“His Majesty has been pleased to create Erengard Melosine [sic]. Baroness of Schulenburg [sic], a Baroness, Countess, Marchioness and Duchess of Ireland, by the Name, Style and title of Baroness of Dundalk, Countess and Marchioness of Dungannon, and Duchess of Munster.”30
In 1716 Melusine was naturalised as a British citizen. George Louis rewarded her loyalty with the title of Duchess of Munster, along with payments to the tune of several thousand pounds a year. When the Duke of Somerset resigned as Master of the Horse that same year, instead of appointing a new candidate to the post and paying them the £7,000 annual salary that went with it, it was paid to Melusine instead. Though she was generous with her family to a fault, the new Duchess of Munster certainly didn’t live humbly. In the Georgian era cash was king, opening doors and heaping status onto whoever held the purse strings. To thrive at court, you needed money, and Melusine knew that more than anyone.
Cash attracted criticism and followers in equal measure and Melusine was never short of company, as courtiers jostled to be near to the woman who sat at the king’s right hand. Though she didn’t initially meddle in political affairs, ambitious social climbers knew that one word from Melusine during her nightly meetings with the king could do more than hours spent bowing and scraping in the throne room. Even as the chattering classes smiled and tugged their forelocks, they were rather sniffy about the German incomer, as Lady Cowper’s recollections of overheard gossip at a court function suggests.
“[Lady Cowper commented] “there was a good deal of music, yet I could not avoid being uneasy at the repetition of some words in French which the Duchess of Bolton said by mistake, which convinced me that the two foreign ladies [presumably Schulenburg and Kielmansegg] were no better than they should be”.”31
Nicknamed “the Maypole” by the public on account of her height and build and dismissed as no better than she should be by the very courtiers who flocked to fill her apartments and win her favour, Melusine was nevertheless immovable. She enjoyed money, titles, and privileged access to the sovereign, but what made her an attractive prospect also made her a target. There was always someone else who wanted what she had and like all royal mistresses, Melusine quickly learned that it paid to stay alert. On top of ambitious social climbers, there was no shortage of would-be replacement mistresses either. George Louis might have kept Melusine at his side, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t have a roving eye and Caroline of Ansbach’s maids of honour certainly wrote knowingly of his tastes. When Margaret Bradshaw told Henrietta Howard that “the king has a new bird out of my neighbourhood, which I hear he is very fond of”, the suggestion that George I wasn’t above taking supplemental mistresses alongside Melusine rang loud and clear. There would always be “a new bird” to catch his eye. Like any long-suffering royal wife Melusine mostly put up with that roving eye without complaint, but when it roved towards Mary Lepell, she sat up and took notice.
Known as Molly by all at court, Mary Lepell was a well-connected young lady who, at the age of 15, was appointed maid of honour to Caroline of Ansbach, George II’s future queen. Molly had all the qualifications for advancement at the Georgian court. Bright, bubbly, and beautiful, she was determined to make her mark.
“She was extremely forward and pert,” wrote the Duchess of Marlborough to Horace Walpole, and those qualities rather recommended her to the king. Upon her birth, the young woman had been made a cornet in her father’s regiment and though it was an honorary appointment, it brought with it a salary that was very real indeed. Once Molly became a maid of honour she moved to cement her status, correctly guessing that her honorary military salary might not be paid for much longer. Thanks to her charms, “my Lord Sunderland got her a pension of the late King, it being too ridiculous to continue her any longer an officer in the Army”, and the one-time cornet left her rank behind. With her military pension and her pertness, Molly soon became of the most notorious ladies at court, despite her youth. George Louis couldn’t have failed to notice her.
Molly was so celebrated a beauty that poets fell over themselves in their efforts to memorialise her best qualities. Even Voltaire asked of her, “Would you know the passion, You have kindled in my breast?”, but Voltaire was merely one in a long line of admirers, with George I at the head. Well-versed in the games of court intrigue, Molly seemed to pose a genuine threat to Melusine’s position, and it was obvious to all. For years George Louis had enjoyed nightly appointments with Melusine but now Molly and George Louis were together each evening instead, albeit at drawing rooms with other courtiers present. Once the king had left the gathering Molly mockingly repeated everything he had told her to her friends, revelling in being the centre of attention. Amongst those friends was Caroline of Ansbach’s gossipy and scheming favourite, John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey of Ickworth, who had something of an interest in Molly himself.
Fearing that Molly’s mocking indiscretion and love of the Prince of Wales’ set might prove dangerous, Melusine eventually paid her rival £4,000 to make herself scarce. Molly subsequently married Lord Hervey and continued to be as notorious as she was celebrated for nearly five more decades. Melusine had seen off one rival, but there were others. There always would be, right until the end of the king’s life.
Politically aware if not particularly active, Melusine, Duchess of Munster, owed her new Irish title to her friendship with Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, who was Secretary of State for the Northern Department. He was the brother-in-law and close political colleague of the infamous Robert Walpole, who wielded enormous influence and power as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Melusine was far from fond of Walpole, who called her “as much Queen of England as ever was”, but he recognised how important she was in keeping the king on side. A highly intelligent and shrewd politician, Walpole made use of Townshend’s friendship with Melusine wherever possible. As Baron Hervey noted, “the Duchess of Kendal never loved Sir Robert Walpole, and was weak enough to admire and be fond of Lord Townshend, [and] the canal of application had always been from Lord Townshend to the Duchess and from the Duchess to the King.”32 The importance of the royal mistress could not be downplayed. Perhaps that was the reason that Walpole stood by without complaint and let his own wife share the king’s bed from time to time.
Lord Townshend secured the title of Duchess of Munster for Melusine in the belief that she would be delighted with it and ready to reward him handsomely. At first she was, but her excitement didn’t last once she realised that the grand-sounding rank didn’t carry anything like the cache of an English peerage. The Act of Settlement denied the king the right to award English peerages to the Germans, but Melusine had been naturalised and it rankled that a more prestigious title could have been hers. In a world in which favours were a fact of life, Townshend had fatally undervalued Melusine’s price. He was swiftly demoted to the lesser role of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and after just four months in that post, he was dismissed.
Though Townshend was sure that Melusine had orchestrated his downfall out of spite, this might not have been entirely true. The viscount had other enemies, not least Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, and James Stanhope, who was to become 1st Earl Stanhope. Despite a long and enduring business relationship with Hanover that had existed since the reign of Queen Anne, when George Louis came to the throne Sunderland had been forced to settle for the surprisingly lowly office of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. He was determined to claw his way back to the top of government and a matey trip to Hanover in the company of the king transformed the fortunes of both Sunderland and Stanhope, at the expense of their mutual opponents, Townshend and Walpole. Though Melusine was certainly annoyed at her relatively meagre Irish honour, it was Sunderland and Stanhope who convinced George Louis that Townshend and Walpole had been conspiring against him with the Prince of Wales, and George Louis’ immediate recourse was to demote Townshend accordingly. On the day after Townshend was dismissed from Ireland in 1717, Robert Walpole resigned. Of course, he would later rise to the very pinnacle of government.
Though the Stanhope-Sunderland pairing was undoubtedly at the root of Townshend and Walpole’s troubles, Townshend was convinced that upsetting Melusine had been his biggest mistake. In a letter he railed against the reasons that had been given for the hobbling of his career, acknowledging that, “[Sunderland] directly charges the lord chancellor, my brother Walpole, and me, with having entered into engagements with the prince [of Wales] and form’d designs against the king’s authority.”33 Yet, after a long and detailed description of the many and varied ways in which he had been insulted by Sunderland, Townshend closed the letter by dismissing it all as so much hogwash. Instead, he levelled the blame at the Hanoverian contingent, who made easy scapegoats for a disenfranchised British statesman. Baron von Bernstorff, it must be said, was certainly a man given to the sort of Machiavellian schemes that could end a career, but whether Melusine would have been so enraged at her Irish peerage that she orchestrated Townshend’s dismissal in revenge is open to question.
“These are all the reasons I have yet heard alledg’d for my disgrace. […] However, though these are the topics given out by my enemies, I am far from thinking that they are the true and originall [sic] causes of my disgrace. I believe the duchess of Munster, Mr. Bernstoff [sic] and Mr. Robethon34 could give a much more exact and authentic account of the real causes that produced this event, if they thought it as much for their own service, as it might be for my credit to have the whole mystery of this alteration laid open.”35
Melusine was fast learning the political ropes. In Hanover, the first lady of the court was the late Electress Sophia, who made sure to keep Melusine in her place no matter how close she and George Louis might be. It was in England that Melusine was able to come into her own and flourish, disproving those earlier court biographers who dismissed her as an idiot who grabbed at money and jewels, with little in her head beyond avarice. She disliked Walpole from the off and Townshend was tarnished by his closeness to the First Lord, so the fall of both of them was of little consequence to her but besides this, Stanhope and Sunderland’s role in toppling their political opponents was far more significant than that of the king’s mistress. Walpole and Townshend had been paying close court to the Prince of Wales, so they were already on shaky ground and their enemies were quick to capitalise on it.
Yet when a Prussian envoy wryly noted that Melusine was often the person who “broke the first ice” when it came to winning an audience with the king, he wasn’t wrong. Breaking the first ice via Melusine could be a shrewd political move, and she could apparently work miracles with the king too. Nobody would learn that better than the Prince and Princess of Wales when a domestic explosion shook the royal household to its roots and caused a rupture at the heart of the court.
When George Louis and his son, George Augustus, came to England together in 1714, their relationship was already strained. It wasn’t helped by the fact that George Augustus’ seven year old son Frederick stayed in Hanover, where he was to act as the ceremonial figurehead of the family. This meant he was in regular correspondence with his grandfather and whilst George Louis undertook trips back to the electorate to see his grandson, George Augustus didn’t meet Fred again for more than a decade. As young Frederick fell more and more under the influence of George Louis, the domestic situation in England grew increasingly tense. The two Georges had virtually nothing in common and whilst the king’s subjects regarded him as a dour and rather unappealing figure, the Prince and Prince of Wales were beloved celebrities, whether glittering at the theatre or even, in the case of George Augustus, heroically extinguishing fires and keeping London and its people safe.
Melusine soothed her companion’s brow through all his domestic trials and was at his side when he developed the symptoms of an anal fistula in September 1717. The same ailment had struck down Louis XIV in 1686 and tales of the agonising and dangerous surgery he endured were still told, so George Louis was terrified by the prospect of having to endure similar treatment. For Melusine, this was a dose of reality. It was the first time she had been forced to really face the fact that she might lose her companion and she was worried at the prospect of what looked like an uncertain future. Without the king, she hardly knew what might await her. Happily, George Louis’ fears were to prove unfounded and the eventual diagnosis was one of haemorrhoids. For now, Melusine would keep her king.
The relief at court was immense but short-lived, for another drama was brewing and even Melusine couldn’t prevent the eventual estrangement of father and son. It began in 1716 when George Louis refused to appoint George Augustus as his regent whilst he was out of the country visiting Hanover. The Prince of Wales felt the insult deeply, but their festering mutual dislike finally came to a head in 1717 when a row erupted over the christening of the Wales’ newborn son, George William, and the king’s insistence on the Duke of Newcastle as godfather. George Augustus was so inflamed at his father’s meddling that a scuffle broke out at the christening, during which Newcastle claimed that the Prince of Wales had challenged him to a duel. The prince hotly denied the allegation, but George Louis chose to believe Newcastle.
In a situation that calls to mind Ernest Augustus cutting off his own dissenting sons in Hanover, George Louis banished his heir from St James’s Palace and issued an order that any courtiers who continued to see George Augustus would likewise be banished. Caroline of Ansbach had not been exiled but when she chose to follow her husband to his new lodgings at Gloucester House, the king refused to let her take their children with her. All of them, including the newborn George William, were to remain at St James’s in their grandfather’s custody. The split was bitter and, for the parents who were forced to leave their youngsters behind, it was heartbreaking.
Caroline pined for her children desperately and the canny Walpole, sensing a way to get the Prince of Wales into his debt, suggested that she approach Melusine and ask if she would speak to the king on her behalf. It did the trick. George Louis relented and agreed to grant Caroline access to her children, though he flatly refused to allow George Augustus the same privilege. Only when Prince George William fell dangerously ill did his grandfather relent and grant George Augustus permission to visit the children and say one last goodbye to his youngest son. George William died at just three months old, leaving his family bereft.
At least Caroline and George Augustus could find some peace in the knowledge that their youngsters were being treated well. Melusine was never malicious and she viewed her partner’s family as an extension of her own. Thanks to the close bonds between her and her siblings in childhood, she knew better than anyone that youngsters needed affection to flourish without the presence of their parents. Affection was something George Augustus had singularly lacked after his mother had been taken away, and the consequences of that separation could be seen in every tortured argument and clash between father and son. Though Melusine was certainly motivated by money on occasion, cruelty for its own sake held no interest for her and she considered George Louis’ grandchildren her own. She made it her business to keep the youngsters happy despite the forced absence of their parents and their lives were a long way from that of George Augustus, who had been forbidden from even mentioning his own mother’s name. Melusine had a maternal instinct that made her a natural caregiver for the children and to her, there was no distinction between step-grandchildren and the real thing. She made sure that the youngsters were always given rooms near to her own, so that there was always a friendly face to turn to. She loved them like a grandmother and they in turn found comfort in her presence.
At Gloucester House, the Prince and Princess of Wales sat at the head of an alternative court that was filled with George I’s political opponents. Chief among them was the Machiavellian Robert Walpole, who enjoyed a long and enduring friendship with Caroline that proved valuable to both when she was crowned queen. Indeed, it was he who eventually negotiated a shaky peace between father and son that endured until the former’s death. Despite this, George Louis never quite trusted Walpole, but he knew that it was better to call him an ally than an enemy. Melusine, on the other hand, had more pleasing matters to deal with for now.
“His Majesty has been pleased to create Her Grace Erengart Melusina Dutchess [sic] of Munster, a Baroness Countess and Dutchess of Great-Britain, by the Name and Style and Title of Baroness of Glastenbury [sic] in the County of Somerset, Countess of Eversham in the County of Kent, and Dutchess of Kendal in the County of Westmorland.”36
When Melusine was given the all-important title of Duchess of Kendal in 1719, it was a tacit acknowledgement of her importance in George Louis’ life and her influence over him. What she wanted, she got, and as Townshend and Walpole learned, it was never a good idea to incur the wrath of this usually quiet and unassuming woman. Melusine and George Louis’ daughter, Luise, was honoured with the title of Countess of Dölitz37, whilst Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg, Melusine’s nearest rival if not for the king’s affection then at least in terms of feminine influence, would have to wait years for a similar honour38. Unlike Molly Lepell, those who wanted a more subtle kind of leverage knew that the path of least resistance was to make Melusine a friend rather than have her as a foe. She spoke English fluently and was happy to receive English courtiers, unlike George Louis who preferred to stick to German, was uneasy in social situations and didn’t make new friends easily. Nobody was closer to the king than the Duchess of Kendal, so it made sense to kowtow to her if one hoped to join the innermost circles of the sovereign.
“As the Duchess of Kendal seemed to express a wish to see me often, I have been very attentive to her, being convinced that it is highly essential to the advantage of your Majesty’s service to be on good terms with her, for she is closely united with the three ministers who now govern,”39 wrote Count de Broglio, the French envoy in London, to Louis XV. A veteran of Versailles and its dizzying life of intrigue and court protocol, he had sussed out the lie of the land in Great Britain with no trouble whatsoever.
“The King visits her every afternoon from five to eight; and it is there, that she endeavours to penetrate the sentiments of his Britannic majesty, for the purpose of consulting the three ministers, and pursuing the measures which may be thought necessary for accomplishing their designs. She sent me word, that she was desirous of my friendship, and that I would place confidence in her. I assured her, that I would do every thing [sic] in my power to merit her esteem and friendship. I am convinced that she may be advantageously employed in promoting your majesty’s [sic] service, and that it will be necessary to employ her; though I will not trust her further than is absolutely necessary.”40
The reply from the French king was swift and unequivocal. In it is the implicit approval of whatever financial bribes might be necessary to keep this influential woman on side. She had never played politics in Hanover, but this was a different world.
“There is no doubt that the Duchess of Kendal, having a great ascendancy over the King of Great Britain, and maintaining strict union with his ministers, must materially influence their principal resolutions. You will neglect nothing to acquire a share of her confidence, from a conviction that nothing can be more conducive to my interests. There is, however, a manner of giving additional value to the marks of confidence you bestow on her in private, by avoiding in public all appearances which might seem too pointed, by which means you will avoid falling into the inconvenience of being suspected by those who are not friendly to the Duchess, at the same time that a kind of mysteriousness in public on the subject of your confidence, will give rise to a firm belief of your having formed a friendship mutually sincere.”41
Though she wasn’t the monstrous and money-grabbing creature that history has painted her as, it’s a certainty that Melusine would have accepted favours or donations from those who sought advancement, just as other influential courtiers had done and would continue to do for centuries. It didn’t always work out for them though. Just ask Richard Child, who courted, flattered, and funded Melusine in the hope that he would receive a title for his troubles. His reward was an Irish peerage and the titles of Baron Newtown and Viscount Castlemaine, which both Melusine and Sir Richard took as a thinly veiled insult. They always suspected that Stanhope and his faction had blocked Child’s path to a more prestigious English peerage, simply to send a message to the king’s mistress. Child had initially hoped to lavish £10,000 on a peerage during Queen Anne’s reign, so he certainly wasn’t new to such ideas. It had merely taken him longer than expected to act on them.
Still, Melusine had her closed shop from which favours could be purchased, from bestowing a title to granting the relatively lowly wish of 10 year old Horace Walpole to kiss the king’s hand, and she no doubt looked favourably upon the gift givers when it came to matters of business. In very few cases did a paper trail remain but once in a while, receipts were left behind. After all, was it really a coincidence that the accounts of the wealthy politician James Brydges showed a payment of £9,500 to Melusine42 just months before he was awarded the prestigious title of Duke of Chandos? It was an open secret too, and Horace Walpole later noted with sly amusement that when Sir Jacob Bouverie was made Viscount Folkestone, he “bought his ermine at twelve thousand pounds a-yard of the Duchess of Kendal.” It was cheap at the price.
Yet there were inevitably some who would be disappointed under the system of courtly favours. Take for instance John Ker of Kersland, who had been a spy in the Hanoverian court for Queen Anne and liked to think that he had played a significant part in securing the succession of King George. Like all loyal servants, he believed that the time had come for him to receive recognition for his service to the Hanoverians. Ker wanted to be made Governor of the Bermudas, but when he received a paltry 100 thalers and a couple of congratulatory medals instead, he became convinced that “one of the foreign concubines” had scuppered his chances. Having missed out on his dream job, Ker’s fortunes went from bad to worse and when he ended up in debtor’s prison, he attributed his fate entirely to Melusine. Despite his belief, there was nothing to suggest that Ker’s suspicions were founded in anything but a very personal hatred for the woman he believed had deliberately set out to ruin him. In the final volume of his memoirs, published by the scandalous Edmund Curll, Ker furiously lamented “the torrent of corruption that inundated the Court when the Hanoverians alighted here, having infested every department of state, from the Lord Chancellor downwards, never has the law been more distorted in any case to suit political views than it was in that in which this infamous woman was plaintiff.” Ker died in debtor’s prison in 1726. He blamed Melusine for his sorry fate to his very last breath.
Though Ker’s belief that Melusine had set out to ruin him was unfounded, the suggestion that she operated a cash for access and favours scheme was certainly true. In fact, Melusine was unapologetic about it. She had to set herself up for the future and with daughters to support and a lifestyle to finance, she was lining her pockets just like everyone around her. Put simply, titles were certainly up for sale under George I, but they always had been. It was what had oiled the wheels of court since time immemorial.