2 MAY 1998, Page 33

The first book of kings

Steven Runciman

THE ALMANACH DE GOTHA, VOLUME I compiled by Charlotte Pike and John Kennedy The Almanach de Gotha, £60, pp. 704

n this present age, which we are often told sees the twilight of royalty, it is comforting to be able to welcome the re- appearance of the most distinguished of genealogical almanachs, the Almanach de Gotha, published in the Saxon city of Gotha annually from 1763 until 1943, when the Soviet army occupied the former Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The publishing rights have been acquired from the family of Justus Perthes, its publishers for well over a century, by two British genealogists, Char- lotte Pike and John Kennedy, who have now produced a volume in English, which has the same format and scarlet cover as the later editions published at Gotha.

The news release accompanying the pub- lication is disappointing. It claims that a proof of the importance of the Almanach is the fact that when it went into abeyance its Committee of Patrons was presided over by King Alfonso of Spain, who had actually died in 1941, and chaired by King Ferdi- nand of Bulgaria, who had abdicated in 1918. It also says that the publishing house of Perthes had been its publisher since the 1760s, when in fact the house was founded in 1785. Till well into the 19th century the publisher was C.W. Ettinger, followed by C.G. Ettinger.

The early volumes of the Almanach varied in their contents. Some appeared in German, as in 1797 and 1809, but French was the usual language. All contain genealogies of the sovereign and chief Princely houses of Europe, with the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha given pride of place; but this was followed by a number of articles and essays on a wide variety of subjects. The 1771 edition, for instance, contains essays on 'arithmetique politique' and `arithmetique nautique'; articles on


hamsters and how to keep them as pets; a list of important inventions and discoveries during recent centuries; and descriptions of precious stones. A similarly varied collec- tion of articles in the 1786 edition resulted in a copy being bought that year in Paris by an English nursemaid in the service of a Swiss family. It may have been useful when later she became nanny to an Irish family which spent its time wandering round the courts of Europe. The volume passed eventually to the youngest daughter of the family, who in 1932, aged 98, handed it on to me.

The whole range of royal and princely titles in central Europe had to be reorgan- ised in 1806, when the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abolished the Holy Roman Empire and created himself hered- itary Emperor of Austria. The Holy Roman Empire had been elective, though, for three centuries. With one brief interval, the elected Emperor had been the head of the House of Habsburg or Habsburg-Lorraine. The Electors thus lost their jobs. The three ecclesiastical Electors, the Archbishops of Cologne, Mainz and Trier, lost their elec- toral status without compensation. Of the five secular electors, that of Bohemia was also King of Bohemia, a title held by the Habsburg Emperor. The Elector of Bran- denburg was also King of Prussia, and the Elector of Hanover King of Great Britain. The other Electors, of the Palatine and of Saxony, together with a newcomer, the Duke of Wurttemberg, who had been appointed an Elector in 1803, each assumed the title of King. Incidentally this enabled the new Queen of Wurttemberg, who was the daughter of George III of Great Britain, to annoy her mother, Queen Charlotte, whom she disliked, by address- ing her in letter as 'Dear Sister and Mother'. The Margrave of Baden, another Elector appointed in 1803, had to be content with the title of Grand Duke. Other leading princes, such as the Prince of Hessen-Darmstadt and the Dukes of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz, were recognised as Grand Dukes by the Congress of Vienna.

In addition to these major houses there were over a hundred houses, headed by a Prince (Furst), a Duke (Herzog), or a Count (Graf), who possessed sovereign rights under the suzerainty of the Holy Roman Emperor. These families, which are fully listed and whose vicissitudes are carefully recorded in this new edition of the Almanach, came now under the suzerainty of one or other of the major houses in whose territory their lands belonged geographically; but in view of their past history they were `mediatised', that is to say their members could marry into the sovereign houses on equal terms; and members of the family enjoyed the title of Serene Highness (Durlaucht) or Illustri- ous Highness (Erlaucht).

For some time the editors of the Almanach were uncertain where to place the media- tised families. Soon after the Congress of Vienna they included a number of princely or ducal but non-royal families, not only from Germany and the Austrian Empire but also from France, Italy and Poland British dukes were not given a place till 1877. At first the mediatised princes were included in this section, with a small addi- tional section of mediatised counts. Even- tually Part I of the genealogies was restricted to sovereign or recently sovereign families, with Part IIA being reserved for the media- tised families and Part IIB containing the other princely or ducal families — later re- headed Part III. Since the early 19th centu- ry the Almanach has also included a section which lists the diplomatic representatives and governmental figures in most of the countries in the world, including republics such as Switzerland, the United States and most of Central and South America. This was kept up to date even after the outbreak of the last world war. But already the families to be included were so numerous that one was frequently referred to an earlier edition. This is particularly true of the 1943 edition, the last to appear before the Russian occu- pation of Gotha, when the editors could no longer obtain up-to-date information about families in enemy lands.

This new edition only contains a list of the existing and the former sovereign hous- es of Europe. We may soon expect a sec- ond volume which will contain the genealogies of the families that appeared in Part III of the last Perthes edition.

Today, when old hereditary titles seem to be considered politically incorrect, one can- not but wonder how many younger folk have ever heard of the Almanach de Gotha and how many will be interested in acquiring an up-to-date copy. But one cannot fail to admire the zeal and enterprise of the editors who are determined that the world's most famous almanach should not pass into oblivion.