Frederick II (Prussia) (1712–1786; Ruled 1740–1786)

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FREDERICK II (PRUSSIA) (17121786; ruled 17401786)

FREDERICK II (PRUSSIA) (17121786; ruled 17401786), king of Prussia. In 1740 the years of general peace that had prevailed in Europe since the conclusion the War of the Spanish Succession (17011714) came to an end. In May 1740 Frederick William I (ruled 17131740) died and was succeeded by his son Frederick II (Frederick the Great). In October 1740 Charles VI (ruled 17111740) of Austria died unexpectedly and was succeeded by his daughter Maria Theresa (17171780) as sovereign of the Austrian lands. The new Prussian king used the opportunity to seize the rich Austrian province of Silesia, beginning the War of the Austrian Succession (17401748) and the Seven Years' War (17561763). Frederick's victories in these wars raised Prussia to the rank of the great power that became, in the next century, the creator of a united Germany.

Frederick brought to his task of expanding and ruling Prussia an unusual temperament. As a youth he was interested in art and music. He played the flute, composed music, and admired the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750), whose son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (17141788) was the Prussian court composer. Frederick's relationship with his crude martinet of a father alternated between the explosively antagonistic and the coldly distant. But in the end he was his father's son. Flute and composition gave way to success in war and to a religion of the state, with the prince as its first servant. Reason of state became the cynical Frederick's secular creed, to which he consecrated both his life and the lives and fates of his subjects. After the wars Frederick became a misanthrope, nursing an almost pathological suspicion of everyone he knew and every report he read. But in spite of bad health and bad temper, he continued to work, spending endless hours alone reading reports and writing orders and comments, which he interrupted, when he felt up to it, with surprise inspections that terrified superior and subordinate alike. He held his officials to the same standards of diligence and honesty he maintained for himself, and the phrase "to work for the king of Prussia" became an eighteenth-century expression for working long and hard for low pay and no appreciation. But Frederick, the harsh and grim autocrat, saw it all as benefiting the one thing he loved, the Prussian state.


In the autumn of 1740, seizing the moment, Frederick occupied Silesia. After securing it, he offered both payment and alliance to the outraged Maria Theresa, who rejected both and prepared for war. By 1741 all of Europe west of Russia was at war with someone. Although alliances shifted, as did military fortunes, in the War of the Austrian Succession, Prussia held onto Silesia. By the Treaty of Dresden (1745) Prussia retained Silesia, and in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) all other conquests were rescinded. Eight years of war had brought gain to Prussia and substantial destruction to all the rest.

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle satisfied no one. Austria was not reconciled to the loss of Silesia, and Maria Theresa schemed to get it back. In May 1756 she engineered the Diplomatic Revolution, in which France, after nearly three hundred years of enmity toward Austria, joined Austria and Russia against Prussia. Frederick derisively called the new triple alliance the "petticoat plot," since it was negotiated by Maria Theresa of Austria, Empress Elizabeth (ruled 17411762) of Russia, and Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson (Madame de Pompadour; 17211764), mistress of Louis XV (ruled 17151774), of France. Ridicule, however, was reserved for public consumption; privately Frederick worried about the new coalition sufficiently to begin the war himself in August 1756 by occupying Saxony and seizing its treasury and supplies. When the fighting began, Frederick, for one, would be in a favorable position.

Frederick needed every advantage he could grab, for the alliance was as strong as he had feared. Although Frederick had exceptional military skills and won more battles than he lost, he still could not win every time. He did defeat the French so decisively at Rossbach (1757) and Minden (1759) that they were effectively driven from the war. But Austria and Russia were more substantial foes. By 1759 Frederick had been thrown on the defensive, and in 1760 Austria took Saxony, while the Russians burned Berlin. In 1762, when it looked as if Frederick would lose the war, Empress Elizabeth of Russia died, and her successor Peter III (ruled 1762), who admired Frederick, concluded a peace treaty with him. Austria could not continue the war alone, and on 23 February 1763 signed the Treaty of Hubertusburg with Prussia. Frederick retained Silesia.

Although Frederick was pleased with the acquisition of Silesia and with the rise of Prussia as a great power, he also realized that marauding armies, including his own, had devastated every part of Prussia. Frederick continued expansion after 1763, taking the province of Posen (Poznan) in the first partition of Poland in 1772, but he engaged habitually in a diplomacy of peace, desiring to settle all international issues by negotiation. His attention turned to rebuilding Prussia.


Frederick brought to administration the same ideals that animated his fellow enlightened despots in Austria, Savoy, Tuscany, and Spain. He too strove to increase royal centralization and to impose uniformity upon the varying local and class privileges in Prussia. The technique he used was cameralism, government by committees and councils of administrators. He retained the General Directory established by his father but undercut its broad authority by creating several independent and competing councils, beginning with Commerce and Industry (1741), then War Supplies (1746), Excises and Tolls (1766), Mines (1768), and Forestry (1770). Cameralism fostered reports to the royal autocrat, secrecy in all deliberations and recommendations, and an incurable tendency toward caution and procedure (red tape). But efficiency was not Frederick's goal, autocracy was, and cameralism was well suited to deferring all decisions to the king.

Frederick's internal reforms were centered on three general areas, agriculture, commerce and manufacture, and law. In all of these areas Frederick followed the general ideals of enlightened despotism, the idea that a philosophical autocrat, with the best interests of his or her people at heart, could reform the inherited maze of medieval anomalies, privileges, exemptions, and class structures that stood athwart progress toward a more just, prosperous, and efficient state.

In the area of law Frederick and his successor Frederick William II (ruled 17861797) achieved what all other eighteenth-century monarchs, enlightened or not, tried and failed to do. They created a unified law code for the entire realm. In 1781 Frederick issued a general reform of civil procedure. Completed in 1794, this code made Prussian justice the most honest and efficient in Europe, no small achievement, and it guaranteed liberty of religion, again not insignificant. It secured private property but left serfdom untouched. Free persons (excluding serfs, of course) had guaranteed civil rights, but the legal predominance of the landed nobility was also established. It was a code that provided some liberty but with an emphasis on the rights of the state.

Frederick's agricultural policies were a combination of modern state support and retention of serfdom. He drained swamps, particularly in the Oder Valley and in Brandenburg. He settled immigrants on vacant lands that had been depopulated by war or reclaimed from swamps and forests. He gave peasants tax rebates, grain, fodder, animals, and timber to build or rebuild. To the landed nobility, who were the chief support of the Prussian monarchy, he gave money and tax rebates and support for the institution of serfdom. New crops, such as turnips and potatoes, were introduced through royal patronage, along with better cattle and improved crop rotation. In the end, as is so often the case, the nobles with large farms benefited more than did the peasants with small ones.

Frederick's efforts in commerce and manufacturing complemented his agricultural policies and followed the standard mercantilist policies of the eighteenth century. He built canals to connect the Oder and the Elbe, thus opening north central Europe to Prussian products. He expanded the harbor at Szczecin (Stettin) on the Oder to increase north-south trade from Silesia to the Baltic. Frederick invited textile workers from abroad to Prussia, abolished internal tolls to create a free trade area within Prussia, and established a state bank (1766) to extend credit to industrial enterprises. The investment of state funds, a basic mercantilist idea, reached the huge sum of sixty million talers by Frederick's death in 1786. The king also reorganized and rationalized the Prussian tax structure (1776) with the result that royal income rose. Frederick's general economic policies, both in industry and in agriculture, reflected standard Continental opinion concerning royal responsibility for national prosperity.

A general evaluation of the reign of Frederick the Great must center around his greatest concern, the state. Liberty for subjects was not important, nor was anything beyond liberty of religion granted. The state became more efficient, more powerful, and more competitive internationally, reflecting Frederick's mercantilist beliefs as an autocrat and a warrior who made peace rather than war a continuation of policy by other means.

See also Austrian Succession, War of the (17401748) ; Elizabeth (Russia) ; Enlightened Despotism ; Maria Theresa (Holy Roman Empire) ; Prussia ; Serfdom ; Seven Years' War (17561763) .


Carsten, F. L. The Origins of Prussia. Oxford, 1954.

Ergang, R. R. The Potsdam Fuehrer: Frederick William I, Father of Prussian Militarism. New York, 1941.

Gooch, G. P. Frederick the Great: The Ruler, the Writer, the Man. New York, 1947.

Rosenberg, Hans. Bureaucracy, Aristocracy, and Autocracy: The Prussian Experience, 16601815. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

James D. Hardy, Jr.

Frederick II

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Frederick II

December 26, 1194
Jesi, Italy

December 23, 1250
Apulia, Italy

Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

"Of faith and God he had none; he was crafty, wily, avaricious [greedy], lustful, malicious [mean], wrathful [angry]; and yet a gallant man at times, when he would show his kindness or courtesy; full of solace [comfort], jocund [cheerful], delightful, fertile in devices [strategies]."

—The Chronicle of Salimbene; quoted at

Given the nickname "Wonder of the World," Frederick II was one of the most powerful emperors who ever ruled what was known as the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806 c.e.), the central kingdom of Europe that included present-day Germany and parts of Italy. Richard Cavendish, writing in History Today, called him the "most gifted, vivid and extraordinary of the medieval Holy Roman Emperors." The life of Frederick II can be taken as symbolic of the fight between church and state throughout the Middle Ages; the emperor battled the power of the pope, the Catholic religious leader in Europe, from the beginning of his reign in 1215 until his death in 1250.

Though his attempts at uniting Italy proved unsuccessful, Frederick II did increase the power of the secular (nonreligious) state over that of the church. Frederick II, raised in Sicily, with its large Muslim (believers of the Islamic religion) influence, also formed a bridge between the worlds of Christianity and Islam. He respected Muslim and Arabic learning, and as leader of the Sixth Crusade (1228–29) he recovered Jerusalem and parts of the Holy Land without shooting an arrow. The only bloodless Crusade in the two centuries of otherwise fierce fighting between Christianity and Islam, the Sixth Crusade showed the power of compromise and bargaining. Unfortunately, it was a lesson ignored by both sides.

More Sicilian than German

Frederick II was the only son of Henry VI, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Sicilian princess Constance. His father was descended from the German noble family of Hohenstaufen, while his mother was of Norman origin, the daughter of King Roger II of Sicily, who created a culturally rich and intellectual royal court that helped introduce Arabic learning to western Europe. Born in Italy in 1194, Frederick II was an orphan by the time he was four. Though his father had provided for his election as the next German king in 1196, this meant nothing once Henry VI was dead. Even Frederick's uncle, Philip of Swabia, was unable to hold the German electors to their word, for as soon as Henry VI was declared dead they began competing among themselves to take the crown away from the youthful Frederick.

Frederick was kept in Sicily, where he was under the protection of Pope Innocent III (see entry), who became his guardian. The boy was raised in the Sicilian kingdom, a region heavily settled by Muslims and deeply influenced by Islamic religion, scholarship, art, and architecture. Having grown up in the Sicilian city of Palermo, he came to understand the traditions of two cultures, the Islamic East and the Christian West, but was a firm believer in neither. He also grew up speaking several languages, and as a future king he learned how to ride and to fight like a knight, or noble soldier.

In 1209 the pope arranged a marriage for the teenage Frederick II with Constance, the sister of Pedro II, the king of Aragon, a region in northeastern Spain. This marriage was planned for political reasons. Though Constance was ten years older than Frederick, the successful match lasted until Constance's death in 1222. Meanwhile, the fighting continued in Germany to see who would become the next emperor. Both Philip and Otto IV were elected as the next king by competing groups of German princes, the first step in becoming emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This empire was the third most important political player in medieval Europe, after France and England. Otto IV won this struggle and persuaded the pope to crown him emperor in 1209.

Holy Roman Empire

Frederick II was one of a long line of emperors of what was called the Holy Roman Empire. For most of the thousand years of its existence, this empire was more imaginary than real, an empire on paper. Established in 962 c.e., the Holy Roman Empire was thought of as a child of the old Roman Empire. That empire collapsed in the fifth century. In 800 the powerful leader Charlemagne (742–814) once again established control over much of Europe. He was crowned Roman emperor by Leo III, who was the pope at the time. With the last of Charlemagne's dynasty dying out in 899, that empire also fell apart. However, a strong German prince named Otto began to unify the lands of Germany, and in 962 he was crowned the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

This emperor was typically a German king, elected by a group of strong German princes, for much of the existence of the empire. But his imperial crown, or title of emperor, came from the Catholic Church. Becoming king of Germany was the first step in becoming emperor, but it did not always mean that the pope would approve of the choice. Over time, however, the German kingship and the office of emperor were handed down from father to son and from one family to another. It remained in German hands until 1438, when the house of Hapsburg, the rulers of Austria and Spain, took it over.

From the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire there was a battle for power between the emperor, who was the secular leader of the heart of Europe, and the pope, who was the religious leader. This fight continued until 1356, when the Golden Bull, an order from the emperor, allowed the emperor to be chosen without the pope's blessing. Once the rivalry with the pope was settled, the emperor next had to face the rising power of individual princes, kings, and powerful cities. Early on in the history of the empire, the emperor lost control of kingdoms such as France and Italy; his control over others was in name only. Germany and Italy were his center of power, and even this power depended on the emperor: If he was strong enough, he could rule an actual empire; if weak, he was emperor only on paper. Frederick II had such power over his princes, but he was frustrated in his attempts to unite Italy by a still-powerful papacy.

The last emperor, Francis I, a Hapsburg, gave up the title and the empire in 1806. By this time the imperial office was merely a title. Europe was divided into strong kingdoms that no longer needed or wanted one emperor to look after them.

The pope, however, soon became disappointed in this new emperor when he tried to take over Italy, which was traditionally the pope's territory. Encouraged by the pope, the German electors, or princes, changed their minds about Otto and elected Frederick II the German king, just as his father had earlier arranged. In 1212 Frederick traveled to Germany to take up his duties, but first he had to defeat his rival, Otto IV. With some help from Philip Augustus, the king of France, Frederick II was able to accomplish this, and in 1215 he was officially crowned king of Germany.

Frederick II was never as interested in his German kingdom as he was in his Italian one in Sicily and southern Italy. However, he remained in Germany for five years, securing his office and making sure he had the princes of Germany on his side by giving them new rights and powers. He also eased tensions with the pope by promising to lead a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims and by pledging to separate the kingdom of Sicily from the Holy Roman Empire. The papacy, or office of the pope, had long feared having Rome caught between the German regions and the south of Italy. They were against any attempt to unite Italy as part of the Holy Roman Empire, for the papacy regarded Italy as its own region. With such promises to Honorius III, the new pope, Frederick II won the favor of the papacy and in 1220 was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

Frederick II Returns to Sicily

Leaving his young son, Henry, behind as the new king of Germany, Frederick II returned to the warmer climate of Italy. He went back on his promise to the papacy about giving up his lands in Sicily and in southern Italy, claiming that he needed them in order to support his Crusade. He set about getting Sicily in shape, creating a strong central government under his rule and putting down any rebellions. As a result of all this reorganization, he kept putting off the time of his Crusade and was able to send only a small force on the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade (1218–21). With the founding of the University of Naples in 1224, he established the first state university of the Middle Ages. The following year he married Yolande, a teenage girl who was next in line to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a Crusader state established in the Holy Land after the First Crusade (1095–99). This marriage, which brought with it the title of King of Jerusalem for Frederick II, ultimately led him to go on a Crusade himself.

The Sixth Crusade

Frederick's marriage to the fourteen-year-old Yolande (he was thirty-one) did not work out well. He liked women too much to remain faithful. He soon sent Yolande to live in Palermo, where she died at seventeen after giving birth to a son, Conrad. The two sons he had with his first two wives were the only ones that were legitimate—that is, born in marriage. But Frederick also fathered numerous illegitimate sons to whom he often awarded important positions. Frederick learned of his wife's death on his way to the Holy Land. It was not the only bad news he received during his trip. When malaria (a disease with symptoms of chills and fever, spread by mosquitoes) struck him and his Crusader army, Frederick II delayed the Crusade once again, and the pope excommunicated, or expelled, him from the church. Once he recovered, he set out again for the Holy Land. When the pope learned of this, as if to emphasize his displeasure, he excommunicated Frederick a second time for daring to set off on the Crusade after being excommunicated.

However, Frederick really did not care about such things. He had his own plans. While he was still in Sicily, he had been communicating with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil (see entry), the powerful ruler of Egypt and Palestine, who let Frederick understand that he might be willing to negotiate a peaceful deal concerning Jerusalem, one of the sultan's holdings. Thus, when Frederick reached the Holy Land with a very small army and with little local support from the religious fighting orders (such as the Knights Templars and Knights Hospitallers) because of his excommunication, he was not really concerned. He knew al-Kamil needed to strike a deal over Jerusalem because the sultan was busy with his own internal fights, trying to take Damascus, Syria, from his nephew.

Frederick II also badly needed a victory in this Crusade in order to reestablish his power base in the empire. Both men were willing to compromise. Frederick made it look as if he were ready to fight, but in the end no battles were fought. On February 18, 1229, the sultan and the emperor simply signed the following agreement: The Christians would get Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem back, as well as a small strip of land along the coast. These lands, long in the hands of the Muslims, had been won by the Christian Crusaders in the First Crusade (1095–99) under Godfrey of Bouillon (see entry) and then lost to the Muslims in 1187 under the Islamic leader Saladin (see entry). For the past forty years Christians and Muslims had been fighting over this city and region, for it was important to both religions. However, Frederick and al-Kamil were politicians first and believers second. The Muslims got something out of the deal, too. Al-Kamil was promised a truce for ten years, during which time he could fight rival Muslims to secure his own empire. Also, the Crusaders were forbidden to rebuild the destroyed walls of Jerusalem in order to defend it. The city was thus open to attack at any time. In addition, Muslims retained possession of al-Aqsa, their mosque, or place of worship, and were allowed free access to the city.

This agreement pleased both Frederick II and al-Kamil, though both were sharply criticized for it. The Christians, who had settled the area since the First Crusade, felt that Frederick had never really intended to fight. His was a public-relations trick. If al-Kamil had agreed simply to hand over Jerusalem without a fight, these critics argued, just think what could have been achieved with a real battle. The Muslim world also cried out against the handover of Jerusalem. Yet both leaders survived, and their agreement brought a period of peace to the region and temporarily ended the battle over who controlled Jerusalem. Though a Seventh Crusade was fought in the mid-thirteenth century, Frederick's agreement took the wind out of the arguments for a Crusade.

Battles for a United Italy

Frederick II stayed on in the Holy Land for a short time, declaring himself king of Jerusalem, but there was little enthusiasm locally for his leadership. Besides, a new pope, Gregory IX, was in power in Rome and was using the emperor's absence as an opportunity to attack his lands in Sicily. Returning to Italy, Frederick II defeated the pope's army and then forced Gregory IX to nullify, or end, his excommunication. Frederick II spent the next twenty years trying to unify Italy. In 1231 he issued a group of laws, called the Constitutions of Melfi, that provided for a strong central government, a system of taxes, an army, a standard currency (type of money), and a court system, all of which turned Sicily into a wealthy kingdom.

Once Sicily was under his control, Frederick II attempted to dominate northern Italy, but the pope would not stand for this. Gregory IX again excommunicated Frederick II and managed to get cities in the north, which were members of the Lombard League, to resist the emperor. Although he was almost constantly at war with one group or another, Frederick found the time to marry Isabella, the sister of the king of England. In 1235 he also passed what are known as the Laws of the Empire, establishing an imperial court of justice. This was an extremely important move, for it later served as the basis for national law.

The emperor also had to put down a rebellion by his son Henry in Germany. Frederick II sent forces to Germany, defeated the rebels, and threw his young son in prison, where he died in 1242. He replaced Henry as German king with his second son, Conrad. Now Frederick could once again turn his attention to Italy. After the death in 1241 of his enemy Pope Gregory IX, he kept the papacy from electing a new pope for two years. Finally, Innocent IV became pope and was at first controlled by Frederick. But he fled Rome for France, where he held a church council in 1245 that condemned Frederick II as the Antichrist (the biblical enemy of Christ).

Relations were never repaired between Frederick II and the papacy. He suffered a defeat in 1248 by the pope's army and the cities of the Lombard League. Two years later he was beginning to get the upper hand again when he died of dysentery, an infection of the intestines.

Although Frederick II was unable to achieve his goal of uniting Italy, he was still one of the most powerful medieval Holy Roman Emperors. His advances in centralized government—one governing body and set of laws that ruled over large portions of land such as entire countries—paved the way for modern governments. He was in many ways a man before his time. Religion did not dominate his life, as it did for many other rulers of the Middle Ages. His interest in the arts and learning created a multicultural environment at his court in Sicily. He corresponded with Christians, Jews, and Muslims about philosophical and scientific questions. A rationalist (one who believes in reason over blind faith), Frederick II was an amateur scientist, creating his own experiments on digestion by examining the contents of the stomachs of executed prisoners or seeking an answer to the riddle of language by raising children in silence to see which language they would choose. Such experiments show both Frederick's curiosity and his lack of sensitivity for basic human rights. As king and emperor he made the laws, but he did not always abide by them. That next step in the development of government would have to wait many centuries.

For More Information


Abulafia, D. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Barraclough, G. The Origins of Modern Germany. New York: Norton, 1984.

"Frederick, II." In Historic World Leaders. Europe: A–K. Edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. 2nd ed. Translated by John Gillingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Van Cleve, T. C. The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Web Sites

"Death of the Emperor Frederick II." History Today (December 2000). (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Emperor Frederick II." Best of Sicily Magazine. (July 2002). (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Frederick II." New Advent. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor." RoyaList Online. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"The Frederick–Al-Kamil Compromise of 1229." Aljazeerah Online.,%20David%20Abulafia.htm (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"Salimbene: On Frederick II." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

"The Sixth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 26, 2004).

Frederick II

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Frederick II

Frederick II (1712-1786), or Frederick the Great, was king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He combined the qualities of a warrior king with those of an enlightened despot.

The eldest son of Frederick William I of Prussia and of Princess Sophie Dorothea of Hanover, Frederick II was born in Berlin on Jan. 24, 1712. His father was a hardworking, unimaginative soldier-king, with no outward pretensions and no time to waste on superfluous niceties. Even as an adolescent Frederick, with the tacit support of his mother, rebelled against this mold. He preferred French literature to German and the company of young fops to that of old soldiers.

In 1730 Frederick and a young friend, Lieutenant Katte, planned a romantic escape to England, but their plot was discovered. The would-be escapees were arrested and condemned to death for desertion, and Katte was executed in Frederick's presence. The crown prince was spared upon the entreaties of Emperor Charles VI, although it is doubtful that his father ever intended to go through with the execution. Frederick, however, was imprisoned in the fortress of Küstrin in the most rigorous conditions until, after some 6 months, he voluntarily approached Frederick William with a request for pardon. For the next 2 years, although still nominally a prisoner, Frederick was employed in a subsidiary position of the local administration of Küstrin, thus learning the intricacies of the Prussian administrative system.

In 1732 Frederick was appointed commandant of an infantry regiment and, having decided to obey his father, he learned soldiering with all the thoroughness with which he had previously avoided it. In 1733, at his father's insistence, he married Elisabeth Christine of Braunschweig, but his aversion to women was so pronounced that the marriage was, over the many years it lasted, never consummated.

Between 1733 and 1740 Frederick, who had grown into a young man whose unimposing stature was balanced by piercing blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a good chin, exceeded even the expectations of his father in his dedication to hard, dull routine. But he also found time to devote himself further to French literature, to begin a lifelong correspondence with a number of French philosophes, and to try writing himself. One product of this period was the Anti-Machiavel (1739), a work in which he argued that the Italian's ruthlessly practical maxims for princes were no longer compatible with the more advanced ethics of a new age. He was soon given the opportunity to test his own conduct against these views.

War of the Austrian Succession

On May 31, 1740, Frederick William died, and Frederick became king of Prussia as Frederick II. Before he had time to accustom himself to his new position, the death of Emperor Charles VI on October 20 created a political crisis and presented Frederick with a unique opportunity. Like all the other leading powers of Europe, Prussia had subscribed to the Pragmatic Sanction, guaranteeing the succession of Charles's daughter Maria Theresa and the integrity of her dominions. But it was an open secret that at least France and Bavaria intended to make demands upon Austria as soon as the Emperor was dead, and Frederick saw no reason to stand by while others enriched themselves at Austria's expense. He offered to assist Austria in the maintenance of its possessions in exchange for the cession of the rich province of Silesia to Prussia. When this outrageous piece of blackmail was indignantly rejected, in December Frederick marched his troops into Silesia, thus launching the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

In the first phase of this struggle the combined onslaught of Prussian, French, and Bavarian forces threatened to overwhelm Austria. Not wishing to bring about a situation more favorable to his potential rivals than to himself, Frederick withdrew from the war in 1742 with most of Silesia as his price. When Austria, relieved of the necessity of fighting the Prussians, threatened to crush its remaining enemies, Frederick reentered the war in 1744. The conflict was finally ended in 1748 with Silesia still firmly in Prussian hands.

Seven Years War

Since the Austrians were antagonistic over the loss of Silesia, Frederick had reason to fear a renewal of the struggle. In the aftermath of the war both sides engaged in complicated diplomatic maneuvers. Austria, which had enjoyed a tentative alliance with Russia since 1746, tried to strengthen this while making overtures toward its old enemy France. Frederick in turn concluded the Treaty of Westminster (1755) with Great Britain, promising Prussian neutrality in the war that had just broken out between France and England. These maneuvers led directly to the Diplomatic Revolution, which in 1756 left Prussia facing an overwhelming Continental alliance of Austria, Russia, France, and Saxony. Rather than await inevitable death by constriction, Frederick attacked Austria, which he regarded as the weakest among the great powers facing him. Thus began the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

In this conflict Frederick distinguished himself by continually keeping at bay much more powerful antagonists. He took advantage of the natural lack of cohesion of coalitions and fought his enemies, so far as possible, one at a time. The superior discipline of the Prussian army allowed Frederick to march it to the theater of war in small detachments, from various directions, uniting only shortly before a battle was to be fought. He also made the most of the oblique order of battle which he had inculcated in the Prussian army and which allowed him to concentrate his forces against emerging weak spots in his enemies' more ponderous formations.

In spite of these advantages, by 1762 Prussia was on the verge of bankruptcy, its army was in no condition to continue the war, and Russian troops had occupied Berlin. At this juncture Empress Elizabeth of Russia died; her successor, the mad Peter III, an admirer of Frederick, pulled Russia out of the war. Thus saved, Frederick was able to conclude the Peace of Hubertusberg (1763), which restored the prewar status quo.

The Seven Years War taught Frederick that, while Prussia's recently acquired position as a great power had been successfully defended, any further adventures in foreign policy had to be avoided at all costs. Hereafter his policy was a strictly defensive one, bent primarily on preventing changes in the balance of power. This became evident when, in 1772, it appeared as if Austria and Russia were about to succeed in partitioning the Ottoman Empire. As there was no chance of securing reasonable compensation for Prussia, Frederick blustered and threatened until the principals agreed on a three-way partition of Poland. In 1778, when Joseph II of Austria attempted to acquire Bavaria, Frederick reluctantly went to war but engaged in no more than a halfhearted war of maneuver of which the Austrians at last tired; and in 1784, when Joseph tried to trade the Austrian Netherlands for Bavaria, Frederick organized the League of German Princes to preserve the status of Germany.

Domestic Policies

Frederick had inherited a well-run state from his father, a circumstance that allowed him to fight his major wars. But he worked as hard at internal administration as at military leadership. He very reluctantly delegated authority, took all important decisions himself, and ruled through ministers responsible only to him. His ruthless insistence on hard work and honesty resulted in a doubling of the revenues of the state in his reign and a tripling of the available reserve fund, this last in spite of the devastation associated with the Seven Years War.

Frederick continued the traditional Prussian policy of encouraging immigration of economically productive elements, particularly peasants, into the more backward and underpopulated areas of the state. In contrast, his policy toward the established peasantry tended to be restrictive. In spite of the spirit of the times, he refused to abolish serfdom where it existed, fearing that such a measure would weaken the landed nobility, which produced both officers for his army and officials for his civil service.

In economics Frederick was a strict mercantilist, fostering the rather backward domestic industry with high tariffs wherever he could. He did not, however, extend these notions to the building of a fleet, so that Prussia did not participate in the great expansion of European overseas trade of the second half of the 18th century.

Apart from purely pragmatic measures, Frederick's reign was not a time of considerable reform. The one exception is the area of judicial procedure, where the efforts of his minister of justice, Cocceji, resulted not merely in a more extensive codification of the law but in the acceptance of the principle that the law is foremost the protector of the poor and the weak.

During his reign Frederick continued to concern himself with literature and music. He became, in a sense, the host of the most famous salon in Europe. Voltaire was only the best known of the philosophes to take advantage of his hospitality. The Prussian Academy of Sciences, which had long languished and which he renewed in 1744, provided much-needed subsidies for both major and minor luminaries of the French Enlightenment. At the same time Frederick had no use for those obstinate enough to persist in writing in "barbaric" German, and the young Goethe was not the only German author deprived of royal assistance for this reason.

But Frederick was not content to be merely a patron of literature. He found time to produce, besides Anti-Machiavel, the Mirror of Princes and a series of histories dealing with his own affairs that at his death filled 15 volumes.

An Assessment

Frederick was both lionized and vilified long after his death. In Germany his more nationally minded admirers produced a cult of Frederick the Great, the precursor of the all-German hero. In other countries he was blamed as the inventor of an implacable German militarism let loose upon the world. Both these views are gross distortions. Frederick was always a Prussian nationalist, never a German one. And while he was a soldier-king, his pervasive interests throughout his life were nonmilitary. The latter part of his reign was unquestionably pacific and in some cases even propitiatory in nature.

Frederick did not have a first-rate analytical mind, but Voltaire's denunciations of him after their famous quarrel do not sound much more convincing than his panegyrics when he still hoped to get some of the royal money. Frederick was parsimonious, perhaps to a fault, but his funds were in fact severely limited. His treatment of his queen, whom he refused even the right to reside near him, was perhaps unforgivable. Frederick II died at his beloved summer residence, Sans-Souci, near Potsdam on Aug. 17, 1786, and was followed on the throne by his nephew Frederick William II.

Further Reading

Among the older English biographies of Frederick, the best is probably W. F. Reddaway, Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia (1904). Other useful biographies are Edith Simon, The Making of Frederick the Great (1963), and D. B. Horn, Frederick the Great and the Rise of Prussia (1964). Gerhard Ritter, Frederick the Great: An Historical Profile (1936; 3d ed. 1954; trans. 1968), and G. P. Gooch, Frederick the Great: The Ruler, the Writer, the Man (1947), are both stimulating essays dealing with aspects of Frederick's life. See also John A. Marriott and Charles G. Robertson, The Evolution of Prussia: The Making of an Empire (1915; rev. ed. 1946); Hajo Holborn, History of Modern Germany, vol. 2 (1963); Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (2 vols., 1966-1969); and Walter Henry Nelson, The Soldier Kings: The House of Hohenzollern (1970).

Additional Sources

Abulafia, David, Frederick II: a medieval emperor, London: Allen Lane, 1988; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Duffy, Christopher, Frederick the Great: a military life, London:Routledge & K. Paul, 1985.

Duffy, Christopher, The military life of Frederick the Great, New York: Atheneum, 1986, 1985.

Mitford, Nancy, Frederick the Great, London; New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Simon, Edith, The making of Frederick the Great, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977. □

Frederick II

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Frederick II

Frederick II (1194-1250) was Holy Roman emperor from 1215 to 1250. His unsuccessful effort to establish a strong centralized Italian state brought him into a long and bitter conflict with the papacy and the Italian urban centers.

Born in lesi, Italy, Frederick II was the only son of Emperor Henry VI and of Constance of Sicily. His father died in 1197 and his mother, who served as regent for him, a year later. As the orphan king of Sicily, he was the ward of the great pope Innocent III, who ignored his education and training but kept his kingdom intact for him. Frederick grew up in Palermo, surrounded by factions who attempted to use him for their own ends and influenced by the Islamic and Greek culture that pervaded the dissolute Sicilian court.

At first Frederick was ignored in the empire of his father, where his able uncle Philip of Swabia and the Welf Otto IV, son of Henry the Lion, were quarreling over the imperial title. By 1211, however, Philip was dead and Otto IV had broken with Innocent III, who had previously supported him. So, when a group of German nobles asked him to go to Germany to assume the imperial crown, Frederick made his infant son, Henry, king of Sicily and hastened to Frankfurt, where in 1212 he was chosen ruler of Germany. He pacified the papacy, which feared a union between Sicily and the empire, by promising Innocent III that he would abdicate his Sicilian throne in favor of his son and that he would go on a crusade at the earliest opportunity. In 1214 Otto IV was defeated at Bouvines by Frederick's ally King Philip II (Augustus) of France, and in 1215 Frederick was recognized as emperor-elect by Pope Innocent III, who died a little while later.

Early Reign

Frederick began his reign as emperor in Germany by gaining the support of the magnates, both lay and ecclesiastical, by confirming in 1213 and 1220 their right to the privileges they had usurped in 1197 on the death of Emperor Henry VI. He then made his son, Henry, king of Germany and his viceroy and returned to Italy, which from this time on occupied most of his attention, for Germany never interested him except as a source of support for his Italian projects. Immediately upon his return he persuaded Pope Honorius III to crown him emperor and managed to put off giving up Sicily, as he had promised, on the grounds he needed to pacify it so that it could support his crusade.

The first task Frederick undertook was to establish firm control over the kingdom of Sicily, which had been in complete disorder since 1197. In 1220, in contrast with his actions in Germany, he revoked all privileges granted its towns and nobles since the death of King William II (1189), put down a Moslem revolt on the island of Sicily itself, and began to organize his realm into a tyrannical but well-administered kingdom. By 1225, prodded by Pope Honorius, he had married Yolande, heiress of the kingdom of Jerusalem (his first wife, an Aragonese princess, having died), and had made plans to proceed with his crusade to the East. He was still delaying on fulfilling this project when Pope Honorius died in 1227.

Honorius was succeeded by the aged pope Gregory IX (reigned 1227-1241), who, though over 80, was a vigorous, unrelenting foe of the young emperor. This aged pope almost at once excommunicated him for not going on crusade and, when Frederick then left for the East in 1228 without having the excommunication lifted, excommunicated him again and began planning a crusade against Frederick's Sicilian domains. Frederick proved very successful in the East, where he regained the city of Jerusalem from the Moslems by negotiation instead of war, crowned himself king of Jerusalem (a title which he retained until 1245), and built up his authority in the East. He returned in 1230 to find Pope Gregory IX attacking his kingdom of Sicily. After he had defeated the papal forces, he made Gregory lift his excommunication.

Policies in Italy

In 1231 Frederick promulgated the Constitutions of Melfi, an important code of laws that set up a nonfeudal state in Sicily. By this code the independence of towns and nobles was curbed, a centralized judicial and administrative system was established, mercenary armies were recruited, ecclesiastical privileges were limited, and commerce and industry were fostered by a uniform system of tolls and port dues and a common gold currency. At the same time his own revenues were increased by the establishment of royal monopolies over such things as salt production and the trade in grain. Sicily became one of the most prosperous realms in Europe.

Frederick then proceeded to attempt to extend his centralized rule to northern Italy, where in 1231 he made plans to subjugate its cities by appointing podestas, or imperial governors, over them. This alarmed the Pope, who saw the papacy, as in Henry VI's time, threatened between an imperial hammer in the north and the well-organized anvil of Sicily in the south. Gregory's answer was to reopen hostilities against Frederick II by attempting with some success to revive the Lombard League used against Frederick's grandfather Frederick Barbarossa. When these cities rose against him in support of a German revolt of his son King Henry, Frederick suppressed the revolt and in 1237 won a great victory over the Milanese at Cortenuova. As a result of this victory, the Lombard League temporarily collapsed and most of its cities submitted to him, as did the majority of the nobles of northern Italy.

While Frederick was establishing his authority firmly in Sicily and northern Italy, however, he was following quite a different policy in Germany. There in 1231 he issued the Constitution in Favor of the Princes, which had the result of making the magnates practically independent and even placed the towns under their rule. When his son Henry objected to this and revolted, Frederick suppressed his rising, threw him into prison, where he died, and replaced him as king in 1238 with his second son, Conrad. From this time on he made little attempt to exercise any real authority in Germany, whose princes, satisfied with their status, caused him no trouble. The only action of importance he took which affected Germany was his grant of a special charter to the Teutonic Knights, who, late in his reign, began their occupation of East Prussia, which they wrenched from the grasp of the kings of Poland.

In Italy, however, Pope Gregory IX still refused to accept Frederick's domination of northern Italy and excommunicated him. When his papal opponent died in 1241, Frederick reacted by using military force to keep a new pope from being elected for 2 years (1241-1243) and finally by procuring the election of a Ghibelline pope, Innocent IV (reigned 1243-1254). Innocent IV, however, soon broke with Frederick and fled from Italy to Lyons, where in 1245 he held a great Church council which condemned Frederick as the antichrist. The efforts of the Pope to enlist French and English support against this great Hohenstaufen ruler, however, proved abortive, and the war continued in Italy.

Frederick, relying on his able illegitimate sons and on lieutenants like Ezzalino, fought valiantly against the continuing resistance of the cities of Lombardy and the Papal States. Finally his army was badly defeated near Parma in 1248. By 1250, just as he was beginning to reverse the tide, he died suddenly, and his hopes of dominating all of Italy died with him. He left a number of illegitimate sons in Italy as his heirs, such as Manfred, Enzio, and Philip of Antioch, and one legitimate successor, the young Conrad across the Alps in Germany.

His Character

Frederick's character has long fascinated the historians and biographers who have studied him. He was married three times, first to Constance of Aragon, next to Yolande of Jerusalem, and finally to Isabelle of England. His real love was Bianca Lancia, with whom he carried on a lengthy liaison and who bore him several children. He had two legitimate sons and numerous illegitimate ones. He was reputed, probably with some justification, to have kept a harem in Palermo. His general lifestyle seemed to his contemporaries more Islamic than Christian; for instance, he maintained a force of Moslem mercenaries and scandalized his age by traveling with a private zoo. Though he remained formally a Christian, his spirit seemed more tolerant and skeptical than his age was ready to accept. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of his Sicilian court, Arabic and Byzantine culture was highly prized.

Frederick proved an important patron of the arts throughout his entire reign. A poet himself, he prized southern French poetry highly, and he welcomed troubadour poets from this region when after the Albigensian Crusade they fled to his court. Through the influence of these poets, a new poetry began to be composed in the Sicilian vernacular tongue. He was also much interested in art and architecture, and under his aegis a classical artistic revival took place, anticipating that of later Renaissance Italy.

Frederick spoke a number of languages, and in 1234 he founded the University of Naples, the first state university in western Europe. He was much attracted to scientific ideas, perhaps because of his appreciation of Arabic culture. He is said to have conducted a series of experiments to determine how digestion took place, using the contents of the stomachs of executed criminals as his evidence. He also tried isolating children at birth to discover what language they would speak if untaught. He was also an enthusiastic falconer and wrote a book on the subject entitled On the Art of Hunting with Birds, which proved to be the most detailed scientific examination of ornithology written until the 19th century.

In short, Frederick deserves the title of Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World), which his contemporaries bestowed upon him. This extraordinary man with all his faults, then, was a ruler who had the misfortune to be born before his time. He paid the price for this by seeing all his brilliance and ability brought to naught by a hostile papacy and a reluctant citizenry of the northern Italian communes. With his death Italy had to wait more than 600 years for the unity he had tried to bring about.

Further Reading

There are a number of excellent biographies of Frederick II. One of the best is Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, 1194-1250 (1927; trans. 1931). See also Lionel Allshorn, Stupor Mundi: The Life & Times of Frederick II, Emperor of the Romans, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, 1194-1250 (1912); Georgina Masson, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1957); and Friedrich Heer, The Holy Roman Empire (1967; trans. 1968).

Frederick II

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Frederick II ( the Great) (1712–86) King of Prussia (1740–86). Succeeding his father, Frederick William I, he made Prussia a major European power. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48), Frederick gained the province of Silesia from Austria. During the Seven Years' War (1756–63), his brilliant generalship preserved the kingdom from a superior hostile alliance. In 1760, Austro-Russian forces reached Berlin, but Russia's subsequent withdrawal from the war enabled Frederick to emerge triumphant. He directed Prussia's remarkable recovery from the devastation of war. Gaining further territory in the first partition of Poland (1772), he renewed the contest against Austria in the War of the Bavarian Succession (1778–79). Artistic and intellectual, he built the palace of Sans Souci, and was a gifted musician.

Frederick II

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Frederick II (1194–1250) Holy Roman Emperor (1215–50), king of Germany (1212–20), Sicily (1198–1250) and Jerusalem (1229–50); son of Emperor Henry VI. Frederick devoted himself to Italy and Sicily. He promised to make his son, Henry, King of Sicily but gave him Germany (1220) instead. Frederick's claims on Lombardy and postponement of a crusade angered Pope Honorius III, who excommunicated him and revived the Lombard League. Frederick finally embarked on a crusade in 1228, and was crowned King of Jerusalem. In Sicily, he set up a centralized royal administration. In Germany, he devolved authority to the princes; Henry rebelled against his father, and in 1235 Frederick imprisoned him and gave the throne to Conrad IV. In 1245, Innocent IV deposed Frederick and civil war ensued in Germany and Italy.

Frederick II

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Frederick II


German-Italian Ruler who contributed significantly to the foundation of European medicine and to medieval intellectual life. The grandson of Frederick I Barbarossa, he was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1220, a position he held until his death. Frederick licensed the medical school at Salerno and decreed that all practicing physicians must have the approval of its faculty. Salerno was influential in the foundation of the medieval medical schools at Montpellier, Paris, Bologna, and Padua.

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Frederick II (Prussia)