Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector

The reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector, led to the rise of Brandenburg-Prussia as a major state in northern Germany, paving the way for the emergence of Prussia as a leading European power in the eighteenth century.

Summary of Event

When Frederick William succeeded his father, George William George William , as the elector of Brandenburg in 1640, he faced a host of challenges. Beginning in 1356, each ruler of Brandenburg had been one of seven electors who chose the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, dominated by the Austrian Habsburg Dynasty. Since 1415, the Hohenzollerns Hohenzollerns had been the ruling family of Brandenburg Brandenburg , a small state in northern Germany, that was relatively poor in resources. The Hohenzollerns had other lands that were geographically separated from Brandenburg. To the east was Prussia Prussia , of which the kings of Poland were the nominal overlords, and to the west the small states of Cleves and Mark. Frederick William, later known as the great elector, assumed power in the midst of the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);Frederick William and . [kw]Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector (1640-1688)
[kw]Great Elector, Reign of Frederick William, the (1640-1688)
[kw]Frederick William, the Great Elector, Reign of (1640-1688)
Government and politics;1640-1688: Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector[1340]
Expansion and land acquisition;1640-1688: Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector[1340]
Germany;1640-1688: Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector[1340]
Poland;1640-1688: Reign of Frederick William, the Great Elector[1340]
Frederick William, the Great Elector

The Hohenzollerns, who were Protestant Calvinists, were unpopular among the majority Protestant Lutheran population. Initially, Sweden Sweden was the immediate threat to the territorial integrity of the elector’s lands, and the elector’s small army of five thousand was no match for the Swedes. One of the continuing challenges facing the great elector throughout his reign was to increase the size and professional competence of his army, and given the poverty of his lands, he often relied upon subsidies from foreign governments that came at the cost of forcing the elector into numerous temporary alliances.

Frederick William also faced opposition from the estates, or parliaments, of the various Hohenzollern lands. Representing local elites of landowners and merchants, the several estates opposed increasing taxes to fund the military and diplomatic ambitions of the elector, particularly if those taxes were to be spent elsewhere than where they were raised. Taxation;Brandenburg On occasion, he simply authorized the seizure of taxes without the consent of the estates. In the seventeenth century, there was little “German” nationalism, and localism reigned supreme. Even the elector was largely motivated by dynastic rather than nationalistic considerations.

The Peace of Westphalia Westphalia, Peace of (1648) ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, and although the Calvinists in the empire were guaranteed religious toleration, Frederick William’s territorial gains were minimal. His lands were still divided, and Swedish power still loomed large. Building up his army and his alliances, by the end of the 1650’s it appeared that Sweden would be forced to abandon lands claimed by the elector, but France backed the Swedes as a counterweight to the imperial Habsburgs, and Frederick William had to settle with being recognized as the duke of Prussia.

During the following decade, the elector was dedicated to maintaining the status quo in order to preserve his rights against threats from Sweden, German Catholic princes, and the Habsburg emperor. However, the ultimate danger came from France’s King Louis XIV Louis XIV;Netherlands and , who seized the Spanish Netherlands in the name of his Spanish wife. Louis’s ambitions threatened the Dutch Republic as well as Frederick William’s principalities of Cleves and Mark. He had married Louise Henrietta Louise Henrietta , princess of Orange and daughter of the Dutch stadtholder William of Orange (later King William III William III (king of England) ), partially for religious reasons—the Dutch were Calvinist—but also to get Dutch support for his territorial claims to the small principalities of Julich-Berg.

The elector initially allied with the Dutch during the French-Dutch War (1672-1678) French-Dutch War (1672-1678)[French Dutch War (1672-1678)] , but Louis’s victories led Frederick William to abandon the Dutch and join France. However, he switched sides again when promised French subsidies did not arrive. In 1675, he defeated the invading Swedes at the Battle of Fehrbellin, Fehrbellin, Battle of (1675) winning for himself the title of the “great elector,” later the title of a biography by Samuel von Pufendorf, one of his advisers. Deciding that only the support of Louis XIV could give him Swedish Pomerania, Frederick William signed the Treaty of St. Germain St. Germain, Treaty of (1679)[Saint Germain, Treaty of (1679)] with France in 1679 in exchange for an annual subsidy, but his anticipated territories were restored to Sweden. In 1685, fearing French ambitions and concerned about the security of Protestantism after Louis revoked religious toleration for the Protestant Huguenots, he again changed sides, joining the Dutch and the Swedes in a pact against France. Before conflict broke out, the elector died in 1688.

Refugee Huguenots, who fled France after King Louis XIV revoked official toleration of Protestantism, were welcomed into Protestant Brandenburg by Great Elector Frederick William. Many of the refugees were professionals and skilled artisans.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Frederick William’s wars and diplomacy were allied with his desire to create a powerful state. By the end of the Thirty Years’ War he understood that his power depended upon having a standing army, and at the height of the war against the Dutch his army totaled forty-five thousand. Brandenburg was among the first states in Europe to provide standard uniforms, and a military school was established, as well as the general war commissary and a war office. By the year of the elector’s death, the military bureaucracy dominated the government. Military;Brandenburg

Another consequence of his military ambitions was the alliance between the elector and the nobility of Brandenburg and Prussia, that is, between the elector and the Junkers (landowners, who controlled territories in the east). In exchange for supporting Frederick William’s policies, the Junkers’ own taxes remained relatively light and they were given greater control over their peasants, largely free of royal interference. Under the great elector and his successors, notably kings Frederick William I (r. 1713-1740) and Frederick the Great (r. 1740-1786), the Junker class became, in essence, servants of the state, particularly in the military and civil bureaucracies.

In pursuing his military goals and strengthening the government, the elector worsened the plight of the middle classes and urban inhabitants. Königsberg, in East Prussia, declined in wealth and population because of the high economic tolls and duties that were placed on the city’s commerce, while non-Prussian cities such as Riga and Danzig (Gdansk) prospered. The peasants, both free and enserfed, suffered the most, and many fled the electorate to escape their plight.

Aware of the negative domestic consequences of his military aims, Frederick William followed the prevailing economic doctrine of mercantilism, Mercantilism;Brandenburg or cameralism as it was known in Germany, which advocated state leadership in guiding the economy. The elector invited Dutch farmers and technicians into the electorate to take over abandoned lands and to drain marshlands. A model experimental farm, influenced by the elector’s wife, Louise Henrietta, was established at Oranienburg, near Berlin. The elector also encouraged immigration from Piedmont, and especially France, where Louis XIV’s pro-Catholic religious policies led twenty thousand Protestant Huguenots, many of them professionals and skilled artisans, to settle in Brandenburg, along with fifty Jewish families who were given special trading privileges. Migration;Protestants into Brandenburg
Migration;Jews into Brandenburg

To encourage domestic production, foreign imports of wool, glass, iron, and other items were prohibited. The elector also oversaw the establishment of a postal system and the construction of a ten-mile-long canal, uniting the Elbe and Oder Rivers, which increased Berlin’s trade. Towns and cities in the west were more prosperous than those in the east, but only Berlin benefited from the great elector’s reign, with the population growing from five thousand in 1648 to twenty thousand by his death. Generally, Frederick William was more successful upon building up the infrastructure of his lands than in promoting prosperous industries, but unlike his eighteenth century successors, he had little interest in developing an educational system. The great elector followed a policy of religious toleration, but as much by necessity as by principle. He favored Calvinist advisers, but to gain toleration for his Calvinism, he had to accept toleration for the majority Lutheran population. Protestantism;Brandenburg

Frederick William, preferring hunting rather than the arts, left court culture to Louise Henrietta, although Frederick William had neither the inclination nor, more important, the finances to emulate Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace. Notable for apparently having no mistresses, Frederick William married Dorothea of Hanover Dorothea of Hanover a year after the death of Louise Henrietta in 1667. The elector was perhaps happier with Dorothea, who was more willing to join him in hunting and drinking than was Louise Henrietta. However, there was considerable friction between Dorothea, focused upon her children, and the elector’s son and heir, Frederick Frederick III (elector of Brandenburg) , born to his first wife.


The forty-eight-year reign of the great elector laid the foundation for modern Prussia, but he was more of a consolidator than an innovator. His economic endeavors failed to transform Brandenburg-Prussia. He was successful in achieving greater recognition for his Hohenzollern Dynasty, and his son and successor, Elector Frederick III, became king in 1701.

Although committed to the Protestant Calvinist faith, Frederick William formed alliances with Catholic rulers when it was to his advantage. Like other rulers of the seventeenth century, he often practiced political absolutism, but on practical grounds more so than on philosophical or theological grounds. By 1688, his various territories had come under more centralized rule, his standing army was the second largest in Germany, and Brandenburg-Prussia had become the leading north German state. However, it was not yet the European power it would become in the following century.

Further Reading

  • Carsten, F. L. The Origins of Prussia. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1954. Carsten’s book is a first-rate scholarly study, more than one-third of which is devoted to Frederick William and his accomplishments.
  • McKay, Derek. The Great Elector: Frederick William of Brandenburg-Prussia. New York: Longman, 2001. The first English biography in more than fifty years, McKay’s study describes Frederick William as a product of his time—an unusually tough and opportunistic ruler able to overcome the hostility of local nobles and surrounding nations.
  • Schevill, Ferdinand. The Great Elector. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947. Schevill’s work is the classic but dated biography of the great elector.
  • Shennan, Margaret. The Rise of Brandenburg Prussia. New York: Routledge, 1995. An excellent study of the great elector, placing his accomplishments in the context of the emergence of Prussia as a major power.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles X Gustav; Christina; Ferdinand II; Frederick Henry; Frederick V; Frederick William, the Great Elector; Gustavus II Adolphus; Leopold I; Louis XIV; Axel Oxenstierna; Samuel von Pufendorf; Cardinal de Richelieu; Justine Siegemundin; Albrecht Wenzel von Wallenstein; William III. Frederick William, the Great Elector