Although Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands obviously never knew her father’s first wife, Sophie’s death opened up the possibility of his remarriage and the eventual birth of Wilhelmina.
Sophie of Württemberg was born in Stuttgart on 17 June 1818 as the daughter of King William I of Württemberg and his second wife Catherine Pavlovna of Russia. She married her first cousin William, future Prince of Orange and future King William III of the Netherlands in Stuttgart on 18 June 1839. She considered herself to be more intelligent than him and thought she could dominate him. She became Princess of Orange upon the abdication of King William I of the Netherlands in 1840. Sophie and her husband William never got along. The births of their sons changed nothing. They had three sons, William in 1840, Maurice in 1843 and Alexander in 1851.
Sophie became Queen consort in 1849 when King William II died suddenly. By then, William and Sophie were on the brink of a separation. Their second son Maurice suffered from meningitis, and they quarrelled by his sickbed. Sophie wanted to consult another doctor, but William refused. Maurice ultimately died of the illness. In 1855, they separated for good, but divorcing was not an option. William was given custody of their eldest son and Sophie was allowed to keep their youngest son Alexander until he was nine years old. Sophie would also have to continue to fulfil her duties as Queen.
From 1855, she lived mostly in Huis ten Bosch, and she went to visit her father almost every year. She was also a regular visitor to Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, Eugénie. She corresponded with intellectuals, who praised her. Historian John Lothrop Motley wrote, “The best compliment I can pay her is, that one quite forgets that she is a queen, and only feels the presence of an intelligent and very attractive woman.”
Sophie’s health deteriorated in early 1876. On 7 January 1876, she had arrived in Paris while already ill, and she had to be carried to her apartments. She continued her travels towards to Cannes, where she hoped to feel better. Her doctors reported that she suffered from ‘fièvre paludiène’ (malaria), tiredness, tightness in her chest, and coughing attacks. These reports were published in the newspapers. William thought the entire reporting on her health was ridiculous and believed she only wanted the attention. When she felt a little better, she wrote, “The King cannot forgive me that I didn’t die, as he had expected. He never comes to me, never asks how I am. When I was so very ill last time, he sang and had someone loudly play the piano under my bedroom.”1
Sophie would not recover from her next illness. During the spring of 1877, it became clear that the end was near. On 2 June 1877, one newspaper reported, “From The Hague, we received, this morning at 11, the sad message that Her Majesty The Queen is dying.”2 This time, her husband did bother to go to her at Huis ten Bosch.
Sophie died on 3 June 1877 just before noon, and the following autopsy showed that her bowels, gallbladder, liver and lungs had all been infected. It had been a miracle that she lived as long as she did. Newspapers reported, “The entire Netherlands mourns the death of their beloved Queen.” On her deathbed, she wore her wedding veil, believing that she had died the day of her wedding.
Sophie, Queen of the Netherlands, was buried on 20 June in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. King William, their two sons and Prince Henry and Prince Frederick were all there. William stayed in the church while the others went down into the crypt.
The palace of Huis ten Bosch was immediately closed after Sophie’s death and it stood empty for a long time. Her husband remained in The Hague until 29 June when he left for Paris with a certain Mademoiselle Ambre.