HHH column: More than a royal vagina by Leonieke Vermeer

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Leonieke Vermeer, Assistant Professor in History at the University of Groningen, and author of an forthcoming biography of Sophie of Wurtemberg. In this column, Leonieke investigates the life of Sophie, who married her cousin William of Orange, in relation to royal views on heredity and to Sophie’s own reflections.

More than a royal vagina

Leonieke Vermeer

‘A royal lady is a royal vagina’, Hilary Mantel boldly asserted in 2013 in her renowned essay ‘Royal bodies’, critiquing the monarchy as an outdated, patriarchal institution that turns persons into ‘carriers of bloodlines’ and ‘collections of organs’. In the same year, commemorating the bicentenary of the Dutch monarchy, three comprehensive and scholarly biographies of the 19th-century Dutch Kings William I, William II, and William III were published. Despite the merits of these biographies, the role of their spouses, including the bodily aspect, remained rather elusive. Consequently, the ‘Queens Project’ has been launched, aiming to publish the biographies of Wilhelmine ‘Mimi’ of Prussia, Anna Pavlovna, Sophie of Wurtemberg, and Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont. Currently, I am immersed in researching and writing the biography of Sophie of Wurtemberg (1818-1877), queen consort of William III.

What did it mean to be a royal female body in the nineteenth century? The crucial facet of the queen’s role as a ‘royal vagina’ was to bear healthy, preferably male, heirs, ensuring the continuity of the dynastic bloodline. After Sophie married her cousin William of Orange in 1839, their marital life initially appeared smooth, evidenced by the birth of two sons: William, called Wiwill, in 1840, and Maurice in 1843. With an ‘heir’ and a ‘spare’, the Orange dynasty’s continuation seemed assured, and Sophie had fulfilled her most important task as a princess. Meanwhile, her marriage with William turned into a disaster – my biography will shed new light on the reasons for this, but in this short column, I will set that aside. Unfortunately, Maurice succumbed to meningitis in 1850 at the age of six. A year later, as a demonstration of dynastic duty, Alexander was born. Following Sophie’s passing in 1877, William III married the young princess Emma of Waldeck and Pyrmont. Neither Wiwill nor Alexander lived to old age, thereby making Wilhelmina, the daughter of William and Emma, the first in the line of succession to the throne.

Family portrait of William III, Sophie and their sons William and Alexander. In the background, a portrait of their late son Maurice, lithography by Reinier Craeyvanger, 1851-1871, Rijksmuseum.

Although Sophie and her children held no significance for the continuity of the Orange dynasty, heredity is a relevant issue in my biography. When heredity is discussed in relation to the House of Orange, the focus typically revolves around the ‘Russian blood’, believed to have influenced the fiery temperament of William III: ‘Il y a du Paul dedans’, as was often mentioned. That the same blood of the erratic Czar Paul I of Russia flowed through Sophie’s veins – she, like William, was his grandchild – is rarely regarded as a defining factor for her unstable state of mind though. It is conceivable that both William and Sophie inherited the psychological lability that Paul struggled with. However, neurological and psychiatric conditions are complex and multifaceted, influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and other factors. Attributing everything to the ‘Russian blood’ would be overly deterministic.

Furthermore, it is pertinent to ask whether the offspring of William and Sophie, none of whom reached the age of forty, might have been genetically burdened by their close familial ties. Within the European network of royal families, such cousin marriages were very common. Royal families have often been investigated as ‘human inbreeding laboratories’. A recent study on the Habsburgs indicates a 9% higher prereproductive mortality (death before the age of 16) among the offspring of first-cousin marriages.[1] But also in this case it is very tricky to connect ‘inbreeding depression’, referring to the negative consequences on the health and survival of offspring when closely related individuals reproduce, with specific diseases.

These hereditary issues are primarily investigated within larger populations. For me, as a biographer-historian, it is more relevant to explore how the Oranges and their surroundings perceived matters of heredity. It has often been suggested that Anna Pavlovna – William’s mother and Sophie’s mother-in-law and aunt – opposed their marriage due to their familial relationship as cousins. But this claim is questionable, given that she supported her daughter’s marriage to Karl of Saxe-Weimar, who were also cousins. In connection to Sophie’s own views on heredity, the most interesting aspect is that she wrote an article on ‘Les derniers Stuarts’, anonymously published in the French journal Revue des Deux Mondes in 1875. This article can be interpreted as a case study of ‘degeneration’ within the English royal family. In that sense, according to Minister of War August Weitzel, it served as a cautionary message to her sons, Wiwill and Alexander, warning them of analogous phenomena within ‘the last Oranges’.

Portrait Sophie of Württemberg [frequently depicted surrounded by books, thereby emphasizing her intellectual persona], Alphonse Léon Noël, after painting by Nicaise De Keyser, 1849-1884, Rijksmuseum.

Considerations like these make Sophie fascinating as a ‘female royal body’. She extensively reflected on her role as a woman, mother, and queen in numerous letters, autobiographical writings, and other texts. Her intellectual prowess exceeded the conventional expectations for a queen, as she also emphasized in her self-presentation. For example, in her autobiography she expressed her fascination with Kant and Hegel, stating: ‘What a precious gift! […] If I have managed to escape the monotony in which queens typically live and have come to know, understand, and share the existence of others, then I largely owe that to my studies.’ Such reflections, to be further explored in the forthcoming biography, elevate Sophie beyond being merely a ‘royal vagina’.

[1] F. Ceballos and G. Álvarez. Royal dynasties as human inbreeding laboratories: the Habsburgs. Heredity 111, 114–121 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/hdy.2013.25