The son of King Frederick William II of Prussia, Frederick William was born in Potsdam on August 3, 1770, and became Crown Prince in 1786, when his father ascended the throne. On December 24, 1793, Frederick William married Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a princess noted for her beauty.
Frederick William came to the throne on November 16, 1797, on the death of his father. At first he and his advisors attempted to pursue a policy of neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars. Although they succeeded in keeping out of the Third Coalition in 1805, Napoleon's provocations ultimately forced Frederick William into war in October 1806. On October 14, 1806, at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, the French defeated the Prussian army led by Frederick William, and the Prussian army collapsed. The royal family fled to East Prussia, where they fell on the mercy of Emperor Alexander I of Russia (who, rumour has it, had fallen in love with Queen Louise).
Alexander, too, sufferred defeat at the hands of the French, and at Tilsit on the Niemen France made peace with Russia and Prussia. Napoleon dealt with Prussia very harshly, despite the pregnant Queen's personal interview with the French emperor. Prussia lost all its Polish territories, as well as all territory west of the Elbe, and had to finance a large indemnity and to pay for French troops to occupy key strong points within the Kingdom.
Although the ineffectual King himself seemed resigned to Prussia's fate, various reforming ministers, such as Baron Karl vom Stein, Prince Karl August von Hardenberg, Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, and Count August von Gneisenau, set about reforming Prussia's administration and military, with the encouragement of the Queen (who died, greatly mourned, in 1810).
In 1813, following Napoleon's defeat in Russia, Frederick William turned against France and signed an alliance with Russia at Kalitsch, although he had to flee Berlin, still under French occupation. Prussian troops played a key part in the victories of the allies in 1813 and 1814, and the King himself travelled with the main army of Prince Schwarzenberg, along with Alexander of Russia and Francis of Austria.
At the Congress of Vienna, Frederick William's ministers succeeded in securing important territorial increases for Prussia, although they failed to obtain the annexation of all of Saxony, as they had wished. Following the war, Frederick William turned towards political reaction, abandoning the promises he had made in 1813 to supply Prussia with a constitution. He died on June 7, 1840. His eldest son, Frederick William IV, succeeded him.
Frederick William II
List of Kings of Prussia|
Frederick William IV