Sophie Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705)

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Sophie Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705)

Queen of Prussia who brought her Hanoverian cultural heritage to the backward Prussian court and became patron, pupil, and good friend of the great mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Name variations: Sophia Charlotte; Sophie Charlotte of Brunswick-Luneberg or Brunswick-Lüneberg; also baby-named "Figuelotte." Born Sophie Charlotte or Sophia Charlotte on October 20, 1668 (some sources cite October 12, 1662), in Schloss Iburg, near Osnabruck; died on February 1, 1705 (some sources cite January 21, 1706), in Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany; interred at the Royal Chapel, Berlin; daughter of Ernst August, duke of Brunswick, who was elevated to elector of Hanover, and the duchess Sophia (1630–1714), electress of Hanover (granddaughter of King James I of England); sister of George I (1660–1727), king of England (r. 1714–1727); became second wife of Frederick III (1657–1713), elector of Brandenburg (r. 1688–1701), later Frederick I, king of Prussia (r. 1701–1713), on October 8, 1684; children: Frederick William I (1688–1740), king of Prussia (r. 1713–1740). Frederick's first wife was Elizabeth Henrietta of Hesse-Cassel (1661–1683).

Sophie Charlotte of Hanover's life was shaped by blood and deed. By blood, she had the rare good fortune to become a queen. By deed, she made herself into a patron of the arts and philosophy in the rising new state of Prussia. But, by birth, Sophie Charlotte was a typical female pawn in the royal game of European politics. She was the daughter of a duke who rose to the title of elector in the Holy Roman Empire, and of a duchess who was the granddaughter of a bona fide king.

Sophie Charlotte's father was Ernst August, duke of Brunswick, of the house of Lüneburg, a minor branch on the Hanoverian tree, until 1692, when he became its Elector of the Empire. Except for the fact that there were only a limited number of electors, ranging from seven during the Reformation to nine at a later period, this was little more than a flattering extra title. On rare occasions, however, about once in a generation, electors had the opportunity to elect a new Holy Roman emperor, making them for a brief period recipients of respect and patronage in the form of social and political perks, if not outright bribes.

Sophie Charlotte's mother, Sophia (1630–1714, electress of Hanover), was genealogically far more important than her husband Ernst August, whom she had married in 1658, more than 30 years before his elevation to elector of Hanover. Sophia was the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596–1662) and the granddaughter of King James VI of Scotland, who also ruled England as James I (the same who authorized the definitive translation of the Bible into English in 1611). Sophia would live until 1714, long after her daughter's death. When Sophia died within weeks of the death of her cousin Anne (1665–1714), who had been the queen of England since 1701 but had no immediate heir, the English throne passed to Sophia's son George Louis, the brother of Sophie Charlotte, who became George I of England. (George would be the founding father of England's House of Hanover; the royals would change this Germanic name to Windsor during World War I.)

Sophie Charlotte, born in 1668, was only 16 when she became the second wife of Crown Prince Frederick Hohenzollern (later Frederick I, king of Prussia), in 1684. Her father-in-law was Frederick William of Brandenburg, known as the "Great Elector," who had laid the foundation for the modern state of Brandenburg-Prussia during his half-century reign from 1640 to 1688.

As a young West German woman thrust into a world of East Prussian men, Sophie Charlotte did not have an easy time. She had been raised as a Hanoverian, where the arts were promoted and appreciated. Once she reached the court at Berlin, she faced a struggle to maintain her sense of civilization against the grimly practical Calvinism and militarism of the Hohenzollern family into which she had married. Her native Hanover, just across the Rhine from France, lay in the cultural shadow cast by the palace at Versailles, built just a quarter of a century earlier by King Louis XIV. The costly and splendid social activities and artistic enterprises at the new French court had provoked imitation and emulation in many other courts around Europe, and none had been more receptive to this "high culture" than Hanoverians, while few individual women had proved more receptive than Duchess Sophia and her daughter Sophie Charlotte. For Hanoverians, Prussia was beyond the pale, locked in deprivation and barbarism. For their part, the Prussians responded to this Francophilic snobbery with a loathing of Westerners in general and the females among them in particular.

The Prussian hostility toward the eager pretensions and aspirations of Sophie Charlotte was embodied in her father-in-law Frederick William. Long before she was born, the Great Elector had inherited a kingdom in an economically backward part of Germany that had been ravaged during the first half of the 17th century by the terrible Thirty Years' War. By penny-pinching and squeezing his subjects into supporting an enormous (for them) standing army, he had molded this realm into a formidable military regime. But in the creation of his new Brandenburg-Prussian state, he had forced his family and court into sacrificing elementary comforts as well as cultural adornments like music and artistic entertainment.

By the end of his long, successful life, the Great Elector had absolutely no use for the frivolity of art and music. Moreover, he had also lost a handsome, tough, and congenial first son, who died prematurely. In his twilight years, Frederick William was bitterly angry at having to settle for a wimpy second son as his successor to the throne. The young Frederick was not only physically unattractive and spiritually unmilitary, he was a sensitive soul with an artistic bent who wanted to spend money on fancy things, further exacerbating the old man's rage against intellectual and artistic people. Then the second wife of this second son arrived at his court, prepared to introduce the high culture of Hanover to the backward Prussians. The old elector disliked his daughter-in-law as much as she disliked him, and at his court Sophie Charlotte endured royal ridicule and social persecution.

In 1688, Frederick William died. That same year, Sophie Charlotte gave birth to her only son (Frederick William I), who was promptly named for his renowned grandfather, and her husband Frederick became elector of Brandenburg, the title by which he would rule for the next 13 years.

Freed from the dominating influence of her father-in-law, Sophie Charlotte turned happily to indulging her cultural tastes, and encouraged her husband in spending the hoarded savings of the new state. After years of chafing under the anger and stinginess of his embittered father, Frederick was easily persuaded. The Great Elector had left a full treasury, and Frederick was willing to plumb it. He was also susceptible to the charming and sophisticated example set by court life at Versailles. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of their access to the arts, these Francophilic new imitators used art to glorify themselves, as well as to buttress the authority and prestige of their newly emergent absolutist government. Sophie Charlotte now had virtually a free hand to "educate" the rustic Prussians. Relishing the pursuit of her own pleasures in music, philosophy, and the building of royal residences, she made herself into an intellectual and a patron of arts.

The only book-length work [Leibniz] ever published, the famous Theodicy (1710), owes its origin to the many conversations between the philosopher and [Sophie Charlotte of Hanover] in the gardens of Lutzenburg in Berlin.

—Olan Brent Hankins

In music, the young ruler brought the influence of her mother Sophia's Hanoverian heritage to the Berlin world, expanding the musical horizons of eastern Germans. A few years hence, the musical tradition of Hanover would flower in England through the works of George Frederick Handel; meanwhile, she was helping to lay the foundation of appreciation that would make the reception of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach universal during that same period.

It was in philosophy that Sophie Charlotte contributed most directly to the general culture of Europe, through her cultivation of a deep and lasting friendship with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the outstanding genius of the age. She also presided over religious debates among Jesuits, Protestants, and free-thinkers, preparing herself to participate in the arguments by reading the works of Pierre Bayle, the French advocate of religious toleration. She earned the recognition the English free-thinker John Toland who dedicated his Letters to Serena to her. With Leibniz, she enjoyed long conversations about topics as diverse as the existence of the soul, the Roman philosophy of Lucretius, and perpetual motion machines. She also spurred him toward the publication, finally, of his Theodicy, the only formal work he ventured to publish in his lifetime.

For herself, Sophie Charlotte must have found her husband's patronage of architects most welcome. Near the village of Lutzenburg, the gifted architect Johann Arnold Nering built his most outstanding creation for her, the country palace she playfully called "Lustenburg" (lust means "pleasure" in German). Sophie Charlotte worked hard to make this showplace a "mini-Versailles," replete with the performances of ballets, operas, and comic masquerades. After her death, it would be appropriately renamed Charlottenburg.

During the first half of his reign, Frederick continued his father's policy of being the only continental ally of France, then under the rule of Louis XIV. But Louis was engaged in his first big empire-building war to extend France's frontier to the Rhine, and after the respite afforded by the Treaty of Risjwik in 1697, Frederick allowed himself to be persuaded by the embattled Habsburg emperor in Vienna to change his alliance. In 1701, Frederick was elevated by Habsburg edict from elector of Brandenburg to King Frederick I of Prussia. His authorization of this medieval promotion in rank was a maneuver to detach Prussia from its French alliance at the outset of the War of Spanish Succession (which coincided with the second half Frederick's rule). Sophie Charlotte thus became the queen of Prussia.

Sophie Charlotte's last days were dimmed by the sad realization that her son Frederick William I was turning into a crude, narrow-minded, anti-cultural clod like his namesake grandfather. Fortunately she was spared the spectacle of Frederick William's brutally repressive treatment of his own son and of his wife Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Hanover . (His attempt to make the youth into "a man" by squelching his artistic talents became the subject of gossip all over Europe and remains a historical scandal to this day.)

Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, at age 37, eight years before her son succeeded his father as Frederick William I. His rule would last for the next quarter-century, until 1740. It was in the reign following his that her cultural aspirations were vindicated by the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of that same tormented grandson, who came to the throne as Frederick II and became known to history as Frederick II the Great. In almost a half-century of rule, from 1740 to 1786, he performed the military feats which pushed Prussia into central European hegemony and laid the foundation for the creation during the next century of the Prussianized modern Germany by Otto von Bismarck. And while gaining prominence across Europe for his diplomacy, he resurrected the cultural concerns of his grandmother, cultivating philosophy and the arts, and won the acclaim by the French philosophes, especially Voltaire, as a model for Plato's "philosopher king." With his ascent, Sophie Charlotte deserves to be designated the first non-French host of the female-dominated salon culture of the European Enlightenment.


There are no biographies of Sophie Charlotte in English; her story has to be extrapolated from the larger one of the Hohenzollern and Hanoverian families in Germany. In Frey, she is treated as a disagreeable person, but she is praised by Eulenberg as an aspiring intellectual who provides patronage for cultural events. Hankins emphasizes her inspiring and constructive influence on Leibniz.

Eulenberg, Herbert. The Hohenzollerns. Translated by M.M. Bozman. NY: Century, 1929.

Frey, Linda and Marsha Frey. Frederick I: The Man and His Time. NY: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Hankins, Olan Brent. Leibniz as Baroque Poet. Frankfurt: Stanford German Studies, Verlag Herbert Lang, 1973.

David R. Stevenson , formerly Associate Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Nebraska

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Sophie Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705)

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