The Almost Queen: Sophia of the Palatinate

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And so we turn now to one of my faves, Sophia of the Palatinate, a woman who, had she lived only a few weeks longer, would have succeeded Queen Anne on the throne. It is because of her that the House of Hanover was founded and she’s the line’s true matriarch, making her a direct ancestor to the current queen and the rest of today’s Royal Family.

Of her birth, Sophia once wrote:

“I was born, they tell me, October 14, 1630, and being the twelfth child of my the King my father and of the Queen my mother, I can well believe my birth caused them but little satisfaction. They were even puzzled to find a name and godparents for me, as all the kings and princes of consideration had already performed this office for the children that came before me.”

Sophia’s father was Frederick V, the short-lived King of Bohemia who was given the moniker the “Winter King” for his brief reign from 1619 to 1620. In 1613 he married Elizabeth Stuart, the only daughter of James I and Anna of Denmark, thus linking his house with that of England and Scotland. Elizabeth, born in 1596 in Scotland, traveled with her parents to London in 1603 when her father succeeded Elizabeth I, thus founding the House of Stuart. A granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots and descendant of Henry VII, she also boasted Tudor and Plantagenet blood, making her about as British as they come, plus a dash of the Danes.

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Frederick V

Her 1613 wedding was a lavish affair in London and the marriage resulted in 13 children, the 12th of which was, yes, Sophia. By birth order alone, there was no reason for Sophia to have become important and it’s worth noting that she reached fame not by marriage, but by her own lineage. Hanover accessed Britain through Sophia and not the other way around.

By the time Sophia was born in 1630, Frederick and Elizabeth had lost Bohemia and were living as exiles at The Hague in Holland. A final child, Gustavus Adolphus, was  born in January 1632, however just 10 months later Frederick gave in to a long-term illness and passed away. At the time, Elizabeth’s younger brother, Charles I, sat on the English throne and he invited his grieving sister to return to England with her children, but she declined. Instead, she dedicated herself to the inheritance of her eldest son, Charles Louis, in the hopes he would reclaim the family’s hold of the Palatinate.

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Elizabeth Stuart in 1613

Sophia was raised and educated away from her mother in a royal nursery that oversaw the day-to-day care of the children. Later on, Sophia would complain that her mother cared more for her animals than her children, though in reality Elizabeth might have simply cared more for the state of European diplomacy given her preoccupation with Charles Louis’s inheritance. Regardless, she wasn’t an attentive mother and with 13 to keep track of, what attention she did devote had to be spread between many.

Perhaps she should have taken more care, because many of her children went on to make rather curious life choices, none of which were the norm and all of which helped bring about a scenario in which her 12th child became her successor despite a plethora of boys. Thanks to early deaths, Catholic conversions, convent-led lives and a slew never marrying, the oft-dismissed Sophia rose in prominence as she grew older. There was little indication of it in her youth given that she was plain, scrawny and pale – indeed even Sophia didn’t think she was long for the world.

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Elizabeth Stuart in 1642

Historian John Van der Kriste reports one anecdote in which a visiting courtier compared her unfavorably to her younger brother, Gustavus Adolphus, who was handsome, blonde and robust, adding as an afterthought that he hoped the girl didn’t speak English. She did – in fact, all of Elizabeth’s children were expected to be fluent in English, German, Dutch, French, Latin and Greek. Ironically, Gustavus Adolphus died before his 10th birthday in 1642, while Sophia lived well into her 80s.

By her own admission, Sophia wasn’t particularly interested in school, but she was also notably intelligent and breezed through her lessons with flying colors. When her family decided to stage a play and deemed her too young to participate, she memorized the entire play and had a professional actress coach her for the specific role she wanted just to prove them wrong.

As she grew older, she and her sisters moved from the nursery to their mother’s household to learn the next phase of their education – courtly skills, diplomacy and all the social graces that would arm them for lives as royal consorts.

In 1649, Charles I was executed following the English Civil War, a personal and political blow to Elizabeth and her children. Her sister-in-law, Henrietta Maria of France, ended up at the court of her nephew, Louis XIV, while the new nominal king, Charles II, drifted in exile between England and Holland. Elizabeth considered him a worthy match for her youngest daughter, despite his situation, firmly believing that the Stuarts would return to power. While Charles and Sophia met, Charles wasn’t a particularly graceful husband-to-be, complimenting Sophia by telling her she was prettier than his mistress. The match came to nothing.

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Charles Louis, Sophia’s eldest brother

Soon after that she moved to Heidelberg where her brother, Charles Louis, had finally been restored as the Elector in 1648. The decision didn’t pay off – Charles Louis was in the middle of an unhappy marriage and in love with his mistress. When he tried to divorce his wife, she retaliated by spreading rumors of incest between him and Sophia. With that, Sophia decided it was time to marry.

She chose, in 1658, Ernest Augustus of Brunswick-Lüneburg, the 29-year-old younger brother of the Duke. Notably, Sophia was 28 when she married, significantly older than the norm for princesses of her background. The match came about during negotiations between Sophia and the Duke himself, George William. However after a preliminary agreement was reached, George William became attached to a French and Italian mistress and extricated himself from the engagement. That relationship would result in one child, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, who would later become Sophia’s daughter-in-law.

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Sophia as painted by her elder sister, Louise

To save face, a new agreement was reached in which Sophia would marry Ernest Augustus on the grounds that George William wouldn’t marry and thus beget legitimate heirs, designating his younger brother as his heir. The wedding took place in September 1658 in Heidelberg, with Charles Louis giving his sister away.

Though neither was in love with the other, Ernest Augustus and Sophia got along well enough and proved to be good partners personally and professionally. Sophia was the more intelligent of the two, and the more intellectually inclined, though Ernest Augustus proved himself an efficient practitioner of governance and safeguarding the family’s interest. Her first child, George Ludwig, was born on May 28, 1660, and he was followed by two younger brothers, Frederick, in 1661, and Maximilian, in 1666. A stillborn son was produced in-between in 1664 and another in 1666 who was Maximilian’s twin.

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Sophia as a young woman

Finally a daughter, Sophia Charlotte, was born in 1668, followed by Karl Philip in 1669, Christian in 1671 and another Ernest Augustus in 1674. The succession was more than secure.

Sophia proved to be a good mother, taking a near-modern approach to child rearing. She disliked being away from them for large swathes of time and insisted on seeing them daily. She carefully moderated their education and took care to mold their personalities to varying degrees of success. One could make the argument that Sophia did so in reaction to her own childhood with the widowed Elizabeth Stuart, but there may be a more compelling case to be made for a woman entering motherhood a fully-grown adult and not a teenager.

In 1676, when her eldest son got his mistress pregnant, she was forced to have a serious conversation with him about the dangers of having bastards littered about the German courts, but he may very well have been following the lead of his father. While Ernest Augustus cared for his wife, he was hopelessly unfaithful, a situation which Sophia bore with as much dignity as she could despite the women often working in her employ.

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Ernest Augustus, Sophia’s husband

Throughout all of this, the Stuarts had been restored to the throne. Charles II was welcomed back to England in 1660 and in 1662 married the Portuguese Katherine of Braganza. The marriage never resulted in children, thus leaving his younger brother, James, Duke of York as his heir, and his two daughters, Mary and Anne Stuart as his own. In 1677, Mary married Prince William of Orange, however as of 1679, Anne was still unwed. The idea was floated of George Ludwig marrying her and so, in December 1680, he made his first trip to London to woo his distant, unseen cousin. Nothing came of it.

Instead, in 1682, he married his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle. The match resulted in two children, George Augustus and another Sophia Dorothea, but the marriage was a disaster. Sophia spent much of the 12-year-relationship mediating between both sides, but there was rampant infidelity and their personalities proved too mismatched. In 1694, the two divorced under scandalous circumstances and Sophia Dorothea was confined to Ahlden Castle where she lived out the rest of her days. George Ludwig never remarried.

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Sophia and her daughter, Sophia Charlotte

In 1684, Sophia arranged the marriage of her beloved and only daughter, Sophia Charlotte, to Frederick William of Brandenburg. Sophia Charlotte was the apple of her mother’s eye and the only one her children to reach a comparable level of intelligence or intellectual curiosity. Luckily, the marriage proved fortuitous in a dynastic sense – her husband’s territory was elevated to a kingdom in 1701 and she became the first queen of Prussia. Frederick William was reportedly so in love with her that while he kept an official mistress installed for appearance’s sake (God help us all), he never actually slept with her. Unfortunately for him, he was not interesting enough to garner his wife’s affections and she merely tolerated him. Her only surviving child, Frederick William, would go on to marry her niece and George Ludwig’s daughter, Sophia Dorothea.

Meanwhile, Hanover’s association with Britain was going more serious. In 1683, Ernest Augustus implemented primogeniture, designating George Ludwig as his sole heir instead of splitting up his land between his sons. Sophia’s younger children were livid and she sided with them, feeling it wasn’t fair to have brought them up expecting an inheritance they would no longer receive.

Two years later, Charles II died and was succeeded by the new James II. His reign proved short-lived due to his Catholicism and his second wife, Mary Beatrice of Modena, finally producing a healthy son. The Glorious Revolution swept through in 1688, forcing James’s exile to France and the entrée of his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William, as the new monarchs. Their marriage, too, proved childless and throughout their reign (and William’s solo reign from 1694 until 1702), Anne Stuart was their designated heir.

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George Ludwig, Sophia’s eldest son, in 1680

However, though Anne had eventually married Prince George of Denmark, she had rampant fertility issues. Eighteen pregnancies left her in horrible health by the time she reached middle age she essentially handicapped. Her one living son, Prince William, passed away in 1700, thus blowing the Stuart succession wide open.

Meanwhile, back in Hanover, Sophia lost two of her sons in 1690 when Frederick and Karl Philip both died in battle. She would lose a third son, Christian, the same way in 1703. Her husband, however, was raised to the status of Elector by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1692 after participating in the Great Turkish War. He enjoyed the elevation for six years before dying at the family home of Herrenhausen on January 23, 1698.

Sophia spent her widowhood quietly on the face of it, but behind the scenes she maintained a close eye on her family members and the situation in Britain. She was replaced as the electorate’s first lady by her husband’s long-term mistress and the mother of three of her illegitimate grandchildren – while she disliked the woman personally, she didn’t fight the issue. Instead, she leaped into action when Princess Anne’s son died in 1700, meeting with William III in Holland not long after to discuss the possibility of her and her family becoming the designated heirs of the Stuart line.

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Herrenhausen

Thanks to the deaths and religious lives of Sophia’s older siblings, by the dawn of the 18th century, she was next in line after her long-deceased mother. However, while William was a fan of Sophia’s, Anne was by far less supportive. Sophia even offered to move to England, thus putting roots down and allowing the public to know her, but Anne nixed the idea. William’s popularity was damaged by his foreignness and Anne believed that underlining that a German would follow her on the throne would do nothing for the political situation. Even so, it was with the British queen in mind that Sophia insisted that her eldest great-granddaughter (born to George Augustus and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach) be christened Anne in her honor. Queen Anne, frankly, didn’t care and Sophia found the jeweled gift that she sent to be of insufficient quality.

Closer to home, she had been instrumental in securing Caroline for her grandson in 1705. Caroline had spent her formative years at the Prussian court in attendance on her daughter, Sophia Charlotte. When the latter passed away in 1705, she quickly arranged for the intelligent and charming young princess to be engaged to George Augustus, a marriage that worked out much better for Hanover (and later Britain) than that of George Ludwig and Sophia Dorothea.

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Sophia in old age

It was with Caroline that Sophia was walking in the summer of 1714 when she fell ill after her customary late afternoon turn in the garden. She collapsed – reportedly after reading a snarky letter from Queen Anne – and took to her chambers. She passed away on June 9 at Herrenhausen, less than two months before Anne. As such, the British throne passed to George Ludwig, who ascended as King George I, moved the Hanoverian first family to London and thus established a line that has continued uninterrupted (despite two name changes) until today.

Sophia is buried at Leine Castle in Hanover.

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