On 2 August 1861, William’s brother passed away, and he became King of Prussia with Augusta as his Queen. Her increasing ill-health prevented her from enjoying the role. She underwent several unspecified operations which failed to improve the situation. Victoria would later write of her ever-complaining mother-in-law, “She stands so alone – she has and makes so many enemies and there so few who bear her with foibles and know what she really is. And yet you do not know how difficult it is to be he her friend for she always is her own enemy! I am sure there are few mothers-in-law on so good and warm a footing with their sons’ wives as she is with me – and she spoils me a great deal. It is my greatest endeavour to do all I can to keep up this good feeling, but I must acknowledge that I make many sacrifices for I am at her beck and call all day long.”
Augusta became involved in the acknowledgement of the International Society (later renamed the Red Cross Society) after military nursing staff were recognised as neutral in times of war by the Geneva convention. She also became involved with the founding of a new hospital system in Prussia and helped found the National Women’s Association. When her grandson Prince Sigismund died at the age of 1 in 1866, she personally went to the front where her son was serving to tell him the news. It was unusually empathetic of her, and she later informed Victoria that wearing mourning was not necessary. Victoria was devastated by her son’s death but could not mourn him fully.
In 1871, the German Empire was proclaimed – making Augusta the first German Empress. She considered the bloodshed it had required a personal defeat. Later that year, she celebrated her 60th birthday in Baden-Baden, and she began to withdraw more and more from the court. Her days began to follow a routine. She began her day with a cup of strong tea or coffee, a midday meal of meat soup, and dinner consisting of game and spinach. She often went to bed around ten after having a slice of cake and tea. Her bed was adjusted to make it more comfortable as she could not move around unaided. She would spend her days reading if she could.
In 1881, her grandson William married Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg, and surprisingly, Augusta took her under her wing. It was in stark contrast to the welcome she had given her daughter-in-law. The following summer, she was taken ill with what was most likely breast cancer. She underwent an operation and was in a lot of pain for quite a while. She made a remarkable recovery but was never quite the same afterwards. In 1882, she fell twice and was from then on unable to move without crutches. By 1887, it became clear that both her son and husband were seriously ill. The year 1888 would be the year of the three Emperors. On 9 March 1888, Augusta’s husband died and was succeeded by their son who became Frederick III, German Emperor for just 99 days. Augusta was wheeled to her husband’s bedside as he lay dying and he asked where she was, not seeing that she was holding his hand. On 16 March, she followed her husband’s coffin in a procession in her wheelchair. The new Emperor was already terminally ill with cancer of the larynx, and he died on 15 June 1888. Augusta was not with her son – having gone to Baden-Baden a few days before. Her daughter-in-law informed her via a telegram, “She who was so proud and happy in being his wife mourns with you, poor mother, over the death of your only son. No mother ever had his equal, be strong and proud in your sorrow. Only this morning he sent you his love.” Augusta returned home immediately to be in time for the funeral.
During the last two years of her life, she spent a lot of time with her daughter, but by December 1889, she began suffering from a heavy cold. On 6 January 1890, she took to her bed with a fever and was soon in and out of consciousness. Her daughter held her hand as the hours went by, and she could no longer speak. She died on 7 January, and she was buried with her husband at the mausoleum at Schloss Charlottenburg. Her daughter-in-law later wrote, “She was my darling’s mother, a remarkable woman. How gladly one would have loved her if she had only shown affection & sympathy & kindness. But now I shall only remember what was good & bright, her virtues and her sufferings & forget all the bitterness I endured!”1