Queen Victoria of England is a titan of history, and anyone following in her footsteps had terrifying shoes to fill. Enter: Her daughter, Princess Victoria, who went to agonizing lengths to make her mother proud and became an Empress of Prussia in the process. Tragically, this Princess Royal’s rise ended with an enormous crash.
Princess Victoria came into the world on November 21, 1840. Only, this was bad news. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England were deeply disappointed to find out their first born was a daughter, not a son. Heck, even the attending doctor was bummed, saying sadly to the queen, “Oh Madame, it’s a girl!” Not a good start to what was supposed to be a charmed royal life, and as we’ll see, the bad times only continued.
Despite these rocky beginnings, the little girl developed a close bond with her father Prince Albert; he and the family lovingly called her “Vicky” for the rest of her life. Her powerful mother, however, was a different story. Although Queen Victoria loved her daughter in her own way, their relationship was chilly and distant. Heads up: That came back to bite them, big time.
Growing up in the royal palace, Vicky had to meet excruciatingly high expectations. Not only did her parents expect her to be the perfect “Princess Royal,” they also insisted she undergo an extremely rigorous education, with her father Albert even literally writing a book on the subject of educating his heirs. Uh, but this got more absurd.
Although Prince Albert and Queen Victoria had really specific ideas about how to train their children, not all of those ideas were right. The hoity-toity couple had zero clue about childhood development milestones, and the queen once admonished the teething baby Vicky for sucking on bracelets, since she thought it meant her girl had a “deficient education.”
Wow, I can tell we’re in for a wild ride when it comes to this family.
With a childhood like that, it’s no wonder Vicky grew into a massive over-achiever. The sharp, curious girl spent most of her days learning everything from arithmetic to philosophy, and took on liberal ideas. She even started to learn French at 18 months old and German when she was four. After all, how else was she going to please mommy and daddy? In a few short years, this paid off in a surprising way.
Vicky’s parents also knew she had to make a stunning match on the marriage market to keep up the value of her pedigree. But this is where it got creepy. When the girl was just 11 years old, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria started eyeing up the 19-year-old Prince Frederick William, a scion of the kingdom of Prussia, as a potential match. As it happened, the matchmaking went a little too well.
In 1851, Victoria—who was, yep, still 11 years old—met Frederick for the first time at The Great Exhibition in London. Grossly enough, the pre-teen and the grown man got along “very well,” with our quick, eager-to-please little Vicky showing off her fluent German, conversing with Frederick in his native tongue while he could only speak a few words of English.
This started one of the greatest predatory—uh, I mean stirring, romances of the Victorian era.
As soon as Frederick returned to Germany, he struck up a long-distance correspondence with Vicky, and the two exchanged letters for four long years. Even as a tween, Vicky could already hold her own, and their messages grew more intimate over the years…until, that is, Prince Frederick simply couldn’t take it any longer.
In 1855, Frederick made the trip back to Great Britain, ostensibly for diplomatic reasons. But everyone knew the reason he was really there. He was head over heels for his long-distance girlfriend, and he had come specifically to see her and decide if she would make a good wife in his own realm. Still, this wasn’t necessarily good news.
On Frederick’s side of things, Prussia was absolutely outraged at his little English crush. Many people at court believed in an absolute monarchy, while Great Britain was a “weaker” constitutional monarchy. So instead of some lily-livered British woman, Prussia wanted Frederick to marry a full-blooded Russian Archduchess.
This was bad enough, but when Frederick landed across the channel to visit the royal family, this Romeo and Juliet story got even more complicated.
When the lovelorn Frederick visited this time, Vicky was 15-years-old and (slightly) more acceptable as an object of marital affection. But there was one unsettling problem. Standing at a measly 4 feet, 11 inches short and with a big, round face like her mother’s, the Princess Royal wasn’t an ideal “beauty” of the era. Indeed, Queen Victoria considered her daughter’s looks so offensive, she worried that Frederick would get one glimpse of her and walk away. That’s not what happened at all.
Absence must really make the heart grow fonder, because Vicky and the Prince hit it off immediately again in person. After just three days with the family, Frederick sealed the deal and asked the monarchs for their daughter’s hand in marriage. They said yes, though they thankfully insisted the couple wait until Vicky was 17 to tie the knot.
The fairy tale had been four long years in the making. Yet little did they know, it would turn into a nightmare.
Usually, the announcement of a royal wedding is met with excitement throughout the nation, but Vicky was in for a huge disappointment. If the Prussian people weren’t so hot on her as a bride, the Brits hated Frederick even more as a groom, calling his family a “miserable dynasty” in the press. Was this foreshadowing? You bet.
Even the lead-up to Vicky’s wedding was full of controversy. The British royal family was at loggerheads with Frederick’s stubborn and much more traditional parents, Wilhelm and Augusta. When Vicky requested to bring two of her own ladies-in-waiting with her to the foreign land, the answer back from Berlin was a cold “Nein.” As the wedding approached, the family feud only heated up.
Prince Frederick’s family wanted to do everything their way, and they insisted that Victoria, Princess Royal and he get married in Berlin, in full view of the Prussian court. The response back was brutal. Queen Victoria put her darn foot down on that little indignity, and the daunting woman got her way, setting the wedding in St. James’s Palace in London.
On January 25, 1858, Frederick and Vicky finally got married, with the bride wearing a flouncing Honiton lace confection complete with an enormous three-yard train and delicate wreaths of orange and myrtle blossoms. Once the staunchly English ceremony was over, however, Vicky whisked herself off to Berlin—and it was there her real troubles started.
Frederick and Vicky were young, in love, and probably raring to kick-start a blissful honeymoon period. Fate, however, had more bitter plans in store. After years of sniping between Great Britain and Prussia, the German court fully despised Vicky, and she endured open insults from many members of Frederick’s extensive family. In true catty style, though, they dealt their worst strike without saying a single word…
At this point, Frederick’s uncle King Frederick William IV was the ruler of Prussia, and he gave the newlyweds a chilly reception—almost literally. Upon their arrival, the king posted them up in a derelict wing of the Berlin Royal Palace, a section of the building that was so shabby and outdated, it didn’t even have a bath. Only, that wasn’t all.
Vicky’s mother-in-law Princess Augusta took the opposite of a shining to her daughter-in-law. Although the two women both held liberal views, Augusta preferred to criticize Vicky about the pettiest things rather than converse with her on philosophy. When Vicky once decided to take a modern landau coach out on the town, Augusta sniped that she should have taken the statelier barouche.
Though only 17 years old and in a completely new country, the Berlin court expected Vicky to endure a grueling schedule of traditional pomp and circumstance, including appearing at formal dinners and public performances every night, usually staying past midnight. Then she would have to wake up at the crack of dawn, get dressed in full regalia, and greet people at 7:00 AM.
Besides all this, Vicky’s endless duties were utterly thankless. King Frederick Wilhelm gave his nephew Prince Frederick a paltry allowance for his troubles, and the amount was so meagre that Vicky often had to dip into her own dowry to keep her and her husband in a presentable state. This gruelling existence had to take a toll on the young girl, and it soon showed…
As a 17-year-old bride, Vicky was nothing if not dutiful, and less than a year into her marriage, the teenager was pregnant. The Prussian court couldn’t take that away from her, and Vicky started nesting up a storm in preparation for the heir on the way. In late January 1859, she went into labor—and then the nightmare started.
From the very moment Vicky started feeling contractions, everything went wrong. The maid who was supposed to get the doctors delayed doing her duties, and when the medics finally did come, it didn’t get better. Vicky was “embarrassingly” just in a flannel nightgown, and they hesitated to examine her. It spiraled down from there.
The ineptness of the attendants was one thing, but Vicky was in even graver danger. As it turned out, her baby was in breech position, which made the delivery long, complicated, and near fatal for both her and her unborn child. When the doctors finally did deliver a living baby boy, they breathed a sigh of relief…and then they caught their breath.
When Vicky caught sight of her son, her relief turned into a profound sense of despair. Throughout the excruciating birth, the baby—who Vicky named Wilhelm—had suffered nerve damage around his shoulder, and had possibly even experiences a lack of oxygen to his brain for an incredible 10 minutes. Vicky’s response was heartbreaking.
When Vicky saw the extent of her baby’s injuries, doctors had to do all that they could to calm the new mother and assure her the newborn would recover from his complications. Sadly, they were wrong. The trauma would eventually wither little Wilhelm’s left arm and make it a full 15 centimeters shorter than his right arm. Shocked and disbelieving, the royal couple had to make a gut-wrenching decision.
Vicky couldn’t stand the thought of announcing to the horrible Prussian court that she had somehow failed in her first task of motherhood. Instead, she and Frederick lied about little Wilhelm’s true condition, keeping it secret. Vicky only told her own parents after four long months, when it was clear Wilhelm would never get better.
At the time, it must have seemed like the worst thing that would ever happen to her. Yet as we’ll see, she would be very, very wrong.
Over the course of her very fruitful marriage to Frederick, Vicky had an astounding eight children, including Wilhelm—the future Kaiser Wilhelm II—and her eldest daughter Charlotte. In a somewhat ironic twist, none of Vicky’s labors were as tormented as her first; her experience with her girl Charlotte was downright smooth. Still, that didn’t mean she was happy…
As Wilhelm grew up, Vicky showed some disturbing tendencies. Vicky was desperate for her son to be “normal,” and insisted that he learn to ride a horse perfectly, even though his arm made it nearly impossible to balance. As Wilhelm later recalled, “The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother.” Oh, but she didn’t stop there.
Because of his nerve damage, Wilhelm’s head tended to tilt to one side, and Vicky couldn’t have that, either. She put her eldest child through extremely painful electroshock therapy in a misguided attempt to “correct” the imbalance. Then, when it failed to work to her satisfaction, she moved on to even more drastic measures.
Perhaps the most vile thing Vicky came up with to “cure” her son was to give him “animal baths,” a straight-up barbaric procedure where Wilhelm dunked his withered arm into a squelchy tub of animal entrails on a regular basis. Unlike electroshock therapy, this method doesn’t even seem to have a clear reason behind it, unless that reason is “gross me out as much as possible.”
In 1861, another horrific tragedy came knocking at Vicky’s door. Her beloved father Prince Albert passed suddenly of typhoid fever, throwing England and her mother into a state of paralyzing mourning from which neither would ever recover. Devastated, Vicky went back to the United Kingdom for the funeral and to support Queen Victoria. When she returned to Prussia, it soon all collapsed in on itself.
The liberal-minded Vicky insisted on raising her younger children herself, even when both her mother Queen Victoria and her mother-in-law Augusta protested. She also refused to leave on long diplomatic trips, afraid she would miss her children too much. Well, this only made the heartache that was to come all the more tragic.
Vicky’s fourth child was the bouncing baby boy Sigismund, but the innocent babe met a dark fate. In 1866, when he was just 21 months old, Sigismund succumbed to a fatal case of meningitis. Vicky was beside herself with grief; it was her first child to go, and the first of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. But that wasn’t even the worst part.
Although Vicky was deep in mourning for her lost son, no one else seemed to be. Even when another son, Waldemar, passed in 1879, she received almost no sympathy from anyone in the Prussian court. Even her own mother, Queen Victoria, was too overcome with grief for Prince Albert, and considered losing a husband much worse than losing a child.
A Vicky’s brood grew up, unsettling issues began to show themselves. Although Vicky had wanted her children to have her own liberal education, she accidentally hired an enormously autocratic tutor. The man quickly taught Wilhelm to embrace his right to divine rule, and blast anyone who got in his way. Vicky was aghast, but she had bigger problems to worry about…
During this time, Prussia was an absolute mess, and Vicky and Frederick were smack dab in the middle. Frederick’s father, now the king, nearly had to abdicate, all while the country plunged into conflict after conflict. To top it all off, hatred of Vicky was at an all-time high. Things were about to hit a breaking point—and Vicky’s personal life was first on the chopping block.
Even when Vicky tried to make the Prussian court like her, it always blew up in her face. During the seemingly endless conflicts the country was involved it, Vicky showed pluck by helping build her own military hospital and tending to the wounded. The response? Scorn. Frederick’s father demanded she stop with her “theater of charity.” Still, that wasn’t the only blow the Emperor of Prussia dealt Vicky and her husband.
As Vicky’s son Wilhelm grew into a brash, militant German, the aging Emperor decided to let the young whippersnapper attend public events for him. Though that sounds nice, it really wasn’t. The elder ruler did it to explicitly exclude Vicky’s husband Frederick from duties, even though he was next in line for the throne. Yeah, this is going nowhere good.
Vicky could try all she wanted, the Germans were never going to like her, and there was one disturbing reason for their hatred. As time wore on, Prussia only got more autocratic in its rule, all while Vicky and Frederick clung to their rather liberal ideas about a constitutional monarchy. Then, overnight, the game got fatally dangerous.
In 1887, Frederick’s father Emperor William was an astonishing 90 years old and becoming increasingly frail. Everybody in the Prussian court knew he was going to go soon, and everybody knew Frederick was due to become King in his stead. Nobody, however, was ready to accept this reality—and they came up with a nefarious plot.
As time wore on, a group of Vicky’s enemies planned to bar her and Frederick from becoming Emperor and Empress. Their plan was chilling. They would stage a coup, put Vicky’s son Wilhelm on the throne, and exile her back to Britain under threat of execution if she ever returned. This never came to pass…because something much more tragic happened.
Just as Vicky’s husband Frederick came close to his rightful throne, his health started to decline, and he began to experience a strange hoarseness in his throat. By November 1887, he couldn’t even speak. Eventually, doctors diagnosed him with a malignant tumor and urged him to remove it through surgery. His response was surprising.
Despite the fact that removing the tumor was Frederick’s only chance for survival, both he and Vicky refused any treatment. It caused a massive explosion in their personal life. Their children were appalled, and Wilhelm even travelled to see them just to accuse his mother of being “happy” that Frederick was so gravely ill. Nonetheless, the royal couple didn’t back down—and it created one of the most bizarre circumstances in German history.
On March 9, 1888, Frederick’s father William finally passed, officially anointing Vicky and her husband as the Empress and Emperor. Yet it was a beginning that was also an end: Fredrick was so far gone at this point and the Grim Reaper so close, Vicky admitted that they were really just "shadows ready to be replaced” by her son Wilhelm. The end may have been near, but Vicky still went out fighting.
Vicky had been an A+ student all her life, and she was smart enough to protect herself and her legacy. Just before Frederick took the throne, she secreted away three boxes of sensitive personal documents to Windsor Castle in England, hoping she could keep them away from the prying eyes of her enemies. She would soon be very glad she did.
In the end, Vicky and Frederick ruled for a meager 99 days. Frederick conserved every breath and every ounce of his energy, but he still passed on June 15, 1888, just months after his father. His passing made way at last for Wilhelm to become Emperor in his own right—and he immediately dealt his mother a heartbreaking betrayal.
It’s safe to say that Vicky and Wilhelm never saw eye to eye, but the new Emperor wasted no time showing his displeasure. As soon as he took the crown, Wilhelm let his soldiers loose on the imperial residence and ransacked his parents’ private rooms, looking for anything that might incriminate him, them, or the country.
Of course, thanks to Vicky’s quick thinking, we already know he found nothing; it was all in Windsor Castle. Yet that didn’t mean Wilhelm didn’t punish her in other ways.
With Frederick gone, Vicky was now merely a Dowager Empress, and Wilhelm made darn sure she didn’t forget her demotion. He kicked her out of the palace and kept her almost entirely excluded from society, even passing her over for traditional dowager duties like becoming a patron of the German Red Cross. Don’t worry, though, Vicky got him back.
Even in her later years, Vicky never hesitated to knock Wilhelm down a peg. When the traveling Emperor wrote in a foreign guestbook, “The will of the king is the supreme law," Vicky didn’t mince words about his weird tourist flex. Writing to her mother, she referred to fallen kings of yore, sneering, “The Tsar, an infallible Pope, a Bourbon or our poor Charles I might have pronounced that phrase, but a monarch of the 19th century…”
Throughout Vicky’s early years at the Prussian court, Queen Victoria was no help at all. Instead of commiserating with her daughter, the Queen reprimanded Vicky for caving too much into the Prussian demands, saying she was a British princess first and foremost. In other words, Vicky was getting it from both sides. And that wasn’t all.
One of the biggest sticking points for poor Vicky came when the Duchess of Orleans, a distant relative of both her and her husband’s family, passed. Sure, that doesn’t seem like the biggest deal—but it turned into an absolute horror. British protocol dictated a month of mourning, while the Prussians only dressed in black for a week. Well, Vicky made the wrong choice.
When Vicky decided to go with her husband’s family and only dress in mourning for seven days, her Imperial mother Queen Victoria rained hellfire down on her, berating her as not English enough. Vicky was so devastated by her mother’s criticism, her father Prince Albert had to insist that the Queen stop writing demanding letters.
As a young teenager in Frederick’s chilly court, Vicky tried her best to make herself at home by taking up gardening, a hobby she’d enjoyed in England. It backfired horribly. While English-style gardens were geometric and simple, the Prussians preferred more ornate greenery, and took Vicky’s tastes as yet another affront.
Vicky’s faux-pas kick-started the “Anglo-Prussian garden war,” a subterranean battle for the palace’s leafy greens. Yes, these people really had nothing better to do.
By 1898, Vicky’s own health failed her, and she was suffering from terminal cancer. But she had one scandalous dying wish. Terrified once more that her son would use her private letters against her, she spirited her more recent messages back to England again via a complicated cloak-and-dagger operation and a willing godson. The GOAT, people.
While Wilhelm gave her tension headaches, Vicky’s daughter Charlotte was a whole other ball game. Temperamental, a compulsive gossip, and a nasty prankster, many historians believe Charlotte had porphyria, a hereditary illness that ran through the British monarchy. If this is true, it may also reveal a deep secret about Vicky herself.
Throughout her time as a Princess of Germany, Vicky suffered from strange headaches and skin rashes, and she tended to self-medicate these problems with a hefty dose of morphine. Today, some experts believe that Vicky may have had her own mild form of porphyria, since the illness could also explain this collection of symptoms.
The thing is, Vicky may have had a very good reason to hide her letters from Wilhelm. Some of her missives were so scathing, they’re impossible to forget. In one she wrote to her parents when Wilhelm was young, Vicky confessed, "He is really smart for his age...if only he didn't had that unfortunate arm, I would be so proud of him.” Yikes, Vicks.
The last years of Vicky’s life transformed the spitfire Dowager into a shade of her former self. Her cancer kept her confined to her bed, yet she still held onto life. It was only years later, on August 5, 1901, that the Princess Royal and Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter passed at the age of 60. Unfortunately, she had one brutal legacy left.
In the end, Wilhelm really should have listened to his mother. After decades of autocratic rule and the outbreak of WWI, Wilhelm was the last Emperor of Germany. In 1918, he lost all support and power and had to flee to exile in the Netherlands. Yep, Wilhelm finally found out that the will of the king was not supreme law…But his mother Vicky could have told him that.
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