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Chapter 2: Betrothal

EVEN in the days of her extreme youth, Queen Victoria, owing to the fact that she was the reigning Sovereign, had to know much that is generally concealed from the young concerning the private lives and careers of their relatives. This is made abundantly clear in the extracts from her Majesty's private diary which have already been published.

In these intimate records, written by the girl Queen herself, we see that Lord Melbourne early decided never to treat his Royal mistress as a child. When she asked him a question he evidently answered her truthfully; and she must have asked him many questions concerning that group of princes and princesses who, even then, were already known as the "Old Royal Family." They were Queen Victoria's own aunts and uncles; and over those who were still living when she came to the throne she possessed, as Sovereign, very peculiar and extended powers. It was inevitable that they should play a considerable part, if not in her life, certainly in her imagination; and yet we hardly ever find them mentioned in the work she directly supervised and inspired - the life of the Prince Consort. Her fear, her contempt, her horror, of the way they had conducted their lives, her dread lest even their innocent follies, and their sad tragedies of the heart, should be repeated in the lives of her own sons and daughters, were perhaps only revealed to trusted friends in her old age.

It may even be doubted if Queen Victoria ever communicated to Prince Albert certain of the facts which had necessarily to be made known to her. Whether she did so or not, the course she very early set herself to pursue - a course, be it remembered, in which she persisted at a time when she seemed to lack courage and energy to go on even with life itself, that is during the years that immediately succeeded the Prince Consort's death - proved how determined she was to secure that the lives of her children should be entirely different from those of their great-uncles and great-aunts.

That her daughters, and later her granddaughters, should marry early, and make marriages of inclination; that her sons' wives should be chosen among princesses young, charming, sympathetic, and personally attractive to each prince concerned - this was one of Queen Victoria's chief and most anxious preoccupations. She may have tried to guide inclination, she undoubtedly tried to arrange suitable alliances, but in no single case did she ever seriously oppose a marriage based on strong attraction.

In that matter Queen Victoria was a typical Englishwoman. To her mind, a union between a young man and a young woman based on any other foundation save strong mutual love and confidence, was vile; and all through her life she wished ardently to ensure that those marital blessings which fall comparatively often on ordinary people, but comparatively seldom on members of the Royal caste, should be the lot of her immediate descendants.

It was natural that the Queen, with that eager enthusiasm which was so much a part of her character, especially in this still radiantly happy period of her life, should have welcomed the thought of a marriage between her eldest daughter and the future King of Prussia. She had formed the most favourable opinion of Prince Frederick William during his brief sojourn in England in 1851. He was a man of high and honourable character at a time when such virtues were rare among the marriageable princes of reigning families, and his parents were regarded by the Queen and Prince Albert as among their dearest and most intimate friends.

The Prince of Prussia had spent some time in England after the Berlin Revolution of 1848, and on parting from Madame Bunsen, the wife of the Prussian Minister, he had exclaimed: "In no other State or country could I have passed so well the period of distress and anxiety through which I have gone." During his stay he had become intimate with the Queen and Prince Albert - indeed, the Queen, as was her way when she trusted and admired, had grown to be warmly attached to him. She regarded him as noble-minded, honest, and cruelly wronged; and, what naturally endeared him to her still more, he showed great confidence in Prince Albert, apparently always accepting the advice constantly tendered him by the Prince.

All through his life Prince Albert had seen a vision of a Germany united under the leadership of Prussia, and it was delightful to him to learn that it was now open to him to enter into a close relationship with one whom he naturally believed destined to play a supreme part in the regeneration of his beloved fatherland. It is not generally known that Prince Albert had written a pamphlet entitled "The German Question Explained," in which he propounded a scheme for a federated German Empire with an Emperor at the head. This pamphlet must have been either privately printed or withdrawn from circulation, for not even Sir Theodore Martin, when writing the Prince's life, could procure a copy.

This suggested marriage of the Princess Royal opened out to her father the fair prospect of being able to bring about by his counsel and assistance the realisation of his disinterested ambitions for the future welfare of Germany. The then King of Prussia was already sick unto death; the Prince of Prussia had now passed middle age; everything pointed to the probability that within a reasonable time Prince Frederick William would become ruler of Prussia and, incidentally, overlord of the German peoples.

There is good authority for the truth of the now famous story of "La Belle Alliance."

In 1852 the Princess of Prussia came to England on a short visit to her aunt, Queen Adelaide. The then Prussian Envoy, Baron von Bunsen, while waiting to be received by the Princess, turned over in her sitting-room some engravings which had been sent by a print-seller; among them was that of a painting of the farmhouse at Waterloo named by the Belgians, "La Belle Alliance." In the same room was a portrait of the Princess Royal and one of Prince Frederick William. The Baron placed the two portraits side by side over the engraving, and when the Princess entered the room, he silently pointed out to her what he had done, and she saw the two young faces above the words "La Belle Alliance." " A rapid glance was exchanged, but not a word was spoken," wrote Baron von Bunsen's son many years after.

As for the young Prince himself, when the question of his marriage had to be discussed, it was natural that his first thought, as also, it is clear, that of his mother, turned to England - to that affectionately united Royal family who were the envied model of all European Courts. The feeling of that day is indicated by a curious caricature, which was largely reproduced on the Continent. It shows a huge pair of scales. In one scale, high in the air, stand huddled together the then reigning sovereigns of Europe; in the other, touching the ground, proudly alone, stands the slight figure of Queen Victoria. Under the cartoon runs the significant words, "Light Sovereigns."

England alone among the nations had had no trouble worth speaking of in '48, and among the Princesses and Queens of her day it was believed that Queen Victoria alone possessed the faithful love of her husband.

The greatest obstacle to the marriage, though neither Queen Victoria nor Prince Albert suspected it, was the King of Prussia himself. It is plain that at no time did he favour the suggestion, and that at last he yielded was in response to a strong appeal made to him in person by the young Prince. But, even so, the King desired the matter to be kept secret as long as possible. He did not even tell his Queen, and his own immediate circle and Household only heard of the betrothal when it was being widely rumoured in the German newspapers.

General von Gerlach came to the King one day with a sheet of the Cologne Gazette and indignantly complained of the "absurd reports that were being spread about." It was said that the young Prince was going on to England from Ostend for the purpose of proposing for the hand of an English Princess. The King laughed aloud, and observed: "Well, yes, and it is really the case," to the amazement and consternation of von Gerlach.

While the matter was being thus discussed at Berlin, the Princess Royal was kept in absolute ignorance. But the Crimean War and the subsequent visit to France had quickened her sensibilities, turned her from a child into a woman, and made her in a measure ready for the event which was about to occur. It should, however, be plainly said - the more so because later historians have blamed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the matter - that neither of her parents was willing even to consider the idea of any immediate betrothal. On the contrary, they wished that the two young people should meet in an easy friendly fashion, and thus have a real opportunity of becoming well acquainted the one with the other.

Prince Frederick William of Prussia arrived at Balmoral on September 14, 1855. He allowed some days to elapse, and then, on the morning of the 20th, he sought out Queen Victoria and laid before her and Prince Albert his proposal of marriage. That proposal the parents of the Princess Royal accepted in principle, but they requested him to say nothing to their daughter till after she had been confirmed. It was their wish that, for some months at any rate, the young Princess should continue the simple yet full life of unconstrained girlhood. It was therefore suggested that the Prince should return in the following spring. The Queen also stipulated that the marriage should not take place till after the Princess Royal's seventeenth birthday.

After this interview with Prince Frederick William, Prince Albert wrote to Stockmar:

"I have been much pleased with him. His prominent qualities are great thought, straightforwardness, frankness, and honesty. He appears to be free from prejudices, and pre-eminently well-intentioned; he speaks of himself as personally greatly attracted by Vicky. That she will have no objection to make I regard as probable."

Prince Albert wrote the following day to Lord Clarendon, who was then Foreign Minister, informing him that he might communicate the news to the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and to no one else. "Pam " was pleased to approve, declaring that the marriage would be in the interest, not only of the two countries, but of Europe in general.

Queen Victoria did not fail to communicate the important secret to her beloved uncle, King Leopold, observing that her wishes on the subject of the future marriage of her daughter had been realised in the most gratifying and satisfactory manner. Indeed, she spoke of the joy with which she and Prince Albert for their part had accepted the suitor, while she reiterated that "the child herself is to know nothing till after her confirmation, which is to take place next winter."

The days went on, and a sincere effort was made to keep what had taken place from the knowledge of the young Princess. Letters of warm congratulation arrived from Coblentz, as well as a very cordial message from the King of Prussia. Prince Frederick William's relations were quite at one with the Queen and Prince Albert as to the propriety of postponing the betrothal till after the Princess Royal's confirmation.

But the plan so carefully made was not destined to be carried out. The Prince was very much in love, and, as the Emperor of the French truly observed in a letter to Prince Albert: "On devine ceux qui aiment." It was impossible to keep such a secret, and one which so closely concerned herself, from a girl as clever and mentally alive as the Princess Royal. What happened is best told in Queen Victoria's entry in her diary on September 29:

"Our dear Victoria was this day engaged to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, who had been on a visit to us since the 14th. He had already spoken to us, on the 20th, of his wishes; but we were uncertain, on account of her extreme youth, whether he should speak to her himself, or wait till he came back again. However, we felt it was better he should do so, and during our ride up Craig-na-Ban this afternoon, he picked a piece of white heather (the emblem of 'good luck,') which he gave to her; and this enabled him to make an allusion to his hopes and wishes as they rode down Glen Girnoch, which led to this happy conclusion."

A few days later her father wrote to Stockmar: "She manifested towards Fritz and ourselves the most childlike simplicity and candour. The young people are ardently in love with one another, and the purity, innocence, and unselfishness of the young man have been on his part touching." To Mr. Perry, his English tutor at Bonn, the Prince declared that his engagement was not politics, nor ambition, "It was my heart."

At the time of her engagement the Princess Royal was not yet fifteen, and it was arranged that the marriage should take place in two years and three months.

In one respect the Princess was singularly fortunate. In the majority of Royal marriages, the bride has not only to make her home in a country where everything will be foreign to her, but she is sometimes even ignorant of the language, manners, and customs which she will have henceforth to adopt as her own.

The Princess Royal, however, had to undergo no such sudden initiation. To her Germany was in truth a second fatherland, if only as the birthplace of her beloved father. She had been as familiar with the German as with the English language from her birth, constantly writing long letters to German relations and friends, and keeping up - to give but one instance - a close correspondence with her parents' trusted friend, Baron Stockmar, who had for her the greatest affection and admiration.

In a letter quoted in his memoirs Stockmar says: "From her youth upwards I have been fond of her, have always expected great things of her, and taken all pains to be of service to her. I think her to be exceptionally gifted in some things, even to the point of genius."

This familiarity with the German language was very well as a foundation, but Prince Albert considered that there was much to build on it. The whole of the Princess's education was now arranged solely with a view to the life she was to lead as wife of the Prussian heir-presumptive. In addition to giving her, for an hour every day, special instruction in German political and legal institutions and sociology, Prince Albert made her henceforth his intellectual companion, preparing her as if she was destined to be a reigning sovereign rather than a queen consort. Not only did he discuss with her all current international questions, but he read her the long political letters he received daily from abroad, and discussed with her what he should write in reply.

It was indeed a mental training which, particularly in those 'fifties which now seem so remote from us, would have been deemed only appropriate for the cleverest of boys in a private station. But Prince Albert had long known that his daughter was a good deal cleverer than most boys, and he was really running no risks in subjecting her to this intelligent preparation for her high destiny. As much as he could, he taught her himself, and such teaching as was entrusted to others he supervised with conscientious care.

In one of his letters to his future son-in-law, the Prince wrote: "Vicky is learning many and various things. She comes to me every evening from six to seven, when I put her through a kind of general catechising. In order to make her ideas clear, I let her work out subjects for herself, which she then brings to me for correction. She is at present writing a short compendium of Roman history."

In order to give the Princess a clear picture of German policy - or rather of German policy as Prince Albert then hoped it would become, that is, broad and liberal in conception and aim - he set her to translate a German pamphlet published at Weimar. This essay by J. G. Droysen, entitled "Karl August and die Deutsche Politik," would be counted rather stiff reading even by experts. But the Princess seems to have done her task admirably, and the proud father sent the manuscript to Lord Clarendon, who was genuinely impressed by the way it had been translated. He wrote back to the Prince

"In reading Droysen I felt that the motto of Prussia should be semper eadem, and in thinking of his translator I felt that she is destined to change that motto into the vigilando ascendimus of Weimar." The statesman added the further tribute to the young translator: "The Princess's manner would not be what it is if it were not the reflection of a highly cultivated intellect, which, with a well-trained imagination, leads to the saying and doing of right things in right places."

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