Friedrich Wilhelm III. (August 3, 1770 – June 7, 1840) was King of Prussia from November 16, 1797 until his death in 1840. He was concurrently Elector of Brandenburg in the Holy Roman Empire until August 6, 1806, when the Empire was dissolved.
Friedrich Wilhelm was born in Potsdam in 1770 as the son of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia and Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt was the daughter of Ludwig IX, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, and Countess Palatine Caroline of Zweibrücken. She was born in Prenzlau. Her sister Louise who married Duke (later Grand-Duke) Charles Augustus of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Her brother was Ludwig X, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt. In 1806 Ludwig X was elevated to the title of a Grand Duke Ludwig I of Hesse and joined the Confederation of the Rhine, leading to the dissolution of the Empire. At the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, Ludwig had to give up his Westphalian territories, but was compensated with the district of Rheinhessen, with his capital Mainz on the left bank of the Rhine. Because of this addition, he amended his title to Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine.
Friedrich Wilhelm was considered to be a shy and reserved boy, which became noticeable in his particularly reticent conversations, distinguished by the lack of personal pronouns. This manner of speech subsequently came to be considered entirely appropriate for military officers. He was neglected by his father during his childhood and suffered from an inferiority complex his entire life.
As a child, Friedrich Wilhelm’s father (under the influence of his mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, Countess of Lichtenau) had him handed over to tutors, as was quite normal for the period. He spent part of the time living at Paretz, the estate of the old soldier Count Hans von Blumenthal who was the governor of his brother Prince Heinrich. They thus grew up partly with the Count’s son, who accompanied them on their Grand Tour in the 1780s.
Friedrich Wilhelm was happy at Paretz, and for this reason, in 1795, he bought it from his boyhood friend and turned it into an important royal country retreat. He was a melancholy boy, but he grew up pious and honest. His tutors included the dramatist Johann Engel.
As a soldier, he received the usual training of a Prussian prince, obtained his lieutenancy in 1784, became a lieutenant colonel in 1786, a colonel in 1790, and took part in the campaigns against France of 1792–1794.
On December 24, 1793, Friedrich Wilhelm married his cousin Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the fourth daughter and sixth child of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg and his wife Princess Friederike of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Louise’s father, Charles, was a brother of Queen Charlotte of Great Britain, wife of King George III, and her mother Frederike was a granddaughter of Ludwig VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt. Her maternal grandmother, Landgravine Marie Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt, and her paternal first-cousin Princess Augusta Sophia of the United Kingdom served as sponsors at her baptism; her second given name came from Princess Augusta Sophia. Louise bore Friedrich Wilhelm ten children.
In the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince’s Palace) in Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm lived a civil life with a problem-free marriage, which did not change even when he became King of Prussia in 1797. His wife Louise was particularly loved by the Prussian people, which boosted the popularity of the whole House of Hohenzollern, including the King himself.
Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Queen of Prussia
Friedrich Wilhelm succeeded to the throne on November 16, 1797. He also became, in personal union, the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel (1797–1806 and again 1813–1840). At once, the new King showed that he was earnest of his good intentions by cutting down the royal establishment’s expenses, dismissing his father’s ministers, and reforming the most oppressive abuses of the late reign.
He had the Hohenzollern determination to retain personal power but not the Hohenzollern genius for using it. Too distrustful to delegate responsibility to his ministers, he greatly reduced the effectiveness of his reign since he was forced to assume the roles he did not delegate. This is the main factor of his inconsistent rule.
Disgusted with his father’s court (in both political intrigues and sexual affairs), Friedrich Wilhelm’s first and most successful early endeavor was to restore his dynasty’s moral legitimacy. The eagerness to restore dignity to his family went so far that it nearly caused sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow to cancel the expensive and lavish Prinzessinnengruppe project, which was commissioned by the previous monarch Friedrich Wilhelm II.
At first, Friedrich Wilhelm and his advisors attempted to pursue a neutrality policy in the Napoleonic Wars. Although they succeeded in keeping out of the Third Coalition in 1805, eventually, Friedrich Wilhelm was swayed by the queen’s attitude, who led Prussia’s pro-war party and entered into the war in October 1806.
On October 14, 1806, at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, the French effectively decimated the Prussian army’s effectiveness and functionality; led by Friedrich Wilhelm II, the Prussian army collapsed entirely soon after. Napoleon occupied Berlin in late October. The royal family fled to Memel, East Prussia, where they fell on the mercy of Emperor Alexander I of Russia.
Alexander, too, suffered defeat at the hands of the French, and at Tilsit on the Niemen France made peace with Russia and Prussia. Napoleon dealt with Prussia very harshly, despite the pregnant Queen’s interview with the French emperor, which was believed to soften the defeat. Instead, Napoleon took much less mercy on the Prussians than what was expected. Prussia lost many of its Polish territories and all territory west of the Elbe and had to finance a large indemnity and pay French troops to occupy key strong points within the Kingdom.
Although the ineffectual King himself seemed resigned to Prussia’s fate, various reforming ministers, such as Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom und zum Stein, Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, and Count August von Gneisenau, set about reforming Prussia’s administration and military, with the encouragement of Queen Louise.
On July 19, 1810, while visiting her father in Strelitz Queen Louisevdied in her husband’s arms from an unidentified illness. The queen’s subjects attributed the French occupation as the cause of her early death. “Our saint is in heaven”, exclaimed Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Louise’s untimely death left her husband alone during a period of great difficulty, as the Napoleonic Wars and need for reform continued. Louise was buried in the garden of Charlottenburg Palace, where a mausoleum, containing a fine recumbent statue by Christian Daniel Rauch, was built over her grave
In 1813, following Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, Friedrich Wilhelm turned against France and signed an alliance with Russia at Kalisz. However, he had to flee Berlin, still under French occupation. Prussian troops played a crucial part in the victories of the allies in 1813 and 1814, and the King himself traveled with the main army of Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg, along with Emperor Alexander of Russia and Emperor Franz of Austria.
At the Congress of Vienna, Friedrich Wilhelm’s ministers succeeded in securing significant territorial increases for Prussia. However, they failed to obtain the annexation of all of Saxony, as they had wished. Following the war, Friedrich Wilhelm turned towards political reaction, abandoning the promises he had made in 1813 to provide Prussia with a constitution.
Prussian Union of churches
Frederick William was determined to unify the Protestant churches to homogenize their liturgy, organization, and architecture. The long-term goal was to have fully centralized royal control of all the Protestant churches in the Prussian Union of churches. The merging of the Lutheran and Calvinist (Reformed) confessions to form the United Church of Prussia was highly controversial.
The crown’s aggressive efforts to restructure religion were unprecedented in Prussian history. In a series of proclamations over several years, the Church of the Prussian Union was formed, bringing together the majority group of Lutherans and the minority group of Reformed Protestants. The main effect was that the government of Prussia had full control over church affairs, with the king himself recognized as the leading bishop.
In 1824 Friedrich Wilhelm III remarried (morganatically) Countess Auguste von Harrach, Princess of Liegnitz. They had no children.
At the time of their marriage, the Harrach family was still not recognized as equal for dynastic purposes. Later, in 1841, they were officially recognized as a mediatized family (a former ruling family within the Holy Roman Empire), with the style of Illustrious Highness, which allowed them to have equal status for marriage purposes to those reigning royal families. Thus, in 1824 when the marriage occurred, it was treated as morganatic, so she was not named Queen, but was given the title Princess von Liegnitz (modern-day Legnica) and Countess von Hohenzollern. Friedrich Wilhelm III reportedly stated that he did not wish to have another queen after Queen Louise.
In 1838 the king distributed large parts of his farmland at Erdmannsdorf Estate to 422 Protestant refugees from the Austrian Zillertal, who built Tyrolean style farmhouses in the Silesian village.
Friedrich Wilhelm III died on June 7, 1840 in Berlin, from a fever, survived by his second wife. His eldest son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, succeeded him.
Friedrich Wilhelm III is buried at the Mausoleum in Schlosspark Charlottenburg, Berlin