Princess Adelheid Marie of Anhalt-Dessau was born on 25 December 1833 as the daughter of Prince Frederick Augustus of Anhalt-Dessau and Princess Marie Luise Charlotte of Hesse-Kassel. Adelheid was the eldest of three daughters. Her parents were dismissed by Queen Victoria as “very foolish and frivolous people”, but they also happened to be well-connected. Adelheid’s mother was an older sister of the later Queen Louise of Denmark, wife of King Christian IX of Denmark. Adelheid’s first cousins were thus Alexandra of Denmark, the later consort of King Edward VII, and Dagmar of Denmark, the later consort of Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Adelheid was also close to her cousin Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, who would become the mother of Queen Mary. In 1847, Mary Adelaide described Adelheid as “charming, much grown, and much improved… a very pretty amiable girl.”
Adolphe, Duke of Nassau, had been married once before. In 1844, he had married Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna of Russia, who would tragically die after childbirth the next year. He was devastated by Elizabeth’s death, and it took him several years to even contemplate remarrying. When his younger brother Moritz died at the age of 29, remarrying seemed imperative. The following autumn, he became engaged to the 16-year-old Adelheid.
Adolphe and Adelheid were married on 23 April 1851 at Schloss Dessau. They were 14 years apart in age, and they probably had a rocky start to their marriage. Queen Sophie of the Netherlands – who also happened to be a close friend of Adolphe’s stepmother Princess Pauline of Württemberg – later wrote, “I do not wonder at the Duchess of Nassau being changed. She never was but a mere doll with fine clothes and animal spirits. Alas, with youth, the spirits flag, and if there is no soul and no mind, even beauty does not remain.” Nevertheless, the marriage would eventually become a close one, and she was later described as possessing a “sharp and clear understanding.”
On 22 April 1852, their first child – a son named Wilhelm – was born to them. Tragically, their second son Friedrich – born in 1854 – died just after his first birthday. Their daughter Marie – born in 1857 – died just a month after she was born. A third son – named Franz – survived infancy but he died at the age of 16. Their last child – a daughter, named Hilda – was born in 1864 and survived to adulthood.
Adelheid spent her time raising her children, but she was also a talented painter who specialised in landscapes. She spent a lot of time at Schloss Köningstein with her first cousin Alexandra where she was taught by Hermann Corrodi. She had a shared love of horticulture and hunting with her husband. She was also an expert horsewoman and often accompanied her husband during his military campaigns. She was much loved as Duchess of Nassau. But then in 1866, Adolphe supported the Austrian Empire in the Austro-Prussian War, and after Austria’s defeat, Nassau was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia. Adolphe and Adelheid were now without a throne.
They were eventually given a million guilders in compensation, and they were allowed to keep several palaces. They first travelled around Europe searching for a place to settle down. Adolphe bought residences in Frankfurt and Vienna. Adelheid also bought her own residence, which had a large studio. Lady Paget, the wife of the English ambassador to Austria, lived near them and wrote, “The Nassaus live just opposite us in a palace they bought after having been ousted from their Duchy after the Prusso-Austrian war. They do not seem unhappy. The Duchess is not unlike her cousin, the Princess of Wales. She is an agreeable woman, she paints and is fond of music. She looks as if she had a bad temper.” Adelheid even befriended Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and they went riding together.
Adelheid defiantly declared, “I’ve always said that he (Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany) would never come into my house. I was afraid for the Nassau silver.” When he came to visit her once, she would only consent to receiving him on the veranda. On 20 September 1885, their daughter Hilda married the future Frederick II, Grand Duke of Baden. It was a happy marriage, but it would remain childless. Meanwhile, their son Wilhelm had fallen in love with the Infanta Maria Anna of Portugal, a Catholic. Adolphe refused to give his permission for the match because he wanted his line to remain protestant.
In 1890, life changed yet again when King William III of the Netherlands died without a male heir – all his sons had predeceased him. His daughter Wilhelmina succeeded him as Queen of the Netherlands but the Luxembourg lands – then still part of the Kingdom – fell under the Nassau family pact which ruled that if the Dutch line died out without male issue, the Luxembourg throne would pass to Adolphe. Many were in favour of altering this to allow Wilhelmina to succeed her father in Luxembourg as well, but it was her mother Emma who convinced her husband that it would be an injustice to rob her uncle of his rights. Just before King William’s death, Adolphe assumed the regency of Luxembourg, and he entered the country a few days later.
On 23 November 1890, King William died, and Adolphe succeeded him as Grand Duke of Luxembourg, with Adelheid by his side as Grand Duchess. In 1893, he finally consented to the marriage of Wilhelm and Infanta Maria Anna with the promise that any sons would be raised in the protestant faith. Adelheid and Adolphe’s first grandchild – Marie Adelaide – was born in 1894. Five more daughters would follow, including Charlotte.
Adelheid became a widow on 17 November 1905. She would survive her husband for 11 years and devoted her time to her granddaughters. She would see her son succeed as Grand Duke, but she would also see him pass away in 1912. He was succeeded by his eldest daughter. Adelheid retired to Köningstein where she still painted often. She died there on 24 November 1916, and she was buried in Weilburg where her husband’s remains would also eventually rest.1