A Left-Handed Marriage

“It is reported, That her Grace the Dutchess [sic] of Kendal is honour’d by his Imperial Majesty with the Dignity of the Princess of the Empire.”81

With the Irish coinage debacle laid to rest and the memory of the South Sea Bubble slowly fading, Melusine was once again comfortable. When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI made her a princess of the Holy Roman Empire in 1723, it was a mark not only of her prestige, but also her loyalty. She was even a correspondent of the empress herself, a sure sign of Melusine’s acceptance amongst the courts of Europe. Whilst Sophia Dorothea continued in her genteel confinement in Celle it was George Louis’ mistress who was to all intents and purposes his queen. It was the newly-minted Princess of Eberstein who travelled at his side, who had his ear and who “gave a magnificent Entertainment to most of the Foreign Ministers, &c. at her Apartment in St. James’s House”82 . She even hosted visitors at Kensington Palace, just as any royal wife would. Whether she had actually ever been the king’s wife is up for debate.

When Walpole wrote that Melusine was “as much Queen of England as ever was”, there were those who took that to mean that there had been a secret wedding ceremony between George Louis and Melusine. The king’s marriage to Sophia Dorothea of Celle had been dissolved on the grounds of her having abandoned him, leaving him free to remarry in Hanover, and in many ways Melusine would have been the obvious candidate. She had been a faithful and loyal companion for three decades and as César de Saussure observed on his visit to the court, “the King is very fond of her, yet he is not always quite faithful to her, amusing himself with passing intrigues every now and then”83. He was a king, after all, infidelity was only the done thing. The couple had children, even if they were publicly acknowledged only as Melusine’s nieces, and there is no doubt that everyone at court recognised her sway and influence over the monarch. The question of whether that influence and relationship was ever legitimised by marriage is another matter.

Though George Louis was free to marry Melusine in Hanover immediately upon the dissolution of his marriage to Sophia Dorothea, what was legal in the electorate remained illegal in England. There, no divorced spouse could legally remarry until their former husband or wife was dead and Sophia Dorothea was still very much alive. At the time his marriage ended, George Louis was already aware that he was likely to one day rule in England, so he certainly would have done nothing that might conceivably put this in jeopardy. Duty would always trump love.

There is nothing other than hearsay and rumour to suggest that the couple were married and in truth, with Melusine occupying the rarefied position that she did in George Louis’ life, there was little extra to be gained by making the union legitimate. In 1746 Walpole’s chaplain, Henry Etough, wrote a letter to a friend in which he claimed that “The late King was expensive and vain in his amours. He had Kilmansegge [sic] and Platen besides Kendal, to whom it is supposed the late Archbishop of York married him.”84 This so-called left-handed or illegitimate marriage would have caused a scandal were it public knowledge, but the fact that it was reported by Etough certainly shouldn’t lead to the rumour being accepted as the gospel truth. It’s simply impossible to know whether Etough was speaking with authority or repeating some favourite Georgian gossip and gossip, as we have already seen, made the court world go round.

Perhaps, as some have mooted, the fact that Melusine was raised to the rank of princess in the Holy Roman Empire should be taken as an implicit acknowledgement of the marriage, but equally it can be asserted that this was simply a way of recognising her status at the side of the king, whether married to him or not. Regardless of her marital status, by the time Melusine was made a Princess of the Empire, nobody could challenge her position at court. George Louis trusted her to deal with courtiers and ministers and despite the bitter memory of the South Sea Bubble and the Irish coinage scandal, she remained his closest confidante.

Married or not, the couple had cause to celebrate in late 1721 when George Louis’ favourite daughter, Trudchen, married Albrecht Wolfgang, later Count of Schaumburg-Lippe. He was the son of Countess Johanna Sophia of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who was one of Melusine’s best friends, and the marriage was a love match. The two women had met at the electoral court of Hanover, where Johanna Sophia had taken up residence to escape her failing marriage to Count Frederick Christian of Schaumburg-Lippe, and they had been close ever since. Johanna Sophia had accompanied the royal party to England and made her home there, so no doubt she and Melusine were delighted that the union between their children made them as good as family, whilst George Louis was happy to furnish his beloved daughter with a handsome dowry. Though Trudchen’s marriage was cut short by her tragic early death, it was a happy one that resulted in two children.

After enduring a bout of colic in 1723, Melusine had more cause than ever to be glad of her influence over the king when trouble broke out during a trip to Hanover. Once again, she would be forced to breathe a sigh of relief that Robert Walpole was the man who held the reins of government. Melusine was about to go head to head with an old rival.

Years earlier, George Louis’ rumoured mistress, Sophie Karoline von Platen, sister-in-law of Sophia “the Elephant” Charlotte, had stayed behind in Hanover when the royal party set sail for the new realm. Whilst Melusine was noted approvingly for her work to “repair and Beautify the Swedish church in Trinity-Lane, whither she constantly goes every Sunday”85, Sophie Karoline’s Catholic faith had once made her anxious about the sort of reception she might expect in England. Nearly a decade later, her fears of anti-Catholic sentiment had faded. By 1723, when George Louis and Melusine visited Hanover with Lord Carteret and Lord Townshend, Sophie Karoline was ready to move on.

As Melusine played the hostess at lavish parties and gatherings, Sophie Karoline made a point of getting to know Lord Carteret, who she hoped would be willing and able to smooth her path to a new life in England. For Robert Walpole and Melusine alike, this was the worst possible news. The existing status quo suited all parties and to have Sophie Karoline suddenly descend on the kingdom and form a breakaway faction with Lord Carteret, who had yet to be packed off to Ireland, would upset the relatively smooth political waters. Melusine didn’t want a rival for George Louis’ affections either, especially given the acute embarrassment she must have felt when he paid the dowry of Sophie Karoline’s daughter, Amalie – a gesture that was sure to ignite rumours regarding the bride’s paternity. One shouldn’t discount the further humiliation occasioned by the fact that Amalie was engaged to Henri Philippeaux, comte de Florentin, whilst Young Melusine remained unattached.

Walpole, Townshend, and Melusine put their heads together to block the plans of the ambitious countess. Though they couldn’t stop George Louis from paying the marriage dowry of Sophie Karoline’s daughter, nor from handing over money to Sophie Karoline with the aim of helping her settle in France, they were determined that she would never set foot in England. Her supposed desire to buy a home in Paris was naught but a cover, Walpole and Townshend knew, and it would only be a matter of time before she was causing trouble on British shores.

Just as Walpole, Townshend, and Melusine had their cabal, so too did Sophie Karoline. In her camp she could count Lord Carteret and Christian Ulrich von Hardenberg, one of George Louis’ most trusted courtiers and a man of no small ambition. Carteret did all he could to impress Sophie Karoline, even attempting unsuccessfully to have her son-in-law’s family raised higher in the French peerage, but his plan backfired. Not only did the Bourbon court resolutely fail to grant his wish, but senior courtiers at Versailles took great offence at his clumsy and unwelcome efforts to manipulate the French royal prerogative. George Louis, acting no doubt on advice from Townshend and Walpole, removed Carteret from his role as Secretary of the Southern Department and made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland following the removal of the Duke of Grafton. Lord Carteret’s days of meddling in Hanoverian marriages were over.

Christian Ulrich von Hardenberg was a different matter. This ambitious politician hoped to be installed by the king as the Prime Minister of Hanover and he made sure to let Melusine know. She would certainly have raised the request with George Louis, and one might expect the promotion to have run its usual steady course, but Hardenberg wasn’t willing to wait. His impatience got the better of him and, to Walpole’s delight, he made the mistake of discussing his ambitions with Sophie Karoline, who he hoped might have more sway with the king than his aging mistress.

When Melusine learned of Hardenberg’s change of allegiance, she was devastated. It was a sign that not everyone believed her influence was ironclad and should Sophie Karoline succeed in joining the English court, then she might look forward to many more such tussles for power. Her discomfort was music to the ears of Walpole and Townshend, to whom Melusine turned for support against Sophie Karoline. Intriguingly, Townshend informed Walpole that Melusine had lobbied so vociferously on Hardenberg’s behalf with George Louis that it might even have been to her detriment. That fact made his perceived betrayal all the harder to bear for Melusine, but Townshend encouraged her to continue to make Hardenberg’s case to the monarch. If Hardenberg was preoccupied with new duties in Hanover, he reasoned, then that would remove one of Sophie Karoline’s chief supporters from the king’s immediate presence. The gamble paid off and George Louis was kept so busy with Carteret and Hardenberg that he didn’t have time to think about anything else. Sophie Karoline never received an invitation to England.

The king had found the trip to Hanover exhausting and after arriving at the Charlottenburg court of his daughter, Sophia Dorothea, he was taken ill again. By the time he disembarked from the carriage he had been driving, George Louis could barely stand. He collapsed and was bedbound for days. George Louis was no longer a young man and his illness terrified Melusine. She turned to Townshend for help, begging him to convince the king to cancel a planned return to Hanover the following year for the sake of his failing health. Surprisingly for a man who never liked to admit his own weaknesses, the king was happy to cancel. In fact, it was Melusine who fell ill in 1724, not her patron.

By the time the royal entourage set out for Hanover again, there was no annoying Elephant snapping at Melusine’s heels. Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg, the Duchess of Kendal’s rival, died on 20 April 1725. Though Melusine felt little grief at the Countess of Darlington’s fate, she was left bereft in 1726 at the death of Margarethe Gertrud, Melusine and George Louis’ youngest daughter and by far her father’s favourite. Trudchen was just 25 years old when she died of tuberculosis. Her father would soon follow her to the grave.

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