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Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine

Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine

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Elisabeth of the Palatinate (26 December 1618 – 11 February 1680), also known as Elisabeth of Bohemia, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V
Frederick V, Elector Palatine
Frederick V was Elector Palatine , and, as Frederick I , King of Bohemia ....

, who was briefly elected King of Bohemia, and Elizabeth Stuart
Elizabeth of Bohemia
Elizabeth of Bohemia was the eldest daughter of King James VI and I, King of Scotland, England, Ireland, and Anne of Denmark. As the wife of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, she was Electress Palatine and briefly Queen of Bohemia...

. She ruled the Herford Abbey
Herford Abbey
Herford Abbey was the oldest women's religious house in the Duchy of Saxony. It was founded as a house of secular canonesses in 789, initially in Müdehorst by a nobleman called Waltger, who moved it in about 800 onto the lands of his estate Herivurth which stood at the crossing of a number of...

 as Princess-Abbess Elizabeth III. Elizabeth is well known for having established a philosophical
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 correspondence with René Descartes
René Descartes
René Descartes ; was a French philosopher and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the 'Father of Modern Philosophy', and much subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which are studied closely to this day...

 that lasted for seven years until his death in 1650.


After the overthrow of her father, her earliest youth was spent at Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

, under the care of her grandmother Juliana, a daughter of William of Orange
William the Silent
William I, Prince of Orange , also widely known as William the Silent , or simply William of Orange , was the main leader of the Dutch revolt against the Spanish that set off the Eighty Years' War and resulted in the formal independence of the United Provinces in 1648. He was born in the House of...

, who gave her thoughts a lofty and pious direction. In her ninth or tenth year she was sent with her siblings to complete her education in Leiden, Netherlands
The Netherlands is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, located mainly in North-West Europe and with several islands in the Caribbean. Mainland Netherlands borders the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east, and shares maritime borders...

, where she was taught classic and modern languages, art and literature, and showed especial inclinations toward philosophical studies. She also earned the nickname "La Grecque" ("The Greek") for her impressive knowledge of classical languages. Afterwards she moved to The Hague
The Hague
The Hague is the capital city of the province of South Holland in the Netherlands. With a population of 500,000 inhabitants , it is the third largest city of the Netherlands, after Amsterdam and Rotterdam...

, where her parents kept a quiet court surrounded by a select circle of noble and educated men. There were plans to marry her to Władysław IV Vasa
Władysław IV Vasa
Władysław IV Vasa was a Polish and Swedish prince from the House of Vasa. He reigned as King of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 8 November 1632 to his death in 1648....

, King of Poland. Being committed to the Protestant cause it is claimed that she refused to marry a Catholic king. It should be kept in mind that this episode occurred toward the end of the Thirty Years' War
Thirty Years' War
The Thirty Years' War was fought primarily in what is now Germany, and at various points involved most countries in Europe. It was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history....

 pitting Protestants against Catholics.

The many misfortunes that befell her family may have confirmed her decision. In 1639 she entered into correspondence with Anna Maria van Schurman
Anna Maria van Schurman
Anna Maria van Schurman was a German-Dutch painter, engraver, poet and scholar. She was a highly educated woman by seventeenth century standards...

, a learned woman, called the Dutch Minerva
Minerva was the Roman goddess whom Romans from the 2nd century BC onwards equated with the Greek goddess Athena. She was the virgin goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts, magic...

. A little later she became acquainted with Descartes, who, at her request, was made her teacher in philosophy and morals, and in 1644 he dedicated to her his Principia
Principles of Philosophy
Principles of Philosophy is a book by René Descartes. Written in Latin, it was published in 1644 and dedicated to Elisabeth of Bohemia, with whom Descartes had a long standing friendship. A French version followed in 1647. It set forth the principles of nature—the Laws of Physics--as Descartes...

. In 1649 Descartes followed an invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden
Christina of Sweden
Christina , later adopted the name Christina Alexandra, was Queen regnant of Swedes, Goths and Vandals, Grand Princess of Finland, and Duchess of Ingria, Estonia, Livonia and Karelia, from 1633 to 1654. She was the only surviving legitimate child of King Gustav II Adolph and his wife Maria Eleonora...

, but continued in correspondence with Elizabeth until he died in the following year. At this time Elizabeth returned to Heidelberg
-Early history:Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, "Heidelberg Man" died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907; with scientific dating, his remains were determined to be the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of...

 with her brother Charles Louis
Charles I Louis, Elector Palatine
Charles Louis, , Elector Palatine KG was the second son of Frederick V of the Palatinate, the "Winter King" of Bohemia, and his wife, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I of England ....

 who was now elector, but his conjugal troubles induced her to leave Heidelberg. During a visit to an aunt at Krossen she became acquainted with Johannes Cocceius
Johannes Cocceius
Johannes Cocceius , Dutch theologian, was born at Bremen.-Life:After studying at Hamburg and the University of Franeker, where Sixtinus Amama was one of his teachers, he became in 1630 professor of biblical philology at the Gymnasium illustre in his native town...

 who later entered into correspondence with her and dedicated to her his exposition of the Song of Songs
Song of songs
Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, is a book of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. It may also refer to:In music:* Song of songs , the debut album by David and the Giants* A generic term for medleysPlays...

. Through him she was led to the study of the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...


In 1667 she became abbess of the institution of Herford
Herford Abbey
Herford Abbey was the oldest women's religious house in the Duchy of Saxony. It was founded as a house of secular canonesses in 789, initially in Müdehorst by a nobleman called Waltger, who moved it in about 800 onto the lands of his estate Herivurth which stood at the crossing of a number of...

 where she distinguished herself by faithfulness in the performance of her duties, by her modesty and philanthropy, and especially by her kind hospitality to all who were oppressed for the sake of conscience. In 1670 she received the followers of Jean de Labadie
Jean de Labadie
Jean de Labadie was a 17th century French pietist. Originally a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, he became a member of the Reformed Church in 1650, before founding the community which became known as the Labadists in 1669...

, by whose piety she was attracted. Saddened by the departure of the congregation in 1672, she retained a small body of like-minded souls under her protection. The Labadiste were followed in 1676 by the Quakers. In 1677 William Penn
William Penn
William Penn was an English real estate entrepreneur, philosopher, and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania, the English North American colony and the future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was an early champion of democracy and religious freedom, notable for his good relations and successful...

 himself arrived together with Robert Barclay
Robert Barclay
Robert Barclay was a Scottish Quaker, one of the most eminent writers belonging to the Religious Society of Friends and a member of the Clan Barclay. He was also governor of the East Jersey colony in North America through most of the 1680s, although he himself never resided in the...

, and remained three days, holding meetings which made a deep impression upon the countess. Her friendship with Penn lasted until her death in 1680, and he celebrated her memory in the second edition of his book No Cross, No Crown (1682), praising her piety and virtue, her simplicity, her care as ruler, her justice, humility and charitable love. Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German philosopher and mathematician. He wrote in different languages, primarily in Latin , French and German ....

 visited her in 1678.


"In a book about their relationship, Leon Petit claims that Descartes and Elisabeth were in love with one another [Leon Petit, Descartes et la Princesse Elisabeth: roman d'amour vecu (Paris, 1969)]. Genevieve Rodis-Lewis is inclined to agree, though in her opinion it was not a sexual passion." [A.C.Grayling, Descartes, The Life of René Descartes and Its Place in His Times (London, 2005)]

In her correspondence with Descartes she poses one of the most critical questions regarding his philosophy of Dualism - which states that mind and body are separate entities - namely that if mind and body are two separate entities then how do they interact with each other? Descartes never provided a satisfying answer to this question.

She is described as a woman of utmost intelligence speaking six languages and having an aptitude for mathematics and art. Additionally, she was a very gifted painter, among her other talents.


External links and references

Further reading