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Looking for a lost Queen in Berlin: Queen Elisabeth Christine of Prussia

Today, Queen Elisabeth Christine of Prussia (1715-1797) enjoys a kind of historical exile, banished to footnotes and paragraphs amidst the mountainous body of biographical material which exists about her exalted husband, Frederick II, King of Prussia, already christened ‘the Great’ by contemporary Europe and whom she prided herself on having been married to.

It is a sad echo of the type of banishment which she experienced in her husband’s lifetime; Frederick’s overall treatment of his queen was one of increasing coldness and calculated neglect, but she had, after all, been his father’s choice, not his. Indeed, his marriage to her on 12 June 1733 at the palace (since demolished) of Salzdahlum, was the final test in filial obedience as a result of Frederick’s spectacular, abortive attempt to flee to England, to escape what was, a torturous youth. But is there anything in Berlin that remains of Elisabeth Christine? Is there any place where she steps out of the obscuring shadow cast by her husband’s historically gigantic legacy? Of the thousands of visitors that pay their respects to the grave of Frederick ‘the Great’ on the terrace of his palace at Sanssouci in Potsdam, far fewer search for that of his estranged wife. And those that do find themselves on a virtually fruitless quest.

Undoubtedly the happiest time in Elisabeth’s life was the idyll of the ‘Rheinsberg period’, spent during her time as Crown Princess with Frederick, at their new residence of Schloss Rheinsberg on the Grinericksee near Neuruppin, built to the plans of the renowned architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff. A sadder parallel was seen in the unused suite of royal apartments built for her by Knobelsdorff on the ground floor in the New Wing of Charlottenburg Palace in West Berlin, shortly after Frederick’s accession to the throne; these seven rooms were built rather for the sake of the fact that rooms should be made for the new Queen, rather than because it was thought that she would ever use them. Elisabeth Christine wrote in wistful humiliation to her brother, Ferdinand of Braunschweig-Bevern in 1747: “I still think back on the Rheinsberg time with joy, where I was so perfectly happy, well treated by a man that I so much love and for whom I would willingly give my life. What sadness must I now feel, where everything is now otherwise. Only my heart remains the very same unchanged and will always beat for him…”

It was evident that Frederick wanted to live separately from the queen he never chose, as soon as he became King, being able to drop the pretence that he had been made to maintain towards her in the lifetime of his father, who forced the marriage on him to break him into total submission, as he saw it. As a result of the war damage that Charlottenburg Palace experienced in the Second World War, only Elisabeth Christine’s Japanese Chamber remains from these seven rooms, which although beautiful, today have a strange quality to them, because they were hardly used by their intended occupant. They are a queen’s apartment without the Queen.

Queen Elisabeth Christine has all but disappeared in Berlin today. The best-known portrait of her, made by the court painter Antoine Pesne at about the time that she became Queen of Prussia in 1740, hangs at Schloss Rheinsberg, far from Berlin – although this is probably something which Elisabeth Christine may well have welcomed, admitting herself that it was at Rheinsberg that she had been happiest. The portrait shows Elisabeth Christine in a black court dress, with heavy silver embroidery, clutching two carnations to her chest – an apparent sign of marital fidelity and one which in her case, was entirely true. Typically, the ermine robe denoting her royal status is draped over the chair on which she is sitting, but the queen’s crown is almost obscured to her left side.

In Elisabeth Christine’s case, this was all too apparent – whilst nominally Queen of Prussia, she was forced to endure the wilful neglect of her husband and was never truly accorded the rightful respect she deserved as Queen until she became his widow. She was de facto Queen of Prussia but denied any official function. Frederick gave Elisabeth Christine the palace of Schönhausen in Berlin’s northern suburb of Pankow, which had been acquired by the future Frederick I of Prussia as Elector of Brandenburg in 1691; she used it as a regular summer residence for the rest of her life. Frederick wrote to Elisabeth Christine: “Madame, I shall do everything in my power to help you decorate it entirely to your taste…

Whilst it was a gift for her independent use, it was clear that it was a gift not meant to be shared. It is probably the one place in Berlin which captures something of the sense of Elisabeth Christine, and this is thanks to the painstaking restoration work which enabled the palace to re-open to visitors after a subsequent blotchy history when it became – amongst other uses – a guest palace of the GDR. Here, Elisabeth Christine pursued what was clearly, an existence of emptiness and presumable ennui, so unlike that of her predecessors.

Elisabeth Christine spent the winter in Berlin’s Stadtschloss; her suite was on the third floor of the palace, and it contained her own collection of paintings of Prussian court beauties, by Antoine Pesne. English royal parallels could be seen in Queen Mary II’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ or Charles II’s so-called ‘Windsor Beauties’ in the previous century. The Berlin Stadtschloss [City Palace] suffered damage in the Second World War but could have been rebuilt. It lay within the Soviet zone and was blown up in the 1950s by the East German Communist regime despite furious protests, leaving a permanent wound in Berlin’s heritage (Wolf Jobst wrote “The Stadtschloss was not in Berlin, Berlin was the Stadtschloss”) and an aching space where the palace – of unparalleled historical significance – once stood, became Marx-Engels-Platz, first used as a parade ground and later as the setting for the Palast der Republik, completed in 1976. Elisabeth Christine’s court beauties were saved, however – they now hang in the Blue Anteroom at Charlottenburg Palace, in the New Wing that was built for Frederick, when Knobelsdorff’s apartment for Elisabeth Christine was also constructed (Rudolf G. Scharmann, Charlottenburg Palace: Royal Prussia in Berlin, Pg 33).

Elisabeth Christine lived to see her Golden Wedding; a day to which she would in normal circumstances have ascribed great meaning, but like the suite of rooms at Charlottenburg Palace, it was an empty meaning. The Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1783 went unmarked, and the customary commemorative medal which would otherwise have been struck was never made. Yet it was the death of Frederick on 17 August 1786, which arguably caused Elisabeth Christine the greatest pain in her life, possibly even more than the cumulative pain of all the neglect she had endured. Luise Radziwill wrote: “Then we all drove to Schönhausen to offer the Queen our sympathies… she mourned the King as if she had been loved by him! She was proud of his fame, proud to have been his wife…

For Elisabeth Christine, this was probably the comfort that she had learned to cultivate for herself, and is likely that this belief was in accordance with her nature. She was not permitted to take part in Frederick’s burial ceremony and even then, the body of the husband that she had loved would not find the resting place he had chosen – on the upper vineyard terrace at Sanssouci with his favourite dogs – for a further two hundred and five years, being finally interred there after German reunification, in 1991.

One of the last of Elisabeth Christine’s portraits – by Anton Graff – “Königin Elisabeth Christine in Witwentracht”, is actually, perhaps the most impressive. At last, we see before us a woman unquestionably royal, draped in the dignity of black velvet robes trimmed with ermine, on a royal blue chair, elevated at last to enjoy the status of the widow of the King whose legacy had both divided – and amazed – Europe. In a magnificent irony, it had taken the death of Frederick for her to achieve her true status as Queen. She had been mocked by her mother-in-law, Queen Sophia Dorothea even before Frederick set eyes on Elisabeth Christine, not least because of her shattered plans for a magnificent ‘double marriage’ between Frederick and the English King George II’s daughter Princess Amelia and, between Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia with Frederick, Prince of Wales (the father of the future George III), thereby advancing the interests of the House of Hanover, to which she belonged by birth. With relief, we glimpse a respected Queen Elisabeth Christine in this portrait, something which was only truly achieved after the death of Frederick, which caused her acute anguish. Elisabeth Christine wrote to her brother Ferdinand of Braunschweig-Bevern: “There is no day when I don’t shed a tear for the incomparable, late King and as long as I live, I shall mourn him…”

Elisabeth Christine lived out her days in Berlin; she was granted an apartment in Berlin’s City Palace, befitting her rank as Frederick’s widow and treated with all due respect by his successor, Frederick William II. Having been denied proper mention as Queen in the official prayers in Berlin’s churches, she was now named after Frederick William II’s own wife, Queen Friederike Luise. Elisabeth Christine’s health began to fade at the beginning of 1797; her lady-in-waiting, Sophie von Voss recorded the moment of her death on 13 January 1797, in her diary: “I stayed until 8 o’clock with her, and exactly at the moment when I wanted to go, she departed…” (Karin Feuerstein-Prasser, Die preussischen Königinnen, Pg 223). Elisabeth Christine was interred in the ancestral ‘Hohenzollern Vault’ in Berlin Cathedral on 30 January 1797, a final vindication for the neglect to her queenly status in life. She joins other Prussian Kings and Queens, but this vindication is shot through with one last sadness, for Elisabeth Christine – she does not share this space with the husband that she adored, Frederick, ‘the Great’, who preferred, as the ‘philosopher-king’ that he was, to spent earthly eternity with his eleven beloved dogs, at Sanssouci. A final, fitting comment on the couple’s separation.

But Elisabeth Christine has disappeared, even in death – or so it would seem. The historic crypt of the Hohenzollerns in Berlin Cathedral contains ninety four tombs across five hundred years of Prussian history; four queens are buried here, among which is also Queen Sophia Dorothea, mother of Frederick as well as of thirteen other Prussian princes and princesses. Queen Elisabeth Christine’s tomb is labelled as ‘Tomb 54’, described in the guidebook of Berlin Cathedral as a “plain tomb appropriate to her life” (Kurt Geisler, Berlin Cathedral, the Church by the Lustgarten, Pg 47). However, this tomb cannot be found. The present author was told in 2009 that at the time, it was believed that this tomb could be next to that of Frederick’s sister, Princess Anna Amalia – but that because of the destruction to Berlin Cathedral during the Second World War, it was no longer possible to identify which tomb was which. The printed layout of the Hohenzollern crypt as it looked after it was re-opened on 20 November 1999, shows no ‘Tomb 54’, but instead a short, sad sentence: “The tomb numbers 52, 54, 55, 56 and 57 could not be identified to date”.

When I visited the Hohenzollern crypt, it was both touching and troubling to see a bouquet of faded roses with black and silver ribbons and a postcard next to the sarcophagus believed to be that of Queen Elisabeth Christine, which evoked for me, the strange feeling of paying what was perhaps an empty tribute. Perhaps it was simply appropriate, however, to just have a monument, empty or otherwise, onto which I could project this paying of respects – a similar experience is possible with the grave monument to Mozart in Vienna, for example. Quite literally, Elisabeth Christine occupies a question mark on the layout map; she is a Queen without a grave. But this historical banishment may not be total, however.

Three other queens do not share the Hohenzollern crypt either – the legendary, Queen Luise of Prussia, consort of Frederick William III (1776-1810), is resting in the Charlottenburg Mausoleum, as is Queen Augusta, later first German Empress and consort of King and Emperor Wilhelm I of Prussia. Queen Elisabeth, consort of Frederick William IV, has a tomb in the Friedenskirche, in Park Sanssouci.

Today, a modern memorial tablet in the Hohenzollern crypt seeks to fill the supposed gap of the missing Queen, Elisabeth Christine: “The tomb of Elisabeth Christine was destroyed in the Second World War”. But the truth is perhaps more hopeful. As Berlin Cathedral’s dome collapsed as a result of bomb damage in May 1944, Elisabeth Christine’s tomb was believed to have disappeared, as it was directly beneath the dome which collapsed – letting in rain, snow and ice. The bomb damage badly affected the crypt. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Berlin Cathedral, under an East German Communist government, accordingly had to wait to be restored. A rebuilding project finally ensued, and the Cathedral was re-consecrated on 6 June 1993. But, according to a report in the Berlin newspaper BZ (18.1.2017) remains were discovered in a tomb previously believed to have been empty in the Hohenzollern crypt, inside which was an inner casement, the kind of which could contain scattered remains gathered following the vault’s destruction, that could no longer be categorically identified as belonging to any one royal personage. These could nevertheless also contain surviving remains of Frederick’s “lost” queen.

It would certainly be a fitting tribute to Elisabeth Christine, if once again – she could receive the respect due to her. Despite the restoration of some of her rooms at Schönhausen, she is still relatively forgotten. Perhaps there is the best sense of her at Rheinsberg Palace, where she was happiest. But if something is found, it might help to repair her historical neglect.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She writes for journals and specialist magazines. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017.