Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1818-1893)

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– Ernst II

A Devoted Brother

Ernst August Karl Johann Leopold Alexander Eduard was born at Ehrenburg Palace in Coburg on 21 June 1818 and was the eldest son of Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg

Ernst and his younger brother, Albert, were the only legitimate children born to the Duke who also had three illegitimate children. Ernst’s parents had an unhappy marriage which resulted in their mother being forced out of the family home when she was discovered to be having an affair and she was barred from seeing her sons. As a result, Ernst and Albert would form a close bond which would last until Albert’s death in 1861. After their mother’s death in 1831, the boys gained a new stepmother when their father married Duchess Marie of Württemberg who was also his niece. Both Albert and Ernst became close to Marie but no children were born of the marriage.

Ernst and Albert were taught fluent English from a young age as they were both considered prospective husbands for Victoria of Kent, heiress presumptive of the British throne, with Ernst being more like her in temperament. When the brothers travelled to England to meet Victoria in 1836, she found them both appealing but seemed to prefer the more introspective Albert. Once Ernst and Albert had returned home, Victoria continued to correspond with Albert and rumours of an impending marriage curtailed the brothers’ time at the University of Bonn. Victoria finally proposed to Albert in 1839 and while the marriage would separate the brothers, Ernst would always remains an important figure in their lives.

Now that Albert was safely married, the attention soon turned towards finding Ernst a suitable bride who would provide him an heir. Ernst’s father wanted him to marry a high profile bride to elevate the status of the duchy and to emulate Albert’s success, however Ernst chose Alexandrine of Baden, the eldest daughter of  Leopold, Grand Duke of Baden, and Princess Sophie of Sweden. The couple were married in Karlsruhe on 3 May 1842 but they would remain childless, probably due to the fact Ernst had contracted a venereal disease in his teens which had most likely made his wife infertile. The marriage was not a happy one and while Alexandrine remained loyal to her husband, he continued to be unfaithful and fathered at least three illegitimate children.

Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha

On 29 January 1844, Ernst inherited the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha after the death of his father but his reign would be plagued with financial problems which would cause him to rely on the generosity of his brother. As political turmoil swept through the German states in 1848, Ernst was able to keep hold of his throne due to his popularity with the people of Coburg who liked his down to earth manner. When the war over the twin duchies of Schleswig-Holstein first broke out in 1848 between Denmark and Prussia, Ernst expressed his desire for a military command but was later disappointed when he was given a lower ranked position. Nevertheless, Ernst managed to distinguish himself at the battle of Eckernförde on 5 April 1849 where he gained a victory over the Danish forces.

While the Schleswig-Holstein war initially ended in 1851, it would never be fully resolved and war broke out again in 1864 which led to Ernst opposing a prospective marriage of his nephew, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, to Alexandra of Denmark. When Ernst made his views known, Albert told his brother the matter was none of his business and that Alexandra was the only suitable choice available to them. Albert maintained the marriage negotiations would remain private with neither government involved to avoid the political ramifications.

Albert’s sudden death on 14 December 1861 shattered Ernst but he continued to campaign against the marriage which set him at odds with Queen Victoria. Seeing that he could not persuade Victoria against the match, Ernst began spreading gossip about Alexandra’s moral character and implied her mother had indulged in affairs which questioned the legitimacy of her children. Ernst also met Bertie in Thebes in an attempt to dissuade him for the marriage which infuriated Victoria. Ernst’s attempts to damage Alexandra’s reputation were in vain and she married Bertie on 10 March 1863.

On 23 October 1862, Ernst became a leading candidate for the Greek throne after Otto I was deposed and the Greeks were keen to have someone close to the British monarchy. After attempts to have Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, named as king, the Greeks were encouraged to consider Ernst. If Ernst agreed, the duchy could then be inherited by Prince Alfred, however Ernst expressed a desire to remain as duke while simultaneously ascending the Greek throne which was unacceptable to the British government. Ernst’s childlessness was also a problem as he would be forced to adopt one of his German relatives to solve the issue. When Ernst learned he would be unable to remain as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, he turned the throne down and it was finally taken by Princess Alexandra’s younger brother, William of Denmark, who ruled as George I.

Appointing an Heir

Once it became obvious Ernst would not have an heir, the inheritance of the duchy would fall to Albert’s eldest son, Bertie, however the British government had no desire for a personal union with Coburg and Bertie passed his succession rights on to his younger brother, Alfred. The prospect of Alfred inheriting the duchy was not without its problems either as Ernst was well within his rights to demand the young prince be raised and educated in Coburg, however Albert refused since he was well aware a British prince being raised German would not please the British public. Instead, Alfred remained in Britain where he would eventually pursue a career in the Royal Navy much to Ernst’s chagrin. After Albert’s death, Victoria accepted Ernst needed some input into Alfred’s future and she made a few concessions which included his attendance at the University of Bonn.

On 25 January 1858, Victoria and Albert’s eldest daughter, Vicky, married Prince Frederick of Prussia and Albert had high hopes his daughter’s influence would lead to a unified but liberal Germany. Sadly, the expectations placed on his daughter and son-in-law would prove to be an impossible task as Prussia was set on a course of domination. Ernst had shared his brother’s views, however his decision to support Prussia during the Austro-Prussian war took Queen Victoria by surprise even if it delighted his niece. While having no love for the autocratic rule of the Prussians, Ernst was savvy enough to realise the survival of Coburg depended on his showing support of Prussia. As other sovereign states were slowly swallowed up by the might Prussian machine, Coburg and Ernst’s reign as duke was safe.

In 1886, Ernst anonymously published a pamphlet entitled Co-Regents and Foreign Influence in Germany which accused his niece, Crown Princess Victoria, of being too dependent on her mother and for passing on confidential information to Britain. Although Ernst’s name wasn’t on the publication, it was obvious it had been written by him and Queen Victoria was furious with him. The relationship between them became even more estranged when Victoria learned Ernst was publishing his memoirs as she fretted about what he would write about her beloved Albert. Victoria had attempted to remain close to Ernst, mainly because of Albert, but it had become increasingly difficult over the years as Ernst’s behaviour had become more eccentric.

Ernst died on 22 August 1893 after a short illness and he was buried in the ducal mausoleum in the Friedhof am Glockenberg which he had built between 1853–58. Ernst was succeeded by Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, but the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha would cease to exist after the First World War.

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