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Duchess Woizlawa Feodora of Mecklenburg, Princess Reuss Europe’s Centenarian Royal

Princess Woizlawa Feodora of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Princess Reuss. Images from and Pinterest
December 20, 2018 was a bright and sunny day and charming Gera, one of Thuringia's most historic cities, beamed even more knowing one of her beloved daughters just turned 100. A crowd of locals and the press gathered outside the Gera Theatre, a cultural institution that benefitted from the support of the former ruling house of Reuss. A  vehicle arrived and out came the celebrator, Duchess Woizlawa Feodora of Mecklenburg, Princess of Reuss. The children rushed forward to greet her with a bouquet of roses. Cannon shots were fired in her honor and when she entered the theatre, family and friends stood and gave her a fete.

Birth and Childhood

Woizlawa Feodora was born on December 17, 1918, in Rostock, the daughter of Duke Adolf Friedrich, a son of Grand Duke Friedrich Franz II, and his first wife Princess Viktoria Feodora Reuss (Younger Line), the daughter of Heinrich XXVII, the last reigning Prince Reuss Younger Line. Alas, the babe’s mother died shortly after giving birth due to complications. 

She was named after Woizlawa, daughter of Wartislaw I, Duke of Pomerania, and wife of Pribislav, an Oborite prince who was also the first duke of Mecklenburg. Her name was an acknowledgement that the House of Mecklenburg was originally of Slavic origins although it was Germanized over the centuries. Withn the family, however, she was affectionately called Feodora. A few months before her birth, the rulers of various kingdoms, duchies and principalities that comprised the German Empire abdicated. The monarchy was abolished and a republic was born. Her first cousin, Frederick Francis IV, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, abdicated, as well as her grandfather, the Prince of Reuss.  The family, nevertheless, continued to live in relative comfort and idyll.

Prince Heinrich XXVII and his wife Princess Elise of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Princess Feodora’s childhood was spent in Gera, Thuringia, with her maternal grandparents. They raised the princess to be disciplined while enjoying life at the same time. Respect for others, politeness and punctuality were values inculcated upon her. But the most enduring gift they would give to their granddaughter was the love for the arts. The  Reusses were artistically inclined. Her grandmother, Princess Elise, a grand-niece of Queen Victoria, wrote books in Braille for the benefit of the blind. She also took an active role for the welfare of the orphans in Gera during World War I. The family supported the local culture and the theater in Gera was a beneficiary of their good will. In fact, Feodora’s uncle, Heinrich XLV, served as the theatre’s artistic director and, for some time, subsidized its operations.  Despite its small size,  the theatre emerged as one of the most important in Thuringia. It was in this environment where Feodora nurtured her love for the arts and music.

Her father, Duke Adolf Friedrich, was a renowned African explorer and politician. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent him to the German East Africa where he served as the last governor of Togoland from 1912 until 1914. He had a relentless passion for adventures in the African continent. Sometime later, the duke left for an expedition to East Africa; the one-year-old Feodora was left in care of his maternal grandparents in Gera. With his team, Duke Adolph Friedrich scoured the continent in search for African flora and fauna. Out from this expedition, he wrote the book Wissenschaftliche Erlebnisse der Deutschen Zentral-Afrika-Expedition unter Führung Adolf Friedrichs, Herzog zu Mecklenburg (Scientific experiences of the German Central Africa Expedition led by Adolf Friedrich, Duke of Mecklenburg)  which was published in 1922.   The scientific names of a genus of lizards, Adolfus, and of a species of chameleon, Kinyongia adolfifriderici, as well as in the cichlid Haplochromis adolphifrederici, were dedicated to him. Feodora later lived with her father in Bad Doberan, a small town in Rostock, where they occupied a comfortable house. Feodora later recalled that the Mecklenburg family was so big that there is no castle for everyone!

Marriage and Family Life

Princess Feodora married Prince Heinrich I Reuss of Köstritz on September 15, 1939 in Bad Doberan. They had six children altogether: Princess Feodora Reuss (b. 5 February 1942), Prince Heinrich VIII Reuss (b. 30 August 1944), Prince Heinrich IX Reuss (b. 30 June 1947), Prince Heinrich X Reuss (b. 28 July 1948), Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss (b. 4 December 1951), and Prince Heinrich XV Reuss (b. 9 October 1956).

In 1935, her husband was adopted by her uncle Heinrich XLV, head and the last male member of the House of Reuss Younger Line. Following Heinrich XLV’s death in 1945, Heinrich I became the sole heir of the private assets that remained in the ownership of the House of Reuss Younger Line after it was deposed in the 1918 German Revolution. Among the properties that Heinrich inherited was the Osterstein Castle, an ancient but majestic structure perched on top of a hill that overlooked Gera.  The castle had a music salon; one performer who was invited to stay there described it as “perfect”. “It had a grand piano with an exquisite tone, was furnished with elegant simplicity and was acoustically sound,” the performer recorded.

World War II

Thallwitz Castle. Image from Wikimedia Commons

At the height of World War II, the family opened their home to the wounded and the refugees. Unfortunately, it was not spared from destruction when the American soldiers heavily bombed Gera on April 6, 1945. On that day, the family took part in the funeral of a former valet of the duchess’ maternal grandfather. Her husband had driven the funeral carriage. On their way back, the family was struck as they helplessly witnessed the castle on fire. Feodora and her two children fled to a nearby meadow. The wounded and the refugees barely escaped, but, nevertheless, survived the bombing.  Firefighters were overwhelmed by the flames that engulfed the town that they failed to save the castle that burned for three weeks. When the smoke cleared, 300 houses and 50 factories were destroyed. More than 500 lives also perished. Gera was ruined. What remained—furniture and family heirlooms—were looted by the Hungarians. The family  moved to Ebersdorf Castle, their summer residence, but shortly, another tragedy struck the family that same year when the communist land reform in the Soviet-occupied zone (East Germany) seized all movable and immovable assets of the House of Reuss.

Later Life and Restitution of Family Fortune

The princely couple and their family settled in Budingen in Hesse. The prince died in 1982.  After the German reunification of 1990, Feodora, as her husband's heir, claimed for the restitution of her family’s properties and argued that her late husband was both a British and a German national, and should have not been legally expropriated under the law. The settlement led to the returns of valuable museum items, as well as, Waidmannsheil hunting castle in Saaldorf, the Thallwitz castle, and extensive forest properties.  With her family’s legacy now restored, Princess Feodora returned to Gera, where she lived for the next fifteen years. She moved to the southern part of the Black Forest afterwards.  She died on June 3, 2019 in Strittmatt, Schwarzwald, Germany. At that time of her death, Princess Feodora was only one of the three remaining members of the House of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, which by the absence of a  male family heir, had gone extinct due to the Salic law of succession. She was also the oldest living European royal.


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