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John Van der Kiste

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Charley the Pretender
by John Van der Kiste   

Last edited: Thursday, December 26, 2002
Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2002

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Princess Charlotte of Saxe-Meiningen, eldest sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II. From European Royal History Journal, XVIII, Jul/Aug 2000

The first daughter and second child of Prince and Princess Frederick William ('Fritz' and 'Vicky') of Prussia, was born at Neue Palais, Potsdam on 24 July 1860. Vicky had been fortunate to survive the birth of her eldest child Prince William, but her second confinement was easier. The baby was christened Victoria Elizabeth Augusta Charlotte and always known by the last, though her elder brother's attempts to call her 'dear sister' or 'little sister' resulted in the childhood family name of 'Ditta'. Two years later a second brother Henry was born, to be followed by two more brothers, both of whom died in infancy, and three younger sisters.

Ditta gave her mother much worry as a child. When she was three, Vicky was concerned at her hyperactive nature: 'Her little mind seems almost too active for her body - she is so nervous & sensitive and so quick.' Three years later she was singing the praises of her second daughter, another Victoria, then three months, and comparing her favourably with the first, who was being 'a little "silly"' and had so far turned out to be 'a most difficult child to bring up, if she were not so stupid and backward her being naughty would not matter.'

Forgetting that as a mother she herself had been too ready to find fault with her eldest daughter, Queen Victoria was concerned lest Vicky should be continually reproaching the child too much, and urged her 'not to speak of her or treat her generally as such a naughty and stupid child - but be very kind and encouraging though severe whenever it is necessary.' The grandmother was to have first-hand experience of Ditta's naughtiness at Balmoral when the girl of eleven refused to shake hands with the Highland ghillie John Brown, explaining that 'Mama says I ought not to be too familiar with servants.'

The problems persisted into adolescence. In May 1874 Vicky wrote to her mother that the girl was 'gentle and amiable and willing to do all she is told, and much nicer towards the brothers and sisters,' but that she was not clever, 'and never will be; she has few or no interests - no taste for learning or reading, for art or natural history, so it is no use to expect these things of her.' Physically she was so small that she looked like a child of nine or ten. At sixteen, she had become very short and stout; 'she has an immense bust and arms - a long waist and neck, and looks like a big person when she is sitting - and when she gets up she has no legs almost.'

By this time Charlotte was engaged to her second cousin Bernhard, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Meiningen, a young officer in the Potsdam regiment with scholarly tastes and a passion for ancient archaeology. He had been invited to accompany his cousins on a switchback railway ride on the Isle of Peacocks in the Pfaueninsel, Berlin's pleasure park, and when her brother William accelerated the controls for a joke, she clung to her neighbour Bernhard. If it was not love at first sight, romance soon followed.

Alternatively it may have been a reaction to her mother's constant criticism and the only means of finding her independence. She had developed a reputation for flirtatiousness, malicious gossip and troublemaking, and Vicky was often saddened by 'That pretty exterior - & the empty inside, those dangerous character traits! Everyone is initially enthralled, & yet those who know her better know how she really is - and can have neither love nor trust nor respect!'

Charlotte and Bernhard were married in February 1878. In May 1879 their daughter Feodora, Vicky's first grandchild and Queen Victoria's first great-grandchild, was born. The young mother proved to be very unmaternal, and declared to her own mother's dismay that she was not going to have any more children. When Bernhard was transferred to a regiment in Berlin her grandfather, Emperor William, gave him and Charlotte a villa near the Tiergarten which became a centre for smart society, where the ladies met to go skating, riding, holding dinner parties and gossiping while their husbands went out shooting. She bought all her clothes in Paris and her sense of style was much admired.

With her love of outrageous and sarcastic comments she soon became the centre of Berlin's fast set, and her grandmother, Empress Augusta, had a special place for this woman who enjoyed passing on tittle-tattle, even if some of it was directed against her own family. Even so, Charlotte was saddened at the estrangement between mother and eldest son. She tried to mend the rift between them, writing reassuringly to her mother in December 1879 that 'I really think he does not mean to be so unkind & thoughtless as it often seems; he never shows much feeling, but I think he feels very much & I have often in these last days heard him speak so nicely of you'.

Within a few weeks it seemed apparent that her elder brother was to marry the good-natured but plain and pious Princess Augusta ('Dona') of Schleswig-Holstein. Charlotte had grown apart from William, thinking him too immature, cold-hearted and incapable of being in love with anyone. She took an instant dislike to his future wife, whom she found very shy and uncommunicative, cutting a poor figure beside her unmarried, prettier and more lively sister Caroline Matilda ('Calma'). At the same time she thought her brother-in-law Ernest was in love with Dona and hoped to marry her himself, though as she had such a low opinion of Dona it seemed odd that she should wish the girl on Bernhard's brother instead. Though Fritz was aware of his son's faults and shared her reservations, once the betrothal was officially announced he was so alarmed by Charlotte's cold behaviour towards Dona and her attempts to stir up feeling against her among the 'smart set' that he had to take her aside and warn her 'where it would lead if our daughter from the outset turned against her brother & sister-in-law in this way, instead of lovingly embracing them.'

Ironically Charlotte was to find herself on her parents' side in the bitter quarrels which tore the family apart when Prince Alexander of Battenberg, Prince of Bulgaria, was proposed as a husband for her sister Victoria. She was particularly incensed when William and Dona were so rude towards Queen Victoria. 'What grieved & shocked me beyond all, is Willy's behaviour!' she wrote to her mother. 'Really I have no words, & feel ashamed to think he dared behave in this way to his Grandmama, who has always been kindness itself to him since his birth'.

Yet she was an undependable ally, taking the side of her brother in the unhappy family drama which unfolded around her father's illness, accession as Emperor Frederick in March 1888 and death three months later. When her parents had gone to London for Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations the previous year, she and Bernhard had sided with William saying that it was their mother's fault that William and Dona had been prevented from taking their rightful places and representing the Hohenzollerns there.

On the accession of William as Emperor in June 1888, Charlotte's close relationship made her much sought-after in Berlin court circles. Yet many of the family did not trust her. Her mother wrote with insight that 'unfortunately nature has given her a difficult & unhappy character with many qualities that are dangerous for herself as well as for others!' She spared no efforts in making herself indispensable as the bearer of court gossip, and her younger brother Henry called her 'Charley the Pretender' behind her back. To her English cousins, she self-deprecatingly signed herself 'Charlotte the Brat'.

She still despised her sister-in-law Dona, now Empress, and one morning in November 1892 caused a scandal by arriving at the royal stables before an important hunt early one morning with her lady-in-waiting, both rather the worse for drink. Charlotte demonstrated to an amused crowd of hangers-on how the Empress mounted her horse, falling into the saddle with a thud 'like a majestic sack of flour', as she told them loudly. The next day an order was issued banning all Princesses and ladies-in-waiting from the hunt, 'by order of the Empress'.

At around the same time a series of anonymous letters, some embellished with pornographic collages, was sent to members of the court and imperial family, and neither the Emperor nor Empress were spared. It was evident that the person or persons responsible had considerable information which could only have been known by a member or close confidant of the family. Though she had received at least one of these, Charlotte with her love of intrigue was one of the first to be suspected. A police investigation revealed that the culprit was the mistress of the Empress's reprobate brother Ernest. Both were banished from court and the mistress was expelled from Germany, but Charlotte came out of the affair almost as badly. She had lost a diary containing highly damaging 'secrets' about the family and court, which had fallen into the perpetrator's hands and given her much salacious material for her letters. During the investigation the diary was handed to the Emperor, and he never forgave her. Bernhard was transferred to a regiment at the sleepy, dull town of Breslau, only one step removed from exile for him and his wife.

In 1889 the Duchess of Edinburgh and her daughters settled at Coburg, where her husband Alfred was to inherit the Duchy once his ageing uncle Ernest died, which he did in 1893. The Duchess found Coburg dull, and eagerly accepted Charlotte's invitations to the villa in Berlin. They became firm friends, and the Duchess's eldest daughter Marie later recalled her cousin 'Charly', as 'neat to a degree and always beautifully dressed….Never have I heard a softer or more melodious voice'. She helped to arrange a marriage between Marie and Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Roumania, when the Duke and Queen Victoria were hoping to secure Marie's betrothal to the Duke of York, later King George V.

Now in disgrace with her brother's court at Berlin, Charlotte paid regular visits to the Roumanian court, ingratiating herself with Ferdinand's uncle King Charles. Jealous of the charm of Crown Princess Marie, Charlotte worked at destroying her good name in her conversations with King Charles and Queen Elizabeth. Proud of being a Hohenzollern himself, the King was disappointed that his distant kinsman had not yet paid a state visit to Bucharest. Charlotte did what she could to see it never happened, meanwhile fanning the King's resentment of Emperor William. At length her role was discovered and she was no longer welcome at Bucharest.

For a while it was expected that Prince Alfred, only son and heir of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh (who had succeeded to the duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in 1893), would marry Charlotte's daughter Feodora. Sadly the young man got into bad company, ruined his health and eventually took his own life. In the summer of 1897 Feodora was engaged to Prince Henry XXX Reuss and they were married at Breslau in September 1898. Charlotte's widowed mother Empress Frederick attended and Queen Victoria was represented by her youngest surviving son Arthur, Duke of Connaught. Emperor William was attending military manoeuvres nearby, and his absence from the wedding was a public reminder of the continuing family feud.

By now Charlotte had become much closer to her mother again, and regularly visited her at her home, Friedrichshof. Soon after the Empress's doctors confirmed that she was suffering from inoperable cancer she confided the news to Charlotte, asking for her discretion on the subject. She might as well have asked a town crier, and soon afterwards was complaining to younger daughter Sophie, now Crown Princess of the Hellenes, 'I fear that she has not kept that dangerous little tongue of hers in order but has been talking about my health. It really is too bad when she swore that she would not…' Yet she was soon forgiven, and some of her mother's last letters to Queen Victoria were in Charlotte's handwriting. She was there with her sisters and brothers at the Empress's deathbed in August 1901.

Charlotte and Bernhard had bought a villa at Cannes not long after their marriage, and after her mother's death she spent most of the winters there, a familiar sight in her car which she called her 'Angel'. Not only was she was much in demand among the Riviera smart set, but the Mediterranean climate was also vital for her health. As a young woman she had suffered from several chronic complaints including rheumatism, swollen knees and painful joints, headaches, insomnia and a baffling blood disorder. Her doctor diagnosed severe anaemia.

Though her mother thought that her inveterate appetite for social life, excessive smoking and perhaps drinking were responsible, recent analysis has suggested that Charlotte, as well as her mother and daughter, suffered from porphyria, the non-life-threatening inherited constitutional metabolic disorder which had been incorrectly diagnosed as insanity in the case of its most famous victim, their ancestor King George III. From her late thirties onwards, she was continually unwell with a catalogue of increasingly severe complaints which often left her unable to sleep and convinced her that her 'idiotic nerves [were] giving way'.

This ill-health probably did much to explain the astonishing feud between Charlotte and Bernhard with their daughter and son-in-law. Feodora also suffered from these symptoms from an early age, and also inherited her love of poisonous gossip. She and Henry had only been married for a few months before she and her parents were angrily accusing each other of telling lies about them. Charlotte declared that her daughter was 'beyond my comprehension', barred her and Henry from her house 'for ever', and attempts at reconciliation only made matters worse.

Charlotte refused to believe Feodora's explanation that she had a virulent form of malaria, telling her brother and sister that her daughter had contracted venereal disease from her husband. Relations between Charlotte and the Emperor never improved, and she made a rare public comment on current affairs in 1908 after he had made himself look foolish with his interview to a friend in England, subsequently published with minor alterations in the Daily Telegraph in London. The only salvation for Germany and Europe, she remarked, would be the formation of a collective regency of all the German princes to restrain any of his 'initiatives' in future.

Her mother would have been reassured to know that in latter life Charlotte waxed lyrical about England. In June 1911 she attended the coronation of her cousin King George V, and stayed in the country for several weeks afterwards. From Sandringham she wrote that there was 'no place in the world like England, & if possible I'm more English than ever.' She made several expeditions, usually with her brother Henry, to hospitals, 'various lovely country houses', and 'marvellous private collections'.

In June 1914 Bernhard succeeded his father as Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. A few weeks later war broke out and he had to leave for the front, putting her in charge of the duchy. Fortunately she had no need to be more than a figurehead, as government was in the hands of others. By now she was increasingly racked by pain with swollen legs and feet, kidney problems, intestinal disorders and chronic aches throughout her body. Regular visits to a sanatorium and almost perpetual medical supervision brought her no relief, and when the end of the war brought Germany's empire and duchies crashing down, she was spending more and more time in bed.

To add to her other woes she now had heart trouble, and death on 1 October 1919, two months after her fifty-ninth birthday, came as a blessed relief. Bernhard survived her by nine years, and died in 1928. It was the end of the family line as their daughter Feodora, who had desperately wanted children of her own, endured a life of chronic ill-health similar to that of her mother, and took her own life in 1945.

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