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Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine


Elisabeth of Bohemia, Princess Palatine

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

Elisabeth of the Palatinate (26 December 1618 – 11 February 1680), also known as Elisabeth of Bohemia, was the eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, who was briefly King of Bohemia, and Elizabeth Stuart. Elisabeth ruled the Herford Abbey as Princess-Abbess[1] and is well known for having established a philosophical correspondence with René Descartes that lasted for seven years until his death in 1650.


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. In her ninth or tenth year she was sent with her siblings to complete her education in Leiden, Netherlands, 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, 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, King of Poland, but she, committed to the Protestant cause, reportedly refused to marry a Catholic king.

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, 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, 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 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.


"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.



Further reading

  • The Complete Correspondence of Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes
  • The Descartes-Elisabeth correspondence in an easier-to-read version

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Godfrey, Elizabeth. A Sister of Prince Rupert, Elizabeth Princess Palatine and Abbess of Herford. London, New York: J. Lane.
  • "Other Women's Voices"
  • The Woman Who Took on Descartes
  • "Princess Elisabeth Palatine"
  • Online-Biography of Elisabeth of Boehmia, Princess Palatine (in German)
  • public domain: 
  • The Princess's correspondence with Descartes, lightly edited for easier reading.
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Elizabeth II
Princess-Abbess of Herford
Succeeded by
Elizabeth IV
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