Frederick William III (German: Friedrich Wilhelm III.; 3 August 1770 – 7 June 1840) was king of Prussia from 1797 to 1840. He ruled Prussia during the difficult times of the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Steering a careful course between France and her enemies, after a major military defeat in 1806, he eventually and reluctantly joined the coalition against Napoleon in the Befreiungskriege. Following Napoleon's defeat, he was King of Prussia during the Congress of Vienna, which assembled to settle the political questions arising from the new, post-Napoleonic order in Europe. He was determined to unify the Protestant churches, to homogenize their liturgy, their organization, and even their architecture. The long-term goal was to have fully centralized royal control of all the Protestant churches in the Prussian Union of Churches.
Frederick William was born in Potsdam in 1770 as the son of Frederick William II of Prussia and Frederica Louisa of Hesse-Darmstadt. He was considered to be a shy and reserved boy, which became noticeable in his particularly reticent conversations distinguished by the lack of personal pronouns. This manner of speech subsequently came to be considered entirely appropriate for military officers. He was neglected by his father during his childhood and suffered from an inferiority complex his entire life.
As a child, Frederick William's father (under the influence of his mistress, Wilhelmine Enke, Countess of Lichtenau) had him handed over to tutors, as was quite normal for the period. He spent part of the time living at Paretz, the estate of the old soldier Count Hans von Blumenthal who was the governor of his brother Prince Heinrich. They thus grew up partly with the Count's son, who accompanied them on their Grand Tour in the 1780s. Frederick William was happy at Paretz, and for this reason in 1795 he bought it from his boyhood friend and turned it into an important royal country retreat. He was a melancholy boy, but he grew up pious and honest. His tutors included the dramatist Johann Engel.
As a soldier, he received the usual training of a Prussian prince, obtained his lieutenancy in 1784, became a lieutenant colonel in 1786, a colonel in 1790, and took part in the campaigns against France of 1792–1794. On 24 December 1793, Frederick William married Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who bore him ten children. In the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince's Palace) in Berlin, Frederick William lived a civil life with a problem-free marriage, which did not change even when he became King of Prussia in 1797. His wife Louise was particularly loved by the Prussian people, which boosted the popularity of the whole House of Hohenzollern, including the King himself.
Frederick William succeeded to the throne on 16 November 1797. He also became, in personal union, the sovereign prince of the Principality of Neuchâtel (1797–1806 and again 1813–1840). At once, the new King showed that he was earnest of his good intentions by cutting down the expenses of the royal establishment, dismissing his father's ministers, and reforming the most oppressive abuses of the late reign. He had the Hohenzollern determination to retain personal power but not the Hohenzollern genius for using it. Too distrustful to delegate responsibility to his ministers, he greatly reduced the effectiveness of his reign since he was forced to assume the roles he did not delegate. This is a main factor of his inconsistent rule.
Disgusted with the moral debauchery of his father's court (in both political intrigues and sexual affairs), Frederick William's first, and most successful early endeavor was to restore the moral legitimacy to his dynasty. The eagerness to restore dignity to his family went so far that it nearly caused sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow to cancel the expensive and lavish Prinzessinnengruppe project, which was commissioned by the previous monarch Frederick William II. He was quoted as saying the following, which demonstrated his sense of duty and peculiar manner of speech:
At first Frederick William 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, eventually Frederick William was swayed by the attitude of the queen, who led Prussia's pro-war party, and entered into war in October 1806. On 14 October 1806, at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, the French effectively decimated the effectiveness and functionality of the Prussian army led by Frederick William, and the Prussian army collapsed entirely soon after. Napoleon occupied Berlin in late October. The royal family fled to Memel, East Prussia, where they fell on the mercy of Emperor Alexander I of Russia.
Alexander, too, suffered 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 which was believed would soften the blow of defeat. Instead, Napoleon took much less mercy on the Prussians than what was expected. Prussia lost many of 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 vom Stein, Prince von Hardenberg, Scharnhorst, and Count Gneisenau, set about reforming Prussia's administration and military, with the encouragement of Queen Luise (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 Kalisz, 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 provide Prussia with a constitution.
Frederick William was determined to unify the Protestant churches, to homogenize their liturgy, their organization and even their architecture. The long-term goal was to have fully centralized royal control of all the Protestant churches in the Prussian Union of churches. In a series of proclamations over several years the Church of the Prussian Union was formed, bringing together the majority group of Lutherans, and the minority group of Reformed Protestants. The main effect was that the government of Prussia had full control over church affairs, with the king himself recognized as the leading bishop.
Frederick William III died on 7 June 1840 in Berlin, from a fever, survived by his second wife. His eldest son, Frederick William IV, succeeded him. Frederick William III is buried at the Mausoleum in Schlosspark Charlottenburg, Berlin.
- Marsch I. Bataillon Garde, 1806
- Preussischer Präsentiermarsch, circa 1820