22 January 2020

From Child Bride to King's Mother

By Meynnart Wewyck via Wikimedia Commons
Twelve-year-old Margaret Beaufort had the weight of a dynasty on her shoulders. The Lancastrian side of the Plantagenet family tree was stripped and bare compared to their Yorkist rivals. Half a century earlier, the first Lancastrian king Henry IV had deposed his cousin and taken the throne. Now, Henry's grandson, the weak and mentally ill Henry VI reigned with no royal brothers to support him and only one toddler son, Prince Edward, as heir. His hated French wife Marguerite of Anjou wielded too much authority. His Welsh half-brothers, the Tudor sons of his mother's second but nonroyal marriage, and a scattering of Beauforts were all that remained. Within just of few generations, the 12 children of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster had produced only a handful of living descendants.

And, those Beauforts had a questionable history. John of Gaunt's four Beaufort children were all born to his longtime mistress Katherine Swynford. They were all considered illegitimate until he married her after the death of his second wife. By the time they were legitimated, they were already adults. It was through them that young Margaret descended. She was a girl, but the only child of the most senior Beaufort line and therefore, some would argue, second in line after baby Prince Edward.

At least that's probably what the King's half-brother Edmund Tudor had in mind when he decided to marry the little girl. He might one day be King by right of his wife should anything unfortunate happen to his royal half-brother and nephew.

Margaret's father the John Beaufort 1st Duke of Somerset died when she was a toddler. Initially, Margaret remained in the physical custody of her mother, who had several other children from an earlier marriage. However, the wardship of great heirs and heiresses was the purview of the King, who awarded Margaret to William de la Pole 1st Duke of Suffolk, who soon married the tiny girl to his son John. After William's death, that marriage was annulled and King Henry VI awarded wardship of Margaret to his half-brothers Edmund and Jasper Tudor. The Tudor brothers were the sons of the King's mother Catherine of Valois, who had married Welsh knight Sir Owen Tudor after the death of King Henry V left her a young widow.

Henry VI intended for Margaret to marry Edmund, whom he had created 1st Earl of Richmond. Once her first marriage had been annulled there was no reason to wait long for her second nuptials. The bride was 12. The groom was 24. The outbreak of the first incursions of the Wars of the Roses, including the capture of King Henry by Richard of York, perhaps led to an overly hasted consummation. Despite the wedding, such a young girl would normally have been left untouched for a couple of years, but Edmund appears to have been in a hurry. And, Margaret appears to have been quite fertile. She conceived within a few months, but Edmund soon left her to fight for his royal half-brother.

The King quickly deposed York, but Edmund was unsuccessful in putting down the Yorkist forces in Wales. He was captured and imprisoned. He died there of bubonic plague two days after his first wedding anniversary. Three months later, 13-year-old Margaret gave birth to Henry Tudor 2nd Earl of Richmond. The birth was a difficult one and she never conceived again. She and the child were then left under the protection of Jasper Tudor as the King continued to struggle with the Yorks (and with his mental health).

When Margaret married Sir Henry Stafford, her son was left in the care of the Tudors in Wales. Though she managed to glide rather smoothly through the tempestuous ups and downs of the Wars of the Roses, serving in both Yorkists and Lancastrian courts, her son soon became a clear threat. With the death first of Edward Prince of Wales and of King Henry VI, most people saw young Henry Tudor as the rightful claimant to a throne being held by York cousins. The young man fled to the continent for safety. Despite the distance, Margaret remained in constant contact and seems to have spent much of her energy to ensure that her son could one day return and claim the heritage that he had inherited through her. She was clever and crafty, maintaining a loyal outward appearances at all time. Her third husband died fighting for the Yorks before she was 30. Within a year, she married Thomas Stanley, the Lord High Constable, and earned a place in the court of the Yorkist Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV.

After King Edward's death and the disappearance of this two sons, the Princes in the Tower, apparently at the hands of their uncle who had usurped the throne as King Richard III, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort hatched a plan: Henry Tudor would return to England, defeat Richard and marry Elizabeth's oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York.

When their plan was successful in 1485, Margaret took a place of honor as the mother of the new King Henry VII. As he and his bride grew their family, Margaret did not always remain at court, but she did remain a strong influence on her son, who never forgot that she had constantly laid the groundwork for his triumph. He even granted her full legal independence from her husband. Very few women at the time ever had control over their own property and lives. When he died in 1509, he left his mother as his chief executor and it was she who planned the coronation of her teenage grandson King Henry VIII.

Margaret's son had been the driving focus of her life since she was 13 years old. With his death, she perhaps felt that her work had been completed. She survived him by only two months.


08 January 2020

Family First: Augusta Victoria

Augusta Victoria with her son,
Prince Augustus Wilhelm
via Wikimedia Commons
"You will go to hell," the Empress told her wayward sister-in-law.

"It is my own decision," Princess Sophie replied. "It has nothing to do with you."

Empress Augusta Victoria of Germany was outraged. How dare this child defy not just her, but God himself and even the Kaiser? Kaiser Wilhelm II had discouraged his younger sister from marrying the heir the Greek throne, but had relented when Sophie agreed not to convert to Greek Orthodoxy. Just a year later, however, the 20-year-old new mother had changed her mind. Now she was being subjected to the wrath of Wilhelm.

But not directly. Wilhelm had sent his wife, Augusta Victoria, who was eight months pregnant with their sixth child. Fully expecting Sophie to bend to the Kaiser's will, the Empress was shocked by her defiance. Soon, the situation was out of control. Everyone was angry and the Empress, in particular, was distressed.

A few weeks later when her baby was born prematurely, the Kaiser blamed Sophie. Baby Prince Joachim was sick and weak, especially compared to his five sturdy older brothers. The fact that he also suffered epileptic fits also was clearly due to the trauma of that argument.

Augusta Victoria recovered however and gave birth to her seventh and final child less than two years later. Little Princess Victoria Louise was the darling of the Kaiser's eye and a favorite of all of her brothers. Having established a secure line of succession with all of those boys, the family deserved a reward with their beautiful little girl. Augusta Victoria had done her duty well. Not only had she given the Kaiser six sons, but she absolutely worshipped him. More than anyone in his life, she believed he was exceptional and she did all she could to serve him. Unfortunately, her cloying affection was met with little more than kind regard.

Augusta Victoria and Wilhelm
Image by FredrikT via Wikimedia Commons
Born a Princess of Schleswig-Holstein, Augusta Victoria despised all things English. To this end, she encouraged Wilhelm in his ill-treatment of his English mother Victoria, who was the eldest child of his beloved grandmother, Queen Victoria. Whenever possible, she steered him toward anti-British views and decisions. Queen Victoria, who adored her first-born grandson, could still see his shortcomings. When he inherited the throne at age 29, Queen Victoria fretted that the couple were "two so unfit" for their new roles as Emperor and Empress of Germany. Augusta Victoria traveling to England whenever possible. She even tried to prevent her husband from attending his grandmother's funeral.

Augusta Victoria was also a ferociously protective mother, which could sometimes put her at odds with her highly disciplined and cold husband. When she could, she intervened as gently as possible. For instance, when he would command the young boys to accompany him on his strenuous morning horse rides, she would sometimes persuade him to take her instead. It was she instead of them who returned exhausted. She was particularly watchful over Joachim, whose physical difficulties caused him to  struggle to run and play as hard as his siblings and older cousins.

Surprisingly, Augusta Victoria allowed the children to have an English governess. She later published a book about her experience. She found some questionable qualities among the good qualities of most of the children. The oldest, 13-year-old Crown Prince Wilhelm, was "tyrannical" with his siblings but affectionate and clever. As for Joachim, her assessment found him a "weak, frightened little cry-baby."

Members of the extended German Imperial Family, 1900.
via Wikimedia Commons 
As her children grew and married, Augusta Victoria relished the role of grandmother, still remaining fiercely protective. The grandchildren were top of mind toward the end of the first World War. With the Emperor away from Berlin, she was left alone at home recovering from a stroke and heart attack in a nation on the verge of revolution. Across the city, her daughter-in-law Crown Princess Cecilie was still at home at with her young children. It was young Prince Louis Ferdinand's eleventh birthday when things started to look very dark for the family. The Empress called Cecilie and asked her to bring the grandchildren to her at Neues Palais where they would be safer. They mustered up a little party for Louis Ferdinand. While they celebrated, the telephone call came: the Kaiser had abdicated. His future, the family's future, was uncertain.

Wilhelm II fled to Holland. Augusta Victoria had to choose: stay in Germany and use her popularity to try to save the monarchy for her son or go to Holland to be with her husband. For her, the choice was easy. She chose Wilhelm. Sick and aging quickly, she was still as devoted to him as ever. Ever conscious of the murders of their Romanov cousins so recently in Russia, she tried to persuade the Crown Princess to come with her and bring the children to safety in Holland. Ever strong, Cecilie declared that she did not want her children raised in exile and the revolutionaries could kill them in their own home.

The soldiers sent to protect Augusta Victoria at Neues Palais could not guarantee her safety. She fled to her son Eitel Frederick not long before an angry mob burst into her home stealing antiques, furniture and even clothing. Her new stronghold was raided by drunken sailors, eventually finding her and interrogating her. She bravely faced them down and they eventually left her. Exhausted and suffering heart pains, she was comforted only by the presence of her family: three sons and their wives, and even the defiant Crown Princess and grandchildren had gathered together for safety. As soon as possible, she was driven by Cecilie to take the train out of Germany for the last time. The soldiers who accompanied on her journey dressed in plainclothes to hide their important mission from revolutionaries.

Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons
As the reunited husband and wife began to build a new life in exile, their large and growing family were frequent visitors, but Augusta Victoria was increasingly weak. A lift was installed for her so that she did not have to climb the stairs. She attempted to recreate the beautiful gardens she left behind. Lovely though they were, they were never like the ones at home.

Meanwhile, her family was falling apart. The Crown Prince and Princess were separated, their marriage over in all but name. Prince Eitel Friedrich and his wife were also separated and he was alcoholic. Prince Augustus William and his wife divorced. Prince Adalbert, Princess Victoria Louise and Prince Oscar were all doing well, but youngest son Prince Joachim was more troubling than ever. Addicted to gambling and physically abusive of his wife, he still won custody of his son in the divorce. (A child belonged to its father in those days.) After the Kaiser barred him from their home, Augusta Victoria suffered another heart attack. Five days later, Joachim committed suicide.

Within a few months of losing her Joachim, Augusta Victoria died in exile at the age of 62.

01 January 2020

An Uncrowned Spanish Queen

Image by Mutari of a bust by R. Cuello
via Wikimedia Commons
Maria de las Mercedes. Mary, Virgin of Mercy. The Holy Mother who spreads her cloak to shelter and protect others. How could she have received such an ironic name when she could not even protect her family, her own children from that evil dictator, who seemed to delight in bringing misery into their lives. It was her older sister Maria de los Dolores, who was named for Our Lady of Sorrows, and yet more sorrow fell to her. It was her younger sister Maria de la Esperanza, who was named for Our Lady of Hope, but hope could there be for Maria de las Mercedes and her husband Juan in exile in Portugal, their sons Juan Carlos and Alfonso at the beckoned call of General Francisco Franco at military school in Spain.

At least they were safe again at home with the family to celebrate Holy Week. But, as always, only with Franco's permission. It was he who would decide whether Juan and Maria de las Mercedes could ever return and take up their rightful positions and King and Queen of Spain, but he seemed to prefer to string them along, offering glimmers of hope that also cut like a knife, like providing an education for the boys. They deserved to be educated in Spain, of course, but how difficult to have them far away while their father continued to be disrespected.

Juan Carlos was 18 now, just a breath away from adulthood. Alfonso was 14, still just a boy, lively and full of adventure. Their sister Pilar would be 20 soon, an age for a royal girl to start thinking seriously about marriage, but what would become of 16-year-old Margarita, whose blindness would almost certainly limit her options? With Easter just days away, however, it was a time to think about rebirth, renewal and hope. A moment for faith and miracles.

The family had attended the Maundy Thursday service together, marking Christ's last Passover supper with his disciples, the moment where he instituted the Holy Eucharist that the Spanish royals faithfully consumed after praying for their sins.

At home later that evening, the two boys were alone together admiring a gun that Franco had gifted to Alfonso. Suddenly, a shot rang out. Juan Carlos watched in horror as a bullet tore through his brother's familiar face.

Embed from Getty Images

The official statement said that Alfonso had been cleaning the gun when it accidentally fired. Others close to the family told different stories. It was Juan Carlos who held the gun. Juan Carlos who did not know it was loaded. Juan Carlos who pulled the trigger that changed his family forever.

How does a mother bury her child? How had the hope of the Easter Vigil turned into the funeral of her baby?

Maria de las Mercedes world had always slipped precariously from one ignoble state to another, but nothing could match the tragedy of Alfonso. A descendant of both the Sicilian and Spanish branches of the royal Bourbon dynasty that had ruled France before the French Revolution as well as of the Orleans dynasty that ruled France for a time after that cataclysm, Maria de las Mercedes had been caught up in her countries' 20th century cataclysms. Her father Don Carlos had renounced his claims to the throne of Two Sicilies in order to marry the heiress to the Spanish throne, another Maria de las Mercedes, who held the heir's title as Princess of Asturias. When she died at just age 24, Don Carlos remained in Spain but remarried the young French Princess Louise of Orleans, who agreed to give the name of his first wife to their second daughter. He served with distinction in the Spanish Army, but at a time when the Spanish monarchy was losing its footing. Throughout the 1920s, Carlos's former brother-in-law King Alfonso XIII faced a lengthy war that led to alternating military dictatorships and republics. The King was forced to step down. Carlos' family left their beloved home in Seville for their first home in exile in Cannes and then in Paris.

For Maria de las Mercedes, who was in her early 20s, the shift must have been destabilizing but still exciting. In Paris, she even got to study at the Louvre. And, she was still able to attend all of the grand royal events of her extended family. When she was 24, she traveled to Rome to attend the wedding of King Alfonso's daughter, Infanta Beatriz. As so often happened at royal weddings, a royal romance was sparked that January in the Eternal City. Maria de las Mercedes encountered Beatriz's brother, Infante Juan, who was now heir to the nonexistent Spanish throne, following his two older brothers' renunciations of their rights. They had doubtlessly met numerous times before, but now, Juan was a dashing a figure preparing to take his officer's exams for the British Royal Navy.

Ten months later, royal wedding bells rang again in Rome, this time for Juan and Maria de las Mercedes. Nine months after that, Infanta Pilar was born in Cannes, soon followed by Juan Carlos, Margarita and baby Alfonso. By their sixth anniversary, they were the parents of four. Their nomadic life bouncing between France and Italy was ended by World War II. They took their young children to Switzerland to live in the peace of the neutral nation, but Juan's eye was always on the Spanish throne.

Embed from Getty Images

Spain was now under the thumb of Franco, the dictator who seized power in 1939 following the Spanish Civil War. Juan had attempted to fight in that war but was arrested and sent back to France before he could cross the border. In 1941, he showed his defiance by taking on the title Count of Barcelona, but he had no means to return from exile nor to remove Franco. A few years later, however, Franco did something odd: he proclaimed Spain a monarchy. This did nothing to clarify Juan's position. In fact, Franco often seemed to thwart rather than support the return of the rightful monarch. Instead, he began grooming Juan's sons. By then, the family had moved to Portugal.

Following that tragic Easter of 1956, things escalated quickly. Grief-stricken, 18-year-old Juan Carlos returned to Spain and to Franco's influence in order to finish his education and begin his military training. The distance between father and son grew to a great chasm in 1969 when Franco named Juan Carlos his heir and gave him the title Prince of Spain. Only Maria de las Mercedes could be their intermediary, a suitable though heartrending task for a princess named for the Mother of Mercy. As Juan Carlos was integrated into Franco's plans, the family remained strained.

By then, Juan Carlos had a wife and young children of his own. When Franco finally died in 1975, he assumed the dictator's mantle but Franco's grooming had not truly taken root. Within a few years, the young king had altered Spain into a constitutional monarchy. Maria de las Mercedes and Juan were finally able to return home, where they could enjoy their grandchildren. But, Juan was in no hurry to surrender to his rights. It took him two years to renounce his claims to the throne that his son was transforming. When Juan passed away in 1993, his son had him buried with all of the pomp and rites of the crown he never wore.

Unfortunately, Maria de las Mercedes' return to Spain was marred by personal pain and injury. In her 70s, she suffered a couple of accidents resulting in a broken hip and then a broken leg that ultimately forced her to spend her last years in a wheelchair. Nevertheless, she celebrated every new grandchild and great-grandchild and family wedding. Now a true matriarch, her family flocked to her whenever they could, often spending their holidays together on the Spanish island of Lanzarote.

As they gathered to celebrate the new year there in 2000, sadness once again visited a joyous family. The Italian princess who had been born two days before Christmas in 1910 suffered a heart attack and passed away on the second day of new millennium. Maria de las Mercedes had spent much of her life in transition, had suffered a mother's greatest pain, and she had never worn the crown her husband intended for her, but she had earned the many mercies afforded to a great-grandmother at the head of a numerous family.

Twenty years later, her three surviving children are in their 80s while her grandson Felipe sits on the Spanish throne. The future of the dynasty, so precarious through much her life, seems well-secured.

Embed from Getty Images