Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont was born on 2 August 1858 as the daughter of Georg Viktor, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, and Princess Helena of Nassau. She was their fourth daughter, and she would also have two younger sisters and a brother. After her mother’s death in 1888, her father remarried to Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, and from that marriage, Emma also had a half-brother.
Emma and her sisters were raised by an English governess who taught her drawing and embroidery and French literature. She also had history lessons and learned to speak French, which would come in handy later on as her future husband did not speak German. The family also spent a lot of time travelling around Italy, England, Scandinavia and France.1 Despite being from a small principality, the family was well-connected. Emma’s aunt Sofia was Queen of Sweden and Norway. Another aunt was Duchess of Oldenburg and her uncle Adolphe would eventually become Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
Emma’s daughter later wrote in her memoirs about her mother’s youth, “As a young girl Mother enjoyed painting and drawing and had art lessons. I still possess a few of her old sketch-books. She always showed a lively interest in the arts and continued working with the etching-needle to an advanced age. She had a good feeling for line; her favourite subjects were flowers. Her maturity at an early age is indicated by a letter I possess, written when she was about ten years old; it is a letter about practical matters, which my grandmother had told her to write. While she was living with her parents, she acquired an understanding of ordinary life which was very useful to her later on. She had an advantage over me in that respect; compelled to live in a cage by a convention which was inexorable in those days, I never had the opportunity to see ‘normal life’ as a child.”2
About her education, she wrote, “She [Emma’s mother] took a strong interest in the education of her children, who had their lessons at home. Owing to circumstances, my grandparents travelled frequently. They were always accompanied by a tutor and a governess. Quite often, the journeys lasted for several months and led through different countries. With all their travels, and with parents who regularly met and received interesting people, the children’s human and intellectual development was really exceptionally favoured. Apart from their schooling by different tutors and governesses, the children also attended courses and did a great deal of independent reading. All were marked by this education and benefited from it later on. Meeting any one of them, one was invariably struck by their culture and general knowledge.”3
On 7 January 1879, she married King William III of the Netherlands, who was 41 years older than she was. He had previously been married to Sophie of Württemberg, who had died in 1877. With Sophie, he had had three sons, of which one died young. At the time of his marriage to Emma, the younger William and Alexander were still alive. However, the younger William would die later that same year, deeply unhappy after being unable to marry the woman he loved. Both were vehemently against the marriage, and neither attended the wedding in Arolsen.
Emma gave birth to her only child, the future Queen Wilhelmina, on 31 August 1880. William had been present at the birth, encouraging Emma throughout the labour. William went to report his daughter’s birth in person, giving her the names Wilhelmina Helena Paulina Maria, for several of her ancestors and three of Emma’s sisters. Emma did not nurse Wilhelmina herself, as was tradition. Wilhelmina was just three years old when her only surviving sibling, Alexander, also died. She was now the heiress presumptive to the throne.
Emma received praise from Queen Victoria during the wedding of her sister Helena to Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold. Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter, “The King of the Netherlands is as quiet and unobtrusive as possible; a totally altered man and totally owing to her. She is charming, so amiable, kind, friendly and cheerful. She would be very pretty were it not for her complexion which has suffered very much from the damp climate and is very red.”4 They visited the United Kingdom again the following year and they even brought along young Wilhelmina. As William’s health deteriorated over the next years, Emma and Wilhelmina followed him around Europe to several spas. During these years, Emma taught her daughter to embroider. Wilhelmina also learned to ride horses from an early age.
In 1884, a law was approved that would make Emma regent if William died before Wilhelmina reached the age of 18 – which seemed very likely. When it became clear that Wilhelmina’s father would likely not live to see her 18th birthday, her education was sped up. Her education focussed on three languages, French, German and English but also included subjects just for her, like constitutional law and the organisation of the army. Emma was very involved in her daughter’s education. William died on 23 November 1890 and Wilhelmina officially became Queen of the Netherlands with her mother as regent.
Emma was inexperienced, but she learned quickly, and she also began sharing her experiences with Wilhelmina early on. During her regency, support for the monarchy grew. Emma realised all too well that the monarchy needed the support of the people, and she actively sought contact with them. Emma chose to continue to follow precedent where she could and was always well-informed on matters. While William found it difficult to work with ministers, Emma was more compliant.