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Authors: John Van der Kiste

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In August the Queen and Albert came to Babelsberg, where they made an effort to recreate the happy family evenings at Windsor in which Fritz had revelled as a guest. Remembering those notso-distant days, he leant over the piano turning the pages of the music while Vicky and her father played and sang duets. He introduced them to various Prussian notables such as the scientist Alexander von Humboldt and ‘old Wrangel’, who could still talk of nothing but how glad he was that Fritz had chosen Vicky, who was a ‘blessing to the country’. The only character to whom the Queen and Albert found it difficult to be civil was the reactionary Prime Minister Otto von Manteuffel, whom they privately blamed for Fritz’s enforced political ignorance; they found him ‘most unpleasant, cross, and disagreeable’.
45

However the minister’s office was coming to an end. Even the omnipotence of a Hohenzollern King had its limits, for the monarch was now increasingly unintelligible, jumbling his words, losing interest in everything, and behaving like a man barely awake. In October Wilhelm was granted the full powers of Regent, with a royal decree conferring the position upon him, and Fritz attended a ceremony in the Berlin Schloss at the end of the month in which his father took the oath ‘to exercise the royal authority to the best of his ability as Regent with sole responsibility towards God,’ and observe the constitution of 1850.
46

Hopes of progress seemed justified when Wilhelm asked Manteuffel to resign, creating him Count and a life member of the
Herrenhaus
. In his place Prince Karl Anton Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a member of the Catholic branch of the family and a pronounced liberal, was asked to form a government. The next election produced a large liberal majority in the
Landtag
, and on the new minister’s advice Fritz was allowed to attend meetings of the house. In addition Privy Councillor Brunnemann was appointed his political secretary in all but name, with responsibility for keeping him informed on state affairs.

Prince Karl Anton had been a guest at Fritz and Vicky’s wedding, and was a favourite of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. Vicky openly expressed her delight at this change, which she thought a most important step ‘& one which will satisfy all the nation, please all patriotic men, raise the Prince in the eyes of all, make his work easier for him, in course of time I hope restore the country to its place and position in Europe’.
47
Unfortunately she made plain her delight not only in private letters to her parents, but also verbally to one of the gentlemen at court. Repeated and exaggerated, her words got back to members of the conservative party, who had viewed the dismissal of their champion Manteuffel with distaste. Such indiscretions did nothing for her popularity, and neither did it help her when the Prince Consort unwisely sent the Regent letter after letter of unsolicited advice on liberalizing the Prussian government, most of which he threw away unread.

Vicky still had problems with her mother, who persistently reminded her that she must never forget what she owed her country, in other words, England; ‘never forget those duties which you owe to it as well as to your new one!’ There was nothing, she maintained, in ‘these two-fold affections and duties which need ever clash; the interests are so much, and will in time get more united.’ They reached a crescendo when the Queen expressed indignation at the ‘extraordinary’ Prussian custom that a lady who was
enceinte
could not stand as godmother at a christening; ‘above all promise me never to do so improper and indecorous a thing as to be lying in a dressing gown on a sofa at a christening! as my daughter and an English Princess I expect you will not do it. . . . Let German ladies do what they like but the English Princess must not.’
48

Vicky had been placed in an impossible position. She told her mother quite rightly that while letters from home were a delight as well as a comfort to her, this ‘extended correspondence’ was taking up a good deal of her time.
49
Her first duties, she had to point out, were in Prussia, and in fulfilling them to the utmost she was merely doing what her own country would wish and expect. ‘It would seem strange if a German princess married in England and insisted on having a christening there with the same customs observed as in her home. I fear I should make myself justly disliked if I showed a contempt for a custom which is after all an innocent one’.
50

Ernest Stockmar warned his father about Vicky’s problems and the Baron wrote to Lord Clarendon, who was visiting Berlin at the time, asking for his help. The Queen, he said, ‘wishes to exercise the same authority and control over her that she did before her marriage and she writes her constant letters full of anger and reproaches . . . and of her forgetting what is due to her family and country, till the poor child (as Stockmar called her) is made seriously ill, and put in a state dangerous to her in her actual condition.’
51
The old Baron was evidently a little conscience-stricken, being as responsible as anyone else for having repeatedly advocated the marriage of Vicky and Fritz in the first place, and was now alarmed at the young wife’s plight. He asked Clarendon to discuss things with the Prince Consort, who admitted that he was perturbed at the Queen’s ‘aggressive system’. He had tried, without much success, to moderate the demands his wife was making on their daughter with her insistence on never-ending daily letters home. Unfortunately, he admitted, it was necessary to acquiesce to Queen Victoria to a degree, lest she should become too ‘excited to an opposition to her will’, and the madness of George III might be unleashed in her. However, that he said something to her on the subject can hardly be doubted, for her letters became less hectoring in future.

There was another unfortunate legacy which Queen Victoria had left her eldest daughter. Vicky’s ignorance of the facts of life and her mother’s insistence on the proprieties left her totally unprepared for motherhood. That June she had written of her pride at the very thought of ‘giving life to an immortal soul’,
52
but in the process her pride, physical strength and fortitude would be tested to the utmost.

*
Prince Albert was created Prince Consort by Letters Patent in June 1857.

THREE

‘You belong to your country’

F
ritz and Vicky moved into Unter den Linden, Berlin, their official winter residence, on the eve of her eighteenth birthday in November 1858. Though she was unwell throughout autumn and winter, her physician Dr Wegner saw no grounds for concern. Regretting her inability to attend the birth herself, Queen Victoria sent Dr James Clark to Berlin. He had attended her last confinements, and when he examined Vicky, he likewise assured them that she would be her normal self again once the baby was born. Only the experienced midwife, Mrs Innocent, had any idea of what was in store. Arriving in Berlin soon after Christmas, she took one look at the expectant mother and feared they were ‘in for trouble.’
1

On the advice of Baron Stockmar and King Friedrich Wilhelm’s personal physician, Professor Johann Schönlein, Prince Wilhelm engaged the services of Dr Eduard Martin, a professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at the University of Berlin, as the man best qualified to assist. There was some professional jealousy between both men and Wegner, more courtier than physician, was reluctant to jeopardize the sensibilities of his royal patient by conducting the necessary examination, even at the risk of allowing nature to take its course by letting her and her child die. Mortality in childbirth was frequent and his professional reputation in Berlin would probably not have suffered had this been the outcome.

For several days Vicky had suffered from what Fritz discreetly called ‘pains of an unusual nature’ which had given them more than one false alarm. Her labour began shortly before midnight on 26 January, and he called Mrs Innocent. Soon Drs Wegner, Schönlein and Clark, the German midwife Fräulein Stahl, Countess Blücher, and Countess Perponcher, a lady of the bedchamber, were all on hand. Countess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German, was a confidante of Queen Victoria and Princess Augusta, and one of the few women in Berlin whom Vicky trusted implicitly. From her the mother-to-be had an urgently-needed crash course in the ‘intimacies’ of childbirth that Queen Victoria, with her disgust for anatomical details, had never given her daughter. Vicky put on some warm loose clothes and paced to and fro, supported by Countesses Perponcher and Blücher, and Fritz himself. That the father-to-be remained with his wife for so long before and during the birth was extremely unusual for the time. As the labour pains increased in severity, Wegner examined the patient and noticed that there was something not quite right about the position of the child. He sent a messenger to summon Dr Martin at once, and he reached Dr Martin’s residence as he was getting into his carriage, about to give a lecture at the university. At around the same time he received a note written by Fritz the previous evening, asking him to come and attend without delay as his wife was about to give birth. Instead of being handed to Dr Martin, as was presumably the intention, this note was posted in the mail.

To his horror Dr Martin found Dr Wegner and his German colleague or colleagues in a corner of the room while the distraught Fritz held his semi-conscious wife in his arms, having put a handkerchief into her mouth several times to prevent her from grinding her teeth and biting herself. He administered chloroform and a baby boy was born at 2.45 p.m. Once he had delivered the baby, Martin devoted his attention to saving the mother, who was very weak. Fraülein Stahl was the first to notice that the infant had not yet uttered a sound, and she feared it was dead. She and Martin tried every method they knew, culminating in increasingly vigorous slapping, until at last a cry came from his lips. Fritz had fallen, exhausted and close to fainting, on the bed next to that of his wife. On hearing Martin’s dejected tone of voice as he announced the child was a prince, he too thought his firstborn was dead, until to his relief he heard the baby crying in the next room.
*

Though the child was alive, he was clearly not physically normal, and his left arm hung limply from its socket. The doctors referred to this injury in their reports on the birth, without considering the possibility of mental trouble. Recent medical analysis of their accounts has suggested that his hyperactivity in later life, and maybe a degree of brain damage, were caused by a ‘reduced blood flow to the brain during delivery’.
2

‘In truth I could not go through such another’,
3
Dr Clark admitted to Queen Victoria. The young mother wrote to Queen Victoria praising Dr Wegner’s tact and discretion, though she did not know what she would have done without Clark. Dr Martin, to whom she had initially taken a violent dislike, was ‘an excellent man’ in whose skill she felt ‘the greatest confidence’,
4
but she could never absolve him completely from blame for the ‘bungling way’ in which she was treated.
5

The christening was postponed to give Vicky enough time to recover, and the infant was given the names Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Albert at a ceremony on 5 March. Though still weak for several weeks after her confinement, she was thrilled to be a mother, with none of Queen Victoria’s aversion to ‘ugly’ small babies and the ‘animal-like’ characteristics of pregnancy. ‘I am so thankful, so happy, he is a boy,’ she wrote. ‘I longed for one more than I can describe, my whole heart was set upon a boy and therefore I did not expect one.’
6
However it was hardly surprising that her natural pride as a first-time mother was wounded, and she must have reproached herself at having presented her husband with a son and heir who was not physically perfect. Twelve months of life in Prussia had shaken her self-confidence, and to make matters worse her baby and the future King – assuming he survived – was physically handicapped. On hearing of the birth an excited Prince Wilhelm told his family that they had ‘another fine young recruit’; when he knew more, he told Fritz coldly that he was not sure if congratulations on the birth of ‘a defective prince’ were in order. It was an unpromising start to motherhood for Vicky, but she adored her child and was bitterly upset when Augusta would not allow her to breast-feed him herself. Not content with insisting that Vicky should hand him over to a wet-nurse, in later life she told her grandson that his mother could not bear to nurse him because she found him repugnant with his misshapen arm.

In the spring they moved into the Neue Palais at Potsdam, where Vicky could work on transforming musty, long-uninhabited rooms into a comfortable home, and restoring the overgrown garden. This change of residence coincided with matters taking a turn for the worse in central Europe, when Emperor Napoleon sought to use Italian unification to further his territorial ambitions. He agreed to help Piedmont in its war of independence against Austria in exchange for the Piedmontese states of Savoy and Nice. Austria, confident of military superiority, issued an ultimatum to the Sardinian government – disarmament or war – and invaded Piedmont at the end of April 1859, whereupon Napoleon sent the French army to join the Italians. Most of Europe was neutral; Napoleon’s intrusion was hard to justify, but Franz Josef was undeniably the aggressor. In Germany, however, where any French action was automatically suspect, opinion was naturally pro-Austrian; and victory for Italy and France, the German military knew, might lead to further French aggression on the Rhine.

As a gesture of solidarity with the Austrian Emperor the Regent ordered partial mobilisation. Fritz, a trained soldier bored by enforced inactivity, had been waiting for the moment. He believed that Prussia’s reputation as a faithful ally was on the line, to say nothing of his own honour as a prince and officer. Vicky could not understand such an argument; to her it was ‘fine’ for the men to talk of defending their country, ‘of a soldier’s life being the only one that becomes a man, that death on the field of battle is the thing they wish for; they don’t think of their poor unhappy wives whom they have taken from their homes and whom they leave at home alone.’
7

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