After the traumatic birth of her older brother nineteen months previously, Charlotte’s birth went more smoothly, however her name would prove to be contentious. As the first granddaughter, Queen Victoria was anxious the girl be named after her but she was also a Prussian princess and they favoured the name Charlotte after Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna who had been born Princess Charlotte of Prussia. A compromise was reached whereby the baby princess was named after both ladies but she would be commonly known as Charlotte.
Within a few months of Charlotte’s birth, her grandfather had ascended the Prussian throne and her parents had become the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia. Although her father was excluded from politics due to his liberal views, he was still a member of the military and that meant he was often absent from home. As the daughter of an English princess, Charlotte was raised in an English-style nursery and her mother was keen to teach her children about English culture. Charlotte initially had a good relationship with her mother, however things began to change when Charlotte displayed signs of a mental imbalance. She would appear agitated for no apparent reason and would often bite at her nails or clothes much to her mother’s consternation.
Highly intelligent herself, Vicky wanted to nurture a love for learning in her children but Charlotte showed little interest in her studies and the crown princess could not hide her disappointment in her daughter which probably exacerbated the situation. As she grew older, Charlotte became even more sullen and her relationship with her mother became increasingly strained. Charlotte would side with her older brother, Wilhelm, and her younger brother, Heinrich, against their parents and the rift would never heal. Matters were not helped when they witnessed how much love and attention Vicky lavished on her youngest children.
In an attempt to get away from her parents, Charlotte became engaged to her second cousin Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen, heir to the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, who was nine years her senior and a veteran of the recent Franco-Prussian War. The couple were married in Berlin on 18 February 1878 and they set up home in a villa on the grounds of the Neues Palais. Any hopes Vicky had that marriage would calm her daughter’s behaviour were soon dispelled when Charlotte began to spend most of her time enjoying Berlin society and spreading salacious gossip.
Charlotte gave birth to a daughter, Feodora, on 12 May 1879 but she had disliked being pregnant and soon declared she would be having no more children. The first grandchild for Vicky and Frederick, Feodora was also the first great-grandchild of Queen Victoria, but Charlotte spent little time with her daughter and left her with Vicky while she travelled. Vicky doted on Feodora but as the child developed it became obvious she was suffering from the same health problems as her mother and Vicky attributed this to parental neglect.
Charlotte and Bernhard were given a villa near Tiergarten by Wilhelm I but Charlotte spent most of her time socialising and spending lavishly on clothes from Paris. When her brother succeeded to the throne, Charlotte’s influence in Berlin society increased but her behaviour became more alarming. In 1891, a series of anonymous letters containing gossip and pornographic images about various members of society began to circulate at court. Wilhelm ordered an investigation but never identified the source although some historians believe it was Charlotte. At the same time, Charlotte lost her diary which contained intimate secrets and critical observations about her family and Wilhelm never forgave her when it came into his possession. Wilhelm had Bernhard transferred to Breslau, exiling his sister from society, and curbing their allowance so they could not travel abroad.
Bernhard had inherited the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen after his father’s death in June 1914 but the duchy was lost in the aftermath of the First World War. Over the years, Charlotte’s health deteriorated, suffering from severe aches and swollen legs which led to her taking opium to alleviate the pain. In 1919, Charlotte began to experience heart problems so she went to Baden-Baden to seek medical treatment but she suffered a heart attack on 1 October and was later buried at Schloss Altenstein in Thuringia.
In his book Purple Secret: Genes, Madness, and the Royal Houses of Europe, the historian John C G Röhl, maintained Charlotte and Feodora were suffering from porphyria, a genetic disease believed to have caused the madness in George III. Röhl examined letters written between Charlotte and her doctors, as well as observations from her mother, which listed the textbook symptoms of the condition. In the 1990s, samples were taken from Charlotte and Feodora’s remains and genetic testing confirmed the presence of a mutation related to porphyria which was likely inherited from Queen Victoria.