by Scott Mehl
Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria
Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria was born on February 26, 1861, at the Palais Coburg in Vienna. At birth, he was Prince Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Koháry, a member of the Catholic Koháry branch of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was the son of Prince August of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Koháry and Princess Clémentine of Orléans, daughter of King Louis Philippe I of the French.
Ferdinand had four older siblings:
- Prince Philipp (1844) – married Princess Louise of Belgium, had issue
- Prince Ludwig August (1845) – married Princess Leopoldina of Brazil, had issue
- Princess Clotilde (1846) – married Archduke Joseph Karl of Austria, had issue
- Princess Amalie (1848) – married Maximilian, Duke in Bavaria
The Koháry branch began with Ferdinand’s grandfather who married Princess Maria Antonia Koháry de Csábrág et Szitnya, who was Catholic. She was the daughter and heiress of one of the largest landowners in Hungary. Upon her father’s death in 1826, the couple inherited his estates and fortune, at which point her husband and rest of the family converted to Roman Catholicism and added Koháry to the family name.
Prince Ferdinand grew up in Vienna, where his father was a General in the Austrian military. He attended and graduated from the Theresianum Academy and became a Colonel in the Second Regiment of the Austrian Hussars, where he would remain until 1887. From a young age, he developed an interest in ornithology, entomology, and botany – subjects which fascinated him his entire life. During his schooling, he and his brother Ludwig August embarked on a scientific expedition on the Amazon River, after which Ferdinand published a study, ‘Description of Birds by Prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ in 1884.
In 1886, after the abdication of Alexander of Battenberg as reigning Knyaz (Prince) of Bulgaria, a search began for a new prince. While many European princes refused, fearing the same fate as Alexander Battenberg, Prince Ferdinand’s name was put forth by his mother. Following a vote by the National Assembly, Ferdinand was elected Knyaz of Bulgaria on July 7, 1887, although he remained unrecognized by the Great Powers.
Knowing that establishing a royal house and ensuring the succession would be crucial in order to be recognized as sovereign, Ferdinand married Princess Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma on April 20, 1893. She was the daughter of Robert I, Duke of Parma and Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. The marriage had been arranged by Ferdinand’s mother, and the couple hadn’t met until the day of their engagement. Despite Ferdinand’s complete disinterest in his wife, the couple had four children:
- Tsar Boris III (1894) – married Princess Giovanna of Italy, had issue
- Prince Kyril (1895) – unmarried, killed in 1945
- Princess Eudoxia (1898) – unmarried
- Princess Nadezhda (1899) – married Duke Albrecht Eugen of Württemberg, had issue
The early years of Ferdinand’s reign brought Bulgaria to the forefront of the Balkan countries, primarily due to the efforts of Prime Minister Stefan Stambolov. However, Russia had severed diplomatic relations, and Tsar Alexander III was strongly opposed to recognizing Ferdinand as Prince. After Alexander’s death, his son Tsar Nicholas II, who was much more moderate, proposed reconciliation provided that Ferdinand’s heir be raised in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Despite the feelings of Ferdinand’s Catholic family, he realized that formal recognition from Russia would be necessary before any European country would recognize him. On February 2, 1896, Ferdinand had his son Boris baptized in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, with Tsar Nicholas II as a godparent. Soon after, Ferdinand was recognized as Prince of Bulgaria by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Ferdinand quickly began to bring Bulgaria to the level of other European monarchies.
The Bulgarian army became one of the most powerful in the Balkan region and Ferdinand established Universities, an Arts Academy, a Seminary, and technical schools around the country. He personally founded the Institute of Natural Sciences with a museum, zoo and botanical gardens. The nation’s railway and road network was developed, and post offices and telegraph stations opened across the country.
Ferdinand’s wife, Marie Louise, died on January 31, 1899 after the birth of their youngest child. Nine years later, on February 28, 1908, he remarried to Princess Princess Eleonore Reuss of Köstritz. She stepped in as a mother to his children, although the couple did not have any children together.
Since its establishment as a principality, Bulgaria had been under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. However, on October 5, 1908, Ferdinand proclaimed independence, elevating Bulgaria to a kingdom and becoming Tsar Ferdinand I. Much of the next ten years was consumed by war. The First Balkan War in 1912 saw significant land gains, but these were nearly all negated by losses during the Second Balkan War the following year. And soon, World War I had begun. At the beginning, Bulgaria remained neutral while being courted by both sides due to the country’s location and strong military. Having entered the war in the fall of 1915, siding with the Central Powers, initial successes were soon overshadowed by significant losses and defeats. On October 3, 1918, taking full responsibility for the loss of the war, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his son Boris. Ferdinand settled in Coburg, where he devoted his time to his favorite pastimes – art, gardening, travel, and history.
In 1943, his son, Tsar Boris III, died after visiting Hitler in Germany and was succeeded by his own son Simeon who was just six years old. In 1945, Ferdinand’s other son, Kyril, was executed, and in 1946, the young Simeon was deposed, and the Bulgarian monarchy abolished. Heartbroken at the loss of his family and his kingdom, Ferdinand died in Coburg on September 10, 1948. Unable to be buried in Bulgaria at the time, his remains were temporarily placed in the crypt of St. Augustine’s Church in Coburg, beside those of his parents. They remain there to this day.