I got an early Christmas present this year when the Memoirs (1630-1680) of Sophia of Hanover landed in my pigeonhole about a week ago. They arrived unexpectedly, but my curiosity soon got the better of me, and I was not able to resist the life story of the woman who nearly became queen of England.
As the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the German elector Palatine and king of Bohemia, Sophia was the next Protestant in line to the English throne when the Act of Settlement (1701) was drawn up, so the right of succession was transferred to her and her heirs. Alas, she died in 1714 only seven weeks before Queen Anne, the last Protestant monarch of the House of Stuart, and in the event the crown fell to her son George Lewis, who was to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.
Sophia’s Memoirs, edited and translated by Sean Ward for the Toronto Series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe offer a rare glimpse this remarkable woman, who enjoyed life at the centre of the German nobility with pragmatism, wisdom and a good sense of humour. Consequently, as her editor notes – and despite a number of biographies – Sophia ‘tells the story [of her life] better herself’ (p. 26) to convey her acute observations and highly entertaining sense of mischief.
As a youth in The Hague she apparently enjoyed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting courtiers, including Mr. de Zulestein, the ‘natural child of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau’, whose head received ‘a good dousing’ from a handkerchief soaked ‘in a chamber pot’ (p. 40). Thus, through Sophia’s eyes we get a look at the humans behind seventeenth-century European politics and their struggles and mishaps beyond the limelight.
Marriage politics also play a key role in her Memoirs. Not only does Sophia let us know that she was once intended as a wife to Charles II, whom she met at The Hague during the 1650s, she also tells us of her betrothal to Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, then duke of Hanover (pp. 65ff) and her pragmatic transfer to his younger brother Ernest Augustus, when the former decided he preferred to live as a bachelor (p. 69). In Sophia’s own words, the only love she had felt ‘was for a good establishment’ and she would ‘have no difficulty trading the older brother for the younger’ (p. 75), not least because the older brother was willing to leave the Brunswick-Lüneburg possessions to her children. Love in these arrangements, it seems, followed later. As Sophia lets her readers know, ‘Resolved to love him, I was delighted to find him lovable.’ (p. 79). But not all were so fortunate.
Sophia’s brother Charles Lewis, the new elector Palatine, soon fell out of love with his dim-witted wife the Electress Charlotte, for whom Sophia reserves mainly pity (p. 57). Her description of the breakdown of their marriage and Charlotte’s discovery of the Elector’s mistress is a tough read, revealing the heartbreak behind the widely accepted practice of nobility to break moral codes and marital vows. But Sophia’s own marriage was not without its problems either, not least Augustus’s dalliances with Madame Colonna (p. 116) and Susanne de La Chevalerie-Manselière (pp. 127ff). Nevertheless, her love for her husband never seemed to dwindle.
Among the most interesting and lively parts of her Memoirs are Sophia’s travels to Italy and her opinions on foreign customs and characters, but also her latent anti-Catholicism and scoffing at superstition and miracles (such as those worked by Our Lady of the Broken Nose, pp. 104-5), while at the same time admiring Italian customs and fine art, first and foremost ‘the Church of St. Peter’ in Rome (p. 111).
The Memoirs are elegantly translated from the French, and an entertaining and lightly written introduction by Ward sets the scene, while his detailed footnotes untangle the web of European royalty and help to identify the individuals named in the text.
Alas, the footnotes are largely limited to this biographical data, while the odd reference to political events, such as the second Anglo-Dutch War (on p. 125), the English Civil War that conveyed Prince Charles into Dutch exile (on p. 47), or even the Thirty Years’ War, during which Sophia was born (on p. 35), might not have gone amiss. As they stand the memoirs almost seem to operate in a politics-free zone, where some contextualisation – besides a map of the Holy Roman Empire and a genealogical table in the appendix – would have been much welcome.
Besides, while many minor nobles are commented on, other interesting figures remain unexplained for no particular reason, such as the former soldier and diplomat Bernardino Guasconi, who was naturalised as an Englishman by the name of Sir Bernard Gascoyne and whom Sophia met in Italy (p. 114). There are some minor errors in the footnotes as well, e.g. the ‘current duke’ of Tuscany during Sophia’s visit to Italy in 1664-65 was Ferdinand II, not Cosimo III (p. 114n); and ‘a widely publicized comet-sighting in Europe in December 1680’ (p. 107n) hardly explains why Sophia mentions seeing one in the 1660s.
Thus, what is a captivating read at first sight comes apart on closer inspection, as does the book’s binding, which unfortunately did not survive my first perusal of the Memoirs.