28 February 2012

Crowning the First King of Prussia, 1701

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), pp. 68, 70, 73 (Kindle Locs. 1574-1601, 1609-1619, 1672-1701):
In terms of the proportion of territorial wealth consumed, the coronation of 1701 must surely be the most expensive single event in the history of Brandenburg-Prussia. Even by the standards of an age that revelled in courtly ceremonial as an expression of power, the Prussian coronation was unusually splendid. The government levied a special crown tax to cover its expenditures, but this brought in a total of only 500,000 thalers – three-fifths of this amount were paid out for the queen’s crown alone, and the royal crown, fashioned of precious metal and studded over its entire surface with diamonds, accounted for the rest and more besides. Reconstructing the total cost of the festivities is difficult, since no integrated account survives, but it has been estimated that around 6 million thalers were spent in all for the ceremony and attendant festivities, about twice the annual revenues of the Hohenzollern administration.

The coronation was singular in another sense too. It was entirely custom-made: an invention designed to serve the purposes of a specific historical moment. The designer was Frederick I himself, who was responsible for every detail, not only of the new royal insignia, the secular rituals and the liturgy in the castle church, but also for the style and colour of the garments worn by the chief participants. There was a staff of experts to advise on monarchical ceremonial. Foremost among these was the poet Johann von Besser who served as master of ceremonies at Frederick’s court from 1690 until the end of the reign and possessed a wide-ranging knowledge of English, French, German, Italian and Scandinavian courtly traditions. But the key decisions always fell to the Elector.

The ceremony that resulted was a unique and highly self-conscious amalgam of borrowings from historical European coronations, some recent, others of older vintage. Frederick designed his coronation not only with a view to its aesthetic impact, but also in order to broadcast what he regarded as the defining features of his kingly status. The form of the crown, which was not an open band, but a domed metal structure closed at the top, symbolized the all-embracing power of a monarch who encompassed in his own person both secular and spiritual sovereignty. The fact, moreover, that the king, in contrast to the prevailing European practice, crowned himself in a separate ceremony before being anointed at the hands of his clergy, pointed up the autonomous character of his office, its independence from any worldly or spiritual authority (save that of God himself). A description of the coronation by Johann Christian Lünig, a renowned contemporary expert on the courtly ‘science of ceremony’, explained the significance of this step.
Kings who accept their kingdom and sovereignty from the Estates usually only take up the purple mantle, the crown and sceptre and mount the throne after they have been anointed: [… ] but His Majesty [Friedrich I], who has not received His Kingdom through the assistance of the Estates or of any other [party], had no need whatever of such a handing-over, but rather received his crown after the manner of the ancient kings from his own foundation.
Given the recent history of Brandenburg and Ducal Prussia, the importance of these symbolic gestures is obvious enough. The Great Elector’s struggle with the Prussian Estates and particularly the city of Königsberg was still a memory with the power to disturb – it is a telling detail that the Prussian Estates were never consulted over the coronation and were informed of the forthcoming festivity only in December 1700.


One of the reasons for adopting the title ‘King in Prussia’ – an unusual title that occasioned some amusement at the European courts – was that it freed the new crown from any Polish claims pertaining to ‘royal’ Prussia, which was still within the Polish Commonwealth. In negotiations with Vienna, particular care was expended to ensure that the wording of any agreement would make it clear that the Emperor was not ‘creating’ (creieren) the new royal title, but merely ‘acknowledging’ (agnoszieren) it. A much disputed passage of the final agreement between Berlin and Vienna paid lip service to the special primacy of the Emperor as the senior monarch of Christendom, but also made it clear that the Prussian Crown was an entirely independent foundation, for which the Emperor’s approval was a courtesy rather than an obligation.

In 1701, as so often before, Berlin owed its good fortune to international developments. The Emperor would probably not have cooperated in the Elector’s elevation had it not been for the fact that he stood in urgent need of Brandenburg’s support. The epochal struggle between Habsburg and Bourbon was about to enter a new and bloody phase, as a coalition of European powers gathered to oppose French designs to place a grandson of Louis XIV on the vacant Spanish throne.


Frederick I was not the only European ruler to seek elevation to kingly status at this time – the Grand Duke of Tuscany had acquired the right to be addressed as ‘Royal Highness’ in 1691; the same right was acquired during the following years by the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. More importantly from Berlin’s perspective, a number of rival German dynasties were angling for a royal title during the 1690s. The Elector of Saxony converted to Catholicism in order to get himself elected King of Poland in 1697, and negotiations began at around the same time over the possible succession of the Electoral House of Hanover to the British royal throne. The Bavarians and the Palatine Wittelsbachs were likewise engaged with (ultimately futile) plans to capture a royal title, either by elevation or, in the latter case, by securing a claim to the ‘royal throne of Armenia’. In other words, the coronation of 1701 was no isolated personal caprice, but part of a wave of regalization that was sweeping across the still largely non-regal territories of the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian states at the end of the seventeenth century. Royal title mattered because it still entailed privileged status within the international community. Since the precedence accorded to crowned heads was also observed at the great peace treaties of the era, it was a matter of potentially grave practical importance.

The recent growth of interest in the early modern European courts as political and cultural institutions has heightened our awareness of the functionality of courtly ritual. Courtly festivities had a crucial communicative and legitimating function. As the philosopher Christian Wolff observed in 1721, the ‘common man’, who depended upon his senses rather than his reason, was quite incapable of grasping ‘what the majesty of a king is’. Yet it was possible to convey to him a sense of the power of the monarch by confronting him with ‘things that catch his eye and stir his other senses’. A considerable court and court ceremonies, he concluded, were thus ‘by no means superfluous or reprehensible’.

Courts were also densely interlinked with each other through family diplomatic and cultural ties; they were not only focal points for elite social and political life within each respective territory, but also nodes in an international courtly network. The magnificent celebrations of the coronation anniversary, for example, were observed by numerous foreign visitors, not to speak of the various dynastic relatives and envoys who could always be found at court during the season.

The international resonance of such events within the European court system was further amplified by published official or semi-official accounts, in which scrupulous attention was paid to details of precedence, dress, ceremony and the splendour of the spectacle. The same applied to the elaborately ritualized observances associated with mourning. The orders issued following the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte were not primarily intended to lend expression to the private grief of the bereaved, but rather to send out signals about the weight and importance of the court where the death had occurred. These signals were directed not only to a domestic audience of subjects, but also to other courts, which were expected to mark their acknowledgement of the event by entering into various degrees of mourning. So implicit were these expectations that Frederick I was furious when he discovered that Louis XIV had decided not to put the court at Versailles into mourning on Sophie Charlotte’s account, presumably as a means of conveying his displeasure at Berlin’s pro-Austrian policy in the War of the Spanish Succession. Like the other ceremonies that punctuated life at court, mourning was part of a system of political communication. Seen in this context, the court was an instrument whose purpose was to document the rank of the prince before an international ‘courtly public’.

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