by Susan Flantzer
The first wife of King Willem I of the Netherlands, Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia (Friederike Luise Wilhelmine) was born in Potsdam, Prussia (now in Germany) on November 18, 1774. Her parents were King Frederick William II of Prussia and Friederike Luise of Hesse-Darmstadt. Wilhelmine had one half-sister from her father’s first disastrous marriage to Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg and four brothers and two sisters:
- Princess Frederica of Prussia, half-sister (1767–1820), married Frederick, Duke of York, second son of King George III of the United Kingdom, no issue
- King Frederick William III of Prussia (1770–1840), married Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had issue
- Princess Christine of Prussia (1772–73)
- Prince Ludwig Karl of Prussia (1773–96), married Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, had issue
- Princess Augusta of Prussia (1780–1841), married Wilhelm II, Elector of Hesse, had issue
- Prince Heinrich of Prussia (1781–1846), unmarried
- Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (1783–1851), married Marie Anna of Hesse-Homburg, had issue
Wilhelmine was called Mimi in the family and her sense of duty was influenced by her great uncle King Friedrich II (the Great) of Prussia. Her education included the ideas of the French philosopher Voltaire which were popular at the Prussian court and learning several languages. Wilhelmine was musically gifted and an excellent artist.
On October 1, 1791 in the royal palace in Berlin, Prussia, Wilhelmine married her first cousin Prince Willem of Orange-Nassau (later King Willem I of the Netherlands), son of Willem V, Prince of Orange and Princess Wilhelmina of Prussia, the bride’s aunt. The wedding celebrations lasted seventeen days. The marriage was arranged as an alliance between Prussia and the House of Orange, but it was also a love match. After the marriage, the couple lived at Noordeinde Palace in The Hague, Netherlands.
The couple had four children:
- King Willem II of the Netherlands (1792 – 1849), married Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, had issue including King Willem III of the Netherlands
- Prince Frederik of the Netherlands (1797 – 1881), married Princess Louise of Prussia, had issue including Louise, wife of King Carl XV of Sweden
- Princess Pauline of Orange-Nassau (1800 – 1806), died young
- Princess Marianne of the Netherlands (1810 – 1883), married Prince Albert of Prussia, had issue
Wilhelmine and Willem’s family life was disrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. The French invaded the Dutch Republic in 1795 and the family went into exile first in England and then in 1796 in Prussia where they lived until 1813. In 1806, Willem’s father died and he inherited the title Prince of Orange. In 1813, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Leipzig, the French retreated all over Europe including the Dutch Republic. On November 13, 1813 Willem returned to his homeland, landing only a few yards from the place where he had left with his father 18 years before. The provisional government offered Willem the title of King, which he refused, instead proclaiming himself Sovereign Prince. He was also made Grand Duke of Luxembourg, receiving that territory in return for trading his hereditary German lands to Prussia and the Duke of Nassau. When Napoleon escaped from Elba, his place of exile, Willem felt threatened. Urged on by the powers who met at the Congress of Vienna, Willem proclaimed the Netherlands a monarchy on March 16, 1815. After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and his second exile, the Congress of Vienna formally confirmed Willem as the hereditary ruler of what was known as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Wilhelmine was not successful in her role as Queen. While she still contributed generously to charities, her subjects thought her cold and distant as she only came in contact with family and her court ladies. In the areas that are now modern-day Belgium, Wilhelmine was ridiculed for her old fashioned German style of dress. Wilhelmine and her court spent the summers at Noordeinde Palace in The Hague and the summers at Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn, Netherlands or at the Royal Palace of Laeken in Brussels (now in Belgium). Wilhelmine and Wilhelm traveled annually to Berlin, where they performed duties on behalf of Wilhelmine’s brother King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.
In 1820 Wilhelmine’s health worsened and by 1829, she rarely appeared in public. Her condition was not helped by the tense relationship between her husband and her eldest son and by the 1830-1831 Belgian Revolution which resulted in the secession of the southern provinces from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Belgium.
Her last trip was to Berlin in May-June 1837 for the christening of her grandson Prince Albert of Prussia, the son of her daughter Marianne. Despite her ill health, Wilhelmine was determined to make this trip. Beyond exhaustion upon her return, Wilhelmine spent the summer at Het Loo Palace. On October 4, 1837, Wilhelmine and her husband traveled to Noordeinde Palace in The Hague. The trip greatly weakened Wilhelmine and once in The Hague, her condition worsened. Queen Wilhelmine died on October 12, 1837 at the age of 63, with her family at her bedside. She was buried in the Royal Vault of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the Netherlands.
King Willem I abdicated in 1840 due to constitutional changes he did not agree with, anger over the loss of Belgium, and his desire to make a morganatic second marriage with Henriëtte d’Oultremont after the death of Wilhelmine. He died in exile in Berlin on December 12, 1843. His remains were buried at the Royal Vault of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.