In the 18th century, arranged marriages between royal families were just a matter of course. Some ended happily, some didn’t go so well and one in particular led to throttling, murder and a wife sent to prison for three decades.
When the future George I of Great Britain married his cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, in 1682, it was not a matter of love but duty. Territory, influence and the future of the House of Hanover rested on the shoulders of the bride and groom and romance had nothing to do with it. The year after their marriage the newlyweds welcomed their first child, George Augustus, and in 1687, a daughter, named Sophia Dorothea, joined the family. Both were destined for great things, with the youngsters eventually rising to the dizzy heights of George II and Queen in Prussia respectively.
With the arrival of their son, George considered his duty as a husband finished and trotted off to enjoy the company of his royal mistresses. Alienated, humiliated, and increasingly isolated in the court of her husband, one can hardly imagine how utterly alone Sophia Dorothea must have felt. As George gallivanted with his lovers, it was only a matter of time before the wife he had set aside sought comfort elsewhere and when she did, the consequences would be devastating.
The seeds of tragedy arrived in Hanover in 1688 in the shape of a handsome and wealthy Swedish adventurer, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Königsmarck and Sophia Dorothea had met in childhood and the count was just the sort of chap to comfort a lonely noblewoman. Königsmarck seemed impossibly experienced and exciting to the young woman and when the couple danced together at a masked ball, their friendship was more than rekindled.
At first the electoral princess and the count tried to ignore the chemistry that sizzled between them and Königsmarck certainly had no shortage of other admirers. One of them was the manipulative and experience Clara, Countess von Platen, an ambitious woman who had long been the lover of George’s father. She seduced Königsmarck with ease and soon became his shadow, watching jealously lest he be tempted by another woman. When the opportunity to join an expedition that would take him away from Hanover arose, Königsmarck grabbed it with both hands, happy to escape his cloying mistress.
It was during this absence that Königsmarck and Sophia Dorothea realised that their feelings ran far deeper than friendship. The adventurer who pined for Sophia Dorothea whilst she, unloved by her husband, thought of him and him alone. The letters between the two grew increasingly heated, passionate and incriminating until, on his return, they succumbed to their desires.
The couple communicated through notes delivered via intermediaries and a complex language of secret signals. Yet if Sophia Dorothea and Königsmarck thought they were invisible, they were to be fatally mistaken. Little that happened at court escaped the attention of Clara and, seeing herself so throughly usurped by the younger woman, she was overcome by jealous fury.
Things were no happier between George and Sophia Dorothea and the court was shocked when a public argument between the couple turned violent, with George attempting to throttle his wife. With the bruises on her throat not yet faded, Sophia Dorothea knew that the time had come to flee Hanover forever, with her lover by her side.
Over a series of secret meetings Sophia Dorothea and Count von Königsmarck plotted their flight to freedom and, they hoped, their happily ever after. Yet after sharing one final goodnight with Sophia Dorothea in July 1694 Königsmarck disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again.
The fate of the adventuring count remains a mystery. Some whispered that George or his family had seen to it that the man was murdered, or that loyal and helpful courtiers had been the culprits, yet no likely suspects were identified. Still more looked to the manipulative and powerful Clara, seeing in the disappearance the bitter revenge of an ambitious woman scorned. Jealous, rejected and filled with fury, did Clara really conspire to commit murder or was she simply another victim of the royal court’s gossip-hungry excitement? It’s a mystery that remains unsolved yet for Sophia Dorothea, it marked the end of her days as a royal consort.
Grieving for the man she loved, the young woman was imprisoned in her chambers. Her fate was placed in the hands of her father, husband and father-in-law and their decision was swiftly made and mercilessly executed.
In December 1694 the marriage of George and Sophia Dorothea was dissolved on the grounds that she had abandoned her husband. That done, she was spirited away to captivity at Ahlden House in Celle. Not yet thirty years old, it was the last home she would ever know.
In Ahlden House, Sophia Dorothea remained a genteel prisoner to the end of her lonely days more than 30 years later. Discussion of the marriage was forbidden at court and George expressly forbade his children from speaking about their mother, a decision that was a major factor in the collapse of his relationship with his son, George II. Although Sophia Dorothea was visited by her mother, whose heart was broken by her daughter’s lonely fate, her father never saw her again. When his health failed he expressed a forlorn hope that he might perhaps meet her one last time to set right their estrangement, but that day never came.
Her son, too, missed the woman who was spirited away and written out of court history. Apocryphal stories exist of young George II desperately swimming the moat at Ahlden to see her and he never forgive his father for keeping him from the woman he adored. It was the first of many building blocks in the unhappy history of the kings from Hanover.
Catherine Curzon’s new book Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).