Victoria, Princess Royal (1840-1901)
Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa was born at Buckingham Palace on 21 November 1840 and was the eldest child of Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
The Queen bestowed the title of Princess Royal on Vicky in 1841, her formal rank until her marriage in 1858 when she became Princess Frederick William of Prussia. Vicky was christened in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace on 10 February 1841, her parents’ first wedding anniversary, and the Lily font, a large silver-gilt baptismal font, was specially commissioned from silversmiths Edward Barnard and Sons. The Lily font is now part of the Royal Collection and has been used to baptise most babies in the royal family since.
Her godparents were Queen Adelaide (her great-aunt), the Leopold, King of the Belgians (her great-uncle), the Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (paternal grandfather), the Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (her great-uncle), the Mary, Duchess of Gloucester (her great-aunt) and the Victoria, Duchess of Kent (her grandmother).
Vicky was an intelligent child who could read and write by the age of five, as well as converse in English, German and French. She had a natural affinity for learning, unlike her brother Bertie, and she would remain her father’s favourite child. Queen Victoria was determined all her children would be educated adequately as she felt her own education had been sadly lacking for her future role, whereas Albert had faired far better under the mentorship of his uncle, Leopold, King of the Belgians. Lady Lyttelton was appointed governess to the royal children in 1843 but she was forever known as “Laddle” to them.
Victoria and Albert took great care to ensure their children had as normal a childhood as possible given their position, so the children were often taken away from court to spend holidays at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight which was remodelled by Prince Albert. The prince also had a small cottage built close to the main house where the children learned how to do manual work like cooking and carpentry.
A Prussian Marriage
In 1851, Vicky was introduced to her future husband, Frederick William of Prussia, when his family accepted an invitation to visit the Great Exhibition in London. The two families were close allies and had maintained contact with each other after the Prussians had sheltered at the British court for three months during a revolution in Berlin in 1848. Keen for their families to be united, Victoria and Albert were delighted when Vicky began to form an attachment to Fritz despite the ten year difference in their ages. As well as developing a close relationship with Vicky, Fritz enjoyed his conversations with Prince Albert who shared his more liberal views.
Fritz continued to correspond with Vicky, and in 1855, he visited the royal family at Balmoral with the intention of ensuring his feelings for Vicky had not changed and she would be a suitable bride. After only three days, Fritz formally asked for Vicky’s hand in marriage and her delighted parents gave their consent with one stipulation: they had to wait until Vicky was seventeen. The engagement was announced on 17 May 1856 and the fallout began almost immediately as the British public did not want a Prussian match and the Hohenzollerns weren’t too keen on Fritz marrying an British princess.
With the marriage still two years away, Prince Albert began to train his daughter on how to become an instrument to unite Germany. During their exile in 1848, Albert had done his best to persuade the Hohenzollerns that a more liberal approach from Prussia would influence the other German nations to follow suit, hopefully resulting in German unification. Albert’s words may have gone unheeded but his daughter’s marriage to Fritz gave him renewed hope and he was determined Vicky would be ready for the task ahead. It was a monumental task for anyone to achieve, let alone a teenage girl far from home, and Albert overestimated the German nations desire for it.
Although it wasn’t unreasonable to expect the couple’s wedding to take place in Berlin since Fritz was an heir to the Prussian throne, Queen Victoria felt otherwise and the marriage took place at the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace in London on 25 January 1858. Furthermore, Prince Albert’s announcement that his daughter would retain her title of Princess Royal did not please the Prussian court and it caused a wave of anti-English resentment. Vicky was already an unpopular figure before she had even arrived.
The Prussian Court
Vicky found the Prussian court to be a very hostile environment as her new Prussian in-laws weren’t shy about showing their indifference. Additionally, Vicky was also besieged by countless letters from a mother who was determined to continue to control her daughter’s behaviour despite the distance. Queen Victoria was adamant Vicky continue to observe the customs of the British court which put her in an increasingly difficult position in Berlin, until Prince Albert was forced to intervene on his daughter’s behalf. While her father could curb her mother’s tongue, he could do little to alleviate the hostility Vicky was enduring at the Prussian court where protocols were exhaustingly rigid.
On 27 January 1859, Vicky gave birth to her first child, Wilhelm, but it had been a difficult breech birth which had left the boy with a neurological weakness in his arm. A delay in medical care had placed both mother and child in grave danger, as did the reluctance of the doctors to examine the princess who was only wearing a flannel nightgown, so they failed to detect the baby was lying breech. The doctors assured Vicky and Fritz the child would make a full recovery, however when it became clear there was no improvement, Vicky was forced to inform her parents. Much to Vicky’s relief, the birth of her second child, Charlotte, was a much easier affair but this child would also cause her parents a great deal of heartache as she was suffering from porphyria.
In 1861, Fritz became Crown Prince of Prussia when his father ascended the throne as Wilhelm I but their lives did not change much as the new King refused to increase his son’s stipend and the family were forced to rely on Vicky’s allowance from the British government. Even worse, Vicky and Fritz were no longer allowed to travel outside of Prussia without the permission of the King which meant Vicky could not visit her family in Britain as often as she had. The following years were turbulent ones in Prussia with the Crown Prince and Princess frequently at odds with the political views of the King and Vicky’s English ways were viewed with increasing suspicion.
On 14 December 1861, Prince Albert’s death from typhoid fever devastated Vicky as she had maintained her close relationship with her father, and she and Fritz travelled to London to attend the funeral. Upon their return to Prussia, the couple, still grieving, were embroiled in a constitutional crisis when the King was refused the finances he needed to reform the army. In retaliation, Wilhelm dissolved the parliament, triggering a crisis that left the King threatening to abdicate. Vicky tried to make Fritz see that his father’s abdication would be a good thing for them but he disagreed as he saw it as his duty as a good son to support his father. In the end, Wilhelm chose not to abdicate and appointed Count Otto von Bismarck as Prime Minister of Prussia, a move that would prove disastrous for Vicky and Fritz.
Vicky’s position at court was further weakened by the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Alexandra of Denmark. Alexandra’s father, a representative of a rival Prussian state, was regarded as an enemy and Vicky was blamed for her part in the match. Fritz exacerbated the problem when he openly criticised his father and Bismarck for trying to prohibit the publication of a newspaper which they felt was printing inappropriate content and he duly refused the order. Wilhelm was so enraged by his son’s disobedience, he threatened to suspend him from the military and to exclude him from the succession. Ironically, Fritz was praised for his behaviour in the British press but this only made matters worse in Prussia.
Tensions between Prussia and Denmark finally reached crisis point in 1864 and a declaration of war was disastrous for Vicky as suspicions were aroused she was unhappy at being at odds with her sister-in-law. Regardless of her personal feelings, Vicky dutifully supported German troops by caring for wounded soldiers and establishing a support fund for their families. Fritz joined the Prussian army, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Dybbøl that marked the final defeat of Denmark. The defeat also meant former Danish provinces, such as Schleswig-Holstein, now fell under Austro-Prussian control, and the administration of these provinces would eventually cause renewed conflict between Prussia and Austria.
When Prussia invaded the Austrian province of Holstein, the Austrians retaliated by mobilising other German states against Prussia in 1866. Prussia responded by dissolving the German Federation and invading Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel, triggering the Austro-Prussian War. The Austrians were heavily defeated at the Battle of Königgrätz on 3 July 1866 which forced them to withdraw completely and the disputed territories became part of Prussia. Fritz saw the formation of the North German Federation as a positive step towards German unification but he was sorely disappointed when he realised the new federation did not share his liberal views.
Just days before Fritz had to leave to play his part in the Battle of Königgrätz, he and Vicky were devastated by the loss of their fourth child, Sigismund, to meningitis, but there was no time to mourn. When the Austro-Prussian war finally came to an end, Fritz was often away on court business but his family couldn’t afford to travel with him so Vicky was often left alone to care for her growing family. By the time her last children were born, Vicky had learned a lot of harsh lessons and while the older children were being raised by governesses, Vicky was determined the younger ones would be raised by her. The deep divide between Vicky’s children would never heal as the older children, Wilhelm, Charlotte and Heinrich, could only watch with resentment as Vicky showered love and attention on the younger ones.
On 19 July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and Fritz distinguished himself in battle once more, causing a great deal of jealousy from Bismarck who sought every opportunity to undermine him and Vicky. Despite Vicky’s devotion to the care of wounded German soldiers, Bismarck accused her of being a francophile and made sure it was reported in the press. Furthermore, Vicky’s decision to fund a hospital from her own pocket was seen as an attempt to usurp the place of Queen Augusta and she was ordered home to Berlin.
On 18 January 1871, Wilhelm I was declared as German Emperor at Versailles by the North German Federation and the southern states were subsequently incorporated into the new unified Germany by treaty. Fritz and Vicky were now the German Crown Prince and Princess with the style Imperial and Royal Highness, however Fritz would never again be in charge of an army as his own father had grown to mistrust him. Instead, Fritz was appointed as Curator of the Royal Museums, much to the delight of his wife, who saw it as a great opportunity to mix with some of the most enlightened minds in Germany.
Vicky and Fritz endured the heartache of losing a child once again in 1879 when their son, Waldemar, died of diphtheria, the same disease that had taken her sister, Alice, and her niece, Marie, just a few months prior. Having never fully recovered from the loss of Sigismund, the loss of Waldemar hit Vicky hard and she received no comfort other than from her husband. Vicky’s relationship with her older children continued to be contentious, so she found solace in the company of her three youngest children, Viktoria, Margaret and Sophia.
In 1878, Vicky’s eldest daughter, Charlotte, married her second cousin, Bernhard, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Meiningen, and Vicky sincerely hoped marriage would mature her daughter but even motherhood couldn’t tame her wild behaviour. With one child safely married, Vicky turned her attentions towards her eldest son but her plans to marry him to Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein caused outrage at court since they believed the princess was too lowly ranked for an heir to the throne. Vicky got her way and the marriage went ahead but her new daughter-in-law proved to be a disappointment.
Dowager German Empress
In 1887, Wilhelm’s health began to decline rapidly, however Fritz was also ill with laryngeal cancer and he was urged to go to Italy for treatment. Vicky and Fritz left for San Remo in September 1887, however Vicky summoned German doctors when Fritz lost his ability to speak and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumour. The doctors recommended surgery to remove the larynx but Fritz refused and Vicky supported his decision.
On 9 March 1888, Wilhelm died and Fritz became Emperor Frederick III, however his reign was destined to be tragically short as he died just 99 days later. As soon as Fritz’s death was announced, his son, Wilhelm II, took possession of the palace and had his soldiers search the place for incriminating documents, however his parents had had the foresight to remove their correspondence to London during their visit for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
Vicky retired to Friedrichshof, a castle she had built in memory of her late husband in the hills near Kronberg where she stayed with her younger daughters until they were married. Vicky and Wilhelm had an uneasy relationship over the years as he disapproved of his mother’s more liberal views but they became closer once his mother retired from the public eye. Vicky was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1899 and died at Castle Friedrichshof on 5 August 1901, just a few months after the death of her mother.