For those that saw the finale of the ITV series “Victoria,” you saw the birth of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s first child. That infant would grow up to be one of the most accomplished princesses that the UK ever turned out, one groomed to take on the role of bridge between Britain and Germany and hopefully facilitate an understanding between the two growing empires.
That she failed was through no fault of her own, but rather a series of developments neither she nor her parents foresaw before her arrival at the Prussian court in 1858. Remarkably intelligent, painstakingly well-educated and thoughtful, it remains a tragedy that Vicky and her husband, Emperor Frederick III, “Fritz,” would only sit on the German throne for 99 days after a 30-year wait. Even more so when one looks back with hindsight, knowing that the crown would be inherited by their son, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would shove the empire into World War I and eventually bring about the monarchy’s abolishment.
Vicky was her parents’ firstborn, born less than year into their marriage and only 11 months before her younger brother, the future Edward VII, known as “Bertie” by his family. They would be followed by seven additional siblings, most of whom would go on to make marriages significant to the evolution of European history in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly with Germans.
Though Vicky and her siblings were raised in England and considered themselves British, their father was a proud German, as was their maternal grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Kent, and the heritage of Britain’s royal house of Hanover remained intrinsically linked with Germany. Almost from her birth, Vicky was the apple of her father’s eye and as she grew up her intelligence, wit and demeanor only more entrenched her in his affections to the detriment of her siblings, particularly Bertie. By 18 months she spoke French, by four she spoke German; once she reached the schoolroom she easily took on a courseload that included arithmetic, geography, history, politics and philosophy.
That she would make a lofty marriage was unquestioned, that it would be in Germany was her father’s desire. His dream was to see Vicky help drive Germany into the modern era, mold it in his liberal vision; he saw the British and German empires working alongside one another, shaping the rest of the continent.
Vicky first met her future husband in 1851 at the age of 11 when Fritz, his parents and his sister descended upon London to visit the Great Exhibition, Prince Albert’s brainchild. Fritz was 19 at the time, and while the two got along remarkably well, it was hardly a love connection given the princess’s age. The true mind meld was between Fritz and Albert, who shared similar politics and a love for all things German. However, at the same time, the domestic life that Victoria and Albert had developed for their family was entirely foreign to Fritz.
Victoria and Albert prioritized their marriage and family before anything else, save duty. Over the course of Victoria’s reign the royal court evolved from one of frivolity and scandal to one that could be characterized as fairly dull. The mother of nine children, Victoria was frequently pregnant and Albert favored a quiet life. They invested in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, locations that allowed the royal family to live as closely as possible to an average well-to-do middle class family.
The ability to set aside etiquette and embrace privacy and intimacy was wholly foreign to Fritz, who had been reared at the masculine and militant Prussian court. After leaving England, Fritz and Vicky struck up a correspondence, one encouraged by Victoria and Albert, who believed the prince would make an excellent match for their daughter. By the time Fritz returned for a visit to Balmoral in 1855 he proposed marriage to the 15-year-old Vicky, and though she accepted him, Victoria and Albert insisted that the formal engagement be delayed for a year until Vicky had reached her 16th birthday and confirmation.
Albert, a strong adherent of the “Coburg Plan,” which believed that Prussia could set an example for a unified Germany, was alternately dazzled by the idea of his daughter helping to achieve that goal and devastated at the thought of losing her. From the time of her unofficial engagement in 1855 and her wedding in 1858, Vicky was given priority treatment over her siblings, allowed to spend time with her parents in the drawing room after supper, which not only gave them quality time before her departure, but helped prepare her for her future role as hostess at the Prussian court and queen consort.
The engagement was formally announced on May 17, 1856 and, like her parents’ match before her, was met with widespread disapproval from the British public. According to the newspapers and popular commentary, Prussia had failed them in the Crimean War, was too closely allied with Russia and didn’t do enough for its people. The match was hardly better received in Prussia, which was going through an intense anti-British wave. Vicky was not allowed to bring with her any British ladies-in-waiting and was completely surrounded by German women, most of whom were significantly older than her. The title “Princess Royal,” which her parents had bestowed upon her as an infant, and which she retained after her marriage, only made her seem more foreign to Prussian eyes.
Even so, the wedding took place at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in London on January 25, 1858. Once settled in Berlin, Vicky would begin an intensive correspondence with both her parents, particularly her mother. From the time of her marriage until Queen Victoria’s death in January 1901, nearly 8,000 letters are preserved between the two. Both candid and opinionated, they offer a detailed and striking history of Berlin and London, as well as the Royal Family, through the latter half of the 19th century.
Vicky’s new home was neither welcoming nor comfortable. Her only solace was her marriage itself as Vicky and Fritz could take comfort in their “arranged” match also working out to be both loving and friendly. Even so, Vicky was only 17 when she married and the customs and public duties she took on as a Prussian princess were exhausting to her, as was the near-constant criticism she faced from all corners. Her mother’s constant stream of letters reminded her that she was, before all else, a British princess, while the court that surrounded her dictated she forgo her native customs and assimilate as quickly as possible.
In theory, Vicky could have been able to take comfort in motherhood, and while she became pregnant mere months after her wedding, her first childbirth was traumatic and nearly cost her her life. Though she successfully delivered the male heir her in-laws desired, the difficult birth damaged the baby’s arm, a handicap the boy retained well into adulthood. The infant was christened Wilhelm after his paternal grandfather and would eventually become the famous Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Vicky wrote to her mother shortly after the birth, her language borderline chilling given her later relationship with her son:
“I am *so* happy, *so* thankful he is a boy. I longed for one, more than I can ever describe […] You need not be afraid I shall injudiciously fond of him, although I *do* worship him, […] and I feel he is my *own* and he owes me so much, and has cost me so much.”
All told, Vicky and Fritz would have eight children between the years 1859 and 1872, however they can easily be divided into two sets. Their first three children, Wilhelm, Charlotte and Henry, would be their most troublesome offspring; for whatever reason, those children would end up siding with their paternal grandparents in domestic and political disputes. They embraced whole-heartedly their German heritage and viewed their mother’s Britishness with a certain level of disdain, even if, in the case of Wilhelm, it was tinged with insecurity.
Their younger five would bring them much more joy, and with them Vicky took to motherhood easily. She would remain close to her three younger daughters, Victoria, Sophie and Margaret, until the end of her life, however tragically, her younger sons, Sigismund and Waldemar, to whom she was completely devoted, would both die young at ages one-and-a-half and 11, respectively.
On January 2, 1861, Fritz’s father officially ascended the throne as King Wilhelm I of Prussia, making Fritz and Vicky the Crown Prince and Princess. Letters from London increased as Albert sought to advise his daughter and son-in-law, offers that may have comforted them, but only irritated King Wilhelm and his ministers. Tragically, Albert’s life was cut short on December 14, 1861 at the age of 42 when he fell ill with Typhoid fever and died at Windsor Castle. Vicky’s family plunged into mourning, a state from which her mother never fully recovered, wearing black and lamenting his passing until her own death 40 years later.
Ironically given their subsequent long wait, an opportunity presented itself in early 1862 for Fritz and Vicky to prematurely ascend the throne when King Wilhelm threatened to abdicate over the need for military reform. While Vicky was all for seizing the opportunity, perhaps seeing more liberation as the highest-ranking woman in Berlin as much as the fruition of her father’s plans, Fritz refused to go against his father for both personal and professional reasons, believing an abdication only weakened the monarchy overall.
Fritz and Vicky continued to find themselves on the receiving end of criticism, most of it linked to Vicky being British and the couple’s supposed links to foreigners. When, in 1863, Bertie married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in lieu of a German woman, Vicky was blamed for her supposed role in supporting the match (to be fair, she had). For whatever comfort it was, the British press was sympathetic, writing:
“It is hard to imagine a more challenging role than the Crown Prince and his wife, who are without a counselor, between a coward monarch, an impetuous cabinet and an indignant population.”
Sentiment which did nothing to endear the British to the Prussians.
When war broke out between Prussia and Denmark, Vicky supported the German cause, while being consistently accused of rooting for the Danish on behalf of her new sister-in-law. It was an absurd situation, one which wouldn’t come to a close until October 30, 1864 when Prussia finally declared victory.
The loss of her beloved (and favorite) son, Sigismund, on June 18, 1866 plunged Vicky into a depression, one for which she received little sympathy from either her mother-in-law or mother. Queen Augusta strongly suggested she resume work as quickly as possible to get her mind off of it, while Queen Victoria, four years into her widowhood, couldn’t comprehend caring as much for the loss of a child over one’s husband. Indeed, Vicky’s happiness with Fritz would grow to be an increasing irritation to her mother, who bitterly resented having lost her own marriage.
On January 18, 1871 King Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles, leading a new, unified empire of the northern and southern German states. However, neither the new Emperor’s promotion, nor Prussia’s newfound significance, did much to enhance Fritz’s work for his country. He continued to be sidelined by his father and criticized for his British wife and liberal way of thinking. Taking into consideration how Germany would unfold over the next several decades, it’s worth underscoring that Fritz and Vicky were not only “liberal,” but incredibly well-informed on the new waves of political thought. Vicky read voraciously, including the work of Karl Marx because she considered it a part of her job to be up-to-speed on socialism. She and her husband were also markedly not antisemitic, which not only separated them out from many of their peers, but from a strand of bigotry that would have devastating consequences for Europe in the next century.
However, as the 1870s dawned Vicky’s relationship to her children changed. Done with pregnancy, her eldest three were approaching adolescence, which meant not only considering potential marriages but the next levels of education, training and preparation for lives that would likely be spent playing a central role at major European royal courts. This was particularly true for the couple’s eldest son, Wilhelm, who was expected to inherit the German empire after his father. Vicky was mortified by her son’s disabled arm throughout his childhood and, according to Sigmund Freud who took a particular interest in this mother-son dynamic, Vicky’s emotional distance from Wilhelm spoke to her own distress at having “failed” as a mother, driving him away, fueling his resentment of her, and pushing him into the arms of his politically conservative grandfather. This theory is supported by some of Vicky’s comments to her mother in letters, one of which said:
“He is really smart for his age…if only he didn’t had that unfortunate arm, I would be so proud of him.”
Vicky, used to excelling at everything she did, likely did struggle to wrap her head around “failing” at what was arguably her single most important function as a royal woman – delivering a healthy heir. But it bears repeating that Vicky and Fritz had an uneasy relationship with their eldest three children, not just Wilhelm. Vicky and her eldest daughter, Charlotte, would have a tense and volatile relationship well into Charlotte’s adulthood.
Vicky, like her own mother, was hard on her children, and she wasn’t particularly impressed by Charlotte’s intelligence or physical appearance. Sixteen in 1877, Charlotte became engaged to Bernard of Saxe-Meiningen, marrying him in Berlin on February 18, 1878. Apparently a love match, at least on Charlotte’s part, Vicky expressed hope that marriage would be good for her daughter and force her to grown up. A year later Charlotte gave birth to a daughter of her own, Princess Feodora, however, parroting her grandmother Queen Victoria, she hated pregnancy so much that she declared the child would be her last. Nor was Charlotte particularly interested in mothering, and though hands-on parenting certainly wasn’t expected of royal or upper-class women, Charlotte took it to remarkable extremes, she and Bernard traveling often and leaving Feodora home alone with the staff.
It’s likely that Charlotte actually suffered from porphyria, a disease that her ancestor, George III, is also theorized to have had. In the 1990s researchers exhumed the bodies of Charlotte and Feodora and tested them both for the gene associated with the disease, concluding that between the test results and their medical records, they can reasonably prove both suffered from it. Further, they claim that it’s likely other women in their family carried the gene or felt the illness’s effects, possibly including Vicky and Queen Victoria.
In 1878, the same year Charlotte and Bernard married, Wilhelm proposed to his first cousin, Elizabeth of Hesse, daughter of Vicky’s younger sister, Alice. Elizabeth was widely considered to be on the most beautiful princesses in Europe and Wilhelm, heir to the German throne, would have been highly eligible match for her. However, Elizabeth declined, a rejection which Wilhelm, head over heels in love, didn’t take particularly well. On August 27, 1881 he instead married Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein, a plain, petty young woman to whom Fritz and Vicky originally objected.
At first Vicky had held out hope that once Wilhelm married his wife would help heal the familiar rift, however Augusta was completely dominated by her husband and espoused his thinking completely. When her daughter, Viktoria, was born in 1892 she went out of her way to tell her mother-in-law that she was certainly not named after her, while she also took pains to never leave her children alone with their grandmother, lest she “poison” them with her liberal thinking.
All the while, Wilhelm I continued going strong. As his namesake grandson entered into adulthood, he took to bypassing his son and using the younger Wilhelm to represent him and Germany at functions abroad, making it clear he wholly disapproved of Fritz. By 1887, Fritz was suffering from increasingly poor health and when he and Vicky visited Great Britain that June to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, they brought with them several boxes of personal effects they were afraid of falling into the possession of the government should Fritz die. By the end of the year he was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer and lost the ability to speak.
On March 9, 1888 Wilhelm I finally passed away and Fritz ascended the throne as Frederick III. One of his first acts was to invest his wife with the Order of the Black Eagle, Prussia’s closest approximation of the Order of the Garter. Ninety-nine days later he died, on June 15th, paving the way for the 30-year-old Wilhelm II.
While it’s impossible to know with certainty, many historians theorize that had Fritz lived longer or reached the throne sooner, he and Vicky might have been able to deviate Germany from its rising militarism and, like Vicky’s brother, Edward VII, helped stall World War I. Of course, that may be too simple – Fritz may well have been a very different ruler than he was an heir, or he may have found himself boxed in by political figures and forces against whom he was unable or unwilling to quash.
The tragedy of it is that we’ll never know; two figures groomed for decades were unable to truly realize their potential and we have no idea what might have been. For that matter, we have no idea how Europe might have evolved had both Vicky and her brother, Bertie, had decades each on the throne, and whether Britain and Germany would have had a different relationship altogether over the course of the 20th century.
2 thoughts on “Vicky, Fritz & the Fate of the German Empire”
Very interesting article. Clearly never knew the real inside story. Interesting how so much played out. If only the two oldest could have survived to change a awful German history!
A good precis of Prussia and the complex relationships between Fritz and Vicky on the one hand, their children, Prussia’s royal family and government on the other. One of the most tantalising “what ifs” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One criticism, the 2nd last photograph with Queen Victoria wrongly identifies the people in it. Fritz is definitely not there. It is Vicky (still in mourning of Fritz) seated next to her mother. Vicky’s three brothers are standing, from left Princes Arthur, Alfred and Bertie, with Wilhelm on Bertie’s left.