The King’s Mistress

“Letters from Hanover of the 8th of this Month bring an Account of the Death of the Princess Sophia Electress Dowager, Mother of the present Elector. Her Highness being walking in the Garden of Harrenhausen [sic] between 6 and 7 in the Evening of the Day, was seized with a sudden Illness, and sunk down as in a fainting Fit, but expired before she could be carried into her Apartment.”23

The Dowager Electress of Hanover was 83 years old when she expired in the gardens of her beloved Herrenhausen. From the moment that the phlegmatic Sophia became a frontrunner in the line of succession, she never really believed that she would live long enough to take place on the throne, much as she wished she might. In fact, she was right. Sophia of Hanover died on 8 June 1714 and less than two months later, on 1 August, Queen Anne of Great Britain followed her to the grave. Exhausted by illness and over a dozen pregnancies that ended in tragedy, the late queen’s body could bear the strain no more. Great Britain was about to change forever.

“It having pleas’d Almighty God to take to himself Our late most Gracious Queen of Blessed Memory, We Hope, that nothing had been Omitted, which might Contribute to the Safety of these Realms, and the Preservation of Our Religion, Laws, and Liberties, in the Great Conjecture. As these Invaluable Blessings have been Secured to Us by those Acts of Parliament, which have Settled the Succession to these Kingdoms in the most Illustrious House of Hanover.


Preparations are making for the solemn Funeral of her late Majesty, and if they can be ready soon enough ‘tis said she will be interred before the King’s Arrival.”24

As the population waited for King George I to arrive from the continent, some fretted about the threat from Scotland, where James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, was poised to press the Jacobite claim to the throne. Others held their breath, fearing exactly what this change in the status quo might bring when the family from Hanover arrived. Still others celebrated the end of the old regime and the beginning of the new, ready to embrace the future and profit from it as handsomely as possible. It was a time of unknowns for everyone, not least King George I.

The new king was about to enter an arena unlike any he had known and a world away from the absolutist electorate of Hanover. He was coming into a political landscape that was riven by factionalism, where the Tories and the Whigs stood either side of the battle lines and neutrality was not an option. Despite this, George Louis intended to favour neither and instead planned to appoint the best candidates for office regardless of political persuasion, but the shrewd Whigs had already done the groundwork required to position themselves as the pro-Hanoverian party. In the event when George Louis appointed his first British cabinet, he stuffed it full of Whigs. Within months of his arrival in the kingdom, they were the ruling party.

History has dismissed Melusine von der Schulenberg as obsessed not with power, but with cash. If Robert Walpole was to be believed, “money was with her the principal and prevailing consideration,” but whether that was really the case is open to question. As the divorced king’s mistress Melusine certainly enjoyed a level of privilege that few could dream of, and there were precious few to whom she must bow and scrape, as Henrietta Howard was forced to do. Yet claims that she was “so venal a creature, that she would have sold the king’s honour for a shilling advance to the best bidder,”25 scarcely take into consideration not only the privilege of Melusine’s life at the side of George Louis, but its precarious state too. Melusine had no safety net. Should her companion tire of her or decide to trade her in for a younger candidate, as happened frequently in the hothouse world of the European courts, she had little to cushion her fall. During her long relationship with George Louis there was frequent gossip that he had other lovers, but one in particular is worth mentioning.

Sophie Karoline von Platen was the wife of George Louis’ illegitimate half-brother, Ernst August von Platen, and a great favourite of George Louis. As a Catholic she was set aside upon his accession to the Protestant British throne and the threat she posed to Melusine’s position was removed, though she would return to cause trouble later. Yet despite her rivals Melusine remained the most senior female in Hanover, even though her dominance relied on George Louis’ continued affections. When the new monarch set off for his new kingdom her settled existence came under siege as never before. For the first time, it seemed likely that Melusine’s grip on her patron might be fatally weakened.

It wasn’t a rival who threw Melusine for a loop though, but the dramatic change of lifestyle and location that she was about to face. Melusine had been left without a mother at a young age and that loss had cemented the bond between the von der Schulenberg children. They became her closest friends and she repaid their friendship and loyalty with money, honours, and rank. Upon coming to Hanover she could have held out for a husband, for it’s likely a woman of solid breeding and excellent familial connections like Melusine would have found one. Instead of waiting though, she had taken the hand of George Louis and with it came no permanent guarantees.

When George Louis inherited the British crown, it meant a wholesale move to England for not only the new king, but more than one hundred German courtiers and household staff too. By the terms of the Act of Settlement no German candidate could hold official office in Great Britain, but George Louis intended to get around this by appointing his German favourites as advisors rather than officials. Though the German contingent technically had no power, in reality they had lots of it. After all, it wasn’t merely for advice that George Louis relied on Baron Andreas Gottlieb von Bernstorff, one of Hanover’s most senior politicians and a long-time conspirator of Clara von Platen. The baron had once been Prime Minister of Celle and in England he continued virtually unchecked, riding roughshod over British ministers, and wielding huge influence over the new monarch. Baron von Bernstorff was a political fly in the ointment for the British.

Only one person had more access to the king than von Bernstorff by the time the Germans set sail for England. That was Melusine, but if she was to maintain her position, it would mean leaving the only home she had known for twenty years. In Hanover she had raised her daughters and risen to the top of the pecking order little by little simply by enduring, but now she faced the challenge of uprooting her foundations to journey to a country that wasn’t even certain that it wanted the Hanoverians. It was a journey that Melusine wasn’t sure that she was willing to undertake.

George Louis left Melusine behind in Hanover, keen to get to England and relieve the temporary Regency council of their duties as soon as possible. Having prepared for the job for years, he was ready to rule. His sea journey was difficult and dangerous and Melusine initially demurred and remained in Hanover, leading Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to sneer that Melusine did so “fearing that the people of England, who, she thought, were accustomed to use their kings barbarously, might chop off his head in the first fortnight; and had not love or gratitude enough to venture being involved in his ruin.”26 It might make for a good joke, but there was no truth in it.

In fact, Melusine’s reluctance to leave Hanover was likely far more to do with the fact that she had made her home there for decades than a fear that the British might be about to lop off the new king’s head. Those who later sought to make her a figure of grotesque comedy claimed that when Melusine was faced with the possibility of moving to England, she responded by running wild laps of the gardens at Herrenhausen, embracing the statues and trees and frantically declaring that nothing could possibly induce her to leave her beloved home. Yet this seems at odds with the placid Melusine, who merely longed for a place of her own. Melusine’s mind was made up. She would not leave Hanover for England, no matter how much her lover begged.

George Louis’ triumphant accession to the British throne was no doubt tarnished by his mistress’ refusal to join him in his new realm, but he could delay no longer, and he left as soon as the weather allowed. However, no sooner had Melusine made up her mind to remain in Hanover than she changed it again, and all it took was a bit of old-fashioned jealousy. George Louis’ half-sister and rumoured mistress, Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg, announced that she was planning to accompany the royal retinue to England, knowing that Melusine would not be there to keep her from holding total sway over George Louis. Though Sophia Charlotte’s debts made it difficult for her to leave Hanover and George Louis didn’t offer to pay them – hardly a ringing endorsement of her company – she fled the electorate in disguise and sailed by night for the new kingdom. That was enough to prompt Melusine into action and she packed her bags and left the electorate behind to give chase before Sophia Charlotte could get her feet under the table. She and the couple’s three daughters – ostensibly Melusine’s nieces – braved treacherous seas to arrive just a short time behind George Louis. She had narrowly averted disaster.

Though fluent in French, the language of European royalty, Melusine had already begun learning English too, which she hoped would stand her in good stead at the British court. She mastered the language with far more willingness than her lover ever showed. Though he certainly could understand English when the mood took him, George Louis preferred to stick to German. His ambition wasn’t to make friends, it was to rule. He wanted to establish the House of Hanover in Britain and banish any doubts about the German incomers once and all. This wasn’t a time for social niceties, but for action.

For Melusine, meanwhile, what mattered was re-establishing a home. At first, she was content to linger in the background and to try to be as anonymous as possible until George Louis was settled, mindful of the fractious public mood and the need to keep an already tense situation under control. It’s testament to this that George Louis accepted the advice of courtiers that Melusine shouldn’t attend his coronation. They warned that making a mistress part of such a solemn occasion would send the wrong messages, further inflaming those who already questioned the legitimacy of the Hanoverian claim to the throne.

When George Louis learned that his coronation had been attended by other former royal mistresses, he was far from happy that they had witnessed what his own mistress could not. Melusine would linger in the background no longer. She and the couple’s daughters swiftly joined George Louis and his court at St James’s Palace, where they found their accommodation damp and dark, but there was to be no programme of renovation like that undertaken at Herrenhausen by George Louis’ parents. What work was carried out on the palace by the dour sovereign was strictly necessary to ensure their comfort, but it stopped short of luxury.

This wasn’t the case at Kensington Palace, which eventually became the couple’s favoured British home. During his reign, George Louis had a vast amount of work carried out by William Kent that completely transformed Kensington Palace and can still be seen and admired today. He had a purpose-built wing added specifically to house Melusine and she became so attached to the place that it was a wrench when she had to give it up for a new home following her companion’s death. Kensington Palace subsequently became home to George II and his own family, not to mention his mistress, Henrietta Howard, who found that George I’s renovations didn’t stop a crop of mushrooms from growing up through the floor of her chambers. Royal splendour at its finest.

When it came to housing, Melusine was far from exempt from criticism. In fact, she was about to taste the blunt reality of being a British king’s mistress. When Sir Christopher Wren was dismissed from his long-held position as Master of the King’s (previously Queen’s) Works in 1718, there were those who pointed the finger of blame for his sudden departure at Melusine. According to them, the king’s mistress had demanded several unsympathetic changes be made to the royal palaces and insisted haughtily that Wren obey her every whim. When he resisted her architectural mutilations, her critics claimed that Melusine had him unceremoniously kicked out and replaced by her personal choice of William Benson. In fact, the truth is likely rather more mundane than that. When Wren left his position, he was 85 years old. By anyone’s standards, retirement at such an advanced age is hardly likely to raise any eyebrows, yet we shouldn’t let Melusine entirely off the hook here. She certainly did clash with Wren on the matter of the royal residences and it’s impossible to be sure that her imperious side didn’t come out a little when she did. Her annoyance at Wren, combined with his Tory leanings, would certainly have done him no favours in the eyes of George Louis. It wasn’t wise to upset the king’s mistress.

Though Melusine had her daughters at her side as she attempted to navigate the waters of her new court, she had reckoned without the bitter opposition of the Tories and their supporters. In their eyes, George Louis was a usurper and the women who came with him were as bad if not worse. A particularly savage and bestselling pamphlet entitled Upon the Thanksgiving Day captured perfectly the fury reserved for the king and his entourage.

“The Golden Age is now at last restor’d!

ANNE is no more; but GEORGE is Britain’s Lord!

Now Justice, Plenty, Joy, & Fortune smile

With GEORGE’s Genius on this happy Isle.

Peace go with NAN: In her what have we lost?

Or what has GEORGE to these three Kingdoms cost?

Nothing, when weigh’d with what by him we’ve got,

And wheat from Herrenhausen he has brought,

Here he hath brought his dear Illustrious House,

That is, himself, a Close-stool, & a Louse;

Two Turks, three Whores, and Half a Doz’n Nurses,

Five Hundred Germans all with empty purses.”

The woman who had spent so many unobtrusive years in Hanover was now branded a whore, regarded with disgust and suspicion for the simple fact that she wasn’t the wife of the king. George Louis’ coronation, where it was wrongly claimed that “Kielmansegg and Schulenburg [sic] with their ruddied cheeks [stood] grinning behind the Defender of the Faith,”27 was greeted by riots and the new monarch hit back hard, invoking the Riot Act and either arresting protesters or impeaching the nobles amongst them. It was a messy affair all round, but George Louis was unbowed. In fact, the grotesque image of the grinning Maypole and ruddied Elephant were unfounded. They were certainly not standing behind George I as he took his solemn oath, but that wouldn’t make such a good story.

Melusine slotted into life in St James’s Palace just as quietly as she had in Hanover. The palace was far from luxurious but she made the best of it, and that placid manner that had worked in Germany was soon brought to bear in England too, but Melusine was no soft touch and she wasn’t afraid of going after what she believed she deserved. She even managed to turn the cold, damp palace to her financial advantage, successfully making a case for an increase in her fuel, refreshment and lighting budgets on account of the fact that the king himself spent each evening in her chambers. For that reason alone, Melusine argued, she couldn’t be expected to entertain him without the budget to keep the candles lit. Placid she might be, a pushover she was not.

Whilst the newly arrived Prince and Princess of Wales became beacons of fashionable society and public popularity, for the king there was to be no such adoration. George Louis had been dour in Hanover and now he was dour in London too, maintaining his privacy as far as he could and balking at suggestions that he should follow his son’s example and work on becoming a man of the people. He had no qualms about Melusine carrying out whatever social engagements she chose in her efforts to fit into her new life, but he did not wish to be part of them. The glamour of the Wales’ household held no appeal for King George I.

What was apparent from the moment George Louis arrived in his new realm was the fact that he had transported much of his familiar German world with him. The household of the late Queen Anne was suddenly filled with the acolytes of the incoming Hanoverians – among them Henrietta Howard, as we shall see later – and there were naturally fractious interactions with the two sides, each clamouring for power and influence in the new administration, whilst simultaneously attempting to reach a harmonious living arrangement. Yet mockery met them at every turn, as the two cultures clashed in the throne room and the drawing room alike.

“Countess of Buckenburgh said, in a Visit, that the English Women did not look like Women of Quality, but made themselves look as pitifully and sneakingly as they could; that they hold their Heads down, and look always in a Fright, whereas those that are Foreigners hold up their Heads and hold out their Breasts, and make themselves look as great and stately as they can and more nobly and more like Quality than the Others. To which Lady Deloraine replied, “We show our Quality by our Birth and Titles, Madam, and not by sticking out our Bosoms.”’28

Between Germany and England, there was a constant battle for court supremacy that would persist for years. Despite this, in day-to-day terms Melusine’s life as the king’s favourite was little altered. It’s no wonder that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s sharp nib was able to skewer the monarch and his mistress so easily.

“[Melusine] was so much of [George Louis’] own temper that I do not wonder at the engagement between them. She was duller than himself, and consequently did not find out that he was so; and had lived in that figure at Hanover almost forty years (for she came hither at threescore) without meddling in any affairs of the electorate, content with the small pension he allowed her, and the honour of his visits when he had nothing else to do, which happened very often.”29

When she wasn’t enjoying quiet nights in with George Louis, Melusine spent her days making her social calls or in church. She worshipped several times a day according to some correspondents, who wryly speculated that she did so in the fear of what fate might otherwise await her in the hereafter, having served as mistress to someone else’s husband for so many years. Yet in the here-and-now, little had changed for the couple. They still passed their evenings in quiet companionship and Melusine still entertained George Louis with caricature silhouettes as he smoked at her side, just as she had in Hanover. Though not given to displays of affection, Horace Walpole later wrote that George Louis had promised Melusine that she would never be without him even after death, and it’s true that they were closer than the king and his ill-fated wife had ever been. He dined with his mistress and their daughters most evenings and it was implicitly recognised that they were a family, rather than an unmarried couple taking supper with their nieces.

Sometimes Melusine and George Louis went to the theatre, where the king preferred to eschew the spotlight and sit behind Melusine in the box allotted to the Maids of Honour, out of sight of the public. Often they both kept out of the limelight, leaving George Augustus and his wife Caroline to champion the celebrity lifestyle. Though she had her familiar and trusted circle of Hanoverian ladies, Melusine also made a concerted effort to widen it to include the wives of senior and influential English courtiers, but just as she had at home, she kept out of politics. At first, that is.

As with any long-term relationship things weren’t always rosy and Melusine took a particular dislike to George Louis’ boozy afternoons with Robert Walpole. After the men had been out on a hunt they lolled around chatting and getting drunk, smoking their pipes as they set the world to rights. Melusine didn’t approve of these scenes of conviviality because she was far from fond of the politician’s influence over her patron, but she was wise enough to not to interfere too openly. She secretly asked her fellow German courtiers to try and break up the party but instead they poured a drink, lit a pipe, and joined in. Melusine took it on the chin. Besides, after two decades as the unassuming, brow-soothing mistress of George Louis, her loyalty was about to be rewarded.

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