Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sophie of Prussia, Queen of the Hellenes

Princess Sophia of Prussia was the third daughter and seventh child of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, the future German Emperor Frederick III, and Victoria, Princess Royal of the U.K., the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. Born Sophia Dorothea Ulrike Alice, she came into the world on June 14, 1870 at the Neues Palais in Potsdam, Germany. Her surviving older siblings included: the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Princess Charlotte, Prince Henry, and Princess Viktoria (two of her older brothers, Sigismund and Waldemar, would die young). She had one younger sibling – a sister named Princess Margaret.

Sophie of Prussia
Nicknamed “Sossy” by her family, Sophie grew up in the Kronprinzenpalais in Berlin and the Neues Palais. While her relations (and those of her closest sisters in age, Viktoria and Margaret) with her parents were good, her three surviving older siblings – Wilhelm, Charlotte, and Henry – were estranged from their family. Sophie’s mother, Princess Victoria, had raised her first three children in a strict, critical, and unforgiving manner but with her younger children, she abandoned her tough parenting style to become more loving and relaxed. This caused a schism not just between the three eldest royal children and their parents but their siblings as well. Sophie was close with her sisters Viktoria and Margaret, but all three girls were distant from their older brothers and sister. As a result of their mother’s favoritism towards her three younger daughters, she pushed her native English culture and lifestyle into their upbringing. Sophie and her sisters loved England and visited their grandmother, Queen Victoria, quite often (while the three younger sisters were close to their maternal grandmother, they were largely ignored by their paternal grandparents, who favored their older siblings…. family relations in the royal Prussian family were quite a mess, to say to least).
Princess Sophie and Crown Prince
 Constantine of Greece
It was Sophie’s fondness for England, as well as her constant trips there with her mother that caused her to meet her husband. In the summer of 1887 during her grandmother’s Golden Jubilee, Sophie decided to stay a bit longer in her grandmother’s home after the public celebrations. Here, she met Crown Prince Constantine of Greece, who she knew as “Tino”, and over the course of the next few months, the two grew quite close to each other. Queen Victoria was rather pleased with her granddaughter’s relationship and although Constantine was not known to be very intelligent, Queen Victoria wrote that, “a good heart and a good character… go far beyond cleverness”. However, Sophie’s blooming romance was shattered by the tragic early demise of her father in June of 1888, Frederick III, just three months after he became the Emperor of Germany. During this time, Sophie and her two closest sisters remained supportive of their grieving mother but the grim atmosphere of the Dowager Empress’s home prompted Sophie to continue her relationship with Crown Prince Constantine and eventually agree to marry him. The couple (who were both third cousins and second cousins once removed through two different ancestors) wed on October 27, 1889 in Athens, Greece. Sophie was nineteen at the time while Constantine was twenty-one. At the Greek Orthodox ceremony, Sophie wore “a rich robe, with a train of white satin carried by three ladies, and [wore] orange blossoms in her hair”. Though the couple was happy together, the match was not well accepted by some members of their family. Sophie’s mother wanted her daughter to be happy but she was also fearful of sending her treasured child so far away to a country she viewed as underdeveloped and volatile. Sophie’s sister-in-law, Empress Augusta Victoria, told Sophie (who was converting from her Evangelical faith to the Greek Orthodox religion of her husband) that if she went through with the marriage, she would be banned from Germany and would be sent to Hell. Sophie promptly declared to her meddlesome sister-in-law that her personal affairs, especially her religious beliefs, were none of her business. The heavily pregnant Augusta Victoria became so hysterical over the whole matter that she gave birth three weeks prematurely to a son, Prince Joachim. Her husband, Wilhelm II, even told his mother that if his son had died, Sophie would have been the cause.

The Crown Prince of Greece and his new Crown Princess resided in Tatoi, Athens, where Sophie quickly gave birth to their first child, a son named Prince George, in July of 1890. Sophie and Constantine had six children in total, three sons and three daughters. The age gap between the eldest and youngest child was a surprising twenty-three years:

  • George II, King of Greece (1890-1947) married: Princess Elisabeth of Romania – no issue
  • Alexander I, King of Greece (1893-1920) married: Aspasia Manos – had issue
  • Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark (1896-1982) married: Carol II, King of Romania – had issue
  •  Paul I, King of Greece (1901-1964) married: Princess Frederika of Hanover – had issue
  • Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark (1904-1974) married: Prince Aimone, 4th Duke of Aosta – had issue
  • Princess Katherine of Greece and Denmark (1913-2007) married: Major Sir Richard Brandram – had issue

Sophie, Queen of the Hellenes, and her husband,
Constantine I of Greece, with their first five children

 As Crown Princess, Sophie made various efforts to integrate herself into her new, Greek society. The practical and energetic Prussian princess learned the Greek language and, as she and her husband shared a green thumb, she was interested in arboriculture and pushed for reforestation efforts. Like her mother, she focused especially on areas centered on medical support, such as hospitals, as well as social welfare organizations. She was also dedicated to improving education as well as employment prospects for women through the endorsement of arts and crafts. However, despite her active role in the Greek monarchy, she was not very popular with the people due to her aloof and formal personality (which was the result of her reserved and strict Prussian/British upbringing). Sophie’s world changed drastically on March 18, 1913, when Constantine’s father, King George I, was assassinated in the middle of the Balkan Wars. Constantine ascended to the throne with the forty-two year old Sophie by his side as Queen Consort. All eyes were on Constantine during his early reign, as the people were hopeful that an old prophecy, which stated that during Constantine’s rule, Constantinople would fall to the Greeks and Greece would become great once more, would come true. At first, Constantine and the royal family’s popularity soared when Greece achieved success in the Balkan Wars, which concluded five months after Constantine took the throne. However, things began to fall apart for Sophie and her husband once World War I began a year later in August of 1914.

Sophie, Queen of the Hellenes
At first, Greece declared neutrality when war broke out, despite Sophie’s ties to Germany. Constantine wanted to be neutral for the good of his people, but in doing so, he deliberately ignored the treaty Greece had recently made with Serbia in 1913, which said that Greece would aid Serbia if it were attacked by Bulgaria once again. When Serbia was attacked and Constantine maintained neutrality, the King clashed with his hostile, firmly anti-monarchist, and pro-Allied Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. The Prime Minister got a majority of the people to support him against the King, as well as other Allied nations who desperately wanted Greece to join the fray. To do so, they began spreading propaganda saying that Constantine was pro-German and, since his wife’s brother was the Kaiser, they were secretly supportive of Germany’s cause. While it is possible that Constantine was sympathetic towards Germany, Sophie was actually pro-English throughout the war. The propaganda and the Prime Minister’s efforts to turn the people against the monarchy eventually succeeded. In July of 1916, a group of Greeks opposed to the King set fire to the forest around the royal family’s home at Tatoi, which burned for two days and destroyed not just the entire royal residence but most of the forest as well. Luckily, the whole family managed to escape (Sophie ran over a mile with her three year-old daughter, Katherine, in her arms) although there were many injuries and sixteen people were killed. By the end of the year, the conflict between the monarchy and the people only grew worse when Anglo-French powers began using warships to bombard Athens and Greece was on the brink of civil war. The country was in such turmoil that on June 11, 1917, Constantine was forced to abdicate the throne and was replaced by his second son, Alexander, in lieu of the eldest, George (the government suspected George of being pro-German like his father since he had military training in Germany prior to the outbreak of the war). 

Sophie, Queen of the Hellenes with her
first grandchild, Princess Alexandra
Sophie and her family left for Switzerland in exile while the twenty-three year old Alexander, who was barred from communicating with his family, remained behind as a puppet king with the Prime Minister pulling the strings. This new rule proved to be unsuccessful in fixing the divided nation and by 1919, a year after World War I ceased, Greece was at war with Turkey. In the middle of the conflict, known as the Greco-Turkish War, Alexander unexpectedly died of septicemia from a monkey bite in October of 1920 at the age of twenty-seven. Although Sophie asked to see her son during his illness, the government refused and Alexander died without seeing his family for the last time.The Prime Minister needed a new king so Sophie’s third son, Paul, was asked to take the throne but he declined. The government’s power, and Venizelos’s, had crumbled at this point and as a result, the people wanted Constantine to return to the throne. Constantine was enthusiastically welcomed back to his kingdom in December of 1920 but his second reign was even shorter than his first. Less than two years after Constantine had the crown placed on his head for the second time, the Greco-Turkish War ended in Greece’s crushing defeat on October 11, 1922. Popular opinion became so negative that Constantine (who was exhausted and ill at this point) had to abdicate once again and return to exile. He died just a few months later on January 11, 1923 in Palermo, Italy at the age of fifty-four. The cause of death was a brain hemorrhage. His widowed and grieving wife was banned from ever returning to Greece.

Sophie, Queen of the Hellenes
Their first-born son, George, was finally allowed to take the throne until 1925, when he too was forced to abdicate. His throne was restored in 1936 and he reigned until his death in 1947, after which his younger brother, Paul, became King. Poor Sophie, who possessed a sympathetic nature, tried to reconcile with her brother, the former Kaiser, and constantly communicated with her extended family during her later years. Unable to return to Greece, she settled in Florence, but she never really recovered from the loss of her husband and second son. She became ill with cancer and, despite an operation she had in Frankfurt to improve her condition, she died there on January 13, 1932 at the age of sixty-one. She was buried alongside her husband in the Greek Orthodox Church in Florence but after the monarchy was restored in 1936, King George II moved his parents’ remains to the Royal Cemetery at Tatoi Palace. As a result of the turmoil in Greece in the first half of the twentieth century, all three of Sophie and Constantine’s sons sat on the Greek throne. Since their eldest two died without male issue, the third, Paul, got the crown and was succeeded by his son, Constantine II. He is also the father of the former Queen Consort of Spain, SofĂ­a. Sophie’s eldest daughter, Helen, married King Carol II of Romania, who she wed and divorced prior to his accession, but their son, King Michael I, reigned as the last Romanian monarch before he was forced to abdicate in 1947. Sophie’s second daughter, Irene, married Prince Aimone, Duke of Aosta and Spoleto, as well as the designated king of Croatia under the name Tomislav II, though he never took the throne. Sophie’s youngest child, Katherine, was her only issue without the title of King or Queen, as she married a British commoner.

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