ON January 27, 1859, Berlin was on the tip-toe of expectation. The
custom is that 101 guns announce the birth of a Prince, and only
twenty- one that of a Princess, and as in Prussia the Salic Law still
obtains, it may easily be imagined with what anxiety the Berliners
counted the successive discharges. There was indeed no need to wait
for the whole tale of the 101 guns, for the firing of the
twenty-second was enough to spread the glad news.
The story goes that when old Field-Marshal Wrangel, "Papa Wrangel" as the Berliners affectionately called him, left the palace, the populace crowded round him and demanded to know what he could tell them. "Children," he answered, "all is well! It is as fine and sturdy a recruit as one could wish!"
It soon became known, however, that all had not gone well with the young, mother and her child. There had been one of those unfortunate mishaps, the exact truth of which it is always so difficult to disentangle, but the following account, we believe, represents what actually happened:
It had been Queen Victoria's wish that the Princess should be attended in her confinement by Dr. Martin, her English doctor, as well as the German Court physicians. About eight o'clock in the morning of January 27, one of the latter wrote to his English colleague, asking him to come at once to the Palace. But the servant to whom the letter was entrusted, instead of taking it to Dr. Martin's house, put it in the post, and it never reached him till the afternoon. To that fact the Princess Royal's friends always attributed the circumstances which resulted in the weakness of the infant's left arm. Be that as it may, both mother and baby were for a time in imminent danger. No anaesthetic was administered, and the Princess with characteristic courage looked up to her husband, who held her in his arms the whole time, and asked him to forgive her for being impatient. None of those about her thought her strength would hold out, and one of the German doctors actually said in her presence that he thought she would die, and her baby too. But at last her ordeal came to an end, and to her intense joy she was told that she had given birth to a fine healthy boy.
The news of the birth of their first grandchild was quickly flashed to the anxious parents at Windsor. "A boy" ran the telegram, and Queen Victoria characteristically replied, "Is it a fine boy?" But it was not till the following day, so Prince Albert told Stockmar, that the courier brought "our first information of the severe suffering which poor Vicky had undergone, and of the great danger in which the child's life had hovered for a time." To King Leopold the Prince wrote, "The danger for the child and the sufferings for the mother were serious. Poor Fritz and the Prince and Princess must have undergone terrible anxiety, as they had no hope of the birth of a living child, and their joy over a strong, healthy boy is therefore all the greater."
On the evening of the baby's birth, the Prince Regent, also a grandfather for the first time, held a reception of which we have a vivid description from the pen of the dramatist, Gustav zu Putlitz, then a member of the Prussian Landtag, and afterwards chamberlain to Princess Frederick William. He says
"It was like a great family festival. Everyone hurried there with congratulations, and when the young father, beaming with happiness, appeared, the rejoicings increased. This delight is shared by all classes of society, and is a testimony to the extent of the popularity of the Prince and Princess."
Prince Frederick William received on January 29 the congratulations, of the Prussian Chambers, to which he made the following reply:
"I thank you very heartily for the interest you have shown in the joyful event, which is of such consequence to my family and to the country. If God should preserve my son's life, it shall be my chief endeavour to bring him up in the opinions and sentiments which bind me to the Fatherland. It is nearly a year ago today since I told you how deeply moved I was by the universal sympathy which was exhibited towards me, as a young married man, by the country as a whole. This sympathy it was which made the Princess, my wife, who had left her home to come to a new Fatherland, realise those ties of affection which have now, owing to the birth of this son, become unbreakable. May God therefore bless our efforts to bring up our son to be worthy of the love which has been thus early manifested towards him. The Princess, to whom I was able to communicate your intention, desires me to express her most sincere thanks."
The christening was fixed for March 5, but neither of the parents of the Princess could be present. "I don't think I ever felt so bitterly disappointed," wrote the Queen to Uncle Leopold. "It almost breaks my heart. And then it is an occasion so gratifying to both nations and brings them so much together that it is peculiarly mortifying." However, the Queen consoled herself by doing all she could to mark the importance of the occasion. She sent a formal mission to represent her and the Prince Consort at the christening, consisting of Lord Raglan, the son of the victor of the Alma, Inkerman, and Balaclava, and Captain (afterwards Lord) de Ros, equerry to Prince Albert. They were both old friends of the Princess, to whom her father wrote:
"I was certain that the presence of Lord Raglan and Captain de Ros would give you pleasure. Ours will come when they return, and we can put questions to them. My first will be: Has the Princess gone out? and does she begin to enjoy the air, to which alone she can look for regaining strength and health? Or is she in the way to grow weak and watery by being baked like a bit of pastry in hot rooms? My second: Is she grown? I will spare you my others.
"Your description of the Prince's kindness and loving sympathy for you makes me very happy. I love him dearly, and respect and value him, and I am glad too, for his sake, that in you and my little grandchild he has found ties of family happiness which cannot fail to give him those domestic tastes, in which alone in the long run life's true contentment is to be found."
The baby Prince was duly christened on March 5, when he received the names of Frederick William Victor Albert, and on the following day his parents issued a touching expression of their gratitude for the sympathy and congratulations they had received from the public. In it they pledged themselves afresh to bring up their son, with the help of God, to the honour and service of the Fatherland.
After the special envoys had returned from Berlin, the Prince writes to his daughter a letter on the duties of motherhood, which was decidedly candid for those rather prudish days:
"Lord Raglan's and Captain de Ros's news of you have given me great pleasure. But I gather from them that you look rather languid and exhausted. Some sea air would be the right thing for you; it is what does all newly-made mothers the most good when their 'campaign is over.' I am, however, delighted to hear you have begun to get into the air. Now pass on as soon as possible to cold washing, shower baths, &c., so as to brace the system again, and to restore elasticity to the nerves and muscles.
"You are now eighteen years old, and you will hold your own against many a buffet in life; still, you will encounter many for which you were not prepared and which you would fain have been spared. You must arm yourself against these, like Austria against the chance of war, otherwise you will break down and drop into a sickly state, which would be disastrous to yourself, and inflict a frightful burden upon poor Fritz for life; besides which, it would unfit you for fulfilling all the duties of your station.
"In reference to having children, the French proverb says: Le premier pour la santé, le second pour la beauty, le troisième gâte tout. But England proves that the last part of the saying is not true, and health and beauty, those two great blessings, are only injured where the wife does not make zealous use of the intervals to repair the exhaustion, undoubtedly great, of the body, and to strengthen it both for what it has gone and what it has to go through, and where also the intervals are not sufficiently long to leave the body the necessary time to recruit."
The Princess had a favourable convalescence, during which her active mind was troubled by an article on Freemasonry. Her father, to whom of course she turned for counsel, had never consented to be initiated as a Mason, though his sons, King Edward and the Duke of Connaught, both became enthusiastic members of the craft. The Princess seems to have been troubled by the idea that her husband's connection with the order - he had been appointed patron of the Masonic Lodges of Prussia and head of the Grand Lodge in Berlin - would in some way lessen the confidence between them. Prince Albert endeavours to reassure her with a paradox which she probably found quite unconvincing
"I will get Alice to read to me the article about Freemasons. It is not likely to contain the whole secret. The circumstance which provokes you only into finding fault with the Order, namely that husbands dare not communicate the secret of it to their wives, is just one of its best features. If to be able to be silent is one of the chief virtues of the husband, then the test which puts him in opposition to that being towards whom he constantly shows the greatest weakness, is the hardest of all, and therefore the most compendious of virtues, and the wife should not only rejoice to see him capable of withstanding such a test, but should take occasion out of it to vie with him in virtue by taming the inborn curiosity which she inherits from her mother Eve. If the subject of the secret, moreover, be nothing more important than an apron, then every chance is given to virtue on both sides, without disturbing the confidence of marriage, which ought to be complete."
The baby Prince William thrived, in spite of the defect in his left arm, which was shorter than the other. We have some entertaining glimpses of him, and of his parents' pride in him, in the correspondence of Priscilla Lady Westmorland. A German friend of hers, a lady of high rank, wrote to Lady Westmorland when the Prince was only about a week old:
"I must tell you of my wonderful good fortune - I have actually seen this precious child in his father's arms ! You will ask me what this child of so many prayers and wishes is like. They say all babies are alike: I do not think so: this one has a beautiful complexion, pink and white, and the most lovely little hand ever seen! The nose rather large; the eyes were shut, which was as well, as the light was so strong. His happy father was holding him in his arms, and himself showed traces of all he has gone through at the time. The child was believed to be dead, so you may conceive the ecstasy of everyone at his first cry."
Prince Frederick William was indeed, as this lady put it, beside himself with joy. He delighted in showing his baby to his friends and loyal servants, calling him "mein Junge."
In the early summer of 1859 the Princess Royal spent a happy holiday at Osborne, and her English relatives and friends thought her extraordinarily well and happy; it was also considered that she had become much better looking. The Queen describes her as "flourishing, and so well and gay," and as "a most charming companion," while Prince Albert tells Stockmar that "We found Vicky very well, and looking blooming, somewhat grown, and in excellent spirits. The short stay here will certainly be beneficial both to her health and spirits."
While the Princess was in England, she was asked by her parents if she would make private inquiries as to any German princesses who might be suited to become Princess of Wales, but the search does not seem to have been successful. It was then that Sir Augustus Paget, who had been for two years British Minister in Copenhagen, spoke to his fiancée, the Princess Royal's lady-in-waiting, of Princess Alexandra. It was from this lady, now Walpurga Lady Paget, that Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort first heard of the beauty and many endearing graces of the Danish princess. So impressed were they by her account that it was arranged that the Princess Royal should meet Princess Alexandra informally at Strelitz, in the palace of the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg.
This meeting duly took place, and the Princess Royal wrote most enthusiastically of the result of their informal interview. It was directly owing to this fact that it was settled that the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra should meet, as if by chance, in the cathedral of Spiers with a view to making close acquaintance.
The birth of Prince William brought a considerable change in the lives of his parents. Babelsberg had become too small to make a convenient summer home, and so the King granted them the use of the New Palace at Potsdam, which is only about half an hour's journey from Berlin.
This enormous rococo building with its two hundred rooms was erected by Frederick the Great at the end of the Seven Years' War, in order to show his enemies that he had plenty of money still left with which to go to war again if necessary. Prince Frederick William was very fond of the New Palace, where he had himself been born, and which was full of reminders of his great namesake. Apparently the only thing he did not like about it was its name, for it will be remembered that during his brief reign he altered it to Friedrichskron.
Queen Victoria, on her visit to Babelsberg in August, 1858, had gone to see the Palace, and she describes it in her diary as "a splendid building that reminded me much of Hampton Court - the same colour, same style, same kind of garden, with splendid orange trees which in the cool calm evening sent out a delicious smell. The Gartensaal, one enormous hall, all in marble with incrustations of stones, opening into a splendid room or gallery, reminded me of the Salle des Graces at Versailles. There is a theatre in the Palace, and many splendid fêtes have been given there. There are some rooms done in silver, like those at Sans Souci and Potsdam, and all in very rich Renaissance style. The millions it must have cost! But none of these palaces are wohnlich (liveable in). None like dear Babelsberg!"
The Princess Royal was determined to make at any rate her own rooms in the Palace wohnlich. After the fashion of the period, she surrounded herself with portraits of her relations, and with paintings of her various beloved English homes. There were endless souvenirs of her childhood scattered about in her rooms - souvenirs of her Christmases and of birthdays, little gifts presented to her as a child and young girl by her grandmother, by her "Aunt Gloucester," and by all those who had surrounded her during the days of her happy youth.
It is curious to reflect that, twenty years after the Princess Royal first took up her residence there, an English visitor was to write: "Without Carlyle's Frederick the Great, Potsdam would be a collection of mere dead walls enclosing a number of costly objects. Illuminated by the book, each room, each garden wall thrills with human interest." But when the Princess Royal first went there to make the New Palace her home for a part of each year, it might much more truly have been described as an arid and dusty waste, and that though it was surrounded by many waters. The gardens were very stiff, indeed ugly, but the Princess's active, creative mind saw their possibilities, and under her fostering hand and taste they were transformed and made to yield the utmost of beauty and delight.
The New Palace henceforth became associated, in the minds of all those who were truly attached to the Princess, with all that was best and most peaceful in her life. It was there that she was able to set the example of that helpful and happy country life which she had learned to value in England, and it was not long before its simple domestic character became known far and wide, and exercised an influence the extent of which it is impossible to estimate.
The Prince and Princess had a farm at Bornstedt, not far off, and there the Prince delighted to become for the time a simple farmer, managing himself all the details of the crops and the labourers, while the Princess occupied herself with the poultry and her model dairy. It may, indeed, be doubted whether the Prince and Princess found the farm a very good investment financially, but that was of small importance compared with the spiritual refreshment which they derived from this close periodical contact with the simple, natural gifts of mother earth.
Among the neighbouring villagers, too, they found plenty of scope for the exercise of an intelligent philanthropy, in gradually modifying the primitive ideas then prevalent on sanitation, and in caring for the children and the old people. The Prince would himself sometimes teach in the village schools. A pretty story is told that one day, when he was questioning a class, he asked a little girl to what kingdom his watch-chain and a flower in his button-hole respectively belonged, and when she had answered correctly, he went on to ask, - To what kingdom do I belong?" and the child replied, "To the kingdom of Heaven."
In June, 1859, the war between Austria and the allied French and Sardinian armies, culminating in the defeat of the Austrians at Solferino, brought natural anxieties to the Princess. The Prince Regent, while declaring the neutrality of Prussia, nevertheless ordered a mobilisation of the Army for the protection of Germany, and Major-General Prince Frederick William, commanding the First Infantry Brigade of Guards, was appointed to the command of the First Infantry Division of Guards. Though the Princess, thus early in her married life, showed by her quietude that she was a true soldier's wife, it was a great relief to her when the threatened danger was over and the mobilisation rescinded on the conclusion of the Peace of Villafranca in July. Prince Frederick William's promotion to command a division was then confirmed by his father.
The political situation, however, remained difficult, and Prince Albert and his daughter watched it with anxious concern. The following passage in a letter of his dated September is no doubt in reply to some comments of hers on the position of Prussia and Germany in view of the rising agitation for unity in Italy:
"I am for Prussia's hegemony; still Germany is for me first in importance, Prussia as Prussia second. Prussia will become the chief if she stand at the head of Germany: if she merely seek to drag Germany down to herself, she will not herself ascend. She must, therefore, be magnanimous, act as one with the German nation in a selfsacrificing spirit, prove that she is not bent on aggrandisement, and then she will gain preeminence, and keep it," and he goes on to point the moral in the sacrifices which Sardinia had already made for the Italian idea.
In November the Princess Royal paid a visit to England with her husband in time to celebrate the Prince of Wales's birthday on the 9th, and Prince Albert tells Stockmar:
"We find the Princess Royal looking extremely well, and in the highest spirits, infinitely lively, loving, and mentally active. In knowledge of the world, she has made great progress." The visit lasted till December 3, and Prince Albert wrote to the Dowager Duchess of Coburg that Prince Frederick William "has delighted us much. Vicky has developed greatly of late, and yet remains quite a child; of such indeed is the kingdom of Heaven."
And after his daughter had gone back to Berlin, the loving father wrote to her:
"Your dear visit has left upon us the most delightful impression; you were well, full of life and freshness, and withal matured. I may therefore yield to the feeling, sweetest of all to my heart as your father, that you will be lastingly happy. In this feeling I wait without apprehension for what fate may bring."
On this visit to England the Princess did not fail to see her old friend and ruler, Sarah Lady Lyttelton, who records:
"The dear Princess came in, habited and hatted and cockfeathered from her ride, looking very well though in a very bad cold. She embraced me and received me most kindly, and took me into her magnificent sitting-room, where I spent almost an hour with her, till she had to go and change her dress for luncheon. She talked much of her baby and inquired after everybody belonging to me and seemed as happy as ever."