Duke Henry of Mecklenburg-Schwerin was born on 19 April 1876 as the youngest son of Frederick Francis II, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and his third wife, Princess Marie of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt. When he was seven years old, his father died and he was succeeded by Henry’s much older half-brother who became Frederick Francis III, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The family often spent the winter months at Schwerin and the summer months at Heiligendamm or Rabensteinfelt. The latter was also intended as a dower residence for Henry’s widowed mother. Henry learned to hunt at Rabensteinfelt, and it would remain one of his favourite hobbies throughout his life.
From the age of 13, Henry attended the Vitzthum gymnasium in Dresden where he turned out to be an average student. He graduated from there in 1894 and went on an extended trip to India, Sri Lanka and Greece with a schoolfriend of his, Major Alt-Stutterheim. Upon his return, he went to the military academy and was stationed in Potsdam. He had his own villa there, and he filled it with his hunting trophies. He led quite the frivolous life in Potsdam, to such an extent that when his possible match with Queen Wilhelmina came to the attention, the Dutch court investigated his past. After three years, he had risen to the rank of captain, but he did not find fulfilment in the army and requested to leave. In 1899, he went to work for the Ministry of Finance in Schwerin.
Soon, there would be another direction in his life. His mother Marie was lifelong friends with Queen Emma of the Netherlands, regent for her daughter Queen Wilhelmina until 1898 and they believed that Henry would be perfect for Wilhelmina. In early May 1900, Emma and Wilhelmina travelled to Schwarzburg for a brief holiday where the two were formally introduced. As an “alternative” Prince Frederick William of Prussia was also invited, just in case Wilhelmina didn’t like Henry. Henry’s brother Adolf was also invited, but he did not show up. Henry and Wilhelmina had met for the first time when Wilhelmina was just 12 years old. But no matter how much Queen Emma wanted the match with Henry, Wilhelmina had already resolutely declared that she would marry “only the man that I love.”1
The following walk and picnic at the invitation of Henry’s aunt Thekla were so agreeable to Wilhelmina that she “began to wonder if a walk hand in hand through life would be recommended.”2 Upon Wilhelmina’s return to the Netherlands, she inquired into Henry’s life with her friends and family. Throughout the summer, Henry did not write to her until he asked to meet with her again in the autumn. That he did not write to her is perhaps not that strange. She might have wanted to know more about him; he would undoubtedly want to know more about what it would mean to become her consort. He would have to make sacrifices.
They met again in König in October where they were able to meet in relative privacy. However, the press soon caught on. On 12 October, Henry and Wilhelmina were briefly left alone after a lunch. After just ten minutes, they agreed on an engagement. Wilhelmina later wrote in her memoirs, “The die was cast. What a relief that always is on these occasions!”3 Wilhelmina returned home to the Netherlands, where the engagement was announced on 16 October 1900. A delighted Wilhelmina wrote to her former governess Miss Winter, “Oh darling, you cannot even faintly imagine how frantically happy I am and how much joy, and sunshine has come upon my path.”4
After heavy negotiations concerning his income, his status and titles, the two were married on 7 February 1901. Henry became known as Prince Hendrik in the Netherlands, and he became Prince Consort. He was also awarded the style of “Royal Highness.” Henry’s initial reception in the Netherlands had been somewhat lukewarm, but his popularity grew over time. One of the defining moments for this came in 1907 when the Berlin ferry – which served the Harwich/Hook of Holland route – broke in two and sank. Henry arrived the following day to help with the recovery of the bodies, but they also found a handful of survivors on the floating stern. There had been around 144 passengers on board. Once the survivors had been brought to safety, Henry helped to care for the victims and even poured them coffee or cognac. His easy-going nature also made him popular amongst the palace servants.
Though initially a happy match, Wilhelmina and Henry would grow apart over the years. She would suffer several miscarriages and a stillbirth before finally giving birth to a healthy baby girl named Juliana in 1909. She was his pride and joy until the day he died, and they always remained on good terms, despite the wavering relationship between Henry and Wilhelmina.
Henry focussed his attentions on several causes, such as the merging of the Dutch Boy Scout organisations, and the Dutch Red Cross and he was the happiest outside of the court protocol. However, as he was completely dependent on his wife for money, he soon found himself in money trouble and was often loaning money from others.
Henry’s death came rather suddenly though his health had been declining for some years. He had suffered his first heart attack in 1929. On 28 June 1934, he arrived at the office of the Red Cross in Amsterdam in the early morning. Just before ten, he suffered another heart attack. He was brought to Noordeinde Palace in The Hague by ambulance as Wilhelmina was informed of his condition. Juliana was away in England at the time. He seemed to recover but suffered another heart attack on 3 July. Wilhelmina had been away to a lunch and arrived back when he had already passed away. He had requested a white funeral and no full mourning. His funeral took place on 11 July in Delft.
His inheritance was mostly debts, and he may have left several illegitimate children as Wilhelmina paid an allowance to at least three women from her own money.5
In her memoirs, Wilhelmina wrote, “Long before he died my husband and I had discussed the meaning of death and the eternal Life that follows it. We both had the certainty of faith that death is the beginning of Life, and therefore had promised each other that we would have white funerals. This agreement was now observed. Hendrik’s white funeral, as his last gesture to the nation, made a profound impression and set many people thinking.[…]The story of my life would become much too long if I tried to express what these two lives6 which were cut off so shortly after one another have meant to Juliana and me. After the funeral, we went to Norway to rest and to recover, and stayed there for six weeks.”7
- Hendrik Prins der Nederlanden by J.A. de Jonge p. 44
- Wilhelmina de jonge Koningin by Cees Fasseur p.215
- Lonely but not alone p.63
- Darling Queen, Dear old Bones p.271
- Juliana en Bernhard: het verhaal van een huwelijk 1936-1956 by Cees Fasseur p.21
- Her mother had died only months before Henry
- Lonely but not alone p.141