Wilhelmina of Prussia was born on 7 August 1751 as the daughter of Prince Augustus William of Prussia and Duchess Luise of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Her brother eventually became King Frederick William II of Prussia. She barely knew her father because he died when she was just seven years old. She was raised mostly by her grandmother, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover and her aunt, Elisabeth Christine. One of her first governesses was abusive and neglected her often, and her family never realised. It must have been a relief when another governess replaced her.
Wilhelmina’s education was limited to religion, geography, history and French. She shared a household with her brothers Henry and Frederick William and Frederick William’s wife and their cousin Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Lüneburg. This setup ended rather suddenly when Henry died, and Elisabeth was disgraced after having an affair.
At the age of 16, Wilhelmina married 19-year-old William V, Prince of Orange. They met for the first time on the day of their wedding. Their first child was born in 1769, but tragically, the baby died at birth. A healthy daughter, Louise, followed in 1770. Wilhelmina again had a stillborn child in 1771. She gave then birth to two healthy sons in 1772 en 1774, William Frederick (William) and William George Frederick (Frederick). She was loyal to her husband, but their characters were mismatched.
By 1785, the country was on the brink of a civil war. The family left and headed towards Nijmegen. Wilhelmina took charge and on 28 June 1787, she took a small following to The Hague to plead William’s case. She was stopped and promptly arrested. She was taken to a farm where she was questioned and then escorted back. She was not allowed to continue her journey to The Hague and was eventually forced to return to Nijmegen. She demanded reparation for her mistreatment, and she was now supported by her brother, the King of Prussia. On 13 September, Prussian troops entered the Republic, and by October the country was back under control.
William and Wilhelmina were finally able to return to The Hague, and the people involved in her arrest were severely punished. However, her perceived harsh reaction made her unpopular, even with those in favour of their cause. However, more trouble was soon to come. In 1789, the French Revolution began, and by 1793, the French King and Queen had been guillotined and Wilhelmina’s cousin the King of Sweden had also been murdered. Wilhelmina began receiving death threats. In 1793, the French Revolutionary government declared war on William and the Dutch Republic was invaded by the French in the winter of 1794. Wilhelmina and her family were forced to flee to England on 18 January 1795.
Their shared exile was to last almost 20 years. Part of this time, they lived at Hampton Court Palace on an allowance from William’s cousin, King George III of Great Britain. Their eldest son left for Berlin while their second Frederick died in 1799 while in Austrian military service. Their daughter Louise married Hereditary Prince Charles George August of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel on 14 October 1790 and was now living in Brunswick. In 1801, her husband left to live in one of their properties in Germany, and she followed him there in 1802. Wilhelmina’s husband died on 9 April 1806. Wilhelmina went to live with her daughter Louise, who had also recently been widowed. The Napoleonic German expansion forced them to flee, and Louise and Wilhelmina went to Schwerin and Schleswig, where they spent the winter. They travelled on to Weimar and then to Berlin, arriving in late 1807.
The fall of Napoleon changed everything. Her eldest son William was welcomed back home as the Netherlands’ first sovereign. He returned to the Netherlands in November 1813. Wilhelmina and Louise followed him in early 1814. On 16 March 1815, William was proclaimed King William I of the Netherlands. Wilhelmina died on 9 June 1820, a year after her daughter Louise. She was interred in the crypt in Delft on 7 November 1822.