Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria, Duchess of Alençon

Sophie Charlotte Augustine, Duchess in Bavaria, was the fifth and youngest daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, herself the daughter of King Maximilian Joseph I of Bavaria. Sophie Charlotte was also the ninth child out of ten in her family. She was born on February 23, 1847 at her childhood home of Possenhofen Castle. Her siblings included: Helene, Princess of Thurn and Taxis, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Queen Maria Sophie of the Two Sicilies, and Mathilde Ludovika, Countess of Trani. Sophie and her sisters were all known for their beautiful features, though Elisabeth and Maria Sophie were remembered as the most gorgeous of the five girls.

Sophie Charlotte’s parents began to search for a suitor for their youngest daughter’s hand after the marriage of her older sister, Mathilde Ludovika, to Prince Louis of the Two Sicilies in 1861. With Mathilde’s marriage, Sophie was the only unmarried daughter in the household. On January 22, 1867, “Sopherl”, as she was known by her family, became engaged to her maternal first cousin, Ludwig II, King of Bavaria. Ludwig had succeeded to the throne of Bavaria when he was just eighteen years old in 1864 and now found himself fighting alongside Austria against Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War, a conflict which resulted in a Prussian victory. Ludwig was not well prepared for his position as a monarch but was popular with his people because of his dark, handsome features and youth. But Ludwig, despite his popularity, was never suited for the throne. His eccentric behavior soon became difficult for his dignified role as king, for he disliked public events, avoided social functions whenever he could, and was an extremely introverted young man who spent most of his time day-dreaming or engaging in creative activities rather than participating as the head of government.
Sophie Charlotte and her fiancée,
King Ludwig II of Bavaria

After a few years on the throne, Ludwig came under pressure from his ministers to marry and have an heir. But, as we now know from Ludwig’s personal writings, he was secretly a homosexual. In fact, it appears as though the young king never had a relationship with a woman during his reign, as he took no mistresses. Ludwig faced a very personal challenge of hiding his true desires and staying faithful to his Catholic religion while also wearing the crown. Now, however, he was pressured into doing his royal duty of finding a wife, so he decided to propose to his cousin, Sophie Charlotte. He most likely chose Sophie Charlotte as his future wife due to his close friendship with her sister, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who favored Sophie Charlotte above all her other sisters.

The two did not seem to have much in common other than a love for Wagner. In fact, Ludwig once wrote to Sophie that, “the main substance of our relationship has always been…Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny”. The fact that Ludwig was not attracted to the female sex whatsoever didn’t aid the relationship either. Ludwig was distinctly aware of this and was worried that because of his homosexual desires, Sophie Charlotte would never be happy with him. But Sophie Charlotte’s father had arranged the marriage and Ludwig was under immense public strain to have children. So, the marriage would have to go through.

Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria 
But things hit a breaking point just three days after the engagement was announced when Sophie Charlotte ran into a young man named Edgar Hanfstaengl, the son of a famous Bavarian court photographer. It’s said that the two had known each other since childhood, as Edgar’s father was connected with the artistic circle of Sophie Charlotte’s father. When a series of photographs of the betrothed couple had to be taken, Edgar and his father were called upon to come to Sophie Charlotte’s home to prepare the pictures. This arrangement allowed Sophie Charlotte and Edgar to be with each other often and, consequently, the two fell in love. They began to meet secretly in various places and sent each other love letters, some of which still exist today. Ludwig, who was getting cold feet over marrying a woman, had already postponed the wedding date various times and it seems that once he found out about his betrothed’s affair with Edgar, he used this as a reason to call off the wedding entirely in October.

Sophie Charlotte and Prince Ferdinand
Sophie Charlotte, a single woman again, went back home while her parents searched for another suitor for her hand. Some proposed candidates were: Archduke Ludwig Viktor of Austria, the homosexual brother of Sophie Charlotte’s brother-in-law, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, the future Luís I of Portugal, and Duke Philipp of Württemberg, the first cousin of her eventual husband. But Sophie Charlotte refused to marry any of these men, so she was sent to Saxony to stay with her aunt, Amalie Auguste of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Saxony. Here, she met the man she would eventually marry - Ferdinand Philippe Marie d'Orléans, the Duke of Alençon. Known more simply as Prince Ferdinand, he was the son of Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. While his mother was a first cousin of Queen Victoria of the U.K., his father was the son of Louis Philippe I, King of France. Soon after the couple met in Saxony, they were married on September 28, 1868 at Sophie Charlotte’s home of Possenhofen Castle. At the time of the wedding, Sophie Charlotte was twenty-one while Prince Ferdinand was twenty-four.

The Duke and his new Duchess had a happy marriage and a year after the wedding, they moved from Bavaria to the town of Teddington in London where they resided in their new home of Bushy House. Here, Sophie Charlotte gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Princess Louise d'Orléans, on July 19, 1869. Less than three years later, on January 18, 1872, Sophie Charlotte had her second and final child, a son named Prince Emmanuel d’Orléans. Not only did Sophie Charlotte get along well with her husband, she also had a good relationship with her sister-in-law, Princess Marguerite Adélaïde of Orléans. Sophie Charlotte never knew her husband’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, as she had died in 1857 two months after giving birth to her last child. The Duchess of Alençon didn’t get along with her husband’s father, the haughty and standoffish Prince Louis, Duke of Nemours.

Sophie Charlotte and Ferdinand's children - Princess Louise d'Orléans
and Prince Emmanuel, Duke of Vendôme

Sophie Charlotte's and Ferdinand's children:
  • Princess Louise d'Orléans (1869-1952) married: Prince Alfons of Bavaria - had issue
  • Prince Emmanuel, Duke of Vendôme (1872-1931) married: Princess Henriette of Belgium - had issue

On May 4, 1897, Sophie Charlotte was attending an annual charity event hosted by the French Catholic aristocracy in Paris called the Bazar de la Charité. The event was held in a different location every year but this year it was set up in a large wooden shed in the middle of the city. A projectionist’s equipment, which had been brought for entertainment, caught fire in the afternoon, which resulted in the deaths of a total of 126 people, most of whom were prominent aristocratic women. One of the victims of the fire was Sophie Charlotte herself, who refused several rescue attempts to make sure that the girls working with her at the event were saved before any effort was carried out to rescue her. But eventually, it was too late to save her and the Duchess of Alençon met her tragic end in that burning wooden shed, aged fifty years old. Her remains were collected and buried in the Royal Chapel of Dreux, the traditional burial site of members of the House of Orléans. Prince Ferdinand survived his wife by thirteen years before dying on July 29, 1910 at the age of sixty-six, after which he was buried with her.

Sophie Charlotte and Prince Ferdinand with their children
Sophie Charlotte’s daughter, Princess Louise, married her second cousin, Prince Alfons of Bavaria (who was seven years her senior) in 1891. They had two children, a son and a daughter, but only their daughter went on to marry and have children. Princess Louise died on February 4, 1952 at the age of eighty-two in Munich. Her brother, Prince Emmanuel, became the Duke of Vendôme and married Princess Henriette of Belgium, the sister of King Albert I of Belgium, in 1896. They had four children together, three daughters and one son, and lived lavishly until World War I, when their fortune tapered out quickly. After catching a cold, Prince Emmanuel died rather suddenly from heart failure on February 1, 1931 at the age of fifty-nine in Cannes. 

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