Magazine article History Today

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

Magazine article History Today

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

Article excerpt

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'). …

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