Princess Charlotte of Prussia was born on 24 July 1860 as the daughter of the future Frederick III, German Emperor and his wife, Victoria, Princess Royal. Her delighted grandmother Queen Victoria wrote to her daughter, “Thousand, thousand good wishes, blessings and congratulations! Everything seems to have passed off as easily (indeed more so) as I could have expected though I always thought it would be very easy, and the darling baby – such a fine child. I am delighted it is a little girl, for they are such much more amusing children.” Charlotte’s mother was quite proud of her daughter and wrote when she was three months old: “I am so proud of her and like to show her off, which I never did with him [her eldest son William] as he was so thin and pale and fretful at her age.”
However, at the age of 21 months, Charlotte began to worry her mother with her violent tantrums. Charlotte was hyperactive, and her mother noted that “her little mind seems almost too active for her body – she is so nervous & sensitive and so quick.” Charlotte was soon turning out to be “a most difficult child to bring up, if she were not so stupid and backward, her being naughty would not matter.” Even Queen Victoria thought her daughter was being too critical of Charlotte and wrote to her to be encouraging and kind. Charlotte continued to display behavioural problems like sucking and chewing on her clothing and biting her fingernails. She was of a very small stature and still looked about nine years old when she was already well into her teens. She had “no taste for learning or reading, for art or natural history.”
Nevertheless, on 1 April 1877, Charlotte’s engagement to her second cousin Bernhard, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Meiningen was announced. He was nine years her senior. Her mother could only hope that Bernhard would have a good influence on her wayward daughter and wrote to Queen Victoria, “Everyone is initially enthralled & yet those who know her better know how she really is – and can have neither love nor trust nor respect! It is too sad. There is nothing to be done, it is just a fact & one can only hope that time & life will serve as teachers to her & that the good Bernhard will protect & guide her. Then at least her wicked qualities will not be able to cause her any harm.”
Charlotte and Bernhard were married in a double wedding with Elisabeth Anna of Prussia (whose father was a younger son of Frederick William III of Prussia) and Frederick Augustus, Hereditary Grand Duke of Oldenburg on 18 February 1878 in Berlin. Her mother wrote that Charlotte “really looked very pretty – in the silver moiré train, the lace – the orange and myrtle and the veil.” The festivities lasted so long that Charlotte fainted three times from sheer exhaustion.
Charlotte and Bernhard moved into a small villa near the New Palace in Potsdam. Still feeling her mother’s watchful eyes on her, Charlotte and Bernhard travelled to Paris by the end of the year, and she soon realised that she was pregnant. On 12 May 1879, Charlotte gave birth to Queen Victoria’s first great-grandchild named Feodora Victoria Augusta Marie Marianne. Feodora was born just six weeks after the death of her mother’s 11-year-old brother Prince Waldemar of diptheria and Charlotte was deeply affected by his death. Though Charlotte’s dislike of her mother softened somewhat, their relationship remained difficult at best. Victoria did dote on young Feodora, she was, after all, her first grandchild. Charlotte herself found pregnancy limiting and declared that she would have no more children. Charlotte and Bernhard soon moved from Potsdam to Berlin where Charlotte drank, smoked and entertained. She was proving herself to be quite the gossip.
Queen Victoria first met her first great-grandchild when the eight-year-old Feodora accompanied her parents, grandparents and her aunt and uncle to the Golden Jubilee celebrations in London. Queen Victoria loved “little Feo” who “is so good and I think grown so pretty. We are delighted to have her, and I think the dear child enjoyed herself.” By then Charlotte’s father was already quite ill. When Charlotte’s grandfather Emperor William I died on 9 March 1888, her father – now Emperor Frederick III- was already left unable to speak due to throat cancer. He would die just 99 days later on 15 June 1888. Her elder brother William was now the new Emperor. Charlotte sought to integrate herself into her brother’s circle, but not many people trusted her.
Meanwhile, young Feodora was growing up in her grandmother’s household at Friedrichshof. The young girl was an only child and had very little contact with her cousins. By 1890, Feodora began to display the same type of health problems that continued to plague her mother. She was often ill, had diarrhoea and pain in her head, back and limbs. When Feodora was 13 years old, the Empress Frederick – as she was now called – wrote, “I find dear little Feo hardly grown, she is very plain just now, especially in profile – a huge mouth & nose & chin – no cheeks – no colour – the body of a child of 5 & a head that might well belong to a grown-up person!”1