by Susan Flantzer
Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born on June 21, 1818 at Ehrenburg Palace in Coburg, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (now in Bavaria, Germany). He was the elder of the two sons of Ernst I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and his first wife Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. Ernst had one brother:
- Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861), married Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, had 5 daughters and 4 sons
Since Ernst and Albert were close in age, they were also close companions during their childhood. However, their childhood was marred by their parents’ disastrous marriage, separation, and divorce. Ernst’s mother and father were very different and drifted apart soon after Albert’s birth. Ernst’s father was a notorious womanizer and as a result, his young wife Louise (who was 17 years younger than her husband) sought consolation with Baron Alexander von Hanstein, who was the Duke’s equerry. Louise was exiled from court in 1824 and divorced in March of 1826. Seven months later, Louise secretly married von Hanstein. She died in 1831 at the age of 30 from cancer. After Louise’s exile from court in 1824, it is probable that she never saw her sons again. In 1831, the Duke married again to Duchess Marie of Württemberg, his niece who was the daughter of his sister Antoinette. The Duke and Marie had no children, but Marie had a good relationship with her stepsons (who were also her first cousins).
Ernst, along with his brother Albert, was first educated at home by a caring tutor, Johann Christoph Florschütz. Florschütz supervised the brothers over the next 15 years and was their primary caregiver. The brothers had lessons in German, Latin, English, French, history, science, philosophy, and geography. Their father often took lunch with his sons and occasionally took them hunting, but played only a minor role in their education. From June 1836 – April 1837, Ernst studied mathematics, philosophy, foreign languages, and public and constitutional doctrine with private tutors in Brussels, Belgium (where his paternal uncle was King Leopold I of the Belgians) and then studied at the University of Bonn, which many German princes attended. While at the University of Bonn, Ernst studied law and philosophy. In Dresden, Saxony, Ernst received a military education with the Royal Saxon Guards Cavalry.
At the urging of his brother Albert, who had married Queen Victoria in 1840, Ernst began his search for a bride. However, Ernst was suffering from a venereal disease as a result of his many affairs. He had been warned that continued promiscuity could leave him unable to father children. On May 13, 1842 in Karlsruhe, Baden (now in Germany) Ernst married Princess Alexandrine of Baden, the daughter of Leopold I, Grand Duke of Baden and Princess Sophie of Sweden. Ernst had at least three illegitimate children, but his marriage was childless, perhaps due to Ernst passing the venereal disease to Alexandrine causing her to become infertile. Alexandrine was loyal and devoted to her husband despite his infidelities, and believed that their lack of children was her fault.
On January 29, 1844, Ernst’s father died and he became Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Ernst had financial difficulties throughout his reign due to his extravagance. In 1852, the constitutions of Coburg and Gotha merged into one constitution, converting the personal union of the two duchies into a real union. Ernst was against his nephew Edward, Prince of Wales (Bertie) marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark due to the Schleswig-Holstein Question, the relation of two duchies, Schleswig and Holstein to the Danish crown and to the German Confederation. He had a reputation for being a strong friend of the United States. However, Ernst was the only European sovereign to appoint an ambassador to the Confederate States of America. In 1862, after Otto of Bavaria, King of Greece was deposed, Ernst was considered as Otto’s replacement. Eventually, the Princess of Wales’ younger brother Prince William of Denmark would become King George I of Greece. Ernst was in favor of a German unified, federal state and supported Prussia in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. In 1871, he was on the podium in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles when King Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor.
Ernst was an excellent musician, an amateur composer, and a great patron of the arts and sciences in Coburg. He was friend and patron of the German writer Gustav Freytag and the “Waltz King” Johann Strauss. From February to May 1862, Ernst took a trip to Africa with travel writer Friedrich Gerstäcker and the zoologist Alfred Brehm, and described his experiences in a book. Ernst enriched the art collection at the Veste Coburg and at Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha and the collection became part of the Ducal Museum in Gotha.
Although Queen Victoria loved Ernst because he was her dear Albert’s brother, he annoyed her. In 1891, when Victoria and Ernst met in France, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting wrote “…the old Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha has been here today with his wife. He is the Prince Consort’s only brother and an awful looking man, the Queen dislikes him particularly. He is always writing anonymous pamphlets against the Queen and the Empress Frederick, which naturally creates a great deal of annoyance in the family…” Queen Marie of Romania, born Princess Marie of Edinburgh, said of her great uncle, he is “… an old beau, squeezed into a frock-coat too tight for his bulk and uncomfortably pinched in at the waist’, sporting a top hat, lemon coloured gloves, and a rosebud in his lapel.”
Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha died after a short illness at the age of 75 at Schloss Reinhardsbrunn in Coburg on August 22, 1893. Thousands of people came to view the funeral procession. He was buried in the Ducal Mausoleum in the Glockenberg Cemetery. Ernst was succeeded by his nephew Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh.