Notorious Royal Marriages

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Published by: NAL Trade
Release Date: January 5, 2010
Pages: 489
ISBN13: 978-0451229014



Everyone loves a royal wedding. Except, perhaps, the bride and groom. Throughout history, most royal marriages were arranged affairs, brokered for diplomatic and dynastic reasons, and often when the prospective spouses were mere children. The perfect royal marriage brought territorial gains to the ruling dynasty’s side (usually the groom’s) and cemented alliances between families and regions. It was of little consequence that the spouses often didn’t meet until their wedding day. Or that they had been in love with someone else and were now compelled to abandon all hope of the personal happiness or emotional fulfillment that might have come from nuptial bliss with another. There is no I in dynasty.

In general, there was always one primary goal of a royal marriage: to beget an heir. And for a good part of the past millennium, when much of Western Europe was embroiled in perpetual warfare, it was believed that only a male heir would be able to defend and hold the throne, although a female could legally inherit the throne in England and Scotland. During more martial eras, royal wives who managed to produce only daughters-Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, for example-were disposed of by their spouse, powerless to challenge his authority. If execution was no longer an option to ending a problematic or infertile marriage, there was always divorce. Napoleon Bonaparte divorced his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, because she failed to bear him a son.

With so many marriages being little more than dynastic alliances, how did these royals manage to survive their arranged nuptials and make their peace with the world into which they were born? Or did they? Precious few of the notorious royal marriages profiled in this book began as love matches—although they didn’t necessarily stay that way. For several centuries, if things weren’t working out, the monarch might play the all-purpose, get-out-of marriage-free card known as a papal dispensation on the grounds of consanguinity. In other words, plenty of unions were sundered after cousins who had received a dispensation to marry in the first place suddenly decided to become appalled and repulsed by how closely they were related when it became expedient to wed another.

With so many intriguing relationships, choosing whose stories to omit was nearly as difficult as selecting which ones to include. Within this volume are some of the world’s most famous royal unions, as they affected and were affected by the historical and political events of the times; it is not intended to provide an overview of world history, to probe with great depth the wars and revolutions that gripped Europe for centuries, or to present a full biography of the principals.

Comparing the selection of a marriage partner to fishing for an eel—that staple of Renaissance diets-Sir Thomas More’s father commented that it was as if “ye should put your hand into a blind bag full of snakes and eels together, seven snakes for one eel.”

In these pages are the snakes as well as the eels—the disastrous unions and the delightful ones; the martyrs to marriage and the iconoclasts who barely took their vows seriously; the saintly and the suffering; the rebels, and the renegades-all of whom took the phrases “I do” and “I will” and ran as far as they could go with them, exploring and embracing the broad spectrum of passion, power, and possibilities far beyond the royal bedchamber.


From Eleanor of Aquitaine to Princess Diana, Carroll writes with verve and wit about the passionate – and occasionally perilous – events that occur when royals wed. From the occasional love match to the more frequent grudge match, Carroll’s fascinating account of nine centuries of royal marriages is an irresistible combination of People Magazine and the History Channel.
- Chicago Tribune

For those who tackled Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” and can’t get enough of the scandal surrounding Henry VIII’s wives, here’s the perfect companion book. You can get all of the dirt you want, with none of the guilt (it’s history, O.K.?). Read more
- The New Yorker


In my nonfiction debut, Royal Affairs, the focus was on the mistresses involved in some of history’s most scandalous royal liaisons. But how did the wives feel? What did their royal marriages look like (and feel like) from the inside, how did they get there, and what happened along the way?

Notorious Royal Marriages places the focus on the queens and kings-the events of their political and domestic lives, their road to the altar, and their relationship with their kids. And while some of the same couples featured in Royal Affairs are also profiled in Notorious Royal Marriages I found, as I revisited those relationships that on occasion my initial opinion of the players altered as I read even more about them and as I viewed the royal partnership from another angle.

For example, my sympathies somewhat decreased for Maria Fitzherbert, the secret wife of the future George IV, when I discovered that she was pretty vain and had a bad temper, hardly the maligned modest violet of many portrayals. Conversely, my heart went out to a woman I had previously disdained, George’s first cousin (and official wife) the smelly, indiscreet Caroline of Brunswick. And when I revisited the royal romance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, I found Wallis Simpson to be even more objectionable that I’d already thought her to be.

I also discovered that in the nine hundred or so years of history that form the canvas for Notorious Royal Marriages, a genuine love match is as rare as a red diamond.

To say that researching and writing this book kept me busy is an understatement. During the nine months that I had to deliver the manuscript I don’t remember sleeping much. I dreamed about Catherine de Medici, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Queen Victoria; the various Henrys (two, eight, and Henri II) invaded my thoughts during Pilates; and Mary, Queen of Scots, Ferdinand and Isabella and Joanna the Mad were my mental companions as I rode pillion across the country on my husband’s motorcycle.

I get a tremendous thrill out of making history come alive. To me the subject is anything but dry and dusty. In fact, it’s fun, not to mention incredibly sexy.


George I
Elector of Hanover: 1698-1727
Ruled England: 1714-1727
Sophia Dorothea of Celle (1666-1726)
married 1682-1694

“I will not marry the pig snout!”
~Sophia Dorothea to her parents, 1682

You know there’s trouble ahead when the in-laws hate each other long before the betrothal even takes place.

Sophia Dorothea of Celle was a love child, the daughter of George William, the duke of Brunswick Lüneburg who ruled the postage-sized Celle portion of the duchy, and his mistress Eleanore Desmier d’Olbreuse, an exiled French Protestant aristocrat.

George William had been all set to inherit the far more prestigious duchy of Hanover, but it came with strings attached: he had to marry the mannish looking bluestocking his father had selected for him, Princess Sophia, daughter of the Palatine King of Bohemia.

Evidently Sophia was so repugnant to George William that he ceded part of his inheritance, offering his Hanoverian claim to his younger brother Ernst Augustus if he would take the homely Sophia off his hands. The ambitious Ernst Augustus agreed, as long as George William promised never to marry and sire heirs, because they would end up rivaling their own first cousins for the Hanoverian throne.

There was only one major problem with this fraternal bride-swap: Sophia had been in love with George William and didn’t much appreciate his foisting her on his kid brother.

Seven years later, in 1665, George William fell head over heels for the dark bouncing curls, enchanting smile, and sparkling eyes of Eleanore d’Olbreuse. He had to have her, but there was that pesky promise to his brother. He got around it by arranging a sort of unofficially morganatic marriage to Eleanore, meaning that she derived no title, nor would their offspring have any claims to their father’s property.

But when Sophia Dorothea was born out of formal wedlock in 1666, Eleanore worried about the difficulties of securing a husband for a bastard daughter and began campaigning for the girl’s legitimization and for a proper marriage to George William. The process took years. By 1676, because Ernst Augustus and Duchess Sophia already had plenty of sons as potential successors to the duchy of Hanover, they no longer perceived the daughter of George William and Eleanore as a threat. Their original objections to the marriage mooted, little Sophia Dorothea was legitimatized, and her parents were legally wed.

Sophia Dorothea grew up to resemble Snow White, with thick dark hair, doe-like eyes, an ivory complexion, and tiny hands and feet. With her stunning figure, she was grace personified. Flirtatious and vivacious, she excelled in all the womanly arts and talents of music, dance, singing, and needlework. To most suitors for her hand, her birthright mattered little. Besides, she had been declared retroactively legitimate.

Although Duchess Sophia despised her sister-in-law Eleanore, she recognized that the best way to get control of Celle was to keep it in the family. So she saddled up her horse and rode over to visit her in-laws, proposing that they wed Sophia Dorothea to her eldest son George Ludwig, six years the girl’s senior. A perfect match! the elder Sophia urged. No other could be considered! Not only that, Sophia Dorothea would eventually be duchess of a far vaster domain than she would if she wed any of her other prospects.

George Ludwig had already distinguished himself as a soldier. His two talents revolved around killing things, as his greatest extracurricular passion was hunting, if you don’t count his ardor for his invariably hideous mistresses. His union with Sophia Dorothea would certainly not be the love match her parents enjoyed. It was closer to Beauty and the Beast, minus the transformation and the happy ending. Nicknamed “the pig snout,” George Ludwig lacked looks, culture, intellect, and regal bearing. Where Sophia Dorothea was lively, charming, and musical, George Ludwig was slow and sullen with a chilly disposition that masked a vindictive core.

And his mother didn’t even like him. As she cheerfully looked forward to receiving the annual installments of Sophia Dorothea’s substantial dowry, the Duchess Sophia wrote to one of her other nieces:

One hundred thousand thalers a year is a goodly sum to pocket . . . without speaking of a pretty wife, who will find a match in my son George Ludwig, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, and who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them. He does not care much for the match itself, but one hundred thousand thalers a year have tempted him as they would have tempted anybody else.

When young Sophia Dorothea learned she would have to wed her twenty-two-year-old first cousin, she rebelled, declaring “I will not marry the pig snout!” as she hurled his miniature portrait, encrusted with diamonds, across the room. But it was a fait accompli; the Hanovers were waiting downstairs. Sophia Dorothea’s father was adamant about the match and Eleanore was powerless to stop him, even as she anticipated clashes between Sophia Dorothea and the mother-in-law from hell. When the sixteen-year-old sacrificial bride-to-be was escorted down to meet Duchess Sophia and kiss her jeweled hand, she fainted. She had the same reaction a few days later, when she was presented to her betrothed.

George Ludwig was just as insulted by the match. In his eyes, his luscious cousin’s looks were nothing compared to her initial bastardy.

Nonetheless, the young couple’s wishes were ignored in favor of dynastic and political goals. So on November 22, 1682, each looking like a prisoner en-route to the scaffold, the pale and trembling Sophia Dorothea was wed to the chilly and distant George Ludwig in the chapel of Celle Castle. The bride’s mother sobbed loudly during the entire ceremony. The groom’s mother, having sacrificed her ego to politics, looked grim. Only the fathers were smiling at the thought of the sizeable double duchy that would be created by the uniting of their adjoining realms. Ernst Augustus in particular, couldn’t wait to have Celle added to his Hanoverian holdings. The more land his family acquired, the more power they would have, and the better his chances of convincing the Holy Roman Emperor to make him an Elector, one of the German rulers with the prestigious privilege of selecting the emperor.

The newlyweds formally resided at the Leine Palace in Hanover. Sophia Dorothea was immediately made miserable not only by her husband’s remoteness but also by her mother-in-law’s perpetual scolding regarding her ignorance of court etiquette. Luckily for Sophia Dorothea, George Ludwig became literally distant when he embarked on various military campaigns for significant stretches of time. But he kept au courant with his wife’s activities through the reports of spies he had placed among her servants who chronicled everything she did or said, particularly when she turned her wit on him, shredding his personality in public.

In between arguments, they did manage to have two children. In 1683, after Sophia Dorothea gave birth to a son and heir, George Augustus, things became more cordial. Sophia Dorothea endeavored to ingratiate herself with her in-laws and George Ludwig promised to swear off adultery. His paramour was Sophia Charlotte von Kielmannsegg, the married daughter of his father’s mistress, the blowsy Countess Platen. Although the countess had numerous lovers, it was widely assumed by all but the related parties, that the woman Platen had placed in the prince’s bed was her daughter by Duke Ernest Augustus, making the happy couple half-siblings.

In 1685, Sophia Dorothea took off on an Italian holiday with her father-in-law. While she was away, George found a new lover among his mother’s maids of honor-Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg-as freakishly tall and anorexically thin as Frau von Kielmannsegg was short and portly.

When the princess returned from her vacation to find that her husband had taken up with a second hideous mistress, she was livid; but the royal couple must have kissed and made up just long enough for Sophia Dorothea to become pregnant again. Their daughter-also named Sophia Dorothea-was born on March 16, 1687. But during the particularly acrimonious celebration of the little girl’s birth, after George nearly strangled his wife in public, the battling Hanovers wanted nothing more to do with each other.

Sophia Dorothea’s complaints about her husband’s infidelities were ignored, even by her own father, whose prime minister had for some strange reason filled his head with stories about his daughter’s less sympathetic wifely qualities, her arrogance, and her sharp tongue.

Sophia was indeed far from the perfect wife. As heedless and selfish as she was lovely, in 1689 she commenced a torrid epistolary affair with a tall, handsome, and rakish Swedish mercenary in her husband’s army. By the time he fell shako over spurs for the princess, Count Philipp Christoph von Königsmark had left his curly black wig and shiny boots on the floor of many a European lady’s boudoir. Sophisticated and cultured, and as flirtatious as his inamorata, he enjoyed literature and dancing and all the refined and elegant trappings of polite and elegant society. His previous paramours even included the scheming and jealous Countess von Platen, Ernst August’s mistress. However, his liaison with the Hanoverian hereditary princess, his soul mate and fellow sensualist, was True Love and by 1690 he had dropped the countess like a contaminated object and become Sophia Dorothea’s paramour in every way. Their romance was filled with clandestine trysts, coded correspondence, secret signals, and a trusted confidante to act as a go-between.

The couple spent as much time in each other’s arms as possible and exchanged lurid love letters. The count wrote to his beloved “I embrace your knees” and expressed a longing to “kiss that little place which has given me so much pleasure.” But around 1692 the latter letter, and many others, found its way into the hands of Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, most probably through the machinations of the spurned Countess Platen.

That year, Ernst Augustus had finally been granted his dearest wish, the honor of becoming an Elector. With his newfound status, he began to care more about keeping up appearances and therefore had to do something about the von Königsmark affair, which had become too indiscreet to ignore. Countess Platen convinced him to exile the count; but no sooner was he banished than the handsome Swedish mercenary got himself a new post with the Elector of Saxony. However, at an officer’s party one night in Dresden, von Königsmark became a bit too voluble under the influence and dished the dirt on the Hanoverian royal family. Naturally, the trash talking got back to his former employer.

The one most injured by von Königsmark’s mockery around the punch bowl was the tall and skeletal Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg. She ran to her lover, tearfully complaining that his wife’s banished paramour had mortally insulted her. George Ludwig confronted Sophia Dorothea who promptly let him have it, insisting that the real sex scandal was his affair with Melusine! A pitched battle ensued between the royal spouses and George Ludwig tried to choke his wife to death. Shoving her to the floor, he vowed never to see her again. Unlike his earlier promise to quit committing adultery, this pledge he kept.

With nothing left of her marriage, Sophia Dorothea and von Königsmark elected to throw caution to the winds, and scheduled an elopement. Königsmark arrived at the Leine Palace and made straight for his lover’s boudoir. After enjoying a passionate reunion, the count planned to come back for her the following day.

But Countess Platen discovered the plan and reported it to Ernst Augustus who had his guards waylay von Königsmark as he left Sophia Dorothea’s bedroom. The stories about the count’s subsequent murder are as colorful as they are varied. What is certain is that he was ambushed-either on the open road or in the Leine Palace-and that he fought back valiantly, wounding one of his assailants. Unfortunately, he lost; and his body disappeared entirely. Most historians believe it was buried right under the bloodstained floorboards of the corridor where he may have been summarily dispatched, his corpse covered in quicklime to eradicate the stench of decay and hasten decomposition.

A hysterical Sophia Dorothea was detained in her rooms, under house arrest. Adultery could not be mentioned since it cast doubt on the legitimacy of her children (and therefore, their inheritance), although they had been born long before Sophia Dorothea first met von Königsmark.

George Ludwig had ignored his wife’s infidelity for years because von Königsmark was such a crack soldier and one of the best swordsmen in Europe. And it’s possible that if neither spouse had flaunted their respective extramarital liaisons, the royal marriage might have clattered along tolerably well, or at least as well as most other arranged unions between two first cousins.

But enough was enough. A kangaroo court found Sophia Dorothea guilty of “malicious desertion”-a far greater crime than adultery, since desertion would create problems with the collection of her annual dowry installments. And on December 28, 1694, her marriage to George Ludwig was legally dissolved-a relief to the princess, who was now officially rid of a husband she found revolting. “We still adhere to our oft-repeated resolution never to cohabit matrimonially with our husband, and that we desire nothing so much as that separation of marriage requested by our husband may take place,” she had averred during the divorce proceedings.

All traces of Sophia Dorothea’s existence in Hanover were expunged. Her name was obliterated from government documents and was no longer uttered in the clergy’s recitation of prayers for the royal family. Her former in-laws did, however, continue to pocket her annual dowry installments.

On February 28, 1695 Sophia Dorothea was “banished” to a lovely moated country home in Ahlden where, after the first, exceptionally restrictive year of her incarceration, she lived out the rest of her days in what most of us would consider luxury, attended by a modest retinue. She was given the new title duchess, or princess, of Alhden. Although her children were taken away and raised by their paternal grandmother, Sophia Dorothea would not have been the recipient of any mother-of-the-year trophies, so this sacrifice was probably for the best.

Meanwhile, George Ludwig continued to enjoy the charms of his two lovers. By then, Melusine-acknowledged since 1691 as his maîtresse en titre-gave him two daughters who were immediately reborn as the prince’s “nieces.” She would bear a third daughter in 1701. Although he never acknowledged paternity of any of the girls, he did make sure they were very well provided for as they were growing up and they were included in his intimate family circle.

George Ludwig became the Elector of Hanover on the death of his father in 1698. He promptly dismissed Countess Platen from court. On her deathbed she confessed to her complicity in the murder of Count Philipp Christoph von Königsmark, and the details of his brutal, bloody demise came to light, exonerating George Ludwig, who had always been assumed to have been ignorant of the plot. Nonetheless, his wife’s adulterous affair and the strange case of von Königsmark’s disappearance, as well as Sophia Dorothea’s subsequent imprisonment, had been the talk of European courts for years.

Yet even as she remained under lock and key, Sophia Dorothea’s existence remained a problem. George Ludwig was actively campaigning to be placed on the short list for succession to the English throne. According to the 1701 Act of Succession, all future rulers of England had to be Protestants descended from the Stuart line. George Ludwig’s accession was a long shot at the time because Queen Anne, who ascended the throne in 1702, seemed exceptionally fertile. In the long run, Anne endured seventeen pregnancies but none of her children survived into adulthood. George Ludwig’s mother, the Dowager Electress, was a granddaughter of the Stuart king James I, and a Protestant to boot, so his claim-as well as her mother Sophia’s, if she predeceased him-were genuine. However, his divorce from Sophia Dorothea was both a political and a religious embarrassment, especially in England. She could very well manage to attack George Ludwig’s character, adding fuel to the cause of the Jacobites who wanted to see the Catholic descendants of James II and his second wife Mary of Modena on the British throne.

But on April 12, 1714 the House of Lords resolved that a request be sent to Queen Anne to issue a proclamation offering a reward to anyone who apprehended and brought to justice the Jacobite “Pretender,” James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II and Mary of Modena. Anne signed the proclamation on June 21, paving the way for a Protestant successor-which meant that George Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, was next in line for the throne; his mother had died just weeks earlier, on June 8.

Less than two months after the issuance of the proclamation, on August 1, 1714 Queen Anne died.

If Sophia Dorothea had remained married to George Ludwig, she would have been Queen of England. Some historians believe that her divorce papers might not have been ironclad; this would explain why, after George Ludwig’s accession as George I of England, she was watched even more closely for fear that she might escape Ahlden and demand to share his throne. Their daughter, Sophia Dorothea the younger, had become Queen of Prussia but her own husband was such a tyrant that he forbade her to help her mother in any way.

On November 13, 1726, lonely and all but forgotten, Sophia Dorothea died at the age of sixty; some say of a possible stroke or heart attack, others claim she suffered a fever. She had been a prisoner for thirty-one years with the exception of a few months in 1700 when Ahlden lay in the path of a French invasion. After the danger had passed, her father sent her back to the castle.

Evidently, as she lay dying in agony Sophia Dorothea scrawled a letter to her ex-husband, cursing him from the grave. On her death the court of Hanover went into mourning, but George sent word from London that no one was to wear black. Sophia Dorothea had inherited her mother’s property in 1722 upon Eleanore’s death and willed it to her children, but George destroyed the will and appropriated her property for himself. Then he ordered all her personal effects at Ahlden to be burned. He insisted on her ignominious burial at Ahlden but the ground was too waterlogged, so her coffin sat around in a dreary chamber for two months until his superstitious mistress Melusine claimed to see Sophia Dorothea’s unfettered spirit flying about in the guise of a bird.

In May 1727, Sophia Dorothea was finally interred within the family crypt in the Old Church at Celle, where visitors honoring her martyrdom to True Love still place flowers on her unprepossessing lead coffin.

That June, the sixty-seven-year-old monarch embarked on his fifth excursion to Hanover since the beginning of his reign as king of England. On June 20, his little entourage stopped en-route in Delden, Holland, at the home of a friend, Count de Twillet, where George enjoyed an enormous supper, overindulging in a dessert of oranges and strawberries. Despite a dreadful bellyache the following day, the king was eager to get back on the road. When he reached Ibbenburen, he suffered an attack of apoplexy.

A contemporary described the incident. “He was quite lethargic, his hand fell down as if lifeless, and his tongue hung out of his mouth. He gave, however, signs of life by continually crying out as well as he could articulate, ‘Osnabrück! Osnabrück!’ [the name of his birthplace].” According to the Historical Register, his last words were in French-“c’est fait de moi“-I am done for. He died in the early hours of the morning on June 22, 1727, and was buried near his mother’s monument at the Leineschloss Church in Hanover.

Some believe the catalyst for George’s sudden fatal illness was not a surfeit of fruit but an incident that occurred on June 19, 1727, when he received a mail delivery as he traveled to Hanover. It was his wife’s ghostly epistle. George suddenly remembered that decades earlier a fortune teller had prophesied that if he were in any way responsible for his wife’s death he would die within a year of her demise.

With the exception of Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg, very few people mourned the passing of George I. As king of England, his political agenda often favored his Hanoverian interests; in 1720 he had been personally involved in England’s worst financial disaster, the South Sea Bubble; he had never bothered to learn more than the rudiments of the English language; and he had masterminded an attempt on his own son’s life.

George and Sophia Dorothea’s son succeeded his father on the British throne, ruling as George II. He ordered Hanover’s records unsealed and discovered 1399 pages of love letters-only a fraction of those exchanged-between his mother and Count von Königsmark. His idyll was shattered: his mother was no saint and had indeed been an adulteress. But George also recognized that his father had behaved dreadfully to her. Had Sophia Dorothea lived, George II would have liberated her from Ahlden and installed her as the Dowager Queen of England.

In any event, the lesson was not fully learned. George II took mistresses as well, although for a while he did his best to be discreet about it-his singular way of respecting the feelings of his purportedly beloved wife, Caroline of Anspach.