The Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg dies at 82

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Prince Richard, brother-in-law of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and head of the Sayn-Wittgenstein family, passed away on Monday 13 March 2017. His funeral service will be held on Tuesday 21 March, in the Evangelische Stadtkirche Bad Berleburg. 

Richard zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg was the third son-in-law of King Frederik IX of Denmark. He married Princess Benedikte in 1968 at Fredensborg Palace, Denmark. Her younger sister Anne-Marie had married Constantine II, King of the Hellenes, in 1964 in Athens, Greece. In 1967, the older sister Margrethe, heiress to the Danish throne, married Henri de Laborde de Monpezat who became Prince Henrik of Denmark.

Richard was a man of humour, and of temper, totally devoid of the stiff upper lip and the jetset lifestyle so often associated with royalty. He met his future wife at the wedding of Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus in the Netherlands in 1966. “In the royal corner,” as he once explained. From birth, Prince Richard belonged to that inner circle of closely related princely houses of Europe, but he never liked the pomp and circumstance and would rather wake up early to a day of hard work in the forest.

His main occupation in life was the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg inheritance: one of the largest private estates in Germany. Prince Richard took that responsibility seriously. “One would hate to be the weakest link in a long chain,” he said. The Prince has been praised for his work in wildlife conservation. He was an accomplished hunter and angler. And he was a central figure in local life in the town of Bad Berleburg. His family’s presence in the area goes back 800 years.

Prince Richard was a male line descendant of the medieval Counts of Sponheim. The chequered arms of the House of Sponheim were not used by that branch which inherited the County of Sayn in the 13th Century. In stead, the arms of Sayn (Gules, a lion guardant Or) became the central element of the family’s heraldic achievements.

The County of Wittgenstein, where Bad Berleburg is located, was added in the 14th Century. Its arms (Argent, two pallets Sable) are the same as those of the medieval Counts of Battenberg and, in modern times, the Mountbatten family: the Marquesses of Milford Haven, the Marquess of Carisbrooke, the Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

In 1792, the reigning count in Berleburg was raised to princely rank by the Holy Roman Emperor. The Principality of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg in the Rothaar Mountains on the border between Westphalia and Hesse was one of the many tiny German states that didn’t survive the Napoleonic Wars. Until the fall of the monarchy in 1918, the head of the family sat in the Prussian House of Lords.

The arms of Sayn and Wittgenstein can be seen together with the arms of the lordships of Homburg (Gules, a castle twice towered Argent, windows and port Sable) and Freusburg (Sable, on a bend sinister Argent three boar’s heads Sable) on the family’s armorial banner which was lowered to half mast on Berleburg Castle at the news of the Prince’s death.

Prince Richard’s only son, Gustav, is the new Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. Prince Gustav is named after his paternal grandfather Prince Gustav Albrecht who was reported missing in action in Russia in 1944 during World War II. In the 1960s the prospect of the Danish king getting a German son-in-law was disliked by many Danes. It was decided that any children of Prince Richard and Princess Benedikte would only succeed to the throne on the condition that they were raised in Denmark and became Danish citizens.

It is one of Prince Richard’s achievements that his nationality soon became a non-issue. As a young child he had lived in Sweden with his widowed mother who was a member of the Fouché d’Otrante family, Swedish nobles descended from Napoleon’s Minister of Police. So, Prince Richard had learned Swedish. Later in life he also spoke Danish, albeit in his own charming, “mixed Scandinavian” version. He was the German prince who put a friendly face on Germany at a time when it was needed.

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