How is it that a small German town has ties to almost all of Europe's royal families?
As in many rural German villages, the public life of contemporary Coburg plays out in the marktplatz, the main square, where locals in cafes linger over tall glasses of cloudy beer topped with two inches of head, cappuccinos, and apfel strudels. They smoke as if news hasn’t arrived yet that tobacco may not be good for you.
Between the town hall with its stucco façade and another building painted with the outline of red blocks resembling mason stones, fruit stall vendors weigh produce for a crowd of picky buyers while a queue forms at a food truck purveying the local specialty — Coburger Rostbratwurste, a marbled gray-black sausage with a cable of mustard hanging over both sides of a palm-sized roll.
I take a seat at a cafe whose specialty is gelato and waffles, and squint hard at the menu in German.
“What is zimt?” I ask the waitress.
She touches her chin and smiles uncomprehendingly — as if I dropped in from another planet, though it’s apparent that I intend no harm — then conferences with two colleagues. “Zimt,” she reports back to me, “is Christmas.”
“Good enough,” I say. “I’ll have waffles with sugar and Christmas.”
That locals don’t speak much English is not surprising considering that Coburg, a village of 42,000 in the state of Franconia, is bordered on three sides by what we used to call East Germany, what the Germans still call the GDR, and what anyone who isn’t from here would call remote. There aren’t many English-speaking visitors.
Yet given the English-speakers who used to come here, the lack of English says quite a lot. Coburg, after all, is where Britain’s House of Windsor has its roots. In the center of the marktplatz stands a statue of Prince Albert, the light and love of Queen Victoria, who, though no one knows if she spoke German, was also of Coburger stock. Jets of water shoot up from the stone floor around Albert. Someone has tied balloons and laid pink flowers in purple pots at his feet.
I wind up lingering longer than the locals.
“Zimt,” I tell the waitress when she hands me the bill, “is cinnamon.”
She smiles politely, and I suspect we share one thought in two languages, which is why I have some peculiar need for her to know.
What I want to know was how Coburg, a place whose star had once shone so brightly, could have faded so completely. Six billion people, more or less, have never heard of the place. Yet not all that long ago, Coburg was the nexus of European aristocracy, the epicenter of a network whose influence spanned from the Bering Sea to the Amazon River, from the southernmost tip of Africa to the Arctic Circle. It wasn’t just the British royals, either. With the exception of Holland, every royal clan in Europe has historical family ties to Coburg.
“Coburg itself was not a center of power in the way Berlin or Paris were,” says art historian Franciska Bachner. “But this is where they came to talk and where a lot of negotiations took place and decisions were made.”
At the Callenberg Castle, which is still privately owned by the Coburg family but today functions as a museum, Bachner escorts me through galleries with portraits that lead you through five centuries of personalities, status symbols, fashions, and hairstyles. One paneled suite has walls hung with miniature portraits of seven small children.
“At the time they were painted, no one knew who these children would become,” she says.
The seven siblings represent the pre-history of Victoria and Albert, and of much of the rest of Europe.
By the 1790s, the duke and duchess who reigned over the territory had fallen into debt. They had seven surviving children (two others died in childhood) including four beautiful daughters and three dashing sons. That they were good-looking is essential to the nonfiction fairy tale. When word came that the Russian son of Catherine the Great — herself a German — was looking for a wife, the duchess stuffed the family coach-and-four with provisions and three of her daughters (the youngest, just nine-years-old, wasn’t quite ready) and made the four-month journey to St. Petersburg, where the prince fell for one daughter and richly rewarded the family. Better than money, though, was access. Thanks to the glass slipper of marriage, the family entered the best salons of 19th-century Europe.
Marriage had always been a strategy for forming alliances, but in the hands of the Coburgs it escalated a provincial duchy to fame and riches.
“The important thing to understand is that the marriages were all successful,” says Bachner, “even if they weren’t always happy.”
One marriage that was happy was Victoria’s 21-year union with Albert, a story that’s contained in the Ehrenburg Palace a block off the marktplatz. The Family Gallery at the Ehrenburg has portraits of Ernst I and Augusta, the patriarch and matriarch — and the grandparents of both Victoria and Albert, who in addition to being spouses were first cousins and who appear in a portrait with their son, Edward VII, when the future king was the 7-year-old Prince of Wales.
The palace’s opulent rooms and passages include the Hall of the Giants; 28 muscular figures rise out of scrolls and appear to support the high ceiling, whose frescoes are divided into panels. Crimson silk damask covers the walls of the Red Reception Room, whose checkered parquet floor is inlaid with the coat of arms while the rest of the room has paintings, furnishings and ornaments that divide the room between the princely virtues and vices, and mythological themes.
Victoria’s chambers at the Ehrenburg Palace tell about her life here. She visited for the first time in 1845 — a pretty, petite young woman with large brown eyes five years into her marriage. For all the talk of strategic pairings, theirs was a genuine love story. To ease Albert’s homesickness, she had scenes of Coburg painted in his rooms at Buckingham Palace. After he died suddenly of typhoid at 42 in 1861, Victoria wore black for the 40 years she outlived him. That image, dour and forbidding, is the one that clings to history, but it was the happy times in Coburg that Victoria clung to herself.
“If I weren’t the person who I am,” she wrote in her diary during one of her seven visits, “my home would be here.”
By the time of her last visit to Coburg in 1894, Victoria had become a huge figure — towering at the head of the British Empire, her five-foot-tall frame having expanded to 250 pounds. She could not manage stairs to the second floor, so an elevator was installed that four men lifted with ropes. Her Royal Highness had another throne installed next to her bed — Germany’s first flushing toilet.
The technological wonder, from a reserve of time, is also a metaphor for the direction Coburg’s prestige would take after Victoria’s death in 1901.
World War I of course shattered the unity of European royalty. The British royals were linked to the House of Coburg, or as the full name goes, of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha. But Gotha had a bomb-making factory, and having explosives stamped with the family name falling on British subjects was untenable. The British family adopted a new name and was henceforth known as the House of Windsor.
Even so, the family continued to have quiet contact. Charles Edward, then the head of the House of Coburg, had been beloved by his grandmother, Queen Victoria. But when Adolph Hitler came along, Coburgers in general and Charles Edward in particular embraced him. If the Great War damaged the family tree, World War II took it up at the roots.
“My grandfather came to Germany at a young age, but he served against England in the Second War,” Prince Andreas, the 65-year-old current head of the House of Coburg. “It isolated the family and Coburg fell out of the picture. There was no connection anymore to the other families in Belgium or England.”
The royal link spared Coburg the firestorms of Allied bombs but the Nazi link incinerated the House of Coburg’s prestige, and at the end of the war, it almost literally fell off the map. Surrounded on three sides by the German Democratic Republic, the village became a Cold War cul-de-sac.
There was no autobahn, no airport, no high-speed rail. “There was no reason for anyone to come here any more,” says Prince Andreas.
There may be a third reason why Coburg was forgotten: The details of its history, who is related to whom and how, are hard to remember, barely grasped before they slip away. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of who’s related to whom. “It is like a sport,” Bachner says.
Or a mind game. Walking between the Ehrenburg Palace and the Veste, a fortress where Martin Luther took refuge during the Reformation, I take a trail uphill through Coburg’s lovely public park, with martial statues and stately private homes on one side, and contemplate the family trees I’ve been reviewing. Try this one: Leopold, prior to becoming king of Belgium, married Charlotte, heiress to the British throne, but Charlotte died in childbirth before ascending to the throne, so Leopold arranged for his sister, Victoria, to marry the Duke of Kent, by whom she had Victoria, who became Queen of England, Empress of India, Eponym of an Age, who begat Victoria, a.k.a. Vicky, who wed Kaiser Friedrich and begat Kaiser Wilheim II, who is the second cousin, twice removed, of…
Say wha? And that is neither from the beginning nor toward the end. The registry of begats-and-begottens rivals the Bible, and many of the people themselves had as profound an effect on the world, for better and for worse, as almost anyone else in the 20th century.
Now, the Coburgs, or Prince Andreas, anyway, maintain their palaces — there’s another in Austria — with profits from a forestry business. The former family homes are museums to preserve the family history.
“We don’t live in them any more,” says Prince Andreas, who lives in a modern home. “It’s the 21st century. The family has to adapt to that. You want to know your heritage but that doesn’t mean you live as people did two centuries ago.”
In a setting more familiar to commoners, a biergarten, people reminisce about the Bad Old Days of living within a geographic cradle of the GDR. They tell tales of crossing the border and arriving to the eerie drabness of the other side, and what it was like after reunification, when volk from the Other Side came here. Coburg is still an anomaly: instead of aristocrats there are workers from the East, and its own native children have migrated to other parts. At the same time, life here is good. Not many places of this size have sumptuous public gardens, grand martial statues, a national theater and an opera — all things whose existence can be traced to the regal pageant.
When I ask about the next generation, the response is the knowing laughter of having touched on a familiar topic: The dynasty that depended so heavily on marriage has fallen on Prince Andreas’ three unmarried children, including a daughter and two sons who are in their 30s. The heir, 32-year-old Hubertus, lives in New York, where he works for Deutschebank.
“If you happen to know a nice princess we can introduce him to,” a local tells me, “let us know.”
For his part, Prince Andreas, who has dedicated himself to restoring the family’s ancestral relations, is content to know his children are choosing their own way and that his elder son is gaining life and professional experience in America. He is unsentimental about what the future may hold — and that includes the possibility that the family has reached the end of the line. • 16 June 2009
Todd Pitock's stories appear in magazines including Discover, Reader's Digest, and The Discovery Channel Magazine. His story on Islam and science appears in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008.