There was a stunning piece of news out of Europe last week: the Danish royal court confirmed that Prince Gustav of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, son of Princess Benedikte of Denmark, will finally marry his partner of two decades, Carina Axelsson!
Long-time readers of The Court Jeweller may be familiar with the story of Gustav and Carina, but it’s probably worth doing a quick recap to get everyone up-to-date with the story. Note that this particular royal tale involves a lot of legal wrangling, so please gently correct me in the comments if I get anything wrong.
To understand why Gustav and Carina had to wait almost twenty years to marry, we have to turn the clocks back to the 1940s. Prince Gustav Albrecht of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, a German aristocrat, drew up a will to dictate the inheritance of the family estate before heading off to fight in World War II. The will was an attempt to control the family legacy for the next two generations, the furthest he could legally dictate based on the laws of the day. The will essentially named two partial heirs to the estate. The first, the “vorerbe” (or preliminary heir) was his eight-year-old son, Prince Richard (pictured above with his future wife, Princess Benedikte of Denmark). The second, the “nacherbe” (or subsequent heir), was the son that he hoped Prince Richard would one day father.
The document stipulated that the heirs must fulfill certain conditions to inherit the estate: if they married, the chosen spouse must be Protestant, she must be noble, and she must be “Aryan.” If the heir married a woman who did not fulfill these conditions, he could not inherit the estate. This move was clearly an attempt at controlling the choices and the future of the family even after Gustav Albrecht was no longer living.
Prince Gustav Albrecht went missing in action in Belarus in 1944. More than two decades later, Prince Richard became engaged to Princess Benedikte, the second daughter of King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark. Benedikte and Richard (pictured above in 2010) married in 1968, and their first child, Prince Gustav, was born in January 1969.
Following the baby prince’s birth, the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg family moved to have Prince Gustav Albrecht legally declared dead, a process that was completed in November 1969. During his lifetime, Prince Richard was essentially the custodian or manager of the family’s estate. Because he was not the full heir to the castle or the lands around it, he could not make decisions about the estate’s future or designate his own heir. Richard’s choice of bride had definitely fit within the conditions imposed by his father. Young Gustav, if he decided to marry, would need to make a similar choice if he wanted to inherit full control of the Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg estate when Richard eventually died.
Initially Gustav (pictured above with his mother, Princess Benedikte, in 2011) seemed poised to make a marital decision that would fully satisfy the conditions of his grandfather’s will. In August 2000, he announced his engagement to Elvire Pasté de Rochefort, the daughter of a French aristocratic family. The wedding was scheduled to take place in Paris in May 2001. But with just two months to go until the ceremony, the wedding was postponed, and eventually, it was called off altogether.
By 2003, Prince Gustav had fallen in love with someone new. California-born Carina Axelsson (pictured above with Gustaf in 2011) had embarked on a career as a model before moving to Paris to study art. She transitioned to the literary world, first by illustrating a children’s book, and then by penning her own series of novels. Carina was quickly accepted by Gustav’s parents and by his extended family, and she began appearing by his side frequently at family events. But there was a problem. Carina did not fit the conditions required for Gustav’s wife in his grandfather’s 1943 will. She was an American-born commoner, and her family tree included both Swedish and Mexican ancestors.
Regardless, Gustav and Carina developed a committed relationship, and it seemed for many years that they would be happily unmarried ever after. In 2003, after Prince Richard was diagnosed with cancer, Gustav (pictured above at Schloss Berleburg in 2014) took over a greater role in helping his father manage the Berleburg estate. Carina moved in to Schloss Berleburg with Gustav, and she often acted as chatelaine of the castle. She even often appeared with a sparkling ruby and diamond cluster ring on the ring finger of her left hand. But marriage, it seemed, remained out of the question. If Gustav married Carina before his father’s death, he would open himself up to legal challenges from various cousins hoping to stake a claim on the estate, which is one of the largest noble estates in Germany today.
In 2017, Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg passed away. Carina was by Gustav’s side for the funeral, but shortly afterward, the couple largely stopped appearing together in public. Her social media accounts detailed her life as a writer in the English countryside, not as the wife of a castle-owner in Germany. As it turns out, there was good reason for their apparent separation. One of Prince Gustav’s cousins, Prince Ludwig-Ferdinand of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, filed a suit claiming that Gustav was not qualified to inherit the family estate because he had a “common law wife” who violated the requirements of his grandfather’s will. Gustav and Carina apparently separated their living spaces and reduced their public profile to avoid giving the impression that they also considered themselves to be a married couple, in light of the accusations in the lawsuit.
In May 2019, a German court decided the case in Gustav’s favor. Prince Ludwig-Ferdinand quickly filed an appeal, but in the summer of 2020, Gustav won the appeal as well. Further appeals were denied by a higher court, so the case is now closed. The courts found that Gustav, who was legally unmarried when his father died, had satisfactorily met the conditions of the 1943 will. He is now the sole and outright owner of the estate, and he is able to make his own decisions—including choosing to marry whomever he pleases—and can leave the estate to heirs of his own choosing.
Now free from the threat of losing the family estate and fortune, Gustav and Carina, both 53, will finally be legally married. The Danish royal court confirmed to the magazine Billed-Bladet that the couple are engaged, and they will be married in a small ceremony in the private chapel at Schloss Berleburg on June 4, 2022. Noble titles no longer have legal status in Germany—they’re essentially used as surnames instead—and after the wedding, Carina will be known as Carina, Princess (or “Fürstin”) zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. In Denmark, as well as in other royal countries and as a matter of shorthand elsewhere, she’ll probably be referred to simply as Princess Carina.