Saturday, August 20, 2011

Napoleon's Beautiful Enemy: Queen Louise of Prussia

Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz,
Queen of Prussia

She was a glamorous figure of her day. A beautiful and fashionable young woman, her popularity is very similar to that of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Austrian Empress Elizabeth. She was probably the most famous and well-loved queen consort in German history. She was Queen Louise of Prussia, wife of King Frederick William III of Prussia. She influenced her contemporaries and modern Germany probably more than any other woman. Often called the “Queen of Hearts”, she impressed those around her with her beauty, charisma and cheerful, friendly nature. Her legacy was further cemented by her infamous meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte of France, and thus became the symbol of German national unity that eventually led to the creation of the German Empire.

Louise was born on March 10, 1776 in a one-story villa on the outskirts of Hanover. Her father, Prince Charles of Mecklenburg-Strelitz served as a field marshal of the household brigade in Hanover, while Louise's mother was Friederike, Landgravine of Hesse-Darmstadt. Soon after Louise's birth, Prince Charles was appointed Governor-General of Hanover, and the family moved to Leineschloss. When she was only six-years-old, her mother died in childbirth. Her grieving father decided to find another wife, and he married Louise's aunt, Charlotte of Hesse-Darmstadt. But after only 15 months, Charlotte also died after giving birth to her only son. Her mother's early death left Louise with a life-long sympathy for orphans, reinforced by her own upbringing which was rather more modest than most would expect of a princess and in which charity was stressed. Shortly after their stepmother's death, Louise and her siblings were separated. The twice-widowed and grieving Charles decided to send his three daughters to live with their maternal grandmother Marie Louise in Darmstadt, where they could be properly educated and cared for. Louise's brothers would remain in Hanover with their father.

Princess George, as Louise's grandmother was called, was a resolute and wise old lady, who preferred to raise her granddaughters in simplicity and in a carefree environment. They were given a Swiss governess, Madame Gelieux, who gave them French lessons. The princesses also received lessons in English, German and history, as well as in drawing, painting, and playing the piano.

Louise was not a zealous student. Although she studied history and philosophy, and became fluent in French, her German was neglected. It was only after a few years that she decided to catch up with her native German, and after reading the poems of Friedrich Schiller, it sparked her love for German as a literary language.

The lives of the princesses in Darmstadt were filled by frequent visits to their relatives in Hesse and Mecklenburg. The now adolescent Louise and her younger sister Frederica became closer than ever, and were always together when they visited friends and relatives. One time, when they visited the mother of the famous poet Goethe in Weimar, the two princesses left a deep impression on the lady, and wrote: "I was extremely pleased to meet the Princesses of Mecklenburg... They were given lots of freedom despite rigid etiquette..." In March 1793, Princess George took the 17-year-old Louise and the 15-year-old Frederica to Frankfurt to be presented to the King of Prussia. By this time, Louise had grown up to be a very beautiful young woman, possessing an exquisite complexion and big blue eyes. When the King saw her for the first time, he was enchanted, and wrote about their meeting:

"I saw the two angels for the first time at the start of the comedy, and I was so struck by their beauty that I was beside myself when their grandmother presented them to me. I wish very much that my sons will meet them and fall in love... I want them to get to know each other properly... [The princesses] promised that a meeting could soon take place, probably in Mannheim. The eldest [princess] would marry the eldest [prince] and the youngest [princess] to the youngest [prince]."

Frederick William and Louise, 1794
Louise and Crown Prince Frederick William finally met in March 14, 1793. The crown prince was twenty-three, serious-minded, and religious. Louise made such a charming impression on him that he became eager to marry her as soon as possible. Frederica also caught the eye of Frederick William's younger brother, Prince Louis Charles, and the two families began planning a double betrothal, celebrating a month later, on April 24, 1793 in Darmstadt. Frederick and Louise were subsequently married on December 24 that same year, with Louis and Frederica marrying two days later.

Louise's arrival in Berlin caused much sensation, and she was honored with a grand reception by the city's joyful citizens. When she broke protocol and stooped to pick up and kiss a child, Prussian writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué remarked that: "The arrival of the angelic princess spreads over these days a noble splendor. All hearts go out to meet her, and her grace and goodness leaves no one unblessed." Another wrote: "The more perfectly one becomes acquainted with the princess the more one is captivated by the inner nobility, and the angelic goodness of her heart."

The King gave Louise and Frederick William a palace of their own, Charlottenburg Palace, but the couple preferred to live in simplicity at Paretz Palace, outside Potsdam, where Louise kept herself busy with household affairs. Paretz was far from the bustle of court, as the couple were most content in the "rural retirement" of a country life. The shy and introverted Frederick William was delighted with his rather energetic wife, and the marriage proved to be happy and successful. He called her "princess of the princesses", and gave her the palace of Oranienburg. They referred to each other as "my husband" and "my wife", and preferred to walk together without their entourage.

Life at the rigid Prussian court was quite demanding; there were many people that Louise had to know, rules and obligations that she had to familiarize with. She saw to it as her duty to wholly support her husband, and met all the demands expected of her as the future queen of Prussia. Louise quickly became pregnant, but her first baby was stillborn. A year after, she was pregnant again, and gave birth to a healthy baby boy who was named Frederick William after his father. Eight more children would follow in the span of 12 years.

On November 16, 1797, Frederick William finally succeeded the throne as King Frederick William III of Prussia. Louise, now Queen of Prussia, wrote about the occasion to her grandmother: "I am now Queen, and what pleased me the most is the hope that now I need no longer count my charities so carefully." As the King and Queen, Frederick and Louise had to give up their quiet life at Paletz and begin living under the restraints of the royal court. They began a tour of the country's eastern provinces for two purposes: the king wanted to acquaint himself to his subjects, and despite the unusualness of a queen consort accompanying the king further than the capital, Frederick William wanted to introduce the queen as well to their people. Louise was received everywhere with festivities. The secretary of the British legation shared the enthusiasm of the Prussian people to their queen, and wrote to his sister: "The Berlin society, especially among younger people, had a sense of chivalrous devotion to their Queen... Few women were endowed with such loveliness as her... But I must pause, otherwise you will probably think that I have lost my head, just like the many people here, because of the beauty and charm of Queen Louise of Prussia."

For the first time in Prussian history, the queen emerged as a celebrated public personality in her own right, as she occupied a much more prominent role than her predecessors. But rather than taking this as an advantage to herself, she used her formidable intelligence and skill for her husband's sole advantage. She wanted to stay informed of political developments at court, and from the very beginning of his reign the new king consulted Louise on matters of state. She charmed the nation with her grace, beauty and wit, which led to national pride and patriotism among the Prussian people. She also became a fashion icon, for instance starting a trend by wearing a neckerchief to keep from herself from getting ill.

While as queen of Prussia, Louise commanded universal respect and affection, but her life was certainly not without affliction. As Napoleon Bonaparte managed to turn topsy-turvy the balance of power in Europe, he pressured the King of Prussia to allied himself to France on the looming Napoleonic Wars. But Frederick William favored neutrality, and this view was supported by Louise. But because of Napoleon's increasing violations of Prussian treaty rights, Louise began to encourage the King over his long-standing policy of neutrality, pleading with him to break off all relations with the French Emperor. She took the initiative of contacting the Tsar of Russia and the Emperor of Austria, both of whom, along with Frederick William, signed the Potsdam Treaty on November 3, 1805 - a treaty which formed an alliance among these three nations against Napoleon. This greatly infuriated the French Emperor, and he termed Louise "My beautiful enemy" for her role in forming this alliance.

During the war, Napoleon attempted to destroy the queen’s reputation, but the only effect of his charges in Prussia was to make her more deeply loved. Napoleon eventually gained the upper hand over his enemies in battle. It was a disaster for Prussia; as French troops approached Berlin, the royal family was forced to flee for Konigsberg. Louise was already ill during their journey in Konigsberg, and upon their arrival there, they were confronted with a grim situation: they was no food or clean water, and the family was forced to stay in "wretched barns".

Napoleon Bonaparte meets the Queen of Prussia.
In 1807, both Louise and the King were forced to meet with Napoleon in person at Tilsit in Russia to sign a peace treaty. The stipulations of the treaty for Prussia were humiliating, and Louise felt discouraged. However, recognizing that her country depended upon her for moral strength, she regained her sense of optimism. Napoleon callously called her "the only real man in Prussia", but he was greatly impressed by her beauty and determination: "I heard you are the most beautiful of Queens, but I did not know that you are the most beautiful of women," admired the emperor. He had previously attempted to destroy her reputation by questioning Louise's marital fidelity, but the queen met him anyway, attempting to use her beauty and charm to flatter him into more favorable terms. She made a request for a private interview with the emperor, whereon she threw herself at his feet. Though he was impressed by her grace and determination, Napoleon refused to make any concessions, writing back to his wife Empress Josephine that Louise "is really charming and full of coquetry towards me. But don't be would cost me too dearly to play the gallant." Napoleon's attempts to destroy Louise's reputation failed however, and they only made her more beloved in Prussia. Her efforts to protect Prussia from French aggression secured for her the admiration of future generations.

The French occupation of Prussia had a particularly devastating effect upon Louise, as the queen endured personal insults. It was difficult for her and her family, yet she bore her trials and sufferings with patience and dignity. During their time in Konigsberg, she often took the time to prepare their eldest son for his future role as King of Prussia. She believed that the hard trials of her children's early lives would be good for them: "If they had been reared in luxury and prosperity they might think that they will always live like that." In the winter of 1808, Tsar Alexander I invited the king and queen to St. Petersburg, where she was treated to sumptuously-decorated rooms."Nothing dazzles me anymore", she exclaimed on her return back to Germany. The Tsar's wife, the Empress Elizabeth, was sympathetic towards the queen's plight, and Louise was able to share her agonies and troubles to the Empress. The Empress Elizabeth wrote to her mother about Louise: "There is no need to measure my words and exercise prudence in speaking of the queen of Prussia. It is impossible for anyone to be more delightful, more easy to get on with than she is. I cannot think how those reports about her affectation and coquetry originated. I have never seen a trace of such a thing. She was extremely sociable, and one could note the liveliness of her natural disposition. Her relations with the King were quite a pleasure to me. In society, she was sure of her position and quite at her ease. Alone with me, she was genuinely friendly and confidential. If there is any shade in her portrait I assure you it is barely perceptible." After their four-week stay in Russia, the King and Queen left and returned to Berlin. Louise continued her friendship with the Empress Elizabeth by writing letters to her long after their brief stay in Russia.

Near the birth of her youngest child Princess Louise in 1809, the Queen Louise wrote to her father, "Gladly...the calamities which have befallen us have not forced their way into our wedded and home life, rather have strengthened the same, and made it even more precious to us." Louise was sick for much of that year, suffering from frequent colds and headaches, but she returned with the king to Berlin near the end of the year after an absence of three years. Their arrival in Berlin was greeted with great enthusiasm among the people, and Louise, despite her gloom, was pleased to finally return. For her life was more bearable in the "splendid misery of Berlin" than in Konigsberg. At Charlottenburg Palace, they found the residence ransacked, as Napoleon and his commanders had stripped its rooms of precious paintings, sculptures, and other antiquities. Returning to a much different Prussia than she left, a preacher observed that "our dear queen is far from joyful, but her seriousness has a quiet serenity... her eyes have lost their former sparkle, and one sees that they have wept much, and still weep".

Queen Louise and her son,
the future Emperor William I of Germany
On the summer of 1810, Louise decided to take a trip to Strelitz to visit her father. While staying at her father's summer residence, she became feverish and was forced to stay in bed. The doctors came to check her but declare that there was no need for serious concern. But after several weeks, her condition worsen, and the doctors were summoned. She was coughing very hard accompanied by circulatory problems. The doctors were not able to identify the cause of her illness. The King was informed about Louise's situation, and he hastily traveled to Strelitz with his two eldest sons. The King and his sons arrived at five in the morning of July 19, 1810, and knelt by her the bedside. Four hours later, Louise died.

Louise's untimely death left her husband alone during a period of great difficulty, the Napoleonic Wars, and the need for reform continued. Napoleon reportedly remarked the king "has lost his best minister." Louise was buried in a mausoleum at Charlottenburg Palace. The King commissioned Christian Daniel Rauch to execute the statue of the Queen in a sleeping posture. Louise's death was greatly mourned by the Prussian people, and the widowed King was inconsolable. Seeking female companionship and sympathy, he remarried after 14 years, albeit morganatically. He never forgot his queen and when he died in 1840, he was buried beside his beloved Louise.

Louise did not live to see either Napoleon's defeat in 1815, or the reestablishment of the Germanic Empire under Prussia just a few years later under her son William. But she left a lasting legacy to the whole German nation. She was revered by her subjects as "the soul of national virtue", and historians wrote that she was "Prussian nationalism personified". Her reputation as a loving and loyal supporter of her husband became crucial to her enduring legacy and the cult-like adulation for her that continues to the present day surrounded. Louise became the embodiment of ideal feminine attributes: beauty, grace, and charm, but she also successfully combined them with her dignity, gentleness of character, benevolence and piety. She was the idol of the German nation, and her popularity persisted to this day.


Lucy said...

She is indeed one of Europe's most beautiful queens.

Jean Martin said...

Thank you for providing some useful pictures. I have been trying to see if a miniature brooch that was my grandmother's is a portrait of Queen Louise. It appears it is.

Gem said...

You're welcome Jean Martin! :)

Unknown said...

very beautifully written

Anonymous said...

Apparently Louise was not only physically beautiful, but she had a beautiful character as well.

orikse said...

Hello, nice article on Louise. When royal family retreated to north, they stayed in Memel (first Konigsberg, then, 1807-1808 Memel), thus turning small small provincial town into capital of Prussia for one year. Tilsit Treaty was signed during Memel period.

Anonymous said...

Can you please tell me if this painting is of the Louise in this post?

Anonymous said...

Very nice article about Louise.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, however I'm going to have to disagree with you about the scarf Queen Louise wore as a fashion trend to avoid getting sick. She likely had a case of hyperthyroidism, which may have contributed to her early death.

Many portraits of her circulate in the antiques market, and nearly all portray her with the scarf covering her neck, which makes them easily recognisable as Queen Louise.

This sort of thing may not have been discussed by early historians, especially considering her revential reputation after her death, but I bet you could find it...
Thanks for the piece!

Gem said...

@Anonymous July 6, 2017

This is the first time I get to learn that Queen Louise might have had hyperthyroidism which caused her untimely death. Thanks for sharing this!

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