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Who Is Leopold? (Part 2)

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 Rhine. Coburg became the 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 in Tilsit, on 7 July 1807, was that Coburg, while remaining pert 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 handsomeest man who ever set foot in the Tuileries.

In terms of position and wordly 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 give birth to a child.

to be continued …

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

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Who Is Leopold? (Part 1)

Prince Leopold George 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 […] 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 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.

to be continued …

[an extract from ‘Charlotte&Leopold’ by James Chambers]

Picture: Leopold I of Belgium by George Dawe, 19th century, Royal Collection.