Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Maypole and The Elephant - Mistresses of George I

by Mike Rendell

I find the stories of the mistresses of the Hanoverian Kings fascinating. The love-life of George I was a case in point, and I would like to share a few facts about the King, his Queen, and two of his mistresses known to the British public as The Elephant and The Maypole.

George 1st, c.1714, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller
George 1st, c.1714 
painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller
When George had married his cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1682 he was twenty-two and she was sixteen. It was not exactly a love-match – she referred to him as “pig-snout” and begged not to be forced to go through with the marriage. She fainted when she was first introduced to him. For his part, George was equally horrified, largely because he felt insulted by the fact that his bride was of illegitimate birth (although her parents did eventually marry each other). For some strange reason George’s taste in women did not extend to this vivacious, good-looking young girl with a stunning figure. It was rumoured that his preference was for a somewhat short and portly paramour - another Sophia (Sophia Charlotte von Kielmannsegg). She was the married daughter of his father’s mistress, the Countess Platten. The Countess was renowned for being particularly generous with her favours and there is no certainty as to which of her many lovers fathered Sophia, but the public were convinced that Sophia and George shared the same father. The relationship, if true, meant that George was having an incestuous relationship with his half-sibling.…

George's wife, Sophia Dorothea of Celle
George's wife
Sophia Dorothea of Celle

George’s marriage was arranged by the two prospective mothers-in-law purely for financial and dynastic reasons – George’s mother was the Duchess Sophia of Hanover, and she was keen to get her hands on the very substantial dowry on offer, payable in annual instalments. As the duchess wrote to her niece:
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 Louis, the most pig-headed, stubborn boy who ever lived, 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.
The marriage was doomed. George treated his new bride with contempt, humiliated her in public, and was constantly arguing. But despite his ‘extra-curricular activities’ he managed to sire a son and a daughter by Sophia: George Augustus, born 1683, who went on to become King George II of Great Britain; and Sophia Dorothea, born 1686, later to become wife of King Frederick William I of Prussia, and mother of Frederick the Great. However, Sophia was more and more abandoned by George – she had done her duty by producing a male heir, and he fell back on his other amorous pursuits.

Faced with such a loveless environment, Sophia developed a friendship with a Swedish Count by the name of Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. The Count had a penchant for writing somewhat indiscreet letters to Sophia, and soon they became lovers. A huge number of particularly torrid letters fell into the wrong hands (in other words they were intercepted or stolen) and ended up with Sophia’s father-in-law, and by 1694 the affair had become extremely public knowledge. George was incandescent with rage and physically attacked his wife, attempting to strangle her before he was pulled off by male attendants. His parting shot was that he never wished to see her again – and he never did.

Sophia and the Swedish Count decided to elope, but their plans were intercepted. Having enjoyed one last tryst with his inamorata, the Count was ambushed and killed by members of the palace guard. Sophia was placed under house arrest and a ‘kangaroo court’ was held. It found her guilty of malicious desertion – a finding which had the dual advantage of ensuring that the dowry payments from her parents would be maintained, while avoiding those awkward questions about the paternity of her children which might have arisen if she had been publicly declared to have been an adulterer.

In December 1694 the marriage was dissolved. Her children were then aged eleven and eight. They were taken away from her, and she was banished to the Castle of Ahlden, never to see her offspring again. She remained, incarcerated at Ahlden, for thirty-three years until her death in 1726. When she lay dying with kidney failure she sent a letter to George, in which she predicted that he too would be dead within the year. Delivered posthumously, it cursed him from the grave, and a popular story has it that within a week of opening the letter, George was indeed dead.

The Maypole
The Maypole (although in this portrait
she doesn't look particularly scrawny!).
All that was in the future when George ascended the British throne in 1714, but it explains why, when he first set foot on English soil on 18 September 1714 George brought with him two women who quickly became known by the nick-names of ‘the Maypole’ and ‘the Elephant’. The ‘Maypole’ was his somewhat scrawny and wafer-thin maîtresse-en-titre – his official mistress, by whom he had three illegitimate children. They had met when she became a maid of honour to Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, in 1691.The ‘Elephant’ was his illegitimate half-sister Sophia von Kielmansegg, mentioned earlier. The royal family denied vehemently that George slept with Sophia, but as far as the British public were concerned both the Maypole and the Elephant were royal mistresses, and stories were rife about the goings-on in the Royal household.

The Elephant
The Elephant
As to the Elephant, Horace Walpole recalled "being terrified at her enormous figure… Two fierce black eyes, large and rolling beneath two lofty arched eyebrows, two acres of cheeks spread with crimson, an ocean of neck that overflowed and was not distinguished from the lower part of her body, and no part restrained by stays; no wonder that a child dreaded such an ogress, and that the mob of London were highly diverted at the importation of so uncommon a seraglio! … indeed nothing could be grosser than the ribaldry that was vomited out in lampoons, libels, and every channel of abuse, against the sovereign and the new court, and chaunted even in their hearing about the public streets." Sophia was the complete opposite of the willowy Maypole, who Horace Walpole termed ‘long and emaciated.’

George was known to have a propensity for large women, or, as Lord Chesterfield put it: "No woman was amiss if she was but very willing, very fat and had great breasts"! That still leaves the question: whatever did George see in the Maypole?

The Maypole, more correctly styled Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, was loathed by the English court. She was hated for being dull and stupid, for having appalling dress-sense, for being avaricious, and for condoning incest (i.e. because it was believed that she shared the King’s bed with his half-sister). She must have had something going for her though, since the King kept her as his mistress for almost forty years, and during that time she became an invaluable intermediary between the King and his Ministers. She grew rich on the sale of appointments, and incurred the wrath of Grub Street hacks who resented her meddling in British politics. As Robert Walpole remarked, she was "as much Queen of England as any ever was, … he [George I] did everything by her." Above all though, she and The Elephant were closely linked with the scandal of the stock market crash in 1720 known as The South Sea Bubble.

Both women appeared to have shared a common link – neither of them had enough money.

In the case of Melusine she had her ‘three nieces’ to bring up and educate – they were in fact her illegitimate children by George, but he never acknowledged them nor contributed significantly to the cost of their upbringing. In 1719 she had been given the title of Duchess of Kendal, and she needed to maintain appearances appropriate to her status.

Meanwhile Sophia was a widow bringing up five children – in a country where the cost of living was far higher than in her native Hanover, and where keeping up a lavish lifestyle, appropriate to what she saw as her entitlement, was extremely expensive.

Both women were happy to be the recipient of bribes in the form of South Sea Company stock to the value of fifteen thousand pounds. In addition, two of Melusine’s ‘nieces’ each received shares to the value of five thousand pounds.

The South Sea Company entered into a guarantee with Melusine and Sophia that £120 would be paid for every point the stock price rose above £154. In 1719 the South Sea company had sought permission to convert some thirty million pounds of the British National Debt. Up until that time government bonds were not readily trade-able because there were problems redeeming the bonds, which were often for very large amounts which could not be sub-divided. The South Sea Company hit upon a clever wheeze whereby they would convert these un-wieldy, untrade-able bonds into low-interest, readily trade-able bonds, and they set about bribing half the cabinet, including both Lord Stanhope and Lord Sunderland, to gain support for the scheme.

The Elephant and the Maypole were enthusiastic supporters of the proposal – small wonder since they had a vested interest in the success of the venture. Stock, which had stood at £128 in January 1720, was being valued at £550 when Parliament accepted the scheme in May. The price had climbed to £1000 by August, before the crash caused the stock to plummet to £150 by the end of September. Many wealthy families became impoverished overnight. It was rumoured that the King had received payments from the Company, having been made a Governor of it in 1718. In the aftermath of the crash it became apparent that vast bribes had been paid to prominent people at Court, and both Sophia and Melusine were named in the House of Lords during a debate on the subject of bribery and corruption. Indeed the pair of them were most fortunate that Robert Walpole, entrusted with responsibility for clearing up the mess, shielded both the King and his royal appurtenances from the risk of prosecution.

The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth
The South Sea Scheme by William Hogarth

Caricatures appeared, suggesting that the Duchess of Kendal had helped Robert Knight, the Treasurer of the South Sea Company, to escape abroad. More ridicule followed with the publication of packs of ‘Bubble’ playing cards, while a young William Hogarth produced his first satirical engraving ‘The South Sea Scheme’ in 1721.

The Elephant a.k.a. Sophia was created the Countess of Leinster in 1721, becoming the Countess of Darlington and Baroness Brentford a year later. She died in 1725 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Melusine, who went by the nick-name of ‘the Scarecrow’ in Germany and ‘the Goose’ in Scotland, died in 1743.

King George, then aged 65, had moved on to a new mistress – his first English one – a woman by the name of Anna Brett. Horace Walpole refers to her as being "very handsome, but dark enough by her eyes, complexion, and hair, for a Spanish beauty." The aristocracy was horrified to hear the rumour that she was to be elevated to the rank of Countess, since Mistress Brett (as she was derogatively called) was the daughter of a mere colonel with an infamous mother. No sooner had she started throwing her weight about at the Palace, making alterations and rubbing up the Maypole the wrong way, than news of the death of the King came through. She never did get her hands on a ducal coronet, and she disappeared from court and into obscurity.

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The story of King George and his mistresses is mentioned in Mike's latest book, 100 Facts about the Georgians, available here. It will also feature as part of a series about royal shenanigans in his upcoming book In bed with the Georgians, Sex Scandal and Satire in the Eighteenth Century due to be published by Pen and Sword in 2016.

3 comments:

  1. Mike, I had to research George and his mistresses for my novel, 'Messiah. Love, music and malice at a time of Handel', (Thackeray's book on all four Geoges was particularly enlightning) but I never knew that Sophia was rumoured to be George 1st's half sister. It makes Baron von Kielmannsegg, who married her (and who, as you probably know, organised the masque at which Handel played his Water Music) look particularly obliging. A very interesting article. Thank you.

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    1. I suspect it may have been no more than malicious gossip about a woman who was particularly unpopular in the English court. George I never did endear himself to the public when he came to the throne. And I am always more than happy to repeat idle tittle tattle!

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  2. Sophia's lady in waiting and accomplice, Eleonore of Knesebeck, fared a bit better, she managed to escape from Scharzfels Castle where she was confined after Sophia's trial.

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