Murdered by King George I: Have we really solved the mystery of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck?

It was a scandal that kept the rumour-mill of Europe turning over well into the 18th Century. The story – as brief as we can tell it – is that a dashing Swedish soldier of fortune, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, entered the service of Elector Ernest Augustus of Hanover, and then entered the bedchamber of his daughter-in-law, Sophia Dorothea of Cele. Over the course of their affair – which is documented in over 300 love letters passed between the two – the count tried to help her escape her husband to no avail. Eventually the cuckolded heir discovered their liaison and on 2 July 1694 von Königsmarck vanished, while his lover was divorced and imprisoned in Ahlden House. As good as disappeared herself, she was never seen by her children again. According to legend, von Königsmarck was murdered by palace guards at the order of George Louis and – here the accounts differ – his remains either buried in quicklime beneath the floorboards of Leineschloss, or tossed into the river Leine.

What makes this more than just another squalid chapter in the book of aristocratic excess is down to the vagaries of succession: in 1714 George Louis became George I, King of Great Britain and Ireland, and first of Britain’s Hanoverian dynasty whose descendants include Queen Victoria as well as Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II.

In summer 2016 a skeleton was found during construction work at Leineschloss and is currently being examined by archaeologists in Germany. The DNA of the skeleton will also be tested against living relatives of von Königsmarck. We spoke to Håkan Håkansson, Associate Professor of the History of Ideas and Sciences at Lund University where the love letters are held to get his perspective on this 320-year old murder mystery and discover why we perhaps shouldn’t get all that excited…

A portrait of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck from the museum at Celle Castle
A portrait of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck from the museum at Celle Castle

From a British point of view, Philip Christoph von Königsmarck is a supporting character in ‘our’ royal drama, when he’s actually quite key to events. What do we know about him and what kind of man was he?

Well, most historians have described him as a classic “adventurer” – charming and dashing, but also slightly arrogant and wasteful, spending most of the family fortune on partying.

The veracity of the letters has been questioned in the past, what has changed in our understanding of their background?

For a long time, the love affair was highly controversial, as it suggested that the legitimacy of the Prussian – and, indeed, the British – royal dynasties could be questioned. In reality, however, the love affair occurred years after the birth of Sophia Dorothea’s children – the future George II of England was born in 1683, and her daughter, who became the mother of Frederik the Great of Prussia was born in 1687. But still the affair remained controversial well into the 19th century, not least in Germany. As far as I know, no modern scholar has questioned the veracity of the letters, or the fact that they had an affair.

What can we tell about the relationship between Königsmarck and Sophia Dorothea from the letters?

First of all, the sheer number of letters they exchanged during the three years the affair lasted suggests that they were very much in love – they corresponded at least two times a week, sometimes even more frequently. However, most often they took care not to be too out-spoken in the letters, since there was an obvious risk of being exposed if the letters got in the wrong hands (which was not unusual at royal courts – messengers could be paid or threatened to hand them over). Hence their use of a cypher when they exchanged info of a more “delicate” nature.

One of the love letters at Lund University, written in cipher
One of the love letters at Lund University, written in cipher

It’s been said that Clara Elisabeth von Platen, who was implicated in the count’s death, was also a lover of Königsmarck. Does she feature in the letters at all?

As far as I know, no, and there is some debate about whether she was actually his lover, or if she just wanted to be. She clearly had an important role in exposing the affair, and there was a wide-spread rumour that she did it out of jealousy. But if she too really had an affair with the count, it is impossible to say. But judging from what we know about the count’s personality, I would say it’s impossible.

Is the abusive behaviour that Sophia Dorothea suffered from Georg Ludwig documented in these letters?

No, all of the letters are from the period before she was dismissed and locked away at Ahlden castle. If he really treated her badly before that is uncertain. Most certainly he wasn’t a loving husband by modern standards, but by 17th century standards their marriage was most likely pretty normal.

What was the reaction to Königsmarck’s disappearance? How well-know was the scandal outside of the Hanoverian court?

Hard to say, but it seems to have been quite well-known in noble circles. After all, there are no secrets at a royal court, and gossip travels fast – particularly juicy stories like this.

Human remains have been found before at Leineschloss, what makes this one a contender for Königsmarck?

To be honest, I don’t know. Personally I think the chance that it is really him is microscopic.

Sophie Dorothea of Cele, with her children Georg (later King George II of Great Britain) and Sophie Dorothea (later Queen of Prussia)
Sophie Dorothea of Cele, with her children Georg (later King George II of Great Britain) and Sophie Dorothea (later Queen of Prussia)

Were there any obvious signs of violence?

Don’t know yet, but I suppose the analysis the German archaeologists are working on will show us.

Did the location of the remains line up with any existing stories about the body’s disposal?

The problem is that the stories are so vague about how the supposed murder was performed and how the body was disposed of. If indeed he was murdered at all. All we know for sure is that he vanished and was never heard of again.

If the remains do turn out to be those of Königsmarck, what do you hope to learn from them?

Depends on the condition of the remains, but modern analysis can yield lots of information about an individual’s health condition etc. None of it, however, will say us anything about the love affair or its aftermath, unless it can be tied to how he actually died.

If it’s not Königsmarck, who could the remains belong to?

Royal courts were like small towns, where all kinds of people worked and lived – if it is not the count it could be anybody really. A worker, a soldier, someone from the kitchen staff – the possibilities are endless.

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