Princess Palatine Elizabeth: Champion of Religious Liberty


Princess Elizabeth Palatine remains one of the 17th Century’s most intriguing personalities. She refused a crown rather than convert to Rome, corresponded with Descartes, and—contrary to the spirit of the age—offered protection to religious dissidents of every description. At times, she labored virtually alone among the descendents of Frederick V to see Heidelberg and the Palatinate restored to the Protestant fold.

As the Duke of Bavaria’s Catholic armies routed the Hussites at White Mountain, Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart, the “Winter King and Queen,” abandoned their household goods in the Prague palace and, accompanied by their two sons Henry and Rupert, fled for their lives. Left behind, in the care of her grandmother, was the young Princess Palatine, Elizabeth.

It was November 8, 1620, the first decisive battle of the “Thirty Years War” that would leave in its wake devastation so total that entire cities would be reduced to rubble. Historian Francis A. Yates writes that “In Bohemia, mass executions, or ‘purges’, exterminated all resistance. The Bohemian church was totally suppressed and the whole country reduced to misery.”1Yates, Francis A.; “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” Routledge, New York, 1998, p.24

Frederick could not return to his native Heidelberg, since the Palatinate had been invaded two months earlier by Spanish armies. The Winter Queen would appeal in vain to her Stuart father, James I. Finally, they were given refuge by their Reformed relatives in Holland where, years later, Princess Elizabeth would rejoin her mother, her father having died of fever on the battlefield in one of his many vain attempts to recapture the Electoral home in Heidelberg.

Princess-Elizabeth-adjAlthough celebrated among intellectuals and philosophers of her day—Descartes dedicated his Principia to her—it was 200 years later that a French aristocrat, having read of her correspondence with the famous philosopher, searched and recovered a bundle of letters a member of the Swedish court had returned to the Princess following Descartes’ death. She had refused to permit the correspondence to be published in her lifetime and, for centuries, they lay virtually forgotten.

Available in French, they were translated and published in English in 1999 by professor of philosophy Andrea Nye.2Nye, Andrea; “The Princess and the Philosopher,” Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD. Through these letters, the modern reader discovers a remarkable young woman, passionately dedicated to her people and the Protestant cause, who was, perhaps, the only critic Descartes ever heeded.

Elizabeth had not only learned piety and Christian virtue from her grandmother, but classical studies, as well, including modern and classical languages, science, and theology. Her less pious mother and siblings derisively nicknamed her “La Greque,” for her studious demeanor and unwillingness to engage in the frolics of court life. When told that Descartes had paid a call upon the royal family and was disappointed not to have met her, the 24-year old princess began a correspondence that would last until Descartes’ death. It is this correspondence with Descartes that has fueled the controversy over Elizabeth for centuries.

That she befriended Descartes is undoubted. When Descartes is attacked by her fellow Calvinists in Holland, including the esteemed Voetius, Elizabeth intervenes with friends in an attempt to defuse the controversy. In retrospect, the modern reader can find many opportunities to second-guess the decisions of the young 24-year old German émigré, yet on balance, she remained, of all the family, the most focused on seeing the Palatinate recovered for the Reformation.

From the first letter, the notion that Elizabeth was a fawning student, awed by Descartes’ intellect, must be quickly dismissed. Here is a young mind not only discerning enough to poke holes in Descartes’ determinism, but bold enough to speak plainly. She will have none of his dichotomy of body and soul, asking:

“How can the soul of a man determine the spirits of his body so as to produce voluntary actions (given that the soul is only a thinking substance)? For it seems that all determination of movement is made by the pushing of a thing moved, either that it is pushed by the thing which moves it or is affected by the quality or shape of the surface of that thing. For the first two conditions, touching is necessary, for the third, extension…I ask that you give a definition of the soul more specific than the one you gave in your Metaphysics, that is to say of its substance as distinct from its thinking action. For even if we suppose the two to be inseparable (which anyway is difficult to prove in the womb of the mother and in fainting spells), like the attributes of God we can, in considering them separately, acquire a more perfect idea of them.”3Ibid. p.10

In letters that would span the seven years until Descartes’ death, Elizabeth never strays from her central disagreement, that this unnatural elevation of the mind over the body eliminates the “passions” so necessary to right conduct and a proper devotion to God. She clings to a God who made both body and soul, and repeatedly challenges the Stoicism implicit in Descartes. He urges her not to be bothered by the world around her, but to concentrate on her own happiness.


While Descartes retreats to his idyllic country gardens, Elizabeth struggles to raise her brothers and sisters, arrange suitable marriages to advance the evangelical cause, and keep her family focused on the salvation of their devastated homeland. When, at 16, she is offered a marriage to Wladislaw that would have made her a queen in Poland, Elizabeth refuses, because it would have required her to renounce her Reformed faith. There will be no other offers for the dispossessed Princess.

When her brother Edward forsakes the Reformed faith to marry the Catholic Anne de Gonzague, Elizabeth becomes physically ill. Hopes of restoring the Protestant faith in the Palatinate depend upon the faithfulness of Frederick’s heirs. Edward has failed the test. Elizabeth writes to Descartes, a Catholic,

“If you bother yourself to read the papers, you will see that he has fallen into the hands of certain sorts of people who have more hate than affection for our house and religion, and has let himself be caught in their traps to the point of changing his religion to make himself Catholic without giving the slightest indication that he was following his conscience. I must see a person whom I love with as much tenderness as I have for anyone, abandoned to the bad opinion of the world and the loss of his soul (according to my faith).”4Ibid. pp.78-9

Descartes is stunned by her religious zeal, and in subsequent letters renews his advice that she should not trouble herself with the affairs of this world. For Elizabeth, there will be no retreat. Throughout their correspondence, she steadfastly demands that right conduct necessarily involves putting others first, feeling their infirmities and ministering to their needs. Descartes’ dualism has no place for such “passions.” According to Nye, “The God of Elizabeth’s morality is no dictator with the iron hand of natural law but a guarantor of forgiveness, inspiration, and grace.”5Ibid. p.75

Despite her strong reaction to Edward’s perfidy, coming as it does in the midst of the peace talks in Westphalia and jeopardizing the return of the Reformed faith to the lands of Heidelberg, she is equally resolute in her convictions of religious liberty. Edward has done what he has done without the “slightest indication that he was following his conscience.” While the family enjoys the liberty of the Dutch court, back home in the Palatinate, marauding bands of mercenaries are ravaging towns and villages. A third of the population has already been murdered, crops burned, women and children ridden down in the streets, churches ransacked.

Lesser princes reacted with the spirit of the times, returning injustice for injustice, slaughter for slaughter, but Elizabeth refuses to impose upon the conscience of any, though she is the theological daughter of Heidelberg, and is called staunchly Calvinist. The Heidelberg Catechism is once again introduced into its birthplace when, upon the conclusion of the Treaty of Westphalia, Elizabeth’s younger brother Charles-Louis marches back to reclaim the old castle on the Neckar. The city is a picture of devastation.

“The Bavarian ambassador waited to press [Emperor] Maximilian’s demands for compensation for the harvest the Bavarians had gathered and for the heavy cannons that had been used to mow down Palatine citizens. The castle was [un]inhabitable. Wolves roamed the grass-grown streets. Public buildings were in rubble. A once-thriving economy was moribund, with no crops and no trade.”6Ibid. p.158

From Berlin, Elizabeth assists her brother in the task of rebuilding the university, while Louis reopens the stone quarry and the schools, plants vineyards, and opens the city to religious refugees. Heidelberg once again becomes a center of religious liberty, and slowly, the economy revives. But there is yet trouble for Elizabeth. She moves to Heidelberg and discovers that her brother, though faithfully rebuilding the city, is unfaithful to his wife, Charlotte. Elizabeth not only rebukes her brother, but moves in with Charlotte as a show of solidarity. Unfortunately, the bloodlines of Reformation which flow so strongly in Elizabeth’s veins, are but a memory to most of the family.

Her brother Prince Rupert had long since departed for England to lead the armies of Charles I. Sister Louisa had scandalized the Hague with her affairs. Sister Sophie has married well, and her son becomes the Hanoverian George I of England, while beautiful, but frail Henriette marries a Transylvanian prince and dies soon after.

The Reformed Elector of Brandenburg grants Elizabeth rule over the Abbey of Herford, where she lives out the remainder of her days presiding over a city renowned as an island of liberty in a sea of persecution. She opens the city gates to Protestants of every description, granting them shelter and liberty. The notorious Jean Labadie and his followers spend a season of refuge there, much to the consternation of the local Lutheran clergy.7Good, J.I.; “Famous Women of the Reformed Church.” Quakers and Anabaptists, Robert Barclay and the relatives of George Fox — even William Penn himself — found the city open and free. In this way, the Reformed abbess of a Lutheran city in a war-torn land founded a city of refuge. Though gracious and warm to her many visitors, she clung to her Reformed faith throughout her life, never wavering from her “only comfort in life and in death.” She had seen the bitter fruit of persecution, images of death and deprivation seared upon her young conscience. There would be none of that in Herford.

As William Penn composes “Cross and Crown” while imprisoned in the Tower of London, he adds the name of Elizabeth Palatine to his list of benefactors of the Christian faith from all ages, commenting that, “She lived her single life till about 60 years of age, and then departed at her own house at Herwarden[Herford] as much lamented as she had lived – beloved by her people, to whose real worth I do with religious gratitude dedicate this memorial.”8Ibid. p.217

Good, the historian of the Reformed Church in the United States, states that Elizabeth’s kindness to Penn “prepared him to show special interest as he did later to our German Reformed forefathers who came to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. He felt he was returning a debt of gratitude to her by allowing her Church to be founded here. Our German Reformed Church here may thus be said to be a lasting memorial to Princess Elizabeth.”9Ibid. p.218

Elizabeth, defender of the weak, passed from this life on February 11, 1680, at Herford, where her body was laid to rest in the choir of the cathedral. Her epitaph reads,

“She bore a mind so truly royal, that amid all the reverses of fortune it remained unconquered. By her constancy and greatness of soul, by her singular prudence in the conduct of life, by her uncommon attainments in knowledge, learning far above her sex, by the respect of kings and the friendship of the illustrious, by the correspondence and admiring tributes of the learned, by the united regard and applause of the whole Christian world, but chiefly by her own admirable virtue, she attached undying honor to her name.”


1 Yates, Francis A.; “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment,” Routledge, New York, 1998, p.24
2 Nye, Andrea; “The Princess and the Philosopher,” Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD.
3 Ibid. p.10
4 Ibid. pp.78-9
5 Ibid. p.75
6 Ibid. p.158
7 Good, J.I.; “Famous Women of the Reformed Church.”
8 Ibid. p.217
9 Ibid. p.218