Henriette Catherine of Nassau was born in The Hague as the daughter of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and Amalia of Solms-Braunfels on 10 February 1637. She was their fourth surviving child and third daughter. Through her elder brother, the future William II, Prince of Orange, Henriette Catherine became an aunt of King William III of England, Ireland and Scotland. Her baptism took place on 29 March in the court chapel of the Binnenhof. Her godparents were her elder brother William and her elder sister Louise Henriette – who were 11 and 10 years old respectively.
At the age of five, Henriette Catherine became engaged to the nine-year-old Enno Louis, the future Prince of East Frisia. When pressed to give her consent to a wedding at the age of 17, she refused to marry him, declaring she would rather die, and so the engagement was broken off. The future King Charles II of England asked for her hand in marriage, but at the time he had no realistic prospect of ever becoming King and her mother refused him. Reportedly, Henriette Catherine had been genuinely in love with him, and she kept his letters for a long time.
Henriette Catherine was known to be intelligent, and she showed an interest in literature and art, and she spent many hours in her father’s extensive library. She was still only ten years old when her father died in 1647, and her brother William became the new Prince of Orange. Tragedy struck just three years later when William died of smallpox at the age of 24 – leaving behind a pregnant wife. His son was born a week after his death.
On 6 July 1659, Henriette Catherine married John George II, the future Prince of Anhalt-Dessau. She had met him in Berlin the previous year. She received plenty of money for jewels, clothes and her maintenance from her family and was to have a personal household of 20 people. The wedding took place in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, with reports stating that Henriette Catherine wore a diamond-encrusted coronet. From here, the couple departed for Anhalt-Dessau – in the east of Germany. Just one year after their marriage, John George’s father died, and he succeeded as the reigning Prince. However, he was often absent, and so Henriette Catherine acted as regent in his stead.
The family spent a lot of time in Berlin, and their first four children were born there. Unfortunately, their three elder children died in infancy. At least six more children followed, with a total of six children surviving to adulthood. Henriette Catherine watched over her household and the education of her children like a hawk.
Anhalt-Dessau had been much affected by war, and Henriette Catherine devoted her time to rebuilding the principality. She even brought over labourers and farmers from the Netherlands to introduce new farming techniques. She also had an orphanage and a house for elderly women built.
Never one to forget her heritage, Henriette Catherine turned the city of Nischwitz into Oranienbaum with the help of Dutch builder Cornelis Ryckwaert. Oranienbaum Palace still stands today with its Delft blue-tiled milk room in the basement. In 1675, Henriette Catherine learned of her mother’s death by letter and wrote back, “They had no small reason or cause to mourn a princess who has done so much for the state.”1 Henriette Catherine inherited a fourth of her mother’s estates including several valuable paintings and at least one painting that had been done by her beloved sister Louise Henriette.
In 1683, one of Henriette Catherine’s greatest wishes came true when her daughter Henrietta Amalia married her first cousin (the son of Henriette Catherine’s sister Albertine Agnes) Henry Casimir II, Prince of Nassau-Dietz. Henriette Catherine was widowed in 1693 when her husband passed away while in Berlin. Their only surviving son Leopold was still a minor, and Henriette Catherine was made regent for him. Her first act as regent was to order two years of mourning for her husband. She sent her son to join the Brandenburg army where he came to serve under his cousin the King-Stadtholder.
In 1696, Henriette Catherine temporarily transferred her regency to a counsel so that she could travel to the Netherlands. On 21 April, she reached Oranjewoud where she saw her sister Albertine Agnes. However, a happy meeting soon turned to anguish when it became clear that Albertine Agnes was dying. Henriette Catherine stood by her sister for three agonising weeks as she suffered, though her mind remained clear. Albertine Agnes died on 14 May at 3 in the afternoon. Henriette Catherine stayed at Oranjewoud until the end of June to attend the funeral before travelling on to Leeuwarden to be with her daughter Henriette Amalia. Tragically, she had been recently widowed, and she had recently given birth to a posthumous daughter. There is no doubt that Henriette Amalia much valued her mother advice regarding the regency she would now have to take on for her minor son Johan Willem Friso. Henriette Catherine returned home in the spring of 1697 and handed over the government to her son the following year.
Henriette Catherine was very much against the match her son had in mind. He wanted to marry the apothecary’s daughter Anna Louise Föhse, and he did so after reaching his majority. She was later raised to Imperial Princess by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor and she and Leopold went on to have ten children together, including his successor Leopold II, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau. Henriette Catherine withdrew from court life to Oranienbaum. From there, she oversaw the publication of her father’s memoirs.
Henriette Catherine died on 4 November 1708 in her beloved Oranienbaum. Her funeral followed 22 days later, and she was buried under the choir of the Stadtkirche in Dessau after a nightly procession lasting six hours. She was apparently buried with most of her correspondence, including King Charles’ letters.