Tag Archives: Prussia

Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Friederike Sophie Wilhelmine (1709 – 1758) was the daughter of Frederick William I of Prussia and Sophia Dorothea of Hanover,  granddaughter of George I of Great Britain, and sister of Frederick the Great. Her memoirs, several versions of them, are available online, here are the ones I read… Sadly, I found much salacious (yet somehow mostly uninteresting) gossip but little in them about Bayreuth or some of the more interesting things she is known for — a literary and scientific salon that attracted Voltaire among others, and her work as a composer.

Her music is rather lovely.

This is really an account of another dreadful, brutal, and both physically and emotionally violent upbringing of a member of the aristocracy, though one rather higher in rank than Cosima Wagner. I found a picture of her and her brother as children — there is no mention of a Black servant but I wonder who he was, where he came from, why he was so included though I suppose it was a signal to wealth and status:

Antoine Pesne: Wilhelmine mit ihrem Bruder Friedrich, c 1715

The goal of it all to marry advantageously, and her mother as a Hanover had her heart set on the crown prince of England, also a Hanover of course, while her father preferred the Habsburg — this intersection between royal courts and empires and families caused no end of problems in a still-not-unified-Germany of competing principalities that I still haven’t quite got my head around apart from just how boring their constant wrangling is. Boring and destructive.

Wilhelmine writes this chilling description of a princess for sale:

We went to Charlottenburg on the 6th of October ; and on the 7th, in the evening, King George arrived there. The whole Court was assembled, and the King and Queen and all the princes received him as he alighted from his carriage. After they had welcomed him, I was presented to him. He embraced me, and said nothing further than ” She is very tall; how old is she? ” Then he gave his hand to the Queen, who led him to her room, all the princes following. No sooner had he reached her room, than he took a candle, which he held under my nose, and looked at me from top to toe. I can never describe the state of agitation I was in. I turned red and pale by turns ; and all the time he never uttered one word.

This is a tale of the petty intrigue and awfulness that swirled around the issue of her marriage. The machinations, lies, gossip, spying and stabbing in the back that goes one when a multitude’s lives and fortunes all depend on the whim of a king and his independently wealthy and powerful queen are of an extraordinary horribleness. It seems to me that the general tenor of the life and politics of the court ring true, whatever doubts have been described of trustworthiness around the details of, among other things, sex for information and power. Even that is remarkably uninteresting in such a context.

There are some good little nuggets though. I can think of a number of figures of whom this saying of Cardinal de Richelieu is true:

He has been guilty of too many bad actions to be well spoken of, and he has done too many good actions to be ill spoken of.

My fascinations with early trade and the East India Company were also piqued:

In the year 1717, the Emperor [Charles VI. of Austria, Emperor of Germany] had founded an East Indian Company in Ostend, a small town in Holland. This company began to trade with two ships, and in spite of all the difficulties which the Dutch tried to lay in their way, they reaped many advantages. The Emperor had given this company, to the exclusion of all his other subjects, the right and privilege for thirty years of extending their trade to Africa and India. As trade and commerce are the best means of increasing the prosperity of a State, the Emperor had made a secret treaty with Spain, in 1725, in which he bound himself to obtain Gibraltar and Port Mahon for the Spaniards.

But rather more interesting (on so many levels) was this little foible of her father’s:

My father’s greatest passion and amusement consisted first in hoarding up money, and then in perfecting his regiment at Potsdam, of which he was Colonel. This regiment was composed of nothing but giants, the smallest of the men being six feet. They were sought for all over the world, and the recruiting sergeants took them by force wherever they found them. Up to this time the King of England had constantly sent my father such recruits, but the Hanoverian Government, which had never been friendly to the House of Brandenburg, refused to obey their King’s orders any longer, hoping by this means to create a bad feeling between the two Courts. Some Prussian officers were bold enough to take several men by force from Hanoverian soil. This caused a great disturbance.

The international political implications of a desire for giants… and what a fucking disgrace that Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia had power enough to simply go around taking them by force.

More music in case you are done with the overture to the opera Wilhelmine wrote for her husband’s birthday, a concerto this time…

I think my favourite passage from the memoirs is this description of a stay in a castle in the late 1720s, she was definitely no stranger to sarcasm:

In a fortnight’s time we went to “Wusterhausen”. A description of this celebrated place will not be amiss here. The King had, with the greatest labour, succeeded in raising a mound which so well shut out the view of the Castle, that you never caught sight of it till you were close upon it. The Castle consisted of the main building, the chief point of interest in which was a curious old tower, which had served as a refuge for the robbers that had built the castle, and to whom it had belonged. The Castle was surrounded by a moat and ramparts. The water in the moat was as black as the Styx, and certainly could not be compared to lavender water. A bridge built over the moat led to the Castle. There were two wings to the main building, each guarded by two black and two white eagles. The sentries consisted of ten or twelve large bears, who walked about on their hind legs, their front paws having been cut off. In the middle of the courtyard was a grass plot, on which a fountain had been made with great trouble. The fountain was surrounded by an iron railing, and steps led up to it. It was near this pleasant spot that the King had his “Tabagie.” My sisters and I, with our suites, were lodged in two rooms which resembled a hospital far more than rooms in a palace. We always dined in a tent, whatever the weather might be. Sometimes when it rained we sat up to our ankles in water. The dinner always numbered twenty-four persons, half of whom had to starve, for there were never more than six dishes served, and these were so meagre that one hungry being might easily have eaten them up alone. We had to spend ‘the whole day shut up in the Queen’s room, and were not allowed to get any fresh air, even when the weather was fine. It was a wonder we did not get bilious from sitting in-doors all day long, and hearing nothing but disagreeable speeches.

Holy Animal Liberation Front though, did they actually cut off the front paws of the bears? The translation is maybe not the best, but to have bears chained at all is terrible, I am glad they all dined in water up to their ankles. I shall probably never see castles in quite the same way again.

I also love this sentence describing the morning of her wedding day.

The next morning I went to the Queen in an elegant undress. She led me to the King to pronounce the customary renunciation to the allodial estates.

I have no idea what elegant undress looked like, but I assume it was probably still a great deal of dress.

A final quote, this time actually about Bayreuth, though about the Ermitage as it was in 1744, the closest I could get to her intellectual abilities:

Near the house are ten avenues of limes, whose branches are so thick that the sun’s rays never penetrate them. Every path in the wood leads to some hermit’s cave or other device, each differing from the other. I have a little hermitage of my own commanding a view of a ruined temple built in imitation of those at Rome. I have dedicated it to the Muses, and have placed in it the pictures of all the famous scientific men of the last century: Descartes, Leibnitz, Locke, Newton, Bayle, Voltaire, Maupertius, &c.

I didn’t get to the Ermitage, but saw much of her and her husband’s rebuilding of Bayreuth, particularly the new castle and the opera house, though I did not get to see the famous rococo interiors sadly  — their projects almost bankrupted their court. A final piece of hers performed in the opera house, currently closed for restoration. Seeing the extravagance of this might have made this trip a little more enjoyable, though in general I am not a rococo fan. Bayreuth was also home to Jean-Paul Richter, and there is a museum here for him as well (closed on the Sunday). I am sad that the Wagners have eclipsed both of them so.

Wilhelmine’s Bayreuth

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