by Susan FlantzerHer Serene Highness Princess Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont (Adelheid Emma Wilhelmina Theresia) was born on August 2, 1858 at Arolsen Castle in the town of Arolsen, the capital of the Principality of Waldeck-Pyrmont. Today the town is known as Bad Arolsen and is located in the Waldeck-Frankenberg district of Hesse in Germany. Her parents were George Victor, Sovereign Prince of Waldeck-Pyrmont and Princess Helena of Nassau. Through both of her parents, Helena was a descendant of Anne, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of King George II of Great Britain.
Helena, the fourth of seven children, had five sisters and one brother. Her brother Friedrich was the last reigning Prince of Waldeck-Pyrmont. One of her sisters married a future king and another married Queen Victoria’s youngest son. Emma’s father married again after her mother’s death in 1888, and the only child of that marriage, Emma’s half-brother Wolrad, died in action during World War I.
- Princess Sophie (1854 – 1869), died of tuberculosis
- Princess Pauline (1855 – 1925), married Alexis, Prince of Bentheim and Steinfurt, had issue
- Princess Marie (1857 – 1882), married Prince Wilhelm of Württemberg (after her death King Wilhelm II of Württemberg), had issue, died due to childbirth complications
- Princess Helena (1861 – 1922), married Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, had one son, Prince Charles Edward, last reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and one daughter, Princess Alice, last surviving grandchild of Queen Victoria
- Prince Friedrich (1865 – 1946), last reigning Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont, married Princess Bathildis of Schaumburg-Lippe, had issue
- Princess Elisabeth (1873 – 1961), married Alexander, Prince of Erbach-Schönberg, had issue
Emma had one half-brother from her father’s marriage to Princess Louise of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg:
- Prince Wolrad (1892–1914), killed in action in World War I, see Unofficial Royalty: October 1914 – Royalty and World War I
Emma’s family lived mostly at Arlosen Castle, a Baroque style home built during 1713-1728. The Scottish philosopher, historian, and writer Thomas Carlyle was a great friend of Emma’s mother and a frequent visitor to Arlosen Castle. Carlyle described life at Arlosen Castle as a “pumpernickel court.” Emma had a Lutheran education from a very liberal minded pastor. With her English governess, Emma studied crafts, drawing and French literature. She traveled with her family to France, England, Italy, and Scandinavia. In an interview in 1929, Emma said that her mother was at the center of the family life and very active in her children’s education.
In 1877, Queen Sophie, the first wife of King Willem III of the Netherlands died, and Willem was eager to marry again to ensure the future of the House of Orange. One of his three children (all sons), Prince Maurits, had died in 1850 and neither of the other two sons was married. King Willem’s reputation was not a good one. He had many mistresses and many illegitimate children. Queen Sophie had lived apart from him from 1855 until her death. Willem’s ministers had decisively rejected a marriage with a French opera singer and then two eligible princesses refused to marry him. At the suggestion of his only sister, he got in touch with the royal couple of Waldeck and Pyrmont, who had several marriageable daughters. In July of 1878, Willem visited the family at their summer home where he met 23-year-old Princess Pauline and 20-year-old Princess Emma. His eyes first fell on Pauline, but soon he chose Emma and proposed to her. Willem was 61 years old, 41 years older than Emma. Emma had lessons in Dutch language and history before her marriage because she wanted to come to her new country Dutch. The couple was married on January 7, 1879 in Arolsen. Emma had a positive influence on Willem and the marriage was extremely happy. The last decade of Willem’s life was definitely the best years of his reign.
In September of 1879, Willem’s eldest son Prince Willem died, leaving only one son. On August 31, 1880, Emma and Willem’s only child, a daughter, Wilhelmina Helena Pauline Maria was born. The Netherlands followed the Sem-Salic Law which allowed for female succession only if there were no male dynasts alive. At the time of Wilhelmina’s birth, her half-brother Prince Alexander and the King’s uncle Prince Frederik were alive, so Wilhelmina was third in the line of succession. Prince Frederik died in 1881 and upon the death of Prince Alexander in 1884, Wilhelmina became the heir presumptive to the Dutch throne and Emma was appointed to be Regent if Wilhelmina came to the throne before her majority.
In 1888, King Willem’s health began to decline. When it became apparent that Willem could no longer reign, Emma was sworn in as Regent on November 20, 1890. Three days later King Willem III died and ten-year-old Wilhelmina became Queen. Emma took over as Regent for her daughter until Wilhelmina’s eighteenth birthday in 1898. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg could not be inherited by a woman at that time and it passed to a distant cousin Adolphe, Duke of Nassau who was also Queen Emma’s maternal uncle.
Emma took her position of Regent seriously. She met personally with every government minister at least once every two weeks and strictly adhered to the rules of the constitutional monarchy. She was open to anyone who wanted to talk to her and insisted that she personally open and handle as much mail as possible. In addition to her administrative duties, Emma paid great attention to the education of her daughter. When Wilhelmina reached the age of 16, Emma considered her childhood over and Wilhelmina spent the next two years being prepped for her job as a reigning queen.
As reigning queen, the young Queen Wilhelmina insisted on making her own way and tried to resist any pressures from her mother. Occasionally, Wilhelmina had to rely on the extensive knowledge of Emma in protocol matters. Initially, the two queens lived together in Noordeinde Palace, but when Wilhelmina married, Emma retired to the Palace Lange Voorhout. Emma was active in the fight against tuberculosis, then the number one disease. She had lost her sisters Sophie to tuberculosis.
In 1909, when Wilhelmina’s only child Juliana was born, planning for an unexpected regency during the minority of Juliana occurred. Wilhelmina’s husband Prince Hendrik (born Prince Heinrich of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) was found unsuitable by the government to act as Regent. Those in the government had fond memories of Emma as Regent and Wilhelmina agreed. Emma was appointed as Regent from 1909 to the majority of Princess Juliana in 1927.
Emma died on March 20, 1934 at the age of 75 from pneumonia. She first had a cold which developed into bronchitis and then because there were no antibiotics yet, the bronchitis developed into fatal pneumonia. Her remains were buried at the Royal Vault of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the Netherlands.