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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Frederick the Great


Frederick was born in Berlin on January 24, 1712 to Frederick William I and Princess Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, the daughter of Britain's King George I.

Fredrick was the third son born to his parents but the first to survive infancy- two earlier children, both also named Frederick died, the first from having his fragile head crammed into a crown during his christening, the second from shock when the guns saluting his birth were fired too near his cradle.

Frederick had a strict upbringing to prepare him for the military life. A sensitive child, he preferred art, literature and music to military matters. His father often hit him in public once beating him with a cane in front of army troops.

Baptism of Frederick, 1712 (Harper's Magazine, 1870)

The austere Frederick William I, popularly dubbed as the soldier-king, possessed a violent temper and ruled Brandenburg-Prussia with absolute authority.  The relationship between the music loving Frederick and his militaristic father was difficult.

In contrast, Frederick’s mother Sophia was educated, well mannered and charismatic. She encouraged her son in his love of culture and learning.

Frederick was forbidden by his father to be taught Latin, but he studied it in secret. He also preferred the literature tuition he learnt from the French woman, Mme de Roucoulle to his military education..

Frederick’s father gave his son the Chateau Rheinsberg. In Rheinsberg Frederick assembled a small number of musicians, actors and other artists. He spent his time on reading, watching dramatic plays, making and listening to music. It was a happy time for the prince.

When he was 18, Frederick decided to escape to England with a friend, Lieut Hans Hermann Von Katte. His proposed plan was discovered, and he was arrested, imprisoned and temporarily deprived of his status as Crown Prince. Frederick's friend was beheaded before his eyes.

Frederick was granted a royal pardon on November 18, 1730 and released from his cell. As a punishment, he was sent by his father to work as a junior clerk in the auditing office of the Departments of War and Agriculture and deprived of his military title.

After agreeing to marry Princess Elisabeth Christine in 1733, Frederick was reinstated to his position of Crown Prince.


Frederick II acceded to the throne in 1740. He referred to himself as First Servant of the State.

As king Frederick II rose at 5.00 in summer and 6.00 in winter and devoted himself to public business until 11.00. He worked hard, and  acted as his own prime minister and treated his advisors as clerks.

During the Seven Years War. Frederick ordered his people to plant and eat potatoes, as a deterrent to famine. The people's fear of poisoning led him to enforce his orders by threatening to cut off the nose and ears of those who refused. Unsurprisingly, this was effective and potatoes became a basic part of the Prussian diet.

Frederick the Great inspects the potato harvest outside Neustettin (now Szczecinek, Poland),

The General Education Regulations (General-Landschul-Reglement) of 1763 attempted to create a system of universal primary education throughout the Prussian monarchy. Lack of resources limited its practical effect, but it was the most ambitious effort of the kind theretofore seen anywhere in Europe.


He had a famous private guard company, The Potsdam Grenadiers. Frederick would bribe, buy or even kidnap those men close to seven foot high to persuade them to join up. He even made giant men marry giant women to breed his own giants for his guard.

Frederick introduced the machine like methods, including the goose step, which was to become synonymous with the Prussian army.

Frederick closely monitored the training of officers, anxious to share the rigors of life in the campaigns at the heart of his army of 180,000 men.

Frederick is often admired as one of the greatest military tactical geniuses of all time and wrote works for his generals on the science of warfare.

Frederick the Great was in the habit of having his veins opened in battle as it soothed his nerves. The Prussian king had a complete disregard for casualties of human life including his own. Wounded men were expected to find their own way off the battlefield and back to hospitals as best they could and were denied rations. As only one in five who entered a Prussian military hospital came out alive, men deserted by the thousand and hundreds more committed suicide.

Frederick organised the buttons on soldiers' coat sleeves being  sewed on the top sides of their sleeves. This was to ensure that the soldiers would scratch their faces open every time they tried to wipe their noses on their tunics.

When his campaign funds ran short, Frederick saved money by skimping on his soldiers uniforms: there was so little material in them that they couldn't be fastened and many of his men froze to death.

Frederick's record in major battles was won 12 drew 1 lost 2.

Frederick saw active military service for the first time in 1734 under the great Austrian commander Eugene of Savoy against the French army in the Rhineland.

The War of Austrian Succession began on December 16, 1740, when Frederick invaded and quickly occupied Silesia. This was in defiance of the succession of Maria Theresa, daughter of Emperor Charles VI  who had just died.

The first real battle Frederick faced in Silesia was the Battle of Mollwitz on April 10, 1741. This was his first experience of commanding an army. Under the impression the battle was lost, Frederick panicked and left the field early which gave rise to the belief he lacked courage. In actual fact, the Prussians had won the battle at the very moment that Frederick had fled. The Prussian king would later state: "Mollwitz was my school.”

Prussian Army during battle of Mollwitz 1741

After defeating Austria at the Battle of Fountenoy. The Treaty of Dresden was signed on December 25, 1745, finally establishing Prussian rule in Silesia.

Having got wind of the secret Treaty of Versailles whereby Austria, France, Poland, Russia, Saxony and Sweden agreed to partition Prussia, Frederick invaded Saxony on August 29, 1756 and started off the Seven Years War.

Battle of Kolin

Despite having his territories repeatedly invaded and suffering some severe defeats, Frederick and his Prussian army always managed to recover, with the help of British funding.

In 1763, deserted by Britain. Frederick made peace with Austria at the Treaty of Hubertsburg. He was forced to hand over Saxony but was allowed to hold onto Silesia. The cost had been enormous, however. The Prussian army lost 180,000 men during the struggle, and some Prussian provinces had been completely devastated.

Frederick doubled his army's size. By his death it contained nearly 200,000 men and he was devoting 80% of his national income towards it.

He helped establish Prussia as a dominant force. The size of Prussia almost doubled during Frederick's reign from 45000 square miles to 75,000.


Frederick was rather stout and below medium height.

    King Frederick II by Anna Dorothea Therbusch, 1772.

His father complained about the 16-year-old Frederick wearing his hair “curled like a fool instead of cutting it."

During his later years, Frederick generally wore an old blue military uniform, the breast of which was usually brown with snuff.

In his later years Frederick's clothes remained unchanged for years. When he died the shirt on his back was so rotten with sweat that his valet had to dress him in one of his own shirts for the funeral.

Voltaire gave Frederick the nickname Alaric Cotin, Alaric in recognition of him as a warrior, Cotin as a would-be literary writer, after an unknown French poet of that name.

Frederick II was renowned for his great wit. It may be observed in some of his orders and notes, and in most of his correspondence.


As a youth, Frederick fell in love with Amelia, daughter of King George II of Great Britain. to whom he was betrothed. However once his father found out he'd been writing to her he cancelled the marriage.

In 1733, Frederick, having failed in his attempt to flee from his father's tyrannical regime, was ordered to marry a daughter of the Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Princess Elisabeth Christine.
Frederick was well known to have resented the proposed marriage from the very beginning, having announced he would "rather marry the biggest whore in Berlin than this dumb princess."

They married on June 12, 1733 at the bride's father's summer palace, Schloss Salzdahlum in Wolfenbüttel, Germany.

Elisabeth Christine (um 1740)

On their wedding night, Frederick spent a reluctant hour with his new wife and then spent the rest of the night walked about outside.

The involuntary matrimony did not lead to children. After having become king, Frederick mostly ignored his wife. He had one mistress, Barbara Companini, an Italian dancer. Some sources such as Voltaire indicate that he was homosexual.

Frederick built a French Rococo palace, Sans Souci Palace, near Potsdam, where he lived alone and from 1747 he used that as his base. In his later years his palace resembled a vagrant's squat, ankle-deep in places in excrement provided by his pack of beloved Italian greyhounds.


As Crown Prince in his leisure time, Frederick studied philosophy, history, and poetry and corresponded with the French philosophers, including Voltaire.

Frederick preferred to speak French rather than German. Despite his literary talent, Frederick had poor French grammar and spelling. He had little sympathy for the German literature of his time.

Frederick had a great fondness for music, and in particular he played the flute to a more than acceptable standard. He composed 100 sonatas for the flute as well as four symphonies.

In his first year on the throne Frederick established a court orchestra and employed Bach's son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach as court harpsichordist. Two years later he provided Berlin with an opera house.

The "Hohenfriedberger Marsch", a military march, was supposedly written by Frederick to commemorate his victory in the Battle of Hohenfriedberg during the Second Silesian War.

A meeting with Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747 in Potsdam led to Bach writing "The Musical Offering."

Frederick preferred dogs to cats and was very soppy about his beloved Italian Greyhounds. He also kept a pair of whippets, which slept on his bed at night. His favorite bitch was named Pompadour after Louis XV's mistress.

His favorite lunch was spiced soup, Russian beef in brandy, Italian maize with garlic and savory eel pie.

In his last years Frederick was drinking seven or eight cups of coffee in the morning. He liked it laced with champagne, rather than water, and a spoonful of mustard.


Frederick encouraged freedom of thought. “All religions,” the enlightened monarch proclaimed “must be tolerated and the state has to keep an eye that none of them shall detract from the other, for every man must get to Heaven by his own way.”

Frederick gave sanctuary to French Huguenot refugees, Jews, Jesuits and built Mosques for Turks. More than 250000 immigrants arrived in Prussia during his 46 years on the throne.

Frederick was fascinated with enlightenment philosophy, and employed controversial figures such as the philosopher Voltaire and the radical materialist La Mettrie.

The works of Niccolò Machiavelli, such as The Prince, were considered a guideline for the behavior of a king in Frederick's age. In 1739, Frederick finished his Antimachiavel, ou Examen du Prince de Machiavel, in which he opposed Machiavelli by arguing that the king should serve the state. It was published anonymously the following year.

Frederick II commented on his enlightened views “My people and I have come to an agreement, which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please and I am to do what I please.”


Frederick was said to have been once saved by a spider when it fell into his cup of poisoned chocolate while he was staying at his Sans-Souci royal palace. He called for fresh chocolate only to hear a pistol shot. The cook had been forced into poisoning his chocolate and thinking he had been found out shot himself.

Frederick died in an armchair in his study in the palace of San Souci on August 17, 1786 after taking a military review in heavy rain.

Frederick wished to be buried next to his greyhounds on the vineyard terrace at his Sans Souci palace. His nephew and successor Frederick William II instead ordered the body to be entombed next to his father in the Potsdam Garrison Church.

On the 205th anniversary of Frederick's death, on August 17, 1991,  the remains of his body was returned to a vault at Sans Souci Palace, so that Frederick would be close to his adored greyhounds.

Grave of Frederick at Sanssouci.

He was first named Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle in his famous six volume biography History of Friedrich II of Prussia, (1858-65, reissued in 8 vol., 1974),

Frederick's snuff box was sold for a then-world record 1,540,000 Swiss Francs in 1982 at Christies.

Sources Encyclopedia of Britannica, Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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