Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach

Karl August
Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Reign 1815–1828
Predecessor Raised from duchy
Successor Charles Frederick
Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Reign 1809–1815
Predecessor New creation from personal union
Successor Raised to grand duchy
Duke of Saxe-Weimar
Reign 1758–1809
Predecessor Ernest Augustus II
Successor Union with Saxe-Eisenach
Regent Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia
Duke of Saxe-Eisenach
Reign 1758–1809
Predecessor Ernest Augustus II
Successor Union with Saxe-Weimar
Regent Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia
Born (1757-09-03)3 September 1757
Weimar, Duchy of Saxe-Weimar, Holy Roman Empire (now in Thuringia, Germany)
Died 14 June 1828(1828-06-14) (aged 70)
Graditz, near Torgau, Kingdom of Prussia (now in Saxony, Germany)
Spouse Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt
House House of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Father Ernest Augustus II, Duke of Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Eisenach
Mother Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Religion Lutheranism

Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (3 September 1757 – 14 June 1828) was a Duke of Saxe-Weimar and of Saxe-Eisenach (in personal union) from 1758, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach from its creation (as a political union) in 1809, and grand duke from 1815 until his death. He is noted for the intellectual brilliance of his court.[1]


Born in Weimar, he was the eldest son of Ernest Augustus II, Duke of Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Eisenach, and Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.

His father died when he was only nine months old (28 May 1758), and the boy was brought up under the regency and supervision of his mother, a woman of enlightened but masterful temperament. His governor was the Count Johann Eustach von Görtz, a German nobleman of the old strait-laced school; but a more humane element was introduced into his training when, in 1771, Christoph Martin Wieland was appointed his tutor. In 1774 the poet Karl Ludwig von Knebel came to Weimar as tutor to his brother, the young Prince Frederick Ferdinand Constantin, and in the same year the two princes set out, with Count Görtz and Knebel, for Paris. At Frankfurt, Knebel introduced Karl August to the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and this would mark the beginning of a momentous friendship.

In Karlsruhe on 3 October 1775, after he returned to Weimar and assumed the government of his duchy, Karl August married Luise Auguste, daughter of Louis IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt.

One of the first acts of the young grand-duke was to summon Goethe to Weimar, and in 1776 he was made a member of the privy council. “People of discernment,” he said, “congratulate me on possessing this man. His intellect, his genius is known. It makes no difference if the world is offended because I have made Dr Goethe a member of my most important collegium without his having passed through the stages of minor official professor and councillor of state.” To the undiscerning, the beneficial effect of this appointment was not at once apparent. With Goethe the Sturm und Drang spirit descended upon Weimar, and the stiff traditions of the little court dissolved in a riot of youthful exuberance.

1805 portrait of Charles Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Weimar.

The duke was a heavy drinker but also a good sportsman, and the revels of the court were alternated with breakneck rides across country, ending in nights spent around the campfire under the stars. The Weimaraner, a breed of gun dog said to have been developed by August and his court for hunting, is still popular today. Karl August, however, also had more serious tastes. He was interested in literature, in art, in science, funding Goethe and the foundation of the Weimar Princely Free Drawing School and encouraging Weimar Classicism. Critics praised his judgment in painting; biologists found in him an expert in anatomy. Nor did he neglect the government of his little state.

His reforms were the outcome of something more than the spirit of the enlightened despots of the 18th century, for from the first he had realized that the powers of the prince to play earthly providence were strictly limited. His aim, then, was to educate his people to work out their own political and social salvation, the object of education being in his view, as he explained later to the dismay of Metternich and his school, to help men to independence of judgment. To this end Herder was summoned to Weimar to reform the educational system and it is little wonder that, under a patron so enlightened, the University of Jena attained the zenith of its fame and Weimar became the intellectual centre of Germany.

Engraving depicting Karl August walking with Corona Schröter and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Meanwhile, in the affairs of Germany and of Europe the character of Karl August gave him an influence out of all proportion to his position as a sovereign prince. He had early faced the problem presented by the decay of the Holy Roman Empire, and began to work for the unity of Germany. The plans of Emperor Joseph II, which threatened to absorb a great part of Germany into the heterogeneous Habsburg monarchy, threw him into the arms of Prussia, and he was the prime mover in the establishment of the league of princes (Fürstenbund) in 1785, by which, under the leadership of Frederick the Great, Joseph's intrigues were frustrated. He was, however, under no illusion as to the power of Austria, and he wisely refused the offer of the Hungarian crown, made to him in 1787 by Prussia at the instance of the Magyar malcontents, with the dry remark that he had no desire to be another Winter King. In 1788 Karl August took service in the Prussian army as major-general in active command of a regiment. As such he was present, with Goethe, at the Battle of Valmy in 1792, and in 1794 at the Siege of Mainz and the Battle of Pirmasenz (14 September) and Kaiserslautern (28–30 November). After this, dissatisfied with the attitude of the powers, he resigned, but rejoined on the accession of his friend King Frederick William III to the Prussian throne. The disastrous campaign of Jena (1806) followed. On 14 October, the day after the battle, Weimar was sacked, and Karl August, to prevent the confiscation of his territories, was forced to join the Confederation of the Rhine. From this time till after the Moscow campaign of 1812 his contingent fought under the French flag in all Napoleon's wars. In 1813, however, he joined the Sixth Coalition, and at the beginning of 1814 took command of a corps of 30,000 men operating in the Netherlands.

At the Congress of Vienna (1815) Karl August was present in person and protested vainly against the narrow policy of the powers in confining their debates to the rights of the princes to the exclusion of the rights of the people. His services in the war of liberation were rewarded with an extension of territory and the title of grand-duke (Großherzog), but his liberal attitude had already made him suspect, and his subsequent action brought him still further into confrontation with the reactionary powers. He was the first of the German princes to grant a liberal constitution to his state under Article XIII of the Act of Confederation (5 May 1816) and his concession of liberty to the press made Weimar for a while the focus of journalistic agitation against the existing order. Metternich dubbed him contemptuously der grosse Bursche for his patronage of the revolutionary Burschenschaften, and the celebrated festival held at the Wartburg by his permission in 1818, though in effect the mildest of political demonstrations, brought down upon him the wrath of the great powers. The Grand Duke, against his better judgment, was compelled to yield to the remonstrances of Prussia, Austria and Russia. The liberty of the press was again restricted in the grand-duchy, but, thanks to the good understanding between the grand-duke and his people, the regime of the Carlsbad Decrees pressed less heavily upon Weimar than upon other German states.

Karl August as Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Karl August died at Graditz, near Torgau, in 1828. Upon his contemporaries of the most various types his personality made a great impression. Karl von Dalberg, the prince-primate, who owed the co-adjutorship of Mainz to the duke's friendship, said that he had never met a prince with so much understanding, character, frankness and true-heartedness; the Milanese, when he visited their city, called him the uomo principe, and Goethe himself said of him that “he had the gift of discriminating intellects and characters and setting each one in his place. He was inspired by the noblest good-will, the purest humanity, and with his whole soul desired only what was best. There was in him something of the divine. He would gladly have wrought the happiness of all mankind. And finally, he was greater than his surroundings. ... Everywhere he himself saw and judged, and in all circumstances his surest foundation was in himself.” Karl August's correspondence with Goethe was published in 2 vols. at Weimar in 1863.

He left two surviving sons: Karl Frederick, by whom he was succeeded, and Karl Bernhard, a distinguished soldier, who, after the Congress of Vienna, became colonel of a regiment in the service of the King of the Netherlands, distinguished himself as commander of the Dutch troops in the Belgian campaign of 1830 (the Ten Days' Campaign), and from 1847 to 1850 held the command of the forces in the Dutch East Indies. Bernhard's son, William Augustus Edward, known as Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar (1823–1902), entered the British army and ended his career as a field marshal.

Karl August's only surviving daughter, Caroline Louise, married Frederick Ludwig, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and was the mother of Helene (1814–1858), wife of Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orléans, eldest son of Louis Philippe I, King of France.



The children of Charles Augustus and Louise's: Charles Frederick, Caroline Louise and Bernhard. Portrait by Johann Friedrich August Tischbein, 1798.
statue in Weimar.

Karl August and Luise Auguste had seven children:

  1. Luise Auguste Amalie (b. Weimar, 3 February 1779 – d. Weimar, 24 March 1784).
  2. a daughter (b. and d. Weimar, 10 September 1781).
  3. Charles Frederick, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (b. Weimar, 2 February 1783 – d. Schloss Belvedere, near Weimar, 8 July 1853).
  4. a son (b. and d. Weimar, 26 February 1785).
  5. Caroline Louise (b. Weimar, 18 July 1786 – d. Ludwigslust, 20 January 1816), married on 1 July 1810 to Frederick Louis, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
  6. a son (b. and d. Weimar, 13 April 1789).
  7. Karl Bernhard (b. Weimar, 30 May 1792 – d. Liebenstein, 31 July 1862).

In addition, Karl August acknowledged five children by him born out of wedlock:


  1. Ulich, Robert, The Education of Nations, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1961, p.193


Karl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Cadet branch of the House of Wettin
Born: 3 September 1757 Died: 14 June 1828
Preceded by
Ernest Augustus II
Duke of Saxe-Weimar
with Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia (1758–75)
United to form
Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Duke of Saxe-Eisenach
with Dowager Duchess Anna Amalia (1758–75)
New title
Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Raised to Grand Duke
New title
Raised from Duke
Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Succeeded by
Karl Frederick
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