran his ‘court’ at Doorn until he died in 1941. She then returned to Germany and took up residence in her castle at Saabor in Silesia, but was captured and put under house arrest in Frankfurt-Oder by the Russians after 1945, dying soon after in 1947.

Princess Hermine Reuss zu Greiz as a young woman
Hermine and Wilhelm II, Kaiser and Kaiserin in exile

With the end of the Older Line of the House of Reuss, we can switch to the Younger Line, which has several sub-branches: Gera, Schleiz, Ebersdorf, Lobenstein and Köstritz, the only line that continues today.

The town of Gera became the seat of the Younger Line. Today it is the third largest city in Thuringia, having flourished as a textile centre and a transport hub in the 19th century. In the mid-16th century, the lordship and its castle was given to a younger son of the Lord of Greiz. The original Gera Castle had been built in the 13th century by the line of vogts, but in the 16th century the new lords built a new castle just across the Elster river, Osterstein, and it remained the chief residence of this branch of the House of Reuss for the next three centuries. It was badly bombed in the Second World War, and all that remains is a single tall tower.

Gera before the war
Gera, tower of Osterstein today

An early significant lord of this branch was Heinrich II ‘Posthumus’ (1572-1635) whose mother and other regents acquired a number of fiefs to add to his territory, including Lobenstein in 1577 and Schleiz in 1611. Much of this area was still subject to the Wettins of Saxony as overlords, but Heinrich formalised the independence of Reuss-Gera by 1616. He improved his state by inviting weavers from Spanish Flanders, Calvinist refugees, though he himself was a Lutheran. In 1608, he opened a gymnasium (the ‘Rutheneum’), one of the earliest in the region, and was a patron of one of the greatest composers of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, who was born in the nearby Reuss town of Köstritz. The son of a town official of Gera, Schütz composed one of his greatest works, the Exequien, for Lord Heinrich II, one of the first sets of funereal music written in German, not Latin, with texts chosen by the commissioner of the work himself before he died.

Heinrich II of Reuss-Gera

The lands of the Younger Line were divided in 1637 into Gera, Schleiz and Lobenstein. In 1673, all of the members of this branch were elevated to the rank of Imperial counts, just as in the Older Line. Heinrich I, Count Reuss zu Schleiz, was a Privy Councillor of the Elector of Brandenburg and introduced primogeniture into his estates, as did some of the other lines. His castle, Schleiz, had been rebuilt (from an earlier medieval castle) in 1500, but burnt down in 1689, and he moved his court to Köstritz. In the 1750s, Schloss Schleiz was rebuilt in a baroque style, with an interesting horseshoe shape and the court returned. It was renovated and expanded in the 19th century, then given to the state in 1919 (which used it to house the archives). Badly damaged in World War Two, it remains a ruin, though its towers were restored and given new domes in 1993.

Schleiz in 1908
Schleiz today

Two of the Reuss-Gera counts, Heinrich XVIII and Heinrich XXX, were builders: the first constructed an Orangerie in Gera in 1732, while the latter built a ‘water castle’ just outside of town in 1745, a summer residence, with French-style gardens. The latter is now known as Schloss Tinz, recently restored to form one of the campuses of the local college.

Gera, Orangerie
Schloss Tinz

When Heinrich XXX died in 1802, Gera was divided between the junior branches of Schleiz, Lobenstein and Ebersdorf. There was another line, established in the 1690s, at Köstritz, but it remained a subsidiary of Schleiz, while the others became independent (I’m not certain why). In July 1806, just one month before Emperor Francis II dissolved the Holy Roman Empire, he raised these branches to the rank of ‘fürst’, to equalise their status with the senior branch of Reuss-Greiz. The first Fürst of Reuss-Schleiz (also called Reuss-Gera, since he inherited most of that lordship in 1802) joined his tiny state to the Confederation of the Rhine, 1807, and then the German Confederation in 1815.

The 2nd Fürst of Reuss-Gera, Heinrich LXII, unified all the branches (except Köstritz) in 1848, after the abdication of the head of the lines of Lobenstein and Ebersdorf (see below), and took the title Prince Reuss Younger Line (to match that of Prince Reuss Older Line). Even though it was ‘younger’, the territory of this branch was larger than the Older Line, and its population about twice the size (145,000 people in about 1900). It was also more liberal: in 1849 the Prince granted a written constitution and in 1851, a modern parliament. He moved the capital from Schleiz back to Gera, and died in 1854.

2nd Pfince Reuss zu Schleiz (Reuss Younger Line)

His brother, the 3rd Fürst, was Heinrich LXVII. The numbering is quite confusing since each Heinrich was given his number by order of his birth, from all of the branches of the Younger Line, so brothers did not necessarily have consecutive numbers. In another sharp contrast to the politics of the Older Line principality, the 3rd Fürst of Reuss Younger Line was very pro-Prussian. He tightened the government of his statelet along Prussian lines, and happily joined the North German Confederation in 1866. He was a General of Cavalry in the Prussian Army and was decorated with the Order of the Black Eagle and the Iron Cross.

the 3rd Prince Reuss zu Gera

The 4th Fürst, Heinrich XIV, was also a Prussian general, and as we have seen, became regent of the principality of Reuss Older Line after 1902. When he became too old in 1908, his son, Heinrich XXVII took over the regency, and then succeeded as 5th Fürst in 1913. He too was a Prussian General of Cavalry and Knight of the Order of the Black Eagle. In November 1918, he abdicated both Reussian thrones and retired from public life, dying a decade later.

Heinrich XIV, 4th Prince Reuss Younger Line as a young man
Heinrich XXVII, 5th Prince of Reuss Younger Line and Regent of Reuss Older Line

His son, Heinrich XLV, after 1928 was the head of the entire House of Reuss (the Older Line having died out in 1927). He was a patron and lover of theatre, and became head of dramaturgy at the Reuss Theatre in Gera. He did not marry, and adopted one of his cousins from the Köstritz line to succeed him in his personal properties (not as dynastic head). He joined the Nazi party and served as a Wehrmacht officer, was arrested by the Soviets in August 1945, and is assumed to have died in Buchenwald. His estates were confiscated by the East German government in 1948, and he was formally declared deceased finally in 1962.

the last Prince Reuss of Gera

Before moving on to his successors from the line of Köstritz, we need to go back and briefly look at the lines of Lobenstein and Ebersdorf. The various Count Heinrichs of the branch of Lobenstein in the 18th century served in a variety of foreign armies, notably those of their neighbours, Saxony and Hesse-Kassel. The Castle Lobenstein was one of the most southerly possessions of the Reuss family, close to the border between Thuringia and Bavaria, overlooking a spa town. The most ancient parts of the castle, a tower at the top of the hill, are from the early middle ages, but it was uninhabited by the early 17th century and a new castle constructed down below. Much of the Upper Castle was destroyed in the Thirty Years War by invading Swedes. The Lower Castle declined and was damaged in a fire in 1714, so in the next few years, Count Heinrich XV built a new, grander, palace outside the town walls. It ceased to be a chief residence after the extinction of this branch in 1824. The palace and gardens were extensively renovated in the late 1990s, along with outbuildings such as a garden pavilion and coach house, and is run by the Thuringian Museums Association.

Lobenstein, upper and lower castles

In 1790, for reasons that I have not been able to uncover, Count Heinrich XXXV was created Fürst of Reuss-Lobenstein, as part of the coronation ceremonies for Emperor Leopold II in Frankfurt. Lobenstein would be created again as a principality for his nephew Heinrich LIV in 1806, along with all the other branches, so why had it been singled out in 1790? Perhaps thanks to a personal connection to the young Emperor, as with the 1st Fürst of Reuss-Greiz and Joseph II above. This 2nd Fürst of Reuss-Lobenstein died in 1824, so his lands passed to the branch of Ebersdorf.

Ebersdorf Castle, just a few miles to the northeast, on a small tributary of the Saale River, was built for a new cadet branch in the 1690s. In the 1730s, it became a centre of a new religious movement known as the Moravian Brethren (or the Brethren of Herrnhut), founded by Count von Zinzendorf, whose wife was Erdmuth Dorothea Reuss zu Ebersdorf. In 1733, her brother Count Heinrich XXIX founded a Moravian colony in Ebersdorf, and built a new church building for them the year before he died in 1747. Their sister too, Benigne Marie, was a leading member of the Moravian Church—as were many of the women in this branch who remained single and devoted themselves to Pietism—and noted as a hymn writer. Erdmuth Dorothea was instrumental in keeping alive the movement, administering its estates at Herrnhut (in Lusatia), during her husband’s long periods of exile in the 1730s-50s. On top of this she raised 12 children and ran an orphanage (for refugees from Moravia). She too wrote hymns and started a daily devotional publication called the Daily Watchwords (Losungen), starting in 1728 and still published today.

Count Heinrich XXIX Reuss zu Ebersdorf
Erdmuth Dorothea, Countess Zinzendorf
Ebersdorf Moravian Church

Countess von Zinzendorf’s great-niece, Countess Augusta Reuss zu Ebersdorf, was raised in this environment of piety, and was known in court circles for this and for her beauty. She married in 1777 one of the more junior princes of the House of Saxony, Franz, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Saalfeld, who is said to have fallen in love with her portrait. They had many children, including Ernst, the next Duke of Saxe-Coburg; Ferdinand, founder of the royal modern houses of Portugal and Bulgaria; Leopold, married to the Crown Princess of Great Britain then chosen to become first king of the Belgians; and Victoria, who became Duchess of Kent and mother of Queen Victoria. Augusta lived until 1831, so it would be interesting to learn more about her relationships with her granddaughter Victoria or with King Leopold late in her life.

Augusta Reuss zu Ebersdorf, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg

Augusta’s older brother Count Heinrich LI of Reuss-Ebersdorf was elevated to the rank of Fürst in 1806. He was succeeded in 1822 by his son, Heinrich LXXII, who also inherited his cousin’s Lobenstein properties in 1824, taking the title Fürst Reuss zu Lobenstein und Ebersdorf. He was an educated prince, a reformer, but moved too fast and too authoritatively and upset the agricultural communities of his principality. This lead to a peasant revolt, a lot of negative attention from the German press, and ultimately a large number of complaints from subjects during the revolutions of 1848. He abdicated the throne rather suddenly, in favour of the Reuss-Schleiz line, retired to estates his mother had left him in Lusatia, and died a few years later in 1852.

Heinrich LXXII, Prince of Ebersdorf and Lobenstein

The Castle at Ebersdorf had been given a new Classical façade, with colossal columns, by Count Heinrich LI in the 1790s. After 1848 it was used only as a summer residence by the Reuss princes. In April 1945, the US Army took over the castle and discovered a workshop for forging official state documents (notably French), as well as over a dozen refugees from various ruling families fleeing the Red Army in the east. After the war, the castle became a home for refugees and retired veterans, then a general nursing home, until it was closed in 2000. In the face of the Reuss family’s restitution claims, the local district put the castle up for sale in 2015, and the family re-purchased it in 2017 (Heinrich XIX). Renovations on the roof started in 2020 and the family have stated an intention to make it their home soon.

Ebersdorf Castle

Another residence that has fairly recently been restored is the Castle of Köstritz. This castle gave its name to the most junior branch of the House of Reuss, and the only one to survive to the present. A hilltop castle had existed to watch over a crossing of the White Elster river, just downriver to the north of the town of Gera, since the mid-13th century. It was acquired by the Reuss lords in 1364. When a junior branch of the line of Reuss-Schleiz was created in 1690, they set about building a new castle down in the town as their main residence. In 1804, they laid out a broad park along the riverside in the style of an English garden. Since 1830, one wing of the castle was devoted to a princely brewery (the ‘Golden Lion’), nationalised since 1948. The Köstritz palace survived the Second World War and the occupations of foreign armies, but was demolished in about 1970, leaving behind only a gateway called the Torbau. A new Schlosshotel was built in its place.

Köstritz Castle, remains of the gateway

As junior nobles, the men of the Köstritz branch sought employment in various royal courts, and so in the first generation (the mid-18th century), Heinrich VI (d. 1783) became a privy councillor of the King of Denmark, while his brother Heinrich IX (d. 1780) became an administrator and close advisor to the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, rising to high positions in the government, notably Postmaster General (1762-69), and later Grand Marshal of the Court and a Minister of State. He was made a knight of the Order of the Black Eagle, and encouraged to acquire lands in the newly acquired Prussian province of Silesia.

One of these new Silesian acquisitions was the Lordship of Primkanau, with its castle of Trebschen (today’s Trzebiechów in Poland), west of the city of Poznań. It was the ancient seat of the Troschke family, with a 16th-century manor house. It was enlarged by the Reuss-Köstritz family in the later 18th century, with the addition of a tower, and again in the 19th century to appear more like a French Renaissance château. The castle served as residence for a junior line of this branch in the 19th century; they retained it after the First World War but in 1943 sold it to the Bentheim princes, from whom it was confiscated in 1945 and turned into a school.

Trebschen (Trzebiechów)

In 1806, Heinrich XLIII was elevated along with most of the rest of the family to princely rank—so he and his heirs as head of this branch are referred to as fürsten, though they did not enjoy sovereign rights like the heads of the Older and Younger Lines of the House of Reuss, as seen above. In fact they are considered to be part of the Younger Line, and are referred to as a Paragiatslinie, a ‘parasite lineage’, or what would be called in other contexts holders of an apanage as subjects of their sovereign cousins. They did enjoy a right to a hereditary vote in the regional parliament of the principality, and after 1945, they took over the headship of the entire family of Reuss, following the extinction of both the Older and Younger lines, though of course by this point there was no sovereign principality at all.

These princes in the early 19th century served as officers in armies of Denmark, France and Bavaria. The 2nd Fürst of Reuss-Köstritz, Heinrich LXIV, was a member of the Austrian Privy Council from 1844, and an Austrian General of Cavalry in 1848. He acquired the lordships of Ernstbrunn and Hagenberg from Prince Sinzendorf in 1828. Both castles are located in Lower Austria, a short distance north of the city of Vienna, and were acquired and re-modelled by the Sinzendorf family in the 16th century, and again in the 18th. Both estates were confiscated in World War II, then returned to the family in the 1950s. Hagenberg, a small moated castle, was sold in 1974, but Ernstbrunn Castle is still the main seat of the head of the family.

Heinrich LXIV, 2nd Prince Reuss zu Köstritz, Austrian General
Ernstbrunn in Austria

Heinrich LXIX, 3rd Fürst Reuss zu Köstritz, died in 1878, and the headship of the family passed to a junior line. These had at first not been raised to princely status with the rest of their kin in 1806, but ten years later, in 1817, they were elevated by Imperial decree. Most were in fact in military service in Prussia, and by the end of the 19th century, different sub-lineages resided either at Ernstbrunn in Austria or at Trebschen in Silesia. A further lineage resided at a property acquired in Silesia in the 1780s, Stonsdorf (now Staniszów, Poland), near Hirschberg (today’s Jelenia Góra). There was a castle here from the early 14th century, built by the von Stange family, and acquired in the early 18th century by Count von Schmettow who rebuilt it as a baroque palace. His daughter brought it in marriage to the Reuss-Köstritz family, who rebuilt it in the 1780s. It was confiscated in 1945 and converted by the Polish government into a children’s nursing home. Today it is a hotel.

Stonsdorf (Staniszów)

Because this branch, although non-ruling, was considered ‘princely’ its daughters could marry into the highest ruling families of the Empire without causing their husbands to lose their rank. Two daughters rose especially high: Princess Augusta, who became Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg from 1849 to 1862; and her niece, Princess Eleonora, who became the first Tsaritsa of Bulgaria in 1908 when that country declared its full independence from the Ottoman Empire. This was only a few months into her marriage to Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg (Prince then Tsar of Bulgaria), after she had had both a Catholic and a Protestant marriage ceremony (for him and for her). Ignored by her husband, she devoted herself to raising his children from a first marriage, and serving as a nurse during the First World War—but she died before the war’s conclusion, in September 1917.

Eleonora, Tsaritsa of Bulgaria (1911)
The wedding of Eleonora Reuss zu Köstritz and Ferdinand, Prince of Bulgaria, showing a huge number of Reuss princes and princesses

The Tsaritsa’s brother, Heinrich XXIV, the 5th Fürst from 1894, was an officer in the Prussian army, but was better known as a composer, writing in the style of Brahms and Dvořák. His grandson, Heinrich IV, the 7th Fürst, became head of the entire House of Reuss in 1945 (presumably, since the last Prince of the Younger Line disappeared without a trace), and recovered Ernstbrunn from the American occupying army in 1955. After German reunification in 1990, he successfully reclaimed properties in Köstritz. He was a commander of the Order of St John in Austria and died in 2012. Since then his son, Heinrich XIV, a forestry engineer, has been the head of the family—and appeared on the news in December 2022 to express his family’s embarrassment at the attempted coup by his cousin.

Heinrich XIV, Prince Reuss, current head of the House

The younger cousins of these Reuss-Köstritz princes travelled in slightly higher royal circles in the latter part of the 19th century. Heinrich VII, Lord of Trebschen, was a close friend to Kaiser Wilhelm I and served as his Adjutant-General on the Prussian military staff. In the early years of the Second Reich, he was an ambassador to St. Petersburg and Constantinople, then Imperial Ambassador to Vienna from 1878 to 1894. He married Princess Marie of Saxe-Weimar, daughter of the Grand Duke, whose mother was Princess Sophie of the Netherlands. Though this connection, Marie was considered a potential heir to her aunt, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and passed this claim on to her son, Heinrich XXXII (d. 1935). Young Heinrich was educated in the Netherlands, and some members of the Dutch social elite pressed for the Queen to abdicate in his favour or at least name him Crown Prince. All this changed in 1909 when the Queen finally gave birth to a healthy child, the future Queen Juliana.

Heinrich VII of Reuss-Kostritz, as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, 1877
Heinrich XXXII, a potential heir to the Dutch throne

Another marriage at this very high royal rank at the end of the 19th century was Prince Heinrich XXX (d. 1939) and Princess Feodora, daughter of Bernard III, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and Princess Charlotte of Prussia, the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria. He inherited yet another property the family had acquired in the 19th century: the castle of Jänkendorf in Lusatia (the region east of Dresden, along the modern border with Poland). This was a manor held for centuries by the Nostitz family, who built the castle as it currently appears in 1725. By 1815 it had passed to this branch of the Reuss-Köstritz. It was confiscated by the East German government in 1945 and turned into a primary school, which it remains, restored and re-opened only a few years ago.


Prince Heinrich XXX and Princess Feodora did not have children, however, so he adopted one of the children born of his older brother’s ‘unequal’ marriage. So-called morganatic marriages were becoming increasingly common in this branch of the family: an uncle, Heinrich XXXI (Imperial envoy to the Persian Empire, 1912-16) gave it all up in 1918 to marry for love. Heinrich XXX’s older brother, Heinrich XXVI, named his morganatic children ‘von Plauen’ instead of Reuss (recall, this is the much older medieval name for the family), and gave his sons distinctive first names (not numbers!): Heinrich Ruzzo, Heinrich Pelas, Heinrich Harry (seriously) and Enzio Heinrich. A family council continued to meet in the 20th century, and agreed in the 1950s to permit marriages to mere baronesses to ‘count’ as equal. Heinrich Harry’s son, Heinrich Enzio, was finally recognised by the council in the 1990s as having full dynastic rights as a prince (called ‘Prince Reuss-Plauen’), though not the full princely style as ‘Serene Highness’ which the head of the house enjoys.

Heinrich Enzio had married a Swedish baroness, and their son, another Heinrich Ruzzo (b. 1950), was educated in Sweden, at the same boarding school as the Crown Prince, today’s King Carl Gustaf. They have remained friends and in particular, hunting companions. Prince Reuss-Plauen owned lands in Landskrona (in Scania, north of Malmö) and a castle near Fribourg (Switzerland). He was a landscape architect, and in 1992 became a part—obliquely—of the celebrity pop world through his marriage to Anni-Frid Lyngstad, ‘Frida’ from ABBA. It was his second marriage and her third, and it did not last long, as he died in 1999, but it did make this queen of disco a genuine princess!

Heinrich Ruzzo, Prince Reuss-Plauen, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, 1992

Finally, we turn to the cadet branch of Reuss-Köstritz that brings us back to the fantasy coup of December 2022. In 1939, a prince from the line who resided at Stonsdorf Castle in Silesia, Heinrich I (d. 1982), married a princess of the House of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Woizlawa-Feodora, who was also the niece of the last ruling Prince Reuss Younger Line (Reuss-Gera). Heinrich had already been adopted by this last ruling prince a few years before, so perhaps this marriage was meant to solidify his claims to the personal properties of this branch of the family. Princess Woizlawa, whose name reflects the original Slavic origins of the House of Mecklenburg, would reach the age of 101, dying in 2019, and was a driving force behind her son’s efforts to revive the glory of his princely house.

Princess Woizlawa-Feodora on her 100th birthday in 2018

The Princess’ father, Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg, was a younger son of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz II, and established his reputation as an explorer, particularly of Africa, in service of the Second Reich, for example as Governor of German Togoland, 1912-14. Dynastically, Adolf Friedrich was at the centre of one of the most inter-connected royal family webs at the end of the 19th century, meaning that Princess Woizlawa-Feodora was first cousin to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, Grand Duke Cyril of Russia (head of the Imperial House after 1918) and Queen Alexandrine of Denmark. Her father’s younger brother, Duke Heinrich, was Prince Consort of the Netherlands, as husband of Queen Wilhelmina. A widow since 1983, in the 1990s, the septuagenarian princess pressed for restitution of properties confiscated from the family by the East German government in the 1940s, and she successfully recovered a number of artworks and family heirlooms, and Thallwitz Castle and its valuable forestland. Located northeast of Leipzig, Thallwitz had been built in the 1580s (on top of a much older fortification). It was inherited by the Ebersdorf line of the House of Reuss in 1783, and used as a hunting lodge, then passed with Ebersdorf to the princes of the Younger Line, who expanded it in the 1880s with a neo-renaissance wing. In 1942, the last prince of the Younger Line (Reuss Gera) leased the castle to a plastic surgery clinic, which retained it under the new regime until it closed in 1994. It was restored to this branch of the Reuss family in 2008, but remains mostly derelict.

Thallwitz Castle

By thus point, the elderly princess’ affairs were being managed by her 4th son, Heinrich XIII, born in 1951. He claimed to be his mother’s sole heir, excluding his siblings, and managed her lawsuits—trying to re-acquire the old Reuss Theatre in Gera, and to restore the Reuss tombs in Gera—but increasingly he was alienated by the rest of the family for his espousal of far right-wing views, and he himself left the family association in 2008. He acquired a former family hunting lodge, Jagtschloß Weidmannsheil, near Bad Lobenstein, and used it for meetings of like-minded members of the Reichsbürger, or ‘Citizens of the Reich’, and more menacingly, stockpiling weapons. This group envisions a return to an age when Germany was ruled by its princely families, before 1918, and claims that World War One was started as part of a Jewish conspiracy to increase their power. 7 December 2022, Heinrich XIII Reuss zu Köstritz and 24 others were arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the German government. They reputedly planned to attack the Reichstag in Berlin and install Prince Reuss as ‘regent’ of a restored German Empire. The hunting lodge at Weidmannsheil was raided and supposedly was equipped with an underground bunker and autonomous power and water supplies to enable the ‘new government’ to withstand a siege. He remains in custody.

Heinrich XIII Reuss zu Köstritz
Jagdschloss Weidmannsheil

The head of the House of Reuss today, Prince Heinrich XIV, who despite having a regnal number in quite close proximity to Heinrich XIII is in fact quite distant kin (but was born just after him in chronological order), and made statements to the press to attempt to distance the family and its reputation from the events of December 2022. The story of this Central European family is indeed much more diverse: from Teutonic Grand Masters, to Moravian Brethren, to royal consorts in Bulgaria and Germany (albeit in exile), and as grandmother of Queen Victoria, ‘grandmother of Europe’—making Princess Augusta the ‘great-great-grandmother of Europe’!

(images 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.

2 thoughts on “Hooray Heinrich! The House of Reuss and the complexities of being a very minor prince

  1. Thank you for your work, your website is wonderful! I was wondering who would you consider the most prominent aristocrats of today in terms of status and wealth?


    1. Thanks for your comment! It’s tricky to say, since so much of modern wealth is hidden and status varies depending on who is doing the ranking. The Liechtenstein princes have not only retained their sovereignty, but also a huge fortune. Same for the Grimaldi in Monaco. But some would consider these now as ‘royal’. In the British aristocracy certainly the Duke of Westminster is incredibly wealthy, and the Duke of Buccleuch still owns vast acres in Scotland. The equivalent in Spain would be the duke of Alba or the Duke of Medina Sidonia.


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