I went to see Mama and Aunt Julia, who I find very much changed, she looks now an old woman, such a pity, for she was so lovely once. …Her life full of trials of all kind, her youth thrown away at that court, and now alone, amongst strangers here is indeed a bitter cup to the last… poor aunt, life must be a burthen to her; and her feelings are so young still.

Feodora of Leiningen to her sister, Queen Victoria of the UK

For Episode 1 of my podcast, I decided to do an episode on Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld/Anna Feodorovna. Her story is a real rollercoaster, I can’t begin to describe how happy I am that I stumbled upon her.

Juliane Henriette Ulrike of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was born on July 23rd, 1781. She was a German princess, and the third daughter of Francis, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and his second wife, Augusta Reuss of Ebersdorf. Francis’s first wife, Princess Sophie, had died only a few months after marriage. Before marrying Sophie, Francis had been very much in love with Juliane’s mother, Augusta. After the death of Sophie, Francis wasted no time and married Augusta. As you can guess, the marriage was very happy, though the two had their fair share of quarrels. 

Juliane’s parents had ten children, but only seven, including Juliane, survived to adulthood. Among them was Ernst, who later became the father of Prince Albert, and thus the father-in-law of Queen Victoria. Juliane’s sister, Victoria, married Edward, Duke of Kent, and became the mother of Queen Victoria. Yes, Queen Victoria married her maternal first cousin, but get over it, because that’s very normal and totally won’t produce any unhealthy offspring. It also definitely won’t mean that Queen Victoria’s youngest son, Leopold, will be born with Hemophilia, and die after a fall he could’ve survived. Imagine what Juliane and her siblings would’ve thought of the wedding of Albert and Victoria, being the aunts and uncles of both halves of the happy couple. One of Juliane’s brothers, Leopold, became Leopold I, King of the Belgians. Juliane and her siblings were quite important when it comes to history.

While Juliane was growing up happily, Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia was on the hunt for a bride for one of her younger grandsons, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich. Konstantin’s brother, Grand Duke Alexander, the future Tsar Alexander I, had already married Louise of Baden. Both of them were sons of Catherine the Great’s eldest son and heir, Paul, the future Tsar Paul I. 

Catherine sent Count Andrei Budberg to visit the courts of Europe and tell the Tsarina which princess would be best for Grand Duke Konstantin. While traveling, the Count fell ill and had to make a stop in Coburg. While there, he stayed with — wait for it — Juliane’s family. The Count ended up telling Catherine that he’d already found the best princesses for Konstantin. Juliane and her sisters, of course. Juliane was very pretty, and there was always a possibility that Juliane would end up marrying the Grand Duke, but she had two older sisters, Sophie and Antoinette. It was much more likely that Konstantin would choose one of the older princesses as his bride. 

After much consideration, Catherine the Great invited Juliane, her older sisters Sophie and Antoinette, and their mother, Augusta. Once they arrived, they met Grand Duke Konstantin, Catherine the Great was delighted with the girls, and she liked Augusta very much as well. I suspect that they became good friends. Now that Catherine was happy with it, Konstantin was told to make a choice. Would he marry Sophie, Antoinette, or Juliane? Well, apparently, he didn’t want to get married. After three weeks of much anxiety for the Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld family, Konstantin made his decision. Much to his grandmother’s delight, he chose Juliane. She had been the one whom Catherine was hoping that Konstantin would choose.

Juliane converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the Russian name, Anna. She also needed a patronymic, which was a woman’s father’s name with -ovna or -evna after it. Something like “Francisevna” couldn’t be her patronymic, so she took “Feodorovna” instead, which means gift of God. Most foreign brides took that name when they married into the Russian royal family. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be calling our heroine Anna from now on. On February 26th, 1796, 14-year-old Anna married 16-year-old Konstantin. Immediately, Anna realized that Konstantin was the worst husband she could’ve ever imagined. He was a violent man who was more interested in his military career than his wife. The marriage did have some benefits for Anna’s family since it made them much more powerful. Catherine the Great died in November of that year, so Anna was now the daughter-in-law of the new Tsar, Paul I.

Anna was well-liked at the Russian court, which somehow soured Konstantin and Anna’s relationship even more. He was jealous of her, and I find him very worthy of the title of “The Worst Husband of the 18th Century.” Because the court loved her, Konstantin didn’t allow Anna to leave her rooms. When she was allowed to leave her rooms, Konstantin didn’t let her go near many people. Anna was miserable and relied on the company of her sister-in-law, Louise of Baden, for her happiness. But the moment she found the opportunity to escape, she didn’t just let it go. In 1799, Anna fell ill, and told everyone, “I’m leaving because I need treatment and Russia’s too cold, it’s not like I hate my husband.” 

She returned to her native Coburg, and then said “Yeah, no, I’m not coming back.” But, as mostly happens with royal women in history who want to make their own choices, Anna wasn’t able to stay with her family. They wanted her to go back, fearing for the family’s reputation, and her husband’s family was pretty mad about her leaving, and demanded that she come back. Anna was forced to, and so she left Coburg. She had to attend the weddings of two of her sisters-in-law immediately after her return that October. Once again, she began looking for a way to leave Russia.

The moment came in March of 1801 when Tsar Paul I was assassinated, and that meant that Anna was now the Tsar’s sister-in-law. Still, though, focus on the assassination part. Anna claimed to be super ill because her father-in-law was assassinated, and her mother rushed to be by her daughter’s side. Anna must have been able to fake sickness well because the mother and daughter were on their way back to Coburg that August. When she was in Coburg, she said, “This time, I’m really not going back.” Turns out, she meant it. She began attempting to divorce her husband, but every attempt was refused, not because they didn’t want Anna to be divorced, but because being separated from Anna might mean that Konstantin would make a morganatic marriage. Most European royals were sympathetic to Anna.

Anna, though still married, decided that she was going to live her life the way she wanted, even if she wouldn’t be allowed to get rid of Konstantin. She began having affairs, and gave birth to a son, Eduard Edgar Schmidt-Löwe, in 1808. We have no idea who exactly Eduard’s father was, but he may have been a minor French aristocrat and Prussian army officer. Her son was later ennobled and took a different, more noble surname. Anna had always liked kids, and I imagine that her son made her very happy. In 1812, Anna moved to Switzerland, where she later had another child, this time, a daughter, Louise Hilda Agnes d’Aubert. The girl’s father was most probably Anna’s chamberlain, Rodolphe Abraham de Schiferli. Anna and Rodolphe remained friends for life. But Anna had to give up their baby for the sake of her reputation, and the baby was adopted.

In 1814, Tsar Alexander, who was still Anna’s brother-in-law, tried to bring Anna back to Russia. Anna’s younger brother Leopold also made efforts. Anna probably scoffed at her little brother giving her commands. Going back to Russia meant going back to Konstantin, so obviously Anna refused. She never left Switzerland and lived on a riverside estate fit for a princess.

Her little sister, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, married Edward, Duke of Kent, and had a daughter, Victoria, whom you might recognize as Queen Victoria of the UK. 

Remember that Anna was still quite young — she was only in her early thirties. Just before she turned forty, in 1820, Anna was finally granted an annulment. Her husband remarried his mistress, but Anna never married anyone else. Konstantin’s marriage was morganatic, exactly why Anna wasn’t allowed to be divorced, so Konstantin had to renounce his claim to the Russian throne, but he did this in secret, so in 1825, after Tsar Alexander’s death, Konstantin was proclaimed Tsar, but it didn’t last.

Anna’s son got married to his first cousin, Bertha, in 1835. She was an illegitimate child of Anna’s younger brother, Ernst, who was now the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Inbreeding sounds like a hobby of royals at this point. Through her son, Anna still has living descendants today. Then, everybody in our story starts dropping dead one by one. First, Louise of Baden, Anna’s friend, and former sister-in-law died in 1826. Anna’s mother, Augusta, died in 1831. Konstantin died that same year. At least her brother, Leopold, became the first King of the Belgians that year after Belgium got its independence from the Netherlands. Her older sisters, Sophie and Antionette, died soon after. Then, Anna’s daughter, Louise, died, followed by Louise’s father, whom Anna had stayed friends with after their affair was over. Anna, again, was miserable.

Anna died on August 12th, 1860, near the riverside estate she bought in Switzerland many years ago. She was 79 and had outlived Konstantin by 29 years. Her grave only says ‘Juliane-Anna’. No indication of rank, title, nothing.

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