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Mistress and Duchess: Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg (1667-1743)

Readers will already know of the strong links between Handel and King George I, which have been already widely explored. What is less known, however, is the influence of another figure in the background who though certainly less talked about, in her lifetime enjoyed a considerable influence that cannot be overestimated.

This figure is Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg, the woman at the side of George I, perhaps better known by the name that posterity has somewhat unkindly conferred upon her – ‘The Maypole.’ A name applied to her by the British public at the time, a name that unfortunately stuck,  due to the fact that she was naturally tall and even called ‘thin’ by other observers.

Born in 1667 to the Schulenberg family, she was descended from the stock of old German nobility.  She became George’s mistress when he was still hereditary heir to the Hanoverian electorate, a role she took over in around 1691. She had been a lady-in-waiting at the Hanoverian court, to George’s mother Sophie, Electress of Hanover, who herself was descended from King James I of England via her mother, Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Following the complicated circumstances surrounding the failed marriage of George with his cousin, Sophie Dorothea of Braunschweig-Lüneburg after her scandalous affair with Count Philip von Königsmarck, George separated formally from his disgraced wife. He then made his mistress Melusine the central figure in his life. The relationship resulted in three daughters being born to the pair, Anna Luise, Petronella and Margarethe Gertrud, born in 1692, 1693 and 1701 respectively.

It is important to mention that Melusine would have been aware of Handel from her experiences at the Hanoverian court. The celebrated composer Agostino Steffani had been Kapellmeister to the House of Hanover at the time when the House was using all its efforts to become an electorate. Steffani composed a notable work that celebrated the lineage of the House back to Henry the Lion. Handel succeeded him in this post when he retired.

When George I acceded to the British throne in 1714, Melusine followed him to England. George conferred on Melusine an impressive list of titles including the Countess of Münster, Marchioness and Countess of Dungannon and Baroness Dundalk. In 1719 she acquired the further titles Duchess of Kendall, Countess of Feversham and Baroness of Glastonbury.

In 1723, Kaiser Karl VI created her a Princess of the Empire with the title Princess of Eberstein. That she subsequently became what was the equivalent to Queen in all but name, is important to note because her place at the side of George I was all the more marked due to the fact that his own consort was missing. His banished wife, Sophie Dorothea of Braunschweig-Lüneburg died in the castle of Ahlden in 1726.

Rumours persisted of a secret morganatic union, otherwise known as a ‘left-handed’ marriage, having taken place between George and Melusine. Although as Melusine’s biographer Claudia Gold has pointed out, remarriage was illegal in England whilst the divorced partner was still alive. With the death of the disgraced Sophie Dorothea, George I was technically free to finally marry the woman he loved, who was mother to three of his daughters. It is not possible to state whether such a ceremony ever did take place due to the absence of evidence categorically confirming it, although in the opinion of her biographer, it would appear at least possible that it did. Either way, it is interesting that a portrait of Melusine exists that has come to light in more recent years and which was made on one of Melusine and George’s trips to Hanover. The choice of royal blue attire, with the sitter clutching an ermine-trimmed robe is immediately apparent.

Melusine and George’s youngest daughter died of tuberculosis in 1726 aged only twenty-five, the year that Sophia Dorothea died at Ahlden. The following year Melusine accompanied the King on a visit to his native Hanover. However, George I suffered a stroke en route and it was decided that he continue to Osnabrück, where he later died in the early hours of 22 June 1727. Melusine had, in fact, not been at his side.

As a result of the death of George I, Melusine did, in fact, not return to England until George I’s heir, Georg-August – his son by Sophie Dorothea – was crowned King that October. The event was famously celebrated in Handel’s work, Zadok the Priest, known within what is correctly termed the Coronation Anthems,  the music of which has been performed at every coronation since. On her return to England, which would in time prove to be a permanent move, she took on a house in Old Bond Street. She stayed there until the house that she had purchased in Mayfair was ready for her.

Again in later life, the links with Handel converge. We know that Handel taught the daughters of Georg-August – later George II – however it would appear that he had also taught Melusine’s daughters Anna Luise, Petronella and Margarethe Gertrud. Melusine was after all, an extremely cultured woman and deeply interested in the arts. In patronage, she witnessed Handel’s Water Music being performed, together with George when it was performed on the Thames in 1717.

She loved operas and took great pleasure in attending Handel’s operas when they were performed at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, for example Giulio Cesare in 1724. Melusine also subscribed to musical journals, especially to ones that featured Handel’s works. She had, of course, occupied her splendid set of apartments at Kensington Palace. Towards the end of her life, she lived in a house near to Handel’s own home on Brook Street, at No. 43 Grosvenor Square. Following her death at Kendall House in Isleworth in 1743, she was buried at her own request in the nearby baroque Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street, in the same vault as the legendary writer of 18th century letters, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – although surprisingly, neither are in fact commemorated by any memorial plaque in the chapel. However, it is pleasant to note that Grosvenor Chapel is a venue where Handel’s music may today be regularly enjoyed at choral performances.