It was now a waiting game before Friedrich and Victoria could ascend the throne. Friedrich’s father had been in bad health since the beginning of 1885, suffering little strokes. However, in January 1887, Friedrich himself began having persistent hoarseness, which was first thought to be a cold but by the spring, it had not improved.
A professor from the University of Berlin was called in and he discovered a swelling on the lower part of his left vocal cord. For ten agonising days, the professor poked around with a wire snare down Friedrich’s throat, trying to catch hold of the mass. When that didn’t work, he used a circular knife. However, that also failed, and he resorted to cauterising the mass with a hot platinum wire. In April, Friedrich and Victoria left for the spa at Ems where he could rest his voice. His cough improved, but the tumour grew larger, and the vocal cord was no longer moving normally. A further six doctors were called in, who decided that the growth was cancerous and one of them should perform a laryngotomy to remove the growth. The operation did not go ahead as his father was unwilling to give his permission. Dr Morell Mackenzie, a throat specialist, was then summoned to Berlin. He found “a growth about the size of a split pea” and recommended a biopsy. He performed the biopsy himself and sent the tissue to Professor Virchow. He determined that there was no malignancy in the tissue sent to him, but he needed a large sample to be sure. However, Morell Mackenzie was unable to take a larger sample.
Throughout all of this, Victoria was between hope and despair. She wrote to her mother, “Of course the suspense is very trying to me, but I own the hope held out is a very great relief & as I am sanguine by nature, I easily cling to it… I cannot bring myself to believe the worst, it seems too cruel!”1 In June, Morell Mackenzie finally succeeded in removing a larger part of the growth, but the diagnosis remained the same. Friedrich would stay under his care – to the relief of the German doctors who preferred not be responsible. Victoria and Friedrich prepared for a trip to England, also to join in the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It also gave them the chance to bring their private papers to England for safekeeping. During their time in England, Morell Mackenzie managed to remove all of the remaining growth on Friedrich’s vocal cords. The crisis appeared to be over, and Queen Victoria bestowed a knighthood on the doctor.
In the autumn of 1887, which Friedrich and Victoria spent mostly in Italy, fresh swelling was found in a different spot. To the doctors, it looked malignant. He later broke down, saying, “To think that I should have such a horrid, disgusting illness! That I shall be the object of disgust to everyone, and a burden to you all! I had so hoped to be of use to my country. Why is heaven so cruel to me! What have I do to be thus stricken and condemned! What will become of you? I have nothing to leave you! What will become of the country?”2 When the cancer diagnosis became public knowledge, it became clear that the crown was destined to pass from grandfather to grandson, perhaps with a small detour. Friedrich’s liberal policies would not see the light of day. Victoria saw her life’s work go down the drain.
As the days dragged on, Friedrich wore bags of ice around his neck when the swelling became worse, and he sucked on ice cubes. Nevertheless, he continued his work to prepare to take over for his dying father. In January 1888, he began having trouble breathing, and a tracheotomy was performed. Victoria wrote to her mother, “Dear Fritz is dozing & I am at his bedside. Of course, he cannot speak! He breathes quite well now, but the sound of the air through that canula (sic) is of course very horrid! I own I was in terror & agonies…”3 Friedrich and Victoria were still in Italy when his father Emperor Wilhelm I died on 9 March 1888. Friedrich immediately bestowed the Order of the Black Eagle on his wife and sat down to write the announcement of his accession.
Queen Victoria wrote to her daughter, “My own dear Empress Victoria… may God bless her! You know how little I care for rank or titles, but I cannot deny that after all that has been done and said, I am thankful and proud that dear Fritz & you should have come to the throne.”4 Victoria and Friedrich were already on their way back to Berlin, arrived there on 11 March by special train. They had decided to live at Charlottenburg.
On 12 April 1888, Friedrich noticed that the space through which he could breathe appeared to have gotten smaller. Apparently, cancer cells had begun to grow around the cannula, and soon he was “in state of suffocation”, and an immediate operation was performed to insert a new cannula. Although his breathing improved, he soon began having a fever and on 20 April several abscesses burst. Their son Wilhelm – eagerly awaiting his accession – had already ordered secretly that no one should be let out of Charlottenburg upon his father’s passing. Friedrich then appeared at the window to acknowledge the gathered crowd and the people began to cheer.
Queen Victoria had begun to plan for a trip to Germany, which now required more haste. She arrived at Charlottenburg on 24 April, and Friedrich was by then feeling a little better. Victoria confided in her mother, and Queen Victoria later wrote, “Vicky took me back to my room and talked some time very sadly about the future, breaking down completely. Her despair at what she seems to look on as the certain end is terrible. I saw Sir M. Mackenzie, and he said he thought the fever, which was less… would never leave dear Fritz, and that he would not live above a few weeks, possibly two months, but hardly three!!”5
Friedrich pulled himself together for the wedding of their second son Heinrich, to Princess Irene of Hesse. Victoria wrote, “He looked so handsome and dignified but so thin and pale… I kept back my tears with difficulty and felt with bitter sorrow that we should never again see him attending such a festive gathering as Emperor!”6
At the beginning of June, Friedrich and Victoria moved to the New Palace in Potsdam. Friedrich took up the use of rooms on the ground floor so that he would not have to climb stairs. He was clearly dying now and did not have much time left. Victoria rarely left his room, only going upstairs to her own rooms to sleep. At 3 A.M. on 14 June, Victoria was awakened by the doctor. Friedrich’s pulse had grown weaker, and his fever was raging. Victoria sent for their son Heinrich and his new wife Irene as well as their daughter Charlotte and her husband, Bernhard. Crown Prince Wilhelm arrived with his wife and had already begun giving out orders. Victoria slept on a chaise longue just outside the door that night.
The final struggle began at 10 in the morning on 15 June. Victoria sat on his bed and talked softly to him. He became unconscious and died shortly after 11 A.M. After just 99 days; their reign was over.