Friday, April 22, 2016

A Whiff of Swedish Sin

by Anna Belfrage

Back in the 1960s, Sweden – and in particular its women – acquired a reputation for being somewhat over-generous with their sexual favours. Nothing new under the sun, if you ask me, and today’s post will hopefully prove my point by introducing you to two very handsome Swedish counts, their utterly ravishing sister, and the younger count’s one and only love – who unfortunately happened to be married elsewhere. Swedish sin? I see some of you frown, wondering just how this can play a role in British history. Bear with me…

The 17th century was one of huge Swedish expansion – for a while. With more lands at their disposal, Swedish nobles took the opportunity of wiping the oh, so boring dust of their homeland from under their feet and instead set out to explore what Europe had to offer. As polyglot back then as Swedes are now – for the same reason: no one but us speaks Swedish – these my distant countrymen established themselves in many of the smaller European courts – with a preference for all those very small principalities that made up present day Germany.

Aurora - in a blonde wig
One such Swedish family in happy exile was the von Köningsmarcks. The father, Kurt Christoffer, was the son of a decorated Swedish Field Marshal. The mother, Maria Christina von Wrangel, was of impeccable Swedish lineage, and the children, Carl Johan, Aurora, Amalia and Philip Christoffer, were all four drop-dead gorgeous. For Aurora, this would offer a heady if short career as preferred mistress to the future Augustus I of Poland. Being possessed not only of astoundingly good looks but also of brains, Aurora was wise enough not to cling when Augustus tired of her. Instead, she had him set her up for life as the princess-abbess of a nice little convent – this came with the perk of a solid income and a princely title and, apparently, little in the way of religious obligations.

Maurice de Saxe
I would say that the best thing that came out of Aurora’s illicit affair with Augustus was their stunningly handsome son, Maurice de Saxe, a future Marshal of France. And seeing as Augustus had presence rather than beauty, we must assume this was all due to the Köningsmarck genes. Maybe in this portrait of Maurice we get an inkling of what his maternal uncles, Carl Johan and Philip Christoffer, may have looked like.

Pretty Elizabeth Percy
The eldest of the Köningsmarck siblings, Carl Johan, led an adventurous life which included being a Maltese Knight, fighting the Ottomans, and lion hunting in Africa. At some point, he fell head-over-heels in love with the pretty and very young English noblewoman Elizabeth Percy, and so determined was he to wed her (and, I am sad to say, get his hands on her money) that he arranged for her husband, a certain Thomas Thynne, to be murdered in February of 1682. Thynne had been out partying with the Duke of Monmouth (yes, that Duke of Monmouth) and was shot dead in his carriage by three Swedish men acting upon Carl Johan’s orders. The three Swedes were duly hanged, but having offered invaluable services to England in Morocco some years earlier, Carl Johan was instead invited to a private audience with Charles II and then allowed to escape the country. He then went on to create yet another scandal when he enticed another English lady to run away with him to Venice disguised as his page. Those Swedes, hey?

I imagine big brother Carl Johan had quite the influence on Philip Christoffer. Alternatively, our Philip was an entirely different creature, which is why when he met a certain Sophia Dorothea of Celle in 1681, he fell in love. At the time, Philip Christoffer would have been around sixteen and Sophia Dorothea was a mere fifteen. They flirted mildly, and Philip Christoffer went on to do his tour of Europe. No such tour for Sophia Dorothea. Instead in November of 1682 she was wed to Georg Ludwig of Hanover, a young man six years or so her senior. In due course, Georg Ludwig was to become George I of Great Britain.

Georg Ludwig in his younger days
This was an unhappy marriage from day one. Georg’s mother – Sophia of the Palatine, granddaughter of James I& VI and the lady through which Georg Ludwig would eventually claim the British throne – despised her little daughter-in-law for being born on the wrong side of the blanket (Sophia Dorothea was the legitimised offspring of her father’s union with his long-time mistress) and as to Georg, he was just as unenthusiastic.

However, Sophia Dorothea came with a nice annual income, and she was pretty enough not to require Georg to squish his eyes shut when doing his duty in the marital bed, so soon enough there was a little son, Georg Augustus. Some years later, there was a daughter, but by then the marriage was more or less dead, with Georg entertaining himself elsewhere, primarily with Melusine von der Schulenburg, his long-time mistress to whom he would remain devoted throughout his life.

Sophia Dorothea
As to Sophia Dorothea, her interactions with her husband mostly took the forms of arguments – at times physical – with him complaining about everything she did, how she talked, how she ate, how she carried herself…Add to this the humiliation of having her husband’s mistress at close quarters, and one imagines Sophia Dorothea’s life was not exactly a rose garden. No wonder she was ripe for the wooing when in 1688 Philip Christoffer von Köningsmarck reappeared in her life, as dashing as she remembered him, but by now an experienced man of the world.

The Hanover court did not only consist of pig-headed (as per his mother in one of her exasperated moments) Georg Ludwig. He had brothers and sisters, and Sophia Dorothea was not entirely without friends – even less so when Philip Christoffer began to frequent the court, a boon companion to Georg Ludwig’s younger brothers. Over the coming two years, Sophia Dorothea and Philip Christoffer met regularly – almost daily – but at this point nothing indicates this was anything but a sweet romance, a young woman starved for affection flirting with a handsome admirer.

Still, the infatuation was noted. Not that Georg Ludwig gave a fig about what his wife might be doing, but he wasn’t about to have her openly mooning over some fresh-faced Swedish count. So I dare say it was with something akin to relief that the Hanoverian court waved bye-bye to Philip Christoffer as he rode off to fight in a campaign on the Peloponnesus.

Philip Christoffer
However, Philip Christoffer returned. And this time – at least to judge from the correspondence between Philip Christoffer and Sophia Dorothea – innocent love flamed into passion. The ignored princess bloomed, and soon enough “everyone” knew she was entertaining Philip Christoffer more intimately than she should. As a pre-emptive measure, Philip Christoffer was therefore exiled from Hanover.

Georg Ludwig, huge hypocrite that he was, was utterly incensed. The unloving couple fought like cats and dogs, she shrieking at him that who was he to come and wag a moral finger at her, what with his mistresses with whom he openly cavorted, while he yelled that it was different, he was a man, and by God, she’d best be a dutiful wife, or else… (Okay, okay, some artistic license here. After all, I wasn’t there) Apparently, Georg Ludwig did not shy from physical violence and had to be dragged off when he attempted to strangle her.

Whatever the case, Sophia Dorothea was becoming desperate – and afraid. Philip Christoffer agreed, and so the two lovers came up with a drastic solution: she would flee the Hanoverian court and they would live happily ever after, poor but together. An escape plan was formulated and in early July of 1694, Philip Christoffer dared a visit to his lady love so as to go over the final details of their plan. They spent some hours closeted in her rooms, and under cover of the dark Philip Christoffer slipped away, shrouded in a heavy brown cloak. And that, dear people, is the last time anyone saw the love-sick count.

The Hanoverian court went into a frenzy covering all tracks that could potentially lay the blame for Philip Christoffer’s disappearance – or should that be murder? – at their door. Georg Ludwig immediately initiated divorce proceedings against his wife, citing her “abandonment” of him as the reason rather than his own repeated infidelities.

Sophia Dorothea with her children, around
the time she was banished.
In 1694, Sophia Dorothea was forcibly removed from her home and her children and effectively imprisoned at the picturesque castle of Ahlden. While given the run of the manorial gardens, her movements elsewhere were severely restricted, as was access to her person. She was never to see her children again, remaining an isolated prisoner living off her memories until her death thirty-three years later.

In 1714, Georg Ludwig succeeded to the British crown as George I. His new subjects wanted not only a king but also a queen – and neither of their new king’s mistresses made much of an impression, one being nicknamed “The Maypole” the other “The Elephant”. Prospective wives turned him down, and so – or so the story goes – someone was desperate enough to approach Sophia Dorothea and ask her if she would consider coming over to England. Her purported response was as follows: “If I truly deserve to be punished as I have been these last two decades, then I am not worthy of being your queen. If I am innocent, then your king is not worthy of being my husband.” Nice and ambiguous, one could say…

In 1726, Sophia Dorothea fell seriously ill. In her death-throes she cursed her erstwhile husband, prophesising that it would not be long before they met before the throne of God, and then they’d see… She died in November of 1726, and George forbade any signs of mourning in Hanover or England, was mightily irritated when his daughter in Prussia hanged her halls in black. In keeping with his character, he therefore ordered that his former wife be buried “somewhere in the castle garden” with none of the funeral honours a lady of her rank deserved. 

Ahlden as per an engraving from the mid 17th century
The weather, however, conspired against him, making it impossible to dig a grave, and so Sophia Dorothea’s coffined remains were packed off to the cellars to wait for spring. By then, George had relented, and the mother of his heir was properly – if discreetly – buried in Celle, her home.

In 1727, George died, some say as a consequence of his mistreated wife’s curse. While there is a pleasing symmetry to that, I find it hard to believe. Whatever the case, his treatment of Sophia Dorothea had permanently soured his relationship with his son, further compounded by how cruelly George separated his grandchildren from their parents. Not, all in all, a nice man, in my opinion. Nope, not at all.

So what happened to our young dashing count? Was he bought off with gold? Did he perhaps stumble down a staircase and break his neck? Or was he, in fact, murdered on George I’s orders? We will never know, not for sure. However, it is said that during World War II, the old Hanoverian castle was badly hit by bombs. During the clearing up, a sealed closet was discovered, in which were found bones – and fragments of a heavy brown cloak... Murder, I say. Murder most foul.

The 300 odd letters between Sophia Dorothea and her Swedish count still survive and can be found in Lund’s University library. Written in code, they display a couple headily in love, just as headily attracted to each other. However, Sophia Dorothea always maintained that she had not, in fact, crossed the dividing line between wanting to bed her handsome lover and actually doing so. Personally, in view of what came after, I hope they did, but once again, we will never know.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain  


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of eight published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015. 

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

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