Frederick William I: The Soldier King

The Crown Prince

Born on 14 August 1688, Frederick William was the only son of King Frederick I and his wife Queen Sophie Charlotte of Hannover (after whom the famous Charlottenburg Palace was named). Frederick William himself was named after his grandfather, Frederick William the Great Elector of Brandenburg, who had died three months before his birth.

In his childhood, he already showed signs of his headstrong and unruly character. His father, Frederick I of Prussia, was an extravagant man who often drained the state’s treasury in order to display wealthiness and luxury. Frederick William, on the other hand, was nothing like his father in financial matters. It would make him angry to see money being spent on things he saw not necessary, such as fancy dinners.

It is also known that at a very young age he formed a small squadron of soldiers with the gold he had saved from his own pocket money.

In 1706 he got married to Sophia Dorothea of Hannover in accordance with his family’s expectations of continuing the Prusso-Hannoverian royal marriage tradition.

In 1709 he joined a campaign alongside the Austrian forces in the Spanish Succession War. As a man with a deep affection for anything military related, this campaign was a journey of joy for him. He gained decent experience about battlefield in this campaign but more importantly, he gained a lifelong friend who later greatly helped him in military matters when he became king; Leopold I of Anhalt also known as The Old Dessauer.

At that time, Frederick William was the crown prince and the heir apparent to the Prussian throne. He was still living an extremely modest and disciplined life while his wife was a complete opposite of him. In January 1712, the Crown Princess gave birth to the eldest surviving son of the couple who later became a King himself, Frederick. On 25 February 1713, King Frederick died and Frederick William succeeded him and became the second King in Prussia.

The King

After his succession, Frederick William gave the order to greatly reduce the expenses of the palace and other royal houses. The extravagance of his father during his reign had devastated the already small Prussian treasury.

In order to not repeat his father’s mistakes, he got rid of many of the servants in the Palace. The flashy Prussian palace of his father suddenly became a house of modesty. The King was strict and brutal in his rules. Apart from his parsimoniousness, Frederick William was also known for his religiousness.

During his reign, thousands of Protestant refugees immigrated to Prussia for religious freedom. He gave instructions to the servants to wake his son Frederick up at a very early hour and make his prayers to god on Sunday mornings.

He was an extremely abusive father towards his eldest son Frederick. Since Frederick developed interest on things that his father loathed –such as French literature, music and philosophy-, his father very often beat and humiliate him to set him right.

As Frederick grew up, the beatings continued even more severely. Frederick William himself was suffering from many sicknesses that by time weakened his mental health. Around the time Frederick got to his 20’s, Frederick William almost beat his son every day publicly and privately. It was an absolute torture for the young Crown Prince.

Even though his personal and family relations weren’t quite the best, Frederick William was a competent and efficient ruler. He centralized the government by subordinating the civil administration to his own command. He revised the salaries of officials every year in order to not waste a dime. He also made important changes about the judiciary and  executed different land reforms.

His reign saw the opening of about two thousand elementary school all across Prussia. These schools founded by him later raised and educated the brightest minds of Prussia and Germany.  Yet during his reign, he expelled some important intellectuals from his country because of his deeply religious and anti-intellectual character.

Despite all his unique traits and strange way of life, what Frederick William was best known for was his love for military things. From a young age, he was fond of wearing officer uniforms, forming a company of cadets and inspecting and drilling them. After he met and developed a friendship with Leopold of Anhalt, he started learning about proper military strategies and tactics.

Even though he was never an outstanding commander, he managed to beat the Swedish forces and push them off from Pomerania in 1719. After the war, he started conducting a series of army reforms with the help of his fellow General Leopold.  These reforms included: The standardization of military equipment and uniforms, adoption of goose-step marching style, regular drills with firearms and cannons and famous Canton system for more organized recruitment.

Reforms of Frederick William established the Prussian army as one of the most efficient and decent armies in Europe. By 1740, Prussia had an army of 80.000 disciplined and well-trained men. The budget of the military was over seventy percent of state’s treasury, which was a huge amount even at that time. Every one out of nine men was a soldier.

Frederick William also had a strange obsession with unusually large soldiers. He liked them so much that he created a regiment consisted only of men taller than 1.88 meters, calling them the Potsdam Giants. He would pay more to this regiment than he did to rest of the army.

He never risked this regiment at battlefield but used them for his own enjoyment. He would order them to walk in front of his window every day and joyfully watch them. This tradition wasn’t interrupted even when Frederick William was in his sickbed. After his death, this regiment was consolidated into the infantry corps by his son Frederick the Great but it later got completely disbanded after the disastrous defeat against Napoleon’s army in 1806.

He was increasingly struggling with gout attacks during his lifetime due to his unhealthy lifestyle. On 31 May 1740, he died in great pain at the age of 51 in Potsdam. He was buried in the Potsdam Garrison Church. For his unique obsession with army and soldiers, Frederick William became known as the Soldier King even though he hadn’t fought many battles in his life.

The army and military tradition he left behind helped his son Frederick the Great in making Prussia a great power. It is widely accepted today that the phenomenon of Prussian militarism was mostly influenced by the militaristic and brutal character of Frederick William.

Even his son, whom he had abused in his childhood, admitted that he wouldn’t have won his glorious victories if it wasn’t for the army and military education left to him by his father.


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