The Gay Lives of Frederick the Great and William Iii

Frederick the Great of Prussia and William III of the Dutch Republic were two well known great leaders of Europe. They lived decades apart, William from 1650 to 1702, and Frederick from 1712 to 1786, yet had uncannily similar lives, in many aspects. These leaders, because of a somewhat controversial past, have lost many important clues about what their lives were really like. Nonetheless, it is known for sure that both were knowledgeable, great military leaders, champions of justice, and very likely homosexual.

One of the few dissimilarities between Frederick and William was the religion they were raised on, which of course was to influence the rest of their lives, particularly in philosophy. At a young age, William was sent to a Calvinist school which emphasized the Calvinist values like modesty and theory like predestination. Although his views were far from conservative, he did tend to dress more simply, and kept a very cool and reserved appearance. William also was born a week after his father’s death, leaving him without a strong figure to emulate.

If this had any effect on William, it was not apparent, for he firmly believed that he was destined for great things, and his diplomacy became one of his strongest skills. All of William’s security in his childhood did not exist for Frederick. Frederick endured a horrible abusive childhood with his tyrannical father. Frederick was very well educated and a lover of all things French- art, philosophy and literature. He was a true dandy- he dressed ostentatiously, and did very fashionable things.

He also had a very close male friend- Hans Hermann Von Katte who was about 8 years older. They ran away together, but what exactly their relationship was is unclear. Frederick was careful to destroy any evidence so as to escape his father’s wrath. But it didn’t work, Frederick’s father had the two arrested, and very cruelly had Von Katte beheaded in front of Frederick’s eyes. Frederick was bed-ridden and hallucinatory for days. William II also had a close friend, who fortunately did not suffer the same fate. Willem Bentick and William became inseperable at 14.

They were so close that when William contracted smallpox, Willem shared his bed, as it was thought that another person with the sick person could draw away some of the disease. Willem and William remained very close, but preceding William’s ascension to the throne, it was decided that he would need to be married. He married Mary Stuart, his cousin and daughter of the Duke of York, and very much disliked her. They were polar opposites: Mary wanted affection and was very emotional, while William had his stoic Calvinist mindset.

It was sort of the reverse for Frederick: he had a very simple bride, Elizabeth Christine Brunswick, while he was more outgoing, sociable individual. Though the marriage was chosen by Frederick’s father, the prince was obedient and understood the importance of the appearance of a strong union. In fact, Frederick had a younger, more openly gay brother who he “[forced]… to marry ,’to save appearances'” (Dynes 429). Although their marriages were not ideal for either, both William and Frederick stayed with their wives until the end.

Frederick coped by buying a palace for his wife; William actually grew to respect his wife and rely on her diplomatic charm. In fact, following her death in 1694 and later his in 1702, William “was found to be wearing Mary’s wedding ring and a lock of her hair close to his heart” (William III). While both kings had decent marriages, Frederick and William were also known for their love of men. William’s relationships were less well known, although it was common knowledge that William was interested in men. “There was a rumour that William was unfaithful to Mary.

Her meddling English servants warned her that she would catch him emerging from the bedroom of one of her ladies, Elizabeth Villiers, in the early hours of the morning. There was a scene, with William trying to assure Mary that it was not how it looked… Certainly William was no womaniser and, if anything, his sexual inclinations might have veered more towards young men” (William III) Frederick had many well known lovers. It is said that his father arranged his marriage with Christine to prove Frederick’s heterosexuality in addition to producing an heir.

Frederick, as a military leader, also was known to have relationships with his friends from the battlefield. Though, to his credit, he never allowed any relationships to interfere with his work or compromise his integrity. Perhaps Frederick’s best known and interesting affair was with the famous French poet Voltaire. Frederick’s love for French culture encouraged him to reach out to Voltaire, and in 1736 the 24 year old prince sent a letter to the 22 year old, already quite famous philosopher.

Thus began their friendship, and they kept a close friendship, or possibly more throughout their lives. Still, there was a conflict of interest between them. Preceding Frederick’s coronation, Voltaire “Never tired of comparing Frederick to Apollo, Alcibiades and the youthful Marcus Aurelius” (Strachey 170). But Voltaire wanted to see a peaceful, united Europe, and once Frederick took the throne of Prussia he seemed only interested in war. Frederick tried to keep Voltaire around, even offering him positions in the court as he still very much valued Voltaire’s opinions.

Voltaire and Frederick still exchanged writings, Frederick’s work still often implying his sexual preferences. It became a problem when Frederick was on his deathbed, and he had Voltaire arrested for possessing his work. Voltaire was freed not to long after and went on to anonymously publish a book about Frederick, The Private Life of the King of Prussia, which was essentially an expose on Frederick’s homosexuality. But by the time of Frederick’s death, the two men were on very good terms, so much so that Voltaire was the first to coin him as “Frederick the Great”.

William did not have a vengeful lover to put evidence of his same-sex love in the open. He was too diplomatic and calculating to allow for such things to happen. Although his tact left little evidence of his love life, it does tell a great deal about his philosophy about civil rights. Both William and Frederick were champions of civil rights. Furthermore, it would not be ridiculous to think that their homosexuality played a large part in shaping their views, expecially during a time when sodomites were being viciously punished.

William was outright stubborn about defending the liberties of his people, which actually earned him the English crown in 1689. While in power, William championed religious freedom and people’s rights. He created the Bill of Rights, which was one of the most important documents in English history, perhaps even the world. It forbid unfair taxation, it did not allow the government to infringe upon protest and it demanded a trial with fair, humane punishment for criminals. This document was the predecessor for other rights documents, including that of the United States.

Likewise, in Prussia Frederick promoted religious tolerance, reduced harsh penalties and sentences, and even pardoned prisoners that held beliefs that he disagreed with. He encouraged the work of artists, musicians, scientists and philosophers to make Prussia a wholly great nation. Finally, and most well known are the two’s military accomplishments. William led the Netherlands in a small united force against the French, and though it ultimately was defeated, it heavily drained French resources while keeping the Netherlands in tact.

William also drove out James II of England which, as aforementioned, resulted in him obtaining the English Crown. William loved being on the battlefield, in fact “Too often he got stuck into the fighting when he should have been in the rear making decisions for the battlefield as a whole” (William III). He kept many of his war companions as his closest confidantes, often drawing criticism for making rulings on their advice and discussions. Whereas William had been more eye-level with his soldiers, Frederick ran his military with an iron rod.

The frivolous, fun-loving man who passed so many laws concerning people’s safety and rights tolerated nothing in his military. Disobedience and disloyalty meant painful and brutal physical repercussions. But he was able to defeat France and Russia in the Seven Years War, making Prussia a superpower and tripling its armed forces. And like William. Frederick risked his life on the front line, and too often came close to being killed. William III and Frederick II were two men, who, despite their very different upbringings, coincidentally ruled in two very similar styles.

Frederick would have known of William III, in fact he had been very inspired by the Bill of Rights William created, but with very little contact they still led uncannily similar lives. It could be attributed to their similar lifestyles: two men that were devoted to their country and their duties, but also had their secrets to hide. Their homosexuality did probably contribute to their similitude, but it was their wit and strong-mindedness that led them both to unconventional and unexpectedly strong leadership.

References

  1. Crompton, Louis. “Frederick the Great. Homosexuality & Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. 505-12. Print.
  2. Dynes, Wayne R. , Warren Johansson, William A. Percy, and Stephen Donaldson. “Frederick II (The Great) of Prussia (1712-1786). “
  3. Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York: Garland Pub. , 1990. 428-29. Print.
  4. Strachey, Lytton. “Voltaire and Frederick the Great. ” Books and Characters, French & English,. New York: Harcourt, Brace and, 1922. 167-99. Print.
  5. Waller, Maureen, David Onnekink, and Jason McElligot. “William III. ” BBC – Homepage. BBC. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.

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