Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein otherwise known simply as Metternich was probably the greatest diplomat of the nineteenth century. As well as being a towering intellectual he seems to have been a very physical man, if not on the field of battle then in the bedchamber. In her book, Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857, Judith Lissauer Cromwell describes him as, “witty and charming, above average height, slim and graceful, “the Adonis of the Drawing Room.” A man with, “fair hair, an aquiline nose, a well-shaped mouth, a high forehead, and piercing blue eyes.”
He served as the Austrian Empire’s Foreign Minister from 1809 and Chancellor from 1821 and was responsible for what historians call ‘The Concert of Europe.” This was not a forerunner of the Eurovision Song contest but a concert in the sense of an arrangement of something by mutual agreement or coordination and the thing he was in charge of arranging was the restoration of Europe to its state before the French Revolution after the defeat of Napoleon. He managed what is called ‘The Congress System’ from 1814 until the liberal revolutions of 1848 finally forced his resignation. But it is not his achievements as a statesman or his politics I am interested in today, it is achievements as a husband, lover, and as one of the most prolific love letter writers in history.
Metternich had three wives, obviously not all at the same time although one suspects he might have managed that if he had had the opportunity he rarely had only one bed to go to at a time. With his first wife, Princess Eleonore von Kaunitz (m. 1795–1825) he had 10 children, with his second wife, Baroness Antoinette Leykam (m. 1827–29) he had one child; and with his third wife, Countess Melanie Zichy-Ferraris (m. 1831–54) he had another five. You would think that was more than enough for any man but Metternich did not stop there. He managed to squeeze in another child with his mistress Katharina Bagration. Princess Marie-Clementine, was born on 29 September 1810 in Vienna and to save face was promptly adopted into the Bagration family in Russia.
At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Metternich had two mistresses in tow. His long-standing mistress the widow Katharina Bagration and his new love interest the Duchess of Sagan.
Both women ran pro-Russian, anti-Napoleonic salons in the city mainly financed by the Tsar and in the case of Bagration by her besotted but estranged husband until he died from his wounds at the battle of Borodino in 1812. Bagration was known as le bel ange nu “the beautiful nude angel” because she wore low cut dresses with bare shoulders, and la chatte blanche “the white cat” for her white Indian muslin dresses that clung seductively to her body and her wily intelligence. Her influence on the politicians and statesmen who frequented her salon was significant and Napoleon is said to have considered her a formidable opponent.
But by 1815 Bagration’s charms were becoming less beguiling to Metternich. The new woman in his life, Katharina Friederike Wilhelmine Benigna, Princess of Courland, Duchess of Sagan (1781-1839) a German noblewoman from what is today part of Latvia was taking over his affections and attention.
There was intense rivalry between the women who were living in separate wings of the Palm Palace in Vienna in 1815, both the paid guests and informers of Tsar Alexander. This state of affairs was a complication even the greatest diplomat in Europe found hard to manage. “What a detestable complication your residence is in Vienna,” he wrote Sagan but he was not going to give up Sagan. He had been infatuated with her since 1813 and besides she was useful. Over the years he had built up a network of female informants or ‘spies’ who had been his lovers like Caroline Bonaparte, now Queen of Naples and Laure Junot the wife of the French General and Bagration and Sagan would be no different in the end.
Sagan had been perusing Metternich since 1804 when the ambitious young widow’s family moved to Berlin so that she inveigle herself into his affections but he did not fall under her spell then so she remarried only to divorce her new husband a year later saying, “I am ruining myself with husbands.” When their affair began it was intense and Sagan demanded that Metternich divorce his wife and marry her if he wanted to continue. Her demands were brushed aside but the affair continued. While he was in her thrall he wrote Sagan over 600 letters. The letters which were read by the Austrian Secret Police who rightly suspected Sagan of being a Russian spy at the time were lost and remained hidden until 1949. Reading the letters more than 100 years later it is easy to see that Sagan mimicked her lover’s prose, they reflected his opinions back to him, confirmed his conceits and his image as peacemaker and conqueror. In short, she pandered to his enormous ego and he loved it and her much to the Tsar’s delight. In the summer of 1814, the pair fell out. She wrote, “Everything has so completely changed between us that it is not at all astonishing that our thoughts and our sentiments agree on anything. I am beginning to believe that we never really known each other. We were both perusing a phantom.” The break up was acrimonious with Metternich saying as he took to the baths at Baden that they were, ” to arm his skin,” against her.”
Three years later, Metternich began another affair with Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857). Dorothea was a Baltic German noblewoman and wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834. It seems Metternich had a penchant for aristocratic women from the Baltic, she was the third in succession of Baltic lovers. Cromwell describes Dorothea as a “tall and slender woman, distinguished rather than beautiful, with a strikingly proud bearing.
Dorothea was not an instant success in London and was considered cold and snobbish by London Society. She had a long and elegant neck that earned her the nickname, “the swan” and by those who disliked her, “the giraffe. But her reputation did not bother her she was not after friendship she was after power much like her predecessors Sagan and Bagration and she used her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to make herself a leader of London’s politically infused society. She cultivated friendships with the foremost diplomats of the day. Not only did she become Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had an affair with Lord Palmerston, although there is no firm proof of this and she was a close friend of Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and Lord Grey.
Her hard work paid off and she became a leader of London society; invitations to her home were the most sought after. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s, London’s most exclusive social club, where she introduced the scandalous dance, the waltz to England when Tsar Alexander came to London in 1818. It was during that visit the two great lovers first met. They took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.
However, at a party hosted by the Dutch Ambassador on 22nd October at Aix-La-Chappelle that year, they found themselves sitting next to each other and she played him for all he was worth drawing him out with questions on his favourite subject; Napoleon; and by indulging his ego and listening to his every word she won him over. The next day she found herself alone in a carriage with the Prince and as they chatted, they found that they had much in common. They were both disappointed in the people they were married to, they hated getting up early in the morning, they liked the same paintings, the same novels, and literature, the same style of furniture – in fact, they were kindred spirits. A few days later, their notorious liaison began with Dorothea concealing her identity by wearing a long cloak and veil in order to enter the Prince’s apartment incognito.
In Metternich Dorothea had found her equal, he was a man she could love wholeheartedly, who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me? … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”
In Dorothea Metternich had met the woman of his dreams, she could match his intellect and his passion. She could speak and write in four languages and her wit and intelligence were as sharp as his. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.” “Why are your letters so like mine? Why do you write to me almost the same words I have written to you, and you have the air of knowing them whilst my letter is still in my room? Will such perfect identity of our beings be so complete that the same thought only finds the same expression in each of us, when a word, a single phrase will succeed in expressing what we feel? …. I could write volumes, I could repeat to you a hundred times in one page that I love you.”
Their heated, clandestine, affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They continued their liaison mainly in letters continuing their physical relationship whenever their paths crossed. Metternich described writing to Dorothea as like speaking to her, or chatting to her as if she were in the room with him because she was ‘in him.’ “You are my last thought before I go to sleep at night and first thought when I awaken,” he wrote.
The pair were tortured by their affair not only because of their separation but also because they both knew that they were married to others and that they could never be together. Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation with women and called his fidelity to her into question on occasion. In the early years of the affair he chastised her for such thoughts but of course the inevitable happened and she broke off their relationship in 1826 when she found out that he traded her in for a younger woman.
Towards the end of her life, Dorothea burned Metternich’s letters afraid that their intimacy would shock her family and ruin their reputations but she copied sections of his letters into her notebook. In one letter, that survived because it was copied by the French Secret Service, Dorothea writes about a dream she had when she was staying at Lord and Lady Jersey’s house one summer evening. She wrote; “We spoke a great deal, and for fear we would be heard, you took me on your lap so that you could speak to me more quietly; my dear Clement, I heard your heart beating, I felt it under my hand so strongly that I woke up, and it was my own heart reacting to yours. Mr. God, my love, how it still beats at this moment …. will my dream ever become a reality?”
Metternich occupied her imagination from 1818 to the beginning of 1826. By the end she was disillusioned; references to him in letters written after that date, are cold and spiteful and it seems that time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849 describing him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.” By then she was the wife in all but name of the French politician Guizot and living in Paris. It was said that even though she was a widow by then she refused to marry Guizot as she would have to give up her title of ‘Serene Highness’ something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancien regime through and through.
Dorothea Lieven died peacefully at her home, 2 rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, aged 71, on 27 January 1857, with Guizot and Paul Lieven, one of her two surviving sons, beside her. She was buried, according to her wish, at the Lieven family estate, Mežotne (near Jelgava) next to her two young sons who had died in St. Petersburg. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels about the period, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer generally portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society, but in The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues.
Metternich died in Vienna two years later on 11 June 1859, aged 86. He was the last great figure of his generation; almost everyone of note in Vienna came to pay tribute at his funeral but in the foreign press his death went virtually unnoticed. Of course ‘the coachman of Europe’ is the topic of much historical discourse. His reactionary political views held sway in Europe for the best part of 35 years and his love affairs were a source of fascination and intrigue throughout the courts of Europe.
Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell
The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick
1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
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