Friedrich Wilhelm (February 16, 1620 – April 29, 1688) was Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, thus ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia, from 1640 until his death in 1688. A member of the House of Hohenzollern, he is popularly known as “the Great Elector” because of his military and political achievements.
Friedrich Wilhelm was a staunch pillar of the Calvinist faith, associated with the rising commercial class. He saw the importance of trade and promoted it vigorously. His shrewd domestic reforms gave Prussia a strong position in the post-Westphalian political order of north-central Europe, setting Prussia up for elevation from duchy to kingdom, achieved under his son and successor.
Elector Friedrich Wilhelm was born in Berlin to Georg Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, and Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate. Elizabeth Charlotte was the daughter of Friedrich IV, Elector Palatine, and Louise Juliana of Orange-Nassau. Her brother Friedrich V became famous as the Elector-Palatine and “Winter King” of Bohemia. He was married to Princess Elizabeth (Stuart) of England and they were the grand parents of George I, King of Great Britain and Elector of Hanover. The descendants of both Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg and George I of Great Britain would intermarry in the next several generations.
Friedrich Wilhelm’s inheritance consisted of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Duchy of Cleves, the County of Mark, and the Duchy of Prussia.
Following the Thirty Years’ War that devastated much of the Holy Roman Empire, Friedrich Wilhelm focused on rebuilding his war-ravaged territories. Brandenburg-Prussia benefited from his policy of religious tolerance and he used French subsidies to build up an army that took part in the 1655 to 1660 Second Northern War.
This ended with the treaties of Labiau, Wehlau, Bromberg and Oliva; they removed Swedish control of the Duchy of Prussia, which meant he held it direct from the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1672, Friedrich Wilhelm joined the Franco-Dutch War as an ally of the Dutch Republic, led by his nephew Willem III of Orange but made peace with France in the June 1673 Treaty of Vossem. Although he rejoined the anti-French alliance in 1674, this left him diplomatically isolated; despite conquering much of Swedish Pomerania during the Scanian War, he was obliged to return most of it to Sweden in the 1679 Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Friedrich Wilhelm was a military commander of wide renown, and his standing army would later become the model for the Prussian Army. He is notable for his joint victory with Swedish forces at the Battle of Warsaw, which, according to Hajo Holborn, marked “the beginning of Prussian military history”, but the Swedes turned on him at the behest of King Louis XIV and invaded Brandenburg.
After marching 250 kilometres in 15 days back to Brandenburg, he caught the Swedes by surprise and managed to defeat them on the field at the Battle of Fehrbellin, destroying the myth of Swedish military invincibility. He later destroyed another Swedish army that invaded the Duchy of Prussia during the Great Sleigh Drive in 1678.
Friedrich Wilhelm is noted for his use of broad directives and delegation of decision-making to his commanders, which would later become the basis for the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik, and for using rapid mobility to defeat his foes.
Friedrich Wilhelm raised an army of 45,000 soldiers by 1678, through the General War Commissariat presided over by Joachim Friedrich von Blumenthal. He was an advocate of mercantilism, monopolies, subsidies, tariffs, and internal improvements.
Following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Friedrich Wilhelm encouraged skilled French and Walloon Huguenots to emigrate to Brandenburg-Prussia with the Edict of Potsdam, bolstering the country’s technical and industrial base.
On Blumenthal’s advice he agreed to exempt the nobility from taxes and in return they agreed to dissolve the Estates-General. He also simplified travel in Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia by connecting riverways with canals, a system that was expanded by later Prussian architects, such as Georg Steenke; the system is still in use today.
In his half-century reign, 1640–1688, the Great Elector transformed the small remote state of Prussia into a great power by augmenting and integrating the Hohenzollern family possessions in northern Germany and Prussia. When he became elector (ruler) of Brandenburg in 1640, the country was in ruins from the Thirty Years War; it had lost half its population from war, disease and emigration.
The capital Berlin had only 6,000 people left when the wars ended in 1648. He united the multiple separate domains that his family had acquired primarily by marriage over the decades, and built the powerful unified state of Prussia out of them. His success in rebuilding the lands and his astute military and diplomatic leadership propelled him into the ranks of the prominent rulers in an era of “absolutism”.
Historians compare him to his contemporaries such as Louis XIV of France (1643–1715), Peter I the Great of Russia (1682–1725) and Carl XI of Sweden (1660–1697).
On December 7, 1646 in The Hague, Friedrich Wilhelm entered into a marriage, proposed by Blumenthal as a partial solution to the Jülich-Berg question, with Luise Henriette of Nassau (1627–1667), daughter of Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau and Amalia of Solms-Braunfels and his 1st cousin once removed through Willem the Silent.
On June 13, 1668 in Gröningen, Friedrich Wilhelm married Sophie Dorothea of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, daughter of Philipp, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and Sophie Hedwig of Saxe-Lauenburg.
Elector Friedrich Wilhelm was succeeded by his son, Friedrich, by his first wife Luise Henriette of Nassau.
Friedrich III , Elector of Brandenburg (1688–1713) and Duke of Prussia in personal union (Brandenburg-Prussia). The latter function he upgaded to royalty, becoming the first King in Prussia (Friedrich I, 1701–1713).