When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris on August 30, 1997 the world was numbed with disbelief. Whether you were an ardent fan collecting the tea towels and mugs featuring her celebrated visage or merely spilled your crumpet crumbs on newspapers heralding her latest adventures, you knew Diana’s story.
Diana was the pretty, yet awkward teenage ingenue who appeared to have captured the heart of the thirty-something Prince Charles. There was the fairy-tale wedding, Diana blossoming into a beautiful Princess who was adored by the people, yet spurned by the husband she loved.
After giving birth to royal sons, the so-called, ‘heir and spare’, Charles returned to his mistresses, leaving Diana disconsolate and pushed to embark on an affaire de coeur.
Diana’s beauty and benevolence saw her popularity soar, far outstripping that of her husband and his family and causing concern Diana was a force outside the control of palace courtiers, the infamous, ‘men in grey suits’, and so they started manoeuvres to undermine her.
She feared she would be separated from her sons, exiled, or even murdered. We will never know how well-founded her fears may have been – we only know the Peoples’ Princess died in a horrific car crash in the Pont de Alma Tunnel in Paris and that no amount of enquiries or conclusions will ever truly settle the matter in the hearts of those who loved her.
Within a week of Diana’s untimely death, her young sons, Princes William and Harry, then aged just 15 and 12, walked stoically behind their mother’s casket – the question of how this could have happened still only in its infancy.
The circumstances of Diana’s life and death seems a solitary inexplicable tragedy, but astonishingly, it had happened before to another Princess of the same family. In a set of unnerving coincidences that would make the skin crawl of even the most hardened sceptic, the heart rending story of Princess Luise, Duchess of Saxe-Gotha-Altenberg, almost reads like a playbook for the destruction of Diana, Princess of Wales.
A Google search of the Princess Luise, suggests she is little more than a footnote in history. She has a short Wikipedia entry outlining her equally short life as the first wife of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha a small backwater in what is today Germany.
Princess Luise’s story might have been entirely forgotten had it not been for her son, Prince Albert, best known to history as Prince Consort to Queen Victoria.
Through Albert, Luise is the Great, Great, Great Grandmother of our Queen Elizabeth II as well as ancestress to the rulers of Spain, Denmark, Greece, Belgium, Sweden and Norway as well as the fallen monarchies of Russia, Germany and Romania.
Like Diana, Luise was an attractive but naïve teenager, and in Luise’s case only 16 years old, when she married the 31 year old Ernst III of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld on the 31st July 1817. Indeed, Prince Charles, Ernst III’s 4 x Great Grandson was also 31 when he wed Diana.
Both young girls went to the sacrificial marital altar with little maternal care. Luise’s mother died soon after Luise’s birth. Diana’s mother Frances, known in aristocratic circles as “the bolter” lost custody of Diana and her siblings when she left Diana’s father, the Earl Spencer, for heir to a wallpaper fortune, Peter Shand-Kydd.
Much like Charles and Diana’s wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral 163 years later (and also coincidentally held on the last weekend in July) the nuptials of Ernst and Luise were feted by the denizens of Gotha; there was a public holiday, a thanksgiving service and public dinners for people from all social classes – not unlike the street parties that united Great Britain on Charles and Diana’s wedding day.
The blushing bride was enamoured by her older groom, writing, “In the mornings, Ernst hunts and I write. In the afternoons, I drive to Jagersruck, a hunting lodge in the middle of an enormous forest. We usually eat there, then Ernst takes us for a drive. You see it is a very agreeable life.”
Just like Diana with her penchant for pop music and Barbara Cartland novels and Charles with his obsession with watercolours, polo and Laurens van der Post, Luise and Ernst shared little in common.
Despite having won the hands of comely young brides, both Ernst and Charles proved themselves to be aging Lotharios, who soon returned to their mistresses, though not before siring the requisite, ‘heir and spare’. In Ernst’s case the future Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Prince Albert. For Charles it was Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Henry of Wales.
Luise and Diana were both doting mothers, as evidenced by their own words. Luise writing of her first son, “I would give my own life to ensure the dear child’s happiness”, mirrors Diana’s sentiments 160 years later, “I live for my sons. I would be lost without them”.
Luise and Diana shared many qualities which made them popular with their respective subjects, they were empathetic, charitable, kind and glamorous, however they also required constant support, love and affection, but sadly they’d both married Princes who didn’t love them as they needed.
Having performed their primary duty of providing their kingdoms with a succession plan and now largely ignored by their husbands for more lascivious courtesans, Luise and Diana, separated only by time, endured the same desertion and loneliness.
Whilst the marital infidelities all initially lay on the side of the erring husbands, Ernst and Charles, the volatile and flirtatious Luise and Diana, almost as if cast from the same mould, both soon fell prey to the admiration and flattery of handsome admirers.
In another eerie coincidence both Princesses found themselves a dashing horseman. Luise fell into the arms of Alexander Graf zu Solms, Ernst’s Master of the Horse whilst Diana found comfort with Major James Hewitt, a Cavalry Officer in the British Army.
Both Princesses would face questions over the paternity of their second sons, and still today, debate rages amongst historians whether zu Solms or perhaps King Leopold I of Belgium (Ernst’s brother) sired Prince Albert. Similarly, Prince Harry’s red hair has been the subject of scuttlebutt in today’s trashy tabloid magazines.
As both marriages started the same way and followed the exact same course, so did both marriages begin to unravel. Ernst publicly dismissed zu Solms and humiliated Luise by returning her to her father in Gotha. Charles, through intimate friends and staffers, humiliated Diana in his own way by leaking stories Diana was, “mad” and “unstable”, and in an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, he declared himself forced into a, “loveless marriage”, that was, “irretrievably broken”.
Both Luise and Diana’s husbands ended their marriages and the Princesses were effectively exiled – Luise corporeally to the tiny town of St Wendel and Diana metaphorically as she was stripped of her HRH status and left in royal limbo.
Luise was more accepting of her diminished status than Diana, perhaps a reflection of the different times, but of greatest concern for both, was access to their beloved sons.
Despite Luise having brought the Duchy of Gotha and all its’ associated great wealth to the marriage, she acquiesced to Ernst’s unreasonable divorce settlement and walked away with a pittance, on the condition she would still be able to see her beloved children.
Diana on the other hand, played hardball when it came to her separation from Charles so as to ensure she would have equal access to William and Harry and that she too would maintain a lifestyle her boys were used to as members of the Royal Family.
As she steeled herself for a battle in the divorce courts, she said famously in her Panorama Interview with Martin Bashir, “I’ll fight to the end, because I have two children to bring up”. Again, we might understand that in her time, such a battle would have been out of the question for Luise.
Despite her former husband’s repeated promises, Luise was never again to see her boys Ernst and Albert. Luise wrote constantly to Ernst and his family in Coburg begging to see her boys, and, when those pleas went cruelly unanswered, she wrote, “let me hope to receive some (news) from you and my beloved children. It would be dreadful not to hear anything from them”.
Even the terrible sadness of her begging just for any news, also fell on uncaring ears.
Ernst gave Luise only a bare minimum of attendants, all hand-picked and reporting back to Ernst. He expected her to withdraw into a quiet life with no official standing in St Wendel, however, she soon became venerated amongst the citizens of St Wendel, where she is still remembered and loved to this day for her generous support of the poor, sick and infirm – in particular for her love and kindness towards children and the elderly.
After attempts by Charles’ and Buckingham Palace to sideline her, Diana famously announced at a charity luncheon, “Whatever uncertainties the last few weeks may have brought, I want you to be certain of this, our work together will continue unchanged – especially at Christmas. The sick, the old, the handicapped and the homeless, the lonely, the confused and the simply unloved who are needing your help more than ever”.
Diana continued her humanitarian work, shining a light on charities such as anti-landmine campaigns and AIDS research – such was deemed highly provocative and political within that zeitgeist and caused great angst among her palace detractors. In her own way, and as the time she lived in allowed, Luise had done in the 19th century, what Diana would do in the 20th.
Despite the terrible positions in which they’d been placed, both Princesses found romance despite being dealt with so badly by palace machines who viewed these unique women as threats to the traditions of the Monarchy.
Luise fell in love with Maximillian von Hanstein, a young officer, four years her junior – they married in October 1826, and Max was raised to the status of Baron von Poelzig and Beiersdorf. Although Luise never stopped pining for her boys, she and Max travelled Europe extensively, and in particular, enjoyed many visits to Paris.
Diana too found her, “Mr Wonderful”, in Pakistani-born heart surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan. Eschewing the spotlight, Diana and Dr Khan enjoyed a clandestine affair for over two years. Whilst Diana and Khan entertained the idea of marriage, Khan believed the inevitable media attention would make his life, “hell”, and Diana ended the relationship.
In July 1997, Diana embarked on what friends called a, “rebound affair”, with Egyptian-born playboy Dodi Faye – their holiday in France culminated in a trip to Paris.
And it is in Paris, on the 30thst of August that the preternatural parallels between these two extraordinary princesses happened one last time. On precisely that day, though 166 years apart, Princess Luise and Princess Diana would die – Luise of uterine cancer at 30 and Diana in a car crash at 36.
Although the Princesses each lived but half a life, they were loved and remembered by their sons. When Prince Albert and Queen Victoria married one of the first gifts he gave the Queen was a little pin he had received from Luise when he was a child, saying that he remembered his mother, “with much tenderness and sorrow”.
When Prince William proposed to Catherine Middleton, he did so with his mother’s famous sapphire and diamond engagement ring, “as a way of making sure my mother didn’t miss out on today and the excitement”.
Prince Harry followed his brother’s lead when asking Meghan Markle for her hand, doing so with a ring crafted from two diamonds belonging to Diana’s collection, “to make sure she’s with us on this – on this crazy journey together”.
And just as these two princesses, unknown to each other, live almost the same lives, so did their sons remember them equally, and the same.