Authors: John Van der Kiste
While Fritz was preparing for the campaign in May, Vicky paid her first visit to England as a married woman, reluctantly leaving Willy with his nurse as Dr Wegner refused to let her take him. She was gratified to find a new bond with her mother; both women had had new babies comparatively recently, Queen Victoria’s youngest child Beatrice being only two years old. Now Vicky felt they were more like sisters than mother and daughter, noting with mild astonishment that they seemed more in harmony than ever before; ‘Mama shows a kindness & love for me that I have not hitherto known’.
Perhaps she was subconsciously acknowledging that during childhood she had never felt herself to be her mother’s favourite. She desperately missed Fritz, writing to him that in her old room ‘I experienced the happiest moment of my life when you took me into your arms as your wife and pressed me to your heart; when I even think of that moment my heart beats madly and I have a terrible longing for you, and I think I would hug you to death if I had you here now.’
Meanwhile Fritz was given command of the First Infantry Division of Guards. They were still on their way to the war zone in Italy when news reached them of Austria’s defeat at Solferino on 24 June, and the subsequent peace treaty at Villafranca a couple of weeks later. Without having even seen a shot fired, he angrily returned home. A commission was appointed to oversee urgent army reform and he attended each meeting of the new military council, pledging himself to making the Prussian forces invincible. If Austria, confident of victory, could be defeated so heavily, then so could the Prussians if they suddenly found themselves at war. For several days, from dawn to dusk, he drilled and marched his troops with a severity they had never before known of him.
Her husband’s sudden obsession with the army was the least of Vicky’s anxieties during what was becoming a difficult summer. In July she expressed a wish to consult a surgeon about Wilhelm’s arm which had failed to respond to gentle exercises, cold baths, and ‘invigorating embrocations’ that the doctors assured her would help. When his arms were measured at the age of six months the left was about a centimetre shorter than the right, and she was warned that this disparity would increase with time. Dr Langenbeck diagnosed a course of ‘animal baths’, with his arm being inserted twice weekly for half an hour in a freshly-slaughtered hare, a gruesome-sounding medieval remedy which was supposed to transfer the warmth and vigour of the animal to the arm. A less drastic solution was to tie his right arm to his side and leg for an hour each day to encourage him to use the left, but all he did was lie on his back on the floor and kick his legs in the air. He could not crawl, and not until he was fifteen months old did he take his first unsteady steps unaided.
Worries about her deformed child were one thing; concern for her father was another. While visiting England in May she had been alarmed to see the Prince Consort looking so tired and aged. It was the last straw when Fritz returned home from his campaign that never was, angered by what he called Germany’s humiliation, blaming the Austrians for reaching an agreement without consulting their Prussian allies, and thinking of nothing but the army. She impulsively dashed off a desperate letter to her father asking what to do. He replied that she must remind Fritz that Prussia was less important than Germany; it was childish of him to behave as if the state was on the verge of war, and such action could bring the whole of Europe into armed conflict.
However in his present frame of mind, war would have been welcome to Fritz, to obliterate the humiliating aftermath of the abortive Austrian campaign.
That autumn he went down with influenza, only to be roused from his bed before he was better. The Regent had just published plans for army reform, demanding among other things an increase in conscription from two to three years, with extra taxation to finance it, and abolition of the
, a territorial army drawn mostly from the middle classes. Fritz was furious at not being consulted, and without waiting till he was well again he confronted his father. The latter, knowing his reforms would not meet with the Liberals’ approval and that he would have a struggle to see them through, took all his anxiety out on his son. He called Fritz a meddlesome amateur, while Fritz accused his father of keeping him out on a limb. Suffering badly from insomnia, he would get up at night and sit in a chair with a book until he dropped off; in the morning he woke up stiff, still tired and depressed.
Vicky had to persuade him to come to England with her for a change of air. Leaving Willy again with his nurse, November saw them back at Windsor, celebrating the Prince of Wales’s eighteenth birthday and spending family evenings in the rooms where they had enjoyed their honeymoon. Fritz was soon at his most relaxed, and ill-inclined to argue with his weary-looking father-in-law. At the same time, the royal household were getting to know and like him even better. Prince Arthur’s governor, Major-General Elphinstone, had met him the previous year and found him a typical arrogant Prussian prince, but on this occasion they had a friendly conversation and afterwards the governor noted that ‘there was none of the hauteur I had previously ascribed to him.’
Fritz was never haughty, but shyness on previous visits to his wife’s family had made him appear aloof to those who did not know him well.
From the welcoming atmosphere of Windsor they returned to Berlin for a Christmas made intolerable by Wilhelm and Augusta’s endless squabbles. The reform proposals were now common knowledge, and everyone saw the Regent’s programme, supported by all but the most moderate conservatives, as the military caste’s attempt to eliminate any ‘middle-class element’ from the officers in order to achieve complete control of the army. In pursuit of their aims they would not stop at overthrowing the Liberal ministry or even the constitution if necessary, and Wilhelm threatened to resign his position as Regent if thwarted.
After what he had seen in the forces during the previous summer’s mobilization, Fritz was sympathetic to his father’s reforming zeal. The number of recruits had not risen since 1815, despite a considerable increase in the Prussian population since then, and for Prussia to pursue what might be regarded as a ‘progressive’ policy, it had to have a strong army. Nevertheless he did not support abolition of the
, he had been deeply hurt by his father’s failure to consult him on the proposals before publication, and he was dismayed at the unconstitutional obstinacy that was leading to a private war between the army officers and the liberals. Yet it did not stop him from being dragged into the controversy in the most unpleasant way possible. One morning he was summoned in secret to an anteroom in the council chamber, where some of the bolder conservatives and liberals were waiting for him. Tired of the Regent’s intractability, they intended to overthrow him and put his son in his place at the head of an army dictatorship. They had sorely misjudged Fritz’s character, for he had never been so shocked in his life. Without stopping to think of the consequences, he went at once to his father and told him everything. The Regent accused his son of treason, of instigating the conspiracy, and on being faced with failure, losing his nerve and confessing in order to save his skin.
Fritz and Vicky felt that much of the ill-feeling between father and son was caused by jealousy. Their marriage was that rare, maybe even unique thing – a happy Hohenzollern marriage. It was simply not the done thing for husband and wife to go driving, walking, and going out in the evening together. None of the other princes or princesses even accompanied each other to church or the railway station. Fritz had always suffered from the cold, though he could not stand hot rooms as he kept losing his voice in them, and had the sense to wear a cloak or drive in a closed carriage during the bitter Berlin weather, much to the scorn of his relations. This, they said behind his back, could be ascribed to the influence of his English wife. It was hardly surprising if Prince Wilhelm looked at his daughter-in-law, saw the ghost of Elise Radziwill, and allowed himself to think of what might have been if he had not bowed to family tradition. In one sense, fate had dealt his son a better hand.
On 24 July 1860, after an easier pregnancy, Vicky gave birth to a daughter, who was christened Victoria Elizabeth Augusta Charlotte the following month. In the family she was known as Charlotte, in honour of the Regent’s favourite sister the Dowager Tsarina of Russia, who died four months later, and after her father’s favourite cousin and boyhood companion.
Charlotte was normal in every way, unlike her brother. Though he was a lively, cheerful infant, his stunted left arm still had little life in it, and he could hold a stick only with difficulty when it was pressed into his tiny fist. His right arm was regularly tied down to encourage him to use the other, and he was given a small drum to beat with his powerless left hand, to make him become conscious of the undeveloped muscles in his arm. In her letters to England Vicky had mentioned his trouble and her hopes that it would mend with time and treatment, and so far she and Fritz had managed to avoid a meeting between the boy and his maternal grandparents. But by autumn 1860 they were increasingly impatient to see him, and Vicky realized she could not keep them apart any longer. The Prince Consort was making plans for a visit to Coburg with the Queen and Princess Alice, and hoped they could all meet there in the second half of September.
The rendezvous got off to a bad start when the elderly Dowager Duchess of Coburg, Albert’s stepmother, died as they were on their way to meet her. On 25 September Fritz and Vicky met Duke Ernest at Coburg station to await the royal party, and at last the Queen saw her grandson. She noted in her journal that he had his father’s eyes and his mother’s mouth, and for their sake she did her best not to look at his arm. It was the only saving grace of this German excursion for the Queen and the Prince Consort, as a few days later Baron Stockmar and Duke Ernest warned Vicky and Fritz that the Prince Consort was in a fragile state. He had just been involved in a minor coach accident and was physically unharmed but suffering from shock, convinced he would never see his birthplace again.
In November the Dowager Tsarina of Russia, sister of the King and Regent, passed away, and it was expected that the King would soon be released from his twilight existence. On last seeing him in June Fritz and Vicky had been horrified by the ‘human ruin’ lying in a bath chair with his left hand, arm, and both legs tied up, unable to speak or direct his eyes to look at anyone, showing no signs of consciousness except for looking up feebly to his right. By Christmas he was dying.
Soon after midnight on New Year’s day 1861, they were summoned by telegram to Sans Souci to join the rest of the family at his bedside. After a few hours of waiting, Vicky was overcome with exhaustion and nodded off on a sofa while Fritz and the others, clad in black, paced up and down. They stayed till late afternoon, when Vicky was feeling so sick and faint that Fritz sent her back to the Neue Palais to bed. He remained at the vigil with the rest and was still there when the King breathed his last soon after 1 a.m. on 2 January 1861. His nephew and niece were now Crown Prince and Princess Friedrich Wilhelm.
When Vicky returned to the death chamber to bid him farewell, she could hardly bring herself to leave the scene. ‘There was so much of comfort in looking there at that quiet peaceful form at rest at last after all he had suffered – gone home at last from this world of suffering – so peaceful and quiet he looked – like a sleeping child’.
Overcome with sympathy for the widowed Dowager Queen Elizabeth, complaining sadly that she was ‘no longer of any use in this world’, Vicky sat with her for a while. Having been one of the most hostile towards Vicky on her arrival at Berlin, she was immediately disarmed by her tenderness and obvious concern. From then on she made it clear that the Crown Princess had been the only person to take any notice of her, and it was a kindness she never forgot. Much to Augusta’s fury, when Queen Elizabeth died twelve years later she broke with Prussian tradition, and instead of bequeathing her jewels to the crown she left them to Vicky.
King Friedrich Wilhelm IV had added a codicil to his last will and testament, urging his successors to the throne to refuse to take an oath to uphold the constitution. The Prince Consort was shocked that the King should have ‘tried to provoke a breach of faith even after his death’
and even more by the court camarilla’s efforts to put pressure on his successor to comply with this out of respect for his brother. To his relief King Wilhelm rejected their advice, saying he felt it his duty to conform to the Prussian constitution albeit reluctantly, on the grounds that it would be dangerous to oppose it.
A few days after his accession Queen Augusta advised Baron Schleinitz, the pro-French Minister for Foreign Affairs, to persuade the King to send Emperor Napoleon a fraternal letter of good wishes before he received the formal announcement of his accession, in order to establish closer Franco-Prussian relations. She enclosed a draft of the message, composed by herself, which she thought should be sent. Schleinitz replied to both King and Queen in favour of the scheme but the messenger muddled the letters, handing the King that intended for his wife and vice versa. Wilhelm was furious that she should ‘meddle’ in what he considered was no concern of hers, and she threatened to retire permanently to her summer residence at Koblenz. Only the tactful intervention of Fritz, persuading them to put their differences aside for the sake of the crown, prevented a worse breach.
The Prince Consort saw King Wilhelm’s accession as the time for another attempt to write and influence him with his ideas. A free, united, outspoken Germany alone could win respect abroad, he told Vicky, while ‘a reactionary tendency in Berlin would play havoc with everything.’
He had been further encouraged by the sudden death of the feared Gerlach, one of the old ultra-conservative guard, who had caught a chill at the King’s funeral in January. Impatient with this thinly-veiled interference, the King threw Albert’s letters into the fire without a second thought, scolding Fritz and Vicky bitterly as he did so.