Despite her apparent triumph in Berlin, Melusine was still smarting from the stinging aftermath of the South Sea Bubble and the Irish coinage scandal. She was depicted in print and caricature as the sort of woman who would ransom off a kingdom’s coin for her own financial benefit, and whose avaricious desperation to acquire ever more cash had almost led the nation into catastrophe. Though Robert Walpole won Melusine’s gratitude and favour after he steered the country out of what had seemed like inevitable ruin, she never picked up any of his political nous. Walpole knew when and how to keep out of trouble and that was a lesson that Melusine would have done well to learn. After her decades of uneventful companionship in Hanover, the Duchess of Kendal was simply no match for the twists and turns of British politics, no matter how grand her title.
Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, had once flown high. He had been the leader of the Tories, and he had held one senior cabinet post after another during the reign of Queen Anne, but when George I came to the throne all of that changed. Lord Bolingbroke had been a firm supporter of Queen Anne and when discussions were taking place regarding the Hanoverian claims to the throne during the late queen’s lifetime, he always tended to look more favourably on Anne’s interests than those of her eventual successors. It was to prove a costly mistake in the long term for when George I arrived in England, one of his first acts was to dismiss Bolingbroke.
Lord Bolingbroke’s subsequent actions were difficult to explain. Having failed to protect his position and that of the Tories, he fled the country “in Disguise, having a black bob Wig on, with a laced Hat, and very ordinary Clothes”65, and made for France. There he allied himself to James Francis Edward Stuart, the Jacobite Pretender, who he believed had a more valid claim to the British throne than the Hanoverians. In France, Bolingbroke served as foreign minister for the Jacobites, but he soon came to realise that he had made a fatal error in leaving his homeland. Though the Pretender made him the Earl of Bolingbroke in the Jacobite peerage, in England, Lord Bolingbroke was attainted for treason in his absence and stripped of all his titles and property. To all intents and purposes, he had been cut adrift. Only then did he realise that he didn’t want to be in France at all.
From his exile in France, Bolingbroke looked back at Britain longingly. He wanted to come home, but with his old sparring partner Robert Walpole holding almost unchallenged power, the question was how could he do so? When a letter-writing campaign brought no joy, he knew that he would have to appeal to the heart of the royal bosom itself. Just as other courtiers had done before him, Bolingbroke turned to Melusine as his key to winning the favour of the king.
Not long after the death of Bolingbroke’s first, ill-treated wife66, Frances Winchcombe, he married again. His new spouse was a French widow named Marie Claire Deschamps de Marcilly, whose late husband had been the Marquis de Villette, cousin of Louis XIV’s morganatic67 wife, Mme de Maintenon. The second Mrs Bolingbroke was wealthy and well-connected, and she agreed to go to England and court Melusine, armed with a bribe of £11,000. No doubt Melusine, who “hath been slightly indisposed for some days past […] with the Colick” 68, was glad of a new income stream as she convalesced.
Walpole was minded not to allow Bolingbrook to return from exile, but he had no power to block Bolingbroke’s return to favour if it was what George Louis wanted. Once the door to Melusine’s chambers closed, the monarch’s ear was hers alone. When Marie Claire arrived at the British court she set about immediately endearing herself to Melusine, who had learned from the South Sea Bubble and William Wood debacles not to leave a paper trail that could lead critics back to her door. This time the money that bought her favours was not passed directly to the Duchess of Kendal, but to Viscount Chetwynd. The viscount handed it to the Countess of Walsingham, Melusine’s daughter, and from her it found its way to Melusine, “whom English money and an English Title had made true to the English ministers”69.
Walpole’s chaplain, Henry Etough, recalled that:
“[Walpole] informed me the same day, that the bill in favour of St. John, is wholly to be ascribed to the influence of the Dutchess. Either the present viscount Chetwin [sic], or his brother William, conveyed eleven thousand pounds from St. John’s lady to lady Walsingham, the dutchess’ niece.”70
Though in these times of cash-for-access scandals it may appear surprising that such a bribe took place, the exchange of court favours wasn’t uncommon. There was also the small matter of Marie Claire’s considerable wealth, which certainly opened doors in the Georgian world. She swiftly became Melusine’s shadow, making her husband’s case at every opportunity, whilst Bolingbroke waited for updates in France. The first victory came with his pardon in May 1723, though his titles and lands remained forfeit. Welcomed back into the fold, Bolingbroke planned to ingratiate himself with the king during the monarch’s latest European jaunt, then accompany him back to Great Britain once his business in Hanover was concluded.
“An Express is dispatch’d to the Lord Viscount Bolingbroke, with an Account of his Pardon pass’d and as his Lordship will wait his Majesty’s arrival in Holland, so we are well assured that his Lordship will follow the Court to Hanover.”71
A thrilled and no doubt relieved Bolingbroke wrote to Lord Townshend in full forelock-tugging mode to tell him:
“I shall do my best on this side of the water to lessen the force of any objections against what the king has done, and intends to do in my favour; and if my restitution can be compleated [sic], your lordship may have more useful friends and servants; a more faithful one you cannot have, than I shall endeavour to approve myself. Mr Walpole tells me, that I may give your lordship the trouble of delivering the two inclosed [sic], which I beg of you to present to the king, and to the dutchess [sic] of Kendal.”72
Melusine replied via Townshend to assure Bolingbroke of his allies’ “good intentions to have what remains to be done in your favour perfectly finished according to your desire”73. The letter stopped short of issuing a guarantee and reminded the ever-hopeful Bolingbroke “that it does not entirely depend on the king; and that it must be managed with circumspection.”74 In the same letter Townshend assured Bolingbroke that he was “desired by the dutchess [sic] of Kendall [sic], to return your lordship very many thanks for your letter to her, with assurances of her grace’s particular regard for your lordship and the success of your affairs.”75 Winning Melusine to his cause would prove to be an intelligent move.
Townshend’s letter confirmed that Marie Claire had done her job admirably, or most of it anyway. What Bolingbroke wanted next was the reinstatement of his titles, lands, and a seat in the House of Lords. When he fell dangerously ill with a fever in late 1724 it seemed as though he might never live to see his triumph76, but once again fate smiled on the seemingly charmed Bolingbroke and he pulled through. He arrived back in England in late May 1725 to be greeted by reports that the attainder would soon be lifted. This meant that his titles and estates would be restored and would be able to pass down the line of succession to his son. Finally, on the last day of May, George Louis attended the House of Lords and gave the royal Assent to “An Act for enabling Henry St. John, late Viscount Bolingbroke, and the Heirs Male of his Body, notwithstanding his Attainder, to take and enjoy several Manors, Lands and Hereditaments in the Counties of Wilts, Surrey and Middlesex”77. In short, Bolingbroke was back in the game. That payment of £11,000 to Melusine wouldn’t have done his case any harm whatsoever.
Although “Viscount Bolingbroke kiss’d the King’s Hand and continued some Time with his [sic] Majesty,”78 there were caveats. He had little real political influence and he was denied the right to sell or transfer the ownership of any of his property. Likewise, whilst Walpole might not have been able to block Bolingbroke from being pardoned, he did manage to prevent the return of his title and seat in the House of Lords. Perhaps surprisingly, Bolingbroke was so filled with his own self-importance that he honestly believed that the king would throw Walpole out of office and hand him the reins of power. Even more surprisingly, if Walpole’s chaplain Henry Etough is to be believed, Walpole was anticipating the same outcome. And he believed it was all down to the influence of Melusine von der Schulenberg. Etough recalled Walpole’s fears that, “As [Bolingbroke] had the dutchess [sic] entirely on his side, I need not add, what must or might in time have been the consequence.”79
Walpole’s fears and Bolingbroke’s hopes would prove to be misplaced. George Louis might have restored Bolingbroke to favour, but the possibility of him replacing Walpole with Bolingbroke was always remote. Still, it does tell us something of Melusine’s influence that even Walpole feared for his position once Bolingbroke had purchased her favour. The once-disgraced Bolingbroke was even granted a private audience with George Louis at Melusine’s request, though the king cleared the plan with Walpole first. It sent the politician into an uncharacteristic panic.
Walpole knew that he was in an impossible position. Should he tell George Louis not to meet with Bolingbroke then Melusine would simply press harder to get her way. Should he approve the meeting, then Bolingbroke would doubtless use the private audience to stick the knife into his opponent. An unsealed letter from Bolingbroke to the king that happened to pass over Walpole’s desk left him certain that his old rival was intending to oust him, but Walpole told George Louis to meet with Bolingbroke anyway, determined to carry out some damage limitation immediately afterwards.
As the monarch and the once-exiled politician met in private, Walpole fretted and paced in an antechamber immediately outside. When the meeting ended and Walpole was admitted to the sovereign’s company, he asked the king what had been discussed. George Louis’ worryingly vague reply was simply, “bagatelles, bagatelles”, but Walpole was sure that his old foe was elbowing his way back into power. With Melusine as his champion, he feared where it might end. A confident Bolingbroke, meanwhile, readied himself for power.
In 1726 Bolingbroke and George Louis’ relationship was closer than ever and Bolingbroke was convinced that he would soon be installed in Robert Walpole’s place at the head of government. Once the king returned from a trip to Hanover, Bolingbroke assured his supporters that there would be a handover of power and Walpole’s reign would be over. Thanks to George Louis’ death during his last visit to his ancestral electorate, that moment never came. Instead fate took a decisive swerve and Bolingbroke’s “fortune turned rotten at the very moment it grew ripe”80, sending his ambitions into oblivion along with the late king.
Yet Bolingbroke continued to build his influence and massage Melusine’s ego for what remained of George Louis’ life. He hoped that Melusine would pave his way to the very top of the administration and Walpole certainly believed that she had the ability and inclination to do so. In fact, though Melusine’s influence held considerable sway, whether it reached far enough to unseat Robert Walpole is a matter for debate. It’s equally unlikely that George Louis would have agreed to such a radical change of command just to satisfy Melusine’s whims. Walpole was a fixer, and a fixer was just what the king wanted at the top of the political tree. The South Sea Bubble had left him burned. He and Melusine alike knew better than anyone that the intervention of Robert Walpole had been all that had prevented a complete incineration.