On this day in 1860, Queen Victoria welcomed her first granddaughter. She was a young grandmamma, just 41 at the time, but the baby girl born in Berlin 155 yeas ago today was Victoria’s second grandchild. She was also the last of the second generation born in the lifetime of her grandpapa, Prince Albert. So far, so fairytale. But the life of Charlotte of Prussia was anything but a happy ever after.
The one word consistently used about little Charlotte in her childhood was difficult. It was a reputation she found hard to shake off. From her maternal grandmother to her governesses, nearly everyone she met found her problematic. Her health was difficult, and her role as a mother also cause her huge problems. And that’s before we get to a scandal which rocked German society in the 1890s and provided a challenging chapter in the legacy of this princess. The first granddaughter of Queen Victoria seemed to struggle with life in many ways and her tale is ultimately rather uneasy.
She was born on July 24th 1860 at Potsdam as the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. That princess, another Victoria known as Vicky, had married the heir to the throne of Prussia, a man who would later rule briefly as Frederick III. They already had a baby son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II, and their daughter’s birth was received with great joy. But almost immediately difficulties over her name arose. Queen Victoria rather liked the idea of her first granddaughter having her name while the little princess’ Prussian relations were all for naming her after a great aunt called Charlotte who was now Dowager Empress of Russia. In the end they chose Viktoria Elisabeth Auguste Charlotte but the baby girl was always known by the last of her names. And then the problems began.
For from a very early age, Charlotte began to show anxious traits that were treated as challenging behaviour but may in fact have been caused by illness. She bit her nails and pulled at her clothes, sometimes until they tore, but rather than finding out why this little princess was so nervous those around her made her stand still with her hands tied up to stop her tearing at things. She may well have sensed the anger that her behaviour produced in those around her for it didn’t stop. As soon as these measures, or others like sewing up her pockets, were stopped little Charlotte displayed the same traits of anxiety as before.
Later evidence suggests Charlotte may have inherited porphyria from her great, great grandfather George III. If so, her anxious behaviour even at this early age may be attributable to that. But at the time, she was regarded as a problem and her mother became increasingly agitated by her behaviour. And her grandmother was far from amused either. Queen Victoria wrote to Vicky noting she should ‘tell Charlotte I was appalled to hear of her biting her things. Grandmamma does not like naughty girls.’
In her very early year, little Charlotte also saw her mother experience intense anxiety. When Charly was eighteen months old her maternal grandfather, Prince Albert, died. Vicky had been very close to her father, and his loss was a huge blow. Added to that was Queen Victoria’s extreme grief that changed the whole dynamic of the family forever. Charlotte didn’t see that on a regular basis. She lived with her family in Prussia (and she was very close to her paternal grandparents, King Wilhelm I and Queen Augusta), but its impact was far reaching.
Charly’s reaction to the criticism that came her way from an early age was to learn to set herself against those who didn’t approve of her. This princess’ later reputation as a trouble maker or difficult person, can perhaps be traced back to her childhood when her maternal relatives struggled with her behaviour while her paternal family encouraged it.
Relations between parents and daughter had become so strained that there was little opposition when a very young Charlotte announced she wanted to marry. Her intended was Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen, heir to the duchy of the same name. He was a good marriage prospect and the fact that he would remove difficult Charly from under their palace roof meant that this royal wedding got the go ahead from her parents without much argument. Seventeen year old Princess Charlotte of Prussia married 26 year old Prince Bernhard on February 18th 1878 and on May 12th 1879, the eldest granddaughter of Victoria provided another first for the Queen Empress. She gave birth to Victoria’s first great grandchild, Feodora Victoria Auguste Marie Marianne, and promptly forgot all about her.
Queen Victoria’s disappointment in her eldest granddaughter only increased when Charlotte became a mother herself. Charly was known to call Feodora stupid and often left her in the care of her mother, Vicky, or with governesses. Letters show that Queen Victoria was kept abreast of Charly’s indifference to what would be her only child. Instead, the Prussian princess – now only entering her twenties – became increasingly involved in the glamourous party side of high society.
And her party lifestyle produced more difficulties for this princess. Five years ago, two historians argued that Charlotte of Prussia was involved in one of the most notorious sex scandals to hit Prussian high society at the end of the 19th century. The Kotze affair began when Charlotte’s brother, Wilhelm II, had his master of ceremonies, Leberecht von Kotze, arrested after hearing of his involvement in sex parties that involved some of the most important people in the land. Kotze was soon released without charge but began taking revenge on those he thought responsible for leaking details of the parties. In 2010, historians Wolfgang Wipperman and Tobias Bringmann argued that the person responsible for making the orgies public knowledge could well have been Charlotte.
But is her difficult reputation fair? When Charlotte’s husband became Duke of Saxe –Meiningen in 1914, an article was published in the New York Times called ‘The Kaiser’s Cleverest Sister’. In it, the author acknowledges that Charly was a ‘law unto herself’ but adds that ‘The only flaw that I have ever been able to find in the…character of the Princess, in all these years, is the absence of the bump of veneration.’ Could it be that Charlotte was in fact rather like her ground breaking grandmother, Queen Victoria, and her clever, witty and talented mother, Princess Vicky? Both women were credited for their strength of personalities but both had positions in society that allowed them to use their talents. Charlotte was an afterthought from day one – she had an older brother and very soon younger brothers and she was an accessory to power rather than a player as her mother and grandmother had both been. Perhaps we should see in this Princess Charlotte a late 20th century woman fighting against the late 19th century rules some wished to impose on her.
She had a brief taste of power when her husband became a duke but his reign co-incided with World War One and when that conflict ended, Bernhard abdicated. Charlotte was now a former duchess and her health difficulties were increasing. By then her relationship with Feodora was in tatters after Charlotte launched attacks on her daughter’s husband and she had lost both her grandmother and mother within a matter of months. This princess who spent so many years setting herself against those who found her difficult was now in the equally difficult situation of being increasingly alone in the world.
Charlotte had been a chain smoker for years, and illness dominated her later life and there has been some discussion as to the role porphyria may have had in her deteriorating condition. The princess died on 1 October 1919 at the age of 59 and buried at Schloss Altenstein.
The story of Queen Victoria’s first granddaughter is ultimately an uneasy one. Charly went from confrontation to confrontation, never seeming to be really happy, and her own sadness impacted on others most notably her daughter, Feodora, who ended up taking her own life. There was very little of the fairytale about this princess – Charlotte of Prussia, eldest granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
Photo credits: the lost gallery via Flickr; Philip de László [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and “VICTORIA Queen of England by Carl Backofen of Darmstadt” by Carl Backofen – antique photo [ca.1884]2013-10-18 18:11:24. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.