Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Luxarazzi 101: Princess Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg, Archduchess of Austria

It's (almost) Christmas, so it's time to get Christmassy! We'll do so with a woman who influenced the Christmas traditions of a country - Austria, that is - more than most of the world's population could hope for: Princess Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg, aunt of Grand Duke Adolph of Luxembourg and a member by marriage of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine.

Princess Henriette of Nassau-Weilburg,
Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Teschen
Fearing the invasion of his own Principality after the capture of nearby Mainz by French troops, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Nassau-Weilburg fled his country together with his family in 1796. He, his wife, née Burgravine Louise Isabelle of Kirchberg, and their oldest child - another daughter had died at the age of two - subsequently settled in Bayreuth. It was there at Schloss Eremitage where another two children were born. One of them was Princess Henriette Alexandrine Friederike Wilhelmine, born on October 30, 1797. Four years later, the family returned home.

Princess Henriette was educated together with her two brothers, the future Duke Wilhelm of Nassau, father of Adolph of Luxembourg, and Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, in languages and sciences. She also had a special talent for music. At the age of 17, she met her future husband, Archduke Karl of Austria, third son of Emperor Leopold II and his wife Infanta Maria Luisa of Spain. 26 years her senior, the princess' future husband was a famous Austrian field-marshal and victor of the Battle of Aspern-Essling against Napoleon I of France. Despite their age difference, theirs was a happy marriage.

The couple married on September 15, 1815, in Weilburg despite their notable religious differences: Archduke Karl was a Roman Catholic and Princess Henriette a Calvinist. However, she did not convert after her marriage and remained a Protestant until her death. Two months after their wedding, the newly weds settled at the Archduke's Palais in the Annagasse in Vienna. For Christmas 1816, Archduchess Henriette set up her first Christmas tree, a tradition already widespread in most Protestant areas of the German states. However, this first Christmas tree went largely unnoticed.

Henriette with her oldest son
Between 1816 and 1827, Archduchess Henriette gave birth to seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood: Archduchess Maria Theresa, the future Queen of The Two Sicilies; Archduke Albrecht, Duke of Teschen; Archduke Karl Ferdinand; Archduke Friedrich Ferdinand; Archduchess Maria Karoline; and Archduke Wilhelm Franz. On December 24, 1821, Archduke Karl gifted his young wife with the re-edified Schloss Weilburg near Baden in Lower Austria as a summer residence.

By December 1823, the Archduke and Archduchess and their family moved to a building today known as the Albertina and as the home of one of the world's finest art collections. Archduke Karl had inherited the palace from his childless but very wealthy uncle Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen. For Christmas of that year, Archduchess Henriette had a Christmas tree set up in the audience room. The tree was richly decorated with candles, sweetmeat and apples - something unheard of in the Austrian Empire.

Henriette's husband and children
For Christmas Eve, many of their Habsburg relatives joined the family at their palace to celebrate, sing and pray together. However, not all of them were in awe of the Protestant tradition: Henriette's brother-in-law Archduke Johann, known as much for his philanthrophic and economical character as for marrying Anna Plochl, the daughter of a postmaster, did not like the abundance of precious candles and food used to decorate a tree. He also criticised that the Christmas tree had replaced the Catholic crib.

Another brother-in-law of the born Princess of Nassau-Weilburg, however, apparently took a greater liking to the tradition: The following year, Emperor Franz I had a festively decorated Christmas tree set up at the Hofburg as well. From the centre of Habsburg power, it soon spread all over the country.

How much Archduchess Henriette knew about being the inventor of a new Austrian Christmas tradition remains unknown. She died only a few years later on December 29, 1829, in Vienna from scarlet fever and pneumonia at the age of 32. To this day, she remains the only Protestant buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church. This was allowed by order of her brother-in-law Emperor Francis I against the will of the Catholic clergy stating "She dwelt among us when she was alive, and so she shall in death".

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