Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, patriotic Queen of Prussia
A charming and virtuous figure among the queens of European history, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776 – 1810), was Queen of Prussia at a time of profound crisis caused by Napoleonic expansionism and became a much-loved icon of patriotism, national unity and resilience in adversity.
Louise was the daughter of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg and his wife, Princess Frederica of Hesse-Darmstadt. Her father was the brother of Queen Charlotte of the United Kingdom. When Louise was only six years old, her mother died in childbirth, leaving an indelible mark on the young duchess, so much so that she often gave pocket money to children who had suffered similar losses, stating ‘she is like me, she has no mother‘.
From the age of ten until her marriage at 17, Louise spent most of her time with her maternal grandmother, the widowed Langravine Marie Louise, who was considered a cultured and refined woman.
By 1793 Louise had become a beautiful young woman with ‘an exquisite complexion’ and ‘big blue eyes’, and was naturally graceful. Louise’s uncle, the Duke of Mecklenburg, hoped to strengthen the ties between his house and Prussia. Accordingly, on an evening carefully planned by the Duke, 17-year-old Louise met the king’s son and heir, the serious and religious 23-year-old Crown Prince Frederick William. The girl made such a charming impression on Frederick William that he immediately made his choice. Frederick and Louise were married on 24 December 1793.
Louise’s arrival in Berlin was joyful and welcoming and the princess stopped to pick up and kiss the children. The Prussian writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué observed 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‘.
Louise’s father-in-law, King Frederick William II, gave the couple the palace of Charlottenburg, but the crown prince and his young wife preferred to live in the palace of Paretz, just outside Potsdam. Here, the couple lived peacefully away from the hustle and bustle of the court and in the naturalness of country life.
The marriage was a happy one and Louise was much loved by the king, who called her ‘the princess of the princesses‘. She considered it her duty to support her husband in all his activities and the couple loved singing together and reading Shakespeare and Goethe.
Louise and Frederick William had nine children, including the future monarchs Frederick William IV of Prussia and William I, Emperor of Germany.
On 16 November 1797, her husband succeeded to the throne of Prussia as King Frederick William III after the death of his father. Louise wrote to her grandmother: ‘I am now queen, and what rejoices me most is the hope that now I need no longer count my benefactions so carefully‘. Remarkable indeed were the charitable activities that Louise carried out throughout her short life.
For the first time in Prussian history, Queen Louise emerged as a celebrated public figure in her own right, occupying a much more important role than her predecessors. However, the queen’s lasting power and legacy did not derive from having a court and policy separate from her husband’s, but rather the opposite: she subordinated her impressive intelligence and skill to her husband’s sole advantage.
After her husband’s accession to the throne, Louise developed many connections with senior ministers and became a powerful figure within the government, beginning to gain the respect and affection of all. The queen did everything she could to stay informed about political developments at court and, from the beginning of her reign, the new king consulted Louise on matters of state.
Frederick William favoured neutrality during the early years of the conflict with the revolutionary First French Republic, which evolved into the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), but eventually the king was driven by his wife and family to break his unstable peace and go to war against the French emperor. Prussian troops began to mobilise, culminating in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in October 1806, which was a disaster for Prussia.
Napoleon himself occupied Berlin, forcing the royal family to flee.
During the negotiations that led to the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, the emperor agreed to keep half of Prussia intact. On this occasion the men were joined by Queen Louise; Frederick William had sent for his wife to plead for a better deal for Prussia; Louise advised her husband: ‘For God’s sake no shameful peace...[Prussia] should at least not go down without honor‘. Louise agreed to meet the emperor in Tilsit, but only to save Prussia, and despite the fact that Napoleon had attempted to destroy her reputation by questioning Louise’s marital fidelity.
Napoleon refused any concessions but his attempts to sink Louise’s reputation failed and only made her more beloved in Prussia. Indeed, Queen Louise’s efforts to protect her adopted country from French aggression ensured her the admiration of future generations, leading to her being revered as ‘the soul of national virtue’.
The French occupation of Prussia had a particularly devastating effect on Louise, who had also to endure personal attacks: Napoleon himself paid her a tasteless compliment, calling her ‘the only real man of Prussia‘.
At the end of 1809 Louise returned with the king to Berlin, after an absence of three years, and was received by her father at the Charlottenburg Palace; however, the residence was ransacked, as Napoleon and his commanders had stripped the rooms of paintings, statues, manuscripts and antiquities.
On her return to a Prussia very different from the one she had left behind, a preacher remarked 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‘.
On 19 July 1810, while visiting her father in Strelitz, the Queen died in her husband’s arms from an unidentified illness. Lieutenant General Baron De Marbot, in his Memoirs, relates that the Queen, in her old age, always wore a thick band around her neck. This was to hide a botched goitre operation, which had left an open sore that eventually killed her. The Queen’s subjects instead attributed the cause of her untimely death to the French occupation.
Louise was buried in the garden of Charlottenburg Palace and four years later the king founded the Order of Louise, as the female counterpart of the Iron Cross.
Frederick William remarried in 1824, when he contracted a morganatic marriage to his mistress Auguste von Harrach. After his death on 7 June 1840, Frederick William was buried in Charlottenburg next to his ‘princess of the princesses’.