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Royal dog letters

Frederick II, King ‘in’ Prussia, upon whom was bestowed the celebrated sobriquet of ‘the Great’ in his lifetime, was in his own words ‘a philosopher and want[ed] to be buried as such…” This was eventually carried out in 1991, in accordance with his wishes – two hundred and five years after his death, on the terrace at his beloved palace of Sanssouci [‘free of care’]; at the very spot where he was alleged to have said to his friend, the Marquis d’Argens, that only there would be finally ‘carefree’.

Frederick was interred alongside the vault that he had built for his beloved whippets; an atypical request even in an age when the royal love of dogs was hardly unusual, the French King Louis XIV having his adored sporting dogs painted and employed a special chef to bake their biscuits, which he fed to them himself, in the Cabinet des Chiens, at Versailles. The love of dogs was something that the increasingly misanthropic Frederick, shared with his eldest sister, Wilhelmine, Princess of Prussia and Margravine of Bayreuth. Both, perhaps, found in animals, a perennial source of fascination as well as companionship; dogs occupying a realm wholly outside of philosophical reason and offering the indisputable fealty often lacking in humans.

In May 1748, Frederick and his sister exchanged two letters which are remarkable in many ways; not only do they provide an extraordinary insight into their philosophical beliefs and their unique relationship as royal brother and sister. As an exercise in affection and imagination, they wrote one another letters from the perspective of their respective dogs, Frederick’s greyhound Biche [‘Doe’]and Wilhelmine’s dwarf spaniel, Folichon. Enlightened and sentimental, we must remember that it was also typical in formal language to ‘lay oneself’ at the feet of another, in polite correspondence.

A dog features in the well-known portrait of Frederick and Wilhelmine by the Berlin court painter Antoine Pesne, showing them as children, as early as 1714. Dogs continue to feature in the posthumous paintings of Frederick’s life, as imagined by the artist Adolf Menzel, who places a dog within the philosophical company gathered around the King’s table at Sanssouci, ‘Table Talk at Sanssouci’, underpinning the idea that a dog was somehow part of that fascination, of observational questioning and intellectual behaviour.

Dogs flit like shadows in the background of the propaganda films about Frederick, starring the celebrated actor Otto Gebühr, following the King into his cedarwood library, a sacred space, into which the dogs – surrounded by the busts of ancient philosophers  – clearly have privileged admittance. Wilhelmine, in turn, memorialised her beloved spaniel, Folichon, in paint as well as ink. He is depicted in one of the ceiling paintings in her Audience Chamber in the Altes Schloss in the Eremitage at Bayreuth. The painting depicts the saga of Chilonis and Kleombrotos. Indeed, the presence of Folichon helps us to understand that Wilhelmine must identify herself with Chilonis and the ancient story of self-sacrifice and submission. Folichon was also painted on the ceiling of one of Wilhelmine’s music rooms (Kirsten Heckmann-Janz, et al. Solange wir zu zweit sind, Friedrich der Grosse und Wilhelmine, Markgräfin von Bayreuth, 213).

Frederick had Biche painted similarly, into the lap of the goddess Diana, in Sanssouci’s intimate Concert Room. Biche in fact, died in the Concert Room – immortalised in Menzel’s iconic painting ‘Flute Concert at Sanssouci’ – in 1752, causing the distraught Frederick to write: ‘I was ashamed that the death of a dog struck me so deeply…’ His beloved whippet Superb, was in his room when he died at Sanssouci on 17 August 1786. He would eventually share his actual burial vault on the terrace with the greyhound Alcmene, an extraordinary honour not shared by the other ten whippets, who were instead interred alongside their celebrated, royal master (J. C. Freier, Leben und Charakter Friedrichs II, Königs von Preussen, Pg 89, 1795). Biche was also painted in her own right by Antoine Pesne, with her collar, clearly identifying her as a royal dog, owned by ‘the Great’ Frederick.

Antoine Pesne painted Wilhelmine in what is probably the best-known portrait of her in the 1740s – at Schloss Ludwigsburg – showing her holding a book in contemplation, with Folichon tucked under her right arm. Ten years after Wilhelmine’s death, Frederick erected a Temple of Friendship in his sister’s memory, south of the central allee near the Neues Palais in Park Sanssouci at Potsdam. At the centre is a marble statue of Wilhelmine, clearly inspired by the best-known portrait by Antoine Pesne; similarly immortalised is Folichon, who is under Wilhelmine’s right arm. It was completed in 1770 and designed by the architect Carl Philipp Christian von Gontard, as a classical pendant to the Antikentempel on the park’s northern axis. Folichon appears to have been buried in the grounds of Wilhelmine’s Eremitage at Bayreuth.

Wilhelmine’s letter was written first, from Bayreuth. It – along with Frederick’s reply – is quoted in full in the 2003 publication, Solange wir zu zweit sind, (Quoted in Ibid, pp. 213-17) which loosely translates as ‘As long as we are two’. Both letters were written in French – the preferred language of Frederick and also the official court language of Europe at that time. Folichon appears to be paying suit to the female dog, Biche. We must imagine that Wilhelmine wrote the letter from one of her residences at Bayreuth, the Neues Schloss, or her wonderful Eremitage. Frederick replied from Potsdam, the same month. It is extraordinary to imagine this ‘great’ monarch, sitting down to reply to a letter as if he was his greyhound, less than three years after the close of the Second Silesian War. I am translating them in full because they are probably unique among all royal correspondence of their type.

Folichon to Biche.

Concede, dear Biche, that people are really foolish, and that they are seldom aware of it…. Aren’t you amazed with me, at the amount of philosophers, who have taken it upon themselves to discover our nature, whilst they have no idea of what they themselves are…Aren’t we with exception of form, just like people? Are our passions not the same? Love, jealousy, anger and gluttony are as much our tyranny as theirs. The only difference is this: we possess less burdens and more virtues. People are thoughtless, fickle, self-serving and inordinately ambitious; these faults are unknown to us…

Excuse this long speech, it is only the introduction to a more gripping theme… Yes, dearest bitch, I adore you. Your spirit, your grace, a thousand characteristics which sparkle in you, have conquered me. Oh, I would burst into tears, were I to think of the slap that you gave me with your paw, as I bare that fateful farewell of you… And so much as I pined for you after our separation, thin and sunken, I spent my time in melancholy at the feet of my mistress. [Wilhelmine]. I heard her complain of that dreadful separation from a beloved brother [Frederick] and ever speak of the happy time, which she spent with him in Berlin, though I could not take part in her conversations.

Concerned over my misery and to restore my good cheer, she sent me a seraglio of the finest bitches in the land. But in vain!… Finally, she wanted to chase away my sadness with the charm of riches… at the sight of the rich gifts of my mistress, I at once decided, to offer them to you. At least, so I said to myself, the beautiful Biche would think of me, if she rested on this pillow. She will drink my health from this bowl and perhaps cry a few tears at my absence. Think in the meantime of your loyal Folichon, who will always love and admire you and daily a hundred times wag his tail – in honour and in praise, Folichon.

Biche to Folichon.

I am not used to receiving gallantries. I have constantly preserved the strict chastity of the women of my country and romantic heroism, apart from one little adventure, which spoilt my waistline; but I forgive Folichon what I wouldn’t forgive a bourgeois dog. The great love which my master [Frederick] has for your mistress [Wilhelmine] requires me to only take one dog as a lover. Yes, Folichon, I will not only accept your presents but also your graceful paw and I send you all the more gladly my heart, as I was always of the opinion that a philosophical creature suited me best.

But I have one thing to add to your letter: In humbling mankind – which is so full of darkness and conceit – of its self-love, you did not exempt your mistress. [Wilhelmine]. Yes, Folichon, you can say to me what you will, I have seen your worshipful mistress and you will not convince me that she is not of much higher stuff than us. She possesses godly virtues, so much goodness, constancy, humanity and compassion that I confess, it is beyond me. As you know, we can only combine very few thoughts. You, my master and I, we are one thing; only out of lethargy and due to the fact that he doesn’t want to go on all fours, does my master [Frederick] not call himself a greyhound… How otherwise is your mistress! [Wilhelmine]. How good she was towards my master [Frederick] and me [Biche]! How spirited was her discourse!

And her indescribable grace, which through her affable honour, makes her appear worthy of worship… God, what would become of us without passion! Our life would be simply a lasting death; we would just amble through this world like plants that live cheerlessly and die painlessly. Now, that I love, I discover a new world, the air that I breathe is softer, the sun shines brighter, and the whole of nature is more enlivened.

But, charming Folichon, should we only find our joy in hope?… Should we be so foolish as people? She nourishes themselves with wishes and lives in the weavings of their minds, and whilst they lose their time with vain plans, death comes up behind their backs and snatches them, together with their plans. Let’s be more knowing; let’s not hunt after the shadow but the object itself. I send you this jewel as proof of my word and as a sign that I shall constantly remain,

Your loyal Biche.’

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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.