THE Queen and Prince Albert, as we know, much wished to keep the fact
of the Princess's engagement a secret from the public. But rumour was
naturally busy with the visit of the Prussian Prince to Balmoral, and
on the day after his departure, that is on October 3, there appeared
in the Times a leading article, in which the proposed alliance of the
Princess Royal was alluded to with anything but approval - indeed, in
Germany the article was considered grossly insulting both to the King
of Prussia and to Germany. Prince Albert was very much angered at the
terms in which it was written, which he described as "foolish and
degrading to this country."
But the article was really inspired by a consciousness of the violent dislike of England entertained by the Court of Prussia, and especially by the camarilla surrounding the then sovereign and his consort, and this was better realised by publicists than by Royal circles in England.
Amazing as it may seem to us now, it is nevertheless abundantly clear that neither Queen Victoria nor Prince Albert, well served as they were in some respects by the faithful Stockmar, had any idea of the real situation at the Prussian Court. The extreme youth of their daughter made them wish to postpone the marriage for a while, but there is no hint in any of the many letters and documents which have now come to light of the slightest fear that she would lack a good reception in that new country which she already loved as part of Prince Albert's fatherland. On the contrary, the Prince had evidently persuaded himself that his daughter's marriage would be very popular in Germany - more popular than it happened to be just then in England. Like most men of high, strong, narrow character, Prince Albert never allowed himself to perceive what at the moment he did not wish to see.
This view is entirely borne out by the letters which Prince Albert wrote then and later to the Prince of Prussia. Even when addressing one who was far older than himself, and already in the position of a ruler, he always assumed the attitude of mentor rather than of adviser; and as one glances over the immensely long epistles, dealing with a state of things of which the writer could know but very little, one wonders if the future Emperor William had the patience always to read them to the very end. Even were there no other evidence existing, these letters remain to show how curiously lacking Prince Albert was in that knowledge of elementary human nature which belongs to so many commoner types of mind.
The Prince Consort's misapprehension is the more extraordinary when we consider that his brother, Duke Ernest of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, judged the situation with accuracy. In a letter published in his memoirs the Duke says:
"The family events at Balmoral and Stolzenfels [King Frederick William IV was staying at Stolzenfels when he received the news of the engagement of his nephew to the Princess Royal and of his niece, Princess Louise, to the Prince Regent of Baden] gave rise to all kinds of dissatisfaction in many reactionary circles of the Prussian capital. The more the Liberal papers of Germany applauded, the more disagreeably was the other side affected by the unpopularity of the circumstances which threatened to strengthen, at the Court of Berlin, the influence of the Royal relations whose sentiments were not regarded with favour. One of the peculiarities of Frederick William IV was that, with reference to his personal sympathies, he would not submit to any coercion from those who were familiar with politics and affairs of State, so that the secret opponents had to beware of expressing their displeasure at the new family connections."
As we have seen, the King of Prussia had kept his own counsel in the affair of his nephew's engagement, which he had only sanctioned in consequence of Prince Frederick William's strong personal appeal. His Queen was intensely pro-Russian, and as a result of the Crimean War had conceived a positive hatred for England and the English.
As for the Princess of Prussia, afterwards the Empress Augusta, she was a woman of the highest cultivation, the old cultivation of Weimar and of the French eighteenth century, but she had not much influence in Berlin, where even then she was said to be strongly inclined to Roman Catholicism. The Prince of Prussia was himself not really popular. It was inevitable therefore, in all the circumstances, that the prospect of an English alliance should become a fresh cause of contention and division, in which the voices of disapproval decidedly prevailed.
Even after the engagement had been actually announced, Prince Frederick William told Lady Bloomfield, the wife of the British Minister in Berlin, that, though he was very much disappointed that the Queen and Prince Albert wished the marriage to be postponed as the Princess Royal was so young, it was perhaps a good thing, for by that time party spirit in Prussia would run less high. The strength of that party spirit was ominously shown on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince's sister, Princess Louise, when the great nobility of Prussia ostentatiously absented themselves from the festivities.
General von Gerlach, who as we have seen extracted from the King of Prussia that dry admission that the rumours of the English engagement were well-founded, drew also a more interesting comment on the news from a very different personage. Bismarck, who was already regarded as a man with a future, and at the time held an important diplomatic post at the Diet at Frankfort, wrote to the General on April 8, 1856, a commentary which was in some ways extraordinarily prophetic:
"You ask me in your letter what I think of the English marriage. I must separate the two words to give you my opinion. The 'English' in it does not please me, the 'marriage' may be quite good, for the Princess has the reputation of a lady of brain and heart. If the Princess can leave the Englishwoman at home and become a Prussian, then she may be a blessing to the country. If our future Queen on the Prussian throne remains the least bit English, then I see our Court surrounded by English influence, and yet us, and the many other future sons-in-law of her gracious Majesty, receiving no notice in England save when the Opposition in Parliament runs down our Royal family and country. On the other hand, with us, British influence will find a fruitful soil in the noted admiration of the German 'Michael' for lords and guineas, in the Anglomania of papers, sportsmen, country gentlemen, &c. Every Berliner feels exalted when a real English jockey from Hart or Lichtwald speaks to him and gives him an opportunity of breaking the Queen's English on a wheel. What will it be like when the first lady in the land is an Englishwoman?"
Not less interesting in their way are the comments which Prince Albert's brother, Duke Ernest, made on his niece's betrothal:
"The Royal House of Prussia has long afforded in its genealogical history a singular spectacle of waverings between the West and East of Europe. While family alliances between Orthodox Russia and Catholic Austria were almost wholly excluded, the Protestant faith did not at all prevent the Hohenzollerns from having a strong leaning towards the family of the Tsars, and the connections which were thus made undoubtedly exerted their influence upon Germany. The Crimean War may be regarded as a political lesson on this concatenation of circumstances. Was it not most extraordinary that, even before peace had been concluded with Russia, the Royal House of Prussia r was, in its matrimonial aims, on the point of exhibiting a marked tendency towards the West of Europe? The union of a Prussian heir-apparent with a Princess of my House, with its numerous branches, was an event which at the time unquestionably seemed opposed to the Russian tradition.
"If we remember how at the end of the war everyone looked upon my brother as the active force against Russia, though at the beginning this was by no means clear, the marriage of a Prussian Prince who was destined to the succession with a daughter of the Queen of England necessarily possessed a decided political character. My brother, however, loved his eldest daughter too well to be influenced entirely by political considerations in respect of her marriage; and I often had an opportunity of observing that the chief wish of his heart for many years had been to see his favourite child occupy some exalted position. With paternal ambition, he was wont to picture to himself his promising daughter, whose abilities had been early developed, upon a lofty throne, but, more than all, I know that he was anxious to make her also truly happy. The Prince of Prussia, above all other scions of reigning Houses, afforded the greatest hopes for the future."
There was another Court at which the news of the engagement was regarded with mixed feelings. The Emperor Napoleon at first received the Anglo-Prussian alliance almost with dismay. He feared that, by strengthening Prussian influence, it would have the effect of weakening, and possibly destroying, the French understanding with England. But he allowed himself to be reassured by Lord Clarendon, who declared that Queen Victoria's affection for the House of Prussia was private and personal, and had nothing to do with politics. Prince Frederick William, returning by way of Paris as a successful suitor, had brought the Emperor a letter from the Queen, and to it Napoleon replied, rather coldly:
"We like the Prince very much, and I do not doubt that he will make the Princess happy, for he seems to me to possess every characteristic quality belonging to his age and rank. We endeavoured to make his stay here as pleasant as possible, but I found his thoughts were always either at Osborne or at Windsor."
It was on this visit of the Prince's that the Empress Eugénie made the following comments in a letter to an intimate friend, which, in view of those later events in which Moltke played so great a part, possess a pathetic significance:
"The Prince is a tall, handsome man, almost a head taller than the Emperor; he is slim and fair, with a light yellow moustache - in fact, a Teuton such as Tacitus described, chivalrously polite, and not without a resemblance to Hamlet. His companion, Herr von Moltke (or some such name), is a man of few words, but nothing less than a dreamer, always on the alert, and surprising one by the most telling remarks. The Germans are an imposing race. Louis says it is the race of the future. Bah! Nous n'en sommes pas encore là."
There was also a neighbouring sovereign to whose opinion all those who appreciate the complex dynastic relations of that period will be inclined to attach importance. This was the King of the Belgians.
Though he was in no sense the noble, selfless human being Queen Victoria took him to be, King Leopold was nevertheless a very shrewd judge of human nature, and had evidently seen enough of the Princess Royal to note certain peculiarities in her character which had escaped the loving, partial eyes of her parents. This is clearly shown in a letter written by Queen Victoria in the December of 1856. In this letter there is a passage, prefaced by "Now one word about Vicky," in which the Queen protests that she has never seen her daughter take any predilection to a person which was not motivé by a certain amiability, goodness, or distinction of some kind or other. She goes on to say: "You need be under no apprehension whatever on this subject; and she has moreover great tact and esprit de conduite."
This surely makes it clear that King Leopold was aware of the sudden fancies which the Princess Royal, even at that early age, often showed to those who attracted her, and that for no sufficient reason. Probably in this case he was thinking of the Princess Royal's passionate attachment to the Empress Eugénie - an attachment which lasted all through her youth, and which perhaps had more justification for it than some other of her enthusiasms for individuals.
In England, at any rate at first, the news of the engagement was received rather coldly, almost as if it was a mesalliance, though the knowledge that it was really a love-match did much to reconcile public opinion. The following passage from a letter written by Mr. Cobden, at this time the triumphant protagonist of the Anti-Corn Law League, reflects as well as anything the general feeling that the bridegroom was indeed "a lucky fellow":
"It is generally thought that the young Prince Frederick William of Prussia is to be married to our Princess Royal. I was dining téte-à-téte with Mr. Buchanan, the American Minister, a few days ago, who had dined the day before at the Queen's table, and sat next to the Princess Royal. He was in raptures about her, and said she was the most charming girl he had ever met: 'All life and spirit, full of frolic and fun, with an excellent head, and a heart as big as a mountain' - those were his words. Another friend of mine, Colonel Fitzmayer, dined with the Queen last week, and, in writing to me a description of the company, he says that when the Princess Royal smiles, 'it makes one feel as if additional light were thrown upon the scene.' So I should judge that this said Prince is a lucky fellow, and I trust he will make a good husband. If not, although a man of peace, I shall consider it a casus belli!"
To the bride's parents, if not to herself and her betrothed, the fact that the marriage negotiations were not quite pleasantly conducted must have been not only painful but astonishing. It was actually suggested that the ceremony should take place in Berlin, but Queen Victoria very properly scouted the proposal, which was really in the circumstances disagreeably like an insult. She wrote in her emphatic, italicising way to Lord Clarendon, the Foreign Secretary
"The Queen never could consent to it, both for public and private reasons, and the assumption of its being too much for a Prince Royal of Prussia to come over to marry the Princess Royal of Great Britain IN England is too absurd, to say the least. The Queen must say that there never was even the shadow of a doubt on Prince Frederick William's part as to where the marriage should take place, and she suspects this to be the mere gossip of the Berliners. Whatever may be the usual practice of Prussian Princes, it is not every day that one marries the eldest daughter of the Queen of England. The question therefore must be considered as settled and closed."
In view of all this and of what was to befall the Princess Royal in the land for which she even then cherished so fond an affection, and of which she had already formed so high an ideal, there is something intensely pathetic in the blindness of her parents to the real conditions of her future life. This blindness is shown with amazing clearness in the sentence, certainly inspired and very likely written by Queen Victoria herself, which concludes the chapter, in Sir Theodore Martin's Life of the Prince Consort, dealing with the betrothal of the Princess Royal:
"No consideration, public or private, would have induced the Queen or himself [i.e. Prince Albert] to imperil the happiness of their child by a marriage in which she could not have found scope to practise the constitutional principles in which she had been reared."
The idea that the Prussia of that day, or indeed of any day, would have amiably afforded a foreign princess scope to practise constitutional principles of any sort seems extraordinary, and yet, as we shall see, there was some little justification for it at the time, though it was quickly swept away by the course of events.
The confirmation of the Princess Royal took place on March 20, 1856, in the private chapel at Windsor Castle. The Princess was led in by her father, followed by her godfather, the King of the Belgians, who had come to England on purpose, and the Royal children and most of the members of the Royal family were present, as were also the Ministers, the great officers of State, and many of those whom Disraeli was wont to describe as the high nobility."
In fact, everything was done to make the rite a State ceremony - a striking contrast to the more recent practice by which the princes and princesses of England have all been confirmed privately, in the presence of their near relatives only.
The second Lord Granville, the statesman who shared with the Princess Royal the flattering nickname of "Pussy," wrote to Lord Canning this lively account of the confirmation. The inaudible Archbishop was J. B. Sumner; his Lordship of Oxford was the Samuel Wilberforce, called by his enemies "Soapy Sam," who played a conspicuous part in the Court and social life of the period:
"Had a slight spasm in bed; sent for Meryon. It was well before he came. He desired me not to go to Windsor for the confirmation of the Princess Royal. I went, and am none the worse; my complexion beautiful. It was an interesting sight. As Pam observed, 'Ah, ah! a touching ceremony; ah, ah!' The King of the Belgians the same as I remember him when I was a boy, and he used to live for weeks at the Embassy, using my father's horses, and boring my mother to death. The Princess Royal went through her part well. The Princess Alice cried violently. The Archbishop read what seemed a dull address; luckily it was inaudible. The Bishop of Oxford rolled out a short prayer with conscious superiority. Pam reminded Lord Aberdeen of their being confirmed at Cambridge, as if it was yesterday. I must go to bed, so excuse haste and bad pens, as the sheep said to the farmer when it jumped out of the fold."
There was certainly too much pomp about the Princess Royal's confirmation for the taste of another spectator, Princess Mary of Cambridge, afterwards Duchess of Teck. She succeeds in drawing in a few words a remarkably vivid picture of what happened
"The ceremony was very short (the service for the day being omitted) and not solemn enough for my feeling, although the anthems were fine and well-chosen. It was followed by a great deal of standing in the Green Drawingroom, where the Queen held a kind of tournée in honour of the Ministers, who had come down for the confirmation; after which dear Victoria, who looked particularly nice, and was very much impressed with the solemnity of the rite, received our presents on the occasion, and about half-past one we sat down to lunch en famine as usual."
It was on April 29, 1856, that the betrothal was publicly announced on the conclusion of the Crimean War, and in the following month the Princess appeared as a debutante at a Court ball at Buckingham Palace.
This spring " Fritz of Prussia," as his future father-in-law called him, came to pay a long visit to his fiancée. It is curious that Queen Victoria, in spite of her strong belief in love as the only right foundation for an engagement, had by no means the English notion of discreetly leaving the young people a good deal alone together. On the contrary, she seems to have entirely adopted the Continental practice of chaperonage; a passage in a letter written by her to King Leopold shows that she was always with them, and that she naturally found it very boring, but she endured it because she thought it was her duty.
Prince Frederick William was still in England when in June the Princess Royal met with rather a terrifying accident, which is worthy of mention because it showed how strong was her character and how high her physical courage.
The Princess was sealing a letter at her writingtable, when suddenly the sealing-wax flamed out and the flames caught her muslin sleeve. Her English governess, Miss Hildyard, was fortunately seated close to her, and her music mistress, Mrs. Anderson, was also in the room, giving Princess Alice a lesson. They sprang at once to the Princess's assistance and beat out the flames with a hearthrug; but not before her right arm had been severely burned from below the elbow to the shoulder. She showed the greatest self-possession and presence of mind, her first words being "Send for Papa, and do not tell Mamma till he has been told."
The Princess Royal had a long engagement, probably the longest that any lady of her rank has had, at least in modern times, but the months as they went by were fully occupied with her father's sedulous preparation of her intellect, as well as with the more frivolous preparations of her trousseau.
In May 1857 Parliament voted for the Princess a dowry of £ 40,000 and an annuity of £ 4000 - a provision which does not now seem to have erred on the side of generosity. But it must be remembered that what economists call "the purchasing power of the sovereign" was considerably greater then than now, and to find the modern equivalent of these sums one would have to add probably as much as 25 per cent.
Prince Frederick William, attended by Count Moltke, paid another visit to England in June, and made his first public appearance with the Princess at the Manchester Art Exhibition. The young couple seem to have corresponded on quite the old-fashioned voluminous scale. After the Prince had gone home again in August, Moltke writes to his wife that the Princess had written a letter of forty pages to the Prince, and he adds the sarcastic comment: "How the news must have accumulated!"
Whatever the aide-de-camp may have thought, the Prince himself was certainly a happy lover in his own characteristically serious way. We find him a few months later writing to his French tutor, the Swiss Pastor Godet, a long and moving letter, in which, he alludes very frankly to the difficulties which even then surrounded his position. Then, going on to speak of his coming marriage, he says
"Yes, if you knew my betrothed you would, I am sure, thoroughly understand my choice, and you would realise that I am truly happy. I can but bless and thank God to have given me the happiness of finding in her everything which ensures the true union of hearts, and repose and calm in home life, for I do not care, as you know, for the world, which I find empty and with very little happiness in it."
The seventeenth birthday of the Princess Royal, the last she was to spend with her family before her marriage, was saddened by the death of Queen Victoria's half-brother, Prince Leiningen. The Royal family were all extremely fond of him, especially the Princess Royal, to whom he had ever shown himself a most affectionate and kindly uncle. This was the first time the Princess had come in close contact with death, and it made the more impression on her owing to the passionate grief which her grandmother, the Duchess of Kent, showed at the loss of her only son.
The wedding had now been fixed for January 25, 1858, and already in October the bride had taken leave of those places in Balmoral which were dear to her. Of this Prince Albert writes to the widowed Duchess of Gotha:
"Vicky suffers from the feeling that all those places she visits she must look upon for the last time as her home. The Maid of Orleans with her 'Joan says to you an everlasting farewell,' often comes into my mind." And in another letter: "The departure from here will be heavy for all of us, particularly for Vicky who is going away for good, and the good Highland people who love her so much say: 'I suppose we shall never see you again,' which naturally upsets her."
These rather sentimental farewells had been going on for a long time. Queen Victoria, in a letter a fortnight before the wedding, says that her daughter had had ever since January 1857 a succession of emotions and leave-takings which would be most trying to anyone, but particularly so to so young a girl with such powerful feelings. The loving mother goes on to say that she is much improved in self-control, and is so clever and sensible that her parents can talk to her of anything.
Her other parent, in a letter to his grandmother, spoke of the frightful gap which the separation for ever of this dear daughter would make in the family circle, and then, with his characteristic optimism, he adds that in Germany people seem ready to welcome her with the greatest friendliness.
Here perhaps is the place to consider what sort of a country was the "Germany" whither Prince Albert was sending his cherished daughter as future Queen.
To begin with, it was not yet "Germany " at all; it was Prussia. We are well accustomed in the twentieth century to regard Germany as one of the Great Powers of Europe, with her enormous army and her expanding navy and mercantile marine, with all else for which the Fatherland stands in science, letters, and industry. It is necessary, however, to realise that the Princess Royal's marriage was to bring her to what was then a very different country. Prussia was in fact not to be compared in power, wealth, or security with the Princess's native land. Including Silesia, Brandenburg, and Westphalia, the country only had a population of some seventeen millions in 1858, or about that of England alone. The revenue was comparatively insignificant, but the army numbered 160,000 officers and men; the navy had 55 ships, 3500 officers and men, and 265 guns; while the mercantile marine is given as 826 ships of 268,000 tons.
The Germanic Confederation had superseded the Confederation of the Rhine formed by Napoleon. It included Austria, as well as Prussia and the various German States, and by the nature of its constitution it was weak where it should have been strong. The jealousy felt by Austria for the hegemony of Prussia among the smaller German States, and the internal jealousies of those States among themselves, almost doomed the Confederation to impotence. Indeed, the primary object of the Confederation, namely, the maintenance of the external security of the States, was in constant danger, owing partly to the complicated regulations for voting in the Diet, partly to a military system which was full of compromises and certain to produce, on the outbreak of war, a maximum of confusion and a minimum of efficiency.
The constitutional liberties of the individual States had been gravely menaced by a series of feudal decrees passed between 1830 and 1840; while in 1850 the Confederation had actually suppressed the constitution of Hesse-Cassel. In Prussia itself the Manteuffel Ministry had been working, beneath the cloak of the constitutional reforms granted in 1850, to establish a centralised police State on the model of the French préfet system combined with typical Prussian mediaevalism.
It was in 1847 that King Frederick William IV uttered the famous words that he would never allow apiece of written parchment to be placed, like a second Providence, between God in heaven and his country. Now the constitution of only two years later did seem to be such a piece of written parchment, but this was only in appearance, because it did not settle by organic laws the crucial questions of political liberty, but left them in practice to the Chambers which it called into existence. The task of Baron Manteuffel's Ministry, therefore, resolved itself into obtaining a sufficiently reactionary Parliament which could be trusted to remove the foundations of political liberty aid by the great constitutional lawgiver, Stein, and his follower, Hardenburg.
It was not till 1855, three years before the Princess Royal's marriage, that a thoroughly servile Chamber was obtained. The two principal reforms effected by Stein, namely, the localising of the administration and the independence of officials, were abolished, and the administration was carefully centralised on the French model, and the whole official class was made dependent upon the Government. This latter object was effected by an ingenious theory - that any opposition to a constitutional Ministry which enjoyed the confidence of the sovereign became constructively an offence against the Crown, and therefore punishable.
It is significant that it took five years before a really servile Chamber was obtained, even by these methods. The Prussian medievalists did not altogether like the police supremacy established by the Manteuffel Ministry; but, on the other hand, by their alliance with the Ministry they had the satisfaction of staving off certain reforms which they especially dreaded, notably the equalisation of the land tax, the removal of the rural police from the control of the lord of the manor, and the liberal organisation of the rural communes. Moreover, they were given practical freedom to do what they liked in ecclesiastical and educational administration.
It must be remembered that, while England has had from time to time her mediaevalists, they have, on the whole, failed to make any real impression on politics, and have exerted their influence only in the province of religious belief and in that of art. It was different in Prussia, where feudalism as a practical system had a much longer life.
Numerous small States within the kingdom of Prussia, with their feudal powers and rights, had to be broken up by the Great Elector as a first step towards a Prussian nationality. It was really by continuing the Great Elector's work in this respect that Stein had aroused that national movement which eventually threw off the French yoke. But Frederick William III had set himself to reorganise the provincial States on the basis of a strict observance of their historical rights. This reorganisation did not satisfy the mediaevalists because it failed to provide any real check upon the bureaucratic character of the remaining part of the King's administration.
At the time of the Princess Royal's marriage there still survived an extraordinary number of little States, each with its ruling family, and for the most part as poor as they were proud.