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The Wives of the Georgian Kings: Sophia Dorothea of Celle

They say that behind every successful man is a woman, and, in a similar way, behind every good ruler is a strong consort. History is littered with examples of Queens who have supported their Kings through all the trials and tribulations that the Crown has been confronted with. The Georgian Kings, in particular, had very interesting wives – some progressive, some charming, some loved and some detested – but all equally fascinating. To mark the 300th anniversary of the beginning of Georgian rule in the United Kingdom, let us take a look at the lives of the wives of the Georgian Kings.

The first royal wife in this five part series is Sophia Dorothea of Celle – the Queen that never was. She married George I at a time when he was still only the heir to the Duchy of Hanover. The couple had two children, including the future King George II, but their relationship was turbulent, and after a few years of marriage they were divorced and George had his erstwhile wife imprisoned in a tower. Even though George became the King of Great Britain and Ireland, Sophia was never crowned, and ended her life looked up in a tower, bitter and resentful.

Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard

Sophia Dorothea of Celle as a young woman

The funny thing is that Sophia Dorothea could easily have been the heiress to the Duchy of Hanover herself. Her father, George William, was the Duke of Brunswick Lüneburg, and was set to inherit Hanover someday. But his claim to the Duchy came with one condition: George William had to marry the bride that his father had selected for him – Princess Sophia of Palatinate. George couldn’t stand Sophia, and promised to hand over Hanover to his brother, Ernest Augustus, if he would marry Sophia and free George from his betrothal. Ernest Augustus agreed, and went on to become the 1st Elector of Hanover, while George William settled for the smaller Duchy of Celle.

A few years later, George William fell in love with Eleanore d’Olbreuse, and their only child, Sophia Dorothea, was born on 15th September 1666. But the child had been born out of wedlock, and in an effort to legitimise her, George William and Eleanore were officially married in 1676. With her birthright secure, Sophia Dorothea had many suitors, and received offers of marriage from the future King of Denmark, and, when that fell through, from the Duke of Wolfenbüttel. However, Electress Sophia was of the mind that Hanover and Celle should stay within the same family, and proposed to Sophia Dorothea’s parents that the young girl marry her son George Ludwig, the future King George I.

Sophia Dorothea wasn’t happy with this idea. She had her heart set on the Duke, and when her future mother-in-law showed her a miniature of George, she is said to have flung the portrait across the room, shouting: “I will not marry the pig snout!” Despite her protests, Sophia Dorothea was, extremely unwillingly, forced to accept the marriage proposal, and when she met her future husband for the first time she fell into a dead faint. It would prove to be a rocky start to an extremely turbulent relationship.

The feeling of discontent was mutual. George was not fond of the bride that had been chosen for him either, and only looked forward to the marriage for the dowry that it would bring him. In fact, even Electress Sophia didn’t like her daughter-in-law very much, and wrote about her in a letter: “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 Ludwig, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, and 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.”

In November 1682, George and Sophia Dorothea were married in Celle Castle. The marriage produced two children; a son, George Augustus, and a daughter, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover. However, George soon took a mistress, and even began to behave violently towards his wife. Alone, and feeling betrayed and neglected, Sophia Dorothea began an affair with the handsome Swedish Count, Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. They had met in her native Celle, and were soon exchanging love letters and writing their names on the palace windows.

When George found out about his wife’s adultery, he confronted her. Not wanting to be wronged, Sophia Dorothea retaliated, questioning her husband about his own mistresses. The ensuing argument turned violent, and ended with attendants having to pull George away to stop him from attacking his wife. Sophia Dorothea was extremely distressed by her husband’s behaviour, and planned to leave him and elope with Count Königsmarck. However, the Elector of Hanover, having got wind of her plans, had his guards arrest the Count. The Count mysteriously disappeared after that, and it is believed that was killed and hurriedly buried beneath the floorboards in the palace.

George, who had enough of his wife’s infidelity, started divorce proceedings against her. Sophia Dorothea was found guilty of “malicious desertion”, and their marriage was legally dissolved in 1694. Sophia Dorothea was glad to be rid of her husband. She said: “We desire nothing so much as that separation of marriage requested by our husband may take place”, but her happiness was not to last. The very next year, George had her imprisoned at the Castle of Ahlden, and, to make matters worse, she was forbidden from contacting either of her children. This caused a rift between George and his son, who deeply resented the fact that he was not allowed to see his mother.

Meanwhile, in England, after it became clear that neither King William III nor the future Queen Anne were likely to produce any heirs, the Act of Settlement was passed in 1701, naming Electress Sophia, a protestant, as the heir presumptive to the throne. Despite being over 70 years old, Sophia was as fit as a fiddle, and certainly in better health than Queen Anne, who suffered from gout and pain in her limbs. And she would have been Queen too, if it were not for the fact that she died, only two months before Queen Anne. George took her place as heir presumptive, and ascended the throne in 1714, following Anne’s death. Sophia remained in imprisonment, and no one was ever told exactly what had become of the woman who would have been Queen.

In 1726, Sophia Dorothea died of liver failure, still locked up in Ahlden. On her deathbed, she wrote an angry letter to George, now King of England, cursing him for his treatment of her. George refused to allow mourning for her in either England or Hanover, but his daughter, who was the Queen of Prussia by that time, went against her father’s wishes and wore black in her mother’s honour. Sophia Dorothea wasn’t buried until nearly six months after her death. Her final resting place is in the Old Chapel in Celle, next to that of her parents. Around four weeks later, King George suffered from a fatal stroke while on a visit to Hanover. Coincidentally, the King had received his late wife’s last letter only a couple of days previously, which led to the spreading of ghostly stories about Sophia Dorothea’s spirit coming back to haunt her much despised husband.

George I and Sophia Dorothea may not have had the best of relationships, but their son, George Augustus, and his wife  were much happier together. Look out for the next instalment in this series to read about the second Georgian Queen – Caroline of Ansbach.

Photo credit: ‘Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard’ via Wikimedia Commons

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