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England's Ruritania: as the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton approaches Michael Bloch tells the story of one of the more unusual dynasties related to the Windsors.

Of all the European royal houses from which Prince William is descended few were more colourful than that of Mecklenburg-Strelitz: William's five-times great-grandmother was Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who in 1761 became the queen of George III. Tiny, remote and anachronistic, Mecklenburg-Strelitz might have been the model for Ruritania in Anthony Hope's 1894 adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda.

Mecklenburg occupies a large but desolate area of north-eastern Germany, bordered by Holstein, Brandenburg, Pomerania and the Baltic Sea. Its ruling dynasty, holding sway in unbroken descent from the 12th century to 1918, was one of the longest-reigning in Europe, there being little competition for control of this fiat, sandy, windswept region. Like other German principalities it sometimes became partitioned between different branches of the dynasty and in the 17th century (during which the staunchly Lutheran Mecklenburg was devastated by fighting between Austrians and Swedes in the Thirty Years War) it consisted of two duchies: Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Gustrow, named after their respective capitals.


When in 1695 the Gustrow branch died out in the male line, Frederick William, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, claimed all its territories for himself. This claim was contested by Frederick William's uncle Adolphus Frederick, who was also the son-in-law of the last Duke of Mecklenburg-Gtistrow. After much wrangling it was agreed in 1701 that Frederick William would take the lion's share of the disputed duchy while Adolphus Frederick would become ruler of two enclaves some hundred kilometres apart--a strip of territory in the south-east of Mecklenburg about the size of a small English county, including the medieval city of Neubrandenburg, and the minuscule principality of Ratzeburg in the north-west.

The new statelet took the name of Mecklenburg-Strelitz from the castle where the founding duke, who styled himself Adolphus Frederick II, established his residence. In 1712, however, Schloss Strelitz burnt down and the founder's son, who had recently succeeded as Adolphus Frederick III, moved to a nearby hunting lodge around which he built a new little capital in the Baroque style, which he inaugurated in 1736 and named Neustrelitz.

Adolphus Frederick III died in 1752 and was succeeded by his nephew Adolphus Frederick IV, a minor reigning under the regency of his mother, Princess Elizabeth Albertine. This was a time of turmoil in Germany, marked by the wars of Frederick the Great (and by persistent designs on Strelitz by the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin), and the princess sought and obtained the protection of her kinsman George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover, for her son's precarious realm. This had the happy result that when, eight years later, George II's grandson, George III, came to the throne and sought a bride, Adolphus Frederick IV's intelligent and vivacious sister Charlotte was brought to his attention and a marriage was quickly arranged.

Despite some early friction with her mother-in-law Queen Charlotte's marriage was a success: she produced 15 children, became a noted patroness of art, music and science, and won the devotion of her husband, whom she later cared for during his lunacy. The destinies of England and Mecklenburg-Strelitz were further entwined when her younger brother Charles was appointed by George III to be Viceroy of Hanover before succeeding the childless Adolphus Frederick IV as reigning duke in 1794. The English marriage, along with that of Charles' daughter Louise to the King of Prussia, boosted the prestige of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which in 1815, together with the much larger Mecklenburg-Schwerin, was raised by the Congress of Vienna to the status of a grand duchy, the smallest German state to be awarded that designation.

The links between the royal houses of Hanover and Mecklenburg-Strelitz were reinforced in 1843 when Princess Augusta of Cambridge, granddaughter of George III and Queen Charlotte, married the heir to the grand duchy, her cousin Frederick William ('Fritz'). Soon after succeeding in 1860 Fritz began to lose his sight and Augusta exercised much influence during her husband's 44-year reign, though she always considered herself an English princess first and foremost and despised Neustrelitz as a backwater, often forsaking it for her London residence, Mecklenburg House. A formidable personality, Augusta was shrewd, opinionated, sharp-tongued, a fierce reactionary who saw to it that the grand duchy resisted every change, a music-lover who brought her favourite operas to Neustrelitz and a miser thanks to whom her husband eventually amassed the largest private fortune of any German ruler save the Kaiser himself. (Augusta hated the German emperor and the militaristic Germany he stood for and, unlike the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, another of her betes noires, regarded it as a sad day when the two grand duchies, while preserving their autonomy, were obliged to join Prussia in the new German empire in 1871.)

In 1893 Augusta's niece Princess May of Teck married Queen Victoria's grandson and heir presumptive George, Duke of York. The future Queen Mary was devoted to her aunt and the two kept up a regular correspondence for more than 30 years (extensively quoted from in James Pope-Hennessy's life of Queen Mary, published in 1959), which casts fascinating light on the archaic court of Neustrelitz, combining elements of the stiff and the gemutlich. In her letters Aunt Augusta did not temper either her reactionary views or her malice. When her niece attended the coronation of the king and queen of Norway, which had seceded from Sweden and elected Edward VII's Danish son-in-law as Haakon VII, Augusta was horrified that 'a future Queen of England [should] witness a Coronation par la grace du Peuple et de la Revolution !!! It makes me sick...' When Augusta's husband died in 1904 and her son succeeded as Adolphus Frederick V she turned on her daughter-in-law, who abandoned Augusta's pennypinching ways. 'She welters in happiness at her luxurious "Schloss" wearing a new Paris dress daily, diamonds also, when we are quite entre nous--Yes, she does enjoy being a Grand Duchess! poor dear, I am glad she does, for I never did.' But there was another side to Augusta--when, in the 1890s, her granddaughter became pregnant by a footman and was cast out by her parents, it was Augusta who took her in and helped her sort out her problems.


The Grand Duchess Augusta lived to be 94, retaining her sharpness up to her death in 1916. With the passing of Queen Victoria she became the Hanoverian grande dame. Having vivid memories of the coronation of her uncle William IV in 1831, she was much consulted when it came to planning those of Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1911. She was dismayed when England declared war on Germany in 1914, but remained tireless to the last, attempting to discover the late of members of English families she knew who had become prisoners-of-war in Germany and continuing to correspond with Queen Mary via the English-born Swedish crown princess. In her last letter she wrote: 'Tell the King that it is an English heart that is ceasing to beat.'


In 1900 Mecklenburg-Strelitz had an area of about 1,000 square kilometres and a population of about 100,000. The ruler personally owned most of the grand duchy and his word was law: it was one of the few European states to have no constitution. His subjects required his permission to marry or emigrate. The wealth of the ruling family contrasted with the backwardness of the peasantry, though the grand duke paternalistically distributed 25,000 gold marks among his people in celebration of his diamond wedding anniversary in 1903. When Edward, Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) stayed with his great-aunt in 1913 he found nothing to do except hunt and go to the opera, though fortunately for him Berlin with its night clubs was less than two hours flora Neustrelitz by train.

The final years of the grand duchy were sad. Adolphus Frederick V had two sons, of whom the elder, known in the family as 'Fred', was uninterested in his royal role and wished to devote himself to painting and a complex romantic life (be was rumoured to have proposed marriage to an actress, which would have barred him from the succession, but also to have been blackmailed for homosexuality). It was planned that the younger brother, Karl Borwin, would assume most of the royal functions, but he was killed in a duel defending the honour of his sister (she who had earlier been seduced by the footman). When their father died in June 1914 Fred faced a double nightmare, having to ascend the throne as Adolphus Frederick VI and make war on England, which be loved. In February 1918 be shot himself; as his sole remaining heir, a cousin, was disqualified by having served in the Imperial Russian army, the citizens of Mecklenburg-Strelitz found themselves ruled, during the final months of the war, by the disliked Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

After the fall of the German monarchies in November 1918 Mecklenburg-Strelitz remained a separate state within Weimar Germany until the Nazis amalgamated it with Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1934. In 1945 the territory was overrun by the Red Army, which sacked Adolphus Frederick III's Baroque palace at Neustrelitz, many of whose inhabitants followed the example of their last grand duke and committed suicide.

Michael Bloch's published work includes biographies of the Duke of Windsor, James Lees-Milne and Hitler's foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. For more articles on this subject visit
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Title Annotation:Royal Weddings; Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany
Author:Bloch, Michael
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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