Act I

Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg, Duchess of Kendal

(25 December 1667–10 May 1743)

The Girl from Emden

On Christmas Day 1667, in the town of Emden, Brandenburg, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenberg was born. Why her parents, Gustavus Adolphus, Baron von der Schulenberg, and his wife, Petronella Ottilia von Schwencken, chose Melusine as a middle name is lost to the mists of time, but it was the name by which she was always known. The other Melusine was a figure of ancient mythology, a freshwater mermaid of fairy blood who ensnared monarchs and heroes throughout history and whose story was told in innumerable legends from folklore across the continent. Perhaps the future for the little girl born in Emden was written in her name.

Melusine von der Schulenberg, of course, was no creature of myth and legend, nor did she exist only in the pages of folklore. Instead she was a flesh and blood woman, a minor noble who, through her intimate relationship with King George I, rose higher than she might ever have dreamed. She left behind the genteel, ennobled poverty of her roots to forge a life of notoriety as the woman who sat as close to one of the most powerful thrones in the world as any uncrowned, unmarried mistress could hope to get. Melusine was set to become a queen in all but name.

There was little that was remarkable about the young Melusine’s formative years, certainly nothing that would mark her out as a social climber to be watched as she navigated the road to St James’s Palace. In fact, this apparent lack of ambition, coupled with an ability to know just what was required of her and when, was precisely what later endeared Melusine to the taciturn, sullen George Louis in Hanover. As we shall learn, the first Georgian king didn’t look for a challenging partner, nor one who would be minded to argue with him, or even worse, a woman who might be driven to strike out on her own. George Louis’ upbringing had forged a phlegmatic, emotionally withdrawn man whose outbursts of temper were rare but violent. His dedication to improving his family name and territorial fortunes was matched only by his ambition, which he had inherited from his ruthless father. When George Louis’ wife, Sophia Dorothea, proved to be as emotional as he was repressed, it set the stage for disaster. Melusine, as we will see, was far better suited to George Louis than his wife would ever be.

But all of that is for later.

Melusine’s mother, Petronella Ottilia, could trace her noble Westphalian line back through the generations to the thirteenth century, so whilst the family may not have had much money to burn nor the finest estates to call their own, they had something that was valued even more highly within their circle: good breeding. The blood of a respected noble line could plug the gaps left by a lack of ready cash and with his marriage to Petronella Ottilia, Gustavus Adolphus was able to bask in her reflected familial glory. But Gustavus Adolphus was no slouch himself. With his heart set on a political career he joined the household of the Elector of Brandenburg, where he soon acquired a reputation as a man who could get things done. Eventually Gustavus Adolphus would rise to the esteemed rank of privy councillor, but his stellar career meant that he was rarely at the family home in Emden. Instead the management of the household was left in the more than capable hands of Petronella Ottilia.

Gustavus Adolphus and Petronella Ottilia had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. Melusine was their fourth child and second daughter, and just like noble young ladies before her had been for generations, she was to be trained in all the skills necessary to make her way in the world. The seventeenth century was not a time when women were expected to forge ahead alone. Instead their prospects – especially if they were of noble stock like Melusine – came from their value as a bride. With her excellent heritage and her father’s secure and respected position in Brandenburg, Melusine’s value could not be underestimated. She spent her childhood being educated in the necessary feminine arts that would stand her in good stead for the throne room and the drawing room alike, preparing for the life that would one day await her. Melusine was in training to become a wife.

Though Petronella Ottilia oversaw her daughter’s early education, Melusine had only a few scant years to spend with her mother. Petronella Ottilia died just a week after she delivered her last child in 1674, leaving her children motherless. Melusine was only six, and the death of her mother created a yawning chasm at the heart of the castle in Emden.

Melusine’s early life really couldn’t have been any more different from that of the woman who would later become her perceived rival, Sophia Dorothea of Celle. Sophia Dorothea was George I’s cousin and eventually his wife, though they hated each other with a white-hot passion. Whilst Melusine had grown up motherless in a far from fairy tale castle among siblings who clung together after the loss of their mother, Sophia Dorothea had everything that Melusine did not. She was an only child, raised as a princess in a glittering castle that sat at the heart of a duchy that overflowed with wealth. Sophia Dorothea was the centre of attention and loved to be paraded through the streets in ribbons and silks by her adoring mother, where she was showered with gifts and shown off to the crowds who gathered to catch a glimpse of the pretty princess. Years later though, George Louis’ sour-faced dislike of too much show and flightiness would be one of the things that drew him to Melusine, even as he kept his wife at arm’s length. And when even that wasn’t far enough, locking her away and trying to forget about her became his preferred solution.

With the untimely death of Petronella Ottilia, the foundations were laid for one of the tightest-knit families that could be found amongst the inner circle of Hanoverian royalty. Years later, when Melusine bore George Louis three children, her siblings would raise them as their own without balking. These weren’t brothers and sisters riven with rivalry and clawing to outdo one another, but a little group that forged itself from grief. It was a support system that the House of Hanover would never be able to match as long as George I and George II sat at its head.

Over the years that have passed since Melusine’s death, many have concluded that her primary motivation was financial. She was depicted as a venal, conniving shrew who had set out to capture a man with money and power – and succeeded. Of course, this is more than a little simplistic, but there were many reasons to become a mistress. In some cases, it was a desire for influence or cash whilst in others, it was a question of genuine affection, and though Melusine certainly enjoyed money, there was more to her relationship with King George I than that. Though I hesitate to focus too much on the death of Petronella Ottilia, it is not far-fetched to speculate that losing her so early might well have played a part in the decisions Melusine took later. Having such unbreakable bonds with her siblings meant she had always known the security that came with having a family to rely on. In allying herself so firmly to George Louis she maintained that sense of security not just financially, but socially too. The couple were so well-matched in temperament that Melusine’s position was virtually – though not completely – unchallenged from the off, and it gave her back the rock-solid foundations that must have seemed to be crumbling when Petronella Ottilia passed away.

Baron von der Schulenberg eventually married again and embarked on a second family with his new bride, but this is no sorry tale of a wicked stepmother. In fact, the children of von der Schulenberg’s second marriage were welcomed into the close-knit group that had already formed. Yet the von der Schulenberg children were all growing older and setting out on lives of their own. The boys entered the military2, a natural berth for young men of such noble blood, whilst the girls were embarking on lives as wives and mothers. For Melusine, however, no suitors came calling. Though her family was well-respected, it was also far from unique or particularly special, and she was just one of innumerable, accomplished young ladies of marriageable age in Europe. There was little to distinguish Melusine from any other potential brides and unlike Sophia Dorothea, she was neither a princess nor in possession of a massive dowry and a future fat inheritance. If no likely husband came calling though, Gustavus Adolphus was certainly not about to keep Melusine at home forever. Instead, he fell back on his electoral connections and went searching for a position for his daughter that might expose her to eligible suitors, whilst at the same time providing her with a station of her own.

In 1690 he found it. Melusine was to travel to Hanover, where she would become a maid of honour to Duchess Sophia, wife of Duke Ernest Augustus. It was a substantial step up the social ladder and one that would, Gustavus Adolphus hoped, bring his daughter into the purview of a whole new selection of would-be bridegrooms. We must now leave Melusine behind for a little while. It’s time to learn more about the world in which she was to flourish in Hanover.

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