Margaret, known as “Mossy” to her family, was born in Potsdam on April 22, 1872, rounding out her parents’ eight children. Her godparents included King Pedro II of Brazil and Crown Princess Margaret of Italy, for whom she was named. Following the death of her brother, Waldemar, in 1879 – and the death of a brother in 1866 who Margaret never knew – the siblings solidified into two sets of three, the elder of whom had poor relations with their parents, and the young of whom were deeply devoted to them. Margaret, in particular, was extremely close to her mother, a bond that only deepened after the death of her father, Emperor Frederick III, in 1888.
She accompanied her mother to Paris in February 1891, a trip arranged by her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was on poor terms with the French, but unfortunately mounting tension between the two nations forced a premature retreat. It was falsely reported by French media that Sophie went out of her way to insult the French and Russians, had gone mostly to see Jewish exhibitions instead of French and that she declined to buy anything from the local shops. An amateur artist herself, the Princess rejoiced in visits to Versailles and St Cloud, but given their recent politicization, she and her mother were sharply rebuked for their presence. They returned to Germany bewildered.
Later in the year there was discussion of Margaret marrying her first cousin, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, but the matter was quietly put to bed despite the support of the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria thanks to the Princess of Wales’s anti-German sentiment. The following spring, rumors sprung that she would marry instead the future Tsar Nicholas II, but Empress Frederick disliked the Romanovs and their treatment of Alexander of Hesse, a one-time suitor of her daughter, Victoria.
Instead, that May Margaret received a proposal from Frederick Karl of Hesse, third son of the Landgrave of Hesse. His mother, Anna, was herself a Prussian princess, granddaughter of Frederick William III (Margaret’s great-grandfather). His father, Landgrave Frederick William, had first been married to a Russian princess and was related to the Danish, Greek and British royal families through his mother. It was thus a solid if not splendid match, and one endorsed by Margaret’s family, though only wanly by her brother. Wilhelm complained in a letter that he only signed off on it because Margaret was his youngest sister and therefore not very important.
The wedding went forward in January 1893 in Berlin. Among the guests were Margaret’s sister, Victoria, and her brothers, Wilhelm and Henry, with the latter’s wife, Irene of Hesse (third daughter of Princess Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse). From Britain came the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, Prince and Princess Christian of Schleswing-Holstein, Princess Victoria Helena of Schleswig-Holstein, the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Edinburgh and the same future Tsar Nicholas to whom Margaret almost married. Unable to join were the Prince and Princess of Wales, Margaret’s sister, Sophie, and the King and Queen of Denmark.
Nicholas of Russia had a grand old time at the affair, at one point spending an evening drinking too much with, let’s say, women well-versed in dance and missing Wilhelm’s birthday event the next day. The Kaiser, true to form, was none too amused.
Margaret and Frederick Karl made their home at Schloss Rumpenheim near Frankfurt and quickly found themselves on the road to parenthood when Margaret became pregnant within three months of the wedding. Their son, Frederick William, was born a month premature on November 23. He was joined in the nursery just 11 months later by a brother, Maximilian, on October 20, 1894, also born prematurely. Empress Frederick had planned on attending both births and missed them thanks to the early deliveries, but she was on hand for the third round when Margaret gave birth to twin boys – Philip and Wolfgang – on November 6, 1896.
Rather astoundingly, a second set of twins – Christoph and Richard – were born in May 1901, rounding out the family. These last grandchildren would come just three months before Empress Frederick’s death, though it was the elder four who would have firmer memories of their grandmother. They, alongside their Aunt Sophie’s children from Greece, were famous for boisterously playing through the hallways of her otherwise quiet home, and her granddaughter, Victoria Louise, daughter of Wilhelm, would later complain that the Empress preferred her daughter’s children over her and her brothers.
The Empress left Margaret and Frederick Karl her home of Schloss Friedrichshof, and it was there that the young family moved before the dawn of 1902. Margaret and her sister, Victoria, often played the role of peacemakers in the family, particularly between their brother and the British side of the family. Margaret embraced her British heritage more than any of her siblings, employing English nannies for her children and speaking mostly English with them, even as they reached adulthood.
Margaret took her sons for regular trips to England in the summer, including one year for the birthday of her cousin, Victoria of Wales. During the party, Philip was separated from his mother and, growing agitated, walked up to Edward VII since he was the only adult he recognized and grabbed his leg, crying. The King, not realizing who he was, asked him who his mother was. Philip responded, “Mossy,” which caused the King to burst out laughing and he called a page to return the child to his family. A few years later, Philip and Wolfgang would in fact begin school in England.
In May 1910, Margaret was devastated when Edward VII passed away, but on hand the following year for the coronation of George V and Mary of Teck. Similarly, they turned up for big royal moments in Germany, too, such as the wedding of Wilhelm’s daughter, Victoria Louise, to Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and heir to the duchy of Brunswick in May 1913. In fact, the date was purposefully set for May 24 in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday.
The following summer, Margaret and her sons met Sophie and her children in England for a holiday, spending time with George and Mary and their aunt, Queen Alexandra. It was the latter who told them she was afraid war was coming and it would be a long while before they were able to return. Alarmed, Margaret and Sophie contacted the German ambassador, who told them they had nothing to worry about. Even so, Margaret and Frederick Karl decided it was better to be safe than sorry and returned home. It was just in time, for on August 4, World War I officially began.
Frederick Karl and his two eldest sons immediately left to serve the German army. A little over a month later Frederick Karl was injured in battle and operations were only partially successful – he was pronounced unfit for combat. Maximilian, deemed Margaret’s favorite son, was fatally wounded just weeks after his father. According to John Van Der Kriste, he told the doctor attending him that he was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and requested that a chain and locket containing his mother’s picture be returned to her – the doctor was killed the next day, however a letter with the locket helped it make its way to Queen Mary, who duly sent it to Margaret via another cousin, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, who acted as a go-between during the war.
As for Frederick William, he made it another two years, but would eventually die in September 1916. By then, Philip and Wolfgang had joined the cause and Wolfgang was serving in the same regiment. He asked to view his brother’s body and wrote that “Fri” had had his throat slit by an enemy bayonet.
In the summer of 1918, Finland established itself as an independent nation and consulted with Wilhelm over who should become its king – he nominated Frederick Karl. Margaret and her sons were summoned forth to discuss the logistics – while Frederick Karl dedicated himself to learning Finnish history and language, it was decided that Philip would remain in Germany and succeed his father in Hesse, while Wolfgang would become the Crown Prince of Finland. It came to nothing when it became clear Germany was losing the war: in November Germany conceded defeat and by December the offer was revoked.
The occupation of Germany by Allied troops, mainly French, threatened the German royals, who at various points were physically on Frederick Karl and Margaret’s land. They were left mostly unscathed, but bitterly resentful, and by 1919, had moved from Friedrichshof to a smaller “cottage” on the grounds due to strained finances. The Empress’s rooms were left untouched and the larger residence remained an ode to her art collection.
Frederick Karl and Margaret took up a new normal, living quietly and relatively comfortably, while hosting Sophie during her years of exile from Greece. Philip, meanwhile, spent the immediate post-war years studying and working through Germany, before moving to Rome in 1923 where he began work as an interior designer. In September 1925, he married Mafalda of Savoy, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. They would go on to have four children between 1926 and 1940 and split their time between Italy and Germany.
In 1930, Philip joined the Nazi party and took up high-profile positions within Germany, even acting as Adolf Hitler’s personal art consultant. When in Italy, he acted as a go-between for Hitler with Benito Mussolini. As the party evolved over the 1930s, its attitude towards royalty did as well. In 1943, Philip was detained by Hitler, a situation further complicated when his father-in-law arrested Mussolini and he was under suspicion of involvement. By September of that year, he was sent to a concentration camp, while Mafalda was arrested in 1944 and placed in another concentration that was later bombed, fatally wounding her. After World War II ended, he was then held by the Allies for another two years, before finally being released in 1947.
Meanwhile, his twin brother, Wolfgang, took an altogether different route. In 1924 he married Princess Marie Alexandra of Baden, a union that remained childless until her death in 1944. He remained close to Frankfurt for the rest of his life.
Christoph married Princess Sophie of Greece and Denmark, daughter of Prince Andrew and Princess Alice of Battenberg – and thus elder sister to the current Queen Elizabeth’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. A young Prince Philip was a guest at their 1930 wedding. He joined the Nazi Party, but is believed to have quickly grown disenchanted by it, despite serving in World War II for Germany. He was killed in action in Italy in 1943. He left behind five children – his son, Karl, was adopted after his death by his brother, Wolfgang.
As for Richard, less is known of him. He joined the Nazis at the same time as Christoph, never married and lived until 1969.
So what of these men’s parents? Well, it’s pretty bleak. While still harboring a love for Britain, Margaret ended up worlds apart from her mother’s liberal teachings. Upset with her family’s fall in station and angry over a post-war Germany, Margaret ended up embracing anti-Semitism and was a supporter of Hitler throughout the 1930s, at one point even inviting him to her home for tea.
In 1925, Frederick Karl finally became Landgrave of Hesse, but the title did little to change the family’s overall tenuous position after Wilhelm’s abdication and exile following World War I. He passed away in May 1940 at the age of 72.
During World War II, Margaret housed her daughter-in-law, Sophie, and her nine grandchildren (Sophie and Christoph’s five and Philip and Mafalda’s four) at Friedrichshof, which remained unscathed by bombs. In 1945, it was overwhelmed by American soldiers, who forced the family out – they were given four hours to pack their things and moved nomadically between neighbors’ houses, Margaret being ill and bed-ridden at the time. When Sophie protested to the soldiers, they threatened to shoot the “old girl.” Out of necessity, the family was temporarily forced to split up, and it was during this time at Frederick William and Mafalda’s children learned of their mother’s death months before (their father remained in a camp).
Peace came just in time and allowed the family to return home, but tensions remained high. When George VI learned of what was happening to Margaret and Friedrichshof, where priceless historical documents and family heirlooms were kept, he sent British emissaries to take valuables away for safekeeping with somewhat reluctant permission from Margaret and Sophie. The humiliation didn’t stop there – on July 4, American soldiers ransacked the young princes’ personal belonging and stole gifts for their military units. Worse came that November when soldiers discovered some $2 million worth of jewels that Wolfgang had hidden in the castle’s cellar – these, too, were stolen.
The loss of the jewels was only discovered in 1946 when Sophie was remarrying George Wilhelm of Hanover and wanted to wear some of them at her wedding. The theft was reported and investigated, even making its way to Washington, D.C. in the 1950s, however only 10 percent of the worth was ever returned to the family when all was said and done.
Margaret passed away at the age of 81 on January 22, 1954 – 53 years to the day after her grandmother, Queen Victoria. To the end, despite the her politics, she still referred to Britain as “beloved” and longed to return. Margaret’s legacy, and that of Empress Frederick, was preserved through Schloss Friedrichshof, which was overseen by her eldest surviving son, Philip. After his release in 1947, he assumed his position as Landgrave of Hesse and eventually became the head of the entire Germanic House of Hesse in 1968. He continued to split his time between Germany and Italy until his death in 1980.
Margaret’s body is buried near her mother’s at Friedrichshof.