Sophia Dorothea of Celle should have been Queen of Great Britain but her divorce from the future King George I put any stop to that.
Sophia Dorothea of Celle was born on 15 September 1666 as the daughter of George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and his mistress, Eleonore d’Esmier d’Olbreuse. Her parents officially married in 1676.
On 22 November 1682, she married her cousin, George, Electoral Prince of Hanover, after reportedly shouting, “I will not marry the pig snout!” The marriage was off to a bad start, and they were particularly unhappy. Sophia Dorothea was despised by her family-in-law, and the only reason they married was for financial reasons. Her mother-in-law wrote, “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 Louis, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, 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.”
Despite their problems, the couple had two children, George Augustus (born 1683) and Sophia Dorothea (born 1686). George took up with a mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg and neglected his wife. Sophia Dorothea responded by taking a lover of her own, Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. George ended up physically attacking his wife over her affair and was eventually pulled off by her attendants. Von Königsmarck disappeared in 1694 and was presumably murdered or killed. Sophia Dorothea was immediately informed that she was to stay in her rooms. She probably released that the affair had been discovered and that something horrible had happened. However, as she remained under house arrest, the evidence against her was being gathered.
She was eventually questioned and informed that Christoph von Königsmarck was dead. She became overwhelmed with grief and screamed that he must have been murdered. Her father-in-law had her put on suicide watch that night. Her husband offered her one last chance. She would have to swear fidelity to him and resume her wifely duties in the court and in the bedroom. Sophia Dorothea refused his offer and asked to be sent home to her parents. This was never going to happen, and her father-in-law decided to send her to the castle of Ahlden and made it seem like the decision had been made by Sophia Dorothea herself.
On 17 July 1694, Sophia Dorothea departed for Ahlden, though she probably did not realise that she would spend the rest of her life there.
As divorce proceedings began, Sophia Dorothea was given another chance to return to her husband. Once again, she refused. She was then brought to Lauenau to appear before the divorce court, where she stated that she could and would not “ever again live in conjugal relations with our Consort.”1 If she believed she would ever be able to see her children again or perhaps even be allowed to remarry, she would be in for a shock. On 28 December 1694, the divorce proceedings were finalised. Sophia Dorothea was considered the guilty party.
Two months later, Sophia Dorothea returned to the Castle of Ahlden, where she became known as the Duchess of Ahlden. While there, she was under the watchful eye of the Seigneur de la Fortière. He read all her incoming and outgoing mail and walked with her on the grounds. Even her – considerable – staff were told to keep an eye on her., For some sense of normality, she was given the right to administer the territory of Ahlden, and due to her charitable nature, she became quite popular in the area. She tried to keep up appearances by dressing according to her status, even if no one was around to see the glittering jewels.
She remained desperate for her freedom and tried to stick to every rule in order to be on her father-in-law’s good side. Even when the castle caught on fire, she remained until she had written approval to leave. Although she was allowed some visitors, mostly local dignitaries, visits from her family were strictly off-limits. Over time, the restrictions began to lessen, and she was allowed to attend the local church. She was eventually allowed to go on carriage rides with a set route. But wherever she went, she was constantly under guard, and there was no escape.
Her father-in-law died on 23 January 1698, and just three days she wrote to her husband begging to be allowed to see her son and daughter. She wrote, “The sincerity of my repentance should obtain pardon from Your Highness; and if to crown your favour you would permit me to see and embrace our children, my gratitude for such longed-for favours would be infinite as I desire nothing so earnestly as this, and I should be content to die afterwards.”2 Her wish was not granted, although she was eventually allowed to see her mother.
Sophia Dorothea was briefly moved from Ahlden as it was feared she might fall into the hands of French troops. She was whisked away to Celle in the spring of 1700. Even after the danger had passed, her mother tried to keep her with her, claiming ill health. Sophia Dorothea was promptly sent back to Ahlden, where her mother was allowed to visit her with news of her children. Life went on without her in it, and she eventually became a grandmother. However, she was devastated by the loss of her mother in 1722, the one person who visited regularly. Not even the secret letters from her daughter could now bring her joy.
Life continued in a lonely and cruel routine for a further four years. On 13 November 1726, Sophia Dorothea died within the walls of the Castle of Ahlden. Her body was placed in a lead coffin and placed in a vault inside the castle as officials waited for instructions. It took six months before the decision was made to have her buried in the ducal vault in Celle. She rests there still – now in the company of her great-granddaughter Caroline Matilda.
The Castle of Ahlden is now an auction house and is not generally open to the public.
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