Leopold of Saxe-Coburg

Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, portrait gallery, 1831


THE now royal subject of this Memoir is one of those extraordinary instances of singular fortune, which occur but rarely, even in the widely-spread annals of mankind ; and seem to proclaim to us, with an authority not to be mistaken, that

".....There's a Divinity doth shape our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will !"

The leading incidents of the life of PRINCE LEOPOLD have not only been remarkable in themselves, but still more remarkable in their coincidence with, and effects upon, the destiny of another exalted individual. We allude to the Prince of Orange, between whom, and two crowns, it has been the fate of his Royal Highness to step ; while, as if to render his own career yet more wonderful, a third has been offered to his acceptance. In ancient and in superstitious times, the genius, or ascendant star, of the House of Coburg would have been recognized in these striking events—in our enlightened times, they cannot but excite admiration and wonder.

LEOPOLD GEORGE CHRISTIAN FREDERICK (the sketch of whose Life has been communicated to the National Portrait Gallery on the best authority) is the third and youngest son of Francis Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and his Duchess, of the House of Reus-Ebersdorf. He was born on the 16th of December, 1790; and after having received his education under his paternal roof, he came first into public at Paris, in the year 1808-1809, then the capital of Napoleon's court and empire. It was part of that extraordinary man's policy, to collect about his person, or his armies, the members of those sovereign families in Germany who owed him fealty as chief of the confederation of the Rhine ; but whose well-founded attachment (to use their own forcible expression) to their fatherland, made it very necessary for him to keep an eye upon them. With no slight address, especially at his age, the Pence Leopold of Saxe-Coburg evaded the insidious proposal that was made him, to take service in the French armies, without incurring the danger which might have followed that refusal ; and he returned to Coburg, at liberty to pursue his own inclinations ; and prepared for military service, when it could advance the great objects which, above every thing, makes the profession of arms distinguished and honorable—the release of our country from foreign tyranny and thraldom, and the re-establishment of her liberty and independence.

It is needless to describe what must have been the feelings of a breast endued with so noble a desire, when, in 1812, the French Emperor marched, through the little territory of Saxe-Coburg, the countless host which he directed in the summer of that year against the Russian empire. The man who, at that period, would have dared to predicate the failure of the most extravagant scheme of Napoleon's ambition, would have been deemed little less than an enthusiast or a fool. Success was deemed certain, and the dismemberment of the empire of the Czars not at all an improbable result.

With the reigning family of Russia, the House of Saxe-Coburg was united by strong ties of friendship, as well as by marriage ; and the anxiety which every patriotic heart in Germany felt, on public grounds, for a successful result to the tremendous conflict which was about to convulse the world, was increased at Coburg, by apprehension for the fate which might fall upon Alexander's family. The great army swept across the land ; and months passed over with many a prayer for, but without a hope or an expectation of, its discomfiture : but when, amidst the dreariest winter that ever set in, in those latitudes, the travelling chariot of Napoleon returned alone, and the miserable remnant of the most splendid army that so mighty a leader ever commanded, was seen " to drag its slow length along" towards the French frontier, the German people welcomed, with common ardour, the rising prospect of the emancipation of their country.

The Prince Leopold was among the first to start from an inactivity which was so irksome to him, and, long before the campaign had commenced, he was in the midst of the Russian army, leaving all that was most dear to him at risk, for the great cause of his " fatherland."

He accompanied the allied army to Silesia and Saxony ; was engaged in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen; and, on the expiration of the armistice, proceeded with the army to Bohemia, and thence to the Saxon frontier ; where he particularly distinguished himself with the division of cavalry under his command. For his eminent services on those days, the Emperor Alexander invested him, on the field of battle of Nollendorf, with the Cross of Saint George, and the Emperor of Austria subsequently conferred on him the order of Maria Theresa.

He was at Leipsic, and throughout the whole of the campaigns which ended in the capture of Paris in 1814. Many of our countrymen formed their first acquaintance with the Prince when he was in the French capital, at this period " the gayest of the gay." Hence he passed over to England with the allied Sovereigns, in a natural anxiety to witness the land which had aided so greatly the great cause which had been so nobly consummated.

At this time the Prince Leopold was a young man, twenty-four years of age, remarkable for his good looks, and distinguished from the crowd of Princes with whom be was associated, for great amenity of manners, equanimity of temper, and every accomplishment of good society. The Princess Charlotte of Wales was, at that time, in her eighteenth year, and remarkable, above her years, for great insight into the characters of those with whom she associated. It is not, therefore, surprising that she should have been captivated with the qualities of Prince Leopold ; nor is it necessary, at this time of day, to doubt the excellence of her judgment, in her preference of an individual, who made her, without any dispute, the happiest of women, during the short period which she was permitted to call happy, in her short but eventful life. It is well known, that her hand had been destined for the Prince of Orange, by the policy of the British cabinet, as well as at the desire of her Royal Father ; and the Princess had so far yielded to these wishes, as to consent to appear with him in public at the Queen's drawing-room, this year. She was not, however, of a disposition to be willingly made an instrument of others in a matter so near her heart ; and when she found a man more suited to her mind, she at once broke off a forced attachment, and loved him alone with all the intensity of a woman's affection. The British people, unaccustomed to marriages of convenience, admired the spirit which influenced her conduct ; and she felt encouraged, by their approbation, to carry her point with all the resolution she inherited from her Family. When, one day, her equerry, Colonel Addenbroke, returned from Kew to Cranbourne Lodge, in Windsor Park, where the Princess at that time resided, and told her the report of the day—that Her Royal Highness was to marry Prince Leopold—she at once evinced the settled determination of her breast, by the reply, " He is the only man I ever will marry."

After long and repeated endeavours to break her resolve, the Prince Regent determined to invite Prince Leopold to repair to England, and he was received at the Pavilion at Brighton in the month of February, 1816. He was now, for the first time, permitted to court the Princess Charlotte, and was acknowledged by the Government the future Husband of the Heiress of the British Empire. On the 2d of May they were married at Carlton House, by Dr. Sutton, Archbishop of Canterbury, amidst the warmest wishes of every individual in the kingdom. They passed the honey-moon at Oatlands, the seat of the Duke of York ; and, in the course of their stay, were naturally induced to visit Claremont, then the property of Mr. Ellis, (now Lord Seaford,) and at that time on sale. They were pleased with the place, and at their desire it was purchased for them by the Crown, as their country residence. Most of their time was subsequently passed at this delightful country-seat, excepting when they were required to be in the capital, when they resided at Camelford House, which had been appropriated to them as their town residence. In the spring of 1817, it was announced to the public, that an heir might be expected from this august and happy union. Alas! how little was it then anticipated, what would be the consequence of an event, the prospect of which filled the whole land with joy. An heir was born on the 6th of November, in that year, and, with its mother, was carried to the grave, amidst a deeper affliction and a sincerer grief than a whole nation was ever known to express for any human loss. It is not necessary to describe what he suffered, who, at one and the same moment, was bereft of every Lope and friend—cast down from the highest pinnacle of earthly happiness and splendour, to be a lonely stranger in a foreign land. But the sympathy of the British people was as strong as their grief; and, although it was well known that his father-in-law, the Prince Regent, never cordially liked the Prince, yet he shared in the national commiseration, whilst he himself deeply mourned the loss of his only child, and at once admitted Prince Leopold into the British Royal Family, by a grant of the title of Royal Highness, and permission to bear the arms of Great Britain.

His Royal Highness passed the first months of his widowhood at the seat of Lady Caroline Darner, in Dorsetshire, which that lady kindly lent him; and he afterwards returned to Claremont, where he lived in the utmost privacy, surrounded by his own family and a few particular friends. The loss which the Royal Family had experienced in the blighted prospect of issue to the throne, and the improbability which remained to either the Regent or Duke of York of having a family, induced the younger Princes now to form matrimonial alliances; and the year 1818 accordingly witnessed the three marriages of the Dukes of Clarence, Cambridge, and Kent—the latter to the Princess of Leiningen, youngest sister of the Prince Leopold. His Royal Highness assisted himself at this latter marriage, which was solemnized at Kew, a few months before the death of Queen Charlotte. What he must have endured at the witness of such a ceremony in this early period of his grief, may have been somewhat assuaged by the meeting again with a sister whom he loved, and at her introduction into the same Royal -Family as himself.

Upon the return of the Duke and Duchess of Kent to the Continent, he determined also to visit his family in Germany, and he passed the winter of 1818-19 at Coburg. He returned to England again in the spring, in time to witness another tie to his British connexion, in the birth of a niece, of whom the Duchess of Kent was delivered on the 24th of May—a Princess, who is probably destined to ascend the throne of these realms. A new year had scarcely commenced, when he was summoned into Devonshire, where the Duke of Kent was already lying in imminent danger from a fever, caught after an ordinary cold, which terminated his life in the latter days of January. The Prince returned, bringing with him to Claremont his bereaved sister and her child, whom his Royal Highness at once declared should be as his own, and who, from that day forward, received her maintenance almost entirely from his private purse. In the summer of this year, his friends urged him to take a tour to the Highlands; for hitherto the Prince, although five years in England, had scarcely been beyond the houses of the several branches of the Royal Family. The kind hospitality of the nobility and principal gentry, who entertained his Royal Highness on his route, and the reception he met with in the cities and principal towns, where the municipal authorities addressed him in the most flattering terms, evinced the sincerity and depth of that sympathy which had been so loudly proclaimed in the early period of his sorrows. He returned to Claremont in the early part of November, highly pleased and gratified with his tour. He passed the winter there in his accustomed privacy; but in the spring of 1821 he established himself at Marlborough House, and began to see company in that style of splendid hospitality, which long continued to distinguish that residence in the annals of society and fashion. His table, spread with every luxury, received the eminent of the land, whether by hereditary station, political distinction, or scientific renown, without any of those party divisions which, it was the constant feeling of the Prince, ought never to find their way into palaces.

His Father-in-law was now upon the throne, and the question had already began to be mooted, which ended in the return of Queen Caroline to England, and to her trial before the House of Peers, upon charges of the most flagrant character. It was scarcely possible for the Prince to steer any course in this most disagreeable transaction, which could have satisfied parties, whose passions were so strongly excited at this epoch. He alone knew the Daughter's sentiments upon the conduct of both her parents he alone could 'tell the course she would have wished him to have pursued, had she been living ; and he adopted that course fearlessly, but with the clear foresight, that, by so doing, he would increase the prejudices of the King against him; and, of course, with that, the anger of the Court and the Ministry.

It would be idle to conceal, that the calumnies which were raised at this period, and the false impressions which so powerful a host of opponents could not fail to excite very generally in the public mind, did most sensibly affect one who was unaccustomed to the liberties which are taken by the press of England against private character ; and who was alive to a keen sense of the value of character, more especially to a person in his situation in this country. It was difficult for him to rest easy under aspersions, which he felt to be as false as they were injurious. His friends, however, who knew the gullibility of John Bull, knew also the good sense which generally brings him in time to a sounder judgment, and persuaded him to endure in silence those witty but cutting effusions of the newspapers, which appeared at this period—nevertheless, they tended to make his solitude less tolerable, and he determined to solace his mind by foreign travel.

Immediately after the ceremony of George the Fourth's coronation, he passed over to the Continent. His absence, however, did not silence his calumniators ; for it was asserted, that he went abroad from a niggardly propensity : and although a splendid establishment was maintained in England, upon the same style of expense as if he had been himself present, the good and credulous people were disturbed at hearing that foreigners were enjoying the fruits of their munificence to him. That the vulgar should have been deceived by the statements put forth on this subject, was natural ; but, that those who know how little of a large income, comparatively, can be spent by the journeys of a single man with few attendants, should have shared in this alarm, and have retained it even to the eve of His Royal Highness's departure, in the face of every evidence to the contrary, is one among many proofs of the power of the press to work the most serious injury to private character, even in the face of facts and reason.

The Prince could not condescend to reply to the most ridiculous charges that were gravely made against him, for his gardener's disposal of his fruit and vegetables, or for the too common misconduct of servants in the absence of their master, which was rather a matter, if true, for his private annoyance, than for the public animadversion. An impression was, however, engendered against him by those reports, which was permitted to attach to the Prince for the remainder of his residence in this country, but which it may now be fairly considered to be rather a reflection upon those who were deceived, than upon him who was so long the victim of this deception. The Prince neither went abroad to save expense, nor to idle away his time ; but, with an enlightened understanding, he converted a source of great amusement into a most useful inquiry into the government of the various countries, and into their internal resources and external relations. In every capital he lived on intimate terms with the sovereigns, and the leading men of the country ; and it may be doubted whether any individual of Europe is better acquainted with the secret springs and interests which actuate the foreign relations of every cabinet, or whether any man knows more intimately the characters and abilities of the several European statesmen of the day. The personal knowledge thus acquired was reciprocal ; and a man of his station, manners, and talent, could not fail to obtain, with the universal knowledge of his character, a very general respect and esteem.

Accordingly, when the consequences of the treaty of London, of 1826, rendered it necessary to select a sovereign for Greece, (who should not belong to either of the sovereign families who were parties to it,) the ambassadors, with one accord, turned their eyes upon Prince Leopold, as a man every way fitted to undertake the task of regenerating that unhappy country. His Royal Highness was persuaded to accept the offer that was made him ; and it was, at the time, a subject of cavil, whether he was altogether justified in retracting his consent : yet it is but justice to remark, that he entered with too much good faith into transactions, where he was opposed, single-handed, to the practised finesse of some of the most experienced diplomatists of the day :—nor can it be denied, that when he discovered his position, he extricated himself from the toils which they had cast around him with great ability and success. That this was so considered by the Powers themselves, may be inferred  from the fact, that not a year had elapsed before the very same Powers cast their eyes, upon His Royal Highness, to extricate Europe from the danger of convulsions and disorder, by the acceptance of the crown which the Belgian people were disposed to offer him. He had to steer a  very difficult course of negociation, between the pretensions of a popular assembly, and the jealousy of states, who could not view, without alarm, another example of successful insurrection ; but, with great tact and ability, he aided in the settlement of a basis on which he could accept the crown with the concurrence of all the Powers, and accordingly, on the 26th of June, 131, he formally received, at Marlborough House, the Deputies of the Congress, who had been sent from Brussels to notify to him its decree in his favour, and accepted the proffered sceptre, upon the condition of the basis which had been agreed upon with the Powers. This basis consisted of eighteen articles, on which a treaty of peace was hereafter to be founded, defining the boundaries of the new state. To these articles the Congress assented on the 9th July, after an unexampled debate of ten days' continued argument; and on the Saturday following, the 17th of that month, the Prince quitted England, carrying with him the esteem and respect of every class of society.

His last act, upon quitting England, was to announce to the Ministry; his determination, as Sovereign of Belgium, to draw no portion of his parliamentary annuity. A degree of indecent haste had been shewn by the public, relative to his intentions in this respect ; and this had even been reflected within the walls of the Upper House of Parliament. His claim to this grant (which, as far as His Royal Highness was concerned, was the unsolicited liberality of the country) was as undisputed and as firm as that of the public creditor : but, in truth, he had been always made to suffer for the sins of those who had been thus prodigal in their desire to obtain his early favour. The man, however, whom his enemies had declared to be the most avaricious and miserly of men, actually relinquished the certainty of the affluence, as well as the comfort, of a private station—before he knew what endowment would be made on a crown which he had accepted—upon public grounds alone.

Here, then, we close this rapid glance over a life which, for its duration, has been more than ordinarily eventful. The King of the Belgians is still in the maturity of his life, and in the full vigour of his faculties. He has undertaken a task which must be difficult and laborious, and which many people think is not capable of a successful result. He may however reflect, that he occupies a throne, the right to which is less capable of dispute than any one in history—for the hereditary sovereigns of the land renounced their claim, to Austria, or to France; and the right of conquest alone, and that not a conquest over Belgium, gave it to the kingdom of the Netherlands. He is one of the few sovereigns who, without even the birthright to the land of his rule, has obtained a crown without the sword having been drawn, or a drop of blood spilled, in the acquisition of it. If he should happily succeed, he will deserve the gratitude of four millions of subjects, and the applause of surrounding nations,—if he should fail, he will lay down a sceptre which he never sought, and return to that private station, the splendid prospects of which few could have had the virtue to have quitted, although the object were to retain the blessings of peace to Europe, and to consolidate the principle of constitutional government.