Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

Charles William Ferdinand
Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, before his succession. An anonymous 1780 copy of a portrait painted in 1777 or earlier by Johann Georg Ziesenis.
Reign 26 March 1780 – 10 November 1806
Predecessor Charles I
Successor Frederick William
Born (1735-10-09)9 October 1735
Wolfenbüttel, Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Died 10 November 1806(1806-11-10) (aged 71)
Consort Princess Augusta of Great Britain
(m. 1764–1806; his death)
Issue Augusta, Duchess of Württemberg
Charles George Augustus, Hereditary Prince
Duke George William Christian
Duke Augustus
Caroline, Queen of the United Kingdom
Frederick William
Duchess Amelia
Full name
Charles William Ferdinand
German: Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand
House House of Brunswick-Bevern
Father Charles I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Mother Princess Philippine Charlotte of Prussia

Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (German: Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Herzog von Braunschweig-Lüneburg und Fürst von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel) (9 October 1735 – 10 November 1806), was ruler of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a statesman and a military leader. His titles are usually shortened to Duke of Brunswick in English-language sources.

He succeeded his father as sovereign prince of the Principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, one of the princely states of the Holy Roman Empire. He was a recognized master of the warfare of the mid-18th century who served as a Generalfeldmarschall of the Kingdom of Prussia. The duke was a cultured and benevolent despot in the model of Frederick the Great, and was married to Princess Augusta, a sister of George III of Great Britain.

Early life

Schloss Wolfenbüttel, probable birthplace of Charles William Ferdinand

Charles William Ferdinand was born in the town of Wolfenbüttel on 9 October 1735, probably in the Schloss Wolfenbüttel palace. He was the first-born son of Charles I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and his wife Philippine Charlotte.

Charles I was the ruling prince (German: Fürst) of the small state of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, one of the imperial states of the Holy Roman Empire. Philippine Charlotte was the favourite daughter of King Frederick William I of Prussia[1] and sister of Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick the Great). As the heir apparent of a sovereign prince, Charles William Ferdinand received the title of Hereditary Prince (German: Erbprinz).

He received an unusually wide and thorough education, overseen by his mother.[1] In his youth he travelled in the Netherlands, France and various parts of Germany. In 1753 his father moved the capital of the principality to Brunswick (German: Braunschweig), the state's largest city. (Wolfenbüttel had been the capital since 1432.) The royal family moved into the newly built Brunswick Palace.

Initial military career

Charles William Ferdinand entered the military, serving during the Seven Years' War of 1756-63. He joined the allied north-German forces of the Hanoverian Army of Observation, whose task was to protect Hanover (a British ally) and the surrounding states from invasion by the French. The force was initially commanded by the Hanoverian Prince William, Duke of Cumberland.[2] At the Battle of Hastenbeck Charles William Ferdinand led a charge at the head of an infantry brigade, an action which gained him some renown.[2][3]

The subsequent French Invasion of Hanover and Convention of Klosterzeven of 1757 temporarily knocked Hanover out of the war (they were to return the following year). Charles William Ferdinand was easily persuaded to continue his military service as a general officer by his uncle Ferdinand of Brunswick, who replaced Cumberland in command of the remaining allied north-German forces.[3] Charles William Ferdinand's reputation continued to improve, and he became an acknowledged master of irregular warfare.[3]

He was part of the allied Anglo-German force at the Battle of Minden (1759), and the Battle of Warburg (1760). Both were decisive victories over the French, during which he proved himself an excellent subordinate commander.[3] He continued to serve in the army commanded by his uncle for the remainder of the war, which was generally successful for the north German forces. Peace was restored in 1763.

Marriage and travels

Princess Augusta of Great Britain, his wife, painted c.1763

The royal houses of the former Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg had traditionally sought their marriages between each other, to keep their possessions within the family under Salic law inheritance. By this period, the only other house remaining as rulers of a successor state was that of the Electorate of Hanover, who had also inherited the Kingdom of Great Britain. It was therefore arranged for Charles William Ferdinand to marry a British-Hanoverian princess: Princess Augusta of Great Britain, daughter of Frederick Lewis, Prince of Wales and his wife, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, and sister of the reigning King George III.[2] This intermarriage between closely related royal houses would have unfortunate consequences for their offspring.

In 1764, shortly after the Seven Years' War had ended, he travelled to London (landing at Harwich) to marry Princess Augusta.[4][2] He received a rapturous welcome from the British people, thanks to his service with allied British troops during the war.[5] The Parliament of Great Britain showed its gratitude by voting him a lump sum of £80,000 and an annual income of £3,000 as a wedding gift.[note 1][7] However George III was less welcoming, and sought to express his displeasure through numerous small insults e.g. by lodging the prince at Somerset House, instead of one of the royal palaces; not providing him with a military guard; and instructing the servants at the wedding to wear old clothes.[7] This merely served to exacerbate the enthusiasm of the public, particularly when the prince was suspected of turning his back on the unpopular monarch whilst attending an opera (a breach of social protocol).[8] Charles William Ferdinand defied royal displeasure by meeting William Pitt the Elder (who had been prime minister during the war but resigned in 1761) and the other leaders of the parliamentary opposition.[9] The wedding was completed, but as a result of these machinations the prince remained in Britain for only thirteen days.[10]

Portrait of Charles William Ferdinand as Hereditary Prince by Pompeo Batoni, 1767.

Over the next few years the couple embarked on a wide-ranging tour of Europe, visiting many of the major states. In 1766 they went to France, where they were received by both his allies and recent battlefield enemies with respect.[3] In Paris he made the acquaintance of Marmontel. The couple next proceeded to Switzerland, where they met Voltaire.[3] The longest stop on their travels was Rome, where they remained for a long time exploring the antiquities of the city under the guidance of Johann Winckelmann.[3] During their travels the couple also met Pietro Nardini[5] and in 1767 the prince had his portrait painted by Pompeo Batoni. After a visit to Naples they returned to Paris, and thence to Brunswick.[3]

Ruler of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

Territory of the Principality of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (orange-red) in 1789. The principality was composed of several non-contiguous parts, including the exclaves of Thedinghausen and Calvörde. Its largest neighbours were the Electorate of Hanover (in union with Great Britain, light yellow), the Electorate of Brandenburg (part of Prussia, light green) and the Bishopric of Hildesheim (light blue).

His father, Charles I, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war, but nearly bankrupted the state paying for it. As a result, in 1773 Charles William Ferdinand was given a major role in reforming the economy. With the assistance of the minister Feonçe von Rotenkreuz he was highly successful, restoring the state's finances and improving the economy. This made him hugely popular in the duchy.[3]

Charles I died in 1780, at which point Charles William Ferdinand inherited the throne. He soon became known as a model sovereign, a typical enlightened despot of the period, characterized by economy and prudence.[3]

The duke's combination of interest in the well-being of his subjects and habitual caution led to a policy of gradual reforms, a successful middle way between the conservatism of some contemporary monarchs and the over-enthusiastic wholesale changes pursued by others. He sponsored enlightenment arts and sciences; most notably he was patron to the young mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, paying for him to attend university against the wishes of Gauss' father.[11]

He resembled his uncle Frederick the Great in many ways, but he lacked the resolution of the king, and in civil as in military affairs was prone to excessive caution.[3] He brought Brunswick into close alliance with the king of Prussia, for whom he had fought in the Seven Years' War; he was a Prussian field marshal, and was at pains to make the regiment of which he was colonel a model one.[3]

The duke was frequently engaged in diplomatic and other state affairs. In August 1784 he hosted a secret diplomatic visit from Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Eisenach (Goethe was a member of Karl August's entourage). The visit was disguised as a family visit, but was in fact to discuss the formation of a league of small- and mid-sized German states as a counterbalance within the Holy Roman Empire to Habsburg Austria's ambitions to trade the Austrian Netherlands for the Electorate of Bavaria. This Fürstenbund (League of Princes) was formally announced in 1785, with the Duke of Brunswick as one of its members and commander of its military forces.[3] The league was successful in forcing the Austrian Joseph II to back down, and thereafter became obsolete.

The Swedish princess and diarist Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte visited Brunswick in 1799; she described the Duke as "witty, literal and a pleasant acquaintance but ceremonial beyond description. He is said to be quite strict, but a good father of the nation who attends to the needs of his people."[12]

In 1803 the process of German Mediatisation led to the acquisition of the neighbouring imperial abbeys of Gandersheim and Helmstedt, which were secularised.

Military leader

Equestrian statue of the duke in Brunswick, by Franz Pönninger.

He was made a Prussian general in 1773.

War of the Bavarian Succession

From 1778 to 1779 he served in the War of the Bavarian Succession.[3] Frederick II praised the prince personally for his conduct during the war.[13]

Invasion of the Netherlands

In 1787 the Duke was made Generalfeldmarschall (field marshal) in the Prussian army. Frederick William II of Prussia appointed him as commander of a 20,000-strong Prussian force which was to invade the United Provinces of the Netherlands (The Dutch Republic). The goal was to suppress the Patriots of the Batavian Revolution, restoring the authority of the stadtholder William V of the House of Orange. Much of the country was in open revolt against William, whose personal troops were unable to quell the Patriot militias and the various Dutch provinces refused to aid him.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica described the Duke's invasion: "His success was rapid, complete and almost bloodless, and in the eyes of contemporaries the campaign appeared as an example of perfect generalship".[3] The Patriots were out-manoeuvred and overwhelmed: their militias were unable to put up any real resistance, were forced to abandon their insurrection, and many Patriots fled to France.[14]

The Duke's forces entered the Netherlands on 13 September and occupied Nijmegen that day.[13] The largest Patriot force, 7,000 men under the Rhinegrave of Salm, was quickly forced to abandon Utrecht, which the Duke occupied on 16 September.[15] After a short artillery bombardment, the Prussian force captured Gorcum on the 17th, followed by Dordrecht on the 18th and Delft on the 19th.[15] They entered The Hague on the 20th, which the Patriots had been forced to withdraw from following a loyalist insurrection on the 17th.[15] The last Patriot city, Amsterdam, surrendered on 10 October.[15] The campaign had taken less than a month. William V was restored to power, which he was to hold until 1795.

Both contemporaries and historians have praised the Duke's decisive campaign, in which he manoeuvred to concentrate his forces and achieve overwhelming local superiority, before moving on to the next city.[3][16] He also received credit for the low number of casualties; one British observer suggested that "the sap of the trees was the only blood shed",[17] referring to the wooden palisades and batteries constructed by both sides.

War of the First Coalition

At the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition in the early summer of 1792, Ferdinand was poised with military forces at Coblenz. After the Girondins had arranged for France to declare war on Austria, voted on April 20, 1792, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and the Protestant King of Prussia Frederick William II had combined armies and put them under Brunswick's command.

The Brunswick Proclamation

Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé, primary author of the Brunswick Manifesto
Main article: Brunswick Manifesto

The "Brunswick Proclamation" or "Brunswick Manifesto" that he now issued from Coblenz on July 25, 1792 threatened war and ruin to soldiers and civilians alike, should the Republicans injure Louis XVI and his family. His avowed aim was:

to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.

Additionally, the manifesto threatened the French population with instant punishment should they resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy. In large part, the manifesto had been written by Louis XVI's cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, who was the leader of a large corps of émigrés in the allied army.

It has been asserted that the manifesto was in fact issued against the advice of Brunswick himself; the duke, a model sovereign in his own principality, sympathized with the constitutional side of the French Revolution, while as a soldier he had no confidence in the success of the enterprise. However, having let the manifesto bear his signature, he had to bear the full responsibility for its consequences.

The proclamation was intended to threaten the French population into submission; it had exactly the opposite effect.

In Paris, Louis XVI was generally believed to be in correspondence with the Austrians and Prussians already, and the republicans became more vocal in the early summer of 1792. It remained for the Duke of Brunswick's proclamation to assure the downfall of the monarchy by his proclamation, which was being rapidly distributed in Paris by July 28 apparently by the monarchists, who badly misjudged the effect it would have (See text in link). The "Brunswick Manifesto" seemed to furnish the agitators with a complete justification for the revolt that they were already planning. The first violent action was carried out on August 10, when the Tuileries Palace was stormed.

Invasion of France

Main article: Battle of Valmy

The Duke was disappointed that the British remained neutral.[18]

His initial advance into France was slowed by poor weather, the rough terrain of the Forest of Argonne, and an outbreak of dysentery among his troops.[18]

The Duke was less successful against the French citizens' army that met him at Valmy. Having secured Longwy and Verdun without serious resistance, he turned back after a mere skirmish in Valmy, and evacuated France.

Initially the Duke intended to winter in the fortress of Verdun, before resuming the campaign in France the following spring.[19] However Kellerman's forces outflanked him by advancing up the Rhine, recapturing French possessions there. The Duke abandoned Verdun on 8 October and Longwy on 22 October,[18] before retreating back into Germany.

When he counterattacked the Revolutionary French who had invaded Germany, in 1793, he recaptured Mainz after a long siege, but resigned in 1794 in protest at interference by Frederick William II of Prussia.

War of the Fourth Coalition

Engraving of the duke in later life from an 1835 publication.

Prussia did not take part in the Second Coalition or Third Coalition against Revolutionary France. However, in 1806 Prussia declared war on France, beginning the War of the Fourth Coalition. Despite being over 70 years old, the Duke of Brunswick returned to command the Prussian army at the personal request of Louise, Queen of Prussia.[3]

By this stage the Prussian army was regarded as backward, using outdated tactics and with poor intelligence and communication. The structure of the high command has been particularly criticised by historians, with multiple officers developing differing plans and then disagreeing on which should be followed, leading to disorganisation and indecision.

The duke commanded the large Prussian army at Auerstedt during the double Battle of Jena–Auerstedt on 14 October 1806. His forces were defeated by Napoleon's marshal Davout, despite the Prussians outnumbering the French around Auerstedt by two to one. During the battle he was struck by a musket ball and lost both of his eyes; his second-in-command Friedrich Wilhelm Carl von Schmettau was also mortally wounded, causing a breakdown in the Prussian command. Severely wounded, the Duke was carried with his forces before the advancing French. He died of his wounds in Ottensen on 10 November 1806.[3]

Memorial in Christianskirche

The duke's body was provisionally laid to rest in Christianskirche in 1806. It was later transferred for reburial in Brunswick Cathedral on 6 November 1819.


Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand II, Herzog von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel (1735-1806) and Princess Augusta of Great Britain

On 16 January 1764, Charles married Princess Augusta of Great Britain, eldest sister of King George III. The couple were second cousins to each other, being great-grandchildren of George I of Great Britain. As such, they were not related in a particularly close degree, yet there had been many bonds of marriage between the House of Brunswick-Bevern and House of Hanover, themselves both branches of the House of Welf. Some commentators have pointed to inbreeding as a possible cause for the fact that many of the couple's children suffered from physical, mental or psychological disabilities. Indeed, the duke was once moved to describe his children to von Massenbach as "mostly cripples in mind and body."[20]

The duke and his wife Augusta had four sons and three daughters. Three of their four sons suffered from major debilities. Their eldest son, Karl Georg August (1766–1806) was named heir apparent, but suffered from a significant learning disability and was regarded as "well-nigh imbecile."[10] Nevertheless, he was married in 1790 to Frederika of Orange-Nassau, daughter of William V, Prince of Orange, a gentle, good-hearted woman who remained devoted to him to the end. He died childless at the age of 40 in 1806, shortly before his father. The second son, Georg Wilhelm Christian (1769–1811), suffered from an even more severe learning disability than his elder brother.[10] He was declared incapacitated and was excluded from the succession. He never married. The couple's third son was August (1770–1822). He was blind and was also excluded from the succession.[10] He also never married. The fourth son, Friedrich Wilhelm (1771 – 16 June 1815), was sound of mind and body. He eventually succeeded his father, married and sired two sons. It is through him that the present House of Brunswick is descended.

Frederick and Augusta also had three daughters, two of whom reached adulthood. Neither of them was disabled, but both of them had similar, disastrous trajectories in life. Both of them were married to future kings, both made extreme failures of their marriages, both had extremely acrimonious relations with their husbands, and both were accused by them of similar faults: adultery, uncouth behavior, absence of dignity, falsehood and utter fecklessness. The elder daughter, Auguste Caroline Friederike (1764–1788), was the wife of the future king Frederick I of Württemberg and mother of the future William I of Württemberg. She separated from her husband and died in Russia from complications that arose while giving birth in secret to an illegitimate child. The younger daughter, Caroline of Brunswick, was married in 1795 to her first cousin, the future George IV of the United Kingdom, and bore him a daughter, the ill-fated Princess Charlotte of Wales. On two occasions (1806 and 1818–19), her husband made serious efforts to divorce her on grounds of adultery, forming commissions of inquiry to indict her, and after he became king, he in fact caused the House of Lords to pass a bill of divorce citing adultery with an Italian commoner. However, the bill was never introduced in the House of Commons and the divorce was never finalized. Caroline died three weeks after she was physically prevented from entering Westminister Abbey to participate in her husband's coronation.

The future Queen of Sweden, Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte of Holstein-Gottorp, described the ducal family thus:

The Duchess is the sister to the King of England and a typical Englishwoman. She looked very simple, like a vicar's wife, has I am sure many admirable qualities, and is very respectable, but completely lacks manners. She makes the strangest questions without considering how difficult and unpleasant they can be.....The sons of the Ducal couple are somewhat peculiar. The (eldest) prince, chubby and fat, almost blind, strange and odd - if not to say an imbecile - attempts to imitate his father but only makes himself artificial and unpleasant. He talks continually, does not know what he says, and is in all aspects unbearable. He is accommodating but a poor thing, loves his consort to the point of worship, and is completely governed by her. The (second) son, Prince Georg, is the most ridiculous person imaginable, and so silly that he can never be left alone but is always accompanied by a courtier. The third son is also described as an original. I never saw him, as he served with his regiment. The fourth is the only normal one, but also torments his parents by his immoral behaviour.[21]

The duke also fathered at least one bastard, Forstenburg, who was healthy and began a promising military career before being killed in action during 1793.[20]


Auguste Caroline Friederike Luise3 December 176427 September 1788married 1780, Friedrich III, Duke of Württemberg; had issue
Karl Georg August8 February 176620 September 1806married 1790, Frederika Luise Wilhelmine, Princess of Orange-Nassau; no issue
Caroline Amalie Elisabeth17 May 17687 August 1821married 1795, George IV of the United Kingdom; had issue
Georg Wilhelm Christian27 June 176916 September 1811Declared an invalid; Excluded from line of succession
August18 August 177018 December 1822Declared an invalid; Excluded from line of succession
Friedrich Wilhelm9 October 177116 June 1815married 1802, Maria Elisabeth Wilhelmine, Princess of Baden; had issue
Amelie Karoline Dorothea Luise22 November 17722 April 1773


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of.



  1. Equivalent in 2016 to £10,200,000 and £380,000 per year respectively.[6]


  1. 1 2 Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 7.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "BRUNSWICK-LÜNEBURG, Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of". Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  4. Fitzmaurice (1901), pp. 14-15.
  5. 1 2 Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 14.
  6. UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2016), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  7. 1 2 Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 15.
  8. Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 15-16.
  9. Fitzmaurice (1901), pp. 14-16.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 16.
  11. Dunnington, G. Waldo. (May 1927). The Sesquicentennial of the Birth of Gauss at the Wayback Machine (archived 26 February 2008) Scientific Monthly XXIV: 402–414. Retrieved on 29 June 2005. Now available at "The Sesquicentennial of the Birth of Gauss". Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  12. Charlottas, Hedvig Elisabeth (1927) [1797-1799]. Hedvig Elisabeth Charlottas dagbok [The diary of Hedvig Elizabeth Charlotte] (in Swedish). VI 1797-1799. Translated by af Klercker, Cecilia. Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt & Söners förlag. pp. 219–220. OCLC 14111333.
  13. 1 2 Black (1994), p. 151.
  14. Black (1994), pp. 151-153.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Black (1994), p. 152.
  16. Black (1994), pp. 152-3.
  17. Black (1994), p. 153.
  18. 1 2 3 Black (1994), p. 403.
  19. Black (1994), p. 407.
  20. 1 2 Fitzmaurice (1901), p. 17.
  21. Charlottas, Hedvig Elisabeth (1927) [1797-1799]. af Klercker, Cecilia, ed. Hedvig Elisabeth Charlottas dagbok [The diary of Hedvig Elizabeth Charlotte] (in Swedish). VI 1797-1799. Translated by Cecilia af Klercker. Stockholm: P.A. Norstedt & Söners förlag. pp. 219–220. OCLC 14111333. (search for all versions on WorldCat)


Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Cadet branch of the House of Welf
Born: 9 October 1735 Died: 10 November 1806
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Charles I
Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg
Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

Succeeded by
Frederick William
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