Thursday, December 31, 2015

Luxarazzi 101: Counts of Merenberg and Their Claim to Luxembourg's Throne

One of the relatively rarely talked about but extremely interesting stories about the Grand Ducal Family is that of the Counts of Merenberg. Never heard of them? They are a morganatic branch of the Nassau-Weilburg family, the rulers of Luxembourg since 1890. Had history gone just a tad differently (or rather, had Luxembourg's parliament decided differently), it might have even been the Merenbergs who'd succeeded to the Grand Duchy's throne about 100 years ago.

Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm
The name "Merenberg" originally comes from the Burg Merenberg located near Weilburg an der Lahn in what today is Germany. The castle and a number of estates in the area were once owned by a noble family by the same name. When they died out in male line in 1328, their estates passed to the Walram line of the House of Nassau. In fact, Grand Duke Henri also holds the title Lord of Merenberg in addition to 14 other ones. Today, however, we will talk about other Merenbergs, the descendants of Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm of Nassau.

Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm, or simply "Niclas" to his family, was the younger half-brother of Grand Duke Adolph, great-great-grandfather of Grand Duke Henri. In 1856, it was Prince Nikolaus who represented the Duchy of Nassau, then reigned by his older brother, at the coronation of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. While in Russia, he first met Natalia Alexandrovna Pushkina, the daughter of a very famous father, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. At the time she was newly married to General Mikhail Leontievich von Dubelt. The couple had three children though their marriage was considered an unhappy one.

The contact between Prince Nikolaus and Natalia seems to have either never stopped or seen a resurge at some point in time as starting in 1862, she tried to get a divorce from her first husband. After a few years of struggles, the divorce was allegedly granted on May 18, 1868, after she had left her family a year earlier after she was allowed to separate from her husband. As Natalia though never seems to have provided a divorce certificate, some say she never actually got divorced from her first husband. In any way, only a few weeks later, on July 1, she married Prince Nikolaus in London, and as Natalia came from the lower nobility, their marriage was considered a morganatic one. At the time, the Prince and his Russian wife already had a daughter, Sophie, who was born about a month prior on June 1, 1868.

Countess Natalia, née Pushkina
After the wedding, Prince Georg Victor of Waldeck und Pyrmont, brother-in-law of Nikolaus, created the title of Countess of Merenberg for Natalia. The title, which was also confirmed by the Prussians in 1881, was also a hereditary one for their children. Nikolaus Wilhelm and Natalia had another two children, Alexandra (*1869) and Georg (*1871).

After the Duchy of Nassau had been annexed by Prussia a few decades earlier, Nikolaus' older brother, Adolph, became Grand Duke of Luxembourg in 1890. After marrying in 1893, Adolph's son, the future Grand Duke Wilhelm IV, had only fathered four daughters until the turn of the 20th century and so there were fears that Adolph's line of the Nassau-Weilburg family was about to die out in male line. At the time, females were only allowed to inherit the Luxembourg throne when there were no male members of the Nassau family left alive and so Nikolaus Wilhelm started to make his claim to the grand ducal throne vocal.

He already declared at the time, that he would give up any right to the throne of the Grand Duchy if his brother Adolph would relinquish the title of Duke of Nassau to him and his descendants. However, Grand Duke Adolph couldn't bear the thought that this old and grand title would go to a morganatic branch of the family, even at the risk of also losing the Luxembourg throne and against the advice of his ministers, like Minister of State Paul Eyschen. Instead, Grand Duke Adolph insisted that "fate will make the decision" and so it did. Prince Nikolaus Wilhelm died on September 17, 1905, three days before his 73 birthday; Grand Duke Adolph died eight weeks later on November 17, 1905, at the age of 88.

Count Georg of Merenberg
However, what became known as the "Merenberg affair" was far from over with the deaths of the two (half-)brothers. Nikolaus Wilhelm's son Georg followed in his father's footsteps claiming the Luxembourgish throne. His cousin, Grand Duke Wilhelm IV, had six daughters and was in ill health meaning that a male heir seemed out of question.

At the time, there were three officially legal opinions by distinguished scholars. Two of them stated that Count Georg of Merenberg had no right to the grand ducal crown as his parents' marriage was both not equal and lacked the consent of the then head of the House of Nassau, Adolph, and was thus a morganatic one. This stance was also supported by Luxembourg's government and the Council of State. A third legal opinion, however, argued that as the last male descendant, Count Georg's claim to the throne was a stronger one than that of his female cousins born of an equal and approved marriage.

Count Georg gathered some support for his claim to Luxembourg's throne with the Socialist members of the Grand Duchy's parliament, though they probably only wished to weaken the monarchy as they preferred no Grand Duke at all. He also filed a suit with German courts in Wiesbaden for the right of disposition of the Nassauisches Hausvermögen, the assets of the Nassau family.

Meanwhile, his cousin Grand Duke Wilhelm made efforts to ensure the succession to the throne for his own descendants. He drew up changes to the Nassau house law and also made sure to tie the family's assets to the grand ducal crown. On July 5, 1907, with 41 to 7 votes, the Chamber of Deputies voted in favour of the proposed changes meaning that only descendants of Grand Duke Wilhelm IV could inherit the Luxembourgish throne. Having lost this battle, Count Georg also abandoned his lawsuit in Germany shortly thereafter. However, he didn't come away empty-handed as he received a yearly pension of 40,000 Goldmark.

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