BEFORE the birth of the Princess Royal in November 1840, no direct
heir had been born to a reigning British Sovereign for nearly eighty
years. The Prince Regent, afterwards George IV, was born in 1762, two
years after his father's accession, and the death in childbirth of the
Prince Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte, when she was only
twenty, was still vividly remembered.
Queen Victoria was now but little older than Princess Charlotte, and the birth of her first child was regarded with a certain anxiety by the nation. It might prove to be the only child, and in that event much would hang on the preservation of its life. Those members of the "Old Royal Family" who were next in succession were not popular, and the little Princess Royal may truly be described as having been the child of many prayers.
It was natural that Queen Victoria should have recourse to Prince Albert's confidential adviser, Baron Stockmar, the more so that he was a skilled physician. Stockmar therefore came to London early in November. Those were not the days of trained nurses, but rather of the types immortalised by Dickens, and it is interesting to find the shrewd old German, characteristically in advance of his time, urging the Prince to be most careful in the choice of a nurse, "for a man's education begins the first day of his life, and a lucky choice I regard as the greatest and finest gift we can bestow on the expected stranger."
On November 13 the Court arrived at Buckingham Palace, where on the 21st the Princess was born. "For a moment only," the Queen says, "was the Prince disappointed at its being a daughter and not a son."
The character of the monarchy in England has changed so much, both absolutely and also relatively to the people, that it is difficult for us to realise the measure of prejudice and even contempt which still subsisted before Queen Victoria had had time to win the full confidence of her subjects. It is not therefore really surprising that the little Princess Royal should have been greeted on her first appearance with a shower of caricatures, some of them not remarkable for their refinement.
Still, a good deal of the rough humour lavished on the Princess was kindly in its intention, though sometimes there was a sting in the tail. For instance, Melbourne, the Prime Minister, was shown as nurse, proudly presenting the Princess Royal to John Bull: "I hope the caudle is to your liking, Mr. Bull. It must be quite a treat, for you have not had any for a long time." John Bull replies : "Well, to tell you the truth, Mother Melbourne, I think the caudle the best of it, for I had hoped for a boy."
Melbourne's fatherly devotion to the Queen was indeed a piece of luck for the caricaturists of the day. A cartoon entitled "Old Servants in New Characters " shows him dressed as a nurse with the infant Princess in his care; she is sitting in a tiny carriage, with Lord John Russell as outrider.
It was arranged that the christening should take place in London on February 10, the anniversary of the Queen's marriage, the infant receiving the names of Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise. Even the christening of the Princess Royal inspired a long satirical poem. One verse ran
This is the Bishop, so bold and intrepid,
The sponsors were Prince Albert's brother, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (represented in his absence by the Duke of Wellington), the King of the Belgians, the Queen Dowager (Adelaide), the Duchess of Gloucester, the Duchess of Kent, and the Duke of Sussex. Lord Melbourne remarked of the Princess to the Queen next day: "How she looked about her, quite conscious that the stir was all about herself! This is the time the character is formed!" The Prime Minister would have agreed with Stockmar's view that a man's education (and presumably also a woman's) begins with the first day of life.
Prince Albert sent a vivid account of the ceremony to the venerable Dowager Duchess of Gotha:
The christening went off very well. Your little great-grandchild behaved with great propriety, and like a Christian. She was awake, but did not cry at all, and seemed to crow with immense satisfaction at the lights and brilliant uniforms, for she is very intelligent and observing. The ceremony took place at half-past six P.M., and after it there was a dinner, and then we had some instrumental music. The health of the little one was drunk with great enthusiasm. The little girl bears the Saxon Arms in the middle of the English, which looks very pretty."
The Princess Royal, like her brothers and sisters, led an ideal childhood. All through her later life she often referred to the unclouded happiness of these early years, and it comes out equally clearly in the published correspondence of her sister, Princess Alice. In this matter both Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were in advance of their time, and the Prince, especially, perceived, what was not then at all generally believed, that children could be made happy without being spoiled.
Perhaps the most sensible decision of the parents was that the Royal children should come in contact as little as possible with the actual life of the Court. Not that the tone of the Court was bad; on the contrary, it was singularly high, but the Queen and Prince Albert knew the subtle danger of even innocent petting and flattery on young and impressionable minds.
So it was that the Royal children had very little to do with the Queen's ladies-in-waiting - indeed they were only seen by them for a few moments after dinner at dessert, or when driving out with their parents. The Queen and the Prince entrusted the care of their sons and daughters exclusively to persons who possessed their whole confidence, and with whom they could be in constant direct communication. Both were kept regularly informed of the minutest details of what was being done for their children, and as the princesses grew older they had an English, a French, and a German governess, who were, in their turn, responsible to a lady superintendent.
It has been the custom of late to speak as if the children of Queen Victoria had been overeducated and overstimulated. This was at least partly true of their infancy, but if they had been really over-educated, they would not have turned out as well as they did later, nor would they have all delighted in looking back with fond reminiscence to their earliest years.
The Princess Royal was soon recognised by all those about her as intellectually the flower of the happy little flock. She was clever, self-willed, and high-spirited; learning everything that was put before her with marvellous intelligence and rapidity. Her dearest friend and companion was her sister, the sweet-natured, pensive Princess Alice, who was next in age, after the Prince of Wales, to herself. The two lived for some years a life which was exactly alike. They shared the same lessons, the same amusements, the same interests; both had a strong love of art and of drawing; both were, if anything, over-sensitively alive to the claims of duty and of patriotism.
Naturally the most detailed and accurate impression of the Princess Royal's childhood is to be derived from the correspondence of Sarah Lady Lyttelton, who was appointed Governess to the Royal children in April 1842.
This lady, who was then approaching her fiftyfifth birthday, was the daughter of the second Earl Spencer, and sister of that Lord Althorp who was a member of Lord Grey's Reform Ministry, and who played a notable part in politics rather by his strength of character than by any commanding ability. Lady Sarah married the third Lord Lyttelton in 1813. It is interesting to recall that her son, afterwards the fourth Lord Lyttelton, married Mrs. Gladstone's sister, Miss Glynne. Sarah Lady Lyttelton was widowed in 1837 after a singularly happy married life, and soon afterwards Queen Victoria appointed her a lady-in-waiting.
When, some four years later, she was given the responsible post of Governess to the Royal children, she was already very well known to the Queen and the Prince Consort, as well as to their closest advisers. Lord Melbourne, for instance, heartily approved the appointment, declaring that no other person so well qualified could have been selected.
The picture of the Princess Royal which her guardian draws in these letters is one of an extra- ordinarily winning though precocious child, and if it seems to modern judgment that the precocity was rather too much stimulated, it must be remembered that we are back in the 'forties, when a scientific study of the psychology of infants was not dreamed of. Moreover, it is abundantly evident that the little Princess had such a way with her, "so innocent arch, so cunning simple," that it must have required no ordinary resolution to avoid spoiling her, while even the most scientific modern expert would probably have found it very hard to draw the line between over-stimulation and proper encouragement of her remarkable intelligence.
Lady Lyttelton had her first glimpse of the Princess Royal in July 1841. She describes her as a fine, fat, firm, fair, Royal-looking baby, "too absurdly like the Queen." Her look was grave, calm, and penetrating, and she surveyed the whole company most composedly. She was shown at her carriage window to the populace; and Lady Lyttelton, noting the universal grin in all faces, declares that the baby will soon have seen every set of teeth in the kingdom !
Some months later she records that "the dear Babekin is really going to be quite beautiful. Such large smiling soft blue eyes, and quite a handsome nose, and the prettiest mouth." The child early acquired the appropriate pet name of "Pussy," while she herself, finding Lady Lyttelton's name too large a mouthful, simplified it to " Laddle."
It may be here recorded that an absurd rumour had been circulated that the Princess Royal had been born blind, and it was this and other foolish gossip which first induced the Queen, at the suggestion of Prince Albert, to issue an official Court Circular, which has been continued ever since.
The Queen had the baby constantly with her, and thought incessantly about her, with the result that the child was perhaps rather over-watched and over-doctored. She was fed on asses' milk, arrowroot and chicken broth, which were measured out so carefully that Lady Lyttelton fancied she left off hungry. Lady Lyttelton, indeed, had some experience of this dieting craze, for her brother, Lord Althorp, at one time, when he had a terror of getting fat, used to weigh out his own breakfast every morning, and when he had consumed the tiny allowance used to hasten out of the room lest he should be led into temptation!
The little Princess was over-sensitive and affectionate, and rather irritable in temper, and with a prophetic eye Lady Lyttelton says that "it looks like a pretty mind, only very unfit for roughing it through a hard life, which her's may be."
After the birth of the Prince of Wales, Lady Lyttelton gives us a passing, but sufficiently terrible, glimpse of the anxieties which Royal parents must all suffer, more or less. She mentions that threatening letters aimed directly at the children were received, and though they were probably written by mad people, nevertheless no protection in the way of locks, guard-rooms, and intricate passages was omitted for the defence of the Royal nurseries; while the master key was never out of Prince Albert's own keeping
The Princess Royal spent her second birthday at Walmer Castle, and she is described as being "most funny all day," joining in the cheers and asking to be lifted up to look at "the people," to whom she bowed very actively whether they could see her or not.
Perhaps one reason why she became, and remained, so fond of France was that from infancy she was placed in the charge of a French lady, Madame Charlier. She was very advanced through all her childhood, especially in music and painting, yet she remained quite natural and simple in all her ways.
She was only three years old when Prince Albert wrote to Stockmar: "The children in whose welfare you take so kindly an interest are making most favourable progress. The eldest, Pussy,' is now quite a little personage. She speaks English and French with great fluency and choice of phrase." But to her parents she generally talked German.
"Our Pussette," the Queen writes a few weeks afterwards, "learns a verse of Lamartine by heart, which ends with 'Le tableau se déroule à mes pieds.' To show how well she understood this difficult line, I must tell you the following bonmot. When she was riding on her pony, and looking at the cows and sheep, she turned to Madame Charlier, and said: 'Voilà le tableau qui se déroule à mes pieds!' Is not this extraordinary for a child of three years?"
It is evident that the oral teaching of languages had very sensibly preceded that of books, for when the Princess is four years and three months old we hear that she is getting on very well with her lessons, "but much is still to be done before she can read."
In spite of her accomplishments, she was a very natural human child, and could be naughty on occasion. Lady Lyttelton records about this time that the Princess, after an hour's naughtiness, said she wished to speak to her; but instead of the expected penitence, she delivered herself as follows "I am very sorry, Laddle, but I mean to be just as naughty next time" -a threat which was followed by a long imprisonment.
Perhaps the Princess Royal's happiest days were spent at Osborne, where she began going at the age of five. There the Royal children had a cottage, built on the Swiss model, to themselves. It comprised a dining-room, a kitchen, a storeroom, and a museum; and in it the princesses were encouraged to learn how to do household work, and to direct the management of a small establishment. When in their Swiss cottage, each princess was allowed to choose her own occupation and to enjoy a certain liberty; their parents used to be invited there as guests at meals which the Princess Royal and Princess Alice had themselves prepared.
Years later, when they had both married, there were certain tunes which neither the Princess Royal nor Princess Alice could hear without tears rising to their eyes, so powerfully did the recollection of the happy birthdays and holidays they spent at Osborne remain with them. Not long before her death Princess Alice wrote to her mother: "What a joyous childhood we had, and how greatly it was enhanced by dear sweet Papa, and by all your kindness to us!"
Many happy days were also spent by the Princesses at Balmoral. In the Highlands the restraints of Court life were entirely thrown off, and the Queen encouraged her daughters to come into close contact with the poorer classes of their neighbours, indeed everything in reason was done to arouse their sympathies for the needy and the suffering.
The Princess Royal showed even in her early childhood an astonishing power of vivid expression. For example, when she was about five and a half, she found mentioned in a history book the name of an ancient poet called Wace. Lady Lyttelton thereupon observed that she had never heard of that poet till then, but the Princess insisted: "Oh, yes, I daresay you did, only you have forgotten it. Réfléchissez! Go back to your youngness and you will soon remember."
That the child had a natural and instinctive religious feeling is shown by another incident. She had narrowly escaped serious injury from treading on a large nail, and Lady Lyttelton explained to her that it had pleased God to save her from great pain. Instantly the child said: "Shall we kneel down? "
In October 1847 the Princess Royal had an accident which might have been very serious.
The children were riding with their ponies when the Princess was quietly thrown after a few yards of cantering. She was not hurt, but the Prince of Wales's pony ran away with him. Fortunately he was strapped into the saddle, and, after one loud cry for help, he showed no signs of fear, but cleverly kept as tight hold of the reins as he could pull. The Princess Royal was not at all frightened herself until she saw her brother's danger, and then she screamed out: "Oh, can't they stop him? Dear Bertie!" and burst into tears. Fortunately all ended well, and the children went on riding as fearlessly as ever.
In October 1848 the Royal children, crossing in the yacht Fairy from Osborne on their way to Windsor, witnessed a terrible accident - the sinking of a boatload of people in a sudden squall. It made a deep impression on all the children, and the Princess Royal kept thinking of it all that night.
It is about this time that Lady Lyttelton observes: "The Princess Royal might pass, if not seen but only overheard, for a young lady of seventeen in whichever of her three languages she chose to entertain the company."
Nearly a year afterwards, Lady Lyttelton notes that "dear Princessey" had been now perfectly good ever since they came to Osborne, and she says that she continues to reflect and observe and reason like a very superior person, and is as affectionate as ever.
Again, in April 1849, she notes every moment more and more "the blessed improvement of the Princess Royal." "She is becoming capable of self-control and principle and patience, and her wonderful powers of head and heart continue. She may turn out a most distinguished character." And a few months later she notes that "the Princess Royal is so enormously improved in manner, in temper, and conduct-altogether as really to give a bright promise of all good. Her talent and brilliancy have naturally lost no ground: she may turn out something remarkable." All the children showed real kindness to the poor, visiting them and beginning to understand what poverty is.
The Princess accompanied her parents and the Prince of Wales on a visit to Ireland in August 1849, and afterwards went to Cherbourg, that being her first visit to France. It was during that stay at Cherbourg that the curb of a neighbouring village gave the young English Princess a charming sketch done by one of his parishioners, a then unknown artist named Jean François Millet.
The Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales made their first official appearance in London on October 30, 1849, when they represented their mother, who was suffering from chicken-pox, at the opening of the new Coal Exchange. The scene has been often described, notably by Miss Alcott, the author of Little Women, who was, however, naturally more interested in the Prince than in his sister.
Much to their delight, the children went from Westminster to the City in the State barge rowed by twenty-six watermen, and all London turned out to greet them. They were very wisely not allowed to attend the big public luncheon, but were given their lunch in a private room. Lady Lyttelton mentions that the gentleman who made the arrangements was so overcome by his loyal feelings at the sight of the children that he melted into tears and had to retire!
In the summer before the Princess's tenth birthday, Lady Lyttelton records: "Princess Royal standing by me to-day, as I was trying a few chords on the pianoforte, was pleased and pensive like her old self. 'I like chords, one can read them. They make one sometimes gay, sometimes sad. It used to be too much for me to like formerly.' "
The year 1851 was memorable in the Princess Royal's life, for it was then that she first met her future husband.
It has been said that Prince Frederick William of Prussia, who was twenty at the time, became attracted to his future wife during this first visit of his to the English Court, when he accompanied his parents and his only sister to see the Great Exhibition. But that is surely absurd, for the Princess, charming and clever as she was, was then only a child.
Still, the English Court was probably never seen to greater advantage than during that year of miracles, and it is clear that the young Prussian Prince saw for the first time a Royal family leading a happy, natural life, full of affection and kindness. Queen Victoria's children were healthy, well-mannered, and devoted to their parents, and the leader and head of the little band was the Princess Royal, full of eager interest in everything she was allowed to see and know, blessed with high spirits and a keen sense of humour even then already well developed. She was adored by her father, and encouraged in every way to "produce herself," to use an expressive French phrase.
Prince Frederick William could not but note the contrast between the young people whose friendship he was making at Windsor, and the shy, etiquette-ridden Royal children of the minor German Courts. Nor could he help contrasting this delightful domestic scene with what he knew at home. At Berlin he was in constant contact with a Royal family profoundly disunited and unhappy. Only three years before his first visit to England he had stood at the palace window and seen the first shot fired in the Revolution of 1848.
Although the Prince had a tenderly-loved sister, he had spent a lonely, austere youth, for his parents, though outwardly on good terms, were in no sense united as Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert were united - indeed, it was an open secret that the Prince of Prussia had only had one love in his life - Elise Radziwill.
Prince Frederick William's sister was only a very little older than the Princess Royal. The two princesses formed on this visit a friendship destined never to be broken, and henceforth the Royal children called the Prince and Princess of Prussia "Uncle Prussia" and "Aunt Prussia."
The Great Exhibition itself undoubtedly helped to strengthen Prince Frederick William's attraction to England. The palace of glass in Hyde Park absorbed the minds and thoughts of the whole Royal family, if only because all those who were old enough to understand anything of public affairs were aware that the success or failure of the enterprise would seriously affect the position of Prince Albert in England.
The feeling among the Royal family is shown by a passage in a letter of Queen Victoria to Lady Lyttelton. Writing on May 1, the opening day of the Exhibition Her Majesty said:
"The proudest and happiest day of - as you truly call it - my happy life. To see this great conception of my beloved husband's mind-to see this great thought and work, crowned with triumphant success in spite of difficulties and opposition of every imaginable kind, and of every effort to which jealousy and calumny could resort to cause its failure, has been an immense happiness to us both."
Prince Frederick William, thoughtful beyond his years, and already under the spell of Prince Albert's kindly and affectionate interest, began to regard England as the model State, and took most significant pains to make himself better acquainted with her national life and policy. Even on this comparatively short visit he found time to make an excursion to the industrial North.
On his return to Bonn University his admiration for England by no means waned, and his English tutor, Mr. Perry, gives us an interesting glimpse of the thoroughness with which he set to work to increase his knowledge
"At the request of the Prince, I visited him three times a week, and had the honour of superintending his studies in English history and literature, in both of which he took special interest. His love for England and his great veneration of the Queen were most remarkable, and our intercourse became very agreeable and confidential. He manifested the keenest interest for all that I was able to tell him of England's political and social life, and when our more serious studies were over, we amused ourselves by writing imaginary letters to Ministers and leading members of English society."
It was in truth with England that Prince Frederick William fell in love on this memorable visit, not with the little Princess Royal, though he was undoubtedly attracted, as all the people round her were, by her winning charm and quick intelligence.
The idea of a marriage between the two had, however, occurred to other people, as is shown by the fact that in the following year the Princess of Prussia desired to visit England with a view to suggesting it. But the Prince's uncle, King Frederick William IV, influenced by his pro- Russian consort, did not look on the proposal with favour, and it remained in abeyance, partly on account of the Princess Royal's youth, partly owing to the outbreak of the Crimean War.
The Crimean War made an immense impression on the Princess Royal. For months the Queen, the Prince, and the elder Royal children thought and talked of nothing else. The children contributed drawings to be sold for the benefit of the war funds, and we know that the Princess's emotions were deeply stirred by the thought of the sufferings of the wounded and by the work of Florence Nightingale, which was followed with intense interest in the Royal circle. The Princess in fact was able at a most impressionable age to realise something of the horrors of war, and this was destined, as we shall see, to bear rich fruit.
The war also led directly to the Princess's first real sight of France. In August 1855 the Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales accompanied their parents on a State visit to the Emperor Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie.
Of this visit a story was told at the time which greatly delighted all the Royal families of the Continent. Much as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were respected for their solid virtues, their artistic taste in matters of dress was considered to be not always infallible. It was feared at the French Court that the Princess Royal would be dressed, not exactly unbecomingly, but in a style which would by no means harmonise with Parisian taste and Parisian surroundings. The question was how to beguile her parents into dressing the child in a suitable manner.
In this difficulty someone suggested a really brilliant stratagem. The height and other measurements of the Princess Royal were obtained, and a doll of exactly corresponding size was procured, provided with a large and exquisitely finished wardrobe, and despatched to Buckingham Palace as an Imperial gift to the Princess. The expected then happened. Queen Victoria transferred most of the doll's wardrobe to her daughter, with the result that the Princess appeared at her best and everyone was pleased.
The children stayed at the delightful country palace of Saint Cloud, whence they drove in every day to see the sights of Paris. They were not, of course, present at evening entertainments, but an exception was made on the occasion of the great ball held in the Galeries des Glaces at Versailles, when they supped with the Emperor and Empress. They both became sincerely attached to the Emperor, who was himself very fond of children. Indeed, his young guests enjoyed themselves so much that, according to an oft-quoted story, the Prince of Wales asked that his sister and himself might stay on after their parents had gone home, "for there are six more of us at home and they don't want us! "
As to their conduct, Prince Albert wrote to the Duchess of Kent: "I am bound to praise the children greatly. They behaved extremely well, and pleased everybody. The task was no easy one for them, but they discharged it without embarrassment and with natural simplicity."
This visit laid the foundation of that strong affection and admiration for France and the French which thenceforward characterised the Princess Royal. It was on this visit, too, that she conceived her enthusiastic adoration of the Empress Eugénie. Her character was now beginning to be formed, and it is the key to the tragedy of her life, for a cruel fate so ordered her future that, while she was made to pay the full penalty for her failings, her many lovable and generous qualities seemed often to find none but the most grudging recognition.
During the whole of her life, the Princess Royal had a peculiarity which only belongs to the generous-hearted and impulsive. She was apt to be violently attracted, sometimes for very little reason, to those she met, and then she would be proportionately cast down if these new friends and acquaintances did not turn out on fuller knowledge all that she had expected them to be. Those who knew her well are agreed in saying that she was not a good judge of character. She was apt to see in human beings what she expected to see, not what was there. She not only liked some people at first sight, but she had an equally instinctive dislike of others, and this was an even greater misfortune, for sometimes the prejudices she thus formed were hard to eradicate. In this she was quite unlike Queen Victoria, who, having once formed a wrong impression, was capable of altering it entirely if she was given good reason to change her mind.
As she grew up to womanhood, the Princess Royal was very wisely allowed to make the acquaintance of some of the brilliant men and women of the day who were admitted to her parents' friendship. One of these was the second Lord Granville, the "Pussy" Granville who was afterwards Foreign Minister in Mr. Gladstone's Cabinets, and we may conclude this chapter with a quotation which shows how he could count on the young Princess's appreciation of a funny story.
Lord Granville, who went to St. Petersburg as the head of the special British Mission at the coronation of the Tsar Alexander, wrote a long letter to Queen Victoria, in which he requested the Queen to convey his respectful remembrances to the Princess Royal; and he went on to advise the Princess, when residing abroad, not to engage a Russian maid: "Lady Wodehouse found her's eating the contents of a pot on her dressing-table, which happened to be castor-oil pomatum for the hair!"