What was the smallest independent principality in Germany after the Congress of Vienna?

Homburg Castle in 1770 (PD-EXP)

The principality of Hessen-Homburg could have been the scene for a real life 19th century operetta, if there had been more romantic adventures in the castle. Yes, it had a very nice little castle, one nice enough for Kaiser Wilhelm II to use later as summer residence; and it had a casino before Monte Carlo did—another prerequisite for an operetta—visited by Dostoyevsky, whose experiences there found their way into his novel, The Gambler. And earlier, Heinrich von Kleist’s drama, The Prince of Homburg, was very loosely based on Friedrich II of Hessen-Homburg, the most famous landgrave, the one “with the silver leg”, since he had a silver mounted prosthesis for a leg he had lost in battle (still on display in the castle, which he built).

Friedrich V married a cousin for political reasons, but they still had 15 children, 11 surviving childhood. His eldest son, Friedrich VI, married a daughter of George III of England. Her dowry and personal income were a welcome asset to the small principality. She also introduced English style gardens and imported Lebanon cedars from Kew Garden, which were planted in front of the castle, also a few redwood trees that can still be seen in the residential areas that were once part of the gardens.

In the 19th century, the small town where the castle was, Homburg vor der Höhe (to differentiate it from other Homburgs), became a spa, since mineral water springs were found. That would also have made it a good scene for an operetta, since visitors to spas were reputed to have dalliances. In the latter half of the 19th century, when Kaiser Wilhelm and the court came to Homburg (by then Bad Homburg, as a spa), the first lawn tennis courts on the Continent and first golf course in Germany were established, since royal English guests were numerous, especially Edward, Prince of Wales, an uncle of the Kaiser, who resided in a building that is now a small hotel. He took a fancy to the style of hat worn by the Kaiser’s hunters, the origin of the Homburg hat and its popularity.

But why did this so small principality—less than 30 square miles (78 square km)—survive so long, until 1866? The answer is an example of how a new, independent principality could evolve, as well as almost everything that could happen to it subsequently.

In 1622, landgrave Ludwig V of Hessen-Darmstadt was in arrears in paying the “apanage” due his younger brother, Friedrich. In compensation, he gave Friedrich all rights to and the income from the town and office of Homburg vor der Höhe, except absolute sovereignty, presumably until Hessen-Darmstadt could again fulfill its obligation to provide Friedrich with 15,000 gulden each year. He became Friedrich I, landgrave of Hessen-Homburg.

On Friedrich’s death in 1638, his son Wilhelm Christoph—still a minor—inherited Hessen-Homburg. He, however, lived elsewhere and had no interest in Homburg and sold it to his brother in 1669 for 200,000 gulden. Georg Christian gave it as security to two persons in Frankfurt in 1671 (probably to get the funds to pay his brother), but in 1673, the landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt retrieved it, holding it until 1679, when Friedrich II was able to pay the security. (He had had a brilliant military career and married well.)

Friedrichs III and IV were also more active as officers than as local rulers. Friedrich V was an exception, but his six sons were all high officers. One fell in battle, but the other five were generals—one a field marshall—in Austrian service, and all five were recipients of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. That was to be important in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna.

In 1768, the young Friedrich V finally achieved total independence from Hessen-Darmstadt, only owing allegiance to the kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire (theoretically as an equal to the Prussian king and the dukes of major territories such as Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg and others). In 1806, when Franz II disbanded the Holy Roman Empire, Hessen-Homburg was mediatized with Hessen-Darmstadt, and Friedrich moved out of the castle. At the Congress of Vienna, a new Confederation of the German principalities was arranged. Hessen-Homburg was the only mediatized principality to regain its independence. It is thought that this was because the sons of the house had so much recognition for their Austrian military service and belonged to the oldest German nobility, but also because their youngest sister, Marianne, was married to Prince Wilhelm of Prussia and was with him at the Congress.

Not only was Hessen-Homburg again a sovereign state, it was also given the territory of Meisenheim, double the size of the original principality. Friedrich V saw no use for this “district in China,” as he is reported to have said, Meisenheim being 90 km from Bad Homburg and on the other side of the Rhine. Maps of Hessen-Homburg show that the original territory surrounded four small parcels belonging to a neighboring principality and a parcel belonging to to the Free City of Frankfurt. Hessen-Homburg also had a small parcel separated from the major area by small bits belonging to Frankfurt and two other principalities. These bits were settled in the course of the next decades, the last, in 1937.

For the next fifty years, Friedrich VI and in turn each of his brothers ruled Hessen-Homburg, the last one dying in 1866 without an heir. The principality returned to Hessen-Darmstadt, but as the result of political developments in the same year, it fell to Prussia and was amalgamated in Hessen-Nassau, a Prussian holding. When Wilhelm II became emperor in 1888, he declared Bad Homburg his imperial summer residence. Until the end of WW I, the small town had a social importance quite out of proportion to its size.

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