You know there’s trouble ahead when the in-laws hate each other long before the betrothal even takes place.
Eleanore Desmier d'Olbreuse
Sophia Dorothea of Celle was a love child, the daughter of George William, the Duke of Brunswick Lüneburg, who ruled the postage-stamp-sized Celle portion of the duchy, and his mistress Eleanore Desmier d’Olbreuse, an exiled French Protestant aristocrat.
George William had been all set to inherit the far more prestigious duchy of Hanover, but it came with strings attached: he had to marry the mannish-looking bluestocking his father had selected for him, Princess Sophia, daughter of the Palatine King of Bohemia.Here's Sophia as a young woman, in 1644. She certainly doesn't look "mannish" to me! Then again, her sister painted the portrait. I'm guessing she didn't age well.
Evidently Sophia was so repugnant to George William that he ceded part of his inheritance, offering his Hanoverian claim to his younger brother, Ernst Augustus, if he would take the homely Sophia off his hands. The ambitious Ernst Augustus agreed, as long as George William promised never to marry and sire heirs, because they would end up rivaling their own first cousins for the Hanoverian throne.
Ernst Augustus, George's father
There was only one major problem with this fraternal bride swap: Sophia had been in love with George William and didn’t much appreciate his foisting her on his kid brother.
Seven years later, in 1665, George William fell head over heels for the dark bouncing curls, enchanting smile, and sparkling eyes of Eleanore d’Olbreuse. He had to have her, but there was that pesky promise to his brother. He got around it by arranging a sort of unofficial morganatic marriage to Eleanore, meaning that she derived no title, nor would their offspring have any claims to their father’s property.
But when Sophia Dorothea was born out of formal wedlock in 1666, Eleanore worried about the difficulties of securing a husband for a bastard daughter and began campaigning for the girl’s legitimization and for a proper marriage to George William. The process took years. By 1676, because Ernst Augustus and Duchess Sophia already had plenty of sons as potential successors to the duchy of Hanover, they no longer perceived the daughter of George William and Eleanore as a threat. Their original objections to the marriage mooted, little Sophia Dorothea was legitimatized, and her parents were legally wed.
Sophia Dorothea grew up to resemble Snow White, with thick dark hair, doelike eyes, an ivory complexion, and tiny hands and feet. With her stunning figure, she was grace personified. Flirtatious and vivacious, she excelled in all the womanly arts and talents of music, dance, singing, and needlework. To most suitors for her hand, her birthright mattered little. Besides, she had been declared retroactively legitimate.
Although Duchess Sophia despised her sister-in-law Eleanore, she recognized that the best way to get control of Celle was to keep it in the family. So she saddled up her horse and rode over to visit her in-laws, proposing that they wed Sophia Dorothea to her eldest son, George Ludwig, six years the girl’s senior.
George Ludwig (1660-1727), later Elector of Hanover and George I of England
George Ludwig had already distinguished himself as a soldier. His two talents revolved around killing things, as his greatest extracurricular passion was hunting, if you don’t count his ardor for his invariably hideous mistresses. His union with Sophia Dorothea would certainly not be the love match her parents enjoyed. It was closer to Beauty and the Beast, minus the transformation and the happy ending. Nicknamed “the pig snout,” George Ludwig lacked looks, culture, intellect, and regal bearing. Where Sophia Dorothea was lively, charming, and musical, George Ludwig was slow and sullen with a chilly disposition that masked a vindictive core.
Even his mother didn’t like him. As she cheerfully looked forward to receiving the annual installments of Sophia Dorothea’s substantial dowry, the Duchess Sophia wrote to one of her other nieces:
One hundred thousand thalers a year is a goodly sum to pocket . . . without speaking of a pretty wife, who will find a match in my son George Ludwig, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, and who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them. He does not care much for the match itself, but one hundred thousand thalers a year have tempted him as they would have tempted anybody else.
When young Sophia Dorothea learned she would have to wed her twenty-two-year-old first cousin, she rebelled, declaring “I will not marry the pig snout!” as she hurled his miniature portrait, encrusted with diamonds, across the room. But it was a fait accompli; the Hanovers were waiting downstairs. Sophia Dorothea’s father was adamant about the match and Eleanore was powerless to stop him, even as she anticipated clashes between Sophia Dorothea and the mother-in-law from hell. When the sixteen-year-old sacrificial bride-to-be was escorted down to meet Duchess Sophia and kiss her jeweled hand, she fainted. She had the same reaction a few days later when she was presented to her betrothed.
George Ludwig was just as insulted by the match. In his eyes, his luscious cousin’s looks were nothing compared to her initial bastardy.
Nonetheless, the young couple’s wishes were ignored in favor of dynastic and political goals. So on November 22, 1682, each looking like a prisoner en route to the scaffold, the pale and trembling Sophia Dorothea was wed to the chilly and distant George Ludwig in the chapel of Celle Castle. The bride’s mother sobbed loudly during the entire ceremony. The groom’s mother, having sacrificed her ego to politics, looked grim. Only the fathers were smiling at the thought of the sizeable double duchy that would be created by the uniting of their adjoining realms.
The newlyweds formally resided at the Leine Palace in Hanover. Sophia Dorothea was immediately made miserable not only by her husband’s remoteness but also by her mother-in-law’s perpetual scolding regarding her ignorance of court etiquette. Luckily for Sophia Dorothea, George Ludwig became literally distant when he embarked on various military campaigns for significant stretches of time. But he kept au courant with his wife’s activities through the reports of spies he had placed among her servants, who chronicled everything she did or said, particularly when she turned her wit on him, shredding his personality in public.
Sophia Dorothea of Celle
In between arguments, they did manage to have two children. In 1683, after Sophia Dorothea gave birth to a son and heir, George Augustus, things became more cordial. Sophia Dorothea endeavored to ingratiate herself with her in-laws and George Ludwig promised to swear off adultery. His paramour was Sophia Charlotte von Kielmannsegg, the married daughter of his father’s mistress, the blowsy Countess Platen. Although the countess had numerous lovers, it was widely assumed by all but the related parties that the woman Platen had placed in the prince’s bed was her daughter by Duke Ernst Augustus, making the happy couple half siblings.
In 1685, Sophia Dorothea took off on an Italian holiday with her father-in-law. While she was away, George found a new lover among his mother’s maids of honor—Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg—as freakishly tall and anorexically thin as Frau von Kielmannsegg was short and portly.
When the princess returned from her vacation to find that her husband had taken up with a second hideous mistress, she was livid; but the royal couple must have kissed and made up just long enough for Sophia Dorothea to become pregnant again. Their daughter—also named Sophia Dorothea—was born on March 16, 1687. But during the particularly acrimonious celebration of the little girl’s birth, after George nearly strangled his wife in public, the battling Hanovers wanted nothing more to do with each other.
Sophia was indeed far from the perfect wife. As heedless and selfish as she was lovely, in 1689 she commenced a torrid epistolary affair with a tall, handsome, and rakish Swedish mercenary in her father-in-law’s army. By the time he fell shako over spurs for the princess, Count Philipp Christoph von Königsmark had left his curly black wig and shiny boots on the floor of many a European lady’s boudoir. Sophisticated and cultured, and as flirtatious as his inamorata, he enjoyed literature and dancing and all the refined and elegant trappings of polite and elegant society. His previous paramours even included the scheming and jealous Countess Platen, Ernst August’s mistress. However, his liaison with the Hanoverian hereditary princess, his soul mate and fellow sensualist, was True Love, and by 1690 he had dropped the countess like a contaminated object and become Sophia Dorothea’s paramour in every way. Their romance was filled with clandestine trysts, coded correspondence, secret signals, and a trusted confidante to act as a go-between.Philipp Christoph von Königsmark
The couple spent as much time in each other’s arms as possible and exchanged lurid love letters. The count wrote to his beloved, “I embrace your knees” and expressed a longing to “kiss that little place which has given me so much pleasure.” But around 1692 the latter letter, and many others, found its way into the hands of Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, most probably through the machinations of the spurned Countess Platen.
Countess Platen convinced Ernst Augustus to exile the count, but no sooner was he banished than the handsome Swedish mercenary got himself a new post with the Elector of Saxony. However, at an officers’ party one night in Dresden, von Königsmark became a bit too voluble under the influence and dished the dirt on the Hanoverian royal family. Naturally, the trash talking got back to his former employer.
The one most injured by von Königsmark’s mockery around the punch bowl was the tall and skeletal Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg. She ran to her lover, tearfully complaining that his wife’s banished paramour had mortally insulted her. George Ludwig confronted Sophia Dorothea, who promptly let him have it, insisting that the real sex scandal was his affair with Melusine! A pitched battle ensued between the royal spouses and George Ludwig tried to choke his wife to death. Shoving her to the floor, he vowed never to see her again. Unlike his earlier promise to quit committing adultery, this pledge he kept.
With nothing left of her marriage, Sophia Dorothea and von Königsmark scheduled an elopement. Arriving at the Leine Palace, von Königsmark made straight for his lover’s boudoir; after enjoying a passionate reunion, the count planned to come back for her the following day.
But Countess Platen discovered the plan and reported it to Ernst Augustus, who had his guards waylay von Königsmark as he left Sophia Dorothea’s bedroom. The stories about the count’s subsequent murder are as colorful as they are varied. What is certain is that he was ambushed—either on the open road or in the Leine Palace—and that he fought back valiantly, wounding one of his assailants. The count was slain; his body disappeared entirely. Most historians believe it was buried right under the bloodstained floorboards of the corridor where he may have been summarily dispatched, his corpse covered in quicklime to eradicate the stench of decay and hasten decomposition. Meanwhile, a hysterical Sophia Dorothea was detained in her rooms, under house arrest.
George Ludwig had ignored his wife’s infidelity for years because von Königsmark was such a crack soldier and one of the best swordsmen in Europe. But enough was enough. A kangaroo court found Sophia Dorothea guilty of “malicious desertion”—a far greater crime than adultery, since desertion would create problems with the collection of her annual dowry installments. And on December 28, 1694, her marriage to George Ludwig was legally dissolved—a relief to the princess, who was now officially rid of a husband she found revolting. “We still adhere to our oft-repeated resolution never to cohabit matrimonially with our husband, and that we desire nothing so much as that separation of marriage requested by our husband may take place,” she had averred during the divorce proceedings.
All traces of Sophia Dorothea’s existence in Hanover were expunged, although her former in-laws happily continued to pocket her annual dowry installments. On February 28, 1695, Sophia Dorothea was “banished” to a lovely moated country home in Ahlden, where, after the first, exceptionally restrictive year of her incarceration, she lived out the rest of her days in what most of us would consider luxury, attended by a modest retinue. She was given the new title duchess, or princess, of Ahlden. Although her children were taken away and raised by their paternal grandmother, Sophia Dorothea would not have been the recipient of any mother-of-the-year trophies, so this sacrifice was probably for the best.
Meanwhile, George Ludwig continued to enjoy the charms of his two lovers. By then, Melusine—acknowledged since 1691 as his maîtresse en titre—gave him two daughters, who were immediately reborn as the prince’s “nieces.” She would bear a third daughter in 1701.
George Ludwig became the Elector of Hanover on the death of his father in 1698. He promptly dismissed Countess Platen from court. On her deathbed she confessed to her complicity in the murder of Count Philipp Christoph von Königsmark, and the details of his brutal, bloody demise came to light, exonerating George Ludwig, who in any case had always been assumed to have been ignorant of the plot. Nonetheless, his wife’s adulterous affair and the strange case of von Königsmark’s disappearance, as well as Sophia Dorothea’s subsequent imprisonment, had been the talk of European courts for years.
Yet even as she remained under lock and key, Sophia Dorothea’s existence remained a problem. George Ludwig was actively campaigning to be placed on the short list for succession to the English throne. According to the 1701 Act of Succession, all future rulers of England had to be Protestants descended from the Stuart line. George Ludwig’s accession was a long shot at the time because Queen Anne, who ascended the throne in 1702, seemed exceptionally fertile. Anne ultimately endured seventeen pregnancies but none of her children survived into adulthood. George Ludwig’s mother, the Dowager Electress Sophia, was a granddaughter of the Stuart king James I, and a Protestant to boot, so her claim—as well as George Ludwig’s if his mother predeceased him—were genuine.
However, his divorce from Sophia Dorothea was both a political and a religious embarrassment, especially in England. She could very well manage to attack George Ludwig’s character, adding fuel to the cause of the Jacobites, who wanted to see the Catholic descendants of James II and his second wife, Mary of Modena, on the British throne.
But on April 12, 1714, the House of Lords resolved that a request be sent to Queen Anne to issue a proclamation offering a reward to anyone who apprehended and brought to justice the Jacobite “Pretender” James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II and Mary of Modena. Anne signed the proclamation on June 21, paving the way for a Protestant successor—which meant that George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, was next in line for the throne; his mother had died just weeks earlier, on June 8.
Less than two months after the issuance of the proclamation, on August 1, 1714, Queen Anne died.
If Sophia Dorothea had remained married to George Ludwig, she would have been Queen of England. Some historians believe that her divorce papers might not have been ironclad; this would explain why, after George Ludwig’s accession as George I of England, she was watched even more closely for fear that she might escape Ahlden and demand to share his throne. Their daughter, Sophia Dorothea the younger, had become Queen of Prussia, but her own husband was such a tyrant that he forbade her to help her mother in any way.
On November 13, 1726, lonely and all but forgotten, Sophia Dorothea died at the age of sixty; some historians cite the cause of death as a stroke or heart attack, while others claim she suffered a fever. She had been a prisoner for thirty-one years.
Evidently, as she lay dying in agony, Sophia Dorothea scrawled a letter to her ex-husband, cursing him from the grave. On her death the court of Hanover went into mourning, but George sent word from London that no one was to wear black. Sophia Dorothea had inherited her mother’s property in 1722 upon Eleanore’s death and willed it to her children, but George destroyed the will and appropriated her property for himself. Then he ordered all her personal effects at Ahlden to be burned. He insisted on her ignominious burial at Ahlden, but the ground was too waterlogged, so her coffin sat around in a dreary chamber for two months until his superstitious mistress Melusine claimed to see Sophia Dorothea’s unfettered spirit flying about in the guise of a bird.
In May 1727, Sophia Dorothea was finally interred within the family crypt in the Old Church at Celle, where visitors honoring her martyrdom to true love still place flowers on her unprepossessing lead coffin.
That June, the sixty-seven-year-old monarch embarked on his fifth excursion to Hanover since the beginning of his reign as King of England. On June 20, his little entourage stopped en route in Delden, Holland, at the home of a friend, Count de Twillet, where George enjoyed an enormous supper, overindulging in a dessert of oranges and strawberries. Despite a dreadful bellyache the following day, the king was eager to get back on the road. When he reached Ibbenburen, he suffered an attack of apoplexy.
He managed to reach his birthplace of Osnabrück, dying there in the early hours of the morning on June 22, 1727, and was buried near his mother’s monument at the Leineschloss Church in Hanover.
Some believe the catalyst for George’s sudden fatal illness was not a surfeit of fruit but an incident that occurred on June 19, 1727, when he received a mail delivery as he traveled to Hanover. It was his wife’s ghostly epistle. George suddenly remembered that decades earlier a fortune-teller had prophesied that if he were in any way responsible for his wife’s death he would die within a year of her demise.
George and Sophia Dorothea’s son succeeded his father on the British throne, ruling as George II. He ordered Hanover’s records unsealed and discovered 1,399 pages of love letters—only a fraction of those exchanged—between his mother and Count von Königsmark. His idyll was shattered: his mother was no saint and had indeed been an adulteress. But George also recognized that his father had behaved dreadfully to her. Had Sophia Dorothea lived, George II would have liberated her from Ahlden and installed her as the Dowager Queen of England.
In any event, the lesson was not fully learned. George II took mistresses as well, although for a while he did his best to be discreet about it—which, in his view at least, was his way of respecting the feelings of his purportedly beloved wife, Caroline of Anspach.
What marriages made in hell (royal or otherwise) have sparked your imagination? What are some of your favorites, and why?