Elisabeth of the Palatinate

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Princess Elisabeth
Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey
1636 Elisabeth of Bohemia.jpg
Born (1618-12-26)26 December 1618
Heidelberg, Electorate of the Palatinate
Died 11 February 1680(1680-02-11) (aged 61)
Herford Abbey
House House of Palatinate-Simmern
Father Frederick V, Elector Palatine
Mother Elizabeth Stuart
Religion Calvinist

Elisabeth of the Palatinate (26 December 1618 – 11 February 1680), also known as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate, or Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine (who was briefly King of Bohemia), and Elizabeth Stuart. She was born in Heidelberg, Germany, spending the first nine years of her life there. When she was nine, she went to live in Leyden, Holland, with her brother and was raised in a nursery palace to complete her studies. After finishing her studies, she was deemed ready to live in The Hague with her mother.

Elisabeth was sent back to live in Germany and then eventually took her vows in a Protestant convent at Herford Abbey in Westphalia as Princess-Abbess.[1] During her days as head of the Abbey, she provided refuge for many Protestants during a time of great persecution.

She influenced many key figures and philosophers, most notably René Descartes. She is most famous for questioning Descartes' idea of Dualism, or the mind being separate from the body, in addition to questioning his theories regarding communication between the mind and body. The written correspondence of Descartes and Elisabeth is regarded as an important philosophical document, giving insight into the theoretical debates of the 17th century.

Elisabeth was known for her intelligent and caring nature. She died in 1680 after suffering from a painful illness for several years.


Birth and education

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinate at age 12 from "A Sister of Prince Rupert" by E. Godfrey. According from the text the original painting this photo is based on was painted by Kaspar Barlens and is located in the Herford Museum.
Elisabeth at age 12.

After the overthrow of her father, her earliest youth was spent at Berlin, under the care of her grandmother Juliana, a daughter of William of Orange, who gave her thoughts a lofty and pious direction. Elisabeth was known and revered by the people around her for her intelligence. Known as "La Grecque" ("The Greek"), she was fluent in multiple languages, including Latin. She had a particular aptness for the classical languages. She was very well rounded, obtaining an education in history, geography, and mathematics. It is said that she also dabbled in the fine arts, such as painting, dancing, and poetry. Elisabeth was taught by her mother, her grandmother, and various tutors throughout the various stages of her life. In her ninth or tenth year she was sent with her siblings to complete her education in Leiden, Netherlands. Afterwards she moved to The Hague, where her parents kept a quiet court surrounded by a select circle of noble and educated men.

However, this extensive education did not seem to satisfy Elisabeth's hunger for knowledge. Throughout her adult years, she would engage in written correspondence with many renowned intellects and contemporaries of her time.[2]

In 1639, she entered into correspondence with Anna Maria van Schurman, a learned woman, called the Dutch Minerva. A little later she also corresponded with Descartes. Their letters to each other have been preserved. At her request, Descartes became her teacher in philosophy and morals, and in 1644 he dedicated to her his Principia. In 1649, Descartes followed an invitation of Queen Christina of Sweden, but continued in correspondence with Elisabeth until he died in the following year. At this time, Elisabeth returned to Heidelberg with her brother Charles Louis 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 who later entered into correspondence with her and dedicated to her his exposition of the Song of Songs. Through him she was led to the study of the Bible.


In 1667, she became princess-abbess of Herford Abbey, a Protestant convent. She presided over the convent and also governed the surrounding community of 7,000 people. As princess-abbess, 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 French Pietist Jean de Labadie. Saddened by the departure of the congregation in 1672, she retained a small body of like-minded souls under her protection. The Labadistes were followed in 1676 by the Quakers. In 1677, William Penn himself arrived together with Robert Barclay, 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 visited her in 1678.

She died in 1680.


In addition to being reputed for her intelligence and distinguished correspondence, Elisabeth was known for her piety and humility. While many people of her time may have liked to have read her correspondence, or heard directly from her, she refused to have her letters to Descartes or any others published in her lifetime. This left her in relative obscurity for almost two hundred years after her death, until a French aristocrat discovered and made public her writings.

Although she is best known for her correspondence, particularly with Descartes, Elisabeth was perhaps most passionate about her Protestant faith and spent most of her adult life promoting Calvinism. While she was princess-abbess of Herford, the abbey was known as a refuge of liberty during a time of severe persecution for Protestants. She allowed many of the persecuted into the city and took them under her care.

Elisabeth was respected by many, and said to have influence with numerous key people, who in turn, went on to influence others, including Descartes and Penn. Penn was influenced by her generosity and later noted that in his reception of the Reformed Church in America.[3]


1618: Born on December 26 at Heidelberg. Spends first nine years of her life living with her grandmother and aunt in Silesia.

1627: Moves to Leiden in the Netherlands for schooling, and then to The Hague to live with her parents, where they have been exiled to after her father lost his throne.

1631: Elisabeth's father dies.

1642: Reads Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy and becomes interested in him, followed shortly thereafter by their first meeting.

1643: Begins correspondence with Descartes.

1646: Elisabeth's brother, Philip, stabs Monsieur L'Espinay in public for bragging about flirting with Elisabeth's mother and sister. Angering her mother by defending him, Elisabeth is sent away to live with her aunt in Germany. During this time, she introduces many of Descartes' works and philosophy to German professors, increasing his popularity.

1649: Descartes accepts an invitation to stay with Queen Christina of Sweden, in part to plead the case of Elisabeth and her family, who had been requesting the help of the Queen in the return of her father's Palatinate lands.

1650: Descartes dies in Sweden.

1667: Elisabeth joins a Protestant convent at Herford in Westphalia, eventually becoming the abbess. While serving as abbess at the Herford Abbey, Elisabeth oversees about seven thousand people and their homes and families. She also turns the place into a refuge for people seeking religious freedom and asylum. This includes many people of faiths different from hers, such as Jean de Labadie and Quakers including William Penn and Robert Barclay.

1680: Elisabeth dies after struggling with a painful illness for many years.[4]

Titles of Office & Ancestry

The main title held by Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess of Palatinate, was Princess-Abbess of Herford Abbey, seven years after taking her vows in 1660 AD. This occurred a little over one hundred years following the change of the Abbey from being an independent territory of the Holy Roman Empire to that of Lutheranism, specifically, Calvinism, due to the Electors of Brandenburg. She served as coadjutrix, or aid to the abbess, before her indoctrination. During her reign, she provided refuge for many sects, including Labadists and Quakers. Famous Quakers such as Robert Barclay, Jean de LaBadie and William Penn would visit Elisabeth while she was at Herford Abbey in attempts to convert her. There is the possibility that her niceties toward them were due to the political matters of the time, when many of the Quaker faith were attempting to reinstate the English throne. While being the head of the abbey, Elisabeth held a watchful eye over the multiple vineyards, farms, factories and mills that were attached to the abbey. This included approximately seven thousand people who helped run the daily tasks of the order and its subsidiaries until her death in 1680.[5] However, Elisabeth of Bohemia was known to harbor a strong curiosity for scientific and religious theory, so it may in fact have been more than just a passing concern.

This was not the first time she had been pressured to convert to Catholicism.[6] She was offered the chance at becoming a Queen. When she was not yet fifteen years old, the king of Poland, Ladislaus IV, asked for her hand in marriage on the condition that Elisabeth left her Lutheran faith and took up the beliefs of her future husband, which were rooted in Catholicism.[7] While Elisabeth refused the marriage due to religious differences, it was not religion or vast age difference that doomed the match. Elisabeth’s family was more concerned with the political backlash of a family member marrying an enemy of Sweden, one of the only allies with Palatinate, in a time when war, exile and outrageous spending habits put the family in a very precarious position. This offer of marriage was one of the only to Elisabeth due to the stigma of both her family’s lack of wealth and her vast intellect, which was seen as unbecoming of a royal female.[8]

Ancestry: Past & Present

The family line stems from the House of Stuart and the House of Orange[citation needed] on the maternal side, which ruled England from 1603 to 1714 AD. The paternal line stems from the House of Palatinate-Simmern, a line that originates from the House of Wittelsbach. The House of Wittelsbach is a German dynasty stemming from Bavaria, linked to both Sweden and Greece. Elisabeth of Bohemia was the third child and first girl of thirteen children. She had eight brothers and four sisters. A few of her siblings died as children, most notably the eldest and heir to the throne, Frederick Henry drowned at the age of fifteen. Her younger brother Louis died not long after his birth. She spent the majority of her childhood with her maternal grandmother, Queen Anne of Denmark, while her parents traveled. Despite being the first daughter, she was seen as absent, and in her later years as a burden on her family, of which they constantly reminded her. This could be considered the main reason she spent most of her adult years traveling until joining the abbey. Elisabeth followed in the footsteps of her younger sister. Louisa Hollandine became Abbess of Maubisson,[6] a Catholic Religious Order in 1664, while Elisabeth became the head of a Lutheran Abbey.[9] Several of her siblings married, becoming royals in their own right, cemented through marriage. Her siblings also produced several well-known heirs amongst their many children. Among her nieces and nephews were George I King of Great Britain, Sophia Charlotte, Queen of Prussia, Princess Anne Henriette of Arches, Benedicta Henrietta, Duchess of Brunswick-Luneburg (also known as Hanover, Germany) and George I Rákóczi of Transylvania.

List of Elisabeth of Bohemia’s Siblings:

Frederick Henry (1614–1629) Drowned

Charles Louis, Elector Palatine (1617–1680)

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinatefrom A Sister of Prince Rupert by E. Godfrey. According from the text the original painting this photo is based on was painted by Gerard Honthorst and hangs in the National Gallery.
Portrait of Elisabeth from the National Gallery.
Had three wives: Charlotte of Hesse-Kassel, Marie Luise von Degenfeld, & Elisabeth Hollander von Bernau

Elisabeth (1618–1680)

Rupert, Duke of Cumberland (1619–1682)

Had two illegitimate children

Maurice (1620–1652)

Louise (1622–1709)

Louis (1624–1625)

Edward, Count Palatine of Simmern (1625–1663)

Married: Anna Gonzaga

Henriette Marie (1626–1651)

Married: Prince Sigismund of Siebenbuergen

John Philip Frederick (1627 or 1629–1650)

Charlotte (1628–1631)

Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630–1714)

Married: Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover

Gustavus Adolphus (1632–1641)

Contributions to Knowledge: Descartes and Other Prominent Figures

Elisabeth of Bohemia-Palatinate with hunting spear from A Sister of Prince Rupert by E. Godfrey. According from the text the original painting this photo is based off of is in the Library of Bodleian Oxford in the School of Honthorst.
Elisabeth the hunter.

Elisabeth met Descartes on one of Descartes' visits to The Hague.[10] Descartes visited The Hague to meet some of the leading intellectual figures in Holland who might support his philosophy. The Hague was often a gathering place to meet other influential, powerful people. As Descartes talked of his ideas, Elisabeth intently listened and became very interested in Descartes' thoughts of the mind and body. After Descartes' visit, it was told to him that Elisabeth had been very interested in his work. Descartes was flattered and told others that he would like to get to know the princess better. Descartes made another visit to The Hague, and was intent on having a conversation with Elisabeth, although this conversation for some reason did not happen.

Elisabeth, upon hearing of Descartes' failed attempt to converse with her, wrote Descartes a letter. In this letter, dated May 16, 1643, Elisabeth writes, "tell me please how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits and so bring about voluntary actions".[11] Elisabeth is questioning Descartes' idea of dualism and how the soul and the body could interact. Elisabeth rightly questioned how something immaterial (Descartes' idea of the mind) could move something material (the body). Descartes replied to Elisabeth's letter with the answer that this interaction should not be thought of as between two bodies and that it is the kind of union that exists between the two qualities of heaviness and bodies.[11] Elisabeth was not satisfied with this answer, so she wrote Descartes again. In this letter, dated June 20, 1643, Elisabeth writes that she cannot, "understand the idea through which we must judge how the soul (nonextended and immaterial) is able to move the body, that is, by that idea through which you have at another time understood heaviness".[11] In another letter from Elisabeth to Descartes dated July 1, 1643, Elisabeth agrees with Descartes that our senses are evidence that the soul does move the body and the body moves the soul, but that this interaction does not teach us anything about how this happens.[11] In Elisabeth's correspondence with Descartes, we can see that Elisabeth assumes that Descartes does have an account of how the soul and body interact and asks for clarification on how the soul does this.[5] In fact, Descartes did not have an exact account of how this happens, but merely assumed the soul had this capability. This particular correspondence between Descartes and Elisabeth ended with this July 1 letter.

The correspondence began again, but two years later. In this correspondence, Elisabeth and Descartes discuss an illness Elisabeth suffered from in the summer of 1645.[5] Descartes writes to Elisabeth that he thinks her symptoms are caused by sadness. This could very well have been true, as Elisabeth's brother Philip had challenged a family suitor and then stabbed the suitor in public, resulting in social backlash.[5] This caused Elisabeth much distress and worry. This specific correspondence between Elisabeth and Descartes is often ignored by many historians, as they see it as insignificant, but a few regard it as influential in that Descartes and Elisabeth seem to be talking of the "passions of the soul", as Descartes referred to them. Some historians have remarked that Elisabeth could have been a philosopher in her own right if it had not been for a lack of a systematic presentation of her philosophical position.[5] We can infer her philosophical position through her letters with Descartes and think of her as an important philosophical figure of her time.

In addition to Descartes, Elisabeth held correspondence with many others, including various Quakers. Among them most notably were Robert Barclay and William Penn. While they seemed to have the aim of converting her to their faith, Elisabeth seemed to be focused on the intellectual interest of their ideals and beliefs.[5] She also held a correspondence for a time with the "Dutch Minerva", Anna Maria van Schurman, who encouraged Elisabeth to further her studies in history, physics, and astronomy. While their correspondence was not extensive, Van Schurman was a mentor to Elisabeth and guided her in her scholarly studies. She was respected and revered by Princess Elisabeth to a great degree. Elisabeth asked for her advice on new topics and subjects of study often. Van Schurman took the initiative in giving Elisabeth her opinion on the new discoveries of their time. The area in which they seemed to diverge was in their opinion of Descartes. Elisabeth was intrigued by the new Cartesian philosophy and wanted to learn more about it. Van Schurman, however, emphatically refuted the idea when Elisabeth inquired about it, instead defending the traditional Aristotelian-Christian view. As much as she respected Van Schurman, this did not stop Elisabeth from pursuing her interest in Descartes and his doctrine. Elisabeth eventually contacted Descartes to request his instruction in philosophy and mathematics, keeping a long-standing correspondence and friendship. It has been speculated that Elisabeth's correspondence and deep connection with Descartes effectively ended her communications with Van Schurman.[2]



  1. bei der Wieden, Helge (2008). Elisabeth von der Pfalz, Äbtissin von Herford, 1618-1680: eine Biographie in Einzeldarstellungen. Hahnsche Buchhandlung. ISBN 3-7752-6045-5. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Van Dijk, S. & Nesbitt, J. (2004) I Have Heard About You: Foreign Women's Writing Crossing the Dutch Border: From Sappho to Selma Lagerloff. Denmark. Uitgeverij Verloren.
  3. Johnson, W.C., (n.d.). "Princess Palatine Elisabeth: champion of religious liberty." Leben: A Journal of Reformation Life, Volume 1, issue 3.
  4. Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680). Oregon State University, "Philosophers".
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Shapiro, L. (2013). Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2013/entries/elisabeth-bohemia/
  6. 6.0 6.1 Godfrey, (1909). A Sister of Prince Rupert. New York: John Lane Company MCMIX
  7. Stiftung Westfalen-Initiative. Online Biography of Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatinate. http://www.lwl.org/westfaelische-geschichte/portal/Internet/finde/langDatensatz.php?urlID=1517&url_tabelle=tab_person
  8. Gorst-Williams, Jessica. (1976). Elisabeth the Winter Queen. London: Abelard-Schuman Limited.
  9. Plowden, Allison. (1996). The Stewart Princesses. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited.
  10. Nye, A. (1999). The Princess and the Philosopher: Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to Rene Descartes. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Shapiro, L. (2008). Princess Elizabeth and Descartes: The union of soul and body and the practice of philosophy. British Journal for the History of Psychology, 7(3), 503-520.

Further look at the lineage of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia

Further reading

Regnal titles
Preceded by
Elizabeth II
Princess-Abbess of Herford
Succeeded by
Elizabeth IV