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Looking for a lost Queen’s grave in Berlin



In Berlin, there is a missing queen. Her burial place in the historic Hohenzollerngruft [Hohenzollern vault] in Berlin Cathedral is disputed and may be lost. Elisabeth Christine, Frederick II’s (‘the Great’) unloved queen was a victim of historical banishment, in Frederick’s lifetime at least. Metaphorically, she remains in his shadow. Unlike the husband she revered, Elisabeth Christine received no sobriquet of admiration, no ‘the great.’ She had been, however, ‘the great’s queen, unloved or otherwise.

It is a sadly apt analogy of the position she had occupied in life during the reign of her husband, who subjected her to numerous humiliations. This meant that she was only really de jure Queen in Prussia, constantly reminded that her title was mostly a sinecure one when it came to ceremonial responsibility. The wife he had never loved was, however, not of Frederick’s choosing, but instead the princess whom his fearsome father had selected for him, as the ultimate price of his subjugation and through it, his freedom. Even her queenly suite in the New Wing at Charlottenburg Palace was probably only rarely used by her, although it was constructed at the same time as the King’s First Apartment in 1740/42. This is a tragic comment on the royal marriage – the Queen’s rooms built for an absent Queen.

The royal couple lived apart on Frederick’s accession, although they had lived together north of Berlin at Rheinsberg Palace before then. This was probably the happiest time in Crown Princess Elisabeth Christine’s life, a time known in Frederician terms as the Kronprinzenzeit [Crown Prince period]. Elisabeth Christine tried to please Frederick and win his favour if she could not win his affection. She even wrote in his beloved French. Whilst French was, of course, the undoubted language of all European courts during this period, there may also have been a desire in her to use the French that he preferred.

Queen Elisabeth Christine, painted by Antoine Pesne (Public domain or United States Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

She was treated with calculated coldness by Frederick, who gave her a small summer palace of her own called Schönhausen, where she endeavoured to live with a dignity that reflected her queenly status, whatever her personal boredom and emotional neglect. Queen Elisabeth Christine would spend the winter in Berlin’s monumental Stadtschloss. In the formal portrait of her by the court artist Antoine Pesne, she wears a black gown trimmed in silver, a decoration not dissimilar to military frogging, possibly a compliment to her ‘great’ military consort who was after all also, the ‘Soldier King’s’ son. Sadly, she holds two red carnations to her bodice supposedly as a sign of marital fidelity (ed. Rudolf G. Scharmann, Charlottenburg Palace, Royal Prussia in Berlin, 33).

Like its queen, the small palace of Schönhausen in Berlin’s Pankow district was neglected after her death and remained so for much of the nineteenth century. Restored today, it is radiant with her history. Queen Elisabeth Christine’s private and representational rooms may be seen, alongside those spaces associated with the GDR period, when the palace was used as a centre of administration for Wilhelm Pieck and later as a guest residence for senior state visitors, such as Leonid Iljitsch Brezhnev. The palace’s inventory books helped identify furniture, paintings and carpets from the time of Queen Elisabeth Christine which remarkably, had survived at Schönhausen into the early twentieth century. Some objects from Elisabeth Christine’s apartments in the Berlin Stadtschloss have been preserved and feature in a current exhibition at the palace, Zeit(ge)schichten aus 350 Jahren.

Queen Elisabeth Christine arguably only really ever achieved the full respect due to her status as Frederick’s widow, mourning him with the dignity she had demonstrated throughout the married life she had lived, not at his side. Though loved and respected in Berlin, she remained what she was – Frederick’s widow. This she seems to have accepted in an attitude of humble respect, considering it an honour to having been married to so ‘great’ a king.

When she died on 13 January 1797, Queen Elisabeth Christine had outlived the husband she had loved and mourned, for eleven years. Frederick’s body, of course, had a troubled afterlife of its own, restless, just as he himself had been ever since his invasion and occupation of Silesia, robbing the Austrian Maria Theresia of a province that formed part of her dynastic inheritance and thereby sparking that great struggle that became known as the War of the Austrian Succession.

Queen Elisabeth Christine was buried in the Hohenzollern Crypt, one of the most important royal vaults of Europe, comparable with the Kaisergruft in Vienna in terms of its sheer historical significance but then begins another story of royal afterlife.

The Hohenzollern Crypt in Berlin Cathedral, one of the most historical royal burial sites in Europe (Rolf Dietrich Brecher from Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)])

It is now that Elisabeth Christine becomes ‘lost’ once again. Buried amongst the Hohenzollerns in that crypt once described by a visitor Ludwig Sternaux, in 1932 as ‘three hundred years of history asleep until Judgement Day’ (cit., ed. Kurt Geisler, Berlin Cathedral, The Church by the Lustgarten, 46). This historical treatment of her last resting place is much like Elisabeth Christine’s life of invisibility and neglect.

The visitor wishing to pay respects to Queen Elisabeth Christine finds her tomb listed as ‘No. 54’ on the ground plan of the vault, made after its reopening on 20 November 1999. Elisabeth Christine is numbered but not identified. She shared her resting place with her awesome mother-in-law, Queen Sophie Dorothea and several of her sisters-in-law, including the formidable critic, Princess Anna Amalie of Prussia. This latter, ‘No. 55’ is also not shown on the ground plan. Like Elisabeth Christine, there is a ‘?’. An asterisk tells us that among others, the coffins ‘No. 54’ and ‘No. 55’ have not yet been identified. Elisabeth Christine has become Queen Question Mark.

Her husband, Frederick II ‘the Great’, ordered the building of a new cathedral at Berlin in 1747. The royal vault that was constructed then received some fifty-one royal coffins on its completion. However, the Hohenzollern crypt was badly destroyed by bomb damage on 24 May 1944, causing several coffins to be damaged almost beyond repair. A bomb had fallen into the dome of the Cathedral, which collapsed alight two days later. The official version currently given by Berlin Cathedral is that the burning dome buried the coffin of Queen Elisabeth Christine and that ‘as her mortal remains had been buried in a wooden sarcophagus, we can assume that her bones were therefore destroyed in the fire.’ (Author’s translation, https://www.berlinerdom.de/besuchen-wissen/ueber-den-dom/hohenzollerngruft/koeniginnen-und-koenige-beruehmte-personen-in-der-gruft/ Retrieved 14/07/2019).

But this is not the end. I was fascinated by an article in the Berlin newspaper BZ in 2017, asking the extraordinary question, ‘Gebeine im Dom-Keller entdeckt: Liegt hier die Frau vom Alten Fritz?’ [Bones discovered in the Cathedral cellar: Does the wife of old Fritz lie here?’ Bones had been discovered in a wooden coffin with silver handles, long thought to be empty.

Hitherto, only a small plaque could be found in the Hohenzollern vault, reading simply: ‘Queen Elisabeth Christine – her coffin was destroyed in the Second World War’. I visited the crypt in 2009 and found beribboned flowers laid unofficially on what seems to have been thought could have been Queen Elisabeth Christine’s coffin, one of the ‘unknowns’. It was touching to see someone else wanting to find this ‘lost’ and important queen.

According to the Berlin newspaper article, a coffin ‘No 93’ (labelled as ‘UNBEKANNT’ [unknown] on the ground plan) had been opened to allow its high-quality decoration to be restored. Berlin Cathedral’s art historian Birgit Walter said: ‘We discovered that in the coffin to which we could attach no name was a small zinc coffin, of the type in which some of the bones lying around in the soot were placed after the collapse of the cathedral dome. The other bones at the time could be assigned for the most part, but the coffin of Queen Elisabeth Christine stood in the middle, directly beneath the caved-in dome and was completely destroyed. So it could be that there were random bones found of hers which could no longer be identified with a coffin…’ (Author’s translation). The art historian added importantly: ‘It could well be that in the confusion after the war, remains of various persons could have been assembled collectively’ (https://www.bz-berlin.de/berlin/mitte/gebeine-im-dom-keller-entdeckt-liegt-hier-die-frau-vom-alten-fritz, Author’s translation, retrieved 14/07/2019). In other words, the remains may be of other royal persons, including and indeed excluding, Queen Elisabeth Christine.

For a Queen once loved and respected by Berlin but not her husband, it would be a fitting find to redress her anonymity.

We might one day have an answer to Elisabeth Christine, ‘Queen Question Mark’.  For this ‘lost’ Queen may yet be found.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019


About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, an historical consultant and independent scholar. An expert on past British and European royalty, she speaks on matters royal historical for both TV and radio. She was also selected to speak on historic royal weddings at Windsor for BBC Radio Berkshire as part of the feature coverage for the first Royal Wedding in 2018. She regularly writes for journals, specialist magazines, newsletters and the web. She is a contributor to the academic genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life magazine and the English-speaking Czech newspaper Prague Post's culture column. She specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918), with a particular interest in her private correspondence. As an historical consultant, she responds to a wide range of enquiries from media to private individuals, as well as for numerous books, talks and research projects. She has made a significant contribution to the field of royal studies and writes largely based on original research, making a number of important discoveries including 'lost' letters and searching for Queen Victoria's perfume. She also conducts and publishes original research on W. A. Mozart. She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. A passionate supporter of historical and culture heritage, she has been an active member of numerous societies including The Georgian Group and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. Also a poet, her work has been published in various literary and poetry magazines, including The Oxonian Review, North of Oxford, Coldnoon, Nine Muses Poetry and Allegro Poetry, with ten poems forthcoming in Trafika Europe Journal. Her first pamphlet of poetry will be published in 2020, by Marble Poetry.