Landgrafin Karoline of Hessen-Darmstadt: Epistolary Politics and the Problem of Consort Biography

Article excerpt

Landgrafin Karoline von Hessen-Darmstadt (1721-1774) exemplifies the problems of writing the biography of a royal or high aristocratic consort in eighteenth-century Germany. Despite the fact that she has become known as the Grosse Landgrafin 'Great Landgravine' in the historiography and literary history of Hessen, her role in the politics of the little principality of Hessen-Darmstadt has not yet been evaluated, nor has any full-length biography of her been written. The biography of such a woman can only succeed when 1) it deploys feminist historiography to produce a clear and factual contextualization of the woman's life and status; 2) the correspondence of the consort is taken seriously as a source and means of the consort's political influence; and 3) marriage politics are recognized as an important aspect of foreign politics, given the politics and geopolitics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


During the Ancien Regime, women were not as fully excluded from power and the shaping of public life as would be the case after the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. In many of the more than 1,300 territories of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, female members of the high nobility headed the ruling household, governed their estates, and managed their morning gifts of property and valuables that they brought with them into marriage and retained under their own control. It was also common for women to rule as regents, abbesses, or sovereigns in their own right (Wunder, Zottlein, and Hoffmann 75; Wunder, "Er ist" 212; Wunder, "Herrschaft" 45-46). Although according to Christian anthropology women were not fit for the office of ruler, and ruling women were considered to be exceptions from their sex, dynasties were often interested in maintaining power by eliminating rivalries through female regents or women's fiefdoms. In such cases, the woman's ascent to power was legitimized by genealogical references to her high lineage (Wunder, "Herrschaft" 32-33).

Even married princesses were not as powerless as has long been thought. (1) Ruling men and women established themselves as the Herrscherpaar 'ruling couple' (Wunder, "Dynastie"), and they shared a concept of being father and mother of the people. In this position, women gained authority and were able to exercise political influence. Almost none of this insight into the lives of royal and high aristocratic consorts has found its way into their biographies. But the problem for biographers goes beyond this, to include first, an issue that intertwines gender and genre, and second, the question of what counts as political.


Landgrafin Karoline of Hessen-Darmstadt was born in 1721 as Karoline von Pfalz-Zweibrucken-Birkenfeld, a princess of the Palatinate. In 1741, she married Ludwig IX, crown prince of Hessen-Darmstadt, a comparatively unimportant principality, with a rather small and disrupted territory of approximately 7500 square kilometers. Furthermore, Hessen-Darmstadt was in dire financial circumstances due to its rulers' long-standing habit of overspending. Nevertheless, the title of Landgraf was a high rank within the system of German nobility, situated between earl (Graf) and duke (Herzog), with the only other higher ranks being king and kaiser.

For most of their marriage, Karoline and Ludwig IX lived at two separate courts. Even after his ascension in the year 1768, Landgraf Ludwig IX lived at the garrison Pirmasens, while Landgrafin Karoline remained at Darmstadt, the capital of Hessen-Darmstadt, where most of the government offices were situated (Wolf, "Darmstadt" 365-95). The main means of communication between Karoline and her husband was an extensive correspondence. (2) Furthermore, Landgrafin Karoline established and sustained a network of epistolary friendships with reigning princes and princesses and members of their families, including King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), his younger sister Amalie of Prussia (1723-1787), Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796), and various others. …