Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER V: The King's Mistress and the Royal Alchemist


AS the Countess Lichtenau and Mr. Bischoffswerder are two prominent characters in this reign, it may not be unacceptable to give a short biographical sketch of these two personages.

The lady was of very low extraction:  his Majesty, when Prince Royal, used frequently to spend the evening with her sister Miss Enken.  By chance, he made her acquaintance also, and became so enamoured, that he not only attached himself to her for his occasional amusement, but had her so educated as to become his companion.  The old King, on discovering this intrigue, insisted on her being dismissed.  The Prince had her immediately married to his gentleman Rietz, who thus had the honor to become her nominal husband, but the duties of the wife were transferred to the Prince alone, whom she seems to have then really loved, even to jealousy:  but discretion ultimately directed her conduct.  She became the friend and the purveyor to the Prince, and had so studied his taste, that she always previously initiated the fresh victims of his love in those mysteries she knew to be the most gratifying.  In this art she was so eminently skilled, that when his passions thus became cloyed, she had still such invigorating means in store, as always tempted the satiated monarch to return to the reviving arms of his favorite.  Nature, in truth, had given her every charm such a libidinous lover could desire, for she was born and formed for a mistress.

She was not deficient in politeness of manners or conversation, and her character altogether seems to have been generous and good; but she had all the vanity attributed to her sex: hence that susceptibility to flattery, which too often has led her to raise and enrich worthless fellows, who spurned her on her fall.

With a lover so lavish and so fond as was the King, she might, with impunity, have attended more to her own interest than she did; for a few, not very important, estates, together with jewels, to the amount of about two hundred thousand rix-dollars, were all she possessed.  The King, indeed, towards the close of his last illness, gave her an assignment of five hundred thousand rix-dollars upon the minister of the finances, but Mr. Struensee had the address to put off the payment until his Majesty’s death, and then of course the order became void.  This lady’s farther fate will be noticed in my account of the beginning of the next reign.

Bischoffswerder was a man of neither extraordinary abilities or character, and the little judgement he possessed had been misled by his imagination and habits, he having been long associated with a sect of imposing enthusiasts, which at the time infested Germany.

The leader of the sect, one Schröpfer, after inviting some of his favorite disciples to a particular place, to initiate them in his wonderful mystery of raising departed spirits, found the surest mean of conversing with the dead was—to shoot himself.

This, however, did not cure Bischoffswerder; he still pursued his pneumatological system; and, under the cloak of freemasonry, made some converts, who, as he was himself very poor, assisted him with the sums requisite for his imaginary experiments.  With this money he was enabled to got to Berlin, where the fame of his alchymical knowledge and supernatural powers soon introduced him to the Prince Royal.  Voluptuaries have commonly heated imaginations; it was, therefore, not very difficult to entice the Prince into this views by a skilful management of his weak side.  Bischoffswerder became a great favorite.  He soon saw his influence, and now formed his plan.  His judgement resumed it’s seat; he was, therefore, particularly careful not to show his power.  When Frederick William became King, Bischoffswerder continued equally reserved, both with regard to state affairs, or his Majesty’s amours.  He seemed to renounce all pretensions to acknowlegements of any sort, and appeared indifferent to rank or fortune:  in short, he was totally passive.  This disinterested behaviour riveted more strongly the King’s confidence, so that he became, in reality, the sole privy counsellor.  Were there any difficult business to be decided, Bischoffswerder must be consulted, and his advice was always followed.  If his Majesty were engaged in dalliance, when any weighty affair was sent from the cabinet, Bischoffswerder was ordered to arrange it as he thought right.  He sometimes remonstrated, but he was obliged to comply.  The orders were thus made out, and the King signed them without examination.

Mrs. Rietz saw through the artifices of Bischoffswerder, and endeavoured, in vain, to expose them.—She ridiculed his Majesty’s credulity in the raising of ghosts, and his excess of confidence in granting  Bischoffswerder so much power in the cabinet.  But the answer to all her remonstrances was: “It is not Bischoffswerder, but I who have ordered it so or so.”—At length she durst not mention his name.

Hertzberg and Schulenberg, when they thought they had just reason of complaint, attempted also to give their opinion against him; but they always did it with such a tone of authority, as offended; and then the King would go and peevishly complain of it to his bosom friend Bischoffswerder:—“Sire,” answered the favorite, “is not your Majesty Lord and Master?”—These worthy statesmen soon found that he was, and were obliged, in disgust, to take their dismission.

Bischoffswerder’s whole art was to appear nothing—yet, to be every thing.  Even in their private devotions, meant to purify themselves for an intercourse with the expected holy spirits; in which his Majesty still retained some belief, Bischoffswerder was continually passive.  When the King started any doubt—“Yes,” observed the imposter; “it is strange, it is wondrous strange, my understanding cannot conceive these to be real apparitions; yet still I cannot forbear attempting another experiment.”—“Right, right, very right,” replied the deluded monarch, “we will shortly try another experiment.”  Thus the King became the more involved in the web, as the whole gang were equally interested to keep their deception secret.  Bischoffswerder, or rather his wife, who was continually instigating him to make more profit by his influence with the King, were not so modest in their desires as Mrs. Rietz; for they acquired, and made their escape, after the King’s death, with an immense fortune.

Wölner was only the simple tool of Bischoffswerder.  The department assigned him was to direct the Synod and the King’s conscience; that whenever his royal mind was debilitated by his debauches, his Majest (who occasionally had his devotional freaks) might receive absolution and comfort from the spiritual appearances, which Wölner’s creatures must procure, to restore such a repentant sinner; and his Majesty felt himself always sufficiently consoled, to renew with tranquility his old offences.

As Wölner’s chief power lay amongst the Priests, various pious ordinances were issued through his influence, to the great annoyance of liberal-minded Christians: for, like most reformers, he ruled, where he could, with a rod of iron.—But he and his anathemas are long forgotten.   

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