19 May 2012

The single most successful German ruler

Grand Duchess Catherine, 1745
(via WikiCommons)
One real oddity was the continuing attractiveness of the little German states as sources of marriage partners. For much of the time really big partners were more trouble than they were worth (most famously perhaps Louis XVI's marriage to Maria Theresa's daughter Maria Antonia). In a pre-industrial era when quite tiny states could potentially be more than rich enough to bring in jewels and some nice hunting territory, there was much to be gained for one of the major rulers in tracking down some broad-minded, micro-state-bred creature who could proceed to fill a Schloss fairly reliably with children without causing diplomatic damage.

The Hanoverians, once they had become rulers of Britain, were brilliant at this and indeed have, with only two exceptions, followed an unvarying rule of provoking squeaks of baffled delight from princesses and their imperious mothers in tiny states up to the present day. In order, from George I onwards they have married a duchess of the Braunschweig-Celle family, a margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a princess of Saxe-Gotha, a duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a duchess of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (the unfortunate Caroline, beating fruitlessly on the doors of Westminster Abbey to be allowed in to attend her estranged husband's coronation), a princess of Saxe-Meiningen, a prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a princess of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and a princess of Teck. This unvarying German choice partly came from the important role the British royal family had in German life, a link that only frayed with the First World War, but also from the peculiarly narrow requirement that the bride had to be Protestant as well as upper class, thereby cutting out great swathes of potentially less frosty and more enjoyable Mediterranean partners. The kaleidoscope of small German states however always meant that there was plenty of choice, that is until the kaleidoscope was put away in 1918 with the German revolution and all the princesses vanished into dodgy coastal hotels around Europe. This was part of the backdrop to Edward VII's disastrous decision to marry a Maryland divorcee and his younger brother's cleverer choice of the steely youngest daughter of a Scottish aristocrat. The current queen took us back to the good old days by marrying another member of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg family, much to everyone's relief.

I go on about this, partly because it is funny and curious (both the facts and the names), but also because these little territories had potentially very considerable power and prestige and the most bashful beginnings could end in glory. In a sort of asteroid belt of low-grade German princesses and narrow, petty, moustachioed princes, there was enough room for something really surprising to happen. Most absolutely alarming in this respect was pretty little Sophie Augusta Frederica of the laughable territory of Anhalt-Zerbst, a place so small it could hardly breathe. Her father was a Prussian field marshal and as a helpless pawn in plans to boost Prussian-Russian relations in the 1740s Sophie was shunted off to Russia where, after several ups and downs, she married the Grand Duke Peter, learned Russian, became Russian Orthodox, had Peter killed and wound up as Catherine the Great, devastating the Ottomans, the Swedes and the Poles and carving out immense new territories from Latvia to the Crimea. Indeed, a case could be made for her being the single most successful German ruler of all time, albeit not one ruling Germany.

- Simon Winder, Germania, London, 2010, p.243-5.   
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