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Authors: John Van der Kiste

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Most royal matrimonial unions of the age were marriages of convenience for which the parents, usually in consultation with their senior ministers and ambassadors at court, arranged betrothals between more-or-less eligible parties for reasons of state, sometimes when the princes and princesses concerned were little more than children. Certainly, they may never even have met. If such a marriage turned out to be a personal success, as it did in the case of King William IV and the much younger Queen Adelaide of England, all well and good. In many cases, for example that of Fritz’s ill-matched parents, Wilhelm and Augusta, husband and wife were totally incompatible and remained thus for almost sixty years during which they lived more happily apart.

Sadly, Vicky and Fritz’s eldest son and heir Willy, later Kaiser Wilhelm II, did not personify the peaceful or liberal instincts of his parents, but came under the darker influence of his own ‘mentor’, the nationalist hard-liner, Bismarck. It was one of the tragedies of modern history that this enlightened couple were denied the chance to play the role for which they had been so well prepared, of helping to create the political climate for a more liberal united Germany, which would take its place as one of the leading nations of Europe in an era of unprecedented peace and stability.

On 25 January 1858, it had all seemed so well within their grasp. But, by the time Fritz ascended the throne a little over thirty years later as Emperor, he was already mortally ill. Ironically, the man who had struggled all his life to find a voice in the affairs of his nation died voiceless, robbed of speech by cancer of the larynx. His reign lasted a mere three months, whereupon such political importance as his wife ever possessed ceased abruptly; and, for her remaining thirteen years, she was reluctantly tolerated and often abused by a son under whose rule she found no political satisfaction and only a degree of personal contentment.

Was Vicky a courageous, grossly maligned woman determined to do the best for her adopted Prussia – and later Germany – without regard to the personal consequences for herself; or was she the tactless, domineering Englishwoman, a pampered Princess who remained a slavish disciple of her long-dead father, refusing to accept that there was any other way than the English one? Was Fritz an enlightened Prince who realized that the political mood in Germany was changing, and that the royal house had to change with it; or was he a dreamy, weak-willed depressive who allowed his wife to dominate him? As
The Times
of London had noted presciently when discussing their betrothal back in 1855, these two complex, ultimately tragic characters surely deserved ‘a better fate’.

ONE

‘She seemed almost too perfect’

O
n 18 October 1831, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Niklaus Karl of Prussia was born at the Neue Palais, Potsdam, the first child and only son of Prince Wilhelm and Princess Augusta. Within the family he was always known as Fritz, and more formally as Prince Friedrich, until the age of eight. At his birth he was third in succession to the throne.

Prince Wilhelm, second son of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and his wife, the former Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was born on 22 March 1797. Almost eight months later, on 16 November, his grandfather King Friedrich Wilhelm II died after a reign of eleven years. According to his great-great-grandson, the last King of Prussia and German Emperor, he had been ‘indolent, good-humoured, vain, a server of women, incapable of wide vision and lofty flights of mind’.
1
The Crown Prince succeeded him as King Friedrich Wilhelm III and reigned for forty-two years.

As the marriage of the King’s eldest son and namesake to Elizabeth of Bavaria was childless, it was Wilhelm’s responsibility to marry and produce an heir. Much to the misfortune of all involved, the only woman whom he ever really loved was Elise Radziwill, a member of the Polish nobility who were considered inferior in rank to the Hohenzollerns of Prussia. He wished to marry her, and in order to facilitate betrothal it was suggested that his brother-in-law, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who had married his sister Charlotte, should be asked to adopt Elise as his daughter. Nothing came of this, or of a scheme for one of the other Hohenzollern princes to do likewise. In his heart no princess could ever take the place of his beloved Elise, who died in 1834 of consumption, or a broken heart, as contemporary gossips would have it. All the same, he was ordered to look to the other reigning families of Germany for a more eligible bride.

On 11 June 1829 he married Augusta of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, one of the most politically advanced states in the German Confederation. She deserved better than this dour, reactionary Prussian soldier prince, who was fourteen years her senior. A vivacious young woman in whom her tutor the poet Goethe had inculcated a keen appreciation of literature, she was a free-thinker with liberal sympathies and a sense of religious toleration at odds with the bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and generally narrow outlook of the philistine Berlin court. Many a true word is spoken in jest, and her brother-in-law Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm said it all when he commented wryly that if he and his brothers had been born sons of a petty official he would have become an architect, Wilhelm a sergeant-major, Karl would have gone to prison, and Albrecht would have been a ne’er-do-well.
2

In nearly sixty years of marriage Wilhelm and Augusta would eventually develop a grudging mutual respect, but they were happier under separate roofs. It did not take her long to find he was seeking his pleasures elsewhere, and she naïvely appealed to her father-inlaw who told her patronizingly that if she expected a model of virtue in her husband, she should not have married a Hohenzollern.
3
This loveless union turned her into a disagreeable woman with what Catherine Radziwill, Elise’s distant relative, called ‘an almost insane need of flattery’, noting that ‘only those who told her that she was perfection itself ever obtained her favour or enjoyed her confidence.’
4
Nevertheless conjugal relations had to be maintained long enough for husband and wife to do their duty to the state, and two years after the wedding Fritz was born. Seven years later, with the birth of a daughter Louise on 3 December 1838, the family was complete.

Wilhelm was an unimaginative, remote father who took little interest in his son. Fritz was brought up by nurses and governesses until he was seven, when Colonel von Unruh, his father’s aide-decamp, was appointed his military governor while Friedrich Godet, a Swiss theologian, and Dr Ernst Curtius, a professor of classics, became his tutors. Learning was considered less important than introducing the boy to military routine, which included drill, the study of artillery, and practical aspects such as shoeing, harnessing, grooming cavalry horses, and cleaning their tack. His father insisted that he should grow up to be a good soldier, turning out punctually and smartly on parade regardless of the weather. One wet day a palace servant watched him on his exercises while soaked to the skin, and dashed out to the parade ground with an umbrella to hold over him. The little prince refused to take advantage of such shelter, asking the well-intentioned man indignantly if he had ‘ever seen a Prussian helmet under a
thing like that
?’
5

Off the parade ground, Godet and Curtius supervised his learning languages, music, dancing, gymnastics, book-binding, carpentry, and the rudiments of typesetting, and when he was twelve the proprietor of a Berlin printing firm presented him with a small hand-printing press. Though he neither liked nor understood mathematics and science he acquired a taste for reading, and spent much of his spare time in the royal library. As a boy he rarely attended the theatre or concert hall. His father declared that music gave him a headache, and he once walked out of a Wagner opera to go on manoeuvres.

On 7 June 1840 King Friedrich Wilhelm III died. His eldest son, now King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, a bald, ugly man with a high-pitched voice and a taste for the bottle, was a contradictory character who wanted to be remembered as a progressive monarch. His accession was marked with an amnesty for political prisoners, concessions to the Roman Catholic church, and a relaxation in press censorship. He enjoyed planning and building castles in mock-Renaissance style, and he was one of the few Hohenzollerns who really appreciated the fine arts. Nonetheless his horror of the French revolution had given him an almost medieval view of his position, and the idea of becoming a constitutional monarch in the British sense was anathema to him. Politically he was a reactionary at heart, agreeing with his contemporaries that only soldiers were any help against democrats. His brother Wilhelm, now heir apparent, was styled Prince of Prussia, and at the age of eight Fritz, henceforth known formally as Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, became heir presumptive.

Three days after the accession of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England were leaving Buckingham Palace for a drive up Constitution Hill in an open carriage, when a youth fired his pistol at them and narrowly missed. Thankfully they were unhurt, for the Queen was some three months pregnant with her first child. On 21 November she went into labour, and when the doctor announced almost apologetically that the baby was a princess, she answered defiantly that ‘the next will be a Prince’.
6
Referred to as ‘the child’ until her christening in February 1841, the infant was named Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, and styled Princess Royal as the sovereign’s eldest daughter. Called Puss or Pussy at first by her parents, she later became Vicky and remained thus
en famille
for the rest of her life.

Prince Albert was delighted with her winning ways and agile mind, and she always remained his favourite child. The Queen’s elder halfsister Feodora of Hohenlohe-Langenburg also idolised her. On a visit to their uncle King Leopold of the Belgians and his family at Brussels, she could not help comparing three-year-old Vicky favourably with her second cousin and contemporary, Charlotte, who was a few months older and ‘a great beauty but I must say that she does not outshine dear Puss in my eyes, she may be more beautiful, but she has not that vivacity and animation in her countenance and manners which make her so irresistible in my eyes, she is a
treasure
!’
7

The proud father never appreciated that the constant praise he gave and the self-confidence which he was at pains to inculcate in Vicky, added to the opportunities he took of showing her off to relations, nursemaids and courtiers, risked creating in her a sense of superiority and the belief that she was never wrong. Queen Victoria, who was not particularly maternal by nature and always ready to criticize her offspring, had earlier made a subconscious effort to counteract this unalloyed adulation when writing to King Leopold of their eldest child, who at little more than a year of age was ‘quite a dear little companion’, but ‘sadly backward’. The woman soon to be appointed senior governess, Sarah, Baroness Lyttelton, might find her young charge mischievous and liable to answer back, but never backward. Even before her seventh birthday, she noted, the Princess ‘might pass (if not seen, but only overheard) for a lady of seventeen in whichever of her three languages she chose to entertain the company’.
8

From an early age she learnt French verses by heart and enjoyed working them into normal conversation. When she was three, Queen Victoria wrote to King Leopold of ‘our fat Vic or Pussette’ learning lines by Lamartine with her governess Mademoiselle Charrier, ending with ‘le tableau se déroule à mes pieds’.
*
Riding on her pony, looking at the cows and sheep, she turned to the governess, gestured with her hand, and said: ‘
Voilà
le tableau se déroule à mes pieds’. ‘Is this not extraordinary for a little child of three years old? It is more like what a person of twenty would say. You have no notion
what
a knowing, and I am sorry to say
sly
, little rogue she is, and
so obstinate
.’
9

Vicky had inherited her mother’s obstinacy, and also tended to behave like a little autocrat, again following the Queen’s example. When a junior governess on a carriage drive refused to stop and get out to pick her a sprig of heather, she muttered indignantly that of course the governess could not, then she glanced at two young ladies-in-waiting, ‘but those girls might get out and fetch me some.’ Easily bored with routine, and often frustrated, she often gave her mother cause to complain of her ‘difficult and rebellious’ character. Scolded for misbehaving by Lady Lyttelton, whom she called ‘Laddle’, she answered nonchalantly, ‘I am very sorry, Laddle, but I mean to be just as naughty next time.’
10

For the first few years of Queen Victoria’s marriage the main royal residences were Buckingham Palace, where Vicky was born, and Windsor Castle. During her childhood they acquired two rural retreats further afield. At Osborne on the Isle of Wight, an existing mansion was demolished and rebuilt to Albert’s directions as a home far away from London where the children could be brought up as simply as possible. The mild climate, the sea where they learnt to swim, the gardens where they had their own tools, and grounds for riding made it an island paradise for them all. They had their own playhouse, a Swiss Cottage in the garden, where Vicky and her sisters learned to cook and bake cakes. A few years later Albert purchased another estate at Balmoral, in the heart of a wooded valley in the Scottish Highlands, where they built another imposing mansion which they visited every year. In the surrounding countryside they could enjoy pony expeditions and picnics, deerstalking, shooting, fishing by day, and Scottish dancing to the sound of bagpipes in the evening.

From childhood the handsome, red-haired Fritz was generous, unselfish, even-tempered, and like his father he was quiet and serious-minded. After his eighth birthday party when the guests had all gone, Unruh found him deep in concentration at his desk and left him alone, returning later to discover him asleep with his head on his hands. A servant carried the boy to bed and on looking at what lay on the desk, the tutor saw a list of presents that Fritz planned to buy for other people, using money given him by his uncle, ‘with reference to the estimated merits of each case, as well as their separate circumstances and conditions.’
11
Even though he knew Fritz so well, he was most impressed by his pupil’s kindness of heart.

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