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Authors: John Van der Kiste

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Augusta may have had her reservations about the engagement. On a political and personal level she had more in common with Vicky’s family than her own. But she was already a little jealous that this girl, so like her in personality and tastes at a similar age, should have had the good fortune to make a love match so unlike her own marriage. It was likely that she, Vicky, would thus be able to have considerable influence over her fond husband when they ascended the throne. The letters Augusta continually received from Queen Victoria praising Vicky did nothing to lessen this feeling of mild resentment. Nearly thirty years of loveless married life had thoroughly embittered her, and she took consolation in the fulfilment of her wishes partly for the prestige that a British princess would bring Prussia, and partly out of satisfaction that her son was not going to marry another haughty Romanov Grand Duchess. Yet she thought Vicky was too clever by half, too full of her own importance to be a suitable daughter-in-law. Relations between both women, who could have been the best of friends, kindred spirits at a hostile court, would rarely be amicable.

None of the other princes and princesses were pleased, Fritz noted ruefully; if any of them were, they seemed afraid to speak their minds. The family evidently did not know what to make of him and his Anglophile ways, ‘and one can feel their curiosity, uncertainty, etc.; only they are always letting off random shots in the form of sarcastic, barbed references with pretty unkind content! The unhappy party is seething with anger at not having been informed and consulted in advance, and is now trying to get revenge by incredibly petty cackling that sheds a most revealing light.’ Fortunately his friends, particularly from university days, were more gracious in their comments ‘expressing joy about the probable purpose of my journey to England [
]. This warms my heart, and without more or much enquiry such indications suffice to give me real happiness.’

That winter Fritz was allowed to see more of contemporary Prussian government and politics. He was unfavourably impressed with his observations of Otto von Manteuffel’s reactionary ministry, particularly corruption in the elections to the House of Deputies, which took place as he was returning from Scotland. No efforts were spared, he told his future father-in-law, to secure the return as deputies of provincial councillors who were completely subservient to the government and could be relied on to vote exactly as the ministers instructed.

In Berlin it is incredible what shameless devices the all-powerful police used in order to deliver to people’s homes the names of those who were to be elected. And now it has been achieved that completely spineless persons are appearing as deputies, to whom the household gods of popular representation are being offered, and we are probably achieving everything that has long since been intended. Many people are saying that motions will probably be brought forward for abolishing the constitution, and that this is what the party manoeuvring is aiming at. . . . May God protect us, and enlighten our poor most gracious King, who is no longer allowed to see things as they really are.

Prince Albert wholeheartedly agreed, replying prophetically that ‘designs such as those contemplated by the reactionaries . . . may result in extreme danger to the monarchy’.
It was further reassurance that he had acquired a like-minded future son-in-law.

Vicky wrote Fritz long letters assuring him in her artless way of her love and devotion, although at fourteen they were hardly missives of passion, more conversational messages from an adolescent to a devoted friend. In turn he wrote frequently to her, and sent her a diary in which he had described incidents as an eyewitness during the 1848 revolutions, in order that she should know ‘all the secret events of my life’.

The betrothal was officially announced to the European courts in April 1856, a month after Vicky’s confirmation, which Fritz could not attend because of his army commitments; it was now discussed openly for the first time. Bismarck was asked by Gerlach for his view of the English marriage and declared that he did not like the English part of it, but the bride-to-be was said to be a lady of intelligence and feeling. If she could ‘leave the Englishwoman at home and become a Prussian, then she may be a blessing to the country. If our future Queen on the Prussian throne remains the least bit English, then I see our Court surrounded by English influence,’ he observed. ‘What will it be like when the first lady in the land is an Englishwoman?’

Writing with hindsight many years later the journalist Charles Lowe, who was a correspondent for
The Times
in Berlin for several years at the height of Bismarck’s power, felt that the Princess’s remarkable qualities made her ill-equipped for the Prussian capital. ‘In truth, if she had been less gifted by nature, and less perfected by education, which had made her the darling and the intellectual image of her father, she would have achieved far greater success at the Court of Berlin.’

Others were less critical, and the Liberal politician Richard Cobden was one who heard nothing but good of the Princess Royal. Dining with the American minister Mr Buchanan in the spring of 1856, he was told that she was ‘All life and spirit, full of frolic and fun, with an excellent head, and a heart as big as a mountain’.

Fritz made a third journey to Britain in the early summer of 1856, to coincide with the Queen’s birthday. As the engagement had not yet been formally announced to Parliament, it was again a private visit. Though the Queen insisted on the young couple being chaperoned all the time, she was soon thoroughly bored with having to sit in the next room whenever they wanted to be alone together, while Fritz found it irritating as no such custom existed at home, and he longed to have his future wife to himself if only for a short while. Luckily he had an ally in the Prince of Wales, who was ordered by his mother to keep them company but helped them instead by playing with the younger children in an adjoining room, leaving the door ajar in case she should suddenly return.

While he was in England Vicky had an accident. One evening she was sealing a letter, when the muslin sleeve of her dress caught fire. Fortunately Miss Hildyard and a music teacher were present, and quickly put the fire out with a carpet. Her right arm was severely burned from shoulder to elbow, though she made light of the excruciating pain. Fritz was horrified, telling her that as a result of the accident she had ‘really been given to me a second time, but please, please be more careful in future.’
For some time afterwards she could not write with her right hand and had to use the left, producing a script which, she said apologetically, looked as if her brother Bertie’s parrot had a pen in its hand.

After representing the Hohenzollerns at the coronation of his cousin Tsar Alexander II of Russia at Moscow, Fritz returned to Berlin to help prepare for the wedding of his sister Louise to Prince Friedrich of Baden on 20 September at the Neue Palais Chapel, Potsdam. At the festivities Georgiana, Baroness Bloomfield, wife of the British ambassador, told him that she hoped that the next royal wedding she attended ‘would nearly concern him’. He smiled, admitting it seemed a long time to wait, but as the Princess Royal was so young, her mother and also his mother felt they should not marry until the following year, and they hoped that ‘by that time party spirit would run less high.’

He returned to England for a month to celebrate Vicky’s sixteenth birthday, marred by court mourning for Prince Karl of Leiningen, the Queen’s half-brother, who had just died. He had been a wastrel with few redeeming qualities, but the formalities of Victorian mourning demanded that the departed should receive the same attention whether worthy of it or not, and Vicky took to her bed for two days with a ‘sick headache’.

Luckily for him, he did not know that the Queen was beginning to be tortured by misgivings at having let her eldest child commit herself to the equivalent of exile so young. Barely four months after the engagement, she had confided to her journal how she dreaded the idea of her daughter ‘going to Berlin, more or less the enemy’s den!’
Only days before Fritz’s visit Albert had written critically to his wife taking her to task for being angry with their future son-inlaw for preparing to devote his life to their child, of whom she was only too pleased to be rid. Fritz could not help seeing some of this strained atmosphere, but at least he could be grateful that his future parents-in-law both had the grace to keep their more serious disagreements private, unlike his own quarrelsome parents.

Albert took every chance to continue what he saw as his duty to educate the two young people for their future. He told Fritz that he ought to spend less time in military duties and more in familiarizing himself with contemporary government and politics. Vicky, he considered, still had much to learn regarding her role as an effective queen consort, and he devoted two hours each evening to coaching her. She wrote daily essays on history, literature and politics to be read and corrected by him, and to be taken to Prussia as a set of guidance notes to refer to in the years ahead. Aware that others could impart their knowledge of the sciences better than he could, he arranged for a governess to take her to South Kensington twice a week where she attended lectures by Faraday and Hofmann, and received private tuition from them.

At home Fritz was busy with preparations for his married life. That autumn he began to arrange the palace at Babelsberg, which had been chosen as one of their first residences. From England he went to Paris in December to pay a complimentary visit to Emperor Napoleon and allay his fears about the future of Anglo-French relations. Napoleon was regarded as a
by most of his fellow-monarchs, and the one firm bond of royal friendship he had succeeded in making was with Queen Victoria. Now he feared that England might yield to Prussian influence, which would place her alliance with France in jeopardy, until the Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, assured him that Queen Victoria’s private attachment to the Prussian house had nothing to do with politics. Fritz did his best to reassure him, and the Empress Eugenie was captivated with her tall handsome guest, who was ‘not without a resemblance to Hamlet.’
She was kinder than Mary Bulteel, Queen Victoria’s Maid-in-Honour, whose first impression of Fritz had been ‘that of a good-humoured lieutenant, with large hands and feet, but not in the least clever.’
Napoleon tried to make the visit pass as well as possible, but found that his guest’s thoughts ‘were always either at Osborne or Windsor’.

On 16 May 1857 the engagement was officially announced. Three days later Queen Victoria opened Parliament, choosing the occasion for notifying the Commons and requesting financial provision for the marriage. The ministry’s apprehension that the match would find little sympathy was unfounded; by a majority of 328 votes to 14, a dowry of £40,000 and annuity of £4,000 were granted.

A month later Fritz and Moltke returned to Britain. He and Vicky made their first public appearance together at the History of the Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester on 30 June in a party which also included the Queen, the Prince Consort,
the Prince of Wales and Princess Alice. On the following day the Queen paid a second and strictly private visit, while the princes attended a reception at the town hall. An address was read to Fritz congratulating him on his engagement, to which he replied gracefully of his hopes ‘that God’s blessing may rest upon this union, in which to secure the happiness of the Princess Royal will be the dearest duty of my life.’

Later they went to Madame Tussaud’s premises in London to inspect their newly-made wax likenesses; Fritz’s was dressed in the Fusilier uniform of the Prussian Guards, while Vicky’s wore a light blue silk dress decorated with lace and pearls. They posed for a full-length portrait side by side at a photographic studio in Regent Street, and accompanied the Queen to Ascot races. Music lovers were pleased when the family attended a performance of a Handel oratorio at the Crystal Palace and, led by Albert and Vicky, continually beat time with their scores. Theatre managers in the city did big business when every play which received royal patronage immediately afterwards drew vast audiences. The day before he left England, Fritz was presented with the Freedom of the City of London. Before resuming his military command at Breslau, he visited Berlin and noticed that souvenir shop windows were sporting cheap, poorly-executed busts of Vicky and himself.

The closing months of the engagement were not without their difficulties. First there was an argument over the composition of their future household, which was to consist solely of middle-aged Germans chosen by Queen Elizabeth and Princess Augusta. For Vicky it was a daunting prospect, and the Prince Consort had to ask them to include a few British girls of her age. Queen Victoria told the Prussian court that some of the German ladies might like to accept invitations to Windsor so that they and their future mistress could meet each other beforehand, a suggestion which was received coldly. Their secretary-to-be, Mary Seymour, was a daughter of Prince Albert’s equerry, and Count Ernest von Stockmar, the Baron’s son, had been chosen as their treasurer, despite Fritz’s halfhearted protests that his presence at Berlin as a representative of the Coburg interest would be resented. Though he was to prove an invaluable adviser in performing a similar role for them as his father had for Vicky’s parents, it might have been as well for the sake of their popularity in Prussia if the Prince Consort had taken some account of his future son-in-law’s views. Albert insisted that the younger Stockmar was an ideal choice as one of the few people who knew both the English and Prussian courts well, as well as the Coburg family. Ill-disposed persons who called him an English secret agent, he claimed, were troublemakers who must be ignored.

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