by Susan Flantzer
Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (Ernst Anton Karl Ludwig) was born January 2, 1784, in Coburg, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, now in Bavaria, Germany. He was the eldest son of Franz Friedrich Anton, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Augusta of Reuss-Ebersdorf. Among the seven of his ten siblings who survived childhood were Leopold I, King of the Belgians; Victoria, the mother of Queen Victoria; Juliane, who married Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia, the younger brother of Tsar Alexander I; and Ferdinand, whose descendants sat on the Portuguese and Bulgarian thrones.
Because his sister had married into the Russian Imperial Family, Ernst received commissions as colonel and general of Russian army regiments. On May 10, 1803, Ernst was legally declared an adult so he could participate in the duchy’s government as his father was seriously ill. In October of 1806, Ernst fought on the Prussian side in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt which pitted the forces of Emperor Napoleon I of France and King Frederick William III of Prussia against each other. The loss suffered by the Prussian army subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for six years.
Ernst’s father died on December 9, 1806, and Ernst succeeded him as Ernst III, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. However, as Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was occupied by Napoleon’s troops and under French administration, Ernst could not gain control of the government. In 1807, with the help of Russia, the Treaties of Tilsit restored control of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld to Ernst.
Ernst served as a general in the Prussian Army and participated in campaigns against Napoleon. After the Napoleonic Wars, Ernst worked on rebuilding the duchy. In 1821, he gave the country a new constitution. He promoted science and the arts and built theaters in Coburg and Gotha. Ernst oversaw romantic neo-Gothic renovations to the castles Rosenau, Ehrenburg, Callenberg, and Reinhardsbrunn and established the English-style landscape park at the castles.
Ernst was long content with bachelorhood until his mother insisted he marry to provide the duchy with heirs. Ernst considered several candidates for marriage, including some of the daughters of Tsar Paul of Russia, but he settled on Princess Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, the only child and heiress of Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg and Louise Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. She was a lively, romantic, and well-educated girl who was excited at the prospect of marrying Ernst, whom she thought was handsome and kind. There is some indication that Louise had heard about Ernst’s womanizing (and his several illegitimate children) before her marriage, but by all accounts, she was optimistic for a happy life with him.
Ernst was her distant cousin and 33 years old to Louise’s 16 at the time of the wedding. The match was arranged by Ernst’s mother to bring Louise’s territory of Gotha to the duchy. Due to the Salic Law in force in the duchy, Louise could not rule the territories herself, but a husband or son could claim them on her behalf. Louise also brought a healthy dowry to the marriage, which could be used to restore Saxe-Coburg’s long-faltering finances.
The wedding was held in Gotha on July 3, 1817. The couple had two sons:
- Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (June 21, 1818 – August 22, 1893), married Princess Alexandrine of Baden, no issue
- Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (August 26, 1819 – December 14, 1861), married Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, had issue
Although the marriage was initially happy, the couple soon grew apart due to Ernst’s infidelities. After discovering Louise’s affair with her chamberlain in 1824, Ernst forced Louise out of the duchy. She was exiled and permanently cut off from her children. The couple was officially divorced on March 31, 1826. Louise died of cancer in 1831 at the age of 30.
In 1825, while Ernst and Louise’s divorce proceedings were occurring, Friedrich IV, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, Louise’s uncle, died without an heir. This necessitated a rearrangement of the Ernestine duchies. Ernst received Gotha and ceded Saalfeld to Saxe-Meiningen. He subsequently became Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
On December 23, 1832, Ernst married his niece Marie of Württemberg, the daughter of his sister Antoinette. The couple had no children and had little in common, but Marie had a loving relationship with her stepsons.
Ernst died on January 29, 1844, at Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha. He was initially buried in the crypt of the Church of St. Moritz in Coburg. In 1860, his remains were re-interred in the Ducal Mausoleum in Glockenberg Cemetery.