Some amazing women and their noble endeavours


Elizabeth of Bohemia

Noble Endeavours, the history I have written of the long neglected friendship between England and Germany, is above all the story of great spirits: of men and women of exceptional bravery and noble minds. Many belonged by blood to both countries and - when asked in wartime to choose between them - refused. It would, said one elderly Anglo-German banker who had lost his young son on the Eastern Front in 1915, be like choosing between his parents. He could not - and would not - divide his loyalties. Hilda Deichmann, whose part-German brother Maurice was England's ambassador to Vienna in 1914, was living in London when she heard that her German son had been killed. (Wilhelm had in fact been captured by the French and was teaching English to German prisoners at his camp in Brittany.) Hilda, torn between the two countries she loved, offered her Anglo-German household a choice when they came to prayers each morning:

   'Now which shall we pray for first: the poor dear Kaiser - or the poor dear King?' 

Back in time, in 1613, the alliance between the two countries was formally cemented when King James I's daughter, Elizabeth, was betrothed to Friedrich, the Elector Palatine.  The marriqge was intended to underpin England's new position as a Protestant power at a time when Europe was predominantly Roman Catholic; as luck would have it, the young couple fell deeply in love. John Donne wrote a wedding song; a masque performed at Whitehall celebrated the Marriage of the Thames and the Rhine; A Winter's Tale was among the plays performed (for only  the second time on stage) for a princess who had her own troupe of actors. One of the Elector's first gifts to his young bride was a theatre of her own at Heidelberg.  When the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613, Heidelberg offered them a temporary home. Visiting the exquisite ruins of Heidelberg today, it's still possible to see 'the Elizabeth Arch' from which the English actors might have strutted out along the highest terrace of an astonishing cliffside garden - another tribute from a loving husband - that was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world.  (Its treasures included an animated statue, a massive double stairway - perfect for theatricals - and clockwork singing birds.)

  In 1619, the Elector and his young wife fatally accepted the throne of faraway Bohemia (today's Czech's Republic). Within a year, they lost everything. Heidelberg was sacked; the wonderful gardens created by Salamon de Caus were abandoned and reduced to rubble; Elizabeth, the widowed mother of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, became a refugee at the Protestant court of her husband's relation, Maurice of Nassau, at The Hague. Back in England, a devoted admirer built her a magnificent home. Ashdown House, a tall and chalk-white dolls house, stands high on the Berkshire Downs, looking out across the woods in which Lord Craven, Elizabeth's faithful cavalier, must have imagined that a keen horsewoman would love to ride and hunt when she returned to her native land.   

  Ashdown House remained an empty shrine, although Charles II offered a warm welcome in England to his much loved aunt in the last months of her life. In 1701, the Royal Act of Succession granted the English throne to Elizabeth's spirited daughter Sophia as a way of keeping power in Protestant hands. When Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, died of a chill just two months before Queen Anne of England, the right to rule passed to her son. Elizabeth, although she herself was only Queen for a single unlucky year, in faraway Bohemia, was the grandmother of that long line of Hanoverian monarchs whose rule would help to weld together the two most formidable Portestant powers in Europe: England and Germany.

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Elizabeth's own formidable personality is best revealed in the Letters that are currently in the process of being published. Visits to Ashdown House are restricted to the house's cental stairway, but the visit is well worth it for the portraits of Elizabeth and her children that hang on the walls, including a splendid one of Sophia, the Queen that eighteenth-century England might have welcomed as a wonderfully lively contrast to her lumpen and unhappy predecessor, Queen Anne. Noble Endeavours, by Miranda Seymour, is published by Simon and Schuster @ £20.00

   Added: Monday 04 November 2013