An Electoral Divorce

As the 1690s wore on, George Louis barely saw his wife if he could help it. He spent much of his time away on military campaigns and when he was at home, every free moment was occupied by Melusine. She entertained him every evening in her chambers, where she made satirical paper-cut caricatures of courtiers as her beloved songbirds trilled on their perches. Sometimes she joined the crown prince on trips away whilst at home, Sophia Dorothea alternated between rage, boredom, and despair. The only chink of light on the horizon was the promise of a new life with Königsmarck, if only they could escape Hanover together. An elopement could be disastrous for the electorate in more ways than one. Not only would it be embarrassing, but should the lovers find sanctuary with one of Ernest Augustus’ enemies, it could be politically costly too. For Clara, it was just one more way to make mischief. She impressed upon Ernest Augustus the importance of preventing the couple’s rumoured elopement, stressing the instability a rogue crown princess could cause in the region. He consented to have Königsmarck arrested, but his mistress went much further than that. Her actions would have shocking consequences for the marriage of George Louis and Sophia Dorothea, and subtly changed the status of Melusine forever.

On the night of 1 July 1694, as Königsmarck left Sophia Dorothea’s rooms in the Leineschloss, he was attacked by four armed men in the pay of Clara von Platen. It was she who dealt the killer blow, kicking her former lover in the mouth as he took his dying breath. Only then did reality hit and the panicking killers disposed of their victim’s remains and tried their best to cover up the crime. The body of Königsmarck has never been found. When Sophia Dorothea awoke on the morning of the planned elopement, she was immediately placed under house arrest. As the missing count’s sister searched the Holy Roman Empire for any trace of her brother, Melusine was the shoulder on which George Louis could lean. He lost no time in refusing Sophia Dorothea any further audiences with her children and to her dying day, she never saw them again.

To the horror of Ernest Augustus, the goings-on at the Leineschloss were soon the talk of polite society across the empire. George Stepney, William III’s envoy in Dresden, wrote to James Cresset, the British envoy in Hanover, hungry for all the gossip and keen to share his own take on the unfortunate situation.

“I have great curiosite to know what piece of mischief has been brewing at Hanover. If you dare not trust it at length, I must beg you to satisfy me in Cypher, as likewise with the particulars of your Princess’s ruine. […] A servant or two of Count Königsmarck run frequently betwixt this place and Hanover […] seeking out their master, but have no tidings. […] I have been told his sister [Aurora] raves like Cassandra and will know what is become of her brother; but at Hannover they answer like Cain, that they are not her brother’s keeper and that the Body should be found […] I knew [Königsmarck] in England, at Hamburg, in Flanders, and at Hanover for a dissolute debauchee whom I would always have avoided. […] This is all I have had to do with the spark, and if he has been as black as we think he is, his Fate (be what it will) is not to be pityed.”18

When Sophia Dorothea was questioned about her role in the affair by Count von Platen, Clara’s far from impartial husband, she maintained her innocence. Perhaps surprisingly, George Louis was still willing to forgive his wife at this point, if only to save the new electorate any further embarrassment. He informed Sophia Dorothea via Baron von Platen that she would be freed from captivity and returned to her rightful place at his side if she swore to be an obedient wife from that day forwards. The very idea of this sickened her and Sophia Dorothea replied loftily that “if what I am accused of it true, I am unworthy of his bed; and if the accusation is false, he is unworthy of me. I will not accept his offers.”19

Sophia Dorothea had sealed her own fate. If the couple couldn’t live together, then they would be divorced. Sophia Dorothea was condemned to genteel confinement in Ahlden House on the river Aller, where she remained until her death more than three decades later. The day after the divorce was finalised, Hanover held one of the greatest carnivals the electorate had ever seen. As wine flowed and fireworks lit up the night sky over the stately gondoliers, Melusine von der Schulenberg was the only woman at George Louis’ side.20

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