Henriette d’Oultremont was born on 28 February 1792 as the daughter of Count Ferdinand L.F.M. d’Oultremont de Wégimont and his wife, Johanna Susanna Hartsinck. We don’t know much about her youth. She received her formal education in Paris.
After King William I of the Netherlands became King in 1815, he decided to alternate his courts between Brussels and The Hague. At the time, present-day Belgium was still a part of the Kingdom. Several members of the Belgian nobility were hired for the household as was Henriette, who became a lady-in-waiting to the new Queen Wilhelmina of Prussia. Her sister Pauline joined the household of the Princess of Orange (Anna Pavlovna of Russia, the future Queen as the wife of King William II) and her two brothers became respectively marshal of the court and chamberlain of Prince Frederick, the second son of King William I. Henriette was 25 years old when she entered the service of the Queen.
Wilhelmina of Prussia died on 12 October 1837 but King William I wished to maintain as much of her household as possible and so life continued for Henriette as normal as possible. William often joined the ladies of the household for tea and went with them for rides around the city. They must have hit it off during these moments as he proposed marriage to Henriette, by then 47 years old, in May 1839. Henriette had probably not seen this question coming; she was, after all, not an appropriate match for a King. William continued to ask her and admits that only she can save him from the melancholy that has haunted him since the death of Wilhelmina. After turning him down several times, she finally agrees to marry him.
Perhaps William did not think about the consequences of this marriage. Henriette was not only a lady-in-waiting, but she was also Belgian and a Catholic. Belgium had become a separate Kingdom in 1830, and it was a sore point. William’s children were very much surprised by the King’s plans to marry Henriette. Surely she could not be Queen? William tried to reassure his children that the marriage would be private.
As William began to inquire about the possibility of a morganatic marriage, the news spread around the court. The ladies of the court were appalled, and Henriette believed that it was best if she left the court for a while. William refused to let her leave as he wished to marry as soon as possible, but she finally received permission to go to Italy, on the condition that she return at the first request. William gave her a diamond ring upon her departure, but she refused it.
The worst was yet to come. A morganatic marriage did not exist in Dutch law, and such a marriage could seriously damage monarchy. The resistance became so great that William decided not to remarry, much to the relief of his children. But William could not forget Henriette, and he began to think of abdicating. Meanwhile, Henriette was slowly returning to the Netherlands, and she arrived at the Castle of Duras on 4 June 1840. On 12 September 1840, the King announced that he wished to abdicate and the actual abdication took place on 7 October. He would now be styled as King William Frederick, Count of Nassau.
For William, the abdication was just another step towards marriage to Henriette. William departed for Berlin, where his daughter Princess Marianne was recovering from the loss of a baby girl. Henriette was still in Liège, and she had requested a dispensation from the Pope to marry a protestant. The dispensation took quite a while to arrive, and it was not until the beginning of the next year that she was finally granted the dispensation. It was time for Henriette to travel to Berlin.
The wedding took place on 17 February 1841 in the Palace of William’s daughter Princess Marianne and her husband Prince Albert of Prussia. She was now known as the Countess of Nassau. The Dutch press and public were not amused, and several pamphlets mocking the King’s marriage are released. William and Henriette decided to stay in Berlin, although he always intended to return to the Netherlands. His son had something else in mind. The marriage could not be valid in the Netherlands until it was registered and William II wrote to his father that he could and would not receive Henriette due to the invalidity of the marriage. In addition, the public response to Henriette’s presence in the Netherlands could actually prove to be dangerous for her wellbeing. William was furious, and he wrote angrily to his son that he would come to The Hague personally and marry Henriette all over again. His son finally caved and allowed for the marriage to be registered.
Almost immediately, William and Henriette set off for the Netherlands, and they arrived at the Loo Palace on 10 October 1841. The citizens of Apeldoorn were surprisingly welcoming to their former King. William II was not at all happy with his father’s return to the Netherlands, and he refused to receive his father and Henriette in The Hague. William angrily departed for Berlin on 25 November.
The next years were hard for William. His health had begun to decline, but Henriette dedicated herself to taking care of him, to the praise of Prince Frederick. His declining health led William to try and reconcile with his son. On 12 July 1842, after staying at the Loo Palace for a few weeks, William and Henriette departed for The Hague. It was a great visit, and William returned to Berlin in excellent spirits.
William collapsed on 12 December 1843 due to a stroke. He never awoke and died that same day at the age of 71. Henriette sat by his bed, praying. Luckily, he had taken good care of Henriette in his will. Henriette left Berlin the next year to live in Rahe. She lived a simple life there and often received her husband’s family for visits. She survived her husband for over 20 years. She was struck by a heavy bout of pneumonia in the autumn of 1864 and died on 26 October 1864. She was interred in the family crypt at Wégimont.1