Thuringia and the Royals of Europe
The Ernestine dynasty who ruled in Thuringia for many centuries has not only left amazing palaces, castles and museums but also established links with the royal families of Europe by a busy marriage policy. From England, via Denmark, Sweden and Belgium up to Bulgaria and Monaco – there are plenty of connections, the most famous family offspring certainly being Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Queen Victoria.
Friedenstein Castle in Gotha was one of the residences of the dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and is now home to various museums.
The festive hall of Friedenstein Castle was the site of balls and receptions. Among the illustrious guests were also Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The baroque Ekhof Theatre in Friedenstein Castle comes back to life every year in July and August.
The Baroque Garden of Friedenstein Castle is one of several gardens and parks surrounding the palace and museum complex.
The Ducal Museum of Gotha presents the magnificent art and antiquities collections of the dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Gotha, where Queen Victoria was royally amused
The town of Gotha was one the favourite residences of the dukes of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children being frequent guests. The queen loved visiting Thuringia – ‘I feel so at home here’ is what she wrote into her diary on 2nd September 1845.
Her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had a special relationship to Gotha. The town was the home of his beloved grandmother Duchess Karoline Amalie of Saxe-Coburg-Altenburg, whom he visited very often.
With Friedenstein Castle, the Ekhof Theatre, the Ducal Museum, the Orangery and the gardens – a Baroque Universe from the late 1600s has survived in Gotha.
Friedenstein means ‘rock of peace’ – a name that was chosen by Duke Ernest the Pious as a symbolic expression for the longing for peace after the Thirty Years’ War.
The former ducal residence is Germany's largest early baroque palace. Following the protestant ideals of its builder, its exterior is rather plain. The interior, however, is a glamorous promenade through the centuries, from Baroque to Renaissance. Rich art and historical collections bear witness to the ducal passion for beauty and demonstrate their sympathy for progress and the enlightenment. With the help of an English audio guide you can explore the history of the place and learn about its famous inhabitants.
The Ekhof Theatre
A gem for theatre enthusiasts is the historical Ekhof Theatre in the western tower of Friedenstein. It is the world's oldest fully intact baoque theatre, with stage machinery from the late 1600s. The dukes often entertained their guests here, and sometimes acted on stage themselves. Chariots still move along slots in the floor, wind and thunder are hand-made and muscle power moves the stage settings.
In July and August every year, the theatre comes to life during the annual Ekhof Festival, with dramatic and musical performances. The theatre is part of a regular palace visit.
The Ducal Museum
The elegant building opposite the palace dates from the mid-1800s and was commissioned by Duke Ernest II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Albert’s elder brother. His intention was to present the art that he and his ancestors had collected to the public. What you’ll find a treat for the eyes and an eclectic mix of art genres and historical epochs: Egyptian mummies, antique jewellery, 18th century cork models, Meissen porcelain, treasures from China and Japan, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Romantic paintings as well as the biggest collection of Houdon sculptures outside Paris.
The gardens of Friedenstein
The gardens surrounding the premises of Friedenstein mainly date from the 18th century. Major parts of the English garden were designed by John Haverfield the Younger. Some of its older trees were brought here from Kew Gardens as a gift of Augusta, Princess of Wales. A little baroque garden from the early 1700s has survived at the palace’s eastern side, and so has the orangery, which served as a winter shelter for orange trees, pineapple and other exotic plants and as an event location during the summer months. In the late 1800s the gardens were extended by a fir tree garden with many rare trees from outside Europe.
Anniversary exhibitions at Friedenstein in 2019
In 2019, Friedenstein and the Ducal Museum are celebrating several important anniversaries that underline the close links of the Ernestine dukes with British monarchy. These include one 300th birthday – Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, mother of King George III, and two 200th birthdays – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha:
- Marriage as a success model. German-English marriages, 5 May to 30 Nov 2019
- Gotha and the English crown – portraits of a dynastic relationship, 4 Aug – 27 Oct 2019
- Beautiful old (hand) fans – Duke August’s and Prince Albert’s passion, 23 Nov 2019 – 23 Feb 2020
Meiningen - birthplace of Queen Adelaide
Meiningen is the birthplace of Adelheid of Saxe-Meiningen. Born as daughter of Duke George I, she became the wife of William Duke of Clarence in 1818. When in 1831, William was crowned as King William IV, she became queen consort of the United Kingdom and of Hanover. With all her children having died young, she developed a special relationship to her niece the later Queen Victoria, who once said she had confided in her ‘more than in her own mother’. In Thuriniga, Elisabethenburg in Meiningen and Altenstein near Bad Liebenstein are linked with her.
Elisabethenburg in Meiningen
The former ducal residence in Meiningen presents a fascinating exhibition about the history of the palace and the ducal family. Two rooms are dedicated to Queen Adelaide and her husband King William IV. A large part of the exhibition deals with the history of the once famous Meiningen Court Theatre and the Meiningen Court Orchestra, whose history is linked with great names in music such as Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner or Max Reger.
Altenstein Mansion and Garden
Altenstein in the Thuringian Forest served as a summer residence of the Meiningen dukes. Queen Adelaide spent her childhood summers on the idyllic property close to the spa town Bad Liebenstein. The mansion is surrounded by a beautiful garden, whose design was influenced by Prince Pückler. During the reign of Adelaide’s brother, the ‘theatre duke’, celebrities such as Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms stayed here.
Ernest The Pious
Duke Ernest I of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, called Ernest The Pious, is also known as the ‘grandfather of Europe’. Born in 1601 he was drawn into the horrors of the Thirty Years War at the age of 17. The young protestant prince fought at the side of the Swedish, and by the time the war ended, he was 47 and a pacifist. It was only natural that he named his new residence in Gotha ‘Rock of Peace’ – Friedenstein. Ernest was a ruler who cared for his people, and by various social reforms managed to improve their living conditions considerably. This made his duchy a European model state. When he died at the age of 74, he left seven sons and two daughters, whose descendants would marry into various European dynasties
Ernestines where ever you look
Looking around in Europe now, we can see Ernestine descendants on the thrones of Belgium, Britain, Denmark and Sweden. The monarchs of Spain, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Norway are related too, though more distantly. Here’s a brief look at some current relations:
Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden - is a son of Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who had been born in Friedenstein in Gotha in 1908. Philippe, King of the Belgians - still has the ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ in his name. He is a direct descendant of Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians from 831 to 1865, who was an uncle of the British Queen Victoria. Margarethe II, Queen of Denmark - is the granddaughter of Margaret of Connaught, who as a daughter of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was of Ernestine descendance both from her mother’s and her father’s side. Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - is a direct descendant of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Queen Victoria, who was an Ernestine from her mother’s side.