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A King’s grave and his dogs

Uniquely among the early modern kings, Frederick II – King ‘in’ Prussia until ‘of’ Prussia was finally adopted in 1772, who was already known as ‘the Great’ by an admiring Europe – does not rest in the ancestral vault of the royal house to which he belonged, nor is his tomb to be found within a mausoleum or church built to house his remains. Instead, Frederick’s grave is to be found at Sanssouci, the summer palace which he built in Potsdam, his favourite place of refuge.

Even more unusually, he is buried next to the greyhounds that he loved; for whilst the love of dogs amongst his royal contemporaries was common, Frederick’s affection for his greyhounds was so great that he explicitly wished to be buried near them. Words attributed to Frederick as spoken to the Marquis d’Argens record him having chosen the spot on the upper vineyard terrace at Sanssouci, saying that only “there” – meaning the burial vault that had been dug for him in his lifetime – would he be truly ‘free of cares’. This was the weary (but probably accurate) pronouncement of a philosopher-king and a sad pun on the French name of his beloved palace.

Increasingly, the Frederick that has come down to posterity, is one of an enlightened monarch and philosopher, the latter being how he referred to himself, signing his earliest surviving letter as ‘Frederic, le philosophe’, when he was Crown Prince – a letter written in 1728 from Dresden, in the midst of the luxurious court culture of August II ‘The Strong’, King of Saxony and Elector of Poland, a court which could not have been a greater contrast to the Pietist, military court of his parsimonious father. It would, however, take just over two hundred years for this to be realised, as death merely resulted in a further set of peregrinations, in a strange parallel to the King’s military campaigns, during his lifetime.

For Frederick had specifically stated that he wished for his grave to be at Sanssouci and not as one might have expected, in the ‘Hohenzollerngruft’ of Berlin Cathedral, where his mother, Queen Sophia Dorothea, had designated for her body to be placed. His estranged wife, Queen Elisabeth Christine, was also buried in ‘Hohenzollerngruft’ – not far from Sophia Dorothea, who abused her future daughter-in-law even prior to her marriage to Frederick, no doubt because of her bitter disappointment at the failure of her long-cherished plans to bring about a magnificent ‘double marriage’ between her daughter Wilhelmine and Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Frederick with George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia.  Due to the bomb damage that Berlin Cathedral suffered during the Second World War, Queen Elisabeth Christine’s sarcophagus can no longer be identified with certainty and is not among those marked in the ground plan of the vault, being thought to be next to that of Frederick’s sister, Amalie – only it is not known which is which.

Frederick II and the Marquis d’Argens inspecting the vault at Sanssouci (Johann Christoph Frisch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is, however, extremely unlikely that Frederick would have chosen the Hohenzollern vault in Berlin Cathedral, to be joined eventually by the wife who he had calculatingly shunned and banished in his lifetime; a bride chosen by his father, King Frederick William I, as the ultimate test in filial obedience as a result of Frederick’s spectacular, abortive attempt to flee to England, to escape what was, a torturous youth.

Instead, Frederick chose Sanssouci, the residence which he had built for himself, in a vault on the palace terrace, which was already occupied by some of his beloved greyhounds. Frederick’s love for his dogs was significant. A dog features in the portrait by the court painter Antoine Pesne, of the boy Frederick and his elder sister Wilhelmine in around 1714. But as an old man, Frederick’s love for his dogs became even more pronounced. This was for many reasons – Frederick had prematurely aged as a result of the campaigns that he relentlessly pursued (“my teeth are falling out”) and bore the deep impressions of the failures he had sustained during the Seven Years War. By this point, many of his closest friends were dead. Increasingly misanthropic and afflicted by gout, he gorged on the sad concomitant to isolation – loneliness.

Like Louis XIV’s chefs, who produced special biscuits for the King’s sporting dogs, the royal kitchens prepared food, especially for Frederick’s greyhounds. It is probable that the philosopher in Frederick was fascinated by his canine family – for these animals offered unequivocal fealty and also occupied a world wholly outside of human reasoning. A greyhound features in one of the celebrated painters in the next century, Adolf Menzel – known best for his evocative ‘Flute Concert at Sanssouci’ in Sanssouci’s Music Room – called ‘Table Talk at Sanssouci’. Whilst the dog is painted into the imaginary scene, its being included in these homosocial gatherings, with all the polish and refinement of French high culture, is important; Frederick’s dogs were royal and as such, were fellow honoured guests, mingling at the same table as Voltaire, as part of the King’s intimate, inner circle.

With the possible exception of Frederick’s favourite horse Conde, on whom the King is depicted riding on the famous equestrian statue in Berlin’s Unter den Linden, the dogs reigned supreme in Frederick’s affections. Frederick preferred elegant Italian greyhounds, closely corresponding to modern whippets, even going to great lengths to commission them to be sent specially from England. The dogs are well depicted in the 1942 propaganda film, ‘The Great King’ – starring the acclaimed German theatre and film actor, Otto Gebühr as Frederick – shadowing him into the circular cedar wood Library at Sanssouci, where the philosopher-king could withdraw into what was for him, the most private of spaces, and immerse himself in a literary world in French translation, or Voltaire’s works in the original.

Frederick was particularly close to his elder sister, Wilhelmine, who had been forced into a marriage of their father’s choosing, with the young Margrave of Bayreuth, and had her own experiences of a shared, traumatic childhood. Frederick and Wilhelmine both loved their dogs; Wilhelmine’s beloved dwarf spaniel Folichon features in several portraits of her and also in the ceiling painting of her Music Room. In May 1748, she and Frederick exchanged the so-called ‘Dog-Letters’, whereby both pretended to be their respective dogs, in correspondence. The letters reflect the philosophical interest of both siblings, with sharp observations on humankind. Frederick wrote to Wilhelmine’s dog, pretending to be his own favourite dog Biche:Only because my master doesn’t walk on all fours, does he not call himself a greyhound…”

The graves of three of Frederick’s eleven dogs, at the Palace of Sanssouci (By Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Biche followed Frederick even on his military campaigns. Biche was painted by the court painter Antoine Pesne, with a collar bearing the King’s name. Biche was given to Frederick by his friend, Count Rothenburg, and she is immortalised as the dog in the lap of the goddess Diana, in the Concert Room at Sanssouci – a distinct honour. In his later years, the favourite dog of the moment was given its own servant, was allowed under the royal table, chase leather balls in the exquisite rooms and even allowed to share the sofa and Frederick’s camp bed at Sanssouci. The King would feed his dogs himself – probably they were the nearest that he ever had to children.

Johann Gottfried Schadow sculpted Frederick in 1822, long after his death, showing the King accompanied by two of his greyhounds, Hasenfuss and Alcmene. Biche is said to have been among the booty captured by the Austrians as a result of the Battle of Soor of the Second Silesian War in 1745; Frederick is reputed to have wept when she was eventually returned to him. When Biche died “in the Music Room” at Sanssouci in 1752, Frederick was distraught: “I was ashamed that the death of a dog struck me so deeply…” Biche featured in a poem written down much later, by Theodor Fontane. Similarly, when one of his favoured dogs was sick, Frederick had a courier sent from Sanssouci each day to report its progress to him, whilst he was away at military reviews in Silesia. When he returned to Potsdam and found that the dog had died, Frederick was heartbroken and shut himself up for the rest of the day, crying for it “like a child” (Tim Blanning, Frederick the Great, Pg 452, 2015).

It is possible to know the names of these eleven favourite royal dogs because the gravestones of the greyhounds that were interred here were cleaned and conserved in 2005; amongst them are such Classical and literary names as “Phillis”, “Diana”, “Thisbe”, “Hasenfuss”, “Alcmene” and of course, “Biche. Notably, perhaps, most of his greyhounds were females – and importantly for Frederick, the dogs’ servant was instructed to respectfully address each by the formal “Sie” as opposed to the familiar “Du”. When Alcmene died, she was allowed the extraordinary honour of sharing the King’s vault, something not accorded to the other ten greyhounds, who simply were buried alongside (J. C. Freier, Leben und Charakter Friedrichs II, Königs von Preussen, Pg 89, 1795).  

Frederick’s Study and Bed Chamber at Sanssouci (Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg: Portikus. Heft 1, 2008, S. 14, via Suse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Frederick died in his chair – still preserved at Sanssouci – in his Study-cum-Bedchamber, in the company of his greyhound Superbe, on 17 August 1786. This was for Frederick the philosopher, far from the end. An engraving of the dying Frederick on the terrace at Sanssouci surrounded by two frisking Italian greyhounds, by the artist Daniel Chodowiecki, became iconic in its own right.

Frederick’s coffin was taken, against his specific instructions, to rest in the Garnisonkirche at Potsdam, where it remained until 1945. For Frederick, this was to mean one hundred and fifty-nine years resting in the glare of his tyrannical father’s sarcophagus, in the same vault under the chancery. The resting place of Frederick William I, Prussia’s ‘Soldier King’ and his great son, Frederick, meant that the church – built by the architect Philipp Gerlach on the orders of Frederick William I – became a much-visited attraction. It became the place of a symbolic act, when Frederick William III and the legendary Queen Luise of Prussia, visited the tomb of Frederic ‘the Great’ with Tsar Alexander I, to cement their allegiance against Napolean Bonaparte.

When Potsdam was heavily bombed during the Second World War, the coffins of Frederick ‘the Great’ and Frederick William I were removed from the Garnisonkirche, to safeguard them from war damage; as a result of the air raid on Potsdam on 14 April 1945, the nave of the Garnisonkirche and its steeple were destroyed by fire. The coffins were later discovered in a potassium mine near Bernterode (Breitenworbis) in Thuringia and taken by American soldiers to the Elisabethkirche in Marburg, where they remained until 1952. They were moved again in that year, to Burg Hohenzollern near Hechingen, the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollerns, where they were placed in the Castle’s Christuskapelle, until German reunification. Only then could the coffins of the two kings be placed on a special train and transported to the station at Hechingen, thence by rail to Potsdam – a return which had taken forty-six years to be realised. For Frederick, it was the end of a war odyssey by which his father had followed him even after death, as the memory of him had haunted him in life. Finally, at last, they were to be separated.

Frederick was finally interred on 17 August 1991, on the upper vineyard terrace at Sanssouci as he had wished; although even in death, his last will was gainsaid. The philosopher-king, who had expressly stated that he wanted to be buried “without pomp, without splendour and the slightest ceremony”, was given a burial in the full gaze of the world’s public, attended by a full Guard of Honour of the German Armed Forces. It took place in the cour d’honneur at Sanssouci, on the 205th anniversary of Frederick’s death. It was not the quiet burial by night “by the light of a lantern” as he had wished, but nor could it be – as Germany was burying Prussia’s arguably greatest King – next to his dogs.

In Frederick’s words: “I have lived as a philosopher and want to be buried as such…”                         

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018-19.

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About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.