Frederick William I of Prussia Biography

Frederick William I of Prussia, the second Prussian king, faced a daunting task when he ascended to the throne in 1713. His kingdom was in dire financial straits, with a depleted army and no resources left by his father to address the situation. Undeterred, Frederick William embarked on a remarkable journey of transformation, leading to a strong and well-equipped army and a restored treasury by the end of his reign. Despite his own frugal lifestyle, he implemented significant reforms and changes, revolutionizing the state officials’ regulation, introducing the canton system, and implementing a new tax system. Within a mere 20 years, the economy and military experienced unprecedented growth under his leadership. However, his harsh and violent nature alienated his family and subjects. Tragically, Frederick William’s life was cut short by gout, and he passed away at the age of 51.

Quick Facts

  • German Celebrities Born In August Also Known As: Soldier King, Friedrich Wilhelm I
  • Died At Age: 51
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (m. 1706)
    • Father: Frederick I
    • Mother: Sophia Charlotte of Hanover
    • Children: Charlotte Albertine Prinzessin von Preußen, Frederick Louis Frederick William I of Prussia, Frederick the Great, Frederick William Frederick William I of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm Prinz von Preußen, Louis Charles William, Louisa Ulrika of Prussia, Ludwig Karl Wilhelm Prinz von Preußen, Prince Augustus Ferdinand of Prussia, Prince Augustus William of Prussia, Prince Henry of Prussia, Princess Anna Amalia, Princess Friederike Luise of Prussia, Princess Philippine Charlotte of Prussia, Princess Sophia Dorothea of Prussia, Wilhelmine von Bayreuth
  • Born Country: Germany
  • Emperors & Kings
  • German Men
  • Died on: May 31, 1740
  • Place of death: Potsdam, Germany
  • City: Berlin, Germany

Early Life & Childhood

Frederick was born on August 14, 1688, in Berlin, to Frederick III of Brandenburg, the first king of the country, and Sophia of Hanover. He was born a few months after the death of his grandfather, the Great Elector. During his early years, he was raised by the governess of Huguenot Marthe de Roucoulle, who was often frightened by Frederick’s strange and impulsive behavior. The future king once swallowed a silver shoe buckle and refused to spit it out. On another occasion, he threatened the governess that he would jump off a three-storey building if she did not let him have his way. However, he enjoyed saving money to form a company of cadets whom he liked to drill. His mother, too, spoilt him and never stopped him from doing anything. William’s father was the first king of Prussia, and even though he was not a significant figure in history, he shaped Frederick into an able ruler.

Early Career

Before ascending to the throne in 1713, the king sold most of his father’s valuables. He did not want to be the king who used his father’s treasury for personal use. He did not participate in the typical lavish life of a king. Instead, he lived an austere life and moved his household to a corner within the palace, utilizing the rest of the place for administrative and military use. He turned the garden into a parade ground and the rooms of the palace into meeting halls. He had ascended to the throne in the middle of the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714). This had made his ascension quite difficult, because there were a lot of ongoing negotiations and wars all over Europe back then, which made the situation dangerous. His immense capacity to work, however, helped him build a strong army of more than 30,000 soldiers. Nevertheless, the army was initially ill-trained. However, his consistency to drill his soldiers turned his army into a strong force of more than 80,000 skilled and well-equipped men.


The young king continued cutting down on royal expenses to improve the financial and military condition of his kingdom. He continued living frugally and paid taxes that were introduced by his ministry. However, he did enjoy hunting and drinking beer in his leisure time. He also encouraged farming, rigid management of the treasury, reclamation of marshes, storage of grains for the future, establishment of schools and hospitals, and implementation of annual taxes. In order to set clear duties for every public servant in Prussia, he maintained and dictated a ‘Manual of Regulations for State Officials.’ The manual had 35 chapters, with 297 paragraphs, which were to be followed by every employee. If a minister failed to attend a committee meeting, he would lose his pay for 6 months. There were many other rules in the manual. For instance, if any person remained absent from meetings more than once, he would be discharged from royal service. All the ministers were instructed to write their reports by themselves and submit the same to the king. Frederick had the final word in all the reports and submissions. Thus, Frederick owned a somewhat personal government. In 1715, he briefly joined the ‘Great Northern War’ against Sweden. He supported Peter the Great of Russia in the war. As a result of joining the war, he acquired a small portion of Swedish Pomerania, which included the Baltic Sea coast. However, he lost a good part of his army in the war. In 1723, he introduced the ‘General Finance Directory,’ which invited and approved all requests for money. Under this practice, the feudal levy was replaced by an efficient collection of taxes on lands held by nobles and the peasantry. It also involved levying excise taxes on not just luxury food items but also staple food products. This change in tax collection helped the annual income of the state rise by 250 percent. In 1732, he invited the Salzburg Protestants to make East Prussia their home. East Prussia had lost most of its population due to the plague in 1709. About 20,000 Protestants moved to Germany in the company of Prussian commissioners. In 1733, he established the canton system, which allowed the peasants and laborers of each canton to be recruited by the army, under their respective regiment. This helped the king to double his army by the end of his reign. By the second half of 1730, Frederick had a fully-equipped and strong army and a full treasury. However, the king’s temper and often-unforgiving nature was disliked by all. He often physically hurt his servants and, in some cases, his children.

Family, Personal Life & Legacy

Frederick married Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, his first cousin and daughter of King George I of Great Britain and Sophia Dorothea of Celle, on November 28, 1706. He loved his wife, but his temper became a problem for their relationship, as Sophia found it difficult to handle him. With time, she started hating him, mostly because of his behavior with their eldest son (and the heir to the throne), Frederick, also known as Fritz. They had 14 children together. His relationship with Fredrick was affected after he noticed vast differences in their personalities. He wanted his son to be a Protestant and lead a simple life while focusing on his military training. However, Frederick was inclined toward music, books, and the French culture. He was often beaten by his father and was even imprisoned while attempting to flee the state with his tutor, Hans Hermann Von Katte. Hans was beheaded after being arrested by the army. William I died on May 31, 1740, at the age of 51. In his final years, the father–son duo had reconciled to a great extent. Sources later revealed that his violent nature and constant temper issues had probably caused porphyritic disease, which eventually caused gout. This became the cause of his death.

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