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The Forgotten Sister: The Life and Legacy of Princess Feodora of Leiningen

![[Princess_Feodora_of_Hohenlohe-Langenburg_by_Sir_William_Ross.jpg]] Princess Feodora in 1838, painted by Sir William Ross (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When we think of the British royal family in the Victorian era, Queen Victoria immediately comes to mind. But fewer may be familiar with Princess Feodora of Leiningen – Victoria‘s beloved elder half-sister who was a vital source of support, affection and guidance throughout the queen‘s life. As a historian, I believe Feodora‘s story deserves to be told more fully. Though often overshadowed by her famous sister, Feodora led a fascinating life marked by both joys and sorrows, all while maintaining an unbreakable bond with one of history‘s most influential monarchs.

Family Background and Early Life

Princess Feodora was born Anna Feodora Auguste Charlotte Wilhelmine on December 7, 1807 in Amorbach, Bavaria. Her parents were Emich Carl, Prince of Leiningen (1763-1814) and Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (1786-1861). Emich Carl was a wealthy nobleman who had inherited the Principality of Leiningen, an estate of over 1,700 square kilometers, in 1803 at age 39. Victoria was his second wife and a princess of the House of Wettin by birth.

Feodora spent the first few years of her life at the family‘s Neo-Gothic Amorbach Abbey in Bavaria with her parents and older brother, Hereditary Prince Carl. Her grandmother described the young princess as "the most beautiful little girl you have ever seen, with large blue eyes, pretty features, and a funny, droll way about her." But Feodora‘s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when Prince Emich Carl died suddenly in 1814 at age 51, leaving behind 8-year-old Carl and 6-year-old Feodora.

The loss devastated the family both emotionally and financially. Princess Victoria was now a 27-year-old widow responsible for two small children and a principality burdened with debt. As a contemporary biographer noted, she found her "husband‘s affairs in a very bad state and it took years before she could put matters on a better footing." Feodora thus grew up in an atmosphere of austerity, which fostered a lifelong sense of thriftiness.

The Duchess of Kent‘s fortunes improved when she married Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn in a joint ceremony with her brother Leopold and Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1818. The Duke was the fourth son of King George III and had a reputation as a kind, affable man. He embraced both Feodora and Carl, with the princess later writing: "He was the most affectionate and indulgent of fathers, and I loved him very dearly."

In 1819, the Kents relocated their family to England so their future child could be born on British soil with a claim to the throne. That child, Alexandrina Victoria, entered the world on May 24, 1819 at Kensington Palace. From the beginning, 11-year-old Feodora doted on her infant half-sister, nicknaming her "Drina." Sadly, the girls would lose their beloved stepfather a mere 8 months later when the Duke of Kent died of pneumonia in January 1820. It was a tragic blow that left them in a precarious position, with the Duchess of Kent now responsible for raising Victoria as a potential heir to the throne.

An Unhappy Refuge

For the next several years, Kensington Palace became a lonely "gilded cage" for Feodora, Victoria and their mother. The Duchess strictly limited her daughters‘ contact with the outside world and subjected them to a rigorous, stifling daily routine. Feodora and Victoria took solace in each other‘s company, developing an exceptionally close bond despite their 12-year age gap. Victoria worshipped her older sister, writing in her diary: "Feodora is my best friend and companion, oh what a blessing it is to have a sister!"

But like many teenage girls, Feodora longed to break free of her sheltered existence and experience romance. She found an opportunity for both when Prince Ernst of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the 35-year-old nephew of her mother‘s lady-in-waiting, came to visit Kensington Palace in the fall of 1827. It was reportedly love at first sight for the couple, who shared a passion for music.

The Duchess of Kent gave her blessing for the match, which would have been considered beneath Feodora‘s status as a potential future queen‘s sister under normal circumstances. But as Feodora confided to Victoria, she was eager to marry Ernst "merely to get away" from the palace‘s "dismal existence." She pitied Victoria for having to remain there after the wedding, writing: "I might have married I don‘t know whom…You, my poor dear Sister, had to endure it for some years more."

A Bittersweet Union

In February 1828, the 20-year-old Feodora wed Ernst in the Chapel Royal of Kensington Palace with all the pomp befitting a royal celebration. The public may have had their doubts about a British princess marrying the younger son of a minor German duke, but the couple themselves seemed blissfully happy. Nine-year-old Victoria served as a bridesmaid, watching her sister promise her heart to Ernst before the archbishop.

After a honeymoon tour of Ernst‘s native Germany, the newlyweds settled in Langenburg, where Feodora was warmly welcomed by her husband‘s family. Still, it was an adjustment for the princess to live so far from England and her beloved little sister. She poured out her feelings in letters to Victoria, writing: "My heart was very full when I thought of you at home, and that I had left you, how much I love you."

Victoria wrote back just as ardently, lamenting how much she missed her "most darling sister." Over the next 6 years, the two maintained a devoted correspondence full of affection and confidences, from the serious to the trivial. At one point Victoria complained about her brother-in-law, Ernest, teasing her about her short stature. Feodora responded with sage advice befitting her seniority: "You must not mind, that is only his way of joking…though not always in quite the best taste."

The sisters finally reunited for an emotional three-week visit at Kensington Palace in 1834. Then 15-year-old Victoria clung to Feodora, now a self-assured wife of 26, declaring: "I love you more than I can say…I cried so much at your going it made me quite ill." But their time together had to be short, as Feodora was anxious to return to Germany, where she would give birth to her first child later that year.

Motherhood and Royal Duty

Between 1828 and 1838, Feodora and Ernst welcomed three daughters: Elise (1830-1850), Adelheid (1835-1900), and Feodora (1839-1872). The couple also had three sons: Carl (1829-1907), Hermann (1833-1913), and Victor (1837-1893). Feodora relished her role as a mother, filling her letters to Victoria with proud details about her children‘s growth and accomplishments.

She also advised Victoria on the challenges of being a female ruler when her sister became queen in 1837 at age 18. Drawing on her own experiences at the Langenburg court, Feodora warned Victoria to be firm in asserting her authority and to choose her advisors wisely. As she wrote in 1839: "You are Queen and must command, even where you may not always like it."

Victoria took these words to heart as she navigated the early years of her reign, weathering everything from the Bedchamber Crisis of 1839 to assassination attempts. Through it all, she leaned on Feodora as a trusted confidante, even seeking her approval on her choice of husband in Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The queen was overjoyed when Feodora gave her blessing to the match, writing: "You don‘t know how happy you have made me!"

Feodora and Victoria managed several more in-person visits over the years, including serving as godparents to each other‘s children. In 1845, Feodora made a three-month stay at Buckingham Palace to support Victoria after she narrowly survived an attack by a deranged ex-Army officer. The queen wrote of her relief at having "my dearest sister Feodora with me during this trying time…a comfort I can never be grateful enough for."

But the sisters also shared heartaches through their correspondence, most poignantly after the loss of Feodora‘s eldest daughter Elise to tuberculosis in 1850 at age 19. Victoria sent Feodora a bracelet containing a miniature portrait of Elise, writing: "May God comfort you as He alone can…You were ever the most affectionate of mothers." Feodora found solace in her faith, replying: "What should I be without trust in God and hope of eternal life? Elise dwells in my heart and is constantly in my thoughts."

Widowhood and Final Years

Tragedy struck again for Feodora in 1860 when Ernst died after a long battle with liver disease, leaving her a widow at 52. Just a year later, Victoria also lost her beloved husband Albert to typhoid fever. The queen was inconsolable in her grief, writing to Feodora: "My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!"

Victoria begged Feodora to live with her in England so they could comfort each other as bereaved sisters. But while touched by the offer, Feodora politely declined, explaining: "I cannot give up my house, my position or the independence I have gained with age…it is too late to transplant an old tree." She chose to remain in Langenburg, finding purpose in her charitable work and doting on her growing brood of grandchildren.

However, Feodora‘s last decade was marked by declining health and personal loss. In 1872, her youngest daughter Adelheid died of scarlet fever at age 30, leaving behind three small children. The blow devastated Feodora, who wrote to Victoria: "I wish the Lord would be pleased to let me depart soon, for I am weary of life." Just a few months later in September 1872, the 64-year-old princess succumbed to what many historians believe was stomach cancer.

News of Feodora‘s death shattered Victoria, who wrote in her diary: "My life‘s last chord is severed…I stood so alone on losing my beloved one and only sister, sweet excellent Feodora, a few years only older than I." In her sorrow, the queen found consolation in the letters she and Feodora had exchanged over their lifetimes. She had them bound in two volumes, often revisiting the precious reminders of her sister‘s love and support.

An Enduring Legacy

In the decades since her passing, Feodora has been depicted in various fictional works, from the 2001 miniseries Victoria and Albert to the 2016-2019 ITV drama Victoria. She is often portrayed as a kind but naive figure who is easily manipulated by the men around her. However, the real Feodora was by all accounts an intelligent, principled woman who served as Queen Victoria‘s most trusted advisor and anchor.

Though not a public figure like her sister, Feodora left a quiet legacy through her descendants and charitable work. She was particularly passionate about supporting education for the poor and subsidized several schools on the Langenburg estate. Feodora also instilled a sense of duty and moral courage in her children, especially Prince Hermann, who went on to be a respected statesman and general.

But perhaps Feodora‘s greatest impact was the love and wisdom she provided to Queen Victoria, one of the most influential women in history. Through 44 years of devoted letters, Feodora gave Victoria the strength to endure everything from postpartum depression to assassination attempts to the challenges of ruling in a male-dominated world. As Victoria herself put it: "She was ever my guardian angel."

It is clear Feodora was so much more than just a forgotten sister or minor royal. She was a multi-faceted woman who overcame early tragedy to become an adored wife, mother, and confidante to the most powerful woman in the world. Feodora‘s story is one of resilience, loyalty, and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood – a tale that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. As we approach the 150th anniversary of her death in 2022, let us give this remarkable princess her proper due at last.


  • Julia Baird, Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire (2016)
  • Carolly Erickson, Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria (1997)
  • Elizabeth Longford, Victoria R.I. (1964)
  • Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: From Her Birth to the Death of the Prince Consort (1972)
  • Dearest Mama: Letters Between Queen Victoria and the Crown Princess of Prussia, 1861-1864