Major Players: Frederick and Elizabeth

One rainy summer afternoon, many, many years ago, I was doing the guided tour of Heidelberg Castle in Germany. The guide explained how the formal gardens- mostly in ruins today- were considered the 8th wonder of the world at the time they were built back in 1615. What caught my attention as a romantic 18-year-old was the fact that they had been built by one of the rulers of Heidelberg, Frederick V, Elector Palatine for his English wife, Elizabeth Stuart.

Frederick V in 1613
Frederick V in 1613

He loved her so much that he spared no trouble or expense to create the most fabulous home for her. It wasn’t just the garden, either. He rebuilt a whole wing of the castle in the “English style,” so she wouldn’t be homesick. The guide then went on to speculate that it was this love for Elizabeth that drove Frederick to give in to her ambitious machinations, leading him to accept the Bohemian crown, finally resulting in the whole Winter King debacle.

Elizabeth of Bohemia
Elizabeth of Bohemia

Needless to say, I was impressed, and my teenage heartstrings were tugged by the tragic romance of it all. I did have to disregard the portraits of the protagonists, because it was a little hard to picture people wearing such stiff collars having squishy feelings. Still, I think it’s safe to say that the tiny seed that grew into the book I’m writing now was planted that day.

Although not a king, Frederick V was a pretty important player in European politics. He was the leader of the Protestant Union, and considered senior among the secular electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Elizabeth was the daughter of James I of England, and had a number of suitors by the time she was a teenager. Frederick came to England to meet her, and they immediately hit it off.

They were only seventeen when they got married, but they were crazy about each other, and everyone else seemed to consider it a good match. Only her mother, sister to the Danish king, seemed a bit unhappy that her daughter would not be a queen. Still, the young couple were a huge hit, and were wined and dined all up and down England and back to Heidelberg.

For the next few years, Frederick remodeled and planned gardens, and Elizabeth popped out babies. All was well until trouble started in Bohemia. To this day, scholars argue about the reasons for Frederick’s involvement in the whole mess. The standard explanation had been that he was sacrificed on the altar of his wife’s ambition, but there are many other possible reasons.

Heidelberg Castle today
Heidelberg Castle today

While Elizabeth may have been ambitious on Frederick’s behalf, he was ambitious all on his own, as well. Being seen as the pre-eminent Protestant leader in Europe made him feel he had responsibilities that went beyond those of his immediate kingdom. He was also advised by the ambitious Christian of Anhalt, so there was just a lot of ambition in general roiling around in that fancy palace. And honestly, even as a ruin, the place is impressive. I would get delusions of grandeur if that was my house.

In addition, it also seems that both Frederick and Christian were into some kind of Calvinist apocalyptic cult. There was much talk of the End Times (yeah, they’ve been talking about that stuff for a while now), the Pope as Antichrist (how did you guess?), and various other things that made it clear that Roman Catholics and/or the Habsburgs were the devil. So, when it hit the fan in Bohemia, it seemed like prophecy was being fulfilled. This is one of many reasons I am against conducting foreign policy based on sketchy interpretations of Revelation. It’s a good reason, I think, considering how things turned out.

So anyway, when Frederick was offered the Bohemian crown in 1619, accepting it seemed like the thing to do. Still young and cute, he and Elizabeth were very popular in Prague, for about three weeks. At that point, it became apparent that youthful cool and enthusiasm would not be enough to carry the day. Frederick and his people had zero knowledge of the country he was ruling. They didn’t even speak the language. (I don’t think Elizabeth even spoke German; she and Frederick communicated in French or English) They also didn’t share a religion. Bohemia was devoutly Lutheran, and people were very offended when Frederick’s pastor started destroying religious art in their cathedrals.

But all that quickly became irrelevant when Ferdinand II painted a big target on Frederick’s admittedly large forehead. By the time the Battle of White Mountain took place, a pregnant (again!) Elizabeth and all small children were already on their way out of Prague. Frederick followed soon after. Stripped of his lands and titles, Frederick spent the rest of his life as a refugee in the Hague. The Protestants made various attempts to reinstate him, but because the Catholics consistently won all of the battles in the first part of the 30 Years War, nothing materialized.

Things looked more hopeful in 1631, when Sweden invaded Germany, and for a brief time, Frederick accompanied Sweden’s king as he overran everything in his path. They ended up disagreeing about something however, so Frederick headed back to the Hague. He never made it, dying of plague somewhere along the way.

A sad story, but it was far from over. Elizabeth went on to live through the end of the war, finally returning to England after the Stuart Restoration and dying just two years later. But she and Frederick had thirteen children, eleven of whom survived childhood.

At the end of the Thirty Years War, their second son, Karl Ludwig was restored as Elector Palatine. A daughter, Elisabeth became Abbess of Herford Abbey, famously corresponded with the philosopher Rene Descarte and even more  famously held her own in their friendly philosophical arguments. Sons Rupert and Maurice gained renown fighting in the English Civil War, and daughter Sophia became Electress of Hanover. Her descendants eventually became Kings of England, starting with George II.

As a family then, they ended up doing rather well in the end.


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