Sophia Dorothea of Hanover was born on 26 March 1687 at the Leineschloss in Hanover as the daughter of the then Hereditary Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg, later King George I of Great Britain, and Sophia Dorothea of Celle. Her elder brother became King George II of Great Britain in 1727. Her parents’ marriage had quickly turned sour, and it was dissolved in 1694, and her mother was imprisoned in Ahlden. Her father’s mistress Melusine von der Schulenburg, gave birth to three daughters over the following years.
She and her brother spent their youth at either the Leineschloss or at Herrenhausen. Both palaces suffered damage during the Second World War but were subsequently rebuilt. With their mother gone and their father caring little for them, Sophia Dorothea and her brother fell under the care of their grandmother, Sophia. Sophia hired a governess named Anna Katharina von Harling, and Sophia Dorothea received a formal education. She was taught court etiquette, history, geography, religion and several foreign languages. In 1701, the British succession was settled in her grandmother’s favour if Queen Anne were to die childless, and Sophia was her closest living Protestant relative. Sophia was a granddaughter of King James I and VI through Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen.
Around this time, plans for Sophia Dorothea’s marriage were being discussed. She was to marry her cousin Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia. Sophia Dorothea remained blissfully unaware of the future that was being plotted for her for now. She celebrated her 18th birthday in 1705. On 22 August 1705, her brother was the first to get married – to Caroline of Ansbach. The following year – on 16 June 1706 – her engagement to Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia was announced. In preparation for the wedding and perhaps for a rest after all the engagement festivities, Sophia Dorothea was sent to Pyrmont to take the cure. From Pyrmont, she wrote to her fiance of her health. For her regal bearing and gracious manners, she was nicknamed, “Olympia.”
On 28 November 1706, Sophia Dorothea and Frederick William were married in the White Hall at the Berlin Stadtschloss. She had only arrived in Berlin the day before. Upon marriage, she immediately became the first lady of Prussia as her mother-in-law had passed away the previous year, and her father-in-law would not remarry until 1708. She was in her element and enjoyed all the festivities – unlike her new husband. Frederick William was “polite” to Sophia Dorothea, but the marriage was cold otherwise. During her honeymoon, Frederick William went hunting, and Sophia Dorothea was bored out of her mind. She quickly fell pregnant and just over a year after their wedding – on 9 December 1707 – she gave birth to a son – Prince Frederick Louis. Tragically, the infant prince lived for just five months – dying on 15 May 1708. His parents were not with him at the time. Sophia Dorothea withdrew into herself and did not mention the death of her son.
Her marriage deteriorated even more, and Frederick William had even begun to speak of separation. In desperation, she wrote to him, “You speak of separation. When will you finally stop tormenting me?” Rumours began to circulate that Sophia Dorothea was no longer able to have children. This could have been one of the reasons her father-in-law decided to marry again that year. His new wife and the new Queen was Sophia Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Just after the wedding, he was informed that Sophia Dorothea was pregnant again, and he lamented the fact that he had married again. The following year, she gave birth to a daughter named Friedrike Wilhelmine – to the great disappointment of the court. On 16 August 1710, she gave birth to a boy once more, but he too died before his first birthday. On 24 January 1712, she gave birth to a son who lived – the future Frederick the Great. Her father-in-law was reportedly in tears after hearing of the birth. Just a few months later, the proud mother reported to her husband that little Fritz had just had his first tooth. Although her marriage was still bad, she was slowly regaining her position, and she would soon find herself back as the first lady of the land.
Her father-in-law, King Frederick I of Prussia, died on 25 February 1713, and his widow fell into a deep depression to such an extent that she was considered to have gone insane. She was sent back to her family. Sophia Dorothea was now Queen and the first lady of the land. On 5 May 1713, Sophia Dorothea gave birth to her fifth child, a daughter named Charlotte Albertine, who would tragically die shortly after her first birthday. By then, Sophia Dorothea was already pregnant with her sixth child, another daughter – named Frederica Louise – was born on 28 September 1714. Her seventh child – a daughter named Philippine Charlotte – was born on 13 March 1716. Seven more children would follow: Louis Charles William (born 2 May 1717 – died young), her namesake Sophia Dorothea (born 25 January 1719), Louisa Ulrika (born 24 July 1720), Augustus William (born 9 August 1722), Anna Amalia (born 9 November 1723), Henry (born 18 January 1726) and Augustus Ferdinand (born 23 May 1730). She had a grand total of 14 children, of which four died young. Frederica Louise would later describe her mother as having had “a good, generous, and benevolent heart,” despite her husband’s many angry outbursts and the unhappy state of her marriage.1
Part two coming soon.
Memoirs of the queens of Prussia by Emma Willsher Atkinson