German Castles are so romantic! They belong to the world of fairy tales, handsome princes and beautiful princesses! They are the places where dreams come true!
The moral of romantic fairytales is often quite obscure and last year I travelled all the way to Germany to see the Castles where two royal women languished in fairytales that turned into nightmares. The Ducal Palace in Celle was home and prison to both of these women, a mother and her great granddaughter both sharing the same fate. I visited Castles searching for these two women, and came away with a fascination for the way the past impacts on the present.
I knew that the Castles I wanted to visit had been either totally or extensively destroyed during World War II, but set out with an open mind. My greatest pleasure was to discover that the town of Celle, in lower Saxony had been totally spared. As a trained artist and art historian, I cannot bear the thought of art being destroyed.
Ducal Palace in Celle
The highlight of Celle is the Ducal Palace which survived WWII intact! Its foundation walls date from 1292, and although no Guelphic Dukes have resided there since 1705, it is now a Residence Museum. We had a guided tour of the Palace and here is a little of what we saw.
My favourite part of the Palace is the magnificent richly decorated Baroque Chapel. Today it is protected by a glass panel to protect its rare artworks. Here is a glimpse of its beauty!
The Palace has a Baroque theatre which is still in use and it is well worth viewing a performance there. Other highlights of our Palace tour included seeing the Gothic hall, kitchen, and the state rooms.
I came seeking two royal women and found them both in the state rooms of the Ducal Palace. The last Duke to live in the Palace had only one daughter, Sophia Dorothea, and when she turned 16, she was forced to marry her cousin Georg Ludwig of Hanover. She was married in the magnificent Baroque chapel seen above, with much festivity. But this marriage was contrived for political reasons, so that the unhappy couple’s fathers, who were brothers, could combine their dukedoms of Hanover and Celle giving them power to be raised to the Ninth German Electorate, as well as gaining the English Crown. This was achieved, but at the price of Sophia Dorothea’s happiness and freedom.
Sophia Dorothea fell in love with the Swedish Count, Christoph von Königsmark. One evening they both fell into a trap, resulting in his murder and her imprisonment for the next 32 years of her life in a manor house in Ahlden. In Herrenhausen Museum in Hanover, I found this amazing set of portraits with three images of Sophia Dorothea surrounded by her husband and her lover. Her husband eventually ascended to the British throne in 1714 taking his two mistresses, the obese one nicknamed ‘the elephant ‘ and the tall thin one ‘the maypole’ with him and leaving his beautiful wife imprisoned in Ahlden. Historians acknowledge that had she been released investigations into the murder of the Count would have gained much support from her husband’s enemies and would have hindered his rise to power.
Sophia Dorothea’s whole life was wasted as a political pawn and once imprisoned she was forbidden any communication with her children, her family, or the outside world, with the exception of her mother’s visits. She was confined to two upper story rooms shown above in the corner of the house. She was not allowed to take a walk, but with diamonds in her hair she rode a full speed in her carriage surrounded by guards with swords drawn, for 6 km in one direction only. Her husband destroyed all images of her and he went into a rage if anyone mentioned her name. When she died her husband, the King, ordered her coffin to be dumped in the mud surrounding Ahlden Schloss, but it rained so heavily she was eventually allowed to be placed in the family crypt of the Town Church, St Mary’s, Celle, near the Ducal Palace where she grew up. In the scene below a bit of Ahlden Schloss is peeping through the trees, and the muddy banks of the River Aller are still daunting today!
I was delighted to discover some lovely portraits of Sophia Dorothea, not just in Celle, but also in Herrenhausen Museum in Hanover, and Marienburg Schloss. Her memory has been kept alive where she lived and died!
Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark
But history has a way of repeating itself, and Sophia Dorothea had a great granddaughter, Caroline Matilda who was the youngest sister of King George III, born after their father died. At the tender young age of 16, she was married off to King Christian VII of Denmark. Sadly, this young King suffered from schizophrenia, and was forced to sign documents, but not make decisions. Caroline Matilda sought comfort in the arms of the doctor, Struensee, employed to treat the King. He used her to initiate political reforms aimed at reducing the power of the aristocracy and soften the blow of serfdom. This resulted in an aristocratic driven rebellion against her and she was arrested and taken to Kronborg Castle to await trial. Her brother, King George III, intervened and eventually she was taken to the Ducal Palace in Celle, where she languished and died at 24 years of age, separated from the children she dearly loved.
In the Residence Museum in the Ducal Palace in Celle hangs the three portraits seen above with with Caroline Matilda surrounded by her husband and her lover. There is even a dress she wore in a display case, along with portraits of her children. She is still loved and remembered in Celle, just like her great grandmother. In fact there is a memorial to her in the French Garden near the Old Town where she is depicted as a loving mother of the two children taken from her. The sculpture did attract a little criticism in its day, especially from her brother, King George III, because it showed her nipples!
Over the road from the Ducal Palace is the Town Church of St Mary’s, first consecrated in 1308 and Lutheran-Protestant since 1525. It has a magnificent Baroque interior with stunning features too numerous to describe, along with a tall bell tower, which can be ascended and from which a trumpet is played twice daily. I was keen to visit the crypt to see the burial place of Sophia Dorothea and Caroline Matilda who lie at rest beside each other. But there was no one available to open the crypt door. I sat in the church several times absorbing myself in the Baroque sculptures, artworks and paintings which adorn the Church, hoping someone might appear to open the crypt. In the end I decided the two women did not want me to visit the crypt or maybe it is an invitation to return to Celle.
The third most amazing feature of Celle is the almost 500 remarkably well preserved and restored half-timbered houses We roamed the streets searching for the oldest house dating to 1526 with its Gothic step-shaped frieze, or the ‘Talking Lamps’, or the Glockenspiel, or Hoppener House and many other features of the Old Town. During these walks I liked to imagine how Sophia Dorothea and Caroline Matilda must have felt walking these same paths.
Of course, we went out exploring the Old Town when we were hungry. Our most memorable meal was the lunch at Herzogstadt Celle where I ate the largest pork knuckle I have ever seen! I can’t confess to being a beer drinker, but the local Hanoverian beer was very good and went well with the pork knuckle. The owner knew all the locals eating there very well sitting with friends to have a beer. He was very friendly to us, chatting and he even took some photos of us.
Berger Belsen Concentration Camp
The downside to stepping outside the quaint, friendly town of Celle, is to realize that 20 minutes drive in a northerly direction is the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. We did respectfully visit and walk around the grounds colourfully bathed in autumn sunlight with glowing leaves. This peaceful feeling is punctuated by the stark reality of the numerous burial mounds, and markers showing where the streets once were.Today all that remains of the main road is the peaceful autumn scene shown below. This is the place where another brave women, Anne Frank, met her end.
Driving 20 minutes from Celle in a westerly direction is the tiny town of Ahlden. Today it is very quiet and somewhat lonely, so 300 years ago it must have been deadly dull! How Sophia Dorothea dragged out 32 lonely years of her life there defies the imagination!
The town of Celle today is very beautiful, with a vibrant lifestyle and friendly people. It has absorbed the tragedies of its past with dignified remembrance.
The moral of my story is,
German princesses may have lived in magnificent castles, but in my research thus far, I have not yet found one who lived happily ever after with her prince. But I will keep looking!
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