The History Woman's Blog

The woman who almost became queen

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 23, 2013

Sophia MemoirsI 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. (more…)