Authors: James Chambers
Christian Frederick, the youngest child of Duke Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, was born on 16 December 1790. His family was descended from the eleventh-century Margraves of Meissen and Lausitz, but in the seven hundred years since then few of his ancestors had made a mark on the pages of European history. The most distinguished was Frederick the Wise, who, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, refused the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, supported Martin Luther and converted all his subjects to Protestantism. Frederick’s great-grandson, John William, was one of the many suitors who failed to marry Queen Elizabeth of England; another ancestor, Ernest the Pious, served in the army of Gustavus Adolphus and was one of the first rulers to establish free schools for his subjects.
Like most of the younger sons of the many German rulers, Leopold was educated to make his own way in the world as a soldier or a diplomat. He learned Christian ethics, Latin, Russian, French and English. He was taught to draw, to play the piano, to ride and to fence. But he was also taught to be ambitious – and for that there
were plenty of role models in his family. Unlike their ancestors, the latest generations of the House of Coburg were hungry for power, position and wealth.
During the first few years of Leopold’s life his uncle Frederick was commanding an Austrian army in the Netherlands. His eldest brother Ernest, who succeeded their father as Duke, became a general in the Russian army and married an eccentric German heiress, who added the neighbouring estates of Gotha to Coburg and Saalfeld. His other brother, Ferdinand, served in the Austrian army and married an even richer Hungarian princess.
The only one of his four sisters who married for love was Sophia, the eldest. Her husband was one of the many refugees who fled to Germany from France on the outbreak of the Revolution. He was only a count, but he was a rich count who had managed to bring most of his money with him, and he was a good friend to Leopold.
The other sisters married for position. Antoinette married Duke Alexander of Wurtemberg; Victoria married Prince Emich Charles of Leningen; and Julia did best of all. She married the brother of the Tsar, the Grand Duke Constantine.
With such a sister, it was not difficult for a beautiful boy to find favour and patronage at the Russian court. Leopold was enlisted as a cadet in the Imperial Guard when he was only five, soon after his sister’s wedding. In the following year he was given the honorary commission of captain. Next year he was made a colonel.
After that Julie grew tired of her husband’s cruelty and went home to Coburg. But Leopold remained a favourite with the Grand Duke and the Tsar. On 15 May 1803, when he was still only twelve, they made him a general.
Two years later, when Napoleon advanced against the armies of Austria and Russia, intrepid, fourteen-year-old Leopold set out to turn his honorary commission into a real one. But he arrived too late. Two days after he reached the Russian headquarters, news came that the allies had been crushed at Austerlitz.
Leopold went home. In the following year, when Napoleon went to war with Prussia, Coburg was overrun and plundered by the French. There was no resistance. Leopold’s father, the Duke, was already on his deathbed; his eldest brother, the heir, who had gone to join the Prussian army, was also in bed, immobilised by typhoid fever.
The Duke died. The French took over the government of his duchy and incorporated it into the Confederation of the Rhine. Coburg became part of the French Empire.
Since the new Duke was still in bed a hundred and fifty miles away, his formidable mother took up his cause. She demanded an audience with Napoleon. When he refused, she turned to the Tsar, who was then in the process of changing sides and was about to become Napoleon’s ally. The Tsar agreed to help. One of the terms of the treaty that he signed with Napoleon at Tilsit, on 7 July 1807, was that Coburg, while remaining part of the Confederation, was to be restored to the rule of young Duke Ernest.
As soon as he recovered from his fever, Ernest went to thank Napoleon at his headquarters in Dresden. He was received warmly. The Emperor even promised to increase the size of his duchy by adding a large part of Bayreuth to it. But within weeks of his homecoming, Ernest was on the edge of bankruptcy. Even with the additional income from Gotha, which he had acquired through his wife, his ruined estates in Coburg and Saalfeld were incapable of providing enough revenue to pay for all the soldiers that Napoleon was demanding for his army. So Ernest decided to follow the Emperor to Paris and remind him of his promise and, knowing that good looks and charm were advantages diplomatically as well as socially, he took his brother Leopold with him.
They arrived in Paris on 14 October. Napoleon was not there. The Palace of the Tuileries was occupied by no one but guards and servants. While they waited, however, the brothers were received out at Malmaison by the Empress Josephine, and it was there that Leopold was introduced to her beautiful daughter Hortense.
Leopold was then two months short of his seventeenth birthday, and Hortense was twenty-four. She was married to Napoleon’s brother Louis, the King of Holland, but she had left him and come back to live with her mother, and she was still in mourning for a baby son who had died suddenly five months earlier. Over the next few days, the unhappy Queen of Holland consoled herself by seducing the handsome Prince from Coburg.
Meanwhile Ernest had met a famous Greek beauty, Pauline Panam. For almost six months, Ernest and Leopold stayed in Paris with nothing to do but enjoy the company of Pauline and Hortense.
At last, in March 1808, the French Emperor returned to his capital. Before setting out again for Spain, he granted a brief audience to the brothers from Coburg. It was not a success. Napoleon remembered his promise to Ernest but did nothing to fulfil it, and when Leopold asked to be taken onto his staff as an aide-de-camp, he declined to decide one way or the other. There were, however, dozens of young princes looking for jobs on the Emperor’s staff in 1808, and at least Leopold was one of the few who left an impression on him. In Napoleon’s opinion, Prince Leopold was the handsomest man who ever set foot in the Tuileries.
In terms of position and worldly wealth, the brothers left Paris empty-handed. But they were both the richer in experience, and Ernest had something to show for it as well. He was accompanied by Pauline Panam, ‘la belle Greque’. To avoid any chance of scandal, she travelled dressed as a man. When they reached the city of Coburg, she was set up discreetly on a farm nearby, where, a few months later, she gave birth to a child.
In October Leopold went to Erfurt where Napoleon, the Tsar and many of the leading rulers in the Confederation of the Rhine had assembled for a conference. In reality it was more of a celebration
than a conference. There were more balls, banquets and parades than meetings. But amid these Leopold managed to obtain an audience with the Emperor, at which he repeated his brother’s request for more land and his own for a position on the imperial staff. The answer to the former was more encouraging and more specific than before. Napoleon agreed to add parts of Bayreuth and Bamberg to Coburg. But the answer to the latter was still non-committal.
In later life Leopold always denied that he had asked for a position. He said that it was Napoleon who offered him a job and that he had turned it down. But Napoleon told a different story, and Napoleon was the one who had no reason to disguise the truth. During his exile on St Helena, he told the Comte de las Cases, ‘This Prince Leopold might have been my aide-de-camp; he begged it of me; I don’t know what prevented his appointment. It is very lucky for him he did not succeed.’
In 1808 Leopold could not have felt that he was doing anything dishonourable or disloyal. His homeland was part of the French Empire, and he had been granted an honorary commission by the Tsar, who was then Napoleon’s ally. Like so many other princes, he simply sought advancement in the entourage of his new commander. After Napoleon’s defeat, however, it was unlikely that others would see it that way. To have asked for such a job would not have looked good in England, and to have succeeded in obtaining it would have made Leopold ineligible for almost all the honours and offices that were subsequently offered to him.
Leopold left Erfurt and went back to Coburg. Four years later Napoleon summoned the princes of the German Confederation to Dresden. He was preparing to invade Russia. Leopold, now twenty-one years old, decided not to attend. Technically his loyalties were divided. He was a citizen in Napoleon’s empire, but he was an officer in the Tsar’s army. Yet while his conscience was telling him his loyalties lay with Russia, his common sense was telling him to wait and see what happened.
Common sense prevailed. Leopold went to Italy and waited. The French army reached Moscow and then retreated from its ruins. By the time it crossed the border, it had been almost annihilated by the Russian winter and relentless Cossacks.
On 28 February 1813, when the Russian and Prussian leaders met at Kalish to form an alliance against Napoleon, Leopold was there. When he reported for duty, he was given the real rank of colonel and attached to the staff of the Imperial Guard.
In his first battle, the allies’ defeat at Lutzen, Leopold commanded a brigade of cavalry. It may still have been an honorary command, with other officers making the decisions, but in the Russian army, which was notorious in those days for the ineptitude of its officers, it was not difficult for an able man to get noticed. Three weeks later, at Bautzen, Leopold took charge of the brigade himself. He led it out in front of the advancing French and covered the allied retreat into Silesia.
After that Leopold was a cavalry commander. He played a key role in the victory at Kulm, where he was decorated in the field with the Cross of St George. He led a charge at the great battle of Leipzig and was decorated again, this time with the Cross of Maria Theresa. At the end of the campaign, he led the Russian heavy cavalry on its westward advance from Switzerland towards Paris, engaging the enemy at Brienne, Fere-Champenoise and Bellville.
On 31 March 1814, riding at the head of his cuirassiers, and wearing the well-earned insignia of a Lieutenant-General, Leopold escorted the Tsar of Russia and the King of Prussia into the French capital.
While he was in Paris, Leopold renewed his friendship with Hortense and visited her frequently in her blue boudoir on the Rue Cerutti. On 25 April he wrote to his sister Sophia: ‘The Tsar is going to
England, and I am very tempted to make the journey, because there will be a great many festivities. But it would cost too much.’
By then, however, the Tsar had been receiving letters from his sister in London. The proposed marriage between England and Holland was not in Russia’s best interest, but it was clear that England’s Princess Charlotte was more interested in marriage than in her future husband. If she could be introduced to a prince who was handsome, charming and successful, she might at least be induced to think twice about the Hereditary Prince of Orange.