Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Princess Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of Saxe-Meininge


Princess Charlotte of Prussia was the eldest daughter and second child of Prince Frederick of Prussia and his wife, Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest child of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. Born as Victoria Elizabeth Augusta Charlotte on July 24, 1860, she arrived into the world at the Neues Palais in Potsdam in what was a rather easy labor for her mother as compared to the previous birth of her older brother, Prince Wilhelm. Wilhelm, who was nineteen months his sister’s senior, had been the product of a distressing breech birth that left him with a withered left arm due to Erb’s palsy and a damaged self-image. Through both of her parents, Charlotte was descended from noble and powerful European linages. Her father was a member of the House of Hohenzollern, a royal family that had ruled Prussia since 1701. Her mother was the oldest child of Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, Prince Consort, and was the ruler of a vast empire extending from the shores of England to the sands of India. By the time Charlotte was a year old, her father’s social standing increased further when he became the Crown Prince of Prussia after his father, King Wilhelm I’s, accession to the throne. Charlotte’s mother would give birth six more times after Charlotte’s birth until her last delivery in 1872. The eight children of Frederick and Victoria consisted of four daughters and four sons, however, two of their sons, Prince Sigismund and Prince Waldemar, died at a young age. Sigismund died twenty-one months after his birth in 1864 of meningitis while Waldemar died in 1879 at the age of eleven from diphtheria.

Princess Victoria, her husband Prince Frederick, and
their two eldest children, Prince Wilhelm and
Princess Charlotte
(Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1862)
Charlotte was raised in a demanding but luxurious household, as fit for the high ranks of her parents. They spent their summers in Potsdam and their winters in Berlin and took trips to the country at a farm the family had purchased for the purpose of occasionally experiencing a simple lifestyle. Although Frederick was a loving husband and father, he was unable to spend as much time as he wanted with his family due to his demanding position as an officer in the Prussian army. Victoria, meanwhile, was constantly in her children’s lives, as she was an cerebrally demanding mother who wanted her children to have political and moral leadership skills. She prudently oversaw their strict education and rearing personally, as she believed that her native English culture was better than her husband’s Prussian way of life. Thus, Charlotte and her siblings grew up in nurseries modeled in an English-style and adopted a deep respect for their mother’s birthplace through frequent trips to England and their mother’s incorporation of English culture into their lives. From a young age, Charlotte proved to be the most difficult child in her family. She had a nervous, agitated personality as a child and also had violent tantrums, much to her mother’s disapproval. She was very thin and had problems with digestion, as well as her overall health. She also displeased her seriously intellectual mother when it came to her studies, as Charlotte didn’t take her education very seriously. As Charlotte’s mother “rarely withheld her true thoughts of those who displeased her, and bluntly admonished her children to encourage their efforts and help them avoid vanity”, it was likely that Princess Victoria’s discontent and harsh upbringing of her children aggravated the chasm that would develop between her and Charlotte, as well as Prince Wilhelm, later on in life. The early deaths of Charlotte’s younger brothers, Sigismund and Waldemar, also worsened familial relationships, for Princess Victoria never fully recovered from her sons’ passing. As a result of their deaths, Victoria brought up her three youngest children – Viktoria, Sophia, and Margaret – in a much less demanding manner than she did with her three eldest, which produced a rupture between the three eldest and three youngest children. The eldest – Wilhelm, Charlotte, and Henry – resented their mother’s lax treatment of their younger siblings and had a worse relationship with their parents than Viktoria, Sophie, and Margaret.

A young Princess Charlotte
Wilhelm, as his father’s heir, had an especially difficult relationship with his parents, as they were supporters of democracy and wanted to mold Prussia in that manner. Wilhelm sided with the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in that he believed in the more traditional, rigid way of government that already existed in Prussia. Charlotte took her brother’s side in his arguments with their parents, for the two were very close. However, they did grow apart after he married in 1881 to Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, who wasn’t very fond of her husband’s sister (she described her as “plain, slow-witted, and shy”). Princess Victoria criticized her eldest daughter’s appearance and mentality, once writing: “Charlotte is everything – health, looks and understanding like a child of ten!” Charlotte did look younger than her age, as she had bad posture due to a poor pairing of short legs with a long waist and arms. In addition, she had poor health for the entirety of her life, which was described as “a nearly-continuous state of mental agitation and wild excitement”. She suffered from rheumatism, joint pains, headaches, and insomnia. Today, her symptoms (which also include abdominal pains, partial paralysis, and discolored urine) are thought to be a result of porphyria that she might have inherited from her maternal great-great-grandfather, George III (apparently, Princess Victoria had the same health issues as well, suggesting that she also had porphyria).

Princess Charlotte and Prince Bernhard of
Charlotte had such a troubled relationship with her parents that when she announced that she wanted to marry her second cousin, Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meiningen, in April of 1877, there was little opposition to the abrupt match. Charlotte was very young at the time, just seventeen years old, and it is possible that she decided to marry so quickly because she wanted to be free of her parents. But according to one story, Charlotte actually loved Bernhard as well. It was said that Charlotte fell in love with her cousin during a drive with Wilhelm, where Wilhelm (the driver of the car they were in) suddenly sped up, alarming Charlotte and causing her to grab onto Bernhard in fright. At the time, Bernhard, who was nine years her senior, was an army officer serving in a Potsdam regiment. He was also a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. Although he was not regarded well by many, for he was deemed as “weak-willed”, he was certainly intellectual and had a wide range of interests, including archaeology. Charlotte had little in common with her husband-to-be but Princess Victoria hoped that the mature Bernhard would be a good influence on her changeable daughter. The couple wed on February 18, 1878 in Berlin when Charlotte was seventeen and Bernhard was twenty-six. The wedding was a double ceremony, as Princess Elisabeth Anna of Prussia (who was Charlotte’s paternal second cousin) married Frederick Augustus of Oldenburg. Charlotte and Bernhard established their residence in a small villa near the Neues Palais and they also bought a villa in Cannes, where Charlotte would spend most of her winters (she believed that France’s warm climate would improve her delicate health).

Princess Charlotte and a young Princess Feodora
Two years after Charlotte married Bernhard, she gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Princess Feodora, on May 12, 1879. Feodora was the first great-grandchild of Queen Victoria. Since Charlotte didn’t like the restrictions she had to undergo while pregnant, she decided not to have any more children (which greatly aggravated her mother). Charlotte was not particularly maternal and often left her daughter to spend time socializing in Berlin and go on long holiday vacations. When she was away, Charlotte often left her daughter in the care of Princess Victoria, who liked her grandchild much more than her own daughter. She once said that Feodora “is really a good little child, and far easier to manage than her mother”. At the time, it was the norm for royal families to be large and full of young children, so Feodora, as an only child, was unfortunately lonely during her early years. It didn’t help that her parents were often out of her life either. Feodora inherited her mother’s poor health (most likely the result of porphyria) and suffered from the same symptoms she did. Feodora was also like her mother in that she was never particularly interested in intellectual pursuits. Her maternal grandmother, Princess Victoria, pitied the child and blamed her health and personality on Charlotte and Bernhard’s poor parental care.

Princess Charlotte
(mid 1890's)
While in Berlin, Charlotte and Bernhard lived in a villa near Tiergarten, which Charlotte’s doting paternal grandfather, Wilhelm I, gave them. He also moved Bernhard to a regiment in the city so he could be closer to his wife. Charlotte spent most of her days mingling with other high-class women and was applauded for her fashion sense, since she wore rich, imported clothing from Paris. She drank, smoked, and was known for hosting great parties. As a child, she had been quite the gossip and it seems that this trait remained with her in her adult years, for she gained a reputation of being acid-tongued. Often, she would become close to someone and gained their trust, only to turn against them and reveal their private matters to the public. Whilst in Berlin, she also befriended her aunt by marriage, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, who was married to her maternal uncle, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In March of 1888, Charlotte’s father became the German Emperor, Frederick III, but he was only on the throne for three months, as he died of throat cancer in June. Charlotte and most of her siblings diligently stayed by their father’s side during his last few months. Charlotte even slowly reconciled with her estranged mother during this time, but after Frederick’s death, the two fell out again when Charlotte and her husband sided with Wilhelm against Princess Victoria in various disputes. After his death, Wilhelm became the new Emperor, Wilhelm II, which raised Charlotte’s social influence, as she was now the closest sister of the German sovereign. She took advantage of her new power and surrounded herself with an entourage of wild and young nobles, diplomats, and court officials.

Princess Charlotte
(Philip de László, 1890's)
Things fell apart for Charlotte in the mid-1890’s, when Charlotte lost her diary, which held scandalous information concerning the royal family’s secrets and Charlotte’s own incrementing, personal opinions on her relatives. The royal family breathed a huge sigh of relief when Wilhelm managed to recover the alarming diary without any harm being done to their public image. However, Wilhelm read what was inside the book and never forgave his sister for what he found. As a result of Wilhelm’s displeasure, Bernhard was moved to a regiment in the quiet town of Breslau, which was a concealed attempt to “exile” both him and Charlotte. Wilhelm also restricted their freedom to voyage outside the country. Matters between Charlotte and her brother worsened further when soon after the events of the diary scandal, Wilhelm’s wife (who had never been fond of her sister-in-law) accused Charlotte of having an affair with a court official. Charlotte ferociously rebuked this claim and Bernhard backed her up every step of the way, even going as far as to criticize his wife’s family in return. Luckily for Charlotte, the conflict quieted once the court official she was accused of being intimate with came to court with his wife. In late 1897, Feodora became engaged to Prince Heinrich XXX of Reuss and the two married a year later on September 24, 1898 in Breslau, when Feodora was nineteen and Heinrich was thirty-four. Feodora’s family was unhappy with the match, as Heinrich, although a captain in a Brunswick regiment, was not rich or high-ranked. The only one who seemed happy with the marriage was Feodora’s grandmother, Princess Victoria, who was simply happy that her granddaughter was happy. Less than three years after Feodora married, Princess Victoria died on August 5, 1901 at the age of sixty. She had been suffering from inoperable breast cancer for some time and once the cancer spread to her spine, she passed away.

Princess Charlotte and her husband,
Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Meininge 
Due to Heinrich’s career in the military, the couple was never in one place for long and had to travel throughout Germany. The marriage didn’t do anything to help the poor relationship between Feodora and her parents, as Charlotte didn’t like her son-in-law and constantly censured his looks and Feodora’s dominant position in their relationship (to be fair, Feodora had a very resolute personality compared to her spouse). Feodora also wanted children and when she was unable to conceive, she was devastated, although Charlotte was happy because she didn’t want grandchildren. The relationship between mother and daughter became so broken that eventually, despite relatives’ efforts to heal the void between the two, Charlotte banned Feodora and Heinrich from her home. The two did not speak for almost a decade until Feodora underwent a risky operation in the early 1900’s to help her conceive (it proved to be futile). Charlotte was upset that her daughter had risked her life in such a manner but when Feodora surprisingly asked for her mother to come and visit her in the sanatorium she was in, Charlotte complied.

Princess Feodora of Saxe-Meininge
One June 25, 1914, Bernhard inherited his father’s dukedom and became Bernhard III, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, making the fifty-four year old Charlotte a Duchess. She ruled as a figurehead in the duchy when World War I broke out and Bernhard, despite his old age of sixty-three, left for the front. Charlotte’s health worsened as the war dragged on and her symptoms of chronic aches, swollen legs, and kidney problems intensified with each passing year. The pain grew so intolerable that eventually Charlotte began relying on opium to carry on. When the war ended with Germany’s surrender in 1918, the German Empire and its duchies fell apart. Bernhard had no choice but to abdicate his position as Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. A year later, Charlotte ventured to Baden-Baden to seek out medical help for her heart, which had been paining her as of late. Not long after she arrived, she died of a heart attack on October 1, 1919 at the age of fifty-nine. Her husband died nine years later at the age of seventy-six. The two are buried with each other in Schloss Altenstein in Thuringia. Feodora had a rather quiet life after her father lost his duchy. Her marriage fell apart when WWI ended, as her husband believed that she was exaggerating and even faking her illnesses. Her health worsened further during her final years at the Sanatorium Buchwald-Hohenwiese near Hirschberg, Silesia until she ultimately committed suicide on August 26, 1945 at the age of sixty-six. She was buried in Kowary, Poland. One historian described her life as such: “The Princess who had so desperately wanted children of her own had instead continued to battle with constant physical ailments, insomnia, and severe depression, and endured many years of ill-health similar to that of her mother”.

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