ERNEST II., duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1818-1893), was born at Coburg on the 21st of June 1818, being the eldest son of Duke Ernest I. He enjoyed a varied education; he studied at the university of Bonn with his brother Albert; his military training he received in the Saxon army. The widespread connexions of his family opened to him many courts of Europe, and after he became of age he travelled much. The position of his uncle Leopold, who was king of the Belgians, and especially the marriage of his brother Albert to the queen of England, his cousin, gave him peculiar opportunities for becoming acquainted with the political problems of Europe. In 1840-1841 he undertook a journey to Spain and Portugal; in the latter country another cousin, Ferdinand, was king-consort. In 1844 he succeeded his father. His own character and the influence of the king of the Belgians made him one of the most Liberal princes in Germany. He was able to bring to a satisfactory conclusion disputes with the Coburg estates. He passed through the ordeal of the revolution of 1848 with little trouble, for he anticipated the demands of the people of Gotha for a reform, and in 1852 introduced a new constitution by which the administration of his two duchies was assimilated in many points. The government of his small dominions did not afford sufficient scope for his restless and versatile ambition; his desire to play a great part in German affairs was probably increased by the feeling that, though he was the head of his house, he was to some extent overshadowed by the younger branches of the family which ruled in Belgium, England and Portugal. He was one of the foremost supporters of every attempt made to reform the German constitution and bring about the unity of Germany. He took a warm interest in the proceedings of the Frankfort parliament, and it was often said, probably without reason, that he hoped to be chosen emperor himself. However that may be, he strongly urged the king of Prussia to accept that position when it was offered him in 1849; he took a very prominent part in the complicated negotiations of the following year, and it was at his suggestion that a congress of princes met at Berlin in 1850. He highly valued the opportunities which this and similar meetings gave him for exercising political influence, and he would have felt most at home as a member of a permanent council of the German princes.
Ambitious also of military distinction, and sympathizing with the rising of the people of Schleswig-Holstein against the Danes in 1849, Ernest accepted a command in the federal army. In the engagement of Eckernförde in April 1849 the troops under his orders succeeded in capturing two Danish frigates, a remarkable feat of which he was justly proud. His greatest services to Germany were performed during the years of reaction which followed; almost alone among the German princes he remained faithful to the Liberal and National ideals, and he allowed his dominions to be used as an asylum by the writers and politicians who had to leave Prussia and Saxony. The reactionary parties looked on him with great suspicion, and it was at this time that he formed a friendship with Gustav Freytag, the celebrated novelist, whom he protected when the Prussian government demanded his arrest. His connexion with the English court gave him a position of much influence, but no one was more purely German in his feelings and opinions. The marriage of his niece Victoria with Frederick, the heir to the Prussian throne, strengthened his connexion with Prussia, but caused the Conservative party to look with increased suspicion on the Coburg influence. He was the first German prince to visit Napoleon III., and was present when Orsini made his celebrated attempt on the emperor's life. After 1860 he became the chief patron and protector of the National Verein; he encouraged the newly-formed rifle clubs, and notwithstanding the strong disapproval of his fellow-monarchs, allowed his court to become the centre of the rising national agitation. Still a warm adherent of Prussia, in 1862 he set an example to the other princes by voluntarily making an agreement by which his troops were placed in war under the command of the king of Prussia. Like all the other Nationalists, he was much embarrassed by the policy of Bismarck, and the democratic opinions of the Coburg court, which were shared by the crown prince Frederick, were a serious embarrassment to that minister. The opposition became more accentuated when the duke allowed his dominions to be used as the headquarters of the agitation in favour of Frederick, duke of Augustenburg, who claimed the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, and it was at this time that Bismarck is reported to have said that if Frederick the Great had been alive the duke would have been in the fortress of Spandau. In 1863 he was present at the Fürstentag in Frankfort, and from this time was in more frequent communication with the Austrian court, where his cousin Alexander, Count Mensdorff, was minister. However, when war broke out in 1866, he at once placed his troops at the disposition of Prussia; Bismarck had in an important letter explained to him his policy and tactics. He was personally concerned in one of the most interesting events of the war; for the Hanoverian army, in its attempt to march south and join the Bavarians, had to pass through Thuringia, and the battle of Langensalza was fought in the immediate neighbourhood of Gotha. His troops took part in the battle, which ended in the rout of the Prussians, the duke, who was not present during the fight, in vain attempting to stop it. He bore an important share in the negotiations before and after the battle, and his action at this time has been the subject of much controversy, for it was suggested that while he offered to mediate he really acted as a partisan of Prussia. For his services to Prussia he received as a present the forest of Schmalkalden. He was with the Prussian headquarters in Bohemia during the latter part of the war.
With the year 1866 the political rôle which Ernest had played ended. The result was perhaps not quite equal to his expectations, but it must be remembered how difficult was the position of the minor German princes; and he quoted with great satisfaction the words used in 1871 by the emperor William at Versailles, that "to him in no small degree was due the establishment of the empire." He was a man of varied tastes, a good musician - he composed several operas and songs - and a keen sportsman, a quality in which he differed from his brother. Notwithstanding his Liberalism, he had a great regard for the dignity of his rank and family, and in his support of constitutional government would never have sacrificed the essential prerogatives of sovereignty. He died at Reinhardsbrunn on the 22nd of August 1893. In 1842 the duke married Alexandrine, daughter of the grandduke of Baden; there were no children by this marriage and the succession to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha passed therefore to the children of his younger brother Albert. By Albert's marriage contract the duchy could not be held together with the English crown; thus his eldest son, afterwards Edward VII., was passed over and it came to his second son, Alfred, duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900). When Alfred died without sons in July 1900 the succession to the duchy passed to a younger brother Arthur, duke of Connaught; but the duke and his son, Arthur, passed on their claim to Charles Edward, duke of Albany (b. 1884), who became duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in succession to his uncle Alfred. In 1905 Charles Edward married Victoria Adelaide (b. 1885), princess of Schleswig-Holstein, by whom he has a son John Leopold (b. 1906).
Duke Ernest was something of a writer. He brought out an account of the travels in Egypt and Abyssinia which he undertook in 1862 as Reise des Herzogs Ernst von Sachsen-Koburg-Gotha nach Agypten (Leipzig, 1864); and he published his memoirs, Aus meinem Leben und aus meiner Zeit (Berlin, 1887-1889). This work is in three volumes and contains much valuable information on a most critical period of German history; there is an English translation by P. Andreae (1888-1890).
See also Sir T. Martin, Life of H.R.H. the Prince Consort (1875-1880); Hon. C. Grey, Early Years of the Prince Consort (1867); A. Ohorn, Herzog Ernst II., ein Lebensbild (Leipzig, 1894); and E. Tempeltey, Herzog Ernst von Koburg und das Jahr 1866 (Berlin, 1898).
(J. W. He.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)