Ill-Fated, Scandalous Lovers: Sophia Dorothea and the Swedish Count

Henry_Gascard_-_Sophie_Dorothea_als_FloraThe tale of Sophia Dorothea of Celle and her handsome, dashing lover, the Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, is tragic, but also rather foolish, because the lovers were so reckless that they brought about their own doom. It almost seems to me that the heedless teens Romeo and Juliet went about their wooing with more dignity and more sober awareness of the threats they faced than Sophia and Philip!

In 1682, Sophia Dorothea was married off at the age of 16 to her first cousin George Louis, future Elector of Hanover and King of Great Britain. Had it not been for the fact that George subsequently became the first German king on the British throne, the affair between Sophia and Philip would probably have been largely forgotten as an episode of little interest that occurred somewhere amidst the complex tangle of minor German nobility. But because George Louis became king and sired a line of kings, the sordid story was exposed and used against him.

Sophia and George were mismatched from the beginning. George’s own mother described him as “the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, who has ‘round his brain such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them.” Sophia, behind his back, referred to her husband as “pig snout.” She, a pretty but somewhat emptyheaded character, found George unattractive and tedious, while he criticized her for what he saw as her inferior education in proper etiquette. Somehow, despite this disharmony, they managed to have two children together, George Augustus (the future King George II) and Sophia Dorothea.

George proceeded to take a mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, whom he apparently found more pleasing than his wife. He made no secret of this relationship. Sophia seems to have arrived at the conclusion that she had done her duty by producing two children and, perhaps partly in view of George’s public infidelity, she was now entitled to please herself. Ironically, it was one of George’s brothers who originally introduced Sophia to Philip, who was everything George was not—handsome, charming, romantic, and noticeably lacking in common sense or even a basic instinct for self-preservation.


At first the two simply began a warm correspondence, but over time friendship ripened into a passionate affair. Sophia denied all of her life that she had ever had a sexual relationship with Philip, but letters were left behind and preserved that removed all doubt. Historians and the public alike were shocked when the first batch of letters was published around 1900.

In the letters, Philip makes remarks such as, “…what rapture! What enchantment have I not tasted in your sweet arms! Ye gods! What a night I spent! The memory of it blots out all my troubles, and for the moment I count myself the happiest man on earth.” He sends a thousand kisses to Sophia’s “mouth without teeth” and refers to “a prison which awaits your prisoner with much impatience.” He urges Sophia to keep this “prison” open for him but “closed to all the world” and recalls the joy in her eyes when she sees him “die” over her, crying out, “My dear Koenigs…” He declares he would like “to kiss the little places that have given me so much pleasure.”

Both of the lovers were warned that their affair would plunge them into disaster. Even George, it seems, tried to bring Sophia to her senses by writing to her of Philip’s gambling debts and commenting sarcastically that she is “a veritable Lucretia” with whom his honor is “very safe.” George was more concerned about the threat to his honor and reputation posed by his wife’s adultery than Sophia probably imagined.

Nevertheless, the two lovers began to plot to run away together. But far too many people knew of their meetings; it was impossible to keep their plans secret. On July 11, 1694, Philip spent one last night of ecstasy with Sophia at the Leine Palace in Hanover, kissed her goodbye, then disappeared. It is highly likely that, as he left the palace, he encountered four high-level courtiers who killed him with a sword thrust, weighted his body with stones, and threw him into the Leine River, which runs alongside the palace. George might have ordered the murder himself or left the dirty details to his father, Ernest Augustus, who was Elector of Hanover at the time.

Efforts were made to force Sophia to reconcile with George, but she, not knowing at first that her beloved was dead, insisted on a divorce, thinking that this would free her to be with Philip. The marriage was dissolved on December 28, 1694 on the grounds that Sophia had abandoned George.

Only later did Sophia realize that she was to be permanently confined in Ahlden House on the Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony, which is now mostly a nature preserve. She would not be allowed to remarry or to see her children ever again, and her communication with the outside world would be extremely limited. There she remained until her death in 1726, only months before the death of George, which might have released her.

George never forgave her. He was aware of the contents of some of her letters in which she expressed a wish that he would die in battle and compared him very unfavorably to Philip as a lover. When Sophia died, George forbade any mourning for her in either London or Hanover.

Having rid himself of his wife, George arrived in London for his coronation in 1714, without a wife, but with two mistresses. One was Melusine, so tall and emaciated that she was nicknamed “the Maypole” or “the Scarecrow,” and the other, Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg, who was possibly George’s half-sister by his father’s mistress. Sophia Charlotte, a large woman, was popularly known as “the Elephant.” The pamphleteers and cartoonists of the time had a field day making fun of King “Pig Snout,” with his clownish mistresses, who spoke almost no English and were trailed by a retinue of courtiers who used every opportunity in Britain to line their pockets.

No wonder the Jacobites rebelled against this unprepossessing German king who had been imposed on the British throne for one reason only—because he was the closest Protestant relative to his predecessor Queen Anne. It was not only Catholics who fought against George in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. Catholics hoped to end the persecution of Catholics, but many non-Catholics were also disgusted by this king dragged in from a foreign land who knew nothing of their country. The Jacobites preferred young Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, “the Chevalier,” who had been raised in exile in France but was viewed as a true Englishman, even if he was a Catholic. (The term Jacobite was derived from Jacobus, the Latin word for James.)

Despite her imprisonment, Sophia held a kind of little court at Ahlden, wore costly clothes in the latest fashion and kept a good table and fine cellar. She was even allowed to drive her carriage a short distance, though she was not permitted to walk outside the courtyard.

Nevertheless, Sophia resented her imprisonment and the loss of her children bitterly. She wrote an angry letter to her former husband shortly before her death. He received it not long before he himself died. Some have theorized that Sophia’s malevolent spirit revenged herself at last by destroying George from beyond the grave.


George I, by Ragnhild Hatton. Yale University Press, 2001. The original edition was published by Thames and Hudson Ltd in 1978.

The Love of an Uncrowned Queen: Sophie Dorothea, Consort of George I, by W. H. Wilkins, new and revised edition, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903. Originally published in 1900.


(Top) Sophia Dorothea, by Henri Gascar, 1686.

Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, anonymous portrait, 1690s.

ANobleCunning-cover smallPatricia Bernstein grew up in Dallas. She earned a Degree of Distinction in American Studies from Smith College and, returning to Texas, founded a public relations agency in Houston, while publishing dozens of articles in publications as varied as Texas Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and The Smithsonian. She is the author of The First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP and Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan. Patricia lives in Houston with her husband, Alan Bernstein. They have three wonderful and very different daughters. A Noble Cunning: The Countess and the Tower is her debut novel, inspired by a true story she heard during a visit to Scotland in 2014 about a persecuted Catholic noblewoman who rescued her husband from the Tower of London the night before his scheduled execution.

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