Schulenburg, Ehrengard Melusina von der (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 50
Schulenburg, Ehrengard Melusina von der

by Adolphus William Ward

SCHULENBERG, Countess Ehrengard Melusina von der, Duchess of Kendal (1667–1743), was born on 25 Dec. 1667 at Emden in the present Prussian province of Saxony. Emden was the estate of her father, Count Gustavus Adolphus of the ‘white’ or elder line of the ancient Schulenburg house, who, having inherited an impoverished estate, died as a high official in the service of the elector of Brandenburg. Her eldest brother Matthias John, afterwards obtained, more especially in the service of the Venetian republic, a well-deserved renown as one of the greatest commanders of his age. In his earlier manhood he very actively furthered the interests of the elder (Wolfenbüttel) line of the house of Brunswick, with which those of the younger were in constant conflict. Yet about this time his sister Melusina found her way as maid of honour into the service of the duchess, from 1692 electress, Sophia at Hanover. Here she attracted Sophia's son, Prince George Lewis (afterwards King George I), whose relations with his wife, the unfortunate Sophia Dorothea, were already strained. After the divorce of the prince (1694) she continued to enjoy his favour, and in the period between his succession to the electorate (1698) and his ascent of the British throne ‘the Schulemburgin,’ as the Electress Sophia calls her in varied spellings, held an accredited position as one of his mistresses (see Briefe der Kurfürstin Sophie an die Raugräfinnen und Raugrafen zu Pfalz, ed. Bodemann, Leipzig, 1888, pp. 232, 252, 304, 343; De Beaucaire, Une Mésalliance dans la maison de Brunswick, p. 128). At the time of the proclamation of George I as king of Great Britain, Melusina von der Schulenburg was supposed to hold the second place in his regard, the first being occupied by Baroness von Kielmannsegge (afterwards Countess of Darlington). The second mistress followed, at a short interval, the example of the first in hastening across the water in the wake of the king.

From this time forward Melusina's influence seems gradually to have eclipsed, without ever entirely extinguishing, that of her younger and fairer rival. The London populace nicknamed Mademoiselle de Schulenburg, who was spare of frame, ‘the Maypole;’ but though physically unlike, the two ladies closely resembled each other in the most prominent feature of their characters—an insatiable rapacity. The elder lady gathered the larger share of titles, and doubtless also of wealth. According to Walpole, Melusina ‘would have sold the king's honour for a shilling advance to the best bidder’ (Coxe, i. 551). In June 1716, after having been naturalised, she was created Baroness of Dundalk, Countess and Marchioness of Dungannon, and Duchess of Munster in the peerage of Ireland (Lady Cowper, Diary, p. 107). In March 1719 she became Baroness of Glastonbury, Countess of Feversham, and Duchess of Kendal—a title which the sons of two English kings and the consort of the last English queen had borne as dukes or earls (Doyle). Finally, in January 1723, she was created princess of the empire under the title of Princess of Eberstein, by the emperor, Charles VI, with whose wife (a Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel princess) she had for some time carried on a correspondence, supposed to be directed to a renewal of the Anglo-Austrian alliance (Coxe, i. 151). An annual pension of 7,500l. was settled on her from the English exchequer (ib. ii. 251); but this can have represented but a portion of her usual income. Among the receipts of corruption imputed to her are the 5,000l. paid to her for his viscountcy by Bolingbroke's father, Sir Henry St. John (Lady Cowper, p. 113); the 4,000l. previously paid by the same client for a two lives' tenure of a place in the customs-house with 1,200l. a year (Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, Letters, ed. Cunningham, ii. 140); the payment for the ill-starred patent for supplying Ireland with copper coin bestowed on her by Sunderland, and sold by her in 1723 to Wood (Coxe, ii. 169); her enormous share of South Sea profits (T. Wright, England under the House of Hanover, ii. 79, 80); and, finally, the monster bribe of 11,000l. paid to her, apparently in 1724, by the Marquise de la Villette, Bolingbroke's second wife, on behalf of her husband (Coxe, ii. 250; cf. Macknight, Life of Bolingbroke, p. 551).

Walpole declared that her ‘intellects’ were ‘mean and contemptible,’ but it must be remembered that the minister ‘did not readily speak in any foreign language,’ and the mistress ‘could not converse in English’ (Coxe, i. 551). Horace Walpole reported on hearsay that she was ‘no genius’ (Lord Orford, Reminiscences; cf. Mémoires de F. S. Wilhelmine, Margrave de Bareith, ed. 1845, i. 67). But George I, in whom considerable capacity was united to unmistakable candour, would not have kept up the custom of transacting state affairs in her apartments if her counsel had been valueless; and, so far as is known, she avoided the blunder of futile intrusion.

In 1720, when Walpole and Townshend had returned to office, the former told Lady Cowper that the Duchess of Kendal's ‘interest did everything; that she was in effect as much queen of England as ever any was,’ and that ‘he did everything by her’ (Lady Cowper, Diary, p. 137). She alone of the Hanoverians around the king was in the secret of the transactions that led to the reconciliation between him and the Prince of Wales in 1720 (ib. p. 145), and her reticence probably contributed to make it possible. In 1723 Carteret, who had thoroughly entered into the foreign policy of the king and his Hanoverian advisers, secured the goodwill of the king's other mistress, Lady Darlington; while his opponents, Walpole and Townshend, were supported by their ‘fast friend,’ the ‘good duchess.’ The result was not only Carteret's loss of the seals as secretary of state, but a reconstitution of the Hanoverian ministry in London, involving the downfall of Bernstorff. The foothold of the Hanoverian dynasty was probably strengthened by this sacrifice of its ablest servants (ib. p. 145; cf. Coxe, ii. 104–5; Stanhope, ii. 56; Ranke, Englische Geschichte, 1868, vii. 106).

The most notable intrigue in which the Duchess of Kendal had a share was inimical to Walpole's ascendency. In 1725 Walpole was obliged by the express command of the king to ‘partially restore’ Bolingbroke, a result which may be attributed to the pressure exercised by the duchess in return for the consideration already noted. But although Bolingbroke now returned to England, his attainder remained unreversed. In 1727 the duchess induced the king to grant him a personal interview in the royal closet. But the memorial which Bolingbroke presented the king was handed on to Walpole, and nothing came of this intrigue (see Lord Orford's Reminiscences, ed. Cunningham, ii. 410; Coxe, ii. 250–5; Macknight, p. 578).

The duchess remained the vigilant companion of George I to the last (cf. Vehse, i. 208). In June 1727 she accompanied him on the visit to his German dominions, from which he was never to return (Walpole to Mann, Letters, ed. Cunningham, viii. 168). On the journey through Holland she remained behind at Delden, whence the king, concealing his indisposition, continued his journey towards Osnabrück. The news of his illness reached her by a courier, and she hastened after him, but was met by the news of his death soon after she had crossed the Rhine. She thereupon repaired to Brunswick, where she remained for three months. According to Carlyle (ii. 142) she went to Berlin, where she was sure of a sympathising welcome; for in 1723 she had rendered a signal service to Queen Sophie Dorothea of Prussia, when on a visit to George I at Hanover, by revealing certain insidious machinations designed to frustrate the project of marriage between the Princess Wilhelmina and the Duke of Gloucester (Mémoires de la Margravine de Bareith, i. 72–4; cf. Coxe, ii. 256–7).

The rumour that George I left to his mistress the sum of 40,000l. was never verified, as the contents of his will were never known (Lord Orford, Reminiscences). Possibly it might have furnished a clue to the truth or falsehood of another persistent rumour that she had been for a longer or shorter period his wife by a left-handed marriage. At one time (in 1721) it had even been bruited about that, in order to diminish the influence of the Prince of Wales, Sunderland had intended to bring about a lawful marriage between the king and his favourite (Coxe, ii. 22, from the Townshend Papers), After his death she lived in retirement at Kendal House, Isleworth, on the Thames, opposite Richmond (cf. Aungier, Isleworth, 1840, p. 229). Here, according to Horace Walpole's ‘reminiscence,’ she cherished the belief that ‘a large raven, or some black fowl,’ flying into one of her windows, was the soul of the deceased king, who had promised, if possible, to visit her after death. The duchess died in odour of sanctity on 10 May 1743. She had two daughters by George I: Petronilla Melusina, born in 1693, and created Countess of Walsingham suo jure in 1722, who married Philip Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield [q. v.], and inherited most of her mother's savings; and Margaret Gertrude, born in 1703, who married the Count von Lippe, and died in 1773.

[Doyle's Official Baronage, vol. ii.; Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, vol. xxxii., containing the lives of other members of the Schulenburg family, and referring to Danneil, Das Geschlecht der v. d. S., Salzwedel, 1847; Coxe's Memoirs of Sir Robert Walpole, 4 vols. ed. 1816; Diary of Mary, Countess Cowper (1714–1720), 1864; the Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Cunningham, 8 vols. (vol. i. containing Reminiscences of the Courts of George I and George II); Thackeray's Four Georges; Lord Stanhope's History of England from the Peace of Utrecht, 5th ed. 1858, vols. i. and ii.; Carlyle's History of Frederick the Great, ed. 1873, vols. i. and ii.; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. i. 152; Vehse's Geschichte der Höfe des Hauses Braunschweig, Hamburg, 1853, vol. i.]

A. W. W.