As the first Queen of the modern state of Greece, Amalia of Oldenburg began her reign in a positive light. She was beautiful and outgoing with a desire to help the people of a country who had suffered under war and economic hardship. But she had one duty which she was unable to fulfill, the age old problem of producing an heir, and it would, in part, help to bring down the dynasty.
In the 1820s, Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire with the help of Britain, France, and Russia (the Great Powers.) The formal borders were established on February 3, 1830, but soon afterwards the governor, John Capodistria, was assassinated. Seeking a formal end to the war, the Conference of London was convened and it was decided that Greece should be a monarchy. The crown was offered to Otto, Prince of Bavaria, and the line of succession was determined to pass from Otto to his sons or his younger brothers in the event he didn’t have an heir. Otto was crowned on May 27, 1832, but his reign would be plagued with meddling from outside influences in both his political and personal lives.
Amalia was born on December 21, 1818, the daughter of Grand Duke Augustus of Oldenburg and his first wife, Princess Adelheid of Anhalt. Amalia’s mother died when she was two years old and Augustus’s second wife, Amalia’s maternal aunt, died when she was young as well, leaving her education and care in the hands of a governess. As was typical of girls of her station, she received instruction in foreign languages, painting, music, and dancing. She was intelligent and referred to as “robust”, being particularly fond of more active pursuits, such as theater, horseback riding, and hunting.
Otto’s father, Ludwig I of Bavaria, selected Amalia as a bride for his son and when they met, it appeared to be a good match. They were both young and attractive and seemed to get along well. Otto and Amalia were married on Dec 22, 1836, and Amalia initially was well-liked by the people. She was beautiful, vivacious, and fashionable, even creating a style of dress which became widely adopted. The country was poor and Amalia worked toward social improvements, created gardens, and is even credited with bringing the Christmas tree to Greece.
After her arrival, Amalia was watched eagerly for signs that she was pregnant with an heir for the kingdom. By the end of the “three-year grace period”, rumors gave way to serious discussions at court and in medical circles about the couple and their apparent infertility. Possible solutions ranged from spells and exorcisms to the latest scientific advancements of the day.
“The wife of Amalia’s priest, Christiane Lüth, records several of these suggestions in her diary: that Amalia should swallow a whole cicada or gunpowder from her husband’s pistols mixed with honey, that she should be read poems especially composed for the occasion, that one of her maids should hang an icon of the Nativity outside her door while in disguise.”
Both Amalia and Otto were examined for possible reasons of infertility. Many of the reasons put forth appear to have been politically motivated with the opposing side vigorously denying it. One doctor informed the English ambassador in Athens that Otto had a “small anatomical defect.” The report was never officially verified and it was ignored by Otto’s supporters. Another rumor about Otto stated that his father Ludwig I, well-known for his many affairs, had transmitted a venereal disease to Otto causing him to be infertile, but Otto’s three brothers all fathered children putting the rumor to rest.
While it was recommended to Otto that he restrict horseback riding and take a three hour rest before intercourse, the main focus of investigation was on Amalia. The simplest suggested cause was her active lifestyle, including horseback riding, but when restricting these activities didn’t result in pregnancy, she returned to doing what she loved. A diagnosis of “incompatibility between the spouses genitalia” suggested a treatment of different positions for intercourse. This also failed to have the desired effect.
However, two possible causes identified by a pelvic exam resulted in a more complicated and painful therapy. Amalia was diagnosed as having a “narrowness of the womb” and an “irritability of the outer genitalia.” The therapy recommended entailed insertion of a sponge into the vagina and leaving it there for 24 hours accompanied by a bath and rest. The treatment was painful and the Greek doctors, who considered Amalia healthy, objected to its use. Otto’s family however, insisted on use of all possible scientific methods rather than letting fate take its course. Dr Fischer, the proponent of the therapy, insisted on its use throughout Amalia’s fertile years in spite of a lack of success.
In opposition to Fischer’s diagnosis, a Dr Brescau of Munich didn’t find any anatomical anomaly, and a midwife who examined Amalia stated that she was “almost a virgin.” This was reinforced by a rumor that an autopsy performed after her death found that she was a virgin. This of course was denied by Otto’s supporters, and in fact the official report of the autopsy has never been found.
More recently, it has been suggested that Amalia suffered from Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome, a condition in which the uterus is absent and the vagina malformed. But, Amalia’s contemporary doctors never suggested the absence of a uterus. Most 20th century historians doubt both Otto’s impotence and Amalia’s virginity (both were rumored to have affairs), but the contradictions in historical sources make it difficult if not impossible to know the truth. Nevertheless, Amalia’s infertility contributed to a change in opinion about her.
Over time, Amalia became more involved in politics. This, coupled with the facts that she remained a Protestant in an Orthodox country and failed to produce an heir, resulted in harsh attacks. In 1861, there was an assassination attempt against her by a university student. He was captured and sentenced to death and the queen intervened to change the sentence to life in prison, but he was considered a hero among certain factions.
A year after the attack, in 1862, there was an uprising in Athens while the royal couple were visiting the Peloponnese. The Great Powers that supported Otto urged him not to resist and he and Amalia went into exile via British warship. In spite of the fact that Otto’s younger brothers were successors, it has been suggested by John Van der Kiste that the uprising might not have occurred if Amalia had born an heir.
The couple spent their remaining years in Bavaria. They both loved Greece and spent time each day speaking Greek as a reminder of their time there. Amalia died on May 20, 1875, eight years after Otto. They were buried side-by-side in Munich.
E Poulakou-Rebelakou, C Tsiamis, N Tompros, G Creatsas, “The infertility of the first royal couple of Greece”
Kings of the Hellenes by John Van der Kiste
Amalia of Oldenburg, Queen of Greece at Arrayed in Gold
Otto of Greece at Wikipedia
Amalia of Oldenburg at Wikipedia