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Prince Alexander of Battenberg's Surprisingly Short Rule Over Bulgaria

Writing about royalty and their activities never loses its charm.

Prince Alexander of Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria by Dimitar Karastoyanov.

Prince Alexander of Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria by Dimitar Karastoyanov.

Count and Prince of Battenberg

Prince Alexander Joseph of Battenberg was the third of five children born to His Serene Highness Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine and his wife, Countess Julia van Hauke, a former lady in waiting. He was born on 5th April 1857 in Verona, then in the Kingdom of Lombardy and today in Italy.

In 1851 Alexander's parents married in Wroclaw, Prussia, now in Poland. Their marriage was not approved of by Alexander's father, another Alexander, because Julia was not of royal blood. It was declared a morganatic union which meant that Julia and the children she bore were ineligible to inherit titles or to claim the ducal throne of Hesse and by Rhine. Julia was later raised in status to Her Serene Highness Princess of Battenberg by her brother-in-law Grand Duke Ludwig III of Hesse and by Rhine.

Alexander was called "Sandro" by his family and was formally known as Count Alexander of Battenberg until his mother's elevation to a princess. He had four siblings named Marie, Ludwig, Heinrich and Franz Joseph.

The Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine, the Battenberg territories in Germany (1871).

The Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine, the Battenberg territories in Germany (1871).

Prince Alexander's Army Career

Alexander's education began in Darmstadt and continued at the Salzmann Institute in Schnepfenthal, Gotha. This boarding school prepared its pupils for military life, and tutors happily told students that they should feel proud to die for their country. Alexander loathed his time there, and he suffered from homesickness. His father sent him to a more informal school in Saxony, which achieved Alexander's preparation for an army life without demoralising him.

The family took regular trips to see their paternal aunt Marie who was married to Tsarevich Alexander of Russia. Marie used the name Maria Alexandrovna in her adopted country. They became Tsar Alexander II and Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna in 1855. The Tsar was a great influence on the young Count Alexander.

He joined the Hessian Second Dragoon Regiment as a lieutenant. In 1876 Tsar Alexander persuaded him to join the Russian Army. He agreed and saw active service during the 1877-8 war between the Russian and Ottoman empires. (The last of their twelve wars). He also served at army headquarters under the command of the future King Carol of Romania.

Tsar Alexander II of Russia with his wife, Sandro's aunt Marie (Maria Alexandrovna) and the  future Tsar Alexander III in 1870.

Tsar Alexander II of Russia with his wife, Sandro's aunt Marie (Maria Alexandrovna) and the future Tsar Alexander III in 1870.

Alexander, Prince of Bulgaria

In 1878 land borders were redefined in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War, and a new independent principality named Bulgaria needed a royal person to sit on its unstable and unproven throne.

Tsar Alexander II of Russia nominated Alexander of Battenberg for the daunting task in Bulgaria, although he was just twenty-two years old and had no ruling experience to draw upon. On 29th April 1879, Alexander was elected by the Grand National Assembly and duly received the title of Prince of Bulgaria.

His appointment led the British Prime Minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, to comment that Alexander was "nothing but a lieutenant." Alexander, Prince of Bulgaria, swore his oath of office in Turnovo on the 8th July, 1879, as he travelled towards Sofia, Bulgaria's capital.

As the uncomfortable realities of his rule became apparent, Alexander wrote to his father that "all the scum of Russia has taken refuge here and has tainted the whole country."

Bulgaria's position in Europe.

Bulgaria's position in Europe.

The Principality of Bulgaria's Relationship With Russia

When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, the Principality of Bulgaria rocked as the constitution that Prince Alexander had sworn allegiance to in 1879 was abandoned, and a policy of absolute rule under the Prince of Bulgaria was adopted with Tsar Alexander III's approval.

The power struggle between the tsar's Russian generals and the Bulgarians gained momentum. The Bulgarians grew increasingly anti-Russian, and the Russians spread disparaging rumours about Prince Alexander, which Tsar Alexander believed because he was strongly anti-German and the Battenbergs were of German lineage.

A pro-Russia military coup ended Alexander's rule on the 20th August, 1886. During the early hours, he tried to escape from his palace in Sofia to evade an onslaught of drunken Bulgarian soldiers. He was caught and forced to abdicate at gunpoint. Alexander and his youngest brother Franz Joseph were taken to the royal yacht at Rakhavo and transported along the Danube River to Reni, where they were placed in Russian hands. They felt that their deaths were assured.

A Broken Prince Bids Farewell to Bulgaria

The Russians blamed the Prince of Bulgaria for his own downfall. The tsar decided to send Alexander back to Bulgaria to fight for his power. A counter-revolution had already started that aimed to reinstate him, and it was successful. Order might have been restored, but events broke the Prince of Bulgaria's spirits. He wrote to the tsar from Sofia stating that he wished for his enforced abdication to be upheld.

Tsar Alexander readily accepted and sought a new ruler for the principality. Alexander officially abdicated on the 3rd September 1886, leaving the principality forever five days later. He returned to the Battenberg properties in Darmstadt.

For the next two years, delegations from the great European powers tried without success to coerce him back to Bulgaria, where he was ironically regarded as more popular than ever. Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha-Kohary accepted the role of prince after an array of European princes declined the poisoned chalice that was Bulgarian rule.

Johanna Loisinger, Countess von Hartenau with her children Assene and Zvetana.

Johanna Loisinger, Countess von Hartenau with her children Assene and Zvetana.

Count and Countess von Hartenau

Alexander met and fell in love with the Hungarian-born singer Johanna Loisinger at the court opera in Darmstadt. Although he'd half-heartedly promised to marry Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Viktoria of Prussia, he negotiated his way out of this agreement.

Alexander's father died in 1888, and the new Grand Duke Ludwig III of Hesse and by Rhine gave Alexander the title Count von Hartenau. He and Johanna eloped and married privately on 6th February 1889 in Mentone, Italy. The von Hartenaus' union was a morganatic marriage, just as his parents' had been. His mother, the Princess of Battenberg, never accepted his marriage to a mere actress.

The couple lived in Italy and had two children, Assene and (Marie Therese Vera) Zvetana. Alexander resumed his military career, this time in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a Second Colonel. He was soon promoted to Major-General and stationed in Graz, Austria.

There was a rumour that Alexander cheated on Johanna, and when she left him, he attempted suicide. Johanna nursed him back to health, and a full reconciliation was achieved.

The Battenberg Mausoleum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The Battenberg Mausoleum in Sofia, Bulgaria.

An Early Death for "Sandro"

On 17th November 1893, at just thirty-six years old, Alexander died from peritonitis. He was given a state funeral by the Bulgarians, who revered him in death. His body was interred in the newly constructed Battenberg Mausoleum in Sofia.

Johanna and the children relocated from Graz to Vienna, and she pursued countless musical projects. She accepted a pension from the Bulgarian government, although Alexander had previously declined one. Johanna died in summer 1951, aged eighty-six. She was buried in Graz, where her daughter Zvetana had been laid to rest in 1935.

Neither Assene nor Zvetana had children, so the line died out with Assene's death in 1965.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle