Frederick I
King Frederick I (1688/1701-1713)


Frederick William, The Great Elector


Later seventeenth-century Europe (2)


Brandenburg-Prussia was made up of a number of territories in Northern Germany, unified only by dynastic accident.
The central state of Brandenburg, inherited by Joachim Frederick Hohenzollern, which included the capital, Berlin, was neither especially fertile, nor particularly well placed for trade. He married Eleonore, who was not only daughter of Albert Frederick, Duke of Prussia but through her mother (Marie-Eleonore of Jülich-Cleves) a niece of John William, Duke of Cleves and Jülich.
When John William died without heirs in 1609, John Sigismund  laid claim to (and in 1614 acquired) Cleves, Ravensberg & Mark - whose location just south of the Netherlands, near the Rhine was strategically and economically important.
In 1618, Duke Albert Frederick died without male heirs and East Prussia was added to John Sigismund's possessions. (East Prussia was a fiefdom of Poland).
A treaty concluded in 1529 had also given the House of Hohenzollern the right to succeed to the Duchy of Pomerania, if the ruling house of Greifen failed.


In 1613 John Sigismund became a Calvinist, but did not attempt to force Calvinism on his mostly Lutheran subjects.
George William succeeded as Elector in 1619 during the Thirty Years War. Brandenburg was occupied first by Imperial troops, then by Swedish ones. George William was weak and ill. He moved to Königsberg in Prussia, and left effective power in the hands of the pro-Imperial, Catholic Count Adam von Schwartzenberg, who used armed force to levy contributions from Brandenburg with as little respect for local rights as the Swedish and Imperial occupiers.

George William's sister,
Maria Eleonora
with her her husband, Gustavus Adolfus


The last Duke of Pomerania died in 1637, but the Swedes occupied the territory as well as much of Brandenburg, so George William could not enforce his right to succeed.
George William married Elizabeth Charlotte Wittelsbach (sister of Frederick V of the Palatinate and daughter of Louise Juliane of Orange-Nassau).

Louise Henriette of Orange-Nassau

His son, Frederick William was therefore a cousin of Prince Maurice and was educated at the court of Prince Frederick Henry and the University of Leyden. In addition, Frederick William married one of Frederick Henry's daughters (Louise Henriette). Frederick William was deeply impressed by Dutch commerce and government.

Brandenburg suffered terribly from military occupation, disease and famine during the Thirty Years War, and lost half its population.
Frederick William was only twenty years old when he succeeded to his ravaged and divided inheritance in 1640. His first move was to order the disbandment of Adam von Schwartzenberg's personal army. Fortunately, von Schwartzenberg died in 1641, averting a clash between them.
Frederick William immediately began to create an army loyal to himself, using the revenues from the more prosperous land of Cleves. He also allied with France, by whose intercession in the peace negotiations of 1648, Brandenburg was given East Pomerania (the less valuable part of the province). West Pomerania, which included the mouth of the River Oder and the prosperous town of Stettin, went to Sweden. He also obtained the Bishoprics of Minden, Halberstadt, and a promise to succeed to the Archbishopric of Magdeburg.
Frederick William allied with the Swedes against the Poles during Charles X's successful campaigns of 1655-57. The new Prussian army performed creditably in the Battle of Warsaw (July 1656). When the Swedes began to lose to the resurgent Poles, Frederick William changed sides and joined Poland and the Hapsburgs against Charles X. He briefly gained control of all Pomerania, only to be forced into surrendering it at the Peace of Oliva (1660). This peace did confirm his sovereignty over Prussia.
From about 1675 Frederick William was known as the "Great Elector" (der Grosse Kurfürst).



The Estates (or Diet) of Brandenburg had long exercised a serious check on the Electors' power, and in spite of Frederick William's efforts they proved resistant to modernizing the system of taxation, and to granting money to protect other Hohenzollern possessions. Frederick William called a general diet in 1652-3, and obtained taxes from it which enabled him to build up a standing army, and undermine the power of the Estates. After 1653 he never again summoned a full meeting of the Estates.
Frederick William decided to ally with the junkers (gentry). He confirmed their rights over towns, and helped the junkers to enserf the peasants on their estates.
Frederick William used the army that he had built up in the war with Poland and Sweden to enforce his will at home. When the local estates refused to consent to new taxes, he simply levied them in any case, backing up his demands with troops. He then used the money to expand the army. The army grew from 2,000 men in 1656 to 45,000 at its peak. At his death in 1688 (when at peace) the army numbered 30,000.
Frederick William not only expanded the army, he reformed it. The chain of command was centralized and the officers were increasingly drawn from the ranks of the junkers. This policy also served to confirm junker loyalty to the state.
Junker allegiance in Brandenburg was reinforced by their tax-exempt status - the tax burden instead being imposed almost equally through an excise tax on the towns and a fixed contribution from the peasantry.


View of Koenigsberg

Frederick William attempted to adopt the same policies in Prussia: - a more prosperous and commercially-advanced region than Brandenburg. In particular, the city of Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad) was an important trading and commercial centre, second only to Gdansk.
Prussia had escaped serious devastation in the Thirty Years War, but in 1656-57 the Tartars (allied with the Poles) launched a murderous attack, killing and enslaving many, and bringing a plague that killed 80,000. Prussia's problems were increased by harvest failures in 1660-62. Under these circumstances, Frederick William's exorbitant taxation provoked violent opposition.
In Königsberg in 1661-62, opposition was led by Hieronymus Roth (1606-78). He led the burghers of the town in claiming that Prussia was still part of Poland, and appealed to John Casimir for help. Frederick William sent troops, arrested Roth and imprisoned him without trial for the rest of his life.
The Prussian Estates conceded Frederick William's demands for an excise tax and there was comparative harmony until 1670 when he requested that this (increasingly unpopular) tax be renewed. Prussian opposition grew, but so did Frederick William's determination to exact support for his war against Louis XIV.
Finally, in May 1674 troops were sent to occupy Königsberg. The damage the occupation caused, and the billeting of troops in civilian homes, combined to destroy the town's resistance. As in Brandenburg, an excise tax was imposed on the towns and a land-tax on the peasantry.
The high tolls that such levels of taxation required served to undermine Konigsberg's trade, which fell off dramatically.

Cleves & Mark


The Duchy of Cleves and the County of Mark were small in area, but populous (c.150,000 by 1700) and prosperous. Wesel - the capital of Cleves - was an important commercial center. Both burghers and peasants were far freer and wealthier than their counterparts in the east.
In 1614, Spanish troops occupied Wesel, and the Dutch responded by occupying many other towns of Cleves. During the Thirty Years War, Imperial troops occupied some areas and Hessian troops others. All the occupying armies levied provisions and support without regard to local feeling.
In 1646, Frederick William invaded the Duchy of Berg, but received no support at all from Cleves whose burghers (sheltering behind Dutch troops) went on a tax strike. Frederick William also pursued his standard approach of allying with the gentry and nobility in the hope that they would support him against the towns in exchange for special privileges.
Throughout the 1650s, Frederick William and the Estates were in conflict - the Elector billeting troops and levying forced contributions; the burghers protesting, resisting payment, and lobbying the Dutch and the Emperor for support. The Recesse of 1660-61 ended the conflict with a compromise. Frederick William agreed to obtain local consent for taxation in exchange for compliance on all other issues.


Frederick William


Frederick William's absolutist policies greatly increased the revenues and size of his armed forces. He soon found occasion to use them.
Frederick William fought with the Swedes against the Poles and then with the Poles against the Swedes. Before 1660, he allied with the French, but at the outbreak of the Dutch war in 1672, he found himself arrayed with the squabbling Dutch against the mighty French army. Disinclined to such an unequal struggle, Frederick William signed the Peace of Vossem (June 1673).


Baron George Von Derfflinger

Most of the Great Elector's army officers were native noblemen (c. 80%), but a few were burghers (10%) and promotion was open to talent. Field Marshall George Von Derfflinger - the most skilled of Frederick William's officers - was born a commoner and ennobled for his military achievements

In July 1674, Frederick William changed coats again and joined the Emperor against the French, for a few months of indecisive campaigning in Alsace. A Swedish attack from Pomerania led to the redeployment of Elector's troops. At the Battle of Fehrbellin (July 1675) 7,000 Brandenburgers repelled 12,000 Swedes, both sides fighting with skill and bitter determination. Three more years of stubborn fighting eventually evicted the Swedes from Brandenburg and Western Pomerania.

It was Frederick William's turn to be deserted by his allies:  - The United Provinces signed a separate peace at Nijmegen (August 1678) and Emperor Leopold did the same in February 1679. The French then invaded the electoral territories from the West in support of the Swedes. Overwhelmed, Frederick William was forced to sign the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (June 1679) and restore West Pomerania to Sweden, receiving a cash payoff as a consolation.

Angered by Imperial policy, Frederick William signed in 1679   a "Close Alliance" (Engere Allianz) with Louis XIV in exchange for massive subsidies. Initially, Frederick William tried to promote pro-French policies in Germany, but was disappointed by the lack of French support for his West Pomeranian ambitions.

Frederick William welcoming Huguenot refugees

More importantly, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes outraged Frederick William's religious loyalties. On 8 November 1685 he issued the Edict of Potsdam, offering all Huguenots a refuge in his lands under very generous terms. About 20,000 Huguenots took advantage of this charitable gesture. Frederick William was also well aware that the skilled and industrious Huguenots would prove advantageous to Brandenburg's economy.


One of Frederick William's other projects aimed at promoting economic strength was the construction of the Oder-Spree Canal (1662-8) to divert trade from the Swedish controlled port of Stettin to Berlin and on to the Elbe.

Oder-Spree Canal


As Frederick William turned against France he grew closer to Leopold. In April 1686, a Brandenburg contingent of 8,000 joined the armies fighting the Turks and distinguished itself at the siege of Budapest.

Frederick William knew that his brother-in-law, William of Orange, planned to intervene directly in England, but died 9 May 1688 before this new blow against France was struck (November 1688).

Frederick III

Elector Frederick III  / King Frederick I

Frederick William's son, Frederick III was far less distinguished than his father, but continued many of his policies.
In October 1688 he joined the "Magdeburg Concert" with the rulers of Hanover, Saxony and Hesse-Kassel to oppose French expansion across the Rhine.
In the following Nine Year War, his troops gave valuable support to the Emperor against France but gained little from the Treaty of Ryswick (1697).
Frederick did succeed in his ambition of obtaining the status of king. He promised to support the Emperor Leopold in any future conflict over the Spanish succession, and in return was granted the title of king. On 18 January 1701, Frederick was crowned King Frederick I of Prussia in Könisgsberg.
The outstanding performance of Prussian troops in the War of the Spanish Succession along with Frederick's close alliance with William of Orange brought Prussia territorial gains at the Peace of Utrecht (1713).
Frederick spent lavishly on improving Berlin's appearance and prestige. He founded academies of Arts and Sciences and so lavishly endowed the University of Halle (1694) as soon to make it one of Europe's greatest universities.


Next section     351 schedule   Home