Wilhelmina would be the only child of the 22-year-old Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont and the 63-year-old King William III of the Netherlands. They were both descendants of Carolina of Orange-Nassau.
William had been married once before – to his first cousin Sophie of Württemberg – and they had had three sons together. The succession seemed secure, one would think. However, their second son Maurice died at the age of 6 of meningitis. Their eldest son William and their youngest son Alexander were both still alive when their mother died in 1877 but it seems that King William already realised they would not have children.
The younger William was denied marriage to Countess Mathilde von Limburg-Stirum who was considered too low in rank for a future King. In addition, there were rumours that she could be one of King William’s bastard children, making her the younger William’s half-sister! He left the Netherlands to settle in Paris, where he lived a debauched lifestyle. Alexander had always been nervous and sickly and he shied away from women.
King William met Emma as he was taking the cure in Pyrmont. He initially came to court her elder sister Pauline who rejected the elderly King but her sister Emma supposed exclaimed, “We cannot just let the poor man go home alone!” Their engagement was announced on 30 September 1878. A tutor was dispatched to teach Emma Dutch, though she would always struggle with spelling and grammar.
The wedding of Emma and King William took place in the chapel of Arolsen on 7 January 1879 when they were 20 and 61 respectively. The groom wore the uniform of an admiral and the bride wore a white dress with a long train, a lace veil, a tiara and an ermine shoulder cover.
The entire Princely family of Waldeck and Pyrmont was there, plus Charles Alexander, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach and his wife, Princess Sophie of the Netherlands (William’s sister), William, Prince of Wied (husband of Princess Marie of the Netherlands, granddaughter of King William I), Duke William of Württemberg, Georg, Prince of Schaumburg-Lippe and his wife Princess Marie Anne of Saxe-Altenburg. The Netherlands was represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the presidents of both houses of the States-General and the vice-president of the Council of State. The court preacher Ulrich Scipio blessed the marriage.1
Notable absentees were King William’s sons who were both shocked by their father’s upcoming nuptials. The younger William must have been especially hurt after being denied his Countess and he reportedly ordered the windows of his palace at Kneuterdijk boarded shut in protest.
On 10 January 1879, Emma joined her husband on the journey home to a court where she would not be welcomed with open arms and yet, she managed to charm a nation and provide them with an heir – to which the year 2020 – also the 140th anniversary of Wilhelmina’s birth – is dedicated.2