The Württemberg Hands in the Windmills of my Mind -- Ruth Leigh
I don’t know about you, but at any one time, my mind is filled almost to overflowing with random facts, half-remembered stories and snippets of conversation, both overheard and read. Since I started writing blogs a year and a half ago, I’ve been searching through all the flotsam and jetsam which has washed up on the shore of my consciousness, trawling for treasure.
Nearly thirty years ago, for example, I was sitting on a beautiful wide sandy beach in North Devon with my fiancé when a battered camper van came bouncing into the car park. It disgorged three men, three women and a selection of children who set up camp near us. They appeared to be from a closed sect, perhaps Plymouth Brethren. All the women were dressed in plain navy-blue dresses, wore tights and black shoes and had neat kerchiefs pinned to their hair. Each wore a plain, gold wedding ring on the fourth finger of their left hand. It was high summer, and their clothing drew curious looks. They enjoyed a picnic lunch together, built some sandcastles, then the fathers took the children down to the edge of the sea, rapidly going out. The women tidied up, then took off their shoes and began a high-spirited game of tag. Their peals of carefree laughter and the way they ran about on the sand, tagging each other and throwing their heads back with joy struck me. I stored the picture of them in my head and have wondered many times when I would ever bring it out into the light.
Women dressed in plain clothes with wedding rings who don’t often get a chance to let down their hair also feature in my next anecdotes. I specialised in the nineteenth century novel for my English degree at Birkbeck in the nineties. I loved them (still do) and read voraciously around my subject. The British Royal family, with the redoubtable Queen Victoria at their head, ran through much literature of the period, like a broad purple ribbon. When a person marries her first cousin, proceeds to have nine children and then marries them off to the crowned heads of Europe, the same names are going to come up again and again.
The two eldest children, Princess Royal Victoria (Vicky) and Prince Edward Albert (Bertie) made relatively splendid marriages, the first a love match, the second most decidedly not. Vicky married Fritz, who would one day be the Prussian Kaiser, ruler of one of the most powerful states in Europe. Bertie was encouraged to marry the beautiful teenage Danish princess Alexandra, whose sister married the future Tsar of Russia.The other seven married, variously, the future Grand Duke of Hesse, a Grand Duchess of Russia, a minor Prince of Schleswig-Holstein with a glass eye, the Duke of Argyll, a Prussian princess, another German princess and a hunky Battenberg prince (the only decent-looking semi-royal family in Europe).
Once Vicky was married and living in the rigidly conservative Prussian court (one of the reasons her parents had encouraged the match was to ensure that Prussia became more liberal), she was consulted frequently by her mother on her siblings’ marriages. Royal and aristocratic ladies turned to the Almanach de Gotha for help in sourcing the right marriage partners for their daughters. Some royal families were off limits (Catholic or with insanity running through their line), while others were not quite royal enough. The Battenbergs were one such family, although they had four handsome sons, two of whom ended up married to the Queen’s youngest daughter and one of her granddaughters. Prince Philip is a direct descendent of Prince Louis of Battenberg.
Vicky and her mother had to think of the feelings of Bertie and Alix, since the Prussians and Austrians had annexed the Danish duchies of Schleswig-Holstein in 1861. This led to the infamous Schleswig-Holstein Question. Lord Palmerston once said: “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business. The Prince Consort, who is dead, a German professor who has gone mad, and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
Violently anti-Prussian, Vicky’s favourite brother and his wife were furious when she and her mother set up a marriage between their sister Helena and a bald, bankrupt minor German princeling from Schleswig-Holstein. No-one very much liked Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia, who married the Queen’s second son in 1874. She never forgot that she was a Romanov and hated living in England.
One of the many reasons I find all this so fascinating is that many snippets of conversation and half-heard conversations were written down and still survive today. The Queen was horrified when her dignified Russian daughter-in-law whipped out her ample bosom and began breastfeeding her crying baby at a family function. Twenty years later, plans to marry the future King George V to Marie’s beautiful daughter Missy were scuppered by her mother who schemed to marry her off to the awkward, jug eared Ferdinand of Romania.
Vicky and Fritz’s daughter, Sophie, married into the Greek royal family (originally Danish and with strong Russian connections). After a year, she decided to convert from Lutherism to the Greek Orthodox Church. Back in Berlin, her brother the Kaiser and his wife were furious. At a family wedding, Sophie was harangued by the Kaiserin about her decision. Sophie stood firm, but when her sister-in-law gave birth to a son prematurely, the Kaiser raved to his family that if the baby had died, Sophie would have murdered it. Family rows were generally kept quiet, but on her return to Athens, having had her olive branch rejected, Sophie sent an open telegram to her mother back in Germany for all to see. It ran: “Received answer. Keeps to what he said in Berlin. Fixes it to three years. Mad. Never mind.”
Meantime (and this is my favourite), Bertie and Alix’s three daughters, known in the family as the Whispering Waleses, had watched as Mary of Teck, a member of a bankrupted minor German royal house became dutifully engaged to their brother, Prince Eddy, then the heir to the British throne. For a girl brought up in England by her wildly popular mother, “Fat Mary” and dissolute father, watching as they sold off their family heirlooms and being looked down upon by more royal relations, becoming engaged to Eddy was her big chance to fill “the greatest position there is” as Queen Victoria put it. Eddy died of pneumonia six weeks into the engagement. The next year, she became engaged to his brother, George. Her future sisters in law were concerned about her connections. “Poor May and her ugly Württemberg hands”, one of them whispered when the engagement was announced. As a mere “Serene Highness” and coming from a morganatic royal branch, she wasn’t the obvious choice to be the next Queen of England.
The Württemberg hands, the Hapsburg jaw, the Hanoverian pop eyes – evidence of them is still to be found in what is left of the crowned heads of Europe. Thanks to Victoria’s policy of marrying her grandchildren to each other, everyone is related to everyone else, and the stories keep coming.
And now, at least those Württemberg hands have finally left the windmills of my mind.