Childhood & Early Life
Frederick William was born on September 25, 1744, in Stadtschloss in Berlin, the Prussian capital, to Prince Augustus William of Prussia and Duchess Luise of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.
Frederick William's uncle (Augustus William's elder brother), Frederick the Great (or Frederick II), was childless. Thus, when Augustus William died in 1758, his son became the heir-presumptive.
A laid-back and pampered boy, Frederick William grew up to love materialistic pleasures.
Nevertheless, he was a man of wisdom and a great patron of the arts, especially music. His favorites included Boccherini, Mozart, and Beethoven. He owned a private orchestra that had gained fame all across Europe. Frederick William was also a prolific cello player.
Frederick the Great publicly objected to Frederick William's artistic pursuits and believed that his artistic spirit would not let him become an able ruler. The former expected the latter to act responsibly during the French Revolution.
However, the king did appoint him to various services, of which the most notable was an unproductive confidential mission to the court of Russia in 1780.
Frederick William, however, blamed his uncle and his negligence toward him for his incompetency as an able ruler. He believed that his uncle never cared to teach him diplomacy and the ways of administration. He blamed the king for never believing in him or his potential to become a king.
In 1781, he turned toward mysticism, the practice of religious ecstasies, and then joined the spiritual and cultural movement of the 'Rosicrucians.' Around that time, he was under the influence of Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder and Johann Christoph von Wöllner, a Prussian pastor and politician whom the king had described as a "treacherous and intriguing priest."
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His Ascension to the Throne & His Reign
Frederick William was crowned the king on August 17, 1786. To everyone's surprise, as a king, he introduced several schemes that reduced the burdens of his subjects. He reformed the oppressive French tax-collecting system that was followed in his uncle's reign, encouraged trade, reduced customs dues, and constructed roads and canals.
He lifted the ban on the German language (which was in place during his uncle's reign). He welcomed many German writers to the 'Prussian Academy.'
He ended monopolies of the coffee, sugar, and tobacco industries, as opposed to his uncle's reign. However, he increased the excise duty on beer, flour, and sugar, to cover the loss of revenue.
'The General State Laws for the Prussian States' (''Allgemeines Landrecht für die Preußischen Staaten''), which Frederick the Great had initiated, was completed in 1794, under Frederick William's rule.
On August 26, 1786, he appointed Wöllner as the new privy councilor for finance (''Geheimer Oberfinanzrath''). He eventually granted Wöllner all the authorities of a prime minister, though he did not declare the position officially.
Wöllner made decisions regarding all internal affairs and worked for the fiscal and economic reformations of the kingdom.
Frederick William included Bischoffswerder in his counsels, but the latter held the position of a simple major, according to the official documents. Bischoffswerder was promoted to the position of adjutant-general in 1789.
The king's decision to grant Wöllner such a significant position was heavily opposed. Despite that, the latter became an active privy councilor of state and justice on July 3, 1788. He was also appointed as the head of the spiritual department for Lutheran and Catholic affairs.
The appointment brought in long-lasting religious reforms in the state and was heavily backed by the king.
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According to the act declared on July 9, 1788, Evangelical ministers were not allowed to teach anything not mentioned in their official books, and the educational establishments were to be supervised by the orthodox clergy.
The purpose of the act was to protect Christianity and make Prussia an epitome of stable Christian statehood.
On December 18, 1788, a law was passed to exercise censorship on publishers and to ensure the orthodoxy of all published books. This ousted the journals 'Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek' and 'Berliner Monatsschrift' from the kingdom.
In 1791, the Protestant commission known as the 'Immediate-Examinations Commission’ was established in Berlin to supervise the appointments in churches and educational organizations.
The religious act prevented the people of the kingdom from speaking on religious topics in public and maintained a stable civil society. Even though it was forcefully imposed and was a significant stabilizing factor, the act turned out to be ineffective in turning Prussia into a complete Christian state.
Frederick William blamed Wöllner′s "idleness and vanity" for the failure of the attempt and dismissed him from his secular offices in 1794.
His military reforms and foreign policies benefited Prussia a lot. On the flip side, despite the growth of the Prussian army, the debts incurred by the state treasury reduced the quality of military training programs. It was also an obstacle to Frederick William’s plans of intervening in European affairs.
The lack of sufficient funds also affected his meeting with Emperor Leopold II at the ‘Pillnitz Castle’ in August 1791, when the French Revolution endangered the monarchy in the state. He agreed to support Louis XVI of France. The emperor had lost faith in the king's promise due to his artistic temperament and the weak Prussian finances.
Nevertheless, on February 7, 1792, A formal Austro-Prussian alliance was signed. Frederick William participated in the campaigns of 1792 and 1793. However, the lack of funds still haunted him. His counsels were distracted by the affairs of a deteriorating Poland.
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A subsidy treaty that Great Britain and the Netherlands had signed in the Hague on April 19, 1794, did improve his state's finances to some extent, but it came with a condition. In exchange for financial aid, the coalition demanded 64,000 land troops.
Frederick William was simultaneously obsessed with getting his share of Poland in the War of the First Coalition against France and hence participated in the war half-heartedly. In 1795, he withdrew his participation from the coalition and signed the ‘Treaty of Basel’ with France.
The insurgency in Poland that followed the partition of 1793 and Russia's isolated intervention threatened Frederick William so much that he had to sign the ‘Peace of Basel’ (1795) with the French Republic.
The great monarchs opposed the alliance with France, as they believed it amounted to betrayal, and boycotted Prussia in Europe.
Prussia did acquire several territories, but at the expense of Poland in 1793 and 1795. Moreover, the state was almost bankrupt, the army had been depleted, financial confusion prevailed, and the monarchy was disgraced.
Following the third partition of Poland in 1795, the new territories that Prussia had acquired included regions with almost no German population, such as Warsaw. This severely drained the state's resources. The pro-Polish revolts that followed did additional damage to the state.
Among the other acquired regions were Ansbach and Bayreuth (1791), Gdańsk, and Thorn (Toruń).
Owing to Frederick William's admiration for artistic pursuits, his reign witnessed a cultural boom. Berlin, the capital, became the cultural center.
He encouraged painting, architecture, theater, and music. His favorites, Mozart and Beethoven, often visited him and performed chamber music for him. In exchange for the gesture, the King showcased his cello-playing skills to them.
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The architectural development under his rule can be witnessed in buildings constructed in the era, such as the ‘Marmorpalais,’ a (former) royal residence in Potsdam, and ‘Brandenburger Tor’ in Berlin (which is now one of the best-known landmarks in Germany).
Family, Personal Life & Death
Frederick William married his first cousin, Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Crown Princess of Prussia, on July 14, 1765, in Charlottenburg. They had a daughter, Frederica Charlotte (1767–1820). Theirs was an unhappy union, as both of them were unfaithful to each other. Thus, the marriage was dissolved in 1769.
He then married Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt on July 14, 1769. He had seven children with her, namely, Frederick William III of Prussia (1770–1840), Christine (1772–1773), Louis Charles (1773–1796), Frederica Louisa Wilhelmina (1774–1837), Augusta (1780–1841), Henry (1781–1846), and William (1783–1851).
He also had an affair with his mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, who was named Countess Wilhelmine von Lichtenau in 1796. The two had five children, of whom Graf Alexander von der Mark was his favorite son. He erected the ‘Pfaueninsel’ castle for her in 1794–1797.
His mistress had a great influence on him. He admired her intellect and ambitious nature.
Additionally, Frederick William had two morganatic (bigamist) marriages, with Elisabeth Amalie, Gräfin von Voß, Gräfin von Ingenheim (in 1787) and with Sophie Juliane Gräfin von Dönhoff (after Elisabeth Amalie died in 1789).
The morganatic marriages gave him seven children.
The king was known as “der Vielgeliebte” ("the much loved") and “der dicke Lüderjahn” ("the fat scallywag") by his subjects.
Frederick William died on November 16, 1797, in Potsdam. He was buried in the ‘Berliner Dom.’ His son, Frederick William III, succeeded him.
The father–son relationship was not an amicable one. Frederick William III despised his father's lifestyle. Thus, when he became the king, he immediately abolished all the schemes from his father's reign that he considered immoral.