With her, the last of father’s family had died & I am now the only direct representative of my family – would that I were a worthier one!1
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.
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 she married Charles Alexander, the future Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach on 8 October 1842. She was now the Hereditary Grand Duchess of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.
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 she also visited the Netherlands often. She rushed to the Netherlands to be by her father’s side after his stroke. 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.
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. 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.”2
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.”3 Prince Heinrich VII Reuss was clearly not good enough for their Princess. Eventually, they caved, and the engagement was announced on 8 October 1875.
Princess Pauline was soon 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. 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 and 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 very fond of her young niece, and they often visited each other. Wilhelmina would later praise her for her wise counsel. Sophie had followed her niece’s education closely, and in 1896, she would write to Wilhelmina’s governess. “With intense interest have I followed the Queen’s development and the progress of your responsible task during many difficult years. Let me tell you my deap (sic) sense of gratitude for all you did in the true interest of my Niece. She had in your person the example of real and persuaded energy, and the recollection of that example will be important to the queen, the more she will know life and its difficulties.”4
Wilhelmina wrote in her memoirs, “Aunt Sophie came to stay with us every year and always loved being back in her old country. She was my last link with Father, which created a special bond between us, and she would be my successor if something should happen to me. Even at that age, I attached great importance to the fact that she was the person to whom I would leave our country. A warm friendship and mutual appreciated existed between Aunt Sophie and Mother. My aunt, who was so well informed about life in this country, was the ideal companion for Mother, who could discuss everything with her. My aunt was exceptionally gifted and had a penetrating mind. She and I were also great friends, and I have a vivid recollection of our talks in her room, which were very helpful to me. She was very intelligent, and Weimar owed her a great deal. Princess in the noblest sense of the word!”5
Sophie’s last visit to the Netherlands was in the summer of 1896, and she stayed at Soestdijk Palace. She would die on 23 March 1897 at the age of 72. Wilhelmina wrote in her memoirs, “Towards the end of that busy winter, on the 23rd of March, we received the news of Aunt Sophie’s sudden death. She collapsed in the middle of her work and died within a few hours. We felt her loss deeply after all the love we had always had from her and the advice and help she had always been prepared to give us; and she had been our last link with father. As I said before, she would have been my successor if something happened to me. Her going gave me a taste of real life; it matured me, and strengthened my sense of responsibility towards my future task.”6
To her governess Miss Saxton Winter, she wrote, “I just want to come & tell you myself about the great grief we, mother & I, have just had: my dear Auntie Sophie had died. She went off yesterday evening quite quietly after having been ill for one or two days. None of her people were there except Lily7 the wife of her son. You will understand what a grief it is to mother & me, I can’t quite yet believe it, I am trying to help mother as much as I can.”8
Wilhelmina had hoped to attend the funeral, but there was “no service where ladies could go. This is a great grief to me for I can’t say how I would have liked to be present.”9
- Darling Queen, Dear old bones p.167
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.407
- Thera Coppens – Sophie in Weimar p.409
- Darling Queen, Dear old bones p.113
- Lonely but not alone p. 44
- Lonely but not alone p. 54-55
- Pauline of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
- Darling Queen, Dear old bones p.165
- Darling Queen, Dear old bones p.167