Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein celebrates the big 100

May 25, 1916

The Marquise de Fontenoy reports today on the recent 100th birthday celebration of the Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein, who celebrated her birthday on May 9. The birthday celebrations took place at Lausanne on Lake Geneva, where the Princess lives, "in full enjoyment of mental and physical health, being still wonderfully alert and vigorous in spite of her age." She is the only centenarian who "for the last century or more has ever found a place in the pages of the Almanach de Gotha."

The princess was born Princess Leonilla Bariantinska, whose father was a "great dignitary of the Russian court." The princess was only 9, and living at the Winter Palace in Petrograd, when she witnessed the "great Decembrist insurrection," which took place in December 1825 against Nicholas I. The large plaza in front of the palace teemed with "insurgents and military mutineers," all calling for Nicholas' death, and ordering that his older brother, Grand Duke Constantine, take the phone.

The Emperor knew that he could not rely on his troops, as their loyalty was wavering. Nicholas moved toward a coup de theatre, which he knew might save his situation.

The coup "was his sudden appearance, without a single attendant, in the midst of the crowd." Nicholas was so tall that he was able to dominate "by his gigantic stature. The crowd fell to silence "caused by his dramatic advent upon the scene, he, in a voice the metallic tones could be heard far and wide, ordered the crowd to its knees."

The crowd obeyed, and the insurrection came to end. Nicholas had saved this throne.

Princess Leonilla is the only survivor left of this "historic spectacle." She witnessed the event from one of the windows at the Winter Palace, along with Empress Alexandra, the former Princess Charlotte of Prussia. The Empress, so overwhelmed "with anxiety for her husband," suffered a partial stroke, "which affected her facial muscles for the remainder of her life."

Princess Leonilla was also a witness to the July revolution in Paris in 1830, again, eighteen years later, in Paris, when the revolution broke out and "a republic was proclaimed." She and her family proceeded to Berlin, where she was a "witness a few weeks later" when King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia and his consort "were obliged by the mob to stand on the balcony of their place, the king bareheaded, in token of respect for the dead bodies of the insurgents" that were paraded past the palace "in a never-ending procession."

In 1870, the Princess was staying with her close friend, Empress Augusta of Germany, when the empress, who desired nothing more than peace, asked the princess if she knew anyone in France, who could initiate peace between Germany and France. Princess Leonilla offered the name of Mgr Dupanloup, the bishop of Orleans. The princess then left Koblenz, and was accompanied to the train station by the Empress, where she left for France to urge the archbishop, then at Tours to undertake a peace mission. Augusta made sure that Leonilla was provided with "all sorts of safe conduct."

But by the time, Princess Leonilla reached Orleans, she received a telegram from the empress, who informed her that the archbishop "would no longer be accepted as an emissary of peace." This was due to Dupanloup having issued a pastoral letter inciting the members of his diocese, and indeed all Frenchmen, to resist to the very last the Prussians, who he compared to the Huns."

Princess Leonilla married Ludwig, prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, as his second wife on October 23, 1834. (His first wife, Princess Caroline Stephanie Radziwill died two years earlier.) She became stepmother to the Prince's two children, Marie Antoinette and Peter, as well as the mother of four children, Friedrich, Antoinette, Ludwig, and Alexander, who succeeded as Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn on his half-brother, Friedrich's resignation, and then resigned the title in favor of his son, Stanislaus, in 1883.)

For the last thirty years, Leonilla has lived in a villa at Ouchy, overlooking Lake Geneva. For many years, her homes have been a "bourne of crowned heads and imperial personages." one of her oldest friends is the Dowager Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, 94, who, until the outbreak of the war, would visit once a year. The Grand Duchess was born Princess Augusta of Cambridge and is said to be the only surviving great-granddaughter of George III.

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