Sophia Dorothea of Celle

Celle George I of Great Britain Celle Castle
Sophia Dorothea of Celle
Electoral Princess of Hanover
SophiaDorothea of Celle1.jpg
Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick, Oil paint from 1680s. Currently displayed at Herrenhausen Palace musseum.
Born(1666-09-15)15 September 1666
Celle, Germany
Died13 November 1726(1726-11-13) (aged 60)
Ahlden, Germany
(m. 1682; div. 1694)
FatherGeorge William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg
MotherÉléonore Desmier d'Olbreuse

Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Celle (15 September 1666 – 13 November 1726), was the repudiated wife of future King George I of Great Britain, and mother of George II. The union with her first cousin was an arranged marriage of state, instigated by the machinations of his mother, Electress Sophia of Hanover. She is best remembered for her alleged affair with Philip Christoph von Königsmarck that led to her being imprisoned in the Castle of Ahlden for the last thirty years of her life.


Early years

Born in Celle on 15 September 1666, Sophia Dorothea of Harburg was the only surviving daughter of George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Celle by his morganatic wife, Éléonore Desmier d'Olbreuse (1639–1722), Lady of Harburg, a Huguenot French noblewoman.

She grew up carefree in a loving environment: her parents were (in a rather exception among the married noble or royal couples of that time) deeply in love to each other and also gave warmth and affection to their bright and talented daughter. Because Sophia Dorothea was the product of a morganatic union and without any rights as a member of the House of Brunswick, her father wanted to secured her future and transferred large assets to her over time, and this wealth made her an interesting marriage candidate. Candidates for her hand included Augustus Frederick, Hereditary Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Frederick Charles, Duke of Württemberg-Winnental, Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria and even King Charles XI of Sweden.

Sophia Dorothea's status became enhanced when by Imperial order dated 22 July 1674 and in recognition to the military assistance given by her father to Emperor Leopold I, she and her mother received the higher title of "Countess of Harburg and Wilhelmsburg" (Gräfin von Harburg und Wilhelmsburg) with the allodial rights over that domains.[1]

At first, her parents agreed to the marriage between Sophia Dorothea and the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, eldest son of their distant relative Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and whom since the beginning supported the love affair of George William and Éléonore. The official betrothal was signed on 20 December 1675, but unfortunately the groom was mortally wounded at the siege of Philippsburg on 9 August 1676.

Elevation of birth status and marriage

After the death of his daughter's fiancé, George William wanted to made an agreement with his brothers about the inheritance of the Duchy of Lüneburg and approached his younger brother Ernest Augustus with talks about a marriage between Sophia Dorothea and Ernest Augustus's eldest son George Louis; however, both his brother and sister-in-law Sophia of the Palatinate had misgivings about the proposed match due to the circumstances of Sophia Dorothea's birth.

After the rebuffal of his daughter, George William decided to improve once for all the status of Sophia Dorothea and her mother: by contract signed on 22 August 1675 and in open violation of his previous promise to never marry, George William declared that Éléonore was his lawful wife in both church and state, with a second wedding ceremony being held at Celle on 2 April 1676. Ernest Augustus and specially his wife demonstratively stayed away from this second wedding.[2] Twenty-two days later, on 24 April, Éléonore was officially addressed as Duchess of Brunswick and Sophia Dorothea became legitimate.[2]

Sophia Dorothea with her two children, by Jacques Vaillant, ca. 1690–1691. Currently displayed at Bomann-Museum, Celle.

This development of events greatly alarmed George William's relatives: now legitimated by the official marriage of her parents, Sophia Dorothea could threaten the contemplated union of the Lüneburg territories. Finally, by family agreement signed on 13 July 1680, Éléonore was finally recognized as Duchess of Brunswick and, most importantly, Sophia Dorothea was declared Princess of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Celle with all apertaining rights of birth. Also, George Louis' parents finally agreed to the previously proposed marriage. To the horror of both Sophia Dorothea and her mother, George William consented to the union.[3]

The wedding took place on 21 November 1682 but since the beginning the union was a complete failure: the feelings of hatred and contempt that Sophia of the Palatinate had over her daughter-in-law were soon shared by her son George Louis, who was oddly formal to his wife. Sophia Dorothea was frequently scolded for her lack of etiquette, and the two had loud and bitter arguments. Nevertless, they managed to had two children in quick succession: George Augustus (born 30 October 1683 and future King George II of Great Britain) and Sophia Dorothea (born 16 March 1687 and by marriage Queen consort in Prussia and Electress consort of Brandenburg).

The desire for the marriage was almost purely financial, as Duchess Sophia wrote to her niece Elizabeth Charlotte, Duchess of Orléans:

"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 Louis, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, 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".[4]

George Louis also acquired a mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, and started pointedly neglecting his wife. His parents asked him to be more circumspect with his mistress, fearful that a disruption in the marriage would threaten the payment of the 100,000 thalers he received as a part of Sophia Dorothea's dowry and inheritance from her father.

Affair with Königsmarck

Sophia Dorothea, by Henri Gascar, 1686. Currently displayed at Celle Castle museum.
Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, anonymous portrait, ca. 1690s. Currently displayed at Celle Castle museum.

In the meanwhile Sophia Dorothea was reunited around 1690 with the Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, whom she had known since childhood when he was a page at the court of Celle. At first, their contact was little and sporadic but this probably changed in 1691, although initially went unnoticed; however, the careless preference that the Electoral Princess showed to Königsmarck aroused suspicions, and by 1694 the Hanoverian court rumoured that they indeed entered into a love affair. Historical research was able to use contemporary sources to show that Sophia Dorothea and Königsmarck (presumably since March 1692) had a sexual relationship, which she denied her entire life.[5]

After a violent argument with her husband, Sophia Dorothea traveled to her parents in Celle in the spring of 1694. She wanted an official separation, but her parents were completely against it: Sophia Dorothea's father was in the middle of the war against Denmark and Sweden and was dependent on the help of his brother Ernest Augustus, so she eventually was sent back to Hanover.

In the summer of 1694 Sophia Dorothea, together with Königsmarck and her lady-in-waiting Eleonore von dem Knesebeck, planned their escape to either to Wolfenbüttel under the protection of Duke Anthony Ulrich or to the Electorate of Saxony, where the Swedish Count held an officer position as major general of the cavalry.[6] But their plan was soon revealed.

Königsmarck's disappearance

Countess Clara Elisabeth von Platen, a former mistress of Elector Ernest Augustus, had tried in January 1694 to persuade Königsmarck to marry her daughter Sophia Charlotte, but he refused. Offended, she then revealed to the Electoral Prince George Louis the love affair of his wife with the Swedish Count and their planned escape; soon, the whole Hanoverian found out about this and the scandal erupted.

Facade of the Leineschloss next to the Leine river, where probably the body of Königsmarck was thrown after his murder.

On the night of 11 July 1694 and after a meeting with Sophia Dorothea in the Leineschloss, Königsmarck disappeared without a trace. According to diplomatic sources from Hanover's enemies, he was probably killed, possibly with the connivance of either the Electoral Prince of his father, and his body thrown into the river Leine weighted with stones. The murder was claimed to have been committed by four of Ernest Augustus's courtiers, one of whom (Don Nicolò Montalbano) was paid the enormous sum of 150,000 thalers, which was about one hundred times the annual salary of the highest paid minister.[7] Sophia Dorothea should never find out what had happened to her lover. No trace of him was found, officially he is still missing today. The real facts remained unclear and all documents that could have provided information were confiscated and destroyed by the Hanoverian government.[7]

Königsmarck's disappearance turned into a state affair when not only relatives, diplomats and the population began to puzzled over it. King Louis XIV of France asked his sister-in-law Elizabeth Charlotte (maternal first-cousin of the Electoral Prince), but she pretended to be clueless. The French king then sent agents to Hanover, but they could no more shed light on the mystery than King Augustus II of Poland, who spent weeks searching for his missing general.

In return, the brothers Elector Ernest Augustus and Duke Georg William turned to the Emperor Leopold I with a formal complaint. If the Imperial court didn't prevent the Polish King from continuing to create “unfriendly acts” against Hanover and Celle, they would withdraw their troops from the Allied forces. Although the Emperor and Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg exerted pressure on Augustus II, his envoy continued the investigation and even faced the Count von Platen, telling him that von Königsmarck had either been captured or killed by order of his wife the Countess out of jealousy.[8]

In 2016, construction workers found human bones in a pit while installing an elevator in the Leineschloss.[9] Anthropological examinations of the bones showed that it is very unlikely that the remains were of von Königsmarck's, as was initially assumed.

The love letters between Sophia Dorothea and Königsmarck

When his affair with Sophia Dorothea threatened to become public, Königsmarck handed their love letters to his brother-in-law, the Swedish Count Carl Gustav von Löwenhaupt. His heirs later offered the dangerous material to the House of Hanover for money, but they wanted such a high price that the court decided not to buy it and instead questioned the authenticity of the correspondence. The correspondence was published in the middle of the 19th century. The majority of the letters are now in the possession of the Swedish Lund University, with a few ended up in the hands of Sophia Dorothea's grandson, King Frederick the Great of Prussia after allegedly being stolen by his sister, Swedish Queen consort Louisa Ulrika. Today the authenticity of the letters is beyond any doubt.[10]

The Hanoverian historian Georg Schnath calculated on the basis of the existing letters, which were rarely dated, but often numbered, that there were originally 660 letters, 340 letters wrote by Königsmarck and 320 letters wrote in response by Sophia Dorothea. The missing letters were confiscated and destroyed after the affair became known. In general, the holdings of the State Archives in Hanover hardly provide any information about the critical years. Even the correspondence between Electress Sophia and her niece Elizabeth Charlotte, which could have shed some light on some things, were obviously censored afterwards.[6]

Divorce and imprisonment


Königsmarck was eliminated, but that was not enough to restore the Electoral Prince's honor. He demanded a legal separation from his wife, with her as the only responsible part. Sophia Dorothea is transferred to Lauenau Castle in late 1694 and placed there under house arrest during the divorce proceedings. On 28 December 1694 the dissolution of the marriage was officially pronounced with the Electoral Princess as the sole guilty party for "maliciously leaving her husband" (desertion). Sophia Dorothea was forbidden to remarry or seeing her children again;[11] her name was removed from all official documents, she was no longer mentioned in the prayers and the title of Electoral Princess was stripped of her. After the verdict, she was sent to the remote Ahlden House, a stately home on the Lüneburg Heath, which served as a prison appropriate to her status. Although the sentence says nothing about continued imprisonment, she should never regain her freedom.[6]

At the behest of her former husband and with the consent of her own father, Sophia Dorothea was imprisoned for life. He confiscated her assets brought into the marriage and gave her an annual maintenance. She initially received 8,000 thalers for herself and her court, later raised to 28,000 thalers (her father and former father-in-law had committed to this in equal parts). She was quartered in the north wing of the castle, a two-story half-timbered building. A guard of 40 men was deployed for Sophia Dorothea, five to ten of whom guarded the castle 24 hours. All her mail and visitis were strictly controlled; however, there was never any attempt at liberation or escape.

Initially, Sophia Dorothea was only allowed to walk unaccompanied inside the mansion courtyard, later also under guard in the outdoor facilities. After two years in prison, she was allowed to take supervised trips only within 2 kilometers outside the residence.[11] Her stay in Ahlden was interrupted several times due to war events or renovation work on the residence. During these times she was housed in Celle Castle or in Essel. Her mother had unlimited visits. Her court included two ladies-in-waiting, several chambermaids and other household and kitchen staff. These had all been selected for their loyalty to Hanover.[11]

Sophia Dorothea was allowed to call herself “Princess of Ahlden” after her new place of residence. In the first few years she was extremely apathetic and resigned to her fate, later she tried to obtain her release. When her former father-in-law died in 1698, she sent a humble letter of condolence to her former husband, assuring him that "she prayed for him every day and begged him on her knees to forgive her mistakes. She will be eternally grateful to him if he allows her to see her two children". She also wrote to Electress Sophia in a letter of condolence that she wanted nothing more than "to kiss your Highness' s hands before I die". Their requests were in vain.

When Sophia Dorothea's father was on his deathbed in 1705, he wanted to see his daughter one last time to reconcile with her, but his Prime Minister, Count Bernstorff, objected and claimed that a meeting would lead to diplomatic problems with Hanover; George William no longer had the strength to assert himself against him.

After the devastating local fire of Ahlden in 1715, Sophia Dorothea contributed with considerable sums of money to the reconstruction.

Death and burial

The death of her mother —the only one who until the end fight for her release— in 1722 leave Sophia Dorothea completely alone and surrounded only by enemies, with the lasting hope of seeing her children again. Her daughter the Queen of Prussia came to Hanover in 1725 to meet her father (who is now King of Great Britain since 1714); Sophia Dorothea, who dressed even more carefully than usual, waited every day at the window of her residence in vain for her visit.

In the end she only seems to have found pleasure in eating. Her defenses waned and became overweight due to the lack of exercise. Increasingly she suffered from febrile colds and indigestion. In early 1726 she suffered a stroke, and in August of that year she went to bed with severe colic, which she never left. She refused medical help and refused to eat. Within a few weeks she grew emaciated. Sophia Dorothea died shortly before midnight on 13 November 1726 aged 60; her autopsy revealed a liver failure and gall bladder occlusion due to 60 gallstones. Her former husband placed an announcement in The London Gazette to the effect that the "Duchess of Ahlden" had died,[12] but would not allow the wearing of mourning in London or Hanover. He was furious when he heard that his daughter's court in Berlin wore black.[13]

Sophia Dorothea's funeral turned into a farce. Because the guards had no instructions in this case, her remains were placed in a lead coffin and deposited in the cellar. In January 1727 the order came from London to bury her without any ceremonies in the cemetery of Ahlden, which was impossible due to weeks of heavy rain. So the coffin came back into the cellar and was covered with sand. It wasn't until May 1727 that Sophia Dorothea was secretly buried at night[13] beside her parents in the Stadtkirche in Celle.[14][15][16] Her former husband George Louis (now King George I of Great Britain), died four weeks later while visiting Hanover.


Sophia Dorothea's parents must have secretly believed to the last that their daughter would one day be released from prison. In any case, in January 1705, shortly before her father's death, he and his wife drew up a joint will, according to which their daughter receive the estates of Ahlden, Rethem and Walsrode, extensive estates in France and Celle, the great fortune of her father and the legendary jewelry collection of her mother. Her father appointed Count Heinrich Sigismund von Bar as the administrator of Sophia Dorothea's fortune. He was twelve years older than the princess, a handsome, highly educated and sensitive gentleman, whom Sophia Dorothea showed deep affection for, which didn't go unrequited. She named him as one of the main beneficiaries of her will, but unfortunately he died six years before her.[13]




Fiction novels


  1. ^ Horric de Beaucaire 1884, p. 62.
  2. ^ a b Horric de Beaucaire 1884, pp. 63–64.
  3. ^ Leitner 2000, pp. 13–15.
  4. ^ Herman 2006, p. 100.
  5. ^ Hatton 1978, p. 55.
  6. ^ a b c Mijndert Bertram: Das Königreich Hannover – Kleine Geschichte eines vergangenen deutschen Staates(in German); Hannover: Hahn, 2003; ISBN 3-7752-6121-4
  7. ^ a b Hatton 1978, pp. 51–61.
  8. ^ From the reports of the English ambassador, Lord George Stepney.
  9. ^ Knochenfund am Landtag: Bringt DNA-Test Klarheit? (in German) in: Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung website ( [retrieved 09 August 2020].
  10. ^ Frederick the Great: Gedanken und Erinnerungen. Werke, Briefe, Gespräche, Gedichte, Erlasse, Berichte und Anekdoten (in German); Essen: Phaidon, 1996. ISBN 3-88851-167-4
  11. ^ a b c Hatton 1978, pp. 60-64.
  12. ^ Michael L. Nash (9 February 2017). Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008. Palgrave Macmillan UK. ISBN 978-1-137-60145-2.
  13. ^ a b c Leitner 2000, pp. 66–68.
  14. ^ The royal crypt and the grave slabs of the dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg in the town church of St. Marien Celle, with a leaflet illustrated with photos by Dietrich Klatt, Friedrich Kremzow and Ralf Pfeiffer, in DIN A5 format (4 pages) designed by Heide Kremzow, after: Dietrich Klatt: Little Art Guide Schnell & Steiner N° 1986, 2008.
  15. ^ Leslie Carroll (5 January 2010). Notorious Royal Marriages: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty, Destiny,and Desire. Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-101-15977-4.
  16. ^ Das Grab der Prinzessin von Ahlden (in German) in: [retrieved 09 August 2020].
  17. ^ Leitner 2000, p. 22.
  18. ^ Kuhn 1992, p. 281.
  19. ^ Henrike Leonhardt: Flucht der Eleonore v. d. Knesebeck [05.11.1697] (in German) [retrieved 09 August 2020].
  20. ^ Georg Ruppelt: Schiller in Hanover in: [dead link, last access date 24 December 2008].
  21. ^ Kuhn 1992, p. 412.
  22. ^ Essai sur l'histoire de la princesse d' Ahlen (in French), retrieved 09 August 2020
  23. ^ Historischer Verein für Niedersachsen: Katalog der Bibliothek des Historischen Vereins für Niedersachsen (in German), Historischer Verein für Niedersachsen, p. 15, entry n°. 1289. Ph.C. Göhmann, Hanover 1866.
  24. ^ Carl Haase: Neues über Basilius von Ramdohr (in German). In: Niedersächsisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte vol. 40 (1968), p. 172 PDF.