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.
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.
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,
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
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
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).
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,
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,
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
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,
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.
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,
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.