Anna Amalia (1739-1807), Duchess of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach and doyenne of the Weimar Musenhof

My drawing of Anna Amalia, copied from a portrait by J. G. Ziesenis 

Part 1

It’s fair to say that most of the individuals featured on the blog so far have been quite niche – I like to think of them as underappreciated figures, hidden gems if you will, that I have nobly sought to bring to the attention of a wider audience (well, ever so slightly wider – I know my readership is on the modest side. My mum knows about them now at least…). But the subject of today’s post, Anna Amalia, is a little more high-profile. In her, we have a woman whose historical significance and renown extends far beyond regional boundaries. I first came across her whilst studying Goethe at university and indeed, as Goethe’s friend and patron, who presided over Weimar’s rise from provincial backwater to the cultural capital of Germany in the later 18th century, she is a significant figure in German cultural and intellectual history. But it is not just her influence in the sphere of the Arts that makes Anna Amalia remarkable. She turned her hand to cultural activities as a way of keeping busy in her retirement, after stepping down as regent of a small Saxon duchy, a role she had fulfilled successfully for 17 years. Much has been written about the life of this immensely capable, energetic and broad-minded woman, although I was pleased to discover that her English-language Wikipedia entry is relatively brief. (Fist pump - this makes me feel like I am doing a vital service to the English-speaking world). However, similarly to when I wrote about Anton Ulrich, I was faced with the same issues of potential material versus potential for trying my readers’ patience with an overlong blog post – hence eventually deciding to divide this one into two parts.

Although her name is undeniably synonymous with Weimar, she was the daughter of Duke Carl I of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel and his wife Duchess Philippine Charlotte, and was born and brought up at her father’s court. Obviously, then, we Braunschweigers are entitled to claim her as one of our own and bask in some of her reflected glory – as locals at the time were also quick to recognise. Probably looking enviously towards their Saxon counterparts and wishing that it was Braunschweig and not Weimar that had nabbed the prestigious title of Germany’s capital of culture, they coined the phrase “ohne Braunschweig kein Weimar” – no Weimar without Braunschweig, referring to the influence of the cultural and political ideas that defined Braunschweig’s court life when Anna Amalia was growing up. For Braunschweig was one of the courts known as Musenhöfen, or “courts of the muses” – doesn’t that sound charming? It conjures up images of pensive young poets mooching about the palace grounds or ensconced in window seats, gazing dreamily into the distance and waiting for inspiration to strike; of wizened gentlemen processing down corridors arm-in-arm, deep in conversation on matters philosophical. Here, an opera singer practising scales; there, a group of silk-clad ladies dancing in a neoclassical grotto, accompanied by a band of cherubs playing pipes and fiddles… *drifts off into a reverie…* Well, that’s how I like to imagine the Musenhöfen anyway, and perhaps this wasn’t too far from the truth (although I admit there probably weren’t actual cherubs). The term describes Protestant royal courts who sought to compensate for their lack of real political power by transforming themselves into vibrant centres of art, culture and lofty ideas. Duchess Phillippine Charlotte surrounded herself with artists, musicians and writers and was herself a talented composer, and a champion of literature written in the German language. All of these things would find their echoes in Anna Amalia’s later life. Politically, the Duke and Duchess were receptive to Enlightenment ideas about the importance of humane and just governance, and introduced various social reforms within their duchy. These attitudes would certainly have shaped the young Anna Amalia and prepared her for her future roles of both ruler and cultural initiator.

Anna Amalia's mother Philippine Charlotte in the mid-1730s, painted by Francesco Carlo Rusca

However, Anna Amalia did not exactly look back on her childhood in Braunschweig with misty-eyed nostalgia. In her autobiography of 1772, she recollects being a desperately unhappy child, unloved by her parents, and shunned and neglected in favour of her siblings. But the historical evidence does not entirely back up her claims of unequal treatment. It apparently is true that her mother preferred her older sister Sophie Karoline Marie (for a start, she got an extra name – that has to be a sign of favouritism), but when it came to the important matter of education, Anna Amalia received the same opportunities as her siblings. Like them, she was tutored by Abt Jerusalem (who comes across as a wise and sensitive man, a good egg – he might get his own post). Chiefly employed to educate the crown prince, Jerusalem also taught his younger brothers and sisters. Anna Amalia received instruction in subjects such as history, natural sciences and mathematics, as well as the dance, drawing and music tuition more typical for a young woman of her station. This sort of equal treatment of sons and daughters was by no means a given. Most princesses would grow up to have very different duties to those of their male counterparts (i.e. having lots of babies and running the royal household), and were accordingly brought up in a different way – in some cases receiving no academic education at all.

I suppose Anna Amalia’s parents might have given a thought to those twists of fate that did on occasion bring women into positions of power, usually involving the early death of a royal husband before his heir was of age. And it was a good job they did, because the latter scenario was indeed what awaited Anna Amalia. In 1756, aged 17, she was married to the pithily named Duke Ernst August II. Constantin of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach. And if you enjoy comical triple-barrelled German state names (the result of divisions and subdivisions occasioned by hereditary claims over the centuries), I’ve got some more for you: the ill health of Ernst August meant that he had no time to lose when it came to marrying and siring an heir; otherwise, he risked his state being snapped up by his relatives, the Duke of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg, or indeed perhaps the Duke of Saxony-Coburg-Saalfeld. Unfortunately, this story does not really give me occasion to mention the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (of which our very own Prince Philip is a member), but I am going to do so anyway, just because it’s fun.

Anna Amalia’s husband Prince Ernst August II. Constantin

It goes without saying that the teenage Anna Amalia had no say in the identity of her future husband, nor would she have expected to. But she did at least have a whole three weeks in which to get to know him before the wedding, and fortunately, during a series of rendezvous at concerts, plays and balls, the young pair discovered they quite liked each other and shared some interests.  (“So what do you do?” “I’m the crown prince of a small state.” “Ah okay, interesting, my brother does that too. And what about in your free time?” “I’m really into music actually.” “That’s cool, me too! Favourite composers…?”) The pair moved to Weimar shortly after their marriage, and the hoped-for heir, Carl August, duly arrived in 1757. Anna Amalia writes touchingly in her memoirs about the experience of becoming a mother: “my heart became lighter, my ideas clearer, I had more confidence in myself”. But there was sadness around the corner, for her husband was to succumb to his long-term health complaints in 1758, leaving Anna Amalia as a 19-year old widow pregnant with a second child. As for little Carl August, at nine months old he was not exactly in a position to take over the running of a duchy. Someone would therefore be required to rule in his stead, and the person chosen to fulfil that role was Anna Amalia. This news was dramatically revealed at the official reading of Ernst August’s will, which in its original form gave Anna Amalia more modest powers. But following the reading, the late duke’s valet brandished a sealed envelope (no doubt with a cry of “Ah ha! Not so fast, my fine friends…”), which turned out to be an appendix to the will: Ernst August had changed his mind, and made Anna Amalia the sole guardian and regent.

Weimar (map from 1735)

Although her broad education stood her in good stead for the leadership role she was about to take on, she lacked experience in governance – but rather than be daunted, she threw herself into her new duties, declaring in her government programme from September 1759 that she would “look at everything with her own eyes, hear everything with her own ears, diligently attend meetings of the Privy Council…and listen attentively to each individual.” And she wouldn’t just passively observe and listen, but would be an active decision maker too. She often wrote letters to her father Carl in Braunschweig to consult him on political matters, but interestingly did not always follow his advice. For example, in a letter written in June 1758, she rejects a recommendation regarding which servants should be retained at court: “Your Majesty will forgive me if I confess that, according to my own conviction, keeping three Maitre-Charges (refers to a type of servant I assume) at court could have very many untoward consequences”. The intention to act according to her “own conviction” is a clear indication of her confidence in her own judgement and determination not to let others make decisions for her. However, this was combined with a sensible readiness to call upon the assistance of trusted advisors in matters where she felt out of her depth.

Anna Amalia’s father Duke Carl I of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel

It is now time to skim hastily over the next 17 years, so that I can draw Part 1 of this post to a close before I lose too many weary readers; I will then cover the cultural golden period in the second instalment. Suffice to say that Anna Amalia distinguished herself as regent, with policies including the reform of state finances to tackle existing debts, and measures to relieve poverty, improve public health and promote education: for example, founding a free school for the poor, and training midwives to combat maternal and infant mortality (formal training for midwives was a relatively new concept, with Germany’s first state-run midwifery college opening in Berlin in 1751). She also strived to bring a bit more urban sophistication to her state capital, for instance by ordering that all barns inside the city be torn down (nothing says “hick town” like a barn in the town centre), and introducing street lighting. Unsurprisingly, she was loved and revered as a mother figure by her subjects. Anna Amalia – so far, so awesome. It is always interesting to learn about powerful women of the past, but particularly satisfying when you find out that they actually did a really good job. And there were more great achievements to come. Part 2 coming soon...


  1. Once again, a fascinating post, rich in detail, bringing characters to life...and funny, of course. I especially liked the joke about barns in city centres. Have you read Anna Amalia's autobiography of 1772? I don't suppose it has been translated into English but I would now love to read it. Your description of scenes in the Musenhofen left me with vivid images! I am now looking forward to Part II and also to hearing more about Abt Jerusalem.


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