Friday, 21 October 2011

New books: A princess of consequence

If Princess Sophia Albertina of Sweden and of Norway (1753-1829) is remembered today it is probably as little more than the lady who built the Hereditary Prince’s Mansion in Stockholm and whose name is inscribed on its façade. Unmarried, childless princesses tend to be considered as little more than that, but as the historian Carin Bergström, head of the Swedish Royal Collections, shows in her new book Självständig prinsessa – Sophia Albertina, 1753-1829, published by Atlantis this month, there was much of interest about the life story of the sister of Gustaf III and Carl XIII.
The book’s title translates as “Independent Princess” and Bergström takes the bold choice of starting not with the Princess’s birth, but with the death of her dominant mother, Queen Lovisa Ulrika, in 1782. The disadvantage of this approach is that we are left in the dark about the Princess’s formative years and perhaps in particular about the extent of her mother’s complex personality upon her.
The advantage is that it sharpens the book’s focus on how Sophia Albertina carved out a life of her own. Bergström briefly discusses the reasons why Sophia Albertina, who certainly had to be considered quite a match on the royal marriage market, never married. But the fact that a grand mansion was built for her, starting in 1783, must surely have meant that one had by then realised that she would not marry.
The mansion is in itself significant, the author argues. Gustaf III’s brother, Carl and Fredrik Adolf, were given apartments at the Royal Palace instead of mansions of their own. This underlines Sophia Albertina’s independence, but might also be a result of the fact that she as a woman could not challenge the monarch’s position in the way that the royal brothers might do.
Sophia Albertina was to live to be nearly 76, a great age in her days. She saw the coups carried out by Gustaf III in 1772 and 1789 respectively, the wars against Russia and the Napoleonic wars, the assassination of Gustaf III in 1792, the deposal of Gustaf IV Adolf and the elevation of her brother Carl XIII in 1809, the election of a new crown prince and his sudden death shortly thereafter, the election of a French marshal to crown prince in 1810, the formation of the union with Norway in 1814 and the accession of the Bernadotte dynasty in 1818. In 1826 it was she who brought Carl XIV Johan the news of the birth of his grandson (Carl XV), which secured the Bernadotte succession in the third generation. By the time of her death in 1829 she was the last surviving member of the House of Holstein-Gottorp in Sweden and in an age of growing nationalism she was, not entirely correctly, hailed as “the Vasa Princess”.
Sophia Albertina could be considered a survivor, but she was also an important link between past and future. Throughout the upheavals of the Gustavian and post-Gustavian era Sophia Albertina and her sister-in-law Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta were unchangingly dignified in carrying out the royal duties and upholding the presence and visibility which were often neglected by other members of the royal house. (Indeed, following Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta’s death in 1818, Sophia Albertina was the actual first lady until Queen Desideria could be bothered to move to Sweden five years later). For the upstarts Bernadottes she was obviously of great value in their legitimisation process.
Yet one of the great strengths of this biography is how it stresses that Sophia Albertina was more than simply a Swedish princess. In 1787 she became Abbess of the Protestant diocese Quedlinburg, a small city-state in what is now Saxe-Anhalt. This position has often been treated as little more than a piece of curiosa by Swedish writers, but Bergström stresses how it meant actual sovereignty over this small state and that this was something Sophia Albertina was serious about.
Unlike her predecessor as abbess Sophia Albertina came to spend considerable time in Quedlinburg (which also caused her to miss out on some important developments in Sweden, such as much of the Reuterholm regime). This meant that she had greater impact on her small realm than her predecessor, but also that she came in close proximity to her maternal relations in Germany, whose cultural interests may have had a certain influence on her.
By paying thorough attention to Sophia Albertina’s reign in Quedlinburg and her life in Germany (as well as her journey to Italy) Carin Bergström succeeds in putting her subject squarely into the international context in which she belongs and showing how her life was shaped by events outside Sweden.
In 1802 Quedlinburg was ceded by the Habsburg Emperor to the King of Prussia and subsequently secularised, but the latter allowed his first cousin Sophia Albertina to retain her residence and her income. However, five years later Quedlinburg was lost to France. Sophia Albertina daringly declared her intention to negotiate with Napoléon, but Quedlinburg was incorporated into his brother Jérôme’s Kingdom of Westphalia and the reign of Sophia Albertina came to an end.
One of the events of Sophia Albertina’s life which has caused most comment, both in her days and later, is her campaign to have her chambermaid Lolotte Forsberg recognised as the illegitimate daughter of King Adolf Fredrik, i.e. as her own half-sister. This severely strained her relationship with her brothers and was in the end unsuccessful, but Bergström launches the theory that the way the Princess allowed herself to be led to believe that Forsberg was indeed her sister might be seen as a result of Sophia Albertina’s longing for a family of her own.
Having married noble courtier, Countess Lolotte Stenbock (as she then became) was eventually appointed Sophia Albertina’s Mistress of the Robes and the Stenbock family came to fill the role as Sophia Albertina’s immediate family until her death, when most of her estate was left to them.
This was one of the books I had been looking most forward to this year and I was not disappointed in my expectations. Occasionally Bergström gets a year wrong, she misspells the name Désirée throughout and repeats the tenacious myth that Napoléon I proclaimed himself emperor, but she is mostly on safe ground and appears to have full command of her subject. The book is also well-written and insightful and adds greatly to our knowledge of its subject. Following the publication of this biography there can be no doubt that Sophia Albertina was much more than an insignificant appendage to the Gustavian court.


  1. Interesting. I shall have to buy the book. Do you know what happened to Quedlinburg at the Vienna Congress? Was it incorporated into Hannover or Prussia perhaps? I do not know exactly where it is situated.
    I think the book also shows that royalty-at least until 50-100 years ago- had no nationality even if they sometimes pretended to. Some would perhaps instead put it that they (apart perhaps from the Bourbons)were all Germans.

    Martin Rahm

  2. Oh, good question, Martin - I remember having read that the Quedlinburg issue was raised at the Congress, but I cannot remember the details. Obviously its special status ceased, so it must have been incorporated into another state, but I am not sure which. I may try and see if I can find anything about it in my bookshelves.

    The concepts of nations, nationality and nationalism date from the early nineteenth century and indeed it is quite fascinating to see how, until then, a Dutchman could become Russia's ambassador in Sweden and Norway, or how one man could be one country's ambassador to a second country and later become that second country's foreign minister, and so on.

    But I would personally not go that far as saying that the royals before those days were all German. It would for instance be hard to think of Gustaf III as German, and even his mother Lovisa Ulrika and her brother Friedrich II of Prussia used French as their first language.

  3. I gather by your mention on Desiree Clary
    Bernadotte she is not well liked by you or your
    countrymen. I suspect Desiree wasn't happy about leaving her homeland-- for Sweden

  4. Hard though it is to judge about someone's popularity nearly two centuries on I think it is safe to say that Queen Desideria was neither very well liked nor the opposite; she was not very well-known by the people of Norway.

    It is not secret that she preferred Paris to Sweden (she thought even Sceaux was too far away from Paris!), but by the time she settled in Sweden in 1823 Paris had lost some of its attractions for her: her sister Julie was in exile, Richelieu was dead and most of the Napoleonides gone.

    It may also have played a part that in 1823 she was queen, unlike in 1810-1811, and thus no-one at the court could queen it over her. It is also believed that the fact that her son married Joséphine of Leuchtenberg that year contributed to her decision finally to go to Sweden. With a young, beautiful and charming crown princess present at court the absent Queen in Paris could easily be forgotten. Thus Desideria had to settle in Stockholm at last to prevent her place being taken.


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