The most famous of Empress Frederick’s children is without a doubt Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ironically, this would also be the child with whom she had the worst relationship, for all told she produced eight children, six of whom reached adulthood. A year ago, I posted about her daughter, Sophie, who would end up marrying into the Greek Royal Family and became the Queen of the Hellenes in the lead up to World War I. Over the course of this week, we’re going to take a look at her three other daughters: Charlotte, Victoria and Margaret.
Before we do, let’s back up a tad to cover off on who Empress Frederick was and how she relates to the British Royal Family. Empress Frederick was in fact Princess Victoria, the Princess Royal and eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Known as Vicky, she married Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 when she was 17 and joined the militant and deeply conservative Hohenzollern royal family in Berlin, coming to Germany at an interesting fork in the road.
Prince Albert had been the mastermind behind his daughter’s marriage, seeing her role as critical to ensuring Germany’s power in Europe and one which would infuse his own more liberal politics throughout the region. All of that was dependent on her husband, Fritz, taking the throne, but his father, Wilhelm I, lived for another 30 years, during which time Prussia was expanded into Germany and the kings became emperors. Fritz and Vicky finally took over in 1888, however by then Fritz was dying. His reign lasted some three months and he was succeeded by Wilhelm II, a man with little but contempt for his parents and a difficult relationship with his mother’s British relatives.
Vicky was shunted to the sidelines and mistreated by her son. As for her daughters, they were also beholden to their brother, though their ability to marry and move away often diluted his power. More complicated was the factionalism of Europe as the 20th century dawned, with these women often forced to choose between their German heritage and Britain’s allies. So, with that, let’s get into it.
Vicky gave birth to her first child, Wilhelm, in January 1859, just a year after getting married. Thus it was that Wilhelm held the unique role of not only first grandson, but first grandchild of Queen Victoria, who would famously end up with the moniker “Grandmother of Europe” thanks to her descendants scattered throughout the continent. Charlotte was Vicky’s second child, born on July 24, 1860, and Queen Victoria’s eldest granddaughter.
Vicky’s labor with Wilhelm was famously difficult and resulted in damage to his left arm. Charlotte’s delivery, on the other hand, was an easy one and she arrived in perfect health, however her christening perfectly illustrates her mothers’ difficult position. Queen Victoria was adamant that her eldest granddaughter be named for her, while the Prussians wanted her named after Princess Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of King Frederick William I, who had gone on to marry Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. In the end, her first name was legally Victoria, however she always went by Charlotte, one of her middle names. For good measure, her parents also inserted Augusta after her paternal grandmother.
Somewhat poignantly, Wilhelm and Charlotte were the only grandchildren born during the lifetime their maternal grandfather, Prince Albert. As such, they would be the only two to ever meet him, though they were so young that it’s impossible they would have remembered Albert’s trip to Berlin to see his beloved eldest daughter. He passed away in December 1861 from Typhoid Fever, depriving Vicky of her chief champion.
At the time of Albert’s death, Vicky was in the early stages of her third pregnancy. In August 1862, she delivered a second son, Henry, thus capping the first “set” of her children. Unfortunately, as the years wore on, Wilhelm, Charlotte and Henry would become their parents’ problem offspring for reasons that are difficult to untangle. The most glaring difference between them and their younger siblings was that their paternal grandparents took more interest in them.
Wilhelm I became king in January 1861 following the death of his elder brother. His accession elevated Fritz and Vicky to Crown Prince and Crown Princess, though their newfound positions did nothing to bring Wilhelm or his wife, Augusta, closer to their son. Their aloofness extended to their daughter-in-law and though they appeared vaguely fond of their grandchildren, they showed significantly more interest in the older ones. Likely, this had something to do with the importance of men in the Prussian Royal Family and hierarchy altogether. Wilhelm and Henry would become the only sons of Fritz and Vicky to reach adulthood – as such, they were the only princes of their generation and worthy of attention. Charlotte, meanwhile, was of some importance as the eldest daughter.
Unfortunately, the impact of this was that these children absorbed their grandparents’ view of their parents as they matured, disagreeing with their politics and viewing Vicky’s preference for all things British to be disrespectful and embarrassing to Prussia.
Fritz was a loving, but absent, father – not unusual for the period or his position. Thus it was that Vicky was the most significant force in her children’s life and she attempted to replicate her own upbringing in England, in which she had flourished. Winters were spent in Berlin and summers in Potsdam, while she purchased and renovated an old farm for the children to run wild on, akin to the space provided for her and her siblings on the Isle of Wight in the 1840s and ’50s.
The first dark cloud on the young family came in 1866, the year in which Vicky’s fourth child, Sigismund, died a few months before his second birthday from meningitis. The Crown Princess was devastated by his death and, coming on the heels of delivering her fifth child, Victoria, it’s likely that her grief intersected poorly with her postpartum hormones. Letters to her mother in England and descriptions of her behavior evidence a possible nervous breakdown, or at the very least a period of profound depression.
Another son, the short-lived Waldemar, would join the family in 1868 and the brood would eventually be rounded out by the arrival of Sophie in 1870 and Margaret in 1872. By then, the Franco-Prussian War had closed, resulting in the elevation of the children’s grandfather from king of Prussia to emperor of Germany.
Little in Charlotte’s life immediately changed. Instead, her days were made up of the schoolroom and what were becoming intolerable fights with her mother. The Princess had always been a fussy, difficult child, prone to poor health. She had a troubled digestive system and was constantly underweight. She was also prone to streaks of violent anger and temper tantrums that only intensified as she grew older. Unlike her mother, who was notably intelligent and intellectually curious, she was an indifferent student.
In fairness to Charlotte, Vicky was not an easy mother. Like her father before her, she expected greatness from her children at all times and thought nothing of candidly and harshly expressing disappointment when she felt it warranted. To the child who was given everything she expected, well, everything. Some historians posit that Charlotte’s character simply wilted under this pressure – that her health problems and increasingly erratic behavior were exacerbated, if not caused by, what she sensed as her mother’s disapproval.
It is against this backdrop that the role of her paternal grandparents becomes more important, for they encouraged Charlotte’s rebellion against her parents and provided an outlet for opposition.
Her health, too, continued to puzzle her doctors. She exhibited manic behavior, anxiety, insomnia, terrible headaches and significant joint pain. Today, it is relatively clear that she suffered from mental health issues that only worsened with age, but 19th century Germany was ill-equipped to help her. As she reached adolescence and took on a more public role at her grandparents’ court she also garnered herself a reputation as a flirt, which only upset her parents further.
In fact, it is now believed today that Charlotte suffered from porphyria, one of the illnesses from which her ancestor, George III, was believed to have had. Certainly her behavior bears some hallmarks of the British side of her family – indeed, there were moments in Queen Victoria’s life when Prince Albert reportedly had the same fear, though how it manifested itself in Charlotte was slightly different.
By the time she was 16, Charlotte appeared determined to marry as soon as possible and gain freedom through a husband. Close to her brother, Wilhelm, she often accompanied him in various social pursuits and it was through him that she became acquainted with a second cousin, Bernhard, heir to the duchy of Saxe-Meiningen. In April 1877, the two became engaged.
Vicky was tentatively for the match, believing that marriage might be to her daughter’s benefit. Bernhard was also more intellectually inclined than his wife-to-be and Vicky hoped that he might be a good influence. More candidly, she wrote that she hoped a husband would check her: “At least her wicked qualities will not be able to cause any harm.”
The couple were married on February 18, 1878 in Berlin in a double wedding alongside Charlotte’s cousin, Elisabeth Anna of Prussia. They settled in Potsdam, allowing frequent interaction with the extended Hohenzollern family whether anyone liked it or not, and on May 12, 1879, Charlotte gave birth to a daughter. The young princess, christened Feodora, was not only Vicky’s first grandchild, but Queen Victoria’s first great-grandchild. Like her grandmother before her, Charlotte detested being pregnant and she showed little maternal inclination once her child arrived. Unlike her grandmother, she decided one child was enough and instead decided to enjoy the freedoms that married life and being the mistress of her own household entitled her.
Wilhelm bequeathed on his favorite sister a villa outside Berlin, allowing Charlotte better access to the capital and court. Like any young woman of her station – she was only around 20, after all – she immersed herself in fashion, dinner parties and games. Unlike most princesses of her time, however, she openly drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes, to the horror of Vicky and Queen Victoria. Her great love, which would sustain her until her dying day, was without a doubt gossip.
Charlotte’s relationship with Wilhelm saw its first crack when he married Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein (“Dona”) in February 1881. Dull and docile, she was everything Wilhelm was looking for in a wife, but Charlotte was unimpressed and for once, Wilhlem was uninterested in hearing her opinion. Like Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales over a century before her, Wilhelm used his wife’s naivete and loyalty to win petty wars against his mother and, later on, his younger sisters. For once, Vicky and Charlotte were of the same opinion: Dona was less than ideal.
Even so, Charlotte well-knew that her position and power were tied to her brother and she worked hard to stay in his good graces, even when she disagreed with him. This became all the more important in 1888 when he succeeded their father as emperor, though she did dutifully take her place at Fritz’s bedside during his illness. Wilhelm’s accession raised her social clout and Charlotte surrounded herself with a fast, international crowd that ran the more glamorous corners of Berlin – a scene the constantly pregnant and increasingly dowdy Dona was ill-equipped to rule.
This came to a screeching halt in 1892 when Charlotte’s personal diary, full of her candid and often unkind thoughts about members of her family, “disappeared” and then made its way into circulation. Included in the writing were accusations that her younger sister, Victoria, carried on affairs before and after her marriage, while forged letters taken from the diary included obscene language and further lurid accusations against other members of the family and officials at Berlin’s court. Wilhelm was livid and ordered an investigation, however the culprit was never identified. If the source for the gossip was Charlotte and her diary, the favored contender for the distributor was in fact Dona’s brother and his French mistress.
Charlotte and Bernhard were banished from Berlin, with Bernhard transferred to a regiment in Breslau. Dependent on Wilhelm for cash, the family was unable to do much traveling, having previously taken lavish trips throughout Europe.
A few years later, in 1896, relations were dealt another severe blow when Dona accused Charlotte of having an affair with Karl-August Freiherr Roeder von Diersburg. Charlotte denied the accusations and Bernhard defended her, but Berlin erupted into scandal and the incident tarnished the Royal Family’s reputation with the German people and did nothing to repair relations between brother and sister.
The following year, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in England. Charlotte and Bernhard traveled to London for the event, with Charlotte joining her sisters, Victoria and Margaret, in a carriage for the procession from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral where the service of Thanksgiving was held. The couple then took in concerts and plays, even joining the Royal Family for a formal dinner party at BP.
Amidst all of this, Feodora grew up. Like her mother, she exhibited similar signs of mental illness and poor health – also like her mother, she wasn’t wholly inclined towards a close relationship with her parents. Bernhard and Charlotte had been inattentive parents who traveled frequently, leaving Feodora alone save the company of nannies and servants. Late in 1897, at the age of 18, she married Prince Henry XXX of Reuss, 15 years her senior.
Feodora leaving home broke already strained relations between mother and daughter. Equally difficult and quick to find fault, the two eventually had a falling out that resulted in Charlotte barring Feodora and Henry from entering her home. They wouldn’t speak for a decade, only reconciling when Feodora, desperate to have children, underwent a radical medical procedure to help her conceive. Charlotte, who was (unhelpfully) outspoken about her aversion to becoming a grandmother, finally relented and visited her daughter, expressing outrage at Henry and the doctors for allowing the procedure to have taken place at all.
Vicky passed away in the summer of 1901, less than seven months after Queen Victoria. The deaths didn’t erode ties between the Hohenzollerns and the British either, for in June 1911 Charlotte and Bernhard again traveled to London for the coronation of her cousin, George V, and his wife, Mary of Teck. It was one of the last great pre-war gatherings of royalty, and certainly the last for a long while in which Britain was comfortable highlighting its familial ties to Germany.
Three years later, Bernhard finally became the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. And just a month after that, World War I broke out. Bernhard went to the front and Charlotte remained home to ensure there was a figurehead presence of her husband. By then, her health was on the decline and she began heavily using opium for pain management. The end of the war brought about the fall of Charlotte’s family – not only was Wilhelm forced to abdicate, but so, too, was Bernhard.
A few months after the loss, Charlotte traveled to Baden-Baden for medical attention. While there, she suffered from a fatal heart attack, passing away on October 1, 1919 at the age of 59. She is buried at Schloss Altenstein in Thuringia.
2 thoughts on “Vicky’s Daughters, the Kaiser’s Sisters: Charlotte of Prussia”
A comprehensive and sympathetic article on Vicky and her marriage and children. I find it such a tragedy that Vicky’s life played out as it did. She had so much to offer that was flouted and the nature of her death was heartbreaking. The only comfort was the love she and Fritz had and the love of her three youngest daughter’s.
Hi Jackie – thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree completely re: Vicky. She’s always been one of my favorite historical figures, but her adult life really did play out with quite a bit of tragedy. Like you said, so much potential! It’s fascinating to think about what would have happened if Fritz ascended the throne sooner than he did.