No-Nonsense Facts About Sophia of Nassau, The Woman Behind The King

Byron Fast

While the name Nassau may conjure images of a hot sunny beach in the Bahamas, this Nassau is pretty much the exact opposite. Sophia of Nassau was the Queen of a very cold place: Sweden and her husband was the ruling monarch. Behind the scenes, however, it was the practical Sophia who was actually calling the shots. She won over the people of Sweden, and then used her intelligence and diligence to bring her inept husband quite literally to his knees.


No-Nonsense Facts About Sophia of Nassau, The Woman Behind The King

1. He Looked Around

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Sophia of Nassau was born on July 9, 1836 in Nassau, which is now part of Germany. She was the product of her father and his second wife. With his first wife, Wilhelm, the Duke of Nassau had eight children. When his wife unexpectedly passed after the birth of their last child, Wilhelm looked around for another woman to continue making babies with. His shocking choice was something only a royal could get away with.

2. She Was The Last Of Many

When Wilhelm was seeking a second wife, he decided he didn’t want to look around too much for a replacement. So, he chose someone close at hand: his deceased wife’s niece, Pauline. With his second wife—who was 18 years younger than him—he had four children and Sophia was the youngest of these.

In case you’re having trouble keeping track, Sophia was her father’s 12th child. I think it would be safe to say that being 12th didn’t get her a whole lot of face time with Daddy dearest.

3. She Lost Him

Indeed, Sophia didn’t have much time with her dad, but not necessarily because he was too busy. When Sophia was just three years old, her family was struck by tragedy: Wilhelm passed.

One of her many siblings took over for Dad as Duke, and for Sophia, life went on as expected. Her education was all taken care of by private tutors—which was pretty standard for a royal child in Nassau. What wasn’t standard was Sophia’s sport of choice. That was pretty off the wall.

4. She Did What The Boys Did

As a child, young Sophia had two problems: a weak back and poor posture. Her tutors had a wild suggestion for curing both of these, and it was something that they usually reserved for the male students: fencing. Stranger still, while Sophia was battling it out with her classmates, they were doing it in English, not German.

For some reason, all of Sophia’s education was in English, and that’s the language she spoke best. This early interest in English would go on to shape Sophia’s life in a big way.

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5. She Stood Out

Sophia, with her fencing and English, stood out from her siblings. Her upbringing was not typical for Germany and more closely resembled the childhood of a middle class Victorian child. Her social group consisted of academics and most people wrote off Sophia as being too serious and no fun.

Because she was so different from her siblings, they came up with a nickname for her. She was their “democratic sister”. No one knew it at the time, but everything Sophia was doing prepared her for something special.

6. They Escaped

When Sophia was just 12 years old, a wave of rebellion spread across Europe and many monarchies were in danger. Chaos and dissent reached Nassau, but Sophia’s mother and brothers managed to control it. Yet unrest still lingered and perhaps because of this, a few years later, Sophia and her mother left Nassau to spend the winter abroad.

If you think they chose to go somewhere warm to escape the cold, think again. They went to cold, cold Russia.

7. They Had To Get Out

Sophia had an aunt that lived in Saint Petersburg, so Mom decided this would be a great place for her and her daughter to spend the winter. Sophia’s aunt was part of royalty in Russia, so she had the opportunity to experience what a grand court was like. She even studied piano with the great master: Anton Rubinstein.

All was going well, until Sophia and her mother had to get the heck out of Russia—fast.

8. She Couldn’t Return To Normal

An alliance between France, the United Kingdom, and the Ottoman Empire was making its way to Russia—and they weren’t coming for peaceful negotiations. It became clear that Sophia and her mother were in danger, so they made a speedy retreat to the safety of Nassau.

Once there, Sophia had no time to get back to her old life—she was about to experience more heartbreak. In 1856, her mother, just 46 years old at that time, suddenly passed. Sophia’s mother had become her lifeline—so, what would she do now?

9. She Could Have Been Lost

Luckily for Sophia, she had many siblings—some full, some half—scattered throughout Nassau. She ended up with her half-sister Princess Marie. It was at this point in her life that we might have lost Sophia into obscurity. The cold, hard fact was that she was the 12th child of a Duke in a tiny country.

What could possibly happen that would make her life memorable? Well, far away in Sweden, something was happening. And it was about to change Sophia’s life forever.

10. The World Was His Oyster

Over in Sweden, Prince Oscar was in need of a bride. Usually, the powers that be would just assign him one that would be politically beneficial for the country. Times, however, were changing, and Oscar had a rare opportunity: he could choose a wife that he actually liked.

Well, the phrase, “the world is your oyster” could not be more appropriate. Oscar was a prince in line to be king, what woman could say “no” to that?

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11. He Went On A Tour

Prince Oscar went on a European tour looking for a wife. There was only one stipulation: she had to be from royal lineage. In the UK, he rejected Princess Mary of Cambridge. In Belgium and Prussia, two princesses turned him down. He then heard about Sophia in Nassau and wanted to investigate.

When he went for a visit, Oscar knew almost immediately he had found a woman who could be his bride. But what did Sophia think?

12. He Left Her

Like Prince Oscar, Sophia of Nassau was not willing to marry for political reasons only. This, however, was not the only thing they had in common. As it turned out, Sophia was as crazy about Oscar as he was about her. Well, “crazy” may not be the best word to describe the always serious Sophia. But she was certainly smitten, and that was all Oscar needed.

Once they realized they wanted each other, Oscar did the most sensible thing he could think of: went back to Sweden. You see, before any canoodling could happen, he needed his parents’ permission.

13. They Had To Get Close

Once Oscar had received permission from his parents, he returned to Nassau to formally ask for Sophia’s hand. She accepted his proposal and they announced it in October 1856. Yet, despite finding love, it was far from smooth sailing for the young couple.

During their engagement, Sophia stayed in Nassau while Oscar remained Sweden. This was not a great arrangement for two love birds trying to get to know each other. Sophia wanted to know more about her future husband, but they were kept apart by the cold Baltic Sea.

14. She Learned Quickly

In order to get to know her future husband, Sophia picked up a pen and started writing letters to him. Her first obstacle was choosing a language to write him in. The always level-headed Sophia decided to do something smart: she wrote her letters in Swedish.

Of course, she had to learn the language first, but Sophia was a serious student and picked it up quickly. When she’d mastered Swedish, she turned around and became fluent in Norwegian as well. Yes, she was just that bright.

15. They Were More Than A Little Excited

Sophia and Oscar’s marriage ceremony took place on June 6, 1857 in Germany. Soon after the wedding they set sail for Sweden, where the celebrations really got going. The citizens there were over the moon with Sophia’s arrival. When she showed up in a blue dress, their excitement overflowed, and they named her the Blue Duchess.

But, what were they so excited about? She was just one woman after all. As it turned out, the people of Sweden had a very good reason to get excited about Sophia—and she was about to find out what it was.

16. She Could Solve Their Problem

There was something making Swedish citizens nervous, and they thought Sophia could solve the problem. You see, Oscar’s older brother, Prince Charles was next in line to be king. Prince Charles, however, had one problem: he had not yet produced a legitimate male heir to the throne.

He had one daughter, but Swedish monarchs couldn’t be female. After his daughter, came a son, Prince Carl Oscar. But there was a problem and, sadly, the boy could never be king.

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17. She Was Under Pressure

There was a good reason why Charles’ son could not be king. When he was still a baby, the boy got the mumps. A common cure for the mumps back then was to place the child in a cold bath. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a horrible idea.

After just one year of life, baby Carl Oscar passed. To make matters worse, Charles’ wife had become sterile after the birth of their son. Sweden was in a pickle: the country had no male heir. This was the reason for their excitement, and it put a ton of pressure on Sophia.

18. They Were In The Next Room

In 1858, one year and 10 days after her marriage, a very pregnant Sophia of Nassau entered the birthing chamber at Drottningholm Palace. True to the protocol of the day, the entire royal family assembled in the next room. Their job was to make sure the baby was actually from Sophia and Oscar.

Tensions were running high, as the entire country really needed a baby boy to be the future king. Once the delivery was complete, the news was released to the citizens.

19. She Delivered

The wonderful news from the palace was that Sophia had delivered a baby boy. Sophia’s popularity went from “very popular” to “out of this world popular”. The country had gotten what it needed, and so desperately wanted. They named the boy named Gustav V of Sweden and he—if everything went as planned—would most definitely be king one day.

When that day would actually come, however, depended on a whole bunch of things.

20. Tragedy Struck

The year after Sophia’s son was born, tragedy struck the royal family. King Oscar I—Sophia’s father-in-law—had a setback in his health. Four days after his 60th birthday, he passed. Did this mean that Oscar and Sophia would be king and queen?

Hold your horses. Next in line for the crown was Sophia’s brother-in-law, Charles. Even though he didn’t have a male heir, he had a solid claim to the throne. Sophia had to bide her time, but in her mind, it would be worth it.

21. They Were Different

While waiting for their infant son to become king, Sophia of Nassau and Prince Oscar lived in a palace in Stockholm, Sweden. As always, Sophia was serious and sensible, and managed her home as such. She couldn’t help but notice that the new king and queen were not as sensible. S

Sophia watched with a cold eye as the king and queen threw elaborate masquerade parties and indulged in a debaucherous lifestyle. Sophia and Oscar were not the partying sort—but it doesn’t mean they were prudes either.

22. She Was Unusually Normal

Sophia and Oscar quickly got to babymaking, and ended up with four sons. Sophia was good mother, but she made headlines for some unusual parenting choices. The first of Sophia’s unusual choices was how she fed her children. While most mothers of the royal or even upper classes had a wet nurse, Sophia of Nassau wasn’t above using her own bosom to feed her boys.

Second on her list of peculiarities, was putting her boys into the public school system. This was unheard-of for the royal family, as they usually received an education at home. The third thing that made Sophia stand out was her attitude toward her children. She didn’t indulge them and was a very strict disciplinarian. Basically, Sophia was acting like a normal mother—and it was taking a toll on her health.

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23. She Built It

Being a more active parent was probably good for the children, but it certainly wasn’t great for Sophia. To combat her poor health, Sophia did something special and rather expensive: she paid to have a summer residence built just for her recovery.

In a rare display of arrogance, Sophia named the mansion after herself: Sofiero. It was a good idea that Sophia started getting used to naming things after herself. She was about to go through a life-changing experience, and would soon be spending a lot of time in the spotlight.

24. Her Work Paid Off

On September 18, 1872, Sophia’s life changed forever. Her brother-in-law’s hard life of partying had finally done him in: He passed at the youthful age of 46. As you may remember, Charles had no male heir, so the crown went to Sophia’s husband, Oscar II.

This elevated position made Sophia the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Sophia had gone from being the 12th child of a Duke in a little nowhere place like Nassau to being a queen. With four sons ready and waiting, her family would rule Sweden and Norway for a good, long time. There was, however, one nagging question.

25. They Looked To Her

The big question was: how would the subjects of Sweden and Norway respond to an outsider as a queen? The answer is not at all what you’d expect. In a surprising turn of events, people trusted Sophia more than their new king. Around the time of her rise to queen, things were tense in Sweden and the people actually thought that Sophia would deal with the situation better than her husband Oscar.

Well, it turned out that Sophia was better than her husband in more ways than one.

26. She Ran Off

What began as burning romance soon turned into heartbreak Sophia learned of the king’s infidelities. She kept a brave face for the public, but behind the scenes, Sophia was in agony over her husband’s affairs. With no one to turn to, she did something drastic: she ran off to see her half-sister. Marie of Wied lived in Nassau and Sophia went there for some TLC and, more importantly, some much needed advice.

And what did she get from Marie? Nothing good. Her half-sister told Sophia to suck it up.

27. Nothing Had Changed

Sophia returned to Sweden with her half-sister’s half-baked advice and saw that nothing had changed. Her husband was still chasing other women. Worse still, Sophia began to hear stories about her husband’s philandering, and some of them were downright embarrassing.

It seemed he sent a message to a popular opera singer, asking to meet her in private. This, of course, was code for having a secret affair. What wasn’t code, however, was the opera singer’s reply—and it was a zinger.

28. She Heard A Story

The opera singer that King Oscar was chasing was Ida Basilier-Magelssen. When she got the king’s request, she replied as if he were a mere peasant. She told Oscar to try having a private audience with his own wife instead of her. She went on to say that she had better things to do than have “private conferences with old gentlemen”.

When Sophia found out about Basilier-Magelssen’s reply, she flew into action.

29. They Cried Together

Sophia sent for Basilier-Magelssen to have a private conference of her own. When the two women got together, they had a gabfest about how awful men were—especially both their cheating husbands. The two cried together and—more than likely—ate a tub of that era’s version of Ben and Jerry’s.

Well, at least one positive thing had come from it: Sophia of Nassau had made a friend. It was great to have someone to commiserate with, but her husband’s cheating was still burning her up.

30. She Found Someone Else

Sophia couldn’t get over Oscar’s infidelity, so she called it quits on their marriage. Now, of course, saying it was over didn’t actually mean divorce. Sophia was fine carrying on as Oscar’s wife—and the queen—but their life as a married couple was basically over. Now, Sophia needed something to replace the feelings she used to get from her husband back when their marriage was going well.

Did she turn to another man? Well, sort of. She turned to God.

31. She Joined Up

In 1878, Sophia met Lord Radstock, who was a British missionary. Radstock had dealt with some serious PTSD from battling in Crimea. To deal with it, he joined the fairly radical Plymouth Brethren church.

When Radstock told her about it, Sophia took to the church in a big way and spent her days in prayer with her ladies-in-waiting. There was, however, one major problem: her husband was the head of the Swedish church. Naturally, the two monarchs were bound to butt heads.

32. She Didn’t Listen To Him

King Oscar II wasn’t so keen about his wife joining an evangelical church like the Plymouth Brethren because it didn’t really gel with the Swedish church. Sophia felt that the cheating Oscar was in no position to be giving her any spiritual advice. So, she carried on pursuing her spirituality—no matter what her husband said.

33. She Took A Step Back

With all her attention on spiritual matters, what was happening to her role as queen? Around this time, Sophia took a huge step back from her royal duties. Her policy was something along the lines of: “If you really need me, I’ll be there. Otherwise, you can count me out”.

Sadly, her interest in spiritual matters failed to help her physical health. Sophia had to find a remedy for her ills, so once again, she out for Sweden in a quest for a cure.

34. She Stepped Out

Amsterdam was one place that Sophia found some relief from her illness. A doctor there was doing wonders. On one of her trips, she took a break from her treatment and went to Paris for a little alone time. She was feeling better, so she decided to go out for a bit of food.

It could be that Sophia momentarily forgot who she was, because her choice of venue caused quite a stir.

35. She Wandered In

While in Paris, Sophia of Nassau did something that shocked the world: she wandered into a restaurant and ordered a meal. While this may sound like a very normal thing to do, it wasn’t normal for a queen. Royals generally didn’t eat in public restaurants—especially with the public seated all around them.

The local media went wild over Sophia’s little outing, and Sophia made it her one and only time doing that. Well, at least she was feeling better. It was time for Sophia to return to Sweden and start a new enterprise.

36. She Fancied The Brits

As a child, Sophia had always been enamored with all things English. Well, this was still true, and now Sophia had become interested in a famous British woman: Florence Nightingale. After reading about Nightingale’s modern approach to healthcare, Sophia had an idea to improve hospitals in Sweden.

As it turned out, studying Nightingale wasn’t enough for Sophia—she wanted more.

37. She Was In Awe

In 1881, Sophia of Nassau and King Oscar II visited the UK. Sophia was thrilled to meet Queen Victoria. Then, she toured—and studied—the modern hospitals in London. Sophia was in awe of how much further advanced health care was in London, and she resolved to bring that home to Sweden.

When she got there, she got right to work: she started Sweden’s first nursing school. That, however, was only the beginning.

38. She Convinced Them

In addition to starting the school, Sophia wanted to raise the respect level for the occupation of nursing. One way to do this was to convince upper class women to become nurses. She succeeded in this and then dealt these upper class women a shocking surprise. The women got an eye-opener when Sophia expected them to drop to their upper class knees and scrub the floors—just like the other women.

Improving health care was a great idea. Especially since she was about to need it.

39. She Made A Will

Sophia had close relationships with her sons. So, when her second oldest son, Oscar, found someone he wanted to marry, Sophia was ready to support him and his bride. Someone who wasn’t very excited about the match was King Oscar. While this heated debate was going on in the household, unforeseen disaster struck: Sophia suddenly needed an operation.

Because there was a chance she wouldn’t survive, Sophia made a will—and she added a strange stipulation.

40. She Made Him Promise

Sophia was being very opportunistic. She had two goals: convince her husband to allow their son to marry his true love, and survive this potentially lethal operation. The always pragmatic Sophia found a way to unite her goals. She made her husband promise that if she lived, he had to agree to their son’s marriage.

The king agreed. The next thing was much harder to do: wait for the results of the operation.

41. She Lost One

Thankfully, Sophia survived, and young Oscar got his wish to marry the woman he loved. So, why was the king against the marriage in the first place? Well, Oscar had fallen in love with someone who was not a royal, which was unacceptable behavior. This was so serious, in fact, that after the marriage, most Swedes considered Oscar to no longer be a part of the royal family.

Still, Sophia had won a battle against her husband, and she was ready for more.

42. She Took It

The next years saw Sophia taking more and more power away from her husband. Once, after Sophia had made yet another decision for him, King Oscar fell to his knees in front of her. He simply said: “Yes, Sophia, now you are in!” This act was hard for the king to do, but it meant that he gave Sophia complete control—something she took without looking back.

43. She Ruled

Sophia of Nassau was unofficially holding the reigns of the country. With her level head in charge, Sweden avoided two potentially violent skirmishes: the union crisis of 1895, and the Norway crisis of 1898. Even when she was in her sick bed, the royal family came to her for advice. It seemed the country couldn’t survive without Sophia.

So, when would she be able to rule without hiding behind her husband?

44. He Suffered

In 1905, Norway split from Sweden. This meant that Sophia and Oscar were no longer the monarchs there. It was an extremely tense time for Sweden and the monarchy. In the past, it was usually Sophia’s health that took a tumble when the stress was too much. This time, it was Oscar’s turn to suffer.

The king’s reign came to an end when he passed on December 8, 1907. And although Sophia may have had plans to continue ruling the country, the crown went to her son, Gustav V. This signaled the start of Sophia’s descent into obscurity.

45. She Focused Elsewhere

Sophia didn’t bother meddling in her son’s reign as king. She shifted her focus somewhere else: her philanthropy. One of her projects that was still on the go was her nursing school. By this time, she had a granddaughter from her son Oscar and his wife Ebba.

To her joy, Sophia’s granddaughter, Maria, enrolled in her nursing school. When it came time for Maria to complete her studies, Sophia was there to officiate at her graduation.

46. She Couldn’t Speak

Sophia was the officiant at the graduation of all the nurses that year. Of course, her granddaughter, Maria, was a special student for Sophia. When it was time to honor Maria, Sophia was so moved she could barely speak. She simply hugged her.

Sophia was witnessing her legacy and it was a special moment. She’s lucky she got to see it when she did, for it was only a few days later—on December 30, 1913—that Sophia of Nassau passed.

47. They Were Busy

Although Sophia and Oscar drifted apart, there was a time when they were closer than two peas in a pod. During the early years of their marriage, while the king and queen were partying the night away, Sophia and Oscar were making themselves busy in another—more practical—way.

Together, they produced three sons by 1861 and had one more for good measure in 1865. They were taking no chances: they now had four male heirs and one of them was destined to be king. To no one’s surprise, Sophia took her role as a mother seriously. Though, as we know, some of her motherly decisions caused the world to take notice.

48. His Eye Wandered

The first years of their reign meant a lot of travel for Sophia of Nassau and King Oscar II. This kept them busy, but once they were back home a routine set in. Unfortunately, this routine involved King Oscar sleeping around with other women. These affairs, usually with actresses and opera singers, were well known to the public—and to Sophia.

Sophia put on a brave face, but she couldn’t escape the bitter truth.

49. She Was Through

The stress of dealing with her wandering husband was wreaking havoc on Sophia’s health. Sophia headed to the continent and decided to take stock of her life. That’s when she came to a heartbreaking realization. She realized that her husband’s cheating would never stop.

She also realized she was not the kind of queen that could just stand by and let her king make a fool of her. Basically, Sophia had had it. She put pen to paper and told the king it was over.

50. She Lost It

After spending years pulling strings in the shadows, the only thing that could possibly lead to Sophia becoming fully in charge of Sweden was her husband’s demise. That’s exactly what happened on the morning of December 8, 1907. But if you think this gave Sophia more power, think again. Sophia’s new title was “queen dowager”. All that meant was that she was the widow of the past king, and her influence on the country was a big fat zero. The crown went to her son, Gustav V.

Even though the plan had always been to get her son on the throne, Sophia must have felt lost. She’d been so important to Sweden, yet now she was practically nothing.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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