Queen Elisabeth was the first woman that most Romanians viewed as a symbol of their nation.
Romania’s first female sovereign was princess Elisabeth Pauline Ottilie Luise zu Wied, wife of Carol I, the founder of constitutional monarchy and ruler who started Romania’s modernization process. Queen Elisabeth stood by her husband’s side and proved her support for the Romanian people in crucial moments of the late 19th century. Queen Elisabeth was also the first woman that most Romanians viewed as a symbol of their nation.
Born in Germany in 1843, Elisabeth came to Romania when she was 26 as the wife of Prince Carol of Hohenzollern. She took the responsibility as a patron of the arts, and founder of numerous charitable institutions. Queen Elisabeth was a talented poet, essayist and writer, using Carmen Sylva as a penname. For her utmost dedication during Romania’s War of Independence in 1877-1878, Elisabeth also earned the name “the mother of the wounded”.
Our guest today is Alin Ciupala, a historian based at the University of Bucharest, specializing in 19th Century history. In his studies of the sovereign’s life, he highlights Queen Elisabeth’s two major contributions to Romania’s modernization process: awareness for social causes and cultural preservation.
Alin Ciupala: “Queen Elisabeth stood out thanks to two main qualities. First off, throughout out her life, she constantly endeavoured to make Romanian culture known in the West through her literary work. On the other hand, she undertook social action on a large-scale as the founder of several charity associations and organizations, and founded organizations that took affirmative action for the social and cultural emancipation of Romanian women until World War One. Queen Elisabeth made her name known not only in Europe, but around the world, thanks to her literary work, which was translated into a large number of languages. In his personal account of the journey he took to the north of Norway, historian Radu Rosetti stopped in a fishermen village. Much to his surprise, when he met the local school teacher, the latter told him: ‘Well, then, you come from writer Carmen Sylva’s country.’ Another example comes from the Earth’s southernmost part, where a young Romanian woman, who was on a trip to Tierra del Fuego, met an American lady on a conference tour. As soon as she heard the young woman came from Romania, the American started a conversation with her about Carmen Sylva’s literary work.“
It was Romania’s regressive social and economic conditions that prompted the young Queen to mobilize resources and manpower for the social work she supported to aid the underprivileged. Queen Elisabeth’s name is usually associated with the emergence of several social institutions in the second half of the 19th Century, that exist to this day.
Alin Ciupala: “In regards her social work, Queen Elisabeth is the founder of multiple charity associations and organizations around the time the War of Independence broke out. She was the driving engine for Romania’s private health care system, which provided crucial support for the country during the war of 1877-1878. She never ceased to get involved in developing the health care system after the country gained its independence. Let me give you just two examples—the Vatra Luminoasa Society for the Visually Impaired, and the Obolul Society.“
The queen did not get involved in politics—in fact, she tried to stay as far away from it as possible. According to Alin Ciupala, it was her romantic outlook on life that kept her away from politics:
Alin Ciupala: “She made an exception though—the arranged marriage between the heir apparent Ferdinand and one of her maids of honour, Elena Vacarescu. Queen Elisabeth failed to look at the wedding from a political angle, and this was the only political mistake she made. The arranged marriage was viewed as a sentimental, private matter for her and King Carol had to step in and take resolute action.”
Queen Elisabeth was known to later generations as a very sentimental person, a ruler with her head in the clouds. Alin Ciupala does not agree with this image, and explained where the perception comes from:
Alin Ciupala: “We have this image of her from the memoirs of her former private secretary Robert Schaffer and from some writings by Queen Marie. These authors describe her as a person who seemed to be out of touch with the real world, a romantic lady who didn’t quite seem to understand the world she lived in. I believe this image of the Queen stemmed out of some personal feelings and divergences. Robert Schaffer had the full confidence of the Queen, who hired him as her private secretary, but when he left Romania he took part of the funds that the queen had set aside to build an asylum for the blind in Bucharest. Schaffer’s intention was to tarnish not only the Queen’s reputation, but that of the entire royal family. It was common knowledge that Marie didn’t get along well with King Carol or with Queen Elisabeth. While she feared the King, whom she considered a force to be reckoned with, she certainly looked down on the Queen. In her memoirs, Marie described Queen Elisabeth as an excessively trustful individual, very romantic and out-of-touch. In fact, after the Ferdinand-Marie couple came to the throne, Elisabeth chose to stay out of the public eye, almost unnoticed. It was Queen Marie who grabbed the limelight at the time.“
Still, Queen Elisabeth was certainly the sovereign needed most by the Romanian people as she presided over their welfare to a much greater extent than her husband, King Carol.