Princess Leonilla zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn

Erstellt am 3. February 2018 von

Princess Leonilla zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn

On the 1st of February 2018, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of a great lady of the 19th century. A daughter of Russian diplomat Prince Ivan Bariatinsky, born in 1816, she spent her childhood in Marino palace near Ivanovskoe (Kursk), located between Moscow and Kiev.

Her mother Marie served Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia, as lady-in-waiting. When Leonilla was 9 years old, the Tsarina also asked her to the court in St. Petersburg where both witnessed from the windows of the Winter Palace the suppression of the Decembrist revolt by the reactionary Tsar Nicholas I. All the while, not knowing that both her brother and her future husband were among the putschists, who demanded social reform at the new Tsar’s coronation.  Five years later, she experienced in Paris the July Revolution, which drove the last Bourbon king Charles X from his throne. And in the 1848 Berlin uprising she witnessed a bareheaded King Frederic William IV paying homage to the bodies of the victims of his soldiery.

In 1834, Empress Alexandra arranged Leonilla to marry the newly widowed Prince Louis zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, son of Field Marshal Peter, the celebrated hero of the Patriotic War against Napoleon. Ludwig had become the largest landowner in Russia, by consolidating the inheritance of his first wife, Princess Stephanie Radziwill, with the significant land of his father. Among other holdings, over 3 million acres of land were farmed by 100,000 serfs. Louis and Leonilla, as witnesses of social ills and political unrest, successfully committed themselves to the abolition of serfdom on their property, for social improvements and the education of the rural population.

After the death of Field Marshal Peter, who was very popular in Russia, Louis fell increasingly into disfavor with Nicholas I. His role as a leading Decembrist could no longer be concealed. The extensive property of a Prussian citizen along the Russian western border from Lithuania to the Black Sea also called Russia’s security into question. Louis and Leonilla decided to leave the Russian Empire.

The efforts to acquire a larger property in Germany were unsuccessful. Only Sayn, the estate the family abandoned before the Thirty Years’ War was offered as a new home. There, a 250-acre estate and manor house was purchased from the Koblenz district administrator Count Boos-Waldeck. In addition, the Prussian king gifted the ruins of the ancestral castle Sayn to the returning couple. With great effort and time pressure, the Parisian architect Alphonse J. Girard turned the Boos’sche House 1848 – 50 into a princely residence, which the Prussian king called a “fairytale castle” on his first visit.

As a direct descendent to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Leonilla commissioned a new chapel adjacent to the palace, to store the precious arm reliquary of the saint. Opposite she created the Leonilla-Stift as a monastery to care for the children and the elderly of the area. She strove for the well-being of the population impoverished since the revolutionary year of 1848 and gave the “Sayner barefoot runners” shoes and clothes. During the reconstruction of Sayn Palace, Louis and Leonilla placed particular emphasis on employing the many unemployed people from all over the region.  In the neighboring Sayn Iron Foundry, they not only had the iron staircases for the palace, but, quite uniquely in the history of construction, also all the window casings cast in iron. This ensured the livelihood of numerous ironworkers and their families for several years.

Louis bought various city palaces in Paris, Rome and Berlin, which the princely couple used for frequent trips to the courts of befriended monarchs. There, Louis and Leonilla visited the studios of the most famous artists and acquired an important collection of works from the 19th century to decorate Schloss Sayn. On many occasions, Louis had his beautiful wife portrayed by the best painters of the time, such as Horace Vernet, Franz X. Winterhalter, Johann S. Otto or Ivan Aivazovsky.

Prince Louis sought relief from a nervous affection in Cannes where he died in 1866. Initially, no suitable heir could be found among his sons. The oldest three were excluded from succession by their inappropriate marriages with actresses. Only the youngest, Alexander, was entitled to inheritance by marrying Yvonne, daughter of the French Duke of Blacas. Leonilla’s only daughter Antoinette also married abroad. Through her husband, the Roman prince Mario Chigi-Albani, Leonilla was introduced to Pius IX and converted to Catholic faith.  Because of Leonilla’s family ties to European royalty, both the Pope and Empress Augusta, who became a close friend when residing in nearby Koblenz, asked Leonilla to mediate for peace in the wars of the late 19th century.

Leonilla spent the last 30 years of her life on Lake Geneva in Ouchy where she had a new church built. Nearby, at her “Villa Monabri”, she frequently received until the end of her life such illustrious guests as Empress Augusta or Princess Augusta of Cambridge, the Dowager Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Princess Leonilla died in 1918 at the age of almost 102 coinciding with the demise of the Russian Empire. She found her last rest in the crypt of her chapel in Sayn Palace.


Fürstin Leonilla mit ihrer Familie von Horace Vernet

Leonilla mit Tochter Antoinette (Johann S.Otto)

Leonilla mit Lieblingsenkel Prinz Gustav Alexander

Sarkophag Leonilla