Modern history


The Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg


In the beginning there was only Brandenburg, a territory encompassing some 40,000 square kilometres and centred on the city of Berlin. This was the heartland of the state that would later be known as Prussia. Situated in the midst of the dreary plain that stretches from the Netherlands to northern Poland, the Brandenburg countryside has rarely attracted visitors. It possesses no distinctive landmarks. The rivers that cross it are sluggish meandering streams that lack the grandeur of the Rhine or the Danube. Monotonous forests of birch and fir covered much of its surface. The topographer Nicolaus Leuthinger, author of an early description of Brandenburg, wrote in 1598 of a ‘flat land, wooded and for the most part swamp’. ‘Sand’, flatness, ‘bogs’ and ‘uncultivated areas’ were recurring topoi in all the early accounts, even the most panegyric.1

The soil across much of Brandenburg was of poor quality. In some areas, especially around Berlin, the ground was so sandy and light that trees would not grow on it. In this respect little had changed by the mid nineteenth century, when an English traveller approaching Berlin from the south at the height of summer described ‘vast regions of bare and burning sand; villages, few and far between, and woods of stunted firs, the ground under which is hoar with a thick carpeting of reindeer moss’.2

Metternich famously remarked that Italy was a ‘geographical expression’. The same could not be said of Brandenburg. It was landlocked and without defensible natural borders of any kind. It was a purely political entity, assembled from the lands seized from pagan Slavs during the Middle Ages and settled by immigrants from France, the Netherlands, northern Italy and England, as well as the German lands. The Slavic character of the population was gradually erased, although there remained until well into the twentieth century pockets of Slavic-language speakers – known as ‘Wends’ – in the villages of the Spreewald near Berlin. The frontier character of the region, its identity as the eastward boundary of Christian-German settlement, was semantically conserved in the term ‘Mark’, or ‘March’ (as in Welsh Marches), used both for Brandenburg as a whole and for four of its five constituent provinces: the Mittelmark around Berlin, the Altmark to the west, the Uckermark to the north and the Neumark to the east (the fifth was the Prignitz to the north-west).

Transport arrangements were primitive. As Brandenburg had no coast, there was no harbour on the sea. The rivers Elbe and Oder flowed northwards towards the North Sea and the Baltic through the western and eastern flanks of the Mark, but there was no waterway between them, so that the residential cities of Berlin and Potsdam remained without direct access to the transportation arteries of the region. Work had begun in 1548 on a canal that would link the Oder with the river Spree that ran between Berlin and its sister-city Cölln, but the project proved too costly and was abandoned. Since in this period transport was far more expensive by land routes than by water, the paucity of navigable east–west waterways was a serious structural disadvantage.


Brandenburg lay outside the main German areas of specialized crop-based manufacture (wine, madder, flax, fustian, wool and silk), and was not well endowed with the key mineral resources of the era (silver, copper, iron, zinc and tin).3 The most important centre of metallurgical activity was the ironworks established in the fortified city of Peitz in the 1550s. A contemporary depiction shows substantial buildings situated among fast-flowing artificial watercourses. A large water-wheel powered the heavy hammers that flattened and shaped the metal. Peitz was of some importance to the Elector, whose garrisons depended upon it for munitions; it was otherwise of little economic significance. The iron produced there was prone to shatter in cold weather. Brandenburg was thus in no position to compete for export custom in regional markets and its nascent metallurgical sector could not have survived without government contracts and import restrictions.4 It had nothing to compare with the flourishing foundries in the ore-rich electorate of Saxony to the south-east. It did not enjoy the self-sufficiency in armaments that enabled Sweden to assert itself as a regional power in the early seventeenth century.

Early accounts of Brandenburg’s agrarian topography convey a mixed impression. The poor quality of the soil across much of the territory meant that agricultural yields in many areas were low. In some places, the soil was so quickly exhausted that it could be sown only every six, nine or twelve years, not to mention sizeable tracts of ‘infertile sand’ or waterland where nothing could be grown at all.5 On the other hand, there were also areas – especially in the Altmark and Uckermark and the fertile Havelland to the west of Berlin – with sufficient tracts of arable land to support intensive cereal cultivation, and here there were signs of real economic vitality by 1600. Under the favourable conditions of the long European growth cycle of the sixteenth century, the landlords of the Brandenburg nobility amassed impressive fortunes by producing grain for export. Evidence of this wealth could be seen in the graceful Renaissance houses – virtually none of which survive – built by the better-off families, a growing readiness to send sons abroad for university education, and a sharp rise in the value of agricultural property. The waves of sixteenth-century German immigrants who came to Brandenburg from Franconia, the Saxon states, Silesia and the Rhineland to settle on unoccupied farms were a further sign of growing prosperity.

Yet there is little to suggest that the profits earned even by the most successful landlords were contributing to productivity gains or longer-term economic growth on a more than local scale.6 Brandenburg’s manorial system did not release enough surplus labour or generate enough purchasing power to stimulate the kind of urban development found in western Europe. The towns of the territory developed as administrative centres accommodating local manufactures and trade, but they remained modest in size. The capital city, a composite settlement then known as Berlin-Cölln, numbered only 10,000 people when the Thirty Years War broke out in 1618 – the core population of the City of London at this time was around 130,000.


How did this unpromising territory become the heartland of a powerful European state? The key lies partly in the prudence and ambition of the ruling dynasty. The Hohenzollerns were a clan of south-German magnates on the make. In 1417, Frederick Hohenzollern, Burgrave of the small but wealthy territory of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg from its then sovereign, Emperor Sigismund, for 400,000 Hungarian gold guilders. The transaction brought prestige as well as land, for Brandenburg was one of the seven Electorates of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork quilt of states and statelets that extended across German Europe. In acquiring his new title, Frederick I, Elector of Brandenburg, entered a political universe that has since vanished utterly from the map of Europe. The ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation’ was essentially a survival from the medieval world of universal Christian monarchy, mixed sovereignty and corporate privilege. It was not an ‘empire’ in the modern Anglophone sense of a system of rule imposed by one territory upon others, but a loose fabric of constitutional arrangements centred on the imperial court and encompassing over 300 sovereign territorial entities that varied widely in size and legal status.7 The subjects of the Empire included not only Germans but also French-speaking Walloons, Flemings in the Netherlands and Danes, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats and Italians on the northern and eastern periphery of German Europe. Its chief political organ was the imperial diet, an assembly of envoys representing the territorial principalities, sovereign bishoprics, abbeys, counties and imperial Free Cities (independent mini-states such as Hamburg and Augsburg) that composed the ‘estates’ of the Empire.

Presiding over this variegated political landscape was the Holy Roman Emperor. His was an elective office – each new emperor had to be chosen in concert by the Electors – so that in theory the post could have been held by a candidate from any eligible dynasty. Yet, from the late Middle Ages until the formal abolition of the Empire in 1806 the choice virtually always fell in practice to the senior male member of the Habsburg family.8 By the 1520s, following a chain of advantageous marriages and fortunate successions (most importantly to Bohemia and Hungary), the Habsburgs were far and away the wealthiest and most powerful German dynasty. The Bohemian crown lands included the mineral-rich Duchy of Silesia and the margravates of Upper and Lower Lusatia, all major centres of manufacture. The Habsburg court thus controlled an impressive swathe of territories reaching from the western margins of Hungary to the southern borders of Brandenburg.

When they became Electors of Brandenburg, the Franconian Hohenzollerns joined a small elite of German princes – there were only seven in all – with the right to elect the man who would become Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. The Electoral title was an asset of enormous significance. It bestowed a symbolic pre-eminence that was given visible expression not only in the sovereign insignia and political rites of the dynasty but also in the elaborate ceremonials that attended all the official functions of the Empire. It placed the sovereigns of Brandenburg in a position periodically to exchange the territory’s Electoral vote for political concessions and gifts from the Emperor. Such opportunities arose not only on the occasion of an actual imperial election, but at all those times when a still reigning emperor sought to secure advance support for his successor.

The Hohenzollerns worked hard to consolidate and expand their patrimony. There were small but significant territorial acquisitions in almost every reign until the mid sixteenth century. Unlike several other German dynasties in the region, the Hohenzollerns also managed to avoid a partition of their lands. The law of succession known as the Dispositio Achillea (1473) secured the hereditary unity of Brandenburg. Joachim I (r. 1499–1535) flouted this law when he ordered that his lands be divided at his death between his two sons, but the younger son died without issue in 1571 and the unity of the Mark was restored. In his political testament of 1596, Elector John George (r. 1571–98) once again proposed to partition the Mark among his sons from various marriages. His successor, Elector Joachim Frederick, succeeded in holding the Brandenburg inheritance together, but only thanks to the extinction of the southern, Franconian line of the family, which allowed him to compensate his younger brothers with lands from outside the Brandenburg patrimony. As these examples suggest, the sixteenth-century Hohenzollerns still thought and behaved as clan chiefs rather than as heads of state. Yet, although the temptation to put the family first continued to be felt after 1596, it was never strong enough to prevail against the integrity of the territory. Other dynastic territories of this era fractured over the generations into ever smaller statelets, but Brandenburg remained intact.9

The Habsburg Emperor loomed large on the political horizons of the Hohenzollern Electors in Berlin. He was not just a potent European prince, but also the symbolic keystone and guarantor of the Empire itself, whose ancient constitution was the foundation of all sovereignty in German Europe. Respect for his power was intermingled with a deep attachment to the political order he personified. Yet none of this meant that the Habsburg Emperor could control or single-handedly direct affairs within the Empire. There was no imperial central government, no imperial right of taxation and no permanent imperial army or police force. Bending the Empire to his will was always a matter of negotiation, bargaining and manoeuvre. For all its continuities with the medieval past, the Holy Roman Empire was a highly fluid and dynamic system characterized by an unstable balance of power.


In the 1520s and 1530s, the energies released by the German Reformation agitated this complex system, generating a process of galloping polarization. An influential group of territorial princes adopted the Lutheran confession, along with about two-fifths of the imperial Free Cities. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V, determined both to safeguard the Catholic character of the Roman Empire and to consolidate his own imperial dominion, mustered an anti-Lutheran alliance. These forces won some notable victories in the Schmalkaldic War of 1546–7, but the prospect of further Habsburg advancement sufficed to bring together the dynasty’s opponents and rivals within and outside the Empire. By the early 1550s, France, ever anxious to block the machinations of Vienna, had begun to provide military support for the Protestant German territories. The consequence of the resulting stalemate was the compromise settlement agreed at the 1555 Diet of Augsburg. The Peace of Augsburg formally acknowledged the existence of Lutheran territories within the Empire and conceded the right of Lutheran sovereigns to impose confessional conformity upon their own subjects.

Throughout these upheavals, the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg pursued a policy of neutrality and circumspection. Anxious not to alienate the Emperor, they were slow to commit themselves formally to the Lutheran faith; having done so, they instituted a territorial reformation so cautious and so gradual that it took most of the sixteenth century to accomplish. Elector Joachim I of Brandenburg (1499–1535) wished his sons to remain within the Catholic church, but in 1527 his wife Elizabeth of Denmark took matters into her own hands and converted to Lutheranism before fleeing to Saxony, where she placed herself under the protection of the Lutheran Elector John.10 The new Elector was still a Catholic when he acceded to the Brandenburg throne as Joachim II (r. 1535–71), but he soon followed his mother’s example and converted to the Lutheran faith. Here, as on so many later occasions, dynastic women played a crucial role in the development of Brandenburg’s confessional policy.

For all his personal sympathy with the cause of religious reform, Joachim II was slow to attach his territory formally to the new faith. He still loved the old liturgy and the pomp of the Catholic ritual. He was also anxious not to take any step that might damage Brandenburg’s standing within the fabric of the still predominantly Catholic Empire. A portrait from around 1551 by Lucas Cranach the Younger captures these two sides of the man. We see an imposing figure who stands with fists clenched before a spreading belly, decked in the bulging, bejewelled court garb of the day. There is watchfulness in the features. Wary eyes look out obliquely from the square face.


1. Lucas Cranach, Elector Joachim II (1535–71), painted c. 1551

In the great political struggles of the Empire, Brandenburg aspired to the role of conciliator and honest broker. The Elector’s envoys were involved in various failed attempts to engineer a compromise between the Protestant and Catholic camps. Joachim II kept his distance from the more hawkish Protestant princes and even sent a small contingent of mounted troops to support the Emperor during the Schmalkaldic War. It was not until 1563, in the relative calm that followed the Peace of Augsburg, that Joachim formalized his personal attachment to the new religion through a public confession of faith.

Only in the reign of Elector John George (1571–98), Joachim II’s son, did the lands of Brandenburg begin to develop a more firmly Lutheran character: orthodox Lutherans were appointed to professorial posts at the University of Frankfurt/Oder, the Church Regulation of 1540 was thoroughly revised to conform more faithfully with Lutheran principles and two territorial church inspections (1573–81 and 1594) were carried out to ensure that the transition to Lutheranism was accomplished at the provincial and local level. Yet in the sphere of imperial politics, John George remained a loyal supporter of the Habsburg court. Even Elector Joachim Frederick (r. 1598–1608), who as a young man had antagonized the Catholic camp by his open support for the Protestant cause, mellowed when he came to the throne, and kept his distance from the various Protestant combinations attempting to extract religious concessions from the imperial court.11

If the Electors of Brandenburg were prudent, they were not without ambition. Marriage was the preferred instrument of policy for a state that lacked defensible frontiers or the resources to achieve its objectives by coercive means. Surveying the Hohenzollern marital alliances of the sixteenth century, one is struck by the scatter-gun approach: in 1502 and again in 1523, there were marriages with the House of Denmark, by which the reigning Elector hoped (in vain) to acquire a claim to parts of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein and a harbour on the Baltic. In 1530, his daughter was married off to Duke Georg I of Pomerania, in the hope that Brandenburg might one day succeed to the duchy and acquire a stretch of Baltic coast. The King of Poland was another important player in Brandenburg’s calculations. He was the feudal overlord of the Duchy of Prussia, a Baltic principality that had been controlled by the Teutonic Order until its secularization in 1525, and was ruled thereafter by Duke Albrecht von Hohenzollern, a cousin of the Elector of Brandenburg.

It was partly in order to get his hands on this attractive territory that Elector Joachim II married Princess Hedwig of Poland in 1535. In 1564, when his wife’s brother was on the Polish throne, Joachim succeeded in having his two sons named as secondary heirs to the duchy. Following Duke Albrecht’s death four years later, this status was confirmed at the Polish Reichstag in Lublin, opening up the prospect of a Brandenburg succession to the duchy if the new duke, the sixteen-year-old Albrecht Frederick, were to die without male issue. As it happened, the wager paid off: Albrecht Frederick lived, in poor mental but good physical health, for a further fifty years until 1618, when he died, having sired two daughters, but no sons.

In the meanwhile, the Hohenzollerns lost no time in reinforcing their claim to the Duchy of Prussia by every means available. The sons took up where the fathers had left off. In 1603, Elector Joachim Frederick persuaded the Polish king to grant him the powers of regent over the duchy (necessary because of the reigning duke’s mental infirmity). His son John Sigismund had further reinforced the link with Ducal Prussia by marrying Duke Albrecht Friedrich’s eldest daughter, Anna of Prussia, in 1594, overlooking her mother’s candid warning that she was ‘not the prettiest’.12Then, presumably in order to prevent another family from muscling in on the inheritance, the father, Joachim Frederick, whose first wife had died, married the younger sister of his son’s wife. The father was now the brother-in-law of the son, while Anna’s younger sister doubled as her mother-in-law.

A direct succession to the Duchy of Prussia thus seemed certain. But the marriage between John Sigismund and Anna also opened up the prospect of a new and rich inheritance in the west. Anna was not only the daughter of the Duke of Prussia, but also the niece of yet another insane German duke, John William of Jülich-Kleve, whose territories encompassed the Rhenish duchies of Jülich, Kleve (Cleves) and Berg and the counties of Mark and Ravensberg. Anna’s mother, Maria Eleonora, was the eldest sister of John William. The relationship on her mother’s side would have counted for little, had it not been for a pact within the house of Jülich-Kleve that allowed the family’s properties and titles to pass down the female line. This unusual arrangement made Anna of Prussia her uncle’s heiress, and thus established her husband, John Sigismund of Brandenburg, as a claimant to the lands of Jülich-Kleve.13 Nothing could better illustrate the serendipitous quality of the marriage market in early modern Europe, with its ruthless trans-generational plotting, and its role in this formative phase of Brandenburg’s history.


By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Electors of Brandenburg stood on the brink of possibilities that were exhilarating, but also troubling. Neither the Duchy of Prussia nor the scattered duchies and counties of the Jülich-Kleve inheritance adjoined the Mark Brandenburg. The latter lay on the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, cheek by jowl with the Spanish Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. It was a congeries of confessionally mixed territories in one of the most urban and industrialized regions of German Europe. Lutheran Ducal Prussia – roughly as large as Brandenburg itself – lay outside the Holy Roman Empire to the east on the Baltic coast, surrounded by the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a place of windswept beaches and inlets, cereal-bearing plains, placid lakes, marshes and sombre forests. It was not unusual in Early Modern Europe for geographically scattered territories to fall under the authority of a single sovereign, but the distances involved in this case were unusually great. Over 700 kilometres of roads and tracks – many of which were virtually impassable in wet weather – lay between Berlin and Königsberg.

It was clear that Brandenburg’s claims would not go unchallenged. An influential party within the Polish diet was opposed to the Brandenburg succession, and there were at least seven prominent rival claimants to the Jülich-Kleve inheritance, of which the strongest on paper (after Brandenburg) was the Duke of Pfalz-Neuburg in western Germany. Both Ducal Prussia and Jülich-Kleve lay, moreover, in areas of heightened international tension. Jülich-Kleve fell within the orbit of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain that had been raging intermittently since the 1560s; Ducal Prussia lay in the conflict zone between expansionist Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Electorate’s military establishment was based on an archaic system of feudal levies that had been in steep decline for over a century by 1600. There was no standing army, beyond a few companies of life-guards and some insignificant fortress garrisons. Even supposing Brandenburg were able to acquire them in the first place, keeping the new territories would require the commitment of considerable resources.

But where would these resources come from? Any attempt to expand the Elector’s fiscal base in order to finance the acquisition of new territories was sure to meet entrenched domestic opposition. Like many European princes, the Electors of Brandenburg shared power with an array of regional elites organized in representative bodies called Estates. The Estates approved (or not) taxes levied by the Elector and (from 1549) administered their collection. In return they possessed far-reaching powers and privileges. The Elector was forbidden, for example, to enter into alliances without first seeking the approval of the Estates.14 In a declaration published in 1540 and reiterated on various occasions until 1653, the Elector even promised that he would not ‘decide or undertake any important things upon which the flourishing or decline of the lands may depend, without the foreknowledge and consultation of all our estates’.15 His hands were therefore tied. The provincial nobilities owned the lion’s share of the landed wealth in the Electorate; they were also the Elector’s most important creditors. But their outlook was vehemently parochial; they had no interest in helping the Elector to acquire far-flung territories of which they knew nothing and they were opposed to any action that might undermine the security of the Mark.

Elector Joachim Frederick recognized the scale of the problem. On 13 December 1604, he announced the establishment of a Privy Council (Geheimer Rat), a body consisting of nine councillors whose task was to oversee ‘the high and weighty matters that press upon Us’, especially in connection with the claims to Prussia and Jülich.16 The Privy Council was supposed to function collegially, so that issues could be weighed up from a range of angles with a greater consistency of approach. It never became the core of a state bureaucracy – the schedule of regular meetings envisaged in the original order was never observed and its function remained primarily consultative.17 But the breadth and diversity of its responsibilities signalled a new determination to concentrate the decision-making process at the highest level.

There was also a new westward orientation in marital policy. In February 1605, the Elector’s ten-year-old grandson George William was betrothed to the eight-year-old daughter of Frederick IV, the Elector Palatine. The Palatinate, a substantial and wealthy territory on the Rhine, was the foremost German centre of Calvinism, a rigorous form of Protestantism that broke more radically with Catholicism than the Lutherans. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the Calvinist, or Reformed, faith had secured a foothold in parts of western and southern Germany. Heidelberg, capital city of the Palatinate, was the hub of a network of military and political relationships that embraced many of the German Calvinist cities and principalities, but also extended to foreign Calvinist powers, most importantly the Dutch Republic. Frederick IV possessed one of the most formidable military establishments in western Germany, and the Elector hoped that closer relations would bring him strategic support for Brandenburg’s claims in the west. Sure enough, in April 1605 an alliance was formalized between Brandenburg, the Palatinate and the Dutch Republic, by which the Dutch agreed, in return for military subsidies, to maintain 5,000 men in readiness to occupy Jülich for the Elector.

This was a departure. In allying themselves with the militant Calvinist interest, the Hohenzollerns had placed themselves beyond the pale of the settlement reached at Augsburg in 1555, which had recognized the right to tolerance of the Lutherans, but not of the Calvinists. Brandenburg was now consorting with some of the Habsburg Emperor’s most determined enemies. A division opened among the decision-makers in Berlin. The Elector and most of his councillors favoured a policy of caution and restraint. But a group of influential figures around the Elector’s hard-drinking eldest son, John Sigismund (r. 1608–19), took a firmer line. One of these was the Calvinist Privy Councillor Ottheinrich Bylandt zu Rheydt, himself a native of Jülich. Another was John Sigismund’s wife, Anna of Prussia, the carrier of the Jülich-Kleve claim. Backed by his supporters – or perhaps driven by them – John Sigismund pressed for closer relations with the Palatinate; he even argued that Brandenburg should pre-empt any dispute over the succession to Jülich-Kleve by invading and occupying it in advance.18 Not for the last time in the history of the Hohenzollern state, the political elite polarized around opposed foreign policy options.

In 1609 the mad old Duke of Jülich-Kleve finally died, activating the Brandenburg claim to his territories. The timing could hardly have been less propitious. The regional conflict between Habsburg Spain and the Dutch Republic was still simmering, and the inheritance lay in the strategically vital military corridor to the Low Countries. To make matters worse, there had been a dramatic escalation in confessional tensions across the Empire. Following a sequence of bitter religious disputes, two opposed confessional alliances emerged: the Protestant Union of 1608 led by the Calvinist Palatinate, and the Catholic League of 1609, led by Duke Maximilian of Bavaria under the protection of the Emperor. In less troubled times, the Elector of Brandenburg and the Duke of Pfalz-Neuburg would doubtless have looked to the Emperor to resolve the dispute over Jülich-Kleve. But in the partisan climate of 1609, there could be no confidence in the Emperor’s neutrality. Instead, the Elector decided to circumvent the machinery of imperial arbitration and sign a separate agreement with his rival: the two princes would jointly occupy the contested territories, pending a later resolution of their claims.

Their action provoked a major crisis. Imperial troops were despatched from the Spanish Netherlands to oversee the defence of Jülich. John Sigismund joined the Protestant Union, which duly declared its support for the two claimants and mobilized an army of 5,000 men. Henri IV of France took an interest and decided to intervene on the Protestant side. Only the French king’s assassination in May 1610 prevented a major war from breaking out. A composite force of Dutch, French, English and Protestant Union troops entered Jülich and besieged the Catholic garrison there. In the meanwhile, new states flocked to join the Catholic League and the Emperor, in his fury at the claimants, bestowed the entire Jülich-Kleve complex upon the Elector of Saxony, prompting fears that a joint Saxon–imperial invasion of Brandenburg might be imminent. In 1614, after further quarrels, the Jülich-Kleve legacy was divided – pending a final settlement – between the two claimants: the Duke of Pfalz-Neuburg received Jülich and Berg, while Brandenburg secured Kleve, Mark, Ravensberg and Ravenstein (see p. 11).

These were acquisitions of considerable importance. The Duchy of Kleve straddled the River Rhine, jutting into the territory of the Dutch Republic. In the late Middle Ages, the construction of a system of dykes had reclaimed the fertile soil of the Rhine floodplain, transforming the territory into the bread basket of the Low Countries. The County of Mark was less fertile and less populous, but here there were significant pockets of mining and metallurgical activity. The little County of Ravensberg dominated a strategically important transport route linking the Rhineland with north-eastern Germany and possessed a flourishing linen industry concentrated mainly around Bielefeld, the capital city. The tiny Lordship of Ravenstein, situated on the River Maas, was an enclave within the Dutch Republic.

At some point it must have become clear to the Elector that he had overreached himself. His meagre revenues had prevented him from playing more than a minor supporting role in the conflict over his inheritance claim.19 Yet his territory was now more exposed than ever. There was a further complication: in 1613, John Sigismund announced his conversion to Calvinism, thereby placing his house outside the religious settlement of 1555. The momentous long-term significance of this step is discussed in chapter 5; in the short term, the Elector’s conversion excited outrage among the Lutheran population without providing any tangible short-term benefits for the territory’s foreign policy. In 1617, the Protestant Union, whose commitment to Brandenburg’s cause had always been fragile, withdrew its earlier support for the Brandenburg claim20John Sigismund responded by resigning from the Union. As one of his advisers pointed out, he had joined it only in the hope of securing his inheritance; his own territory was ‘so far away that [the Union] could be of no other use to him’.21 Brandenburg stood alone.

Perhaps a sharpening awareness of these predicaments accelerated the Elector’s personal decline after 1609. The man who had displayed such vigour and enterprise as crown prince seemed used up. His drinking, which had always been enthusiastic, was now out of control. The story later recalled by Schiller that John Sigismund ruined the chance of a marriage alliance between his daughter and the son of the Duke of Pfalz-Neuburg by punching his prospective son-in-law on the ear in a fit of intoxication may well be apocryphal.22 But similar accounts of violent and irrational drunken behaviour in the 1610s can probably be believed. John Sigismund grew obese and lethargic, and was intermittently incapable of conducting the business of government. A stroke in 1616 left his speech seriously impaired. By the summer of 1618, when the Duke of Prussia died in Königsberg, activating another Hohenzollern claim to another far-flung territory, John Sigismund seemed, according to one visitor, ‘lebendigtot’, suspended between life and death.23

The careful work of three generations of Hohenzollern Electors had transformed the prospects of Brandenburg. For the first time, we can discern the embryonic outlines of the sprawling territorial structure with its remote eastern and western dependencies that would shape the future of what would one day be known as Prussia. But there remained a gross discrepancy between commitments and resources. How would the House of Brandenburg defend its claims against its many rivals? How would it secure fiscal and political compliance within its new territories? These were difficult questions to answer, even in peacetime. But by 1618, despite efforts from many quarters to broker a compromise, the Holy Roman Empire was entering an era of bitter religious and dynastic war.

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