Hidden historical heroines (#35: Sophia Dorothea of Celle)

Sophia Dorothea of CelleSophia Dorothea of Brunswick and Luneburg (15 September 1666 – 13 November 1726) was Queen of England as the wife of George I, however never set foot in that kingdom as her husband had her imprisoned for over half of her life. Doomed by the tension and mutual hatred of her arranged political marriage, she was nevertheless remembered fondly by her children.

Sophia Dorothea was born in 1666, the only child of the Duke of Brunswick, much to the consternation of her wider family. Her father had promised his brother that he would not marry and produce an heir that may cause opposition to his dynastic ambitions (this brother was to become the Duke of Hanover). Sophia Dorothea’s mother, therefore, was considered only the Duke’s long-term mistress, which meant their daughter was legally illegitimate.

Despite her slightly hazy credentials, marriage proposals cropped up thick and fast for the engaging girl – she was at one point very close to becoming the future Queen of Denmark. At each turn marriages were blocked by the political machinations of the Duchess Sophia of Hanover (Sophia Dorothea’s aunt by marriage) an imperious and haughty matriarch. Sophia of Hanover was also the heiress presumptive to the crown of England – being the granddaughter of James I – and was certainly no woman to be crossed.

George I

Eventually Sophia Dorothea’s father grew confident enough to legally marry his mistress and legitimise his daughter. Duchess Sophia’s response was to immediately recommend marriage between Sophia Dorothea and her son and heir, George Louis. The teenaged Sophia Dorothea – who had been hankering after marriage with the handsome Duke of Wolfenbüttel – threw a tantrum when told of the change of plans. She hurled a miniature portrait of George Louis against the wall and shouted “I will not marry Pig Snout!” (an unflattering but rather deserved nickname her cousin was known by). Still, Duchess Sophia insisted, and despite her mother’s protestations on her behalf, her father capitulated and the engagement was made. Distraught, Sophia Dorothea did absolutely everything she could to escape her impending marriage. There are reports that she fainted during her first meetings with both her future mother-in-law and her future husband.

The unlucky pair were married on 22 November 1682; unsurprisingly, the union was an unhappy one. The Duchess Sophia looked down on Sophia Dorothea for her ‘base’ birth and taint of illegitimacy – as well as her stubborn behaviour when confronted with the marriage – and encouraged the wider family to treat her poorly. George frequently scolded and argued with her in public and after the births of their son and their daughter, started to neglect her completely, shamefully trumpeting his mistress, Melusina von Schulenburg.

Sophia Dorothea and her children

It was at this time that one of Sophia Dorothea’s teenage paramours re-entered her unhappy life like a ray of sunshine. Count Philip Christoph von Konigsmark – of Sweden – had made Sophia Dorothea’s acquaintance when they were much younger, where they had flirted innocently; there is a lovely story of the two using their breath to steam up the glass of the palace windows and writing their names in the condensation. After years of close friendship, they began an affair in 1690, writing each other a series of passionate love letters. A handful of these went astray and were given to Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, who immediately sent Philip off to fight with the Hanoverian army against France in an attempt to staunch the scandal.

Exiled from Hanover in all but name – all other soldiers were given periodic leave to return, but he was not – Philip grew increasingly lovelorn for Sophia Dorothea. Eventually he deserted his post and rode for six days to return to Hanover – which only resulted in his exile being made official.

Meanwhile, George railed at his wife over her affair. Whilst circumspectly admitting nothing, Sophia Dorothea merely pointed out his own adulterous activities. Although their arguments had always been combustive, this one escalated to the point where George threw himself on his wife and began to strangle her, tearing out clumps of her hair for good measure. Her life was only saved because their aghast attendants finally came to their senses and pulled George away. Sophia Dorothea was nevertheless disgraced, and in the full and frightening knowledge that George would have his revenge on her sooner or later.

Count Philip

What happened to Sophia Dorothea next is shrouded in mystery. Sentenced to a form of house arrest, it seems that Philip may have come back to assist her in escaping Hanover and the fury of her husband. Whatever the truth of what happened, attempted escape was futile and Philip disappears from the historical record without a trace – save a few deathbed confessions from palace guards who say they killed the troublesome Count on the orders of George and threw his body into the River Leine.

Announcing himself as ‘divorced’ due to his wife’s adultery was not enough for George, and he had Sophia Dorothea imprisoned at the Castle of Ahlden and forbidden to see her children ever again. She remained at Ahlden for 33 years, until her death of liver failure on 13 November 1726.  Just before – from what she then knew to be her deathbed – she wrote a letter to George, denouncing him for his incessant cruelty to her and cursing him from beyond the grave.

George refused to allow mourning in Hanover or England and was furious when he heard that his daughter’s Prussian court was wearing black in honour of their Queen’s mother. Sophia Dorothea’s body was left in a casket in Ahlden’s cellar, ostensibly forgotten, whilst those who had cared about her waited for her husband’s attention to slide. In May 1727 she was quietly moved to Celle, her childhood home, and buried beside her parents.


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