Most European princesses prior to the 20th century who’d mothered illegitimate offspring by means of spreading their legs for men that weren’t their husbands, which was often in retaliation against husbands who’d spread their seed among women that weren’t their wives, usually faced dire consequences for themselves and their bastards once the paternity of their illicit progeny was established. Banishment and divorce for the princess, sometimes followed by lifetime imprisonment; the children being secretly adopted by obliging courtiers, often never finding out who their birth parents were; and in some truly unfortunate instances mother, father, and children being murdered were among the usual fates meted out to these families conceived on the wrong side of the proverbial royal bed sheets.
In the case of Wilhelmine, one of the 19th century Grand Duchesses of Hesse, née Princess of Baden, however, an altogether different and far more glorious fate awaited her two bastards, as well as the succeeding generations of descendants they spawned. For not only was she able to convince, or perhaps blackmail, her estranged husband into accepting her two youngest children, a son and daughter, who were the products of a long term extramarital liaison she conducted with a courtier, as his own legitimate, royal, title carrying progeny, one of these bastards would eventually ascend a throne, as the empress consort of Russia, while the other was the father of the first sovereign prince of Bulgaria. Furthermore, the one time Bulgarian sovereign wasn’t the only notable prince to be born from the morganatic marriage contracted by his Hessian bastard prince father and lesser born Polish aristocrat mother. For the family they created, the fabled princes of Battenberg, and their ambitious descendants, would ascend various royal heights of their own. The current king of Spain, the Prince of Wales, the former king of Romania, as well as the pretenders to the Serbian, Romanian and German thrones count themselves among the descendants of this lovelorn grand duchess and her all too accommodating court chamberlain.
The story of their affair begins in 1820 when, after several years of enduring the extramarital indiscretions of her obese, toad like husband, Grand Duchess Wilhelmine was granted the use of her own castle, Heiligenberg, where she would permanently reside away from Grand Duke Louis ll and his court. In essence, they separated. To oversee his estranged wife’s affairs, Louis appointed as his wife’s chamberlain a Swiss baron named August Ludwig von Senarclens de Grancy. It wasn’t long before the baron and grand duchess were getting along like the proverbial house on fire. They certainly ignited each other’s loins enough for Wilhelmine to become pregnant within a year of them making each other’s acquaintance. This pregnancy wasn’t only suspicious to Grand Duke Louis ll’s courtiers because it occurred after their sovereign’s consort separated from him, but was also curious owing to the fact that it broke the procreative dry spell Wilhelmine had endured since 1809 when she’d given birth to her second son.
His wife’s latest pregnancy must’ve at least struck Louis ll as being strange as well, but for reasons that have never been revealed he chose to accept official paternity of the child, as well as the three children his wife conceived thereafter, all the while being ensconced with her favorite baron in a love nest several miles away from her husband. Perhaps the grand duke, whose portraits reveal him to have been corpulent at the best of times, was too embarrassed to admit that, after more than a decade of not impregnating his wife, his sperm had become as lethargic as the rest of him? Perhaps he was loath to admit his wife was being unfaithful? Or maybe she threatened to expose the ugly truth concerning their unhappy, arranged union if he had tried to divorce her? For whatever reason, despite his cuckolding being an open secret at his court, the grand duke opted to pretend that all was well within his marriage, and in May of 1821 his wife bestowed upon him a daughter named Princess Amalie.
Unfortunately, the little bundle of joy proved sickly and died shortly after her 5th birthday. She was followed by an even more sickly sister in 1822 who was stillborn. In 1824, however, Grand Duchess Wilhelmine delivered a healthy prince named Alexander, and finished off her secretly illegitimate family by birthing a final princess named Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie, but known throughout her life simply as Marie. In the family lithograph above this article she’s depicted as the lovely, 14 year old white gown clad maiden standing to the right of the portrait. Had it not been for her physical attractiveness, the true story concerning her paternity might never have made its way to the annals of history.
For it was her beauty that particularly struck the Tsariavitch, i.e. the heir to the Russian throne, Alexander, when he made a pit stop at the Hessian court on his way to Baden to propose to their grand duke’s daughter, Alexandrine. Upon meeting the fair Marie, and demonstrating the romantically mercurial nature that would bedevil him for the rest of his life, and cause no small amount of pain for his future spouse, Alexander immediately ditched his plans to marry Alexandrine, and instead proposed to the pre-pubescent Marie. It was then that the normally magnanimous Grand Duke Louis ll, perhaps smarting at the prospect of one day being obliged to kiss the ass of his wife’s youngest bastard, enlightened the Tsariavitch concerning the truth about this particular princess’s paternity, and made sure his ambassador at St. Petersburg informed Tsar Nicholas I as well. Needless to write, the tsar vetoed the prospective betrothal on the spot.
Ghislain de Diesbach writes in “Secrets of the Gotha,” that Alexander then retaliated by threatening to renounce the throne if he couldn’t wed the barely legal princess of his choice. He also entreated his imperial father with a barrage of letters singing Marie’s praises. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his recent, monumental biography, The Romanovs, 1613-1918, it didn’t take long before the normally implacable Tsar Nicholas l changed his mind and even wrote back to his son stating he was eagerly awaiting meeting this darling angel. All talk of the future tsarina being the misbegotten issue of her mother’s liaison with her court chamberlain was duly silenced, and soon enough Princess Marie departed for St. Petersburg where a fait as splendid as it was heartbreaking awaited her. Aside from spawning most future generations of Romanovs, the eventual Tsaritsa’s only daughter, Grand Duchess Marie, married Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. They produced a bevy of daughters, one of which, yet another Marie, became the queen of Romania. She in turn produced yet another damn Marie who became the last queen of Yugoslavia. All subsequent pretenders to the Serbian and Romanian thrones are descendants of these two.
The Edinburghs, whose marriage, between Alfred’s alcoholism and philandering and Marie’s never ending belief she’d been pawned off on a prince who was her dynastic inferior, was far from happy, also produced another daughter named Victoria Melita. After contracting a brief marriage with her secretly gay cousin, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse und by Rhine, which ended abruptly after the death of their only daughter, she ditched him for another cousin, Grand Duke Kyril of Russia. With her ex husband being the brother of Tsarina Alexandra, it should come as no surprise that Alexandra’s husband, Tsar Nicholas ll, greeted Kyril and Victoria Melita’s subsequent marriage by banishing them from the imperial court. This exile, however, saved their asses as it occurred just before the First World War and subsequent Bolshevik Revolution in which the monarchy was abolished and various Romanovs, including Nicholas, Alexandra, their brood, and his last surviving brother, Michael, were executed. This wholesale culling of Romanov heirs left Kyril as the most viable pretender to the defunct imperial throne. He declared himself the tsar in exile, and today his and Victoria Melita’s granddaughter, Grand Duchess Marie Vladimirovna, keeps the Romanov torch burning bright. Her aunt, Kyra, married Prince Louis Ferdinand, heir to the former German imperial throne, back in the ’30s, thus the current Hohenzollern pretender supplies yet another link in this curious royal and imperial family born from two 19th century Hessian bastards.
Accompanying the original Princess Marie on her journey to St. Petersburg was her older brother, Prince Alexander. He was to become an officer in the the Russian army, and it was hoped he might also strike platinum at the altar like his sister, in his case marrying the Tsar’s daughter, Grand Duchess Olga. While he courted her, and Olga didn’t seem averse to his advances, Nicholas l the decided the new Tsarievna was bastard enough among his children-in-law, and nixed the idea. Prince Alexander quickly moved on, and soon fell in love with one of his sister’s ladies-in-waiting, a Polish countess named Julie von Hauke. Despite the likelihood that Alexander was in reality illegitimate, which had by then become an open secret throughout the courts of Europe, he was still a royal highness on paper, and a marriage between him and a lesser born aristocrat would be deemed morganatic. Despite the opprobrium he knew he’d incur, Alexander nonetheless decided love was more important than his career. He swept Julie off her feet, married her, they were subsequently banished from the Russian Imperial Court, and therefore moved to Germany where Alexander became an officer within the Austrian army. Alexander’s older brother, Grand Duke Louis lll, who’d inherited the throne after their (sic) father’s death, granted Julie first the title of Countess von Batteberg, which he later upgraded to Princess von Battenberg with the style of serene highness.
This meant the several sons born to this marriage were serene highnesses as well. The title upgrade came in handy, for this batch of princes proved as ambitious as they were handsome. The eldest among them, Louis, entered into the British naval service, and did his career no harm by marrying his first cousin, and granddaughter of Queen Victoria as well as being the older sister of Russia’s last Tsarina, Alexandra, Princess Victoria of Hesse-Darmstadt. Just prior to this marriage, however, Prince Louis engaged in a momentary affair with his cousin’s, the Prince of Wales, first official mistress, the actress Lilly Langtry, which may’ve led to him fathering her daughter. After more than a century, however, the jury’s still out in that question of paternity as Mrs. Langtry was keeping several lovers at the time her only child was conceived.
Anyway, he ended his glorious career as Britain’s First Sea Lord of the Admiralty. Unfortunately WWl, and the anti-German xenophobia it unleashed, forced him to resign, forfeit his title, change his family name to the more English sounding Mountbatten, and take the lesser title of Marquess of Milford Haven. Of his four children the youngest, Louis, would eventually also become Britain’s First Sea Lord. He also served as India’s last Viceroy, and became an Earl, Mountbatten of Burma , in his own right. His older sister, Louise, became the queen consort of Sweden, while his other sister, Alice, married into the Greek royal family. Her only son, Philip, married Princess Elizabeth, heiress to the British throne in 1947, and the rest is history.
Prince Alexander of Hesse and Princess Julie of Battenberg’s second son, yet another Alexander, became an army officer who briefly served as the first sovereign prince of Bulgaria before tiring of the job, abdicating after 7 years and moving back home, then falling in love with a commoner opera singer. He married her morganatically, she was created a countess, they had several children, and they all disappeared into obscurity. Non Sequitur.
The original Prince Alexander’s last son, Henry, another soldier, married the most splendidly of all the Battenbergs. For he took as his wife Princess Beatrice, youngest child, and devoted slave, of Queen Victoria. Forced to be her mother’s lifelong companion after the death of her father when she was a little girl, Beatrice grew up to be a plain, stout, dowdy and somewhat mannish looking woman even by the standards of the House of Windsor, a particularly inbred royal family notorious for its production of horse like princesses. It’s perhaps because of this reason that Prince Henry, despite having fathered four sons and one daughter with his wife, has long been rumored to have conducted a long term extramarital affair with his sister-in-law, the infinitely more attractive Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. Their alleged dalliance is chronicled, along with Louise’s various other romantic entanglements, in Lucinda Hawksley’s intriguing biography, The Mystery of Princess Louise. Henry and Beatrice’s only daughter, Victoria Eugenie, went on to marry King Alfonso Xlll of Spain, and all subsequent Spanish Bourbons descend from her.
Unfortunately, Victoria Eugenie, who went by the more Latin sounding reign name of Queen Ena, also brought a strain of hemophilia into the Spanish royal family. Two of her sons wound up dying from injuries resulting from the disease. This was among the reasons that Alfonso Xlll was notoriously unfaithful to his consort, and after he was overthrown in 1936 they separated, though never divorced. Their great grandson, the recently abdicated King Juan Carlos l, yet another shameless royal philanderer, is rumored to have reached a similar accommodation with his long suffering wife, Queen Sofia.
And so ends this brief genealogical overview of the fate of Grand Duchess Wilhelmine of Baden and Baron August Ludwig von Senarclens de Grancey’s two surviving illegitimate children and their descendants. It’s ironic to muse that none of these people might have ever existed hadn’t Grand Duke Louis ll not been so magnanimous as to accept official paternity for children he knew weren’t his. Perhaps he figured, given his own indiscretions, it was only fair his wife grab her jollies wherever she could find them, and if she wound up having children resulting from that, so be it. It should also be added that, given how often princesses hid away their bastards, Wilhelmine was a mother of tremendous courage and daring to have these children out in the open, and then force her estranged husband to acknowledge them. The subsequent actions of generations of her descendants have proven that her ambition and blatant ballsiness are easily the most viable genetic traits she passed along to her progeny.