Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Celle (1666–1726)
Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Celle (1666–1726)
Duchess of Ahlden and the "uncrowned queen" of England. Name variations: Sophie of Brunswick-Zell; Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneberg or Luneberg; princess of Ahlden; electress of Hanover. Born on September 5, 1666, at Celle Castle, Germany; died on November 13, 1726, at Castle of Ahlden, Hanover, Germany; interred at Celle Church, Germany; daughter of George William, duke of Celle and Brunswick-Lüneberg, and his morganatic wife Eleanor Desmier (1639–1722); married George Louis of Hanover, later George I (1660–1727), king of England (r. 1714–1727), on November 21, 1682 (divorced 1694); associated with Philip Christopher, count von Königsmarck; children: George II (1683–1760), king of England (r. 1727–1760); Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Hanover (1687–1757). George I also had children with Ehrengard Melusina, baroness Schulenburg.
A princess of the ruling house of Celle in what is now northern Germany, Sophia Dorothea was the only child of Duke George William of Celle and a French noblewoman, Eleanor Desmier . Her parents were not legally married when she was born in 1666; Sophia was already nine years old before her birth was retroactively legitimated by their marriage and she gained the title of princess of Celle. Intelligent and high-spirited, Sophia was educated only in the accomplishments appropriate to a noble girl, such as music, embroidery, and languages. She was fluent in German and Dutch, but used French for daily conversation and correspondence. She was too impatient for more serious study, however, and preferred games and fashion to her books.
Despite her illegitimate birth, there was no lack of prospective husbands for the little princess. She was the only heir of her wealthy parents, who spent years negotiating and weighing the benefits of various marriage alliances for her. In the end, however, Sophia was betrothed at age 15 to her first cousin George Louis of Hanover (later George I, king of England), son of her uncle Ernst August, duke of Hanover. George's parents saw the marriage as the way to unite the duchies of Celle and Hanover under one rule, increasing the power of the Hanover family.
Many biographers have written of the marriage between Sophia Dorothea and George Louis as if it were inevitably doomed, usually blaming either Sophia or George for its failure. But its fate could not have been predicted when the marriage was celebrated with much pomp and ceremony in November 1682. The two young people were quite different in temperament and barely knew one another, but this did not distinguish them from other newly married couples from princely families.
In 1683, their first child, a son, was born (later George II, king of England). Sophia and George began to spend most of their time apart after this. The relatives of George Louis, especially his mother, the electress Sophia (1630–1714), hated and despised his wife, and this feeling was soon shared by the prince himself. George was frequently absent on military campaigns, but even when he was at court, the personality differences between the two led them to keep separate quarters. George preferred to spend his time with friends and with his several mistresses; Sophia preferred the company of her courtiers and ladies-in-waiting to that of her husband. A second child, Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Hanover , was born in 1687 after a brief reconciliation.
Around 1690, Sophia began a correspondence with a Swedish count, Philip von Konigsmarck, who was serving in the Hanoverian army. They became lovers in 1692, an affair which was an open secret at the Hanover court. Sophia Dorothea was warned to break off the relationship by her husband and parents, but she refused to stop seeing Philip. Many of the passionate letters Sophia and Philip exchanged have survived, showing that the two hoped to run away together but could not for lack of money. (One source claims, however, that Sophia's infidelity to her husband is not absolutely proved, contending that the letters purported to have passed between Konigsmarck and Sophia are probably forgeries.) Despite the opulence in which Sophia lived, she actually owned no wealth or property in her own name, and Philip was deeply in debt. They also wrote of their fear of arrest and imprisonment for adultery, but Sophia pressed George for a divorce anyway in the hope of someday being free to wed Philip.
As long as Philip was serving the house of Hanover, the affair was allowed to continue despite repeated warnings to both parties. But in 1694 their relationship became a matter of state concern, and George and his parents were pushed to bring a violent end to it. In that year, Count von Konigsmarck left the Hanoverian army for a position in the army of Saxony, enemy to the house of Hanover. The ducal court feared that Konigsmarck would elope with Sophia and use her as a political tool against the Hanovers. When Philip returned to Hanover to announce his resignation in July, he was assassinated at the duke's orders. Sophia, unaware of Philip's death, was arrested and soon became a virtual prisoner at the remote castle of Ahlden in the duchy of Celle. A divorce was quickly arranged in which Sophia, as the guilty party, was forbidden to remarry. In an agreement between Sophia's father and George's father, Sophia was to be confined at Ahlden permanently by her father. She was permitted a personal income but was not allowed to see her two children. In a time when wives could be executed for adultery, it was probably the best outcome she could expect.
Sophia Dorothea remained at Ahlden the rest of her life. Although few saw her as a threat if released, it was fear of Hanover's enemies using her as a tool which kept her confined. Anti-Hanover propaganda said that she had been unjustly accused and should be freed from her harsh imprisonment. Thus Sophia Dorothea, isolated in her castle, became a rallying point for those opposed to George as duke of Hanover and (eventually) as king of England, who sought to justify war against the powerful duchy by claiming to be rescuing an innocent victim of George's cruelty.
For the most part unaware of and certainly uninvolved in these plans, Sophia Dorothea adapted to life at Ahlden. She kept her own court, held the title of duchess of Ahlden, and was allowed to receive some guests (she saw her
mother often). Sophia also amassed a considerable fortune from property inherited from her father. She did not see her former husband again; nor did she ever see her children or her 17 grandchildren, although she was able to write to them. Her relationship with her son and daughter was strained, to say the least. Her daughter Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Hanover refused Sophia's request to help her secure release from Ahlden; her son refused to speak of her, even years after the divorce when he reigned as George II of England.
Sophia Dorothea remained at Ahlden for over 40 years. Even after George I succeeded to the throne of England in 1714, he refused to honor Sophia's request for freedom. Although her few supporters referred to her as queen of England, it was her ex-husband George's favorite mistress Ehrengard Melusina von der Schulenburg who actually fulfilled that role (he never remarried). The "uncrowned queen" of England died at the age of 60.
Hatton, Ragnhild. George I: Elector and King. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Wilkins, W.H. The Love of an Uncrowned Queen: Sophie Dorothea, Consort of George I. NY: Duffield, 1906.
Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California