Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia

Frederick William (1620 – 1688) was Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia. He ruled Brandenburg-Prussia from 1640 until his death in 1688. Image: Portrait of Frederick William by Gedeon Romandon

Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, also known as Frederick William the Great Elector (16 February 1620 – 29 April 1688), was a prominent figure in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia.

He ruled as the Elector of Brandenburg from 1640 until his death and played a crucial role in transforming the small and fragmented territories into a powerful and unified state.

Frederick William implemented administrative, military, and economic reforms, strengthening the army, expanding territories, and promoting religious tolerance. His reign laid the foundation for the rise of Prussia as a significant European power in the centuries to come.

What were some of his notable achievements?

Frederick William’s reign (1640-1688) witnessed tremendous gains made in trade and economic power. The Duke of Prussia is credited with laying the foundation for the transformation of Prussia from duchy to kingdom.

In his era, he was considered one of the best military minds. He was responsible for transforming the military. His efforts helped in shaping the future Prussian Army for many years. His reforms translated into a number of battle wins, most famous among them the victory he secured with Swedish forces over the Polish-Lithuanian army at the Battle of Warsaw in July 1656. And even despite the betrayal of the Swedes, a determined Frederick managed to intercept the Swedish army and defeat them at the Battle of Fehrbellin in June 1675.

He took cognizance of the fact that a strong army needed immense investments. Therefore, he created a business-friendly environment, which in turn allowed him to channel the tax proceeds from those industries into his Prussian army.

Inspired by the works and successes of his nephew’s Dutch East India Company, Frederick granted a royal charter to formation of the Brandenburg Africa Company (BAC). The charter allowed Prussian merchants and privateers to establish a colony in West Africa, which at the time was a very lucrative place in terms of the Atlantic Slave trade. Some parts of the coast of West Africa even came to be called the Brandenburger Gold Coast. The Brandenburg colony existed until 1721, when Frederick William I of Prussia sold it to the Dutch West India Company.

Another significant achievement of Frederick came in the numerous transportation projects he embarked upon. For example, he built a number of canals to connect riverways in order to reduce travel time between the Duchy of Prussia and Brandenburg.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who scored very little when it came to religious tolerance, Frederick, a devout Calvinist, was praised for his tolerant policy towards Jews and Catholics in his realm. As a result of those policies, trade and commerce flourished.

Frederick made sure that every province in his realm was headed by a governor or chancellor who reported to his central government in the capital, Berlin.

All in all, his efforts helped future Prussian rulers in transforming the Duchy of Prussia into a great European power. Bear in mind, at the time of his coronation in 1640, Brandenburg had been devastated to some extent by the Thirty Years’ War. He had the daunting task of rebuilding and expanding the lands he had inherited from his father.

Frederick William’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade

It’s safe to say that by the mid-1600s almost all European powers had in ne way or the other become involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Frederick William, the ruler of Brandenburg-Prussia, also sought to cash in on the very lucrative but heinous trade by establishing the Brandenburg Africa Company (BAC). In its four decades of existence, the BAC shipped between 15,000 and 35,000 enslaved Africans were from the coast of Africa to the Americas.

Quick Facts about Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg

Reign: 1640-1688

Predecessor: George William

Successor: Frederick I

Born: February 16, 1620; Stadtschloss, Berlin, Brandenburg-Prussia

Died: April 29, 1688; Brandenburg-Prussia

Burial: Berlin Cathedral

Spouse: Louise Henriette of Nassau; Princess Dorothea Sophie of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg

Parents: George William, Elector of Brandenburg, and Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate


  • Charles, Electoral Prince of Brandenburg
  • Frederick I, King in Prussia
  • Philip William, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt
  • Maria Amalia of Brandenburg-Schwedt
  • Margrave Albert Frederick
  • Margrave Charles
  • Elisabeth Sophie, Duchess of Saxe-Meiningen
  • Margrave Christian Ludwig

Other facts about Frederick William, “the Great Elector”

Due to the Thirty Years’ War, he could not have his education in Brandenburg; instead, he was educated at Leiden University in the Netherlands. While in the Netherlands, he had the opportunity to gain some military training under the tutelage of Frederick Henry, the sovereign prince of Orange and stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders, Overijssel in the Dutch Republic.

His parents originally intended for him to marry Christina, daughter of Gustavus Adolphus and heir to the throne of Sweden.

Upon his father’s death in 1640, he succeeded to the throne of Brandenburg and inherited his father’s titles.

He lent his support to Dutch Republic during the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1678). The Dutch Republic was by then led by his nephew William of Orange (later William III of England).

By his first wife, Louise Henriette of Nassau (1627-1667), he fathered six children, including his successor Frederick I of Prussia (1657-1713). His first wife was also his 1st cousin through William the Silent, Prince of Orange (reign: 1544-1584).

By his second wife, Sophie Dorothea of Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, he fathered seven children.

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