I’ve been reading Julia Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Granddaughters of Victoria, Queens of Europe (2004) and am going to do a series of posts on Queen Victoria’s five granddaughters, all of whom went on to be European queens themselves.
Today we will talk about Princess Sophie, who was the daughter of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Vicky. Sophie (1870-1932) was born Princess Sophia of Prussia (daughter of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, and sister to the future Kaiser Wilhelm; she grew up to marry Constantine I, King of Greece. All quotations below are from Gelardi’s book.
Despite being born and raised in Germany as a German princess, Sophie’s mother, Vicky, bred a certain Anglophile nature into her daughter. Vicky, as a British princess, was a bit of a snob when it came to moving to Germany.
When Vicky “was betrothed to marry Prince Frederick of Prussia (the further Emperor Frederick III), the queen refused Berlin’s demand that Vicky should marry in Germany. The idea was simply ‘too absurd’. After all, proclaimed Victoria proudly, ‘it is not every day that one marries the eldest daughter of the Queen of England‘” (15).
Over the years, her brother Wilhelm resisted every attempt to be Anglicized by his family and instead became deeply embedded in German nationalism, which led to a lot of tension between the siblings over the years. Wilhelm was also famously tempestuous, leading many to speculate that he was mentally ill. I have no idea how true this is, but some of Wilhelm’s behavior certainly strained an already tense relationship he had with his parents and siblings.
In 1888, Emperor Frederick died a terrible death the day after Sophie’s 18th birthday. He had suffered from throat cancer for a long while but attempted to hide the severity of it from Sophie especially on her birthday:
“Having just celebrated her eighteenth birthday some hours before, Sophie now witnessed the poignant last good-bye between her parents. After lapsing into unconsciousness, Frederick III died. Scarcely had the corpse grown cold, however, when Willy’s unsavoury character emerged in spectacular manner.
“With great disrespect, he ordered his soldiers to ransack the Neues Palais for ‘incriminating’ evidence of ‘liberal plots’. In his delusion, the new Kaiser was sure he could find something to accuse his mother and father of. His newly widowed mother was horrified that ‘William’s first act as Ruler was to have our house, our sanctuary, our quiet house of mourning where death had set up his thrown, cordoned off my a regiment of Hussars who appeared unmounted with rifles in their hands from behind every tree and every statue!’ Wilhelm’s soldiers found nothing – despite literally turning the contents of the entire palace upside down, leaving papers and other objects strewn everywhere. Anticipating this, Fritz [i.e. Frederick III] had had his papers sent to England, where Wilhelm could not get his hands on them” (20).
The next year Sophie married Prince Constantine of Greece (whom she called ‘Tino’). “Sophie’s marriage was sign to the Greeks that Greece was set to see greatness again, for there was an old prophecy which said that when Constantine and Sophia reigned, Constantinople would again fall into Greek hands . . . . it came then as no surprise that when Sophie appeared outside the cathedral on the arm of her new husband, ‘the enthusiasm of the enthusiasm of the people was unprecedented.
“After the Orthodox ceremony, in deference to the bride’s religion, a Protestant service was performed in the Royal Palace, conducted by the king’s own chaplain. The day ended with a spectacular fireworks display, which bathed the Parthenon in blazing reds and greens. When Kaiser Wilhelm prepared to depart Athens, he took leave of everyone ‘most affectionately’. ‘The only one he forgot to say good-by [sic] to,’ according to a witness, ‘was his own sister, the bride’” (22).
From what I understand, Sophie’s marriage to Tino was a happy one. She eventually even converted to Orthodoxy for him, although this enraged Kaiser Wilhelm. He attempted to lambast her via letters, but she told him exactly where he could shove his disapproval.
Together, Sophie and Tino had six children:
“In February 1890, Sophie excitedly told her mother that a baby was on the way. Since, as the Empress Frederick [i.e., Vicky] later explained, ‘accidents happen very easily‘, Vicky wisely thought that Sophie might need some help in a medically primitive Athens. She accordingly smuggled into Sophie’s entourage a midwife from Germany, a certain Frau von E. Displaying a characteristically Victorian approach to sexuality, Vicky went on to explain to Sophie why there was need to keep Frau von E.’s true purpose a secret: ‘Of course I could not tell you what her real profession was when you were a young girl, so I have to invent the name and function of housekeeper, so that you might have her always near at hand . . . you married, so she went with you; but I could not tell you why.’
“Had it not been for her mother’s foresight, Sophie’s life and that of her baby might not have been saved. The birth, on 19 July 1890, was dangerous – at one point the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. The doctor in attendance was at a loss what to do, but thanks to the German midwife’s skill, Sophie’s life and that of her baby, George, were saved. In England, Queen Victoria followed events in Greece with a close eye. The queen was taken aback with the speed at which little George arrived – not quite nine months after his parents’ wedding, prompting the queen to write to the Empress Frederick [Vicky]: ‘What shall I say at this most unfortunate and yet fortunate event happening so soon?‘ The queen calculated that ‘it must be a week at least too soon, for she won’t have been married nine months till the 27th'” (25).
Oh, Sophie, you saucy minx. I know babies are born early all the time, but part of me really hopes that he was a little, uh, engagement present. Also, I would like to point out that although the author claims it was a typically Victorian mindset not to tell your daughter where babies come from or the purpose of a midwife, this is actually quite unusual for that period. Nineteenth-century people discussed sex all the time and it was probably rare for a girl as old as Sophie to enter marriage not knowing the finer points of the birds and the bees.
Despite the public’s initial love of Tino and Sophie, whom they felt would fulfill a prophecy, Greece went through a time of upheaval, which led to some strong anti-monarchy sentiments. It didn’t help that Kaiser Wilhelm was openly supporting the Ottoman Empire in their fight against Greece.
However, “The family’s fortunes changed dramatically in February 1898, when King George [Tino’s father] and his daughter, Princess Marie [Tino’s sister], were nearly shot to death by would-be assassins. Instantly, the tide turned in the Greek royal family’s favour. The would-be assassins had accomplished what they surely had not set out to do. Hostility turned into sympathy for the royals” (88).
King George would go on to be assassinated in 1913, ostensibly by a man who didn’t really have any political motivation. George had been planning to abdicate his throne for Tino later that year anyway.
Sophie and Tino reigned for 4 years before Greece got swept up in WWI, during which time they were deposed. They were restored to the throne in 1919 during the Greco-Turkish War, but Tino was forced to abdicate in favor of his and Sophie’s eldest son, George, in 1922. They went into exile in Italy, where Tino died one year later. Sophie returned to her native Germany for about the next ten years before dying of cancer, the same disease which took both her mother and father.