Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Scandalous Life of Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld

Princess Juliane Henriette Ulrike of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (Coburg, Germany, 23rd September 1781 – Elfenau, Switzerland, 15th August 1860)


Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1795
Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1795

The most dashing Edinburgh doctor I have previously mentioned is nothing if not well-travelled and one place he knows very well is Russia; indeed, he is on medically intimate terms with many of the royals of that vast land but that is a story for another time. It was the always-welcome presence of Doctor Dillingham in my salon this weekend that set me thinking of Russia and Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg, who was to become known as Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna, wife of Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, a marriage that was destined to be considerably less happy than the devoted union between the good doctor and his lady. 

Juliane was born to Franz Frederick Anton, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and his wife, Countess Augusta Caroline Reuss of Ebersdorf. With illustrious family connections throughout Europe, Juliane's parents were determined that their daughter would continue to increase their dynastic influence and began searching for a husband for the girl, known for her beauty and her musical acumen. As they cast their eye over the royal houses of Europe, Empress Catherine II of Russia was likewise looking for a match for her grandson, Grand Duke Constantine. She was searching for a very particular sort of girl and dispatched General Andrei Budberg to compile a shortlist, the matter of marrying the second in line to the Russian empire a very serious one indeed.

Taken ill whilst passing through Coburg, Budberg immediately added Juliane and her sisters, Sophie and Antoinette, to the list of likely candidates, much to the delight of their parents. However, not everybody shared their enthusiasm. For some there was disappointment that their own daughters had not been chosen whilst for others, the concept of a German princess marrying a Russian Duke was unthinkable, the young women viewed almost as lambs to the imperial slaughter.


Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia by George Dawe, 1834
Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia by George Dawe, 1834

The three girls travelled to Russia with Countess Augusta and found themselves welcomed by Catherine, whilst Constantine was somewhat cooler in his reception. Far from keen on the idea of marriage to anybody, he eventually took his grandmother's advice and agreed to marry Juliane, the 14 year old girl taking the name Anna Feodorovna in preparation for her new life. Baptised in a Russian Orthodox ceremony, the young Princess married the Duke on 26th February 1796, securing the strength of the Saxe-Coburg dynasty.

Although the marriage may have been politically astute, it was utterly miserable. Bad-tempered and disinterested in his wife, Constantine grew resentful of the young lady's popularity at court and he exercised a tight control over his bride. She was confined to her rooms, denied friends other than Elizabeth Alexeievna, and rarely appeared at court. Desperately unhappy, when Juliane fell ill in 1799, she seized the chance for escape with both hands.

Juliana travelled to Coburg, ostensibly for medical care, and initially intended to remain there but she found her family utterly unsupportive. Horrified at the damage a marital breakdown might do to the reputation and influence of the family, they pressured the Grand Duchess to return to her unhappy life in Russia. Once again she was confined to her rooms, utterly in the control of her husband and almost immediately, her health declined again.


Princess Juliane by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1848
Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1848

By 1801 it became apparent that Juliane was in desperate need of a change of air and her mother finally consented to a trip back to Coburg. This time Juliane flatly refused to leave her native land and began divorce proceedings against Constantine. With the divorce hampered by legal and constitutional considerations, Juliane found unexpected support from the royal houses of Europe, their sympathies gained by the conduct of Constantine and his intransigent family. Trapped in a web of legality, the unhappy Grand Duchess indulged in extra-marital affairs and in 1808 gave birth to a son, Eduard Edgar Schmidt-Löwe. Four years later she had a daughter, Louise Hilda Agnes d'Aubert with Rodolphe Abraham de Schiferli, a Swiss surgeon.

Though Constantine's family constantly pursued a reconciliation between the estranged couple, Juliane utterly refused to even countenance it, the memory of her unhappy years in Russia too keen. Instead she made a life and home of her own in Switzerland, her house on the Aare River becoming a beacon of art and music. She and Rodolphe maintained a lifelong friendship, though their daughter was adopted by a French family in order to protect Juliane's already somewhat tarnished reputation.

Nearly two decades after she fled to Coburg, Emperor Alexander I finally dissolved the marriage of Juliane and Constantine, allowing the Grand Duke to remarry. This small victory was followed by years of unhappiness as Juliane's life was beset by tragedy. One after the other she was plunged into mourning for her parents and siblings, her illegitimate daughter and Rodolphe, her devoted friend and former lover. Juliane never quite recovered from these losses and lived on in quiet solitude, throwing herself into charitable works. Loved and respected by those who knew her, the princess passed away peacefully at home at the age of 79. She lived a life beset by scandal and unhappiness yet one cannot underestimate the strength it took to leave the powerful Russian court and strike out alone, resisting all efforts to force her back to the life she hated. 

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

Pen and Sword
Amazon UK
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Book Depository (free worldwide shipping)

12 comments:

  1. Her house "Elfenau" is still very pretty and the delightful park is worth a visit (Part of her furniture is kept at Schloss Oberhofen, at Lake Thun). There's also a book by Swiss writer Therese Bichsel who wrote about Anna/Juliane, sadly there is no translation into English, but it's a very nice read: http://www.theresebichsel.ch/

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  2. Thank you! I would love to visit Elfenau, it is definitely on my list...

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  3. Let me know when you do, there are many nice corners about, I'd be happy to give you a tour to Empire-Switzerland :-)

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  4. Constantine looks like a bully, even from his portrait.

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  5. Yikes, life wash't any easier or nicer...

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  6. One question that fascinates me about this sad tale is the money side. She seems to have lived a fairly independent life post 1801. Did her family support her? Or did Constantine send money? So often, women in unhappy marriages were forced by financial pressures to stay with brutal husbands.

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    1. That's an interesting question. I suspect the answer is that her family provided support, but I will dig deeper.

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  7. She was of course the sister of Prince Leopold and Princess Victoire. Doesn't this make her Queen Victoria's aunt?

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