The Wife Swapping Game That Ended an Imperial Friendship

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Contrary to the idealized, celestial manner in which the marriage of Crown Prince Rudolph and Crown Princess Stephanie of Austria-Hungary, nee princess of Belgium, is portrayed in this painting, it’s rumored by 1885 that Rudolph had infected his better half with a venereal disease, and that’s one of the reasons why they only produced one child, a daughter named Elizabeth, during their short lived, ill fated marriage. Exasperation with her philandering, STD infected spouse might be one of the reasons why, one night in 1885, Stephanie screamed in rage and horror, and likely physically assaulted, her husband’s then best friend, Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, when she discovered him in her bedroom trying to take the place of her husband in an apparent wife swapping game. Needless to write, shit didn’t go according to plan.

According to the apocryphally named Ursula, Countess von Eppinghoven in her tome, Memoirs of Kaiser William ll and His Consort, this nocturnal fiasco was the product of a last minute scheme concocted by Wilhelm, and quickly agreed upon by Rudolf, as they were returning from a stag hunt while the German crown prince and princess were being hosted by their Austo-Hungarian equivalents for a private visit to their primary country estate outside Vienna. While serving as one of Augusta’s chief ladies-in-waiting, Eppinghoven struck up a friendship with Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’s wife, Louise, who happened to be the Austro-Hungarian Crown Princess’s sister. It was from Princess Louise that Ursula heard this story.

Apparently it was quite normal, according to Prince Philip’s wife, for German officers staying at each others’ country estates for hunting weekends to play a game of changer les dames with each others’ wives. The object was to sneak into their respective bedroom suites in the middle of the evening when their hausfraus were fast asleep and just assumed the gentlemen lying beside them in bed, and often having their way with them, were their husbands. Once the thrill was achieved, all successful participants in this wife raping scheme would then return to their proper spouses without their unconscious victims realizing what happened. Of course, it stands to reason that at least some of these wives often were awake, only feigned being asleep, and depending on how much they fancied their husband’s friend, were willing participants in this nocturnal folly. Wife, and for that matter husband, swapping was a common practice among the royal courts of Europe at that time, especially during hunting weekends. One could write it was the British aristocracy during the Edwardian age that perfected this practice.

The crown princesses of Germany and Austria-Hungary on this occasion, however, didn’t share the sense of sexual adventure harbored by certain latter Edwardian aristocratic wives. According to Princess Louise, they were both horrified. Stephanie was the first to discover the ruse, and proceeded to scream in horror. Her cries were loud enough for Augusta Victoria to awaken from her slumber, and discover to her equal horror that the man in her bedroom wasn’t her spouse, either. The visit was terminated on the spot with the Wilhelms beating a hasty retreat to their palace in Potsdam the next day. Willy then proceeded to make an unscheduled visit to a nearby military camp while Dona began the process of forgiving him and forgetting the incident ever happened. This episode also marked the official end of the friendship between Wilhelm and Rudolf, as both their wives apparently shamed them into never seeing or speaking to each other again.

In retrospect, particularly if the rumor concerning Rudolf’s venereal disease was true, Augusta Victoria owed Stephanie a debt of gratitude for inadvertently alerting Frau Hohenzollern to her husband’s machinations. For Willy and Donna weren’t only not done playing the baby making game, but would proceed to produce four more children after this incident took place. Had everything gone according to plan, Donna might’ve wound up cursed with the same infertility that so bedeviled Stephanie. Rudolph, of course, would soon add syphilis to his STD repertoire, and in just four years hence kill his 20something mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera, then himself at his recently purchased private shooting lodge at Mayerling. Stephanie would survive WW1, the resulting dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy and Austro-Hungarian Empire, remarry, and write a memoir aptly titled I Was To Be Empress. All’s well that ends well, sort of.