Queen Victoria’s eldest granddaughter, Princess Charlotte of Prussia, had it all, including a vicious mystery disease that made her life miserable. Even so, she presented herself as a charming, honey-voiced hostess—a busy social bee with a nasty sting. Perhaps if she’d been born to better health she would not have been famous for being a resentful daughter, a neglectful mother, and a two-faced gossip whose wicked rumors rocked high society. Let’s spill the tea on how she quickly earned her reputation as Berlin’s original Mean Girl.
Born on July 24th, 1860, to parents Prince Frederick William of Prussia and Victoria, Princess Royal, Charlotte’s arrival into the world was a cause for celebration. Her mother, known as Vicky to the family, had suffered a traumatic labor with Charlotte’s older brother Wilhelm 19 months prior. The easy birth of a healthy baby girl was surely a sign of better days to come.
Unfortunately, fate had other plans.
Queen Victoria wanted her first granddaughter to be named after her, but the Prussian side of the family insisted she be named after Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, born a Charlotte. Vicky and her in-laws had been routinely sticking it to each other for years, but to keep the peace, she named the new princess Viktoria Elisabeth Auguste Charlotte, thereafter to be known as Princess Charlotte or Charly.
Charlotte was a princess, but she was no angel. The young royal was prone to fits of agitation and nervous traits such as biting her nails and constantly pulling on her clothes. She was forced to wear gloves and had her pockets sewn shut to stop her from fidgeting. When that didn't work, her parents resorted to drastic measures: They made her stand in the corner with her hands tied together.
None of these corrective measures did any good. In fact, things only got worse.
Much to the embarrassment of her poised and proper mother, little Charlotte began having outbursts of rage and wild tantrums. Queen Victoria was not amused. Princess Charlotte's behavior appalled her, and she warned, “Grandmama does not like naughty little girls.” Little did she know, there might have been a sinister cause to Charlotte's fits.
In the 1990s, DNA tests performed on Princess Charlotte’s remains found evidence of porphyria, a genetic disease with a long list of nasty symptoms. Not only would this account for Charlotte’s hyperactivity, but during her life, she also complained of excruciating pain, digestive troubles, bouts of lameness, blisters on her skin, and dark red urine. But sure, as a little girl, she should’ve smiled more...
Ahh, that small gene pool! Porphyria is suspected to have plagued many members of the royal family, including Margaret Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots. Most famously, King George III suffered a series of symptomatic attacks. These not only included intense physical pain, but bouts of rambling obscenities and hallucinations that earned him the moniker of “The Mad King.”
Princess Charlotte evidently didn't have it as bad as her ancestor—but erratic behavior would trouble her for her entire life.
With Princess Charlotte's father being a loving but absent husband, her mother took the lead in raising the kids. Besides their homes in Potsdam and Berlin, Vicky purchased a farm so that her brood could enjoy the pleasures of country life, determined to foster a love of British culture by replicating as best she could her own English upbringing. But Charlotte wasn't going to make it easy...
Princess Charlotte was...not the brightest bulb. An indifferent student, her mother once sniped: “Stupidity isn’t a sin but it renders education a...difficult task.” Vicky demanded top marks and made her disappointment evident with harsh criticism she hoped might at least prevent vanity. All Charlotte learned was resentment, and it would only deepen over time.
The childhood deaths of brothers Sigismund and Waldemar from meningitis and diphtheria caused a rift between siblings that would never heal—and it was all their mother's fault. Imagine Charlotte and her brothers Wilhelm and Henry witnessing their grief-stricken mother ditch her strict parenting ways to devote herself to indulging sisters Viktoria, Sophie, and Margaret. Let a lifetime of envious stink-eyes commence!
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At least Charlotte’s paternal grandparents, King Wilhelm and Queen Augusta, spoiled her rotten. They even scandalously egged on her rebellious attitude towards her parents, whose preference for British liberalism over autocratic rule was distinctly anti-Prussian. Under their influence, she and her eldest brother Wilhelm grew thick as thieves, habitually joining forces against their parents in family disputes. And the family drama was only going to get worse.
By age 14, Princess Charlotte still looked and behaved like a ten-year-old. Very thin and with short legs and a long waist and arms, Charlotte seemed shorter when standing versus sitting—if she could sit still at all. Most people considered her a plain sort of pretty, but it’s fair to say frequent insomnia made beauty rest hard to come by. She’d have to do the best with what she had.
What Charlotte may have lacked in looks, she made up in confidence. As she became a more prominent figure at court, she quickly gained a scandalous reputation: She was the royal family's most mischievous flirt. She wanted to find freedom from her parents’ restrictive household and likely thought that finding a husband would be her easiest way out. Guess what? It worked!
At 16, Charlotte fell for her second cousin, the shy, well-educated Prince Bernhard, heir to the German Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen. Their meet-cute was worthy of Nora Ephron: The story goes that while out joyriding with Wilhelm and their cousin, the car sped up and Charlotte clutched Bernhard’s arm in fright. This impulse buy of at least one ticket to the gun show was all it took and soon they were engaged.
Bernhard was nine years Charlotte’s senior, and though he was an officer and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, most people considered him weak-willed. An intellectual with a passion for archaeology, poetry, and translating German literature into Greek, he was perhaps a better lover of the arts than a fighter, but opposites attract—and then they say I do.
Charlotte and Bernhard’s double wedding with Princess Elisabeth Anna of Prussia and Grand Duke Augustus of Oldenburg was like the Oscars of 1878. Press gathered with crowds of thousands to document red carpet arrivals of the stars of European royalty and to swoon over Charlotte’s tearful, award-worthy parting scene with her family—and the party only got wilder after the ceremony.
Why have one wedding reception when you can whoop it up for five days straight? Over the course of a week’s worth of festivities, which included command performances and sumptuous palace feasts, Charlotte apparently partied so hard that she fainted three times. She needed to build up her stamina—and boy, would she ever.
The new couple settled in Potsdam where Charlotte began entertaining the who’s who of high society. They also purchased a villa in the chic city of Cannes, hoping the warm climate would alleviate her rheumatism. There were unforeseen consquences, however: Wilhelm, who viewed France as an enemy country, flipped his lid. Charlotte would learn the hard way that angering her brother was never a good idea.
The newlywed saw her newfound freedom grind to a halt when, only months into her marriage, she became pregnant. Charlotte detested the restrictions placed on her during her pregnancy and, despite her young age, vowed never to have another child. True to her word, Princess Feodora, born May 12th, 1879, would be an only child—and a neglected one to boot.
Charlotte had few maternal instincts and was indifferent towards her little girl. Itching to get back to her thrilling social life, she and Bernhard frequently took long trips just the two of them. They left little Feodora with governesses or, more often than not, dropped her off on Vicky’s doorstep to take advantage of a convenient babysitter. History was about to repeat itself.
Whether Charlotte was around to notice or not, Feodora took after her in more ways than one. She too had signs of porphyria, suffering from chronic pain and migraines. She was an equally terrible student, difficult, and quick to find fault with others. One would think Charlotte might’ve had more sympathy for her lonely mini-me daughter, but there were other relationships that seemed to matter more.
Charlotte’s closeness with her brother Wilhelm hit the skids when he married Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, known as Dona, in 1881. For once, her brother couldn’t care less about her opinion - which was that Dona, with her glued-on smile and holier-than-thou attitude, was a dull pill. If you can’t say something nice, be prepared for revenge. But in the meantime...
Charlotte and Bernhard moved to Berlin and their home became the party place to be. The upper crust of a glamorous social set regularly dropped in for dinner parties and wild game nights. Prussia's most powerful would drink, dine, and dish the fabulous dirt, much to the disapproval of the ever-pregnant Dona. It was all fun and games—until those who were hosted found themselves roasted.
Charlotte was a vicious gossip who lived to crank the rumor mill. The Regina George of her day, she befriended people just to gain their trust, encouraging them to share their secrets, and then spreading them to others. She even kept a "burn" book in the form of a diary. Little did she realize, her little black book would eventually play a pivotal role in one of German high society’s juiciest scandals—but more about that later.
Charlotte reveled in the attention her fashion choices won her. She spent lavishly on her wardrobe, importing all of her dresses from Paris to arouse jealousy in her Berlin friends and no doubt irritate her anti-French brother. So much for that vanity Vicky tried to quash! Still, being a show-off was the least of her flaws.
One of the worst things a woman could do in the late 1800s was to assume masculine traits. Charlotte defied convention by drinking to excess and being a chain smoker, despite her frail health and the common misconception that the habit would grow a mustache—a most masculine trait indeed! And yet, if you asked her family, Charlotte possessed still-worse vices.
No one was safe from Charlotte’s acid tongue, not even her sister. While Viktoria was living in fear of spinsterhood due to the rejection of multiple suitors, Charlotte began spreading shocking rumors about her sister. She claimed that Viktoria had carried on numerous affairs, furthering her humiliation and damaging her hopes for prospects. Talk about twisting the knife!
In March of 1888, Charlotte's father assumed the German throne as Emperor Frederick III—but he didn't get to enjoy it for long. Gravely ill with throat cancer, he had only months left to live. During this period, Charlotte went home to be at his side with most of her siblings, and briefly reconciled with her mother. She wasn’t completely heartless—but then again...
Charlotte convinced her pretty, naive cousin, Marie of Edinburgh, to marry a man she didn’t love because Wilhelm wanted the match for Germany. Marie worshipped and trusted Charlotte, and didn’t realize she was laying a trail of breadcrumbs to Prince Ferdinand of Romania with “chance” meetings until it was too late. Marie later called the scheme a cruel “trapping of innocence."
Following Wilhelm’s ascension to the throne, Charlotte’s social influence soared. To keep living the high life, it was crucial she butter him up. She sided with him in all family and political matters, even when she disagreed with him, well aware her new position of power depended on staying on her brother’s good side. Bad things happened to those who didn’t.
Charlotte’s sour relationship with her mother curdled further during Wilhelm’s reign. After years of contention and resentment, Wilhelm had all but banished Vicky to her Friedrichschof estate, and when she was allowed to visit, Charlotte and Bernhard avoided her unpopular mother like the plague. Vicky was somehow clueless as to why, but Charlotte was on a roll.
Of all the reasons Charlotte gave her contemporaries to clutch their pearls, riding a bike should’ve been the least offensive. Though there was much debate over whether it was lady like, Charlotte took advantage of good health days by enjoying the freedom cycling provided. Eye rolls ready—Dona found it “indecent.” She hadn’t seen anything yet!
In 1891, Charlotte and Dona’s brother Duke Ernst Gunther of Schleswig-Holstein hosted a hunting trip at Grunewald lodge for 15 guests of the highest social rank. It turned into a wild swinger’s party, the debauched details of which caused a run on smelling salts amongst the most prudish of Prussia. But how did they find out? Someone spilled the sordid beans.
A series of blackmail letters containing all the juicy details of the party began circulating, whipping the court into a scandalized frenzy of denial and finger pointing. The letters included shocking indecent photographs layered over royal portraits and described scenes only a participant would have known. The search for the leaker was on.
In 2010, German magazine Der Spiegel published research suggesting Charlotte’s sole purpose of throwing the experimental key party was to entrap specific her aristocratic rivals. Though most historians believe Charlotte wrote letters, Dona’s brother Ernst and his mistress allegedly made them public. Still, others were blamed.
While the letter-writer named some of the partygoers in the letters, they only hinted at many others. Wilhelm was livid and ordered an investigation. His master of ceremonies, Leberecht von Kotze was apprehended, but soon released on a technicality. Protesting his innocence, he claimed only women were capable of such a plot. Whispers of Charlotte being the mastermind were already spreading—and for very good reason.
During the scandal, Charlotte’s diary of racy secrets and lurid accusations against various members of the family mysteriously disappeared. Some of the blackmail letters allegedly contained forged pages from the book, though there's no evidence for this. The diary eventually resurfaced—and it ended up in the worst hands possible: Kaiser Wilhelm, Charlotte's brother, was not going to like what he read in those pages.
Wilhelm wanted Charlotte out of his sight, so he transferred Bernhard to a regiment in Breslau. He essentially exiled his sister without actually exiling her. He also purposely clipped Charlotte’s wings by withholding funds, so she could no longer travel lavishly as she once had. This meant there’d be no escape from what was about to happen next.
Upon hearing that court official Karl von Diersburg's wife had left him, Dona came to a scandalous conclusion: An affair with Princess Charlotte must have been the cause. Charlotte vehemently denied the accusation, and refused to comply with Dona’s orders to fire von Diersburg or risk being ratted out to her brother. A battle had begun—but at least Charlotte didn’t have to fight it alone.
Bernard defended his wife fiercely. He accused Dona of being an arrogant bully who tried to control all the Prussian princesses, and threatened to retire to Meiningen, claiming he and Charlotte were “above such filth.” In the end, von Diersburg and his wife returned united to court, but the scandal nailed the coffin of Charlotte’s relationship with Wilhelm shut.
Banished from Berlin, Princess Charlotte headed to Romania where she continued her tradition of stirring the pot by badmouthing her brother to King Carol I. The King never suspected it was the reason Wilhelm refused to pay a state visit. He was too busy being entertained by Charlotte’s malicious gossip about her poor cousin Marie, who was not alone in detesting her.
In 1897, Charlotte's daughter Feodora became engaged to Prince Henry XXX of Reuss and the couple married the following year. Charlotte did not like her daughter’s husband. He was neither wealthy nor high ranked, and she openly criticised his appearance and his inability to control his stubborn wife. For this and many other reasons, she would not much longer be welcomed in their household.
For some reason, Charlotte found it “incomprehensible” that her daughter wanted none of her advice on personal matters, health, or motherhood. Charlotte made little attempt to hide the fact that she was pleased when she learned Feodora could not conceive, even though she knew she wanted many children. It’s no wonder Feodora decided to ice her out.
Feodora and Henry could barely tolerate being in the same room with Charlotte. So much so that Henry wouldn’t even attend the party held for his in-laws’ silver anniversary. Charlotte blamed him for Feodora’s estrangement, asking, “How can a child’s mind be so poisoned...in two years by such a stupid man?” Easy! Because of horrible things Charlotte kept doing.
By 1903, both Charlotte and Feodora were suffering from their disease’s worst symptoms: rashes, migraines, and even partial paralysis. Feodora believed she had malaria, so of course, Princess Charlotte spread a cruel rumor: She told people that Henry had given her a venereal disease and banned the couple from her home! Outraged, Feodora and Henry would not speak to her for nearly ten years.
After learning Feodora had undergone a radical, near fatal operation to help her conceive, Charlotte finally wrote to her. Sure, it was to say, “...your organs were in perfect condition and order so what made your insides go wrong I fail to comprehend...”But at least she blamed the doctors for stupidly agreeing to the procedure that would never work and agreed to visit Feodora in the sanatorium.
In June of 1914, Bernhard inherited his father’s duchy to become Bernhard III, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. With the outbreak of WWI just a little over a month later, he headed out to the front, leaving an increasingly ill Charlotte to oversee the duchy as a figurehead. Her pain by this time had become so intense that opium was her only reliable source of treatment.
In 1919, "The Kaiser’s Cleverest Sister," a flattering piece about Charlotte, appeared in The New York Times. In it, the author wrote that Charlotte was “a law unto herself” and that the only flaw in her character was a lack of respect for the establishment. Charlotte’s "me first" attitude may have been extreme—but in her defense, she learned by example.
WWI led to the political fall of the German Empire and all of its duchies. Wilhelm had to abdicate and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Bernhard too lost his title, and Charlotte’s days as a duchess were done. Just as the war had taken its toll on her family, so had her illness all but destroyed her body.
With swollen legs, boils, chronic aches, and kidney troubles, Princess Charlotte could barely walk, so she rarely left her bed. By 1919, she added heart problems to her long list of health issues. She travelled to Baden-Baden to a clinic to seek medical treatment, but when she arrived, she received devastating news: There was nothing anyone could do.
On October 1, 1919, at the age of 59, Princess Charlotte succumbed to a heart attack. Her sister Margaret suspected Charlotte hadn't known the end was near, writing, “...she was still full of plans.” Perhaps, after a lifetime of suffering, Charlotte thought she could endure anything. It certainly would’ve fit her tough character. Bernhard survived her for nine years and before his passing, eventually lying next to her at Schloss Altenstein.
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