The Extraordinary Case of George I’s Wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle

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The story of George I’s marriage to Sophia Dorothea of Celle sounds like the plot of fiction, or at the very least, as though it’s from another time. It’s a strange, barbaric tale, one which gave Great Britain its second ever divorced monarch. Unlike Henry VIII, George I never remarried, but he did found the House of Hanover. Sophia Dorothea would never be crowned queen, but her son would become George II and she is a direct ancestor of every British monarch since.

Sophia Dorothea was born in Celle, Germany on September 15, 1666 to George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and his mistress, a Frenchwoman, Éléonore Marie Desmier d’Olbreuse. Éléonore met George William in 1664 and the Duke immediately fell in love with her, cementing her German relocation. She was given the title Lady of Harbourg and Sophia Dorothea, born two years later, was their first and only child. George William and Éléonore entered into a morganatic marriage in 1665, but their daughter was purposefully left illegitimate for the immediate future.

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Sophia Dorothea’s mother, Eleanore

George William became duke upon the death of his elder brother, but when faced with the pressure to marry Sophia of Palatine (daughter of Elizabeth Stuart and granddaughter of James I), he balked. Instead, he promised not to marry, thus never providing legitimate heirs and promising the bulk of his inheritance to his younger brothers. In 1658, his youngest brother, Ernest Augustus, married Sophia instead, eventually becoming the Elector of Hanover and father of George I.

As for Sophia Dorothea, little is known of her formative years. She was legitimized at the age of eight in 1674 – safely an only child, there was little worry about the Duke having a daughter – and Éléonore assumed the title Duchess of Wilhelmsburg. The couple finally married properly in 1676. During her early adolescence, there was discussion of marrying Sophia Dorothea to a prince of Denmark and to the neighboring Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, but neither solidified. The latter engagement had more legs than the former, but George William was convinced at the 11th hour that it was a better fit for his daughter to marry her first cousin, George Ludwig of Hanover, the eldest son and heir of Ernest Augustus and Sophia.

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Sophia Dorothea’s father, George William

In the eyes of her future in-laws, there was little to personally recommend Sophia Dorothea based on her parents, but she symbolized an enormous dowry that Hanover needed. One anecdote that has made its way into history books is that love letters were once found in her possession, after which point her parents forced her to sleep in their bedroom. Another is that when told she had to marry her cousin, she threw a diamond-studded miniature of him against a wall and swore that her parents would have to physically drag her to the altar.

That might be fair, for George Ludwig wasn’t an ideal bridegroom. In 1676, when he was 16, he impregnated a governess in his parents’ household, a matter which caused a minor scandal. Otherwise, he was cold, stiff and not wholly pleasant. At one point a match was proposed between him and his cousin, Anne Stuart, daughter of James, Duke of York, heir to the childless Charles II, but nothing came of it. He and Sophia Dorothea were married on November 21, 1682 in Éléonore’s apartments when he was 22 and she was 16. She duly moved to Hanover with the expectation that she would eventually fill the role of Electress of Hanover.

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Sophia of Palatine and her daughter, Sophia Charlotte

Though Sophia thought that her son’s marriage was less than ideal, she started out the marriage attempting to make the girl feel at home. Ernest Augustus found her charming and George Ludwig’s younger brothers all thought her pretty. In theory, she also had a companion in her sister-in-law, Sophia Charlotte, who married the Elector of Brandenburg in October 1684.

As first cousins, George Ludwig and Sophia Dorothea had known each other years and never liked one another – marriage did little to help that. Even so, she delivered a son, George Augustus, on October 30, 1683. The following year, Ernest Augustus announced to his family that he intended to implement primogeniture to the succession of his estate, meaning that George Ludwig stood to inherit everything and his five younger brothers nothing. Needless to say, the news, delivered at Christmas, wasn’t well-received.

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Sophia Dorothea and her two children

In 1686, Sophia Dorothea joined her in-laws for a trip to Venice during carnival, which she enjoyed. It was her first visit abroad and she was a splashing success, particularly with Italian men who admired her beauty and charm. None of it pleased George Ludwig, who continued to find his wife irritating, but she was pregnant with their second child by the time they returned home. A daughter, named Sophia Dorothea for her mother, was born in Hanover in March 1687.

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Ernest Augustus

It was around this time that George Ludwig properly took a mistress, Melusine van der Schulenberg. Sophia Dorothea  discovered the affair while pregnant and didn’t shy away from complaining to her husband that his behavior was unacceptable. At one point she grew so upset that she fell ill and physicians were afraid she would miscarry. Sophia intervened and forced her son to visit his wife’s bedside, where he sat in silence, holding her hand.

Over the next five years, annoyance and indifference gave way to hardened resentment and dislike. Sophia continued to try and mediate, comforting her daughter-in-law that her marriage would eventually make her the queen of Great Britain, but Sophia Dorothea was too wrapped up in her own unhappiness to care. In January 1692, Melusine gave birth to George Ludwig’s bastard, Anna Louise. A second daughter, Petronella Melusine, was born in 1693. As for Sophia Dorothea, there were no further pregnancies or children after her daughter’s birth indicating the couple likely stopped sleeping together.

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George Ludwig in the early 1780s

What follows next is a matter of debate, but the traditional school of thought is that Sophia Dorothea struck up a correspondence with Count Philip Christopher von Konigsmarck, a Swedish colonel in the Hanoverian army, in 1790. To ensure secrecy, twice a year the couple sent their letters to the Count’s sister so that they couldn’t be found, however smatterings of them have fallen into the hands of their various descendents and Sophia Dorothea’s son is believed to have had many destroyed. What survives of the letters indicates that they began a physical relationship in March 1692 shortly after the birth of George Ludwig’s bastard daughter, though it’s unknown whether Sophia Dorothea immediately knew of the child’s existence.

Despite their measures for discretion, the affair soon became common knowledge. Sophia Dorothea’s mother, mother-in-law and sister-in-law all repeatedly warned her to put a stop to it, the first two doing so with some pity, understanding how bad her marriage was. Nevertheless they persisted, with Sophia Dorothea bowing out of family occasions and making frequent visits to Celle where she had more freedom of movement.

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George Ludwig’s mistress, Melusine von Schulenburg

One evening in 1694 Sophia Dorothea went out walking in the gardens with her ladies-in-waiting. They encountered a small, newly-built building on the grounds that they had never seen and Sophia Dorothea insisted on entering. She came face-to-face to her husband and his mistress reclining on a sofa with their infant daughter sleeping in a cradle. A furious row broke out in which George Ludwig physically attacked his wife by trying to strangle her. But if Sophia Dorothea thought she would have her in-laws’ support she was mistaken – she was told kindly but firmly that she should turn a blind eye to her husband’s indiscretions and keep her hands clean.

Unable to reconcile herself to her marriage, Sophia Dorothea began to plan running away with Konigsmarck. All of her dowry and personal fortune was held by her husband thanks to the terms of her marriage contract, so she began petitioning her parents for a private side income. Unfortunately, they were in no financial situation to do so. Waiting for this all to pan out, Sophia Dorothea refused to sleep under the same roof as her husband and begged for her own household. As George Ludwig prepared to make a prolonged trip to visit his sister in Berlin, he agreed there was no saving the marriage and promised to ask his father for a formal separation once he returned.

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Sophia Dorothea’s lover, Konigsmarck

On the night of July 1, 1694,  Konigsmarck was seen entering Sophia Dorothea’s apartments. Legend has it that he had received a note to meet her at an appointed time, however it wasn’t from the Princess but rather from Ernest Augustus’s mistress, the Countess von Platen, who despised Sophia Dorothea. Upon entering the apartments, Konigsmarck told Sophia Dorothea that there was a carriage waiting to take them to Wolfenbuttel, but she asked him to wait 24 hours so that she could say goodbye to her children.

Von Platen and her allies were monitoring their movements from nearby and when they saw Konigsmarck enter, she went to Ernest Augustus and told him she could catch the lovers and put an end to the affair altogether. He agreed and she returned to her post, ordering all the exits from Sophia Dorothea’s apartments locked. When Konigsmarck tried to leave he found himself blocked and figured out what had happened. Von Platen and her comrades entered the apartments and murdered him, however realizing that Ernest Augustus hadn’t authorized his death, she was forced to explain to him what happened in a panic. Realizing he was also implicated, Ernest Augustus ordered that the body be thrown into the palace latrines, covered in quicklime and hidden with a brick wall built overnight. Others believe that the body was weighted and thrown into a river.

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Ernest Augustus’s mistress, the Countess von Platen

Sophia Dorothea, however, didn’t know what happened, apparently not hearing the attack from the other side of her apartments (which would have been comprised of many thick-walled rooms). She was met the next morning and told that she had been ordered to be confined to her apartments. Konigsmarck was simply believed missing – when a formal inquiry was requested, it was eventually dropped and the official party line was that he had clearly disappeared of his own free will. Despite this, foul play was widely suspected.

Meanwhile, Ernest Augustus and her father got to work on the formal separation of George Ludwig and Sophia Dorothea. Without referencing her infidelity, they instead used the reason that she refused to live under the same roof as her husband. She was removed from Hanover to Ahlden, within Celle. If important persons asked after her, the official answer was that she had been apprehended fleeing and had thrown herself at her parents’ mercy.

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Sophia Dorothea

Throughout the divorce proceedings Sophia Dorothea maintained her innocence, which eventually found her guilty and her husband innocent. Her father and father-in-law worked out an agreement which let George Ludwig keep her dowry for their children, deprived her of visitation and kept her strictly confined to Ahlden Castle. She was, however, told none of this. On December 28, the marriage was legally dissolved and she said goodbye to her children, not knowing that she wouldn’t see them again. She moved to Ahlden, believing that she would eventually be allowed to visit her parents or be granted more freedom of movement.

It wasn’t until several weeks or months later that it slowly dawned on her what had happened and she realized she was – quite literally – a prisoner. Her mother visited her as frequently as she could and petitioned for her release, but her father refused to see her. Her husband, though free to remarry as the “innocent” party, never did, but he also forbade their children from seeing her. There are stories of George Augustus trying to break into Ahlden to see his mother, but those might be hyperbolic. What isn’t is that the treatment of Sophia Dorothea deeply soured the children’s opinion of his father – though they had to remain on formal good terms with him, there was little love lost.

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Sophia Dorothea of Hanover, Queen of Prussia

Twenty years after the divorce, George Ludwig inherited the British throne as King George I and moved to England. He was followed by George Augustus and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach. His daughter, the younger Sophia Dorothea, married Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1706 and eventually became queen.

As for Sophia Dorothea herself, she lived under lock and key until her death on November 13, 1726, 32 years after the end of her marriage.

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