Princess Sophie of the Netherlands was born on 8 April 1824 as the daughter of the future King William II of the Netherlands and of his wife Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia at Kneuterdijk in The Hague. A few days after her baptism, she was awarded the Order of Saint Catherine by her grandmother, Maria Feodorovna. She wrote to her daughter Anna, “I send you, with the agreement of our beloved Tsar, the Order of Saint Catherine for our little Maria-Sophia. Pin it on her with a tender hug from me and with my blessing.”1
For her 10th birthday in 1834, Sophie received wooden shoes and farmers clothes to go with the farm that was being built for her on the grounds of Soestdijk Palace. With the help of an actual farmer, a woman named Koele, Sophie learned to milk cows, and she made butter and cheese. Her mother was less than happy with her daughter’s sunburned face and rough hands, but her father thought it would be good for her health to be outside as much as possible. Later that summer, the family visited Weimar, where Sophie met her first cousin and future husband Charles Alexander of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Their mothers were sisters. Sophie was just a child, but she and the 16-year-old Charles Alexander walked to Goethe’s Gartenhaus. She was intrigued by Charles Alexander’s stories of Goethe. Once home again, she was inspired to learn more, and her education picked up the pace.
Hereditary Grand Duchess
In 1840, Sophie’s father finally became King of the Netherlands after the abdication of her grandfather, who went on to contract a morganatic marriage. Sophie was present during her father’s inauguration. She was now 16 years old, and marriage was on the cards. On 25 January 1842, the engagement was officially approved, and they married on 8 October 1842. She was now the Hereditary Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Just a week later, she and her new husband left the Netherlands. On 20 October, they made their entrance into Eisenach where they met Sophie’s mother-in-law and aunt, Marie Pavlovna of Russia and her father-in-law, the Grand Duke, before continuing on to Weimar.
In Weimar, Sophie studied the piano under Franz Liszt. Although the court language was still officially French, German was often spoken, and Sophie felt isolated. She did not become pregnant right away, leading to questions, even from her own mother. They need not have worried, and Sophie gave birth to her first child, a son named Charles Augustus, on 31 July 1844. Her parents visited Weimar, and her mother stayed by Sophie’s side for six weeks. In 1849, Sophie gave birth to Marie. Anna Sophie was born in 1851 but died at the age of 8. Her last child was Elisabeth, born in 1854.
Sophie never stopped following the Dutch news and also visited the Netherlands often. She rushed to the Netherlands to be by her father’s side after his stroke. She was shocked by the revolutions that seemed to rock Europe around this time. She was most concerned for the Netherlands, but a new liberal constitution seemed to relax the people. On 20 February 1848, Sophie’s brother Alexander died, and the court in Weimar went into mourning for a month. The couple’s spirits were lifted by the birth of their daughter, and Charles Alexander wrote, “Heaven has given me a beautiful daughter on the 20th of this month!”2
More bad news was to come. Early in 1849, Sophie’s father suffered a heart attack, and she went to him as quickly as she could. As the train arrived, the bells of the church were already ringing; she had come too late. Sophie tried to support her devastated mother. Sophie’s brother was now King William III of the Netherlands, albeit with the greatest reluctance. She stayed to witness her brother’s inauguration and to play mediator between her mother and her sister-in-law. It was a tough time for the entire family.
After the birth of her third child in 1851, Sophie and her husband went to visit the land of their mothers, Russia. They left their three children behind. In Russia, their uncle Tsar Nicholas I ruled. After meeting Sophie, Nicholas wrote to Anna that he found Sophie charming, witty and wise. They stayed in Russia for three months. The following year, Sophie and her husband visited Italy and were received by the Pope in Rome.
Life changed when Sophie’s father-in-law died in 1853, and her husband succeeded as Grand Duke. They moved into the Grand Ducal residence, while her mother-in-law moved into her widow’s seat. She did everything she could to support her husband in the early years of his reign. The death of the 8-year-old Anna Sophie hit both of them hard. The youngest three children had all been ill, but Anna Sophie could not shake whatever it was. Her husband wrote, “I have nothing happy to report. My house is haunted by sickness and death.”3 Just two months later, Charles Alexander also lost his mother. He threw himself into fulfilling her final wishes, such as a monument. It all became too much for him, and he fell ill. In early August, he left for the North Sea, to be alone. He returned home in the early autumn.
In early 1865, Sophie also lost her mother. She was by her mother’s side when she died. Her sister-in-law, another Sophie, was also there and their relationship had never been good. Queen Sophie wrote about her dying mother-in-law, “Selfish to the last, no matter how terribly she suffers.”4 The opening of the late Queen’s will infuriated Queen Sophie, and she wrote, “She has disowned the King and did not even mention my children, but has left great legacies to the Weimars, to Russia, the Tsar, and his children.”5 Sophie was now unbelievable rich, and she would never have to depend on anyone ever again.
In 1873, the first of her children was to marry. Her son Charles Augustus married his second cousin, Princess Pauline of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. She was their second choice, after a match with a Russian Grand Duchess fell through. Her eldest daughter Marie married Prince Heinrich VII Reuss in 1876, who was just one year younger than Sophie herself. However, Marie was in love. Sophie and her husband were desperate. Charles Alexander wrote, “My worries turn into sadness, sadness turns into regret, and I am killing myself with worry.”6 Prince Heinrich VII Reuss was clearly not good enough for their Princess. Eventually, they caved, and the engagement was announced on 8 October 1875.
By then, Princess Pauline was pregnant with her first child. Sophie was going to become a grandmother. On 10 June 1876, a son named William Ernest was born. In the Netherlands, Queen Sophie was nearing death. She died on 3 June 1877 and Sophie, and Charles Alexander travelled to the Netherlands to pay their respects. Queen Sophie was at last released from her unhappy marriage. She left two surviving sons behind.
Sophie’s own family was growing too. Pauline gave birth to a second son in 1878. Marie’s first son had been stillborn, but a healthy son was born in 1878. Four more children would follow for Marie, of which three survived to adulthood. Sophie’s youngest daughter Elisabeth would not marry until 1886 after refusing the chance to become Queen of the Netherlands as the wife of her uncle King William III. She was repulsed by him. William’s sons would all predecease him, and he was looking for a new wife. Sophie was in favour of the idea and tried to convince her daughter. William seemed to realise her reluctance and travelled on to the Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, whose daughter Emma he would eventually marry.
Just after William married Emma, Prince Henry, Sophie and William’s brother died. He had left no children, and the Dutch Royal House was heading to the brink of extinction. William’s eldest son was still alive but unmarried as he was not allowed to marry the woman he loved. He died in 1879 in Paris. This left just one of William’s sons, Alexander. He was not considered to be mentally able to take over as King. He lived alone with a parrot. Perhaps Sophie would one day be called to ascend the Dutch throne. After her death, she could be succeeded by her son, but the Dutch Constitution forbade that the King of the Netherlands was also the Head of State of another country. He would then have to choose between the Grand Duchy and the Kingdom.
In early 1880, it was announced that Queen Emma was pregnant. On 31 August 1880, the future Queen Wilhelmina was born. The disappointment of her gender was quickly forgotten by the Dutch people, who considered anything to better than to be ruled by a German prince. In 1884, Alexander died, leaving the young Wilhelmina as the heiress.
Sophie was left the literary legacy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by his grandson and also the papers of Friedrich von Schiller. She accepted the inheritance with the words, “I have inherited, Germany and the world will inherit with me.”7 She founded the Goethe-Schiller-Archiv and dedicated the rest of her life to Goethe’s legacy. She often worked in his house, cataloguing the items there. Every piece of paper passed through her hands.
In 1886, Elisabeth finally married, though she too made a disappointing match in the eyes of her parents. The groom was Duke Johann Albrecht of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the fifth child of Frederick Francis II, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg and his first wife Princess Augusta Reuss of Köstritz. There was nothing technically wrong with him, though there was no chance at a throne. Her parents finally agreed to the match after Elisabeth nearly died after being thrown from her horse.
The last years
On 23 November 1890, King William III of the Netherlands died and was succeeded by his 10-year-old daughter Wilhelmina. This made Sophie the heiress presumptive. Sophie was close to her little niece, and Wilhelmina trusted her aunt. “My aunt was the last that remained of my father, which gave us a special bond,” Wilhelmina would later write in her memoirs.
In 1894, Sophie’s son suddenly began to lose his sight. His health had always been weak, but now he was deteriorating quickly. In October, he travelled south at the advice of his doctors, but it did not help. On 20 November 1894, he died in France. Sophie was devastated by the loss, and she became terribly depressed. She spent the winter altering her will. On 23 March 1897, she died quite suddenly at the age of 72. She had collapsed at her desk. In the Netherlands, Emma reacted with devastation, “As long as I live, I shall miss her love, loyalty, and her understanding.”8 Sophie was buried on 29 March in the Fürstengruft.
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.30
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.299
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.378
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.407
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.409
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.409
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.541
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.642