Beautiful, charismatic and gentle, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was the most influential Queen of Prussia. However, the “Queen of Hearts”, was much more than a pretty face. She helped shape her husband’s policy and lent a steadying presence during some of the worst times the country had faced.
Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born March 10,1776 in Hanover. Her mother died when she was only six, and her new stepmother died when she was ten. This left her with a lifelong soft spot for orphans. Their grief stricken and newly widowed father sent Louise and her sister to be raised by their maternal grandmother. The girls were raised more humbly than most royalty at the time in a home that emphasized charity, modesty and study. Louise was originally more fluent in French than her native German, but soon began to appreciate German as a literary language through the poems of Friedrich Schiller. She caught the eye of the Crown Prince of Prussia and they were married in what was touted to be a love match. Through out their marriage they had ten children, nine who survived infancy. Her easy manner and charm won over the rigidly formal Prussian court. Berlin went wild for her when she broke protocol during the her formal entry into the city to stoop and kiss a child in the crowd.
The Crown Prince and the Princess were devoted to each other and settled into married life easily. However, the tranquility of their early life gave way to turbulent times. Napoleon Bonaparte was coming to power in France and threatened the borders of Prussia along with most of their neighbors. In 1797, Frederick William succeeded his father to the throne. The King favored neutrality. However, Queen Louise took the initiative of arranging the Treaty of Potsdam, which allied Russia, Austria and Prussia against France, which Frederick William signed on her advice. There is a story which claims that he, Queen Louise and Tsar Alexander I met in 1805 and swore an oath over the tomb of Frederick the Great to stop “the Monster” Napoleon. Whether or not that story is true, the Treaty of Potsdam enraged the French emperor, and Napoleon named Louise “My beautiful enemy” for her role in arranging it.
This policy change was undone by Napoleon’s swift victory over Russian and Austrian forces as Austerlitz, leaving the Prussians to hang in the wind. Their ambassador who was going to meet with Napoleon to declare war, now offered his congratulations and offered to make a new treaty. This new treaty with France was humiliating and under its terms Prussia ceded the principalities of Ansbach, Cleve, Neufchatel and Wesel to France. France offered Prussia Hanover, which technically belonged to England. However, France soon reneged and offered Hanover back to Britain in return for peace.
In the meantime, fifteen German states smelled an opportunity and made a deal with Napoleon to secede from the Holy Roman Empire under his protection. In return, they would support French troops in any war they might fight. Napoleon turned his hungry eyes on Prussia. The French met the Prussians at the battle of Jena and it was resounding defeat for the the Prussians. The King and Queen were on the battlefield and had to beat a hasty retreat to Konigsberg where there was no food of clean water and they had to stay in “wretched barns”. Their capital of Berlin was left to the invading French.
In 1807, the royal family was forced to meet with Napoleon in Tilsit to sign a peace treaty. The King brought the pregnant Louise in the hopes that it would garner sympathy with Napoleon. Despite the hopeless situation, Louise realized the people depended on her for strength and a sense of optimism. Putting aside what must have been revulsion for the man who conquered her home, Louise met with Napoleon and cast herself at his feet. She pleaded with him for her country, and while Napoleon was charmed he did not relent. Napoleon wrote to his wife Josephine about their meeting saying Louise “is really charming and full of coquetry towards me. But don’t be jealous…it would cost me too dearly to play the gallant.”
Perhaps this performance combined with her instrumental role in the Potsdam Treaty caused Napoleon to attack her in the safest way he could at that time- by impugning her virtue. She bore this as she bore the other trials in her life with grace and dignity. This and her efforts to protect Prussia from French aggression made her beloved with the Prussian people.
Unfortunately, she did not live to see Napoleon fall and the reestablishment of the Germanic empire under her son William. However, her legacy of charm, beauty, gentleness and grace under fire persists to this day.