Two Empresses: Two Widows

https://www.rct.uk/collection/2105953/queen-victoria-with-victoria-princess-royal-when-empress-frederick-1889, Public Domain,

In 1888, a year whose numbering Queen Victoria thought odd (‘Never can it be written again!’), her daughter, the Princess Royal and Crown Princess of Prussia, had become German Empress, prompting the proud words from her mother: ‘My OWN dear Empress Victoria… may God bless her!’ (cit., Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria, 551). After a reign of a mere ninety-nine days, her husband Emperor Frederick III – already mortally ill at the time of his accession – died. The two Empresses – Queen Victoria (since 1876) and Empress Frederick (since 1888) were now both widows, giving an extraordinary shared life to their relationship. They had been wives (since 1840 and 1858 respectively) and mothers. This was heavily underlined by the moving series of photographs made of the two women in 1889, both dressed in deep mourning, looking together at an image of the dead 99-day Emperor Frederick. I want to explore the possible similarities of their close experience.

1888 was the Empress Frederick’s equivalent of Queen Victoria’s 1861. To her eldest daughter when Crown Princess, Queen Victoria had written on the death of Prince Albert, in shattered words: ‘My darling Angel’s child – Our firstborn. God’s will be done’. The Crown Princess had written to the her widowed mother from Germany, the birthplace of Prince Albert: ‘Why has the earth not swallowed me up? To be separated from you at this moment is a torture which I can not describe’. (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 256). When the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore was completed, the Crown Princess sent a circular terracotta medallion, depicting the head of Christ. It still may be seen above the porch, high over the entrance.

The Crown Princess was included in the design, planning and construction of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, as were members of the family, chiefly of course, Queen Victoria. The Crown Princess made a cartoon of the Apotheosis, which Julius Frank adapted into a painting for the ceiling of the Mausoleum’s Entrance Chapel. She also chose the designs for angels playing musical instruments for the stained glass windows of the ambulatory. It was the Crown Princess who had the idea for a sculpture group of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in Anglo-Saxon dress, which can be seen in the Chapel of the Nativity. Most poignantly perhaps, the Chapel of the Altar contains a statue by Sir Joseph Boehm of the Crown Princess’s husband, Emperor Frederick III.

The room in which Emperor Frederick III died may be seen, unlike the Blue Room at Windsor Castle, which belongs to the Private Apartments and is the present-day Writing Room of The Duke of Edinburgh. This was Empress Frederick’s equivalent to that room at Windsor Castle back in 1861. Situated within the suite of rooms known as the Lower Prince’s Quarters in the Neues Palais in Park Sanssouci in Potsdam, the room is sobering because of its history. Frederick III – Emperor for a mere ninety-nine days – died in this bedroom on 15 June 1888, prompting Queen Victoria to write to her grandson, the new Emperor Wilhelm II: ‘I am broken-hearted… Help and do all you can for your poor dear Mother… Grandmama V. R. I.’ (cit., Ibid, 552). The bedroom is a lush affair of fine baroque detail. The alcove where the bed stood contains the words in gold ‘Friedrich III + den 15 Juni 1888’. A bust of the dead Emperor by Joseph Uphues is placed on a pedestal where the bed once was. A black cross, set into the magnificent wooden parquet flooring, is a fitting memorial, as seen by the present author.

The dying Emperor had been devotedly nursed by his beloved wife, Empress Frederick, perhaps recalling an earlier Queen Victoria drifting in and out of the bedroom of the dying Prince Consort, at Windsor. Movingly, the Neues Palais had been given the name Schloss Friedrichskron [Frederick’s Crown Palace] at the start of Frederick III’s reign – a crown which the Emperor wore figuratively for a mere ninety-nine days.

The Queen knew the Neues Palais in Potsdam because she visited it in 1858. She recorded her impression that it was ‘all fine and lofty, but anything but cheerful’. It made her think of Versailles and Hampton Court Palace. She wrote: ‘Endless suites of apartments, – 2 sets of State Rooms, very splendidly furnished, and no end of living rooms… We saw the room downstairs, in which Fritz [later Emperor Friedrich III] was born, the Prince and Princess having had to live there in 31, during the time the cholera was so bad at Berlin’. (cit., HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney, Travels with Queen Victoria, 159).

When Queen Victoria visited Berlin thirty years later, it was to see the dying Emperor Frederick III. She stayed at Charlottenburg Palace, in Frederick II’s (‘the Great’) apartments. More specifically, these were located in the Second Apartment in the New Wing. (ed. Rudolf G. Scharmann, Chalottenburg Palace, 53).

Queen Victoria now spoke to her daughter as royal widow to widow, her sympathy also bringing out her strong maternal instinct, whilst they were sisters in sorrow: ‘Darling, darling unhappy child… You are far more sorely tried than me. I had not the agony of seeing another fill the place of my Angel Husband, wh I always felt I never cd have borne!’ (cit., Ibid, 553). Significantly, the Queen does not refer to the Prince Consort as a ‘father’ here, but as a ‘Husband’, to her own widowed child.

Then came the effigies. What is little known, is that Frederick III’s effigy in the Mausoleum next to the Friedenskirche [Church of Peace] at Potsdam, is not the original. This instead, lies in Berlin Cathedral, under the organ loft. The white marble effigy by Reinhold Begas was moved to Berlin Cathedral by his son and successor, Emperor Wilhelm II in 1905. The effigy is a moving one, showing the Emperor in uniform with a fur-lined cloak over this feet. His folded hands upon his sword give the impression of sleep, his head upon a pillow. The palm leaf may symbolize his soldier’s fight against his mortal illness (ed. Kurt Geisler, Berlin Cathedral, 38). Considering that the ninety-nine-day Emperor is surrounded by the sarcophagi of the Brandenburg Electors and is above the historic Hohenzollerngruft [Hohenzollern Crypt], he is appropriately shown asleep with his ancestors.

Queen Victoria comforted her daughter concerning the business of mausoleums, in which she was well versed, with the words that instead of in the place ‘where their cast off garment lay’, their beloved dead were ‘everywhere near you’. (cit., Longford, 553).

Today, the Mausoleum in Park Sanssouci at Potsdam which contains the tombs of both Emperor and Empress Frederick, is a place of peace, like Frogmore. It was built by Julius Raschdorff on the north side of the Friedenskirche. The effigies are recumbent like those of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, although the Emperor and Empress rest on separate monuments as opposed to a shared tomb chest. Like the royal effigies for example, in the Mausoleum at Charlottenburg Palace. Unlike Prince Albert, Emperor Frederick’s effigy is half-turned as if towards Empress Frederick, like Queen Victoria’s is towards Prince Albert.  A watercolour by Max Seliger, Mausoleum of the Emperor Frederick III, is in the Royal Collection, dated 1891.

Interestingly, I discovered that very similar sculptures of Christ was to be found close to both mausoleums, at Potsdam and Frogmore, surely a coincidence, but both by Scandinavian sculptors. In the Cloisters of the Friedenskirche [Church of Peace] is a figure of Christ, copied from the original by Bertel Thorvalsen of Denmark. In the Royal Burial Ground south-west of the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore is a huge statue of Christ by Laurits Rasmussen. This was from Queen Alexandra, her ‘Tribute of love and affection to the best and greatest of Sovereigns and the kindest of mothers-in-law, from her ever grateful and most loving daughter-in-law, Alexandra, 1903’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both have Latin words above the doors, as might befit a mausoleum built in the classical tradition. That at Potsdam reads simply: ‘ANNO DOMINI MDCCCXC’. That of Frogmore, the Queen’s moving inscription: ‘Vale desideratissime! Hic demum Conquiescam tecum, tecum in Christo consurgeam. [Farewell best beloved! Here at last I shall rest with thee, with thee in Christ I shall rise again’.]

Both were Empresses – one of India, the other of Germany. Both had been wives and mothers and now both were widows.

But most importantly, they were mother and daughter.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She regularly contributes to academic journals and specialist magazines, newsletters and also, the web. She specialises in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. Her popular blog for Royal Central, the web's leading news site on royalty, was written as guest history writer (2015-2019). Her current research projects include Queen Victoria and hotels.