Friedrich Wilhelm Nikolaus Karl was born in Potsdam, Prussia, on 18 October 1831 and was the son of Wilhelm I of Prussia and Augusta of Saxe-Weimar.
Frederick’s parents did not have a happy marriage so Frederick endured a lonely childhood until his younger sister, Louise, was born in 1838 with whom he formed a very close relationship. Fredrick’s father had been in love with his cousin, Elisa Radziwill, a princess of the Polish nobility, but she was considered to be too low-ranked to marry William and he was forced to marry Augusta instead. Augusta was far more intelligent than her husband and her liberal leanings caused many conflicts between the pair which made for a tense home life.
When Frederick was growing up, the political scene in Germany was torn between the liberals who were calling for a unified nation with a constitutional monarchy which clashed with the Hohenzollern belief in an autocratic rule. While Frederick’s father held to the old beliefs and insisted his son have a military education as per Hohenzollern tradition, Augusta demanded her son be educated in the classics as well. Frederick was a good student with an aptitude for languages, becoming fluent in English and French, as well as being competent in Latin. Frederick also studied history, geography, physics, music and religion, and was an accomplished rider.
At the age of ten, Frederick was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the First Infantry Regiment of Guards and invested with the Order of the Black Eagle. As a Hohenzollern prince, Frederick was expected to continue his military career but he broke tradition by entering the University of Bonn where he studied history, law and governance and public policy. Delighted with her son’s liberal leanings, Augusta decided to send her son to England in 1851 to see the Great Exhibition which had been instigated by Prince Albert, however there were ulterior motives as Frederick was destined to meet his future wife, Princess Victoria.
Keen to establish ties with the Prussian royal household, Victoria and Albert had been secretly planning a marriage between their eldest daughter and Frederick for some time. Albert was keen on maintaining his ties with his homeland, however his ultimate aim was to pave the way for a unified and more liberal Germany. While Frederick’s father was not keen on the match, Augusta saw the match as a positive one as she shared the same beliefs as Prince Albert. When Frederick finally arrived in England, he was taken under the wing of Prince Albert, however it was fourteen-year-old Vicky who was left to show him around the Great Exhibition. Much to Albert’s delight, Vicky and Frederick seemed to like each other and they continued to correspond in letters after Frederick returned to Germany.
In 1855, Frederick joined the British royal family at Balmoral where he spent time with Vicky to ensure their feelings had not changed in regard to each other. Within three days of his visit, Frederick asked Vicky’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage which was granted on the condition the marriage take place after Vicky’s seventeenth birthday. The engagement was publicly announced on 19 May 1857 but the news was met with disapproval in Britain and the media branded the Hohenzollerns as a “miserable dynasty”. In Prussia, the news was received with mixed views but Frederick’s uncle, Frederick William IV, was secretly delighted despite his own wife’s anti-English sentiments.
The marriage took place in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace on 25 January 1858, even though the Prussian court had demanded the wedding take place in Prussia as Frederick was almost certain to become King of Prussia. Frederick and Vicky were given an old wing of the Berlin Royal Palace to live in but is was in such a bad state of repair, they soon moved to the Kronprinzenpalais where their first child, Wilhelm, was born on on 27 January 1859. The birth had been a very difficult one for Vicky as the child had been lying in a breech position and the incompetency of the attending doctors almost led to the death of Vicky and her son. During the delivery, Wilhelm suffered damage to the nerves of his left arm which resulted in it being shorter than his right. Wilhelm would have a strained relationship with his parents throughout his life as he grew to abhor their liberal views.
On 2 January 1861, Frederick became Crown Prince of Prussia when his father succeeded to the throne but tensions between father and son were soon evident when Frederick continued to voice his liberal views in the face of Wilhelm’s more conservative beliefs. The friction between father and son was further exacerbated by the arrival of Otto von Bismarck who despised Frederick’s liberality and believed unification should be achieved through conquest rather than the crown prince’s more peaceful approach. Dismayed by his father’s political views, Frederick spent an increasing amount of time in England where he began to represent Queen Victoria at various functions.
Although Frederick opposed war in principal, he fought in the wars against Denmark, Austria and France, serving with distinction and gaining the respect of many for his compassion. Following Prussia’s victories, German unification was finally achieved and Wilhelm was declared German Emperor with Bismarck as his Chancellor. Frederick continued to side with the liberals but he found himself once again pushed to the sidelines and it depressed him greatly. Frederick also found himself at odds with his eldest son who made no secret of the fact he despised his parents for their opinions.
In 1887, Frederick began to suffer from throat problems and he underwent a surgical procedure to remove what was thought to be a vocal fold nodule but it was later confirmed to be laryngeal cancer. An opinion was sought from Morell Mackenzie, a leading British cancer specialist, who recommended a biopsy to determine whether the growth was malignant before any invasive procedures were carried out. The biopsy was performed the following day but no cancerous cells were detected so Mackenzie declared a laryngectomy unnecessary. The prince’s German doctors, including Ernst von Bergmann, did not agree with Mackenzie but their desire to perform surgery was finally vetoed by Frederick’s father.
On 13 June, Frederick travelled to London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and he underwent a surgical procedure to remove the growth at Harley Street which Mackenzie claimed to have been a great success. Frederick recuperated with his family on the Isle of Wight but a further visit to Mackenzie revealed the growth had returned and it was duly removed. The recurrence of the problem was continuing to cause concern for German doctors but Frederick had put his faith in Mackenzie who eventually received a knighthood from Queen Victoria.
Frederick was advised to spend the winter on the Italian Riviera and Vicky rented a house for them in Toblach, South Tyrol, where he received reports his father was seriously ill. Frederick decided to return to Berlin but was persuaded against it by Vicky who was concerned by his continued lack of progress. Mackenzie arrived at Toblach to examine the crown prince but he maintained he was not concerned by Frederick’s frequent colds and hoarseness. Vicky and Frederick took Mackenzie’s advice to travel to Venice where the prince was in so much pain he had to have cocaine injections. As Frederick continued to deteriorate, Mackenzie forbade him from speaking altogether but it was becoming increasingly clear the doctor was worried.
In November, the family returned to San Remo where Frederick lost his voice completely and a new growth was discovered on his left vocal chord which caused a great deal of consternation to the German government. Mackenzie announced there was no cause for great alarm but he was seeking advice from other specialists, including the Austrian professor of laryngology Leopold Schrötter and Dr. Hermann Krause of Berlin. The specialists concluded the growth was malignant and a total laryngectomy was required to save his life which was a devastating blow to Frederick and Vicky. Frederick told his wife he was not willing to undergo the procedure as it was highly risky and would only submit to a tracheotomy. When word of his decision reached Berlin, Vicky was blamed and their were calls for Frederick to be replaced as heir by his son. Bismarck put his foot down though, stating the dying emperor would be succeeded by his son, ill or not, as laid out in the constitution.
As the weeks went by, Frederick seemed to gain strength and he began to hope his diagnosis had been false, particularly as Mackenzie continued to express doubts the growths were actually malignant. However, the respite was a brief one as Frederick began to suffer from high fevers and violent bouts of coughing which exhausted him. Since both sides of his throat were now swollen, Mackenzie advised an immediate tracheotomy which almost resulted in his death as Bergmann later inserted a cannula into the wrong place. The prince was left with an abscess in the neck which caused him great discomfort. The crown prince continued to cough and spit up bloody sputum which led his doctors to conclude the cancer had spread to his lungs. Professor Wilhelm Waldeyer finally confirmed the diagnosis of laryngeal cancer once and for all, however he said there was no sign of the cancer in the lungs.
Waldeyer’s diagnosis threw doubt on the efficacy of Frederick’s treatment over the previous few months and the subject would continue to be debated long after his death. Wilhelm I died on 9 March 1888, just three days after his son’s diagnosis, and Frederick became German Emperor and King of Prussia. Frederick returned to Berlin on 11 March, however his frail appearance shocked everyone who saw him and it was obvious he was dying. Frederick was too weak to attend his father’s funeral so he watched from from his rooms in the Charlottenburg Palace while his son marched in his place.
As it turned out, Frederick only reigned for 99 days which left him little time to achieve much as emperor. After a great deal of suffering, Frederick finally died on 15 June 1888 with his beloved wife by his side. He was succeeded by his son, Wilhelm II, who would lead Germany on a path which would end the German monarchy forever and rip Queen Victoria’s family apart.