Saturday, November 21, 2009

The English Empress

I am going to write a series about Queen Victoria's children. We will start with her eldest, Princess Vicky. I hope that you enjoy this series. Comments are welcome.

The English Empress

Pope Pius IX told the English representative in Rome, Lord Odo Russell, that “he was an old man, but in the whole course of his long life he had never been more favourably impressed by anyone than by her Royal Highness the Crown Princess of Prussia.” He was not the only one that Princess Vicky impressed, but unfortunately forces were against the ‘uncommon woman’ as Hannah Pakula called her and she led a tragic life.

Queen Victoria’s eldest child, little Princess Vicky startled her parents with her cleverness. She was Prince Albert’s delight and he loved to discuss his liberal beliefs and many different topics with the young princess. Queen Victoria got a little jealous at times of Prince Albert’s liking for this amazing daughter.

Vicky’s parents were keen to arrange a match for her to the German Prince, Frederick, for various reasons. He met her when she was only ten and he was much older. He was pleased when the princess spoke to him in fluent German. The Queen and Prince Albert liked this young man very much and hoped that the couple would fall in love later.

Vicky and Fritz did fall in love later and she married the handsome prince when she was only seventeen. Her parents were sorry to see her go to Germany and thought that she was very young to get married, but they also thought that the match was a very happy one. They were right and the couple did have a long and happy marriage.

The palace that the couple lived in was cold, draughty, old-fashioned, and without amenities. Queen Victoria liked new technologies and gadgets – she was one of the first to install bathrooms and tap-water. Princess Vicky was used to greater comforts and made her opinions known. She was inclined to say that ‘things were better in England.’ This didn’t go over well.

This discomfort was the least of the English princess’s troubles. Fritz shared her liberal philosophies but most of his family believed in autocracy. They were also used to fairly meek women and found the princess too clever. Vicky was shocked that most German women she met didn’t read the papers and had no interest in current events. She found them very ‘unenlightened’ compared with the English women that she was used to. The Prussian elite and Vicky’s in-laws were against ‘the English woman’ from the start.

Fritz was unfortunately rather weak compared with Vicky. His father became King William 1 in 1861 and preferred conservative and autocratic policies, even though many had hoped that he might be a more liberal King than his father. Vicky urged Fritz to stand up to his father but Fritz was very loyal and obedient so he found this difficult.

The Abdication Crisis
Soon after Vicky’s father died in 1861, an abdication crisis occurred. William couldn’t get his military reforms approved by the Landtag and he threatened to abdicate. He offered his son the throne but Fritz thought that his father looked like a “poor, broken old man” and that abdicating over a decision of parliament would set a dangerous precedent.

Vicky had other ideas. She wrote to Fritz that ‘he should make this sacrifice for his country’ and that if he didn’t, “I believe that you will regret it one day.” If the Crown Prince had become King then the course of history may well have changed.


The ambitious Otto van Bismarck, who believed in ruling by ‘blood and iron’, was appointed Prime Minister in 1862. Conservative and militaristic, he disliked Vicky and he disagreed with the couple’s liberal philosophies. He persecuted and defamed both of them almost until their deaths.

When Bismarck was appointed Prime Minister, a leader of the liberal Progressive Party “claimed that he would lead Prussia into ‘government without budget, rule by the sword in home affairs, and war in foreign affairs.’ The man was right on every count.” 1.

Soon after Princess Vicky’s beloved father died, Kaiser William 1, Frederick’s father, suppressed the freedom of the press. Frederick bravely made a speech in favour of the press but this was really the only time that he succeeded in standing up to his father who was ruled by Bismarck and the military.

Bismarck led Prussia into three wars – against Demark, Austria and France. The war with Denmark over the territories of Schleswig and Holstein greatly upset Princess Alexandra, Vicky’s sister-in-law, who came from Denmark, and caused trouble between the families.

Frederick fought in most of the wars and commanded one of Prussia’s three armies in the war against Austria. He received the Order of Merit for his leadership and gallantry in the Battle of Königgrätz. Frederick’s men loved and admired him, according to Hannah Pakula.

Vicky established hospitals, nursed the wounded herself, and devoted herself to charity work. She was much admired by the ordinary people but Bismarck and the Prussian elite always regarded her with suspicion and spread scandal about her.

Bismarck has been credited with the unification of Germany but Vicky thought that Fritz did far more work on this and his role was not recognized. Many historians agree with her but others think that Bismarck was largely responsible for the unification.

Frederick’s Reign
Frederick became King Frederick III after his father, William, died at 90 years old in 1888. Unfortunately, he was suffering from a terrible cancer of the larynx and endured mistreatment by his doctors. He only reigned for three months which wasn’t enough time to put his plans for constitutional reform into effect.

Vicky had had a tragic life. She suffered great grief when her sons, Sigismund and Waldemar died. Now she had to endure the death of her husband and the loss of her great hopes for her reign as well.

After Frederick’s DeathAfter Frederick’s death Vicky lived in Castle Freidrichshof near Kronberg and devoted herself to her charity work and furthering the cause of education for women by founding schools.

She knew that her son, now the Kaiser, had been brainwashed against her by the Prussian military and Bismarck, so she ensured that her letters to Queen Victoria were smuggled out of Germany to England by Edward VII’s private secretary, Frederick Ponsonby. Indeed, William II did have Vicky’s residence searched for her documents.

Vicky died of breast cancer in 1901 at only sixty years of age. She was a brave and strong woman who devoted herself to changing her adopted country for the better.

1. Pakula, Hannah, An Uncommon Woman, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1996.


MadMonarchist said...

Poor Vicky! European history might have been vastly different if she had had her way -better or worse, who can say? I can understand her having an idealized view of her husband but I don't think he had the scheming mind of Bismarch that was needed to unite Germany. I also don't think Vicky's misfortunes were the result of just Bismarck or her father-in-law or a case of her son being "brainwashed". I think she was trying to bring a greater liberalism into a country where the prevailing political culture was a very militant, conservative, autocratic one and she simply could not change all of that on her own in one lifetime, so I tend to see her as more of a doomed character than a thwarted one. Even had all gone well for her I can't see her fully turning early Wilhelmine Germany into a continental version of Victorian England.

Kittie Howard said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Vicky...actually, I've never read a one-stop history of Victoria's children and look forward to your future entries. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Anonymous said...

Dear Viola,

What a well researched and written article about the English Empress. And what a wonderfully courageous and charitable Lady she was.In fact, now that I finally have a little time, it is a treat visiting this blog. Your in-depth knowledge and ability to convey it in such a lovely way is wonderful. Thank you; I will be back.

Hels said...

It is difficult to think of Germany being a "foreign" nation, isn't it? Vicky's mother was from a German dynasty and Vicky's father was himself a German immigrant to Britain as a young man. Vicky of course spoke fluent German herself, as you noted.

Yet it seems that a large part of her difficulties came from her being seen as a well read, socially involved and relatively liberal British woman.

Viola said...

Thank you so much for your kind comments, everyone. It is very sweet of you to give me so much praise, Angelique!

Mad Monarchist, I can't help wondering sometimes if Queen Victoria would have had better luck with the Germans. After Bismarck had a long conversation with her he said: "What a woman!" Even he couldn't get anywhere with her, apparently. Vicky was very strong but I think that her mother was even stronger. Still, Vicky's main trouble was her husband, I think. He was too obedient.

Hels, I agree that it is hard to think of Germany as 'foreign'. The English, especially the aristocracy, were so close to them that the First World War must have been a terrible shock. Many of them went to stay with German families to receive a European 'finishing' after school.
Cynthia Asquith is one example.

I was a little surprised that Vicky was so well-educated and well-read because there is so much fuss made about the 'place of women' in Victorian society. According to Vicky most British women read newspapers. She was used to upper-class women, of course.

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