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HSH Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria, GCB, later Count VON Hartenau and formerly HSH Prince Alexander Joseph of Battenberg was born on 5th April 1857 in Verona, Italy, the second son of Prince Alexander of Hesse & By the Rhine (1823-1888) and The Princess of Battenberg, formerly Countess Julia VON Hauke (1825-1895).  Within the family Alexander was known as 'Sandro'.  Due to Alexander's parents morganatic marriage, from birth Alexander was styled 'Count Alexander of Battenberg' with the style of Illustrious Highness and was not permitted to use the higher title and style he would have had from his father. Alexander and his siblings were all barred from the line of succession to the Hessian Grand Ducal Throne. On 21st December 1858, Alexander's mother was created Princess of Battenberg with the style of Serene Highness which her children shared and subsequently Alexander adopted the new style of 'Prince Alexander of Battenberg'. 


Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria
(Prince Alexander 'Sandro' of Battenberg)


Alexander completed his secondary education in Damstadt but was a nervous and awkward child and to 'toughen him up' in November 1870, he was sent to the Salzmann Institute at Schnepfenthal, a strict boarding school in the district of Gotha - founded in 1784, where pupils were taught to devote their lives to the Army and the State, with the emphasis that there was no greater glory for a German to die for their country. Alexander was unhappy there, was homesick and clearly did not fit in.  Three years later, his father decided to remove him as he did not want him to be a 'Prussian military machine' and he was placed in a more relaxed school in Saxony.  Despite this, Alexander was indeed destined for a military career.  He was initially enrolled as a Lieutenant in the Hessian Second Dragoon Regiment, but in early 1876, Alexander was asked to join the Russian Army by his uncle - Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1818-1881) and left for St Petersburg.  Whilst serving in the Russian Army, he fought in the Russo-Turkish War 1877-1878 under Field Marshal Count Iosif Vladimirovich Romeyko-Gurko (1828-1901) and served in the HQ staff of Prince Carol of The United Principalities of Roumania, formerly Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, later King Carol I of Roumania (1839-1914).

Following the Congress of Berlin in 1878 - which was called to determine the territories in the Balkan peninsula following the Russo-Turkish War, the independent state of Bulgaria became an autonomous principality under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. The Tsar of Russia recommended Alexander (his nephew) to the Bulgarians as a candidate for the newly created princely Throne and on 29th April 1879, the Grand National Assembly formerly elected Alexander as Prince of Bulgaria.  Alexander was just 22yrs old and inexperienced for such a role.  Even the British Prime Minister - The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903) referred to the new Prince of Bulgaria as being "nothing but a Lieutenant."  Following his election, on 7th June 1879 at Balmoral Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Queen Victoria (1819(1837-1901) invested him as a Knight Grand Cross (Civil Division) of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (GCB).  On 8th July 1879, Alexander took his oath of office at Turnovo before members of the Grand National Assembly and made his way to his capital - Sofia.


Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria


The Arms of
Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria


This was a turbulent time for Bulgaria and Alexander found his new country difficult to govern.  The 'poisoned chalice' of the Bulgarian Throne was now starting to cause him concern.  He wrote to his father - "all the scum of Russia has taken refuge here and has tainted the whole country."  However his personal support from The Tsar of Russia ended following his assassination in 1881, just two years into Alexander's own reign and his successor (and Alexander's first cousin) Tsar Alexander III of Russia (1845-1894) started an anti-German policy and began to believe the numerous false rumours spread by Russians within Bulgaria to undermine him.  Alexander's position soon became untenable and there soon became strong anti-Russian campaign in Bulgaria.


Alexander had for some time been in love with his cousin - Princess Viktoria of Prussia (1866-1929), the second daughter of Kaiser Frederick III of Germany (1831-1888) and Empress Victoria, The Princess Royal (1840-1901), the eldest child of Queen Victoria (1819(1837-1901). However, the match was strongly opposed by Tsar Alexander III of Russia (1845-1894), who enlisted support from Otto VON Bismarck, The Prince of Bismarck, later Duke of Lauenberg (1815-1898), the formidable Chancellor of Germany.  Bismarck was kept abreast of the affair by his spies and a bitter war of words was fought but eventually Princess Viktoria's parents had to back down and gave up all hope of marrying Alexander.  Princess Viktoria would later marry first - Prince Adolf of Schaumburg-Lippe (1859-1916) and secondly Mr Alexander Zoubkoff (1901-1936), a Russian refugee who was 35yrs her junior.

LEFT: Princess Adolf of Schaumburg-Lippe
(formerly Princess Viktoria of Prussia)
later Mrs Alexander Zoubkoff



With the consent of his cousin The Tsar of Russia, Alexander assumed absolute power, having suspended the Constitution on 9th May 1881 and after the Assembly voted to suspend the Constitution for seven years, and real power in Bulgaria was then held by Russian generals - specifically dispatched from St Petersburg.  Alexander restored the Constitution but a breach with Russia was inevitable.  In September 1885, whilst visiting his family at Schloß Heiligenberg there was a revolution in Plovdiv and Alexander took control of the province of Eastern Rumelia, showing great political and military acumen.  He rallied the Bulgarian Army but Russia blamed the uprising on Alexander and he was struck off the Russian Army list and all Russian soldiers in Bulgaria were withdrawn.  Serbia too the opportunity to invade Bulgaria and a battle took place at Slivnitza. After the Bulgarian's victory, Alexander led his forces deep into Serbia and captured Pirot.  The Tsar of Russia was furious and used large amounts of money to bribe and corrupt liberals in Bulgaria in particular Army officers - in efforts to discredit Alexander, whose popularity diminished.



ABOVE: The Royal Palace, Sofia, Bulgaria

LEFT: Tsar Alexander III of Russia



During the night of 20th August 1886, Alexander was awoken by a servant at 2.30am, stating that the Royal Palace in Sofia was surrounded by soldiers and he should escape, fearing that Alexander would be murdered. He tried to escape, but was captured by the drunken rebellious soldiers who forced Alexander to abdicate at gunpoint.  They had also captured his younger brother - Prince Franz Joseph of Battenberg (1861-1924), who was a Colonel in the Bulgarian Cavalry.  The rebels forced the two Princes onto the Royal Yacht at Rakhovo and they set sail along the Danube to Reni, and was handed over to Russian authorities - who did not know what to do with their surprise guests and both Princes feared that they would then be shot. 

A contemporary drawing of the abdication of Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria ​

A contemporary drawing of the Abdication of Alexander I, The Prince of Bulgaria

Tsar Alexander III of Russia (1845-1894) ordered his cousin Alexander return by train to Lemberg, but by this time a counter-revolution had been organised who urged that Alexander be restored to his Throne. However, Alexander was broken, in his telegram to his father he said - "I am a broken man as a result of my inexpressible sufferings I have undergone." The counter-revolution was successful and Alexander did indeed return to Sofia, but Alexander was disillusioned and his proud spirit never recovered after his abdication.  On his return to Sofia, Alexander sent an ill-tempered telegram to The Tsar of Russia - the text of which can be seen right. 

I thank Your Majesty for the attitude taken by your representative in Rustchuk. His very presence at my reception showed me that the Imperial Government cannot sanction the revolutionary action taken against my person.  I beg Your Majesty to instruct General Dolgoruki to get in touch with me personally as quickly as possible; I should be happy to give Your Majesty the final proof of the unchanging devotion which I feel for Your Majesty's illustrious person.


As Russia gave me my Crown, I am prepared to give it back into the hands of its Sovereign.


The telegram cost Alexander his Crown.  The Tsar could not believe his good fortune, Alexander had given him what he had wanted for years. The Tsar acted quickly and published Alexander's telegram and his reply - "I have received Your Highness's telegram.  I cannot countenance your return to Bulgaria as I foresee the disastrous results it entails for that sorely tried country"  which of course sealed Alexander's fate.  On 3rd September 1886, Alexander confirmed his abdication and left Bulgaria forever on 8th September and headed to Darmstadt. Following his abdication he claimed the title of Prince of Tornovo and although he retired from public life, the Great Powers found it difficult to find an independent successor to rule Bulgaria and for the next two years a series of delegations asked Alexander to return to Bulgaria - which he consistently refused.  

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