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Frederick William, the Great Elector

Frederick William in 1650

Frederick William (r.1640-1688) owed his fame largely to military success, but this came after the Peace of Westphalia. When he came to power in 1640, his first action was to disband his army and make a separate truce with Sweden. Although he later considered this demobilization the greatest mistake of his career, it must certainly have seemed hopeless to carry on fighting against the Swedish army, which won one battle after another.

The truce with Sweden did not mean that he had given up completely, however. It was well-known that Sweden’s chief war aim would be the duchy of Pomerania, which Gustavus Adolphus had forced into an alliance when he invaded in 1630. The alliance called for Sweden to inherit the duchy on the death of its duke, Bogislav XIV, who lacked heirs. However, Pomerania had a longstanding treaty with Brandenburg that one ruling family would inherit the other’s land in the case the family passed without heirs. Pomerania was not such a great prize in terms of wealth or population, but it was a coastal region with ports on the Baltic Sea — something that Frederick William particularly coveted after having spent four years in Holland during his youth and coming to admire their successful mercantile economy.

Without an army to support his cause, Frederick William seemed unlikely to overcome Sweden’s insistence on Pomerania. However, he was an elector and therefore among the uppermost rank of Imperial princes. He was also incredibly stubborn. He played his hand as far as he possibly could, nearly losing everything (both Pomerania and his chance at compensation). Instead, he ended up with both half of Pomerania (the less desirable half, without the port of Stettin) and rich compensation in the secularized bishoprics of Minden and Halberstadt and the archbishopric of Magdeburg.

Frederick William unsuccessfully sought a marriage with Queen Christina, which would have solved the Pomerania issue and created a powerful Swedish-German state straddling the Baltic. This seemed close at times, but ultimately failed. Christina would probably not have married him anyway, but one sticking point for her advisors was the fact that Frederick William was a Calvinist. He therefore sought an alliance with a confessionally friendly state, the Dutch Republic, marrying Frederick Henry‘s daughter Louise Henriette in the midst of the Congress of Westphalia. Later in life, he would welcome French Huguenots (Calvinists) who were expelled by Louis XIV.

Books

Frederick William has been the subject of many books in German, but is still relatively hard to find in English language histories.

The Great Elector (1947) by Ferdinand Schevill

The Great Elector: Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia (2001) by Derek McKay