Frederick William I of Prussia (1688-1740) is known as "The Soldier King". He gave Prussia its famous, disciplined army. He had a special regiment of Potsdam Giants, consisting of especially tall men, whom he never risked in battle. When he was ill or depressed, Frederick William would have a few hundred of them marching through his bedroom to cheer him up.

Frederick William was born on August 14, 1688, a few months after the death of his grandfather, the Great Elector, after whom he was named. While he was still a small child, his 1st governess, Marthe de Montbail, was frightened out of her wits by his strange behaviour. Once, obstinately refusing to spit out a silver shoe buckle in his mouth, 4-year-old Frederick William swallowed it, either accidentally, or for spite; a physician finally got it out of him. On another occasion, the young Prince threatened to let himself fall 3 stories out of the window unless his governess let him have his way. Ordered to put on a gold brocade dressing gown one morning, little Frederick William threw it into the fire. He was just as obstinate when it came to his studies. The only things he liked as a boy were drilling soldiers and economics. He saved his pocket money to form a company of cadets whom he drilled himself.
Despite his headstrong and rebellious nature, his frivolous mother, Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (1668-1705), did nothing but indulge; she spoiled him outrageously. She even wrote instructions to his governor, Count Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten (1661-1728), not to oppose his charge.

Frederick William's father, Frederick I (1657-1713), was the first King of Prussia. Although he was the newest and the least important of all European Kings, he modelled himself upon the most important, Louis XIV "The Sun King" of France. Frederick copied him slavishly, and - although he loved Frederick William's mother dearly - he took a mistress because he thought it the correct thing for a monarch to do. Loving all forms of pomp and the outward display of riches, his finances were always in a disastrous state.
Young Frederick William, however, was very different. In 1711, he presented his father with evidence of financial  mismanagement and the Prime Minister was sacked. When Frederick I died two years later, Frederick William gave him a magnificent funeral and then started to reduce the Royal expenses drastically. Like everyone else, Frederick William paid the consumer taxt he himself had imposed, and no candles were left burning at court. He lived frugally and worked hard and tirelessly for the welfare of his people. He encouraged farming, reclaimed marshes, stored grain in good times and sold it in bad times. He dictated a manual of Regulations for State Officials, containing 35 chapters and 297 paragraphs in which every public servant in Prussia could find his duties precisely set out. A minister or councillor failing to attend a committee meeting would lose six months' pay. If he absented himself a second time, he would be discharged from the Royal service. No inspections were to take place during the ploughing season or the harvest, when the farmers would have no time to spare. The manual was supplemented by further instructions drawn up in person by Frederick William, prescribing methods of ploughing, erecting earthworks as a protection against flooding, and hunting wolves. Market women should not sit idle at their stalls but were to busy themselves knitting stockings. Any parson preaching for over one hour would be fined. Frederick William tore what he considered "extravagant finery" off the clothes of females in the street and he used to discipline idle building workers in person. It is said that he once gave chase in the street to an escaping pickpocket. Having caught him, the King asked why he had tried to run away. When the man replied that he was afraid of him, Frederick William hit him with his stick and roared: "Miserable wretch! You shall love me!"

Leopold the Old Dessauer, his crony Frederick William had a passion for all things military. He gave Prussia an enormous army; one in every nine men in Prussia was a soldier and another 40000 men were foreign mercenaries. Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau (1676-1747, to the right), a remarkable soldier and strategist, helped to turn the army into a first-class fighting machine. He attached bayonets to the outside of the muskets and replaced the wooden ramrod with one made of iron, which was more reliable enabling faster loading of muskets and faster charging after firing. In addition, the "Old Dessauer"  invented the marching step; marching in formation made an uncanny impression on foreigners used to the uncoordinated movements of their own troops. The discipline in Prussia's army was high due to the quality of the officers. Frederick William did not sell commissions to the highest bidder, as was custom, but gave them to members of the aristocracy strictly according to merit. In addition, the King believed in harsh discipline with flogging and executions as punishments for misbehaviour.

Frederick William had a special preference for tall men and would go to any length to obtain one for his regiment of Potsdam Giants. He sent recruiting agents throughout Europe in search of  tall men to add to his regiment, giving bonuses to parents who surrendered their tallest sons and landowners who sent him their tallest farm workers. When he could not get them voluntarily, he even resorted to kidnapping giants. Once a preacher was carried off in mid-sermon together with four others. Many giants attempted desertion or suicide, despite high wages. When other rulers started protesting against the violation of their territorial boundaries by his kidnapping attempts, Frederick William introduced a breeding program. The mating of very tall men with similar women, however, did not guarantee giant children and the method was a slow one. Frederick William so doted on his giants that he never risked them in battle. He liked to paint their portraits, man for man, from memory and was much pleased with the result. When he was ill or depressed, he would have a few hundred of them marching through his bedroom to cheer him up.
Sophia Dorothea of Hannover, his wife
Frederick William had always hated his Hannoverian cousin, George II of Great-Britain (1683-1760), and the hatred was mutual. As a child Frederick William had hit his nearly 5 years elder cousin causing a bloody nose. Later, Frederick William's first love had been Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She was more than 5 years his senior and had treated him as a boy. When she married George in 1705, Frederick William's hatred for George increased and he used to call him "my brother, the red cabbage". Nevertheless, the next year their domineering grandmother, Sophia (1630-1714), Electress of Hannover, had arranged Frederick William's marriage with George's sister, Sophia Dorothea of Great Britain (1687-1757, to the left). Frederick I had happily provided an extravagant wedding feast for the couple with a meal comprising 640 calves, 100 fat oxen, 1102 turkeys, 650 ducks and 1000 doves. The newlyweds apparently indulged enthusiastically in their 'marital duties'; a few weeks after the wedding Old Sophia wrote to Frederick I that she hoped "God would soon make him a grandfather" and added: "... to which end, as I hear, they are working night and day in Berlin". Frederick I read the letter aloud at the dinner table and the ensuing laughter so embarrassed the young bride that she left the room. However, within a few months of their wedding Frederick William was threatening with divorce and proposed a toast to the downfall of England.

Sophia Dorothea had the arrogance of the Guelphs and the rashness of the Stuarts. She was a gossip, a bore and a snob and spent money like water, gambling for high stakes and running up huge debts, while Frederick William lived parsimoniously. After his accession to the throne, Frederick William I sacked so many servants in his effort to economise, that Royal meals became modest bourgeois affairs with the Royal Family helping themselves to meat, cheese and beer. Afterwards, the Queen and the Princesses had to do the washing-up themselves. The kitchen accounts were checked and Frederick William used to complain if a few more eggs were used than he had allowed for. At times, however, Frederick William did feel some tenderness towards his wife. A year after their wedding an heir to the throne was born, and although the boy died when only a few months old, the Queen would give birth to 13 other children. She was one of the few people that Frederick William never hit and he was faithful to her his whole life. He used to say that there were "no such things as mistresses", only "harlots and whores". In the autumn of 1723, the Queen did not feel well. On November 8, she was seized by aches and flatulence and the next day, to everybody's - and especially her own - surprise, she gave birth to her twelfth child. Not having recognised the symptoms after eleven pregnancies, she was a laughing-stock for a while.

Their eldest surviving son was Fritz (1712-1786). Frederick William wanted him to become a fine soldier. So, as a little child Fritz was woken each morning by the firing of a cannon. At the age of 6 he was given his own regiment of children to drill as cadets and a year later he was given a miniature arsenal. Fritz was beaten for being thrown off a bolting horse and for wearing gloves in cold weather. Frederick William wrote down precise instructions for his eldest son's teachers: "On Sunday he is to rise at seven. As soon as he has his slippers on he shall kneel at the bed and say a short prayer to God loud enough for all present to hear [..]. After which, the Lord's Prayer. Then speedily and with all despatch he shall dress and wash himself, be queued and powdered; and getting dressed as well as breakfast - tea, which is to be taken while the valet is making his queue and powdering him - shall be finished and done in a quarter of an hour, that is, by a quarter past seven." And so on.

At dinner one day with his minister, Friedrich von Grumbkov, Frederick William suddenly started lecturing 12-year-old Fritz. There had been nothing in the boy's attitude to provoke his father - Fritz listened and answered dutifully - but for the very reason, perhaps, that he lacked all pretexts, Frederick William grew more and more angry. He started by tapping and pinching his son's cheek; soon he was boxing his ears, hitting him, pulling his hair until he was suddenly seized with a kind of fit and jumped up and started throwing plates at the wall. Feigning drunk, his minister tactfully did the same, while Fritz stood by, trembling, and pale.
Fritz was clearly unloved and any childlike spontaneity, enthusiasm or trust had been destroyed in his struggle with his bullying father. The rift between father and son would deepen with the years. Frederick William greatly preferred his younger son August William (1722-1758). Excessive in everything, he sometimes kissed the 4-year-old boy for a quarter of an hour at a time. Silly, heartless Sophia Dorothea made things worse by continually complaining about Frederick William, and even encouraging the children to displease their father. She had an arrangement of screens behind which the children could hide, when they had pestered their father into a frenzy.

Many of Frederick William's Hohenzollern ancestors suffered from gout and the disease can be traced back as far as Albert III Achilles of Brandenburg (1414-1486). However, from an early age, Frederick William was not only afflicted by gout, but also by migraines and stomach cramps and the attacks were usually very violent. During the attacks of 1734 and 1739-1740 his doctors recorded that the King's urine was "very red". This was because Frederick William suffered from another hereditary disease, porphyria, which he had inherited from his mother, Sophia Charlotte of Hannover, who descended from Mary, Queen of Scots*. Several of his children's medical histories suggest that they suffered from this family disorder, too. Porphyria has symptoms like migraine, acute inflammation of the bowels, difficulty in articulation and swallowing, a painful weakness of the limbs, over-sensitivity and sometimes loss of the power of feeling. In more severe attacks, porphyria can result in over-activity, agitation, visual and auditory disturbances, persistent sleeplessness, confusion, delirium and progressive senility.

King Frederick William I of Prussia Frederick William (to the right) suffered his first attack at the age of 19 with a sudden increase of temperature, colic, a skin rash and fainting fits. He was depressed and had outbreaks of rage. In 1718 he had already been feeling unwell for several months, when he suddenly got a fever, his heartbeat increased, his hands became lame and he had abscesses on the skin of his legs. From the age of 39 onwards, Frederick William was becoming more irascible daily. He would get into blind rages and strike at all within reach, breaking teeth and noses. The effects of provoking him were out of all proportions to their cause. Haunted by insomnia, he would spend whole nights wandering aimlessly, while by day, when some explosion had drained his vitality, he would sit silently weeping for hours on end. At times, he was acutely mentally disturbed and his temper became completely uncontrollable. The most frequent victim of his outbursts was his son Fritz. Whenever they happened to meet, in private or in public, Frederick William would suddenly seize him by the throat and throw him to the ground, force him to kiss his boots and beg forgiveness. Then he would say: "If my father had treated me like this, I would have put an end to my life long ago. But you have no courage." Fritz complained to his sister Wilhelmine: "Every day here we go through the most unutterable scenes. I am so tired of it all. I would rather beg my bread than go on living like this."

In 1727 Frederick William had a nervous breakdown. Two years later a very serious attack followed with sleeplessness, his usual unpredictable bad temper and fits of gout. For some time afterwards he was unable to walk and had to be wheeled about the palace. In his misery, he took to drink. Every evening he used to smoke and drink heavily with Von Grumbkov, the Old Dessauer, and other soldiers. Frederick William was very fond of coarse practical jokes and when he and his companions all got drunk, the grossest scenes would occur. Despising non-military people and things - particularly Frenchmen, musicians, scientists and intellectuals - Frederick William would never tire of teasing and even physically torturing the president of the Academy of Science, Jakob Paul Gundling, whose duty it was to read the news papers to them. When Frederick William and his companions had exaggerated, for example by setting him on fire, Gundling would ask permission to leave court, but Frederick William always managed to get him back by hugging him, raising his wages and even making him a Baron. When Gundling died as a result of excessive drinking, Frederick William had him buried in a barrel.

August II the strong of Poland For years the Queen had wanted Fritz to marry a Princess of the House of Hannover, like his father and grandfather had done before him, but Frederick William was opposed to it and in 1730 he finally sent the English ambassador packing. Fritz despaired; without a wife he was not allowed an establishment of his own and thus his father's humiliations would continue. Then King August II the Strong of Poland (to the right) invited Frederick William and his son for an immense military parade in Saxony. Amid the jousting, Frederick William seized his 18-year-old son in public. He was kicked, beaten, dragged along the ground by his hair and sent off, bleeding and dishevelled, to make an official appearance. Then Fritz decided to prepare for the only possible alternative: flight. The scheme failed and Fritz was imprisoned in Küstrin on charge of 'desertion'. A young girl, Dorothea Ritter, was publicly flogged and imprisoned, only because she had once or twice played duets with Fritz. Later, Fritz was forced to watch the execution of his lieutenant, friend and accomplice, the 25-year-old Hans Hermann von Katte. Frederick William first contemplated to execute his son, too, and he bluntly told his pregnant wife that their son was already death. Later he wanted to disinherit Fritz in favour of August William, but in the end Fritz was pardoned and released. In 1731 he was married to Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern (1715-1797), who was plump, dull and embarrassingly slow of speech. Elisabeth Christine did her best to gain Fritz' affection, but Fritz despised her and all her efforts were in vain.

Self-portrait of Frederick William I Prussia supported Austria in a military campaign in 1734 and Frederick William, although troubled by gout, visited the men in the field. He had always taken pride in living with them as an ordinary officer, but the chaos prevailing in the Austrian army made him nearly sick with rage. As a result of the emotional stress he got heart trouble and acute attacks of dropsy and gout. His face took on a bluish-red colour, he had trouble breathing and speaking and was feverish. He could not walk or sleep; his legs were painful and hideously swollen up. He had spasms in the stomach, pains in the chest and a burning sensation in his abdomen. The doctors despaired and Frederick William prepared Fritz to take over the reigns of government, but within a few weeks he recovered sufficiently to be able to ride a horse, beat his servants and fulminate against his son. Still, he had been permanently weakened by his illness.
Near the end of his life, Frederick William (see his self-portrait to the left) had become extremely fat with a weight of 123 kg. He was a short man with a big head on a short neck and his belly had increased to a width of 225 cm. Dropsy made his body swell even more and he was forced to use a wheel chair. As a diversion he liked to paint and he used to sign his paintings with "In tormentis pinxit" (painted in pain). During his final illness, Fritz suggested summoning an eminent doctor, but Frederick William retorted that his own physician could kill him without assistance. He was constantly tortured by horrible pains, dropsy and gout. In March 1740 he suffered from a "constant burning sensation and cruel pains in the intestines". In May he gave precise instructions for his funeral. Early in the morning of May 31, Frederick William had himself wheeled into the Queen's apartments and said to her: "Get up! I am going to die today." Then he was wheeled back to his own room and ordered the horses to be brought out of the Royal stables in front of his window. Hours passed while Frederick William gradually got worse and died. He was succeeded by his son, Fritz, who became known as Frederick the Great.

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2012 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.



  * The best known sufferer from the hereditary disease porphyria is George III of Great-Britain.


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