HIH Crown Princess Frederick of Germany
  • July 29, 2017
  • Posted In: Royal

The eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and titled the Princess Royal from birth, Crown Princess Frederick of Germany (1840-1901) made a dynastic love match with the future German Emperor Frederick III that indirectly fanned the flames of hostility leading to World War I. From birth, Princess Victoria was the apple of her father Prince Albert’s eye. Precocious, intelligent and forthright, the child was tutored in German, French, Latin, science, history and literature from infancy. Her grasp on politics and philosophy made Queen Victoria compare her heir ‘Bertie’ (King Edward VII) unfavourably with the Princess Royal.

Princess Victoria was the first of Queen Victoria’s nine children to marry. She met Prince Frederick first in 1851 when his parents Crown Prince Wilhelm and Princess Augusta visited the Great Exhibition. The Princess was ten and Prince Frederick twenty. The Prince asked for her hand at Balmoral in 1855 but was asked to wait until Princess Victoria was seventeen. Being of German extraction and politically liberal, Prince Albert supported the match but the Anglophobe Hohenzollern dynasty in Prussia were antagonistic towards a union with the high-handed British monarchy. Suspicions were confirmed when Queen Victoria insisted on a wedding in London commenting ‘whatever may be the usual practise of Prussian princes, it is not every day that one marries the eldest daughter of the Queen of England’.

Though the 1858 wedding in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace was a suitably grand affair – and the first occasion when Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was played – the British press were less than effusive. The Times dismissed the Hohenzollern’s as ‘a miserable dynasty’ headed by King Frederick Wilhelm IV who had suffered a stroke and become mentally incapacitated in the same year of the wedding. On arrival in Berlin, Princess Victoria was entirely at the mercy of Queen Elizabeth and Crown Princess Augusta. She was assigned a gloomy wing of the old Berlin Royal Palace and starved of money on the assumption that her wealthy parents would support the royal couple. They were also prevented from leaving Prussia.

Princess Victoria suffered a fatal blow within Prussian royal circles when she gave birth to Prince Wilhelm in 1859 whose arm was withered after a potentially fatal breech birth. As each of her eight children were born, the senior members of the Hohenzollern family insisted on taking over their education. Prince Wilhelm became the epitome of a proud, pugnacious Hohenzollern prince who would come to blame his mother for his deformity. Circumstances didn’t improve when, in 1861, Prince Frederick’s father Wilhelm I became emperor. In 1861 she lost her anchor, Prince Albert, to typhoid fever and gained an enemy in Prime Minister (and future Chancellor) Otto von Bismarck.

Now Crown Princess, Victoria who once felt overwhelmed by her mother’s relentless written advice now came to confide her many troubles to Queen Victoria. The pettiness of the Hohenzollern court verged on cruelty. Even her English garden at the palace of Sansoucci was criticised as unpatriotic. During the 1870 Austro-Prussian War the Crown Princess organised field hospitals for Prussian troops but was told by Queen Augusta to desist from her ‘theatre of charity’. When in 1871 Wilhelm I was declared Emperor of a unified Germany, Crown Prince Fritz and Princess Victoria were criticised for their liberal, pro-British ideas. The Crown Prince was put into ineffectual rule such as Curator of the Royal Museums.

The Times of London summarised their dilemma: ‘It is hard to imagine a more challenging role than the Crown Prince and his wife who are without a counsellor, between a coward monarch, an impetuous cabinet and an indignant public’. Crown Princess Victoria never ceased to search for a path towards modernising Germany when she finally did become empress: reading Marx, Darwin and Goete and criticizing the anti-Semitism endemic in Germany. She believed the regime ‘behave so hatefully towards people of a different faith and another race who have become an integral part (and by no mean the worst) of our nation’. She also supported education for women and founded a school based on the British model.

By 1887 when Emperor Wilhelm I was ninety, it was clear that he and Chancellor Bismarck were preparing the imperial grandson Prince Wilhelm for the throne. Crown Prince Frederick had already been diagnosed with throat cancer when he and Princess Victoria attended Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The Crown Prince secretly brought three boxes of documents to Windsor Castle to keep them out of the hands of Bismarck and Prince Wilhelm. Despite being treated in San Remo, Crown Prince Frederick lost the power of speech and refused doctors’ advice to remove a malignant tumour in his larynx.

A broken Emperor Frederick III began his ninety-day reign in 1888 that was unremarkable but for conferring his Empress with the Order of the Black Eagle. On his death, his son Kaiser Wilhelm II issued orders for all royal residences to be occupied by soldiers and the private quarters of his parents the former Emperor and Empress to be searched for subversive documents. The Empress Frederick was ejected from Berlin’s Neues Palace in Potsdam to make way for her son who lost little time in establishing an autocratic reign in direct opposition to the liberalism of his parents. The Kaiser continued to persecute his mother who retreated to the newly built palace of Friedrichshof. As her daughters married, the Empress Frederick became increasingly isolated and her son refused her any part in public life.

In 1898 the Empress Frederick was diagnosed with breast cancer and her decline was slow and painful. It was during a visit from her eldest brother, Bertie, that the Empress instructed her godson Frederick Ponsonby to smuggle all of the letters from Queen Victoria back to Windsor Castle. The 3000 letters exchanged between mother and daughter would have proved explosive if they reached the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Empress Frederick died in 1901 seven months after her mother Queen Victoria. She was buried next to her husband in a crypt in the Sansoucci Palace park. Her verdict on her son – ‘He is really smart for his age. If only he didn’t have that unfortunate arm, I would be so proud of him’ – might be the key to the character of the last Emperor of Germany.

(c) James Sherwood


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