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European RoyalsFeaturesThe Netherlands

The Fifteen Princesses of Orange: Wilhelmina of Prussia

Wilhelmina of Prussia was born on 7 August 1751 to Prince Augustus William of Prussia and Duchess Luise of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Her brother succeeded as Frederick William II of Prussia. She barely knew her father as he died when she was 7 years old. She was raised mostly by her grandmother, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover and her aunt, Elisabeth Christine. One of her first governesses was abusive and neglected her often, without the family realising. It must have been a relief when she was replaced by another governess.

Her education was limited to religion, geography, history and French. She shared a household with her brothers Henry and Frederick William and his wife and cousin Elisabeth of Brunswick-Lüneberg. This ended rather dramatically when Henry died suddenly and Elisabeth was disgraced due to an affair.

Princess Wilhelmina by Johann Georg Ziesenis in 1779

At the age of 16 Wilhelmina married 19-year-old William V. They met for the first time on the day of the wedding. Wilhelmina was quiet and withdrawn at first. Her first child was born in 1769 but he died at birth. A healthy daughter, Louise, followed in 1770 but was again followed by a stillborn child in 1771. She gave birth to two healthy sons in 1772 en 1774, William Frederick (William) and William George Frederick (Frederick) (are you keeping up with all these Williams?). Meanwhile, their marriage was friendly at best. She was loyal to her husband but their characters did not match.

By 1785 the country was on the brink of civil war. The family left and headed towards the more prince-friendly Nijmegen. Wilhelmina took charge and on 28 June 1781 she took a small following unannounced to The Hague to plead William’s case. She was stopped near Schoonhoven and arrested. She was taken to a farm where she was questioned and then escorted back to where they had been stopped. She was not allowed to continue to The Hague and was forced to return to Nijmegen. For her mistreatment she demanded reparation and she was now supported by her brother, the King of Prussia. An international conflict now loomed. On 13 September Prussian troops entered the Republic. By 9 October the country was under control.

William and Wilhelmina finally returned to The Hague and the persons involved in her arrest were severely punished. However, her harsh reaction made her unpopular, even those in favor of their cause. More trouble was to come. In 1789 the French Revolution began and by 1793 the French King and Queen had been guillotined and Wilhelmina’s cousin the King of Sweden was murdered. Wilhelmine herself received death threats. In 1793 the French Revolutionary government declared war on William and the French invaded in the winter of 1794. Wilhelmina and her family fled to England on 18 January 1795.

Their time in exile was to last almost 20 years. During some of this time they lived at Hampton Court Palace on an allowance from his cousin, King George III of Great Britain. Their eldest son William left for Berlin quickly. Their second Frederick died in 1799 in Austrian military service. Their daughter Louise had married Hereditary Prince Charles George August of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel on 14 October 1790 and was living in Brunswick. In 1801 her husband left to live in Nassau, one of theirs properties in Germany. She followed him in 1802. They lived a withdrawn life for four years. Wilhelmina’s husband died on 9 April 1806 and she went to live with her daughter Louise, who had also been recently widowed. The Napoleonic German expansion  again forced them to move. Louise and Wilhelmina fled to Schwerin and Schleswig, where they spent the winter. They travelled on towards Weimar and then to Berlin, arriving in late 1807. The two women stayed in Berlin for a while.

The fall of Napoleon in 1813 changed everything and plans were made to welcome her eldest son William as the Netherlands’ first sovereign. He returned to the Netherlands in November 1813 and Wilhelmina and Louise followed in early 1814. On 16 March 1815 William was proclaimed William I of the Netherlands. Wilhelmina spent the last years of her life living in The Hague, Haarlem and the Loo Palace. She died on 9 June 1820, a year after her daughter Louise. She was interred in the family crypt in Delft on 7 November 1822.

Photocredit: Princess Wilhelmina in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.