Monday, September 3, 2012

Consort Profile: Empress Frederick ("Vicky") of Great Britain

The second German Empress consort, Victoria, has been, and probably always will be, at the center of one of the great “might have been” stories of European history. The eldest daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, she was born on November 21, 1840 in Buckingham Palace as HRH Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa and was baptized in the throne room by the Archbishop of Canterbury on February 10, 1841. Her godparents were Queen Adelaide (who her mother had always been fond of), King Leopold I of the Belgians, her grandfather Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Duke of Sussex, the Duchess of Gloucester and her grandmother the Duchess of Kent. That same year, as the eldest daughter of the family, she was given the title of Princess Royal, though, from the start, she was known amongst the family simply as “Vicky”. She was a lively and very intelligent child and took naturally to the rigorous educational program that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert insisted on for her. She was greatly attached to her parents and much influenced by them, taking the dignified, majestic style of her mother and the liberal ideas of her father as her example. So, as she grew up, she was outspoken, rather grand and very progressive in her thinking. As was customary, she did not have to wait long before her marriage was being planned.

For Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, whose marriage was such a success, German matches were preferred and amongst the German states, or at least the Protestant ones (the Queen was not terribly fond of the Hapsburgs), none were so powerful or rapidly rising as the Kingdom of Prussia. It certainly did not hurt that the Prussians, at the time, were old allies of the British. The dashing young Crown Prince Frederick was a natural choice. The two first met in 1851 when Prince Wilhelm I and his family came at the invitation of Queen Victoria to attend the opening of the Great Exhibition. The two took well to each other from the start and the Prince proposed in 1855 while visiting the Princess Royal at Balmoral. She was a girl of fourteen but already solid in her own opinions and view of the world while he was a young and ambitious man of twenty-four. Still, it was not until 1857 that the British and Prussian courts announced the engagement and the two were married the following year at St James’s Palace. This rather upset some of the Prussians who assumed the wedding would be held in their own country, considering that the Princess Royal was joining the Prussian Royal Family, but Queen Victoria would not hear of such a thing. They had high hopes for their daughter and expected her to have influence in Prussia that would set it on a new course for the future.

Happily, the marriage was not solely political. Frederick and Victoria loved each other deeply and sincerely. This relationship would continue throughout their married life with “Vicky” determined to follow the example of her parents and be an equal partner with her husband rather than a secondary figure. “Fritz” was totally in agreement with his wife and with her liberal ideas that were certainly not dominant in the House of Hohenzollern. However, the new Princess did not have an entirely easy time starting her married life. She found Prussia substandard to Great Britain in every way and was not bashful about saying so, complaining about everything from the royal accommodations (which, compared to Britain, seemed positively Spartan) to the architecture of the buildings. She detested the Prussian emphasis on the army, which was something she was not used to. However, it was to be expected considering that Prussia owed its existence to her matchless army and no Prussian was about to forget that. Yet, this was all part of the new direction that “Vicky” hoped to influence, moving Prussia away from the tradition of “Warrior Kings” in favor of a new line of enlightened executives. Obviously, with such views, and supported by her husband, “Vicky” was bound to clash with the rising force of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In 1859 the royal couple welcomed their first child into the world, Prince Wilhelm, but it was a traumatic affair that left the child somewhat disabled, “a cripple” as she wrote to her mother and like her mother she was not a fan of childbirth. Still, over the years she had eight children though one died at less than a year old and another at the age of 11. For “Vicky”, her own upbringing shows in her relationships toward her own children. Queen Victoria was a very strict mother and was rather critical of her oldest daughter (Prince Albert, on the other hand, spoiled her) and the seemingly unkind comments “Vicky” made about her firstborn were not that different from the way Queen Victoria often spoke of “Vicky” as being something of an ‘ugly duckling’. “Vicky” was a more “hands-on” mother but still very strict in what she expected of her children and, sadly, her favorites tended to be the ones who died. Her eldest son (and daughter) would cause her a great deal of frustration over the course of her life, also in part because of the efforts of both her father-in-law and Bismarck to see the boy brought up in a more Prussian and authoritarian style whereas she preferred something, perhaps best described as more “British”.

In January of 1861 King Friedrich Wilhelm IV died and his brother succeeded him as King Wilhelm I, making Friedrich and Victoria the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia. Father and son did not always see eye-to-eye and “Vicky” tended to be blamed for this as many in the Prussian court saw her as simply the tool of Britain, a mouthpiece for Prince Albert and someone intent on turning Prussia into a continental version of England. Crown Princess Victoria, on the other hand, envisioned Prussia taking a leadership role in the unification of the German states but, unlike the vision of Bismarck, to create a united Germany based on liberal ideals of freedom, democracy, representative government and firmly defined constitutional monarchy. Her view of monarchy was one in which monarchs guided, advised and helped rather than issuing decrees, deciding on policy or becoming involved in politics. For the most part, the Crown Prince agreed with her but few others did. King Wilhelm I was reluctant on the idea of unification and becoming German Kaiser at all and while Bismarck did favor unification, he wanted it based on the existing ruling princes rather than on an elected assembly. Because of her support for a united Germany, she supported the wars her husband fought in to bring this about, despite her dislike of the army and the direction Bismarck was taking things. Thus it was slightly bitter-sweet when, in 1871, the German Empire was born, under Prussian leadership, in the manner Bismarck had designed.

Still, the Crown Princess continued proudly on, though she detested what she viewed as the successful efforts of Bismarck and the newly proclaimed Kaiser Wilhelm I to turn her son against her and his father. She remained confident that when her husband became Kaiser everything she saw as wrong could be put right. Unfortunately for her, she was not to be given that opportunity. In 1888 Kaiser Wilhelm I died and the Crown Prince succeeded him as Kaiser Friedrich III, however, at that time he was he already stricken with throat cancer and lived only a few months longer, “Vicky” ever at his side, devotedly caring for him and doing her best to shelter him from Prince Bismarck. After he breathed his last, Empress Frederick, as she became known, was outraged by the conduct of her son; the new Kaiser Wilhelm II. Troops were sent in to seal off the palace, papers were confiscated and onlookers said that Wilhelm II had taken the throne in the manner of a palace coup. Empress Frederick would never forgive him. Although tensions eased somewhat overtime, she was never extremely supportive of her son and his endeavors. This, however, was not due to coldness but to her very firm principles of how she saw “right” and “wrong”. She remained ever devoted to her liberal ideas, and as far as she was concerned, she was right and her son was wrong. The fact that he was her son made no difference to her view of his policies and behavior. She devoted to herself to the memory of her late husband and stayed ever closer to her British relatives. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1899 and, after a great deal of suffering, she died in her castle, Friedrichshof, on August 5, 1901.

The Empress Frederick remains very much a figure of discussion and debate even today. Those ill-disposed toward Kaiser Wilhelm II often champion the cause of his mother who might have greatly changed history were it not for the tragic death of Kaiser Friedrich III. Perhaps together, her influence could have created a more liberal, limited monarchy for the united Germany and perhaps the horrors of World War I might have been avoided. We can never know, of course, but that tends to be the assumption of her modern-day admirers. There is plenty of room for debate. Could Prussia, and the rest of Germany, at such a point in history, successfully carry off such a radical change in direction? Perhaps such efforts would have led to division, disorder or even civil war. Again, we can never know and neither side can say what would have happened. It is though, probably, safe to say that the course of German history would have been very different if “Vicky” had had her way.


  1. It wouldm already have helpen if she had brought up her son a bit different, perhaps less strickt and more encouraging...

  2. Unfortunately, she did not get that chance as her FIL took over his (& Charlotte's) upbringing. From what I read she had little input. Just like her cousin, Queen Marie of Romania with Prince Carlos.

    Julie Gelardi's book, 'In Triumph's Wake' really goes into much detail. She also discuss Marie Antoinette & Queen Catherine of England, former Princess Catarina of Spain. It's a very good book on the "failures" or "troubles" that the first born daughter of successful queens, had.


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