Sunday, June 13, 2010

Birthday of Sophie of Prussia

June 14 marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of Sophie of Prussia, Queen of the Hellenes.

Sophie Dorothea Ulrike Alice is born on June 14, 1870 in Potsdam, the seventh child of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom.

Sophie's father succeeds to the throne as Emperor Frederick III in 1888. He is terminally ill from throat cancer, however, and dies after a reign of just 99 days. A bereaved Sophie, who has just turned eighteen the day before her father's death, turns to the comfort of Crown Prince Constantine of Greece, eldest son of King George I. The couple falls in love and are married in Athens in October 1888.

Shortly after marrying Constantine, Sophie visits Berlin to attend the wedding of her sister Victoria. There, she announces to her family that, as the wife of the future king of Greece and the mother of potential heirs to the throne of Greece, she considers it appropriate to become Greek Orthodox. Her mother and sisters accept this decision, but her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, reacts abominably. Declaring himself the head of her family and the head of the Prussian Lutheran Church, he disapproves of Sophie's change of religions and bans her from returning to Germany for three years. The already distant relationship between Sophie and her elder brother would never recover from this episode.

Sophie and Constantine have six children- George, Alexander, Helen, Paul, Irene and Katherine. All three of their sons will become king of Greece, their daughter Helen will become queen of Romania, and their daughter Irene will briefly become the titular queen of Croatia.

In 1913, King George I is assassinated shortly after the Greek armies liberate Salonika from the Turks. Sophie's husband becomes Constantine I, King of the Hellenes, and Sophie herself becomes Her Majesty The Queen of the Hellenes. At first, the new monarchs are enormously popular among their subjects. Constantine is the victorious commander in the recently-concluded Balkan Wars, and the Greeks praise their new king with a wild fervor. However, following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Constantine is plagued by intrigue when he declares that Greece shall remain neutral despite overwhelming pressure from both the Allies and the Central Powers to join their sides.

Because Sophie is the German Emperor's sister, she and her family are accused by the Allies of harboring pro-German sentiments. Sophie is even suspected of having stabbed King Constantine with a knife during an argument over his refusal to join the Germans. In July 1916, arsonists set the woods surrounding the royal estate at Tatoi ablaze, nearly killing the royal family. French and British troops impose a blockade upon Greece and launch a bombardment upon Athens in December 1916.

Finally, the Allies demand Constantine's abdication in June 1917. Sophie and Constantine's eldest son, Crown Prince George, is forbidden from becoming king due to his suspected German sympathies; instead, their second son, Alexander, succeeds to the throne. While the family goes into exile in Switzerland, Alexander remains bitter and alone in Athens, surrounded by enemies of his father and acting as a mere puppet ruler.

Sophie is devastated when Alexander dies suddenly in 1920. He had been bitten by a wild monkey while out in the palace gardens and died of blood poisoning. While Alexander lays dying in agony, Sophie pleads with the Greek government to allow her to come to his bedside. They cruelly refuse her requests, but do allow her mother-in-law, Queen Olga, to see him. Queen Olga arrives at Athens just hours after her grandson's death.

In a twist of history that could only occur in the Balkans, the Greek people vote on a referendum to restore Constantine I to the throne. Sophie and Constantine return to Athens, but just two years later they are thrown out again when Greece suffers a humiliating defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922.

This time, Sophie and her family go into exile in Italy. Constantine dies less than a year after his second abdication; bewildered, Sophie purchases a private villa in the Italian countryside where she remains for the rest of her life.

Her eldest son succeeds to the throne as King George II, but like his father he is forced into exile twice, once from a revolution and a second time from the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. His marriage to Princess Elisabeth of Romania, daughter of Sophie's first cousin Queen Marie of Romania, is a pitiful failure. Likewise, the marriage between Sophie's daughter Helen and Queen Marie's eldest son King Carol II of Romania will also end bitterly. When Carol humiliates Helen by abandoning her and their son for his married mistress, Sophie comforts her daughter by offering her refuge at her Italian villa.

Ironically, in spite of the brutal treatment Sophie suffered at the hands of her brother, Wilhelm II, her son Paul will one day marry Wilhelm's granddaughter, Princess Frederica of Hanover.

Sophie dies of cancer in 1932 at the age of 61. She is initially buried in Germany, but following the restoration of the Greek monarchy, her son King George II orders her remains and the remains of her husband Constantine to be returned to the royal crypt at Tatoi.

Sophie's legacy lives on through her granddaughter, the present Queen of Spain, Sofia, the eldest daughter of Paul and Frederica who was named in her honor. A fashionable boulevard in present-day Athens bears the name Queen Sophia Avenue (Greek:
Leoforos Vassilissis Sofias). Sophie's other grandchildren include King Michael of Romania, King Constantine II of Greece, the late Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia, and Amadeo, Duke of Aosta (disputed pretender to the Italian throne).

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