Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Coburgs of Europe: A Thorough Review

A nice, thorough review of my latest book, by Coryne Hall,

“The Coburgs of Europe. The Rise and Fall of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s European Family,” by Arturo E. Beéche. ( 376 pages, over 500 photographs.

The Coburgs were described by Bismarck as ‘the stud farm of Europe” and reading this enthralling book will show you exactly why. Beginning with the 1777 marriage of Duke Franz Friedrich Anton and Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorff, Arturo Beéche takes readers on a fascinating journey showing just how their descendants extended into the European monarchies in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, thus changing the course of history.

To form an idea of the sheer scope covered it is worth remembering that by the end of the nineteenth century the descendants of Franz Friedrich Anton and Augusta occupied the thrones of Great Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria and the ducal throne of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; and they provided consorts for Prussia, Mexico, Austria, Saxony, Hohenzollern, Romania, Hesse and by Rhine and Hohenlohe-Langenburg. By the twentieth century they had reached Sweden, Italy and Luxembourg as well. To cover all this in one volume is an impressive achievement. 

The mainstay of the family was Duchess Augusta. Forced to approach the hated Napoleon in support of her eldest son, she wrote: …’the happiness of my children is well worth the sacrifice and I will do it quite willingly.’ She lived up to this rule, determined that her family of nine children would achieve political greatness. In 1796 her daughter Juliane married Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich. Although the marriage was unhappy, it enabled Juliane’s brother, the dashing Prince Leopold, to join the Russian army. In London in 1816 he married the Prince Regent’s daughter Princess Charlotte of Wales. After his wife’s death in childbirth Leopold went on to become the first King of the Belgians, thus founding the Belgian branch of the Coburgs. As the uncle of the young Queen Victoria he became one of the most important and influential members of this extraordinary family.

One of the most spectacular marriages was that of Augusta’s son Ferdinand and the Hungarian heiress Antonia von Kohary, which brought the immense riches of the Koharys into the family. This inheritance made the Coburgs the third largest landowners in Hungary until just after the First World War. Their descendants, raised as Catholics, became the Saxe-Coburg-Kohary line. One son married Queen Maria II of Portugal; a grandson, Ferdinand, later became Tsar of Bulgaria. It was one of Antonia’s discontented relatives who supposedly pronounced a curse on the Coburgs. Whether you believe this story or not, thirteen princes descended from Duchess Augusta’s family predeceased their own fathers. 

It is fascinating to note that haemophilia may have made its first appearance in the sons of Augusta’s eldest daughter Sophie and her husband the Count of Mensdorff-Pouilly, long before the disease appeared in the family of Queen Victoria. The union of Duchess Augusta’s two grandchildren Victoria and Albert is of course the most famous Coburg marriage and during Victoria’s reign the family’s influence reached its zenith. In 1917, to erase the family’s German roots, George V renamed the royal house, thereby cutting British links with the house of Coburg. Despite the family motto ‘venture nothing; keep everything’, the Coburgs began to lose some of the thrones they had so famously achieved. Many of the Vienna branch of the family in particular found they were struggling for survival as they lost much of their former wealth and position. Dispossession and dispersion of assets became the lot of several members of the family as war took its toll. As just one instance of the havoc war can bring, the current Head of House Prince Andreas was brought up in America and had to relearn his native German language when he returned to Coburg as a young man.

An unusual addition is a chapter on ‘The Women of Coburg’, which focuses on twelve Coburg princesses who married monarchs, Crown Princes or heads of mediatised dynasties. This refreshing idea allows the author to investigate how the Coburg net spread even wider and how various European monarchies link back to the Coburgs through the female line, which is normally ignored in favour of male line descent. 

This book is a sheer joy to read- a fascinating tale of power, influence, scandal, regicide and even suicide, with a narrative that moves along at a cracking pace. As for the photographs – well, where to start? There are over 500 pictures in this book, many of them lent by descendants of the Coburg family and never seen before, encompassing almost every European royal family. These wonderful shots of people at weddings, christenings and family gatherings are supplemented by pictures of the palaces all over Europe that Coburg descendants occupied. The result is simply breathtaking.

Throughout the book the enthusiasm of the author for his subject shines through. The Coburgs of Europe is as much a tribute to the passion and knowledge of Arturo Beéche as it is to the remarkable Coburg family itself.
This is a fascinating trip through the courts of Europe that no student of royal history can afford to miss.

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