Although Ferdinand I (1861-1948) eventually entered into a marriage of convenience with a rich Italian princess (Maria Louisa of Bourbon-Parma, who bore him four children), his penchant for young men was well-known throughout his life. Ferdinand's regular holidays on the Italian island of Capri, then a famous haunt for wealthy gay men, were common knowledge in royal courts throughout Europe.
Ferdinand was born in the opulent Palais Coburg* (photos at end of post) in Vienna, Austria, as the Duke of Saxony. He later became Prince of the Koháry (Hungarian) branch of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a ruling house dynasty of central Europe. You may recall that Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, was born into this family. Ferdinand, from an immensely wealthy and well-connected noble heritage, was the grandson of King Louis Philippe I of France, the nephew of Ferdinand II of Portugal, cousin of both Queen Victoria and Leopold II of Belgium and second cousin of King Edward VII of Britain – not to mention being the nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.
Ferdinand was given a military upbringing, but showed no aptitude for it. He was much more literary, interested in jewels, clothes and, indeed, those young blond men. Queen Victoria, his most prominent relative, greeted his 1887 accession as Prince Regent of Bulgaria with disbelief. She stated to her Prime Minister, “He is totally unfit, delicate, eccentric and effeminate ... he should be stopped at once.”
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was no fan, either. When Bulgaria and Russia affected a reconciliation in 1896, Ferdinand’s infant son Boris was converted from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the dominant religion in Bulgaria and Russia. In fact, the Bulgarian constitution required it (not to mention that Russian Tsar Nicholas II was the godfather of Boris). Franz Joseph was outraged and successfully petitioned the Pope to excommunicate Ferdinand. Ferdinand's wife, who was not consulted in the matter, was so horrified that she left Bulgaria and returned to her father in Italy, but she got no sympathy there, either. Her father ordered her to return to Bulgaria to her loveless marriage and ever domineering mother-in-law, who detested her.
Well, there you have it. One big happy family.
Sofia’s population was a paltry 11,649 at the time it was taken by Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878). Sofia was declared the capital of an autonomous Principality of Bulgaria in 1879, and by the time Ferdinand arrived eight years later, the population had increased to nearly 19,000. Things were tough in Bulgaria in 1886. Twenty-nine year old Alexander I of Battenberg, the first non-Ottoman ruler of the newly autonomous state, had just been forced to abdicate at gunpoint in Sofia and was exiled to Austria. When the Bulgarian delegation set out to find a new leader for their country, it was no easy task. Their country was young, poor and stunted by difficult if not impossible political complications. They courted Ferdinand mostly because he was from a well-connected ruling house that would mean, if he were put on the throne, their fledgling nation would be tied to nearly every crown dynasty of Europe – plus he was available.
Ferdinand’s imagination started spinning out of control as he dreamed of a triumphal entry onto Bulgarian soil dressed as a dashing monarch. This idea was sparked by the arrival of a splendid military uniform replete with medals, epaulets, sashes and effusive gold trim, delivered to Ferdinand by the Bulgarian delegation in Vienna, playing deftly to Ferdinand’s lifelong bent for ostentation, pomp and show. The guy loved his clothes.
Bear in mind that Ferdinand was not the first choice as Prince Regent of Bulgaria. Not even close. He was a rather effeminate 25-year-old bachelor who obsessed over fashion, jewelry and flowers (violets were his favorites) – with no experience as a soldier, ruler or diplomat. However, every other European prince, duke, and assorted noble who was approached wanted no part of their political intrigues and turned it down, even the neighboring King of Romania. Ferdinand mulled it over and stalled, awaiting the approval of Europe’s great powers, but the impatient Bulgarian National Assembly went ahead and elected him in absentia – and Ferdinand ultimately accepted their call. Bulgaria had its giant neighbor Russia breathing down its neck and needed a man on its vacant throne post haste. As it played out, Central Europe would never be the same.
To the amazement of his initial detractors, Ferdinand made a success of his reign until the political complexities leading up to WWI. Ferdinand ruled over Bulgaria for 33 years (1887-1918), first as Prince Regent, then as Tsar, after Bulgaria secured its complete independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908. He re-established the royal dynasty of Bulgaria with legitimacy, since he could trace his ancestry back to medieval rulers of Bulgaria, who used the term Tsar instead of King. Thus Ferdinand's son Boris became the first Bulgarian monarch born on Bulgarian soil in a thousand years. On October 5, 1908, Ferdinand declared Bulgaria's independence while proclaiming himself Tsar (see above photo taken on proclamation day). He then went on a building spree, ordering the construction of many prominent and architecturally distinguished buildings still seen in Sofia today.
His ambitious and very rich mother, Princess Clementine of Bourbon-Orléans, was both the daughter of a king (Louis Philippe of France) and the mother of one. She set about making over the rather tatty nation her son was ruling. She built hospitals, orphanages, and the like as proof of filial affection. For her son’s birthday, she built a railway line connecting Bulgaria to the rest of Europe. She was a force of nature who completely dominated her husband and children. Ferdinand was her favorite son, and she habitually spoiled him rotten.
During Ferdinand's state visit to Paris in 1910, his first as Tsar of Bulgaria, the Parisians were effusive in their welcome. The president, prime minister and other leaders greeted the arrival of his train with a royal gun salute and loud cheers from the crowds lining the route from the station to his quarters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where his apartment was furnished for the occasion with items from the palaces of the former French kings, notably Louis XIV and Louis XV. Every item in his bedroom had belonged to his grandfather, King Louis Philippe, including a vase with the portrait of his mother as young Princess Clémentine. At a speech in Ferdinand's honor at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the royal connection was illuminated by the words, "While we bow respectfully before the Tsar of Bulgaria, we also honor in his person the gallant son of our beloved France." Ferdinand swooned. When he drove through the grand boulevards of Paris, enthusiastic crowds cheered, "Long live the King!" It almost seemed as if the monarchy had been restored to France.
In Proust's great novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the author incorporated his impressions of Ferdinand during the time of the Tsar's triumph in Paris. When a duchess was asked by Ferdinand if she was ever jealous, she replied, "Yes, sir, of your bracelets." In the same book it is explained that the turnaround in relations between arch enemies Kaiser Willem and Tsar Ferdinand to forging an alliance in WW I was due to the fact that they shared strong homosexual proclivities.
Ferdinand’s first missteps emerged when he championed the 1912 formation of the Balkan League, consisting of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro, with a goal of dismembering Turkey. Thus the First Balkan War of 1912 came about. Despite finishing up on the winning side, Ferdinand's territorial ambitions were stunted when his allies could not agree on sharing the Turkish spoils in Bulgaria’s favor. Thus an alliance was formed by Greece and Serbia against Bulgaria, and later Turkey and Romania joined them. From this atmosphere the Second Balkan War arose in 1913, with disastrous results for Bulgaria. Ferdinand’s people suffered a ruinous humiliation. Worse, when a young Bosnian Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 as payback for Austria’s annexation of Bosnia six years earlier, the stage was set for WWI.
Bulgaria tried to maintain neutrality but ended up a member of the Central Powers, consisting of members of the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Germany. In 1915 Bulgaria declared war on Serbia; days later the U.K., Montenegro, France, Italy and Russia declared war on Bulgaria. Unfortunately, this put Bulgaria on the losing side of the war. WWI shattered the monarchies of the Central Powers, overthrowing Kaisers, Emperors and Sultans alike. When it was all over, only one throne was left standing – and to preserve it Ferdinand abdicated to his 24-year-old son, who became empowered as Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria on October 3, 1918.
Ferdinand was known for his pugnacious behavior. When visiting German Emperor Wilhelm II, his second cousin, in 1909, Ferdinand was leaning out the window of the palace in Potsdam when the Emperor came up behind him and slapped him on the bottom. Ferdinand demanded an apology, and the Emperor complied; however, Ferdinand exacted revenge by awarding a valuable arms contract he had intended to give to the Krupp's factory in Germany to a French arms manufacturer instead. Industrialist Friedrich "Fritz" Krupp had often crossed paths with Ferdinand on the isle of Capri, where both men pursued underage males for sexual gratification. On a happier note, during a visit to Belgium in 1910 Ferdinand became the first head of state to fly in an airplane, making sure photographers were there to record the event. But I digress.
On his journey to the funeral of his second cousin, British King Edward VII in 1910, a dispute over protocol erupted about the placement of Ferdinand’s private railroad car (above) in relation to that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Archduke won out, having his carriage positioned directly behind the engine, with Ferdinand's placed second. The dining car was the third coach from the front, and Ferdinand stubbornly refused the Archduke access through his own carriage to the dining car. Ferdinand wore a flamboyant silk turban on the day of Edward VII’s funeral, while other assembled crowned heads shared their disdain at Ferdinand’s ostentation in calling himself a Tsar. As well they gossiped about the fact that he kept a Byzantine Emperor’s full regalia, designed by a Parisian theatrical costumer, against the day when he might reassemble the Byzantine dominions beneath his scepter. The man loved his clothes! Nine kings, Ferdinand among them, led the funeral procession. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Former President Theodore Roosevelt attended as a special envoy of the United States. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place, and the last of its kind.
In the video below, King Ferdinand can be seen in a display of temper at the 1932 wedding of Prince Gustaf Adolf, Duke of Västerbotten, to Princess Sibylla of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (future parents of King Charles XVI of Sweden) in Coburg. Victoria Melita, Grand Duchess of Russia (and granddaughter of Queen Victoria) was among the first guests to exit the church at the conclusion of the ceremony. After the bride and groom’s car had departed, as Grand Duchess Victoria was about to climb into the car that brought her, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria appeared behind her, ready to leave as well. The king kicked up a fuss that it was against protocol and unacceptable that the grand Duchess leave before him, since he “outranked” her, even as a deposed king – she was, after all, a mere Grand Duchess. Ferdinand prevailed, marching toward the car between an insulted and confused Grand Duchess and her 23-year-old daughter, Princess Kira, who had served as a bridesmaid. The onlookers were shocked by the king’s fiery displeasure.
Tragically, Ferdinand outlived both his sons. His eldest son and successor, Boris III, died under mysterious circumstances*** after returning from a visit to Hitler in Germany in 1943. Boris III's son, Simeon II, succeeded him as Tsar (at age 6) only to be deposed by the Soviets in 1946, ending the Bulgarian monarchy that Ferdinand had re-established. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was succeeded by the People's Republic of Bulgaria, under which Ferdinand’s sole surviving son, Kyril, was executed. Amazingly, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ferdinand's grandson Simeon II returned from exile in Spain in 1998 and resumed the role of leader of the nation upon taking office as Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria. During his time in power, from July 2001 until August 2005, Bulgaria joined NATO and the European Community (full membership in the EU did not occur until 2007). The royal Vrana Palace buildings and grounds on the outskirts of Sofia were returned to Simeon and his sister in 1998. Simeon and his wife, who donated most of the acreage back to the city for use as a public park, to this day reside in the hunting lodge on the property. At age 74 Simeon is today one of the last living heads of state from the World War II-era, the only living person who has borne the Bulgarian title "Tsar", and one of the few monarchs in history to have become a head of government through democratic election. Update: In early 2012 Simeon ceded his rights as head of the princely house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Koháry to his sister, Princess Marie Louise of Bulgaria.
***Conspiracy theories abound, since Boris III had defied Hitler’s demand to send Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to Polish concentration camps. Under Tsar Boris III, Bulgaria was the only nation in Europe to save its entire Jewish population during the Holocaust, and Boris was the only world leader to defy Hitler face to face during the war. Two weeks after the acrimonious meeting between Boris and Hitler, Boris died after his return to Bulgaria, officially from heart failure. His two private doctors determined that Boris had died from a slow working poison that takes several weeks to kill its victim, the same sort of poison that had killed the Greek Prime Minister two years earlier. After the end of the war, when the king’s body was disinterred for examination, it was discovered that Communist forces had removed his coffin to a secret location, which remains unknown to this day. Only the king’s heart was found in the grave where he had been buried. In 1994 the United States Congress proclaimed King Boris III the savior of fifty thousand Bulgarian Jews, and King Boris III was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund's Medal of the Legion of Honor, the first non-Jew to receive the award, considered one of the Jewish community's highest honors.
Trivia: The one and only time I visited Bulgaria (the country is favored by a beautiful, mountainous landscape), I was astonished that the head movements for "yes" and "no" are the reverse of what the rest of us use. If you ask someone's permission to take a photo and he moves his head from left to right, you're in the clear. The same goes for Greece, and it trips me up every time. True, I swear.
*Palais Coburg (above), Ferdinand’s boyhood home in Vienna, is now a luxury hotel where, for a high price, it is possible to soak up the aura of Ferdinand and his ancestors. The Palais faces the Ringstrasse, opposite the Stadtpark in downtown Vienna. It’s wicked expensive, so the closest I’ve come is a drink at the bar (also at a ruinous price); the hotel restaurant is popular with Vienna’s elite. There are just 35 rooms, each a suite. If you’re feeling flush, room rates are €670-€860 per night (converted to U.S. dollars = $885-$1,135). Photo below shows the opulent interior; the parquet floors are exceptional.