Duchess of Kendal the Longtime Mistress of George I

The Duchess of Kendal was the longtime mistress of King George I. Described as a thin woman, she was said to be “lean and haggard” and was known as “the Scarecrow” in Germany, as “the Maypole” in England, and called “the Goose” by Jacobites, who most famously taunted her in the Scottish ballad Cam Ye O’er Frae France. It was also stated that she was lean in another sense because according to the Annals of Kendal:

“[S]he could hardly escape from her own country on account of her debts. But she repaired her fortunes in England; and after her death, at Twickenham, ‘all her jewels, her plate, her plunder, went over to her relations in Hanover.’”[1]

Duchess of Kendal

Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, the Duchess of Kendal. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She was born Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg on 25 December 1667 in Emden in the Duchy of Magdeburg to Gustavus Adolphus, Baron von der Schulenburg, Privy Councillor to the Elector of Brandenburg, and his wife, Petronella Ottilie von Schwencken. While working as a Maid of Honor to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, she became a mistress to the Electoral Prince, George Louis (known as George Ludwig in Germany). He then succeeded as Elector of Hanover in 1698.

Duchess of Kendal - Her lover George Louis

George Louis in 1706, when he was Elector of Hanover. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Queen Anne died on 1 August 1714 there was no official British heir, and that left Britain in turmoil. The British required a successor and to prevent unrest parliament recognized that “what the country needed was a Protestant prince with Stuart blood who was willing to move to Britain.”[2] They quickly realized that 54-year-old Prince-Elector George Louis of Hanover fit the bill. Despite being divorced he had a son, George Augustus, who could ensure a proper Protestant line of succession.

Anne of Great Britain, Author’s collection.

George Louis was crowned George I at Westminster Abbey on 20 October 1714. Yet, despite the relief that a new British king had been found, some British citizens were unhappy with the choice of George Louis of Hanover. His coronation was therefore marred by rioting in over twenty towns in England.

“The new monarch had to be anointed as Head of the Anglican Church, but the King’s sordid private life was unlikely to appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury or to devout Anglicans. It was vital therefore that the fact their new King had sired three illegitimate children by his long-term German mistress, as well as being accused of ordering the murder of his wife’s lover remain hidden.

As a young man the dissolute Prince George Ludwig had [also] shared a mistress with his equally dissolute father. After his unhappy arrange marriage, George Ludwig formed a long-term relationship with the daughter of a Hanoverian general … [who] bore him three daughters and was made Countess Ehrengarde Melusine von Schulenburg.”[3]

George I in 1714, the year of his succession, as painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Exactly why George Louis became so smitten with Melusine is often questioned. One twentieth-century author stated that it probably had to do with the fact that she ruled him not through his head but through his heart.

“[The Duchess of Kendal] was well acquainted with his tastes and with his habits, was able to entertain him better than any of her younger rivals, to whom, without a word of reproach, she allowed him to extend his favours. None … could take him from her, and night after night he visited her, and would occupy himself for hours, a glass of beer by his side, smoking, and watching her cut paper into different shapes.”[4]

Melusine joined George I on 18 July 1716. She arrived by sea with their second daughter Petronilla von Schulenburg, who was born on 1 April 1693. Also aboard the ship was George I’s successor and son George Augustus, who also brought his wife, Princess Caroline of Ansbach.

George II in 1730. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In England, George I hoped that the British Treasury would help him support Melusine. Walpole already knew what could happen to treasury funds if a King plundered them, such as what Charles II had done, and so he quickly put a stop to any such notion and brusquely notified George I that “paying a royal mistress for her services is tantamount to paying the wages of sin.”[5] Unable to obtain help from the British Treasury to support Melusine, George I got creative. On 18 July 1716 she was made Duchess of Munster, Marchioness of Dungannon, Countess of Dungannon and Baroness Dundalk, in the Peerage of Ireland. A few years later, on 19 March 1719 she became the Duchess of Kendal, Countess of Feversham, and Baroness Glastonbury, in the Peerage of Great Britain. Moreover, in 1723, the Holy Roman Emperor created her Princess of Eberstein, which supported the theory that she had married the King in secret.

If the Duchess of Kendal was not his morganatic wife, it hardly appeared so. This was noted by Lord Orford who wrote, “[George I] was not more constant to her than to his wife.”[6] Even though they had a close relationship there were reports that she was jealous of the King’s relationship with his minister, Robert Walpole. Supposedly, the King smoked his pipe and drank “punch” with Walpole while engaging in “convivial” conversation. That caused the Duchess to try “by convert means to hinder it, [but fortunately] she was wise enough never to interfere openly.”[7]

People claimed that the Duchess of Kendal was rapacious and greedy and Walpole’s son Horace Walpole once stated of her, “the Duchess of Kendal was so mercenary, she was ready at any time to sell the King’s honour to the highest bidder.”[8] Perhaps it was so because she was making money in all sorts of ways. For instance, she sold public offices, titles, and patent rights and influenced the King enough that she received £10,000 for procuring the recall of Viscount Bolingbroke from exile. George I also allowed her to mint Irish coins and that so infuriated Irish patriots they rioted and burned her effigy at the stake, which in turn caused her to be so fearful she sold off her coinage rights to a saucepan manufacturer from Birmingham.

There was also another way that the Duchess of Kendal made money. She became involved in one of the biggest British scandals of all time. It was the South Sea Bubble, a 1720 financial outrage that ruined many British investors and implicated her and the King. The South Sea Bubble was also somewhat reminiscent of the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace” that would later involve the French Queen, Marie Antoinette.

The South Sea Bubble scheme involved two shady characters, financier George Caswall and a London stockbroker named John Blunt. They bribed the Duchess of Kendal to persuade George I to support their new company. Their idea was to make a lot of money quickly and they claimed that their South Seas Company would establish lucrative trade deals between England, the British West Indies, and the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America. Moreover, they made it look like the King of Spain had already granted them permission to send ships to the Spanish colonies when in fact he was only allowing one ship per year to dock in South America.

The Duchess of Kendal became further involved in the scheme when she began taking bribes to help Caswall and Blunt establish meetings between South Sea Company and members of the British government. Because the South Sea Company was willing to loan the British money to finance their war against France, the House of Lords passed the South Sea Bill in 1720. That bill then allowed the South Sea Company to have a monopoly in trade with South America.

With news that the company had exclusive trade deals the Duchess then encouraged wealthy landowners and political figures to purchase shares in the company. Even though it must have sounded too good to be true everyone who heard about the company wanted a piece of the promised riches and speculation ran wild. Hundreds of ladies’ maids, clergymen, and gentry spent their last dime to get in on the action and with so many investors buying stock in the company the share price rose quickly reaching 10 times its value practically over night.

Duchess of Kendal - South Sea Bubble Scandal

Hogarthian image of the 1720 “South Sea Bubble” from the mid-19th century by Edward Matthew Ward. Courtesy of the Tate Gallery.

Of course, it did not take long before the whole house of cards collapsed. The projected trade deals that the South Sea Company had been popularizing never materialized and the truth leaked out about the company’s lack of a deal with Spain. The stock crashed and investors suddenly found themselves destitute. Some people were so ruined they committed suicide and there were reports that this deathly act was a common thought among devastated investors.

When news of the swindle broke calls for vengeance rose, and it was not long before King George I and the Duchess of Kendal were vilified. In the meantime, the South Sea Company directors were arrested, their estates confiscated, and them jailed. Walpole also made sure to cast blame on everyone but the King and his mistress. In fact, the Duchess of Kendal hardly gave the South Sea Bubble scandal a thought and benefited because now she could use her bribe money to buy jewelry at rock bottom prices from destitute investors.

The South Sea Bubble scandal showed many people that the Duchess of Kendal had such a hold on George I she could get whatever she wanted. Some say that she also encouraged him to enlarge Kensington Gardens at the expense of Hyde Park because she wanted more room for her daily carriage airings. She also loved artichokes to such a degree that the King decided to turn St. James’ Park into a garden to grow them for her. However, when the public heard what the King was thinking of doing to the park, the “popular clamour rose so high … the order was countermanded.”[9]

It was said the Duchess of Kendal was despised by the British populace from the moment she arrived and was hated more than any other Royal favorite before or after. In fact, the more the King favored the Duchess of Kendal the more the British public hated her. To demonstrate their displeasure for her, rumors swirled that she had poor personal hygiene and was unclean. The public also showed their contempt by blocking her path whenever she ventured out on a drive around London streets. For instance, it was claimed by Pearson’s Weekly:

“Once a brewer’s drayman drew his dray right across the Strand when he saw her coming. The newly-created Duchess leaned out of the window and asked him angrily what he meant by behaving thus towards a lady of quality.

‘Lady – of quality!’ sneered the drayman.

‘Certainly!’ replied the Duchess. ‘Can’t you see my arms on the carriage door?’

‘Yes,’ was the crushing retort, ‘I can, and a very coarse, dirty pair of arms they are.’”[10]

Despite the British public’s dislike for the Duchess of Kendal, George I loved her, and their relationship continued unbroken until his death. He died while visiting Germany in 1727 with her. While journeying through Holland, she stayed behind at Delden as he continued to Osnabrück. Unfortunately, he suffered a stroke on the road between Delden and Nordhorn on 9 June.

King George I in the 1720s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Duchess was immediately notified and rushed to be by his side. He was in the meantime taken by carriage to the Prince-Bishop’s palace at Osnabrück. He died there on 11 June 1727 in the early hours before dawn and before she had crossed the Rhine. She found herself heartbroken and “repaired to Brunswick,” where she stayed for three months.  

Before his death, the King had expressed great belief in the afterlife and thus according to the Hampshire Chronicle:

“George I, assured his mistress, the Duchess of Kendal, that if she survived him, and if departed spirits were permitted to a revisit the earth, he would make her a visit. So much did the Duchess expect the accomplishment of this promise, that when a black raven flew into the windows of her villa at Isleworth, she welcomed the bird as the vehicle chosen by the spirit of her Royal lover, and long continued to treat it with every mark of respect and tenderness [believing all the time that it was the reincarnation of her dead lover the King].”[11]

Sixteen years later the Duchess of Kendal died at the age of 75 after suffering a short illness. It happened on a Tuesday evening on 10 May 1743 around 7 o’clock in the evening while she was at her home in Grosvenor Square. A few days later she was buried in Grosvenor Chapel in the city of Westminster.

After her death, her home was sold and turned into a tea-garden. Stories then began to circulate that because she had been so avarice, she had hidden a great treasure somewhere on the extensive grounds of her estate. This resulted in numerous fortune seekers digging on the grounds in the hope of finding it.

“They were permitted to do so by the proprietor, who, however, charged them a half-a guinea a day for the privilege. It was a profitable investment for him; more so, indeed, than for the treasure seekers all of whom went away disappointed.”[12]

Duchess of Kendal

Duchess of Kendal. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] C. Nicholson, The Annals of Kendal, 2nd ed. (London: Whitaker & Co., 1861), p. 282.
  • [2] S. DeVries, Royal Mistresses of the House of Hanover-Windsor (Brisbane: Pirgos Press, 2012), kindle.
  • [3] S. DeVries. 2012, kindle.
  • [4] L. Melville, The First George in Hanover and England 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909), p. 40.
  • [5] S. DeVries. 2012, kindle.
  • [6] Scots Magazine LXXXV (Edinburgh, 1820), p. 35.
  • [7] Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser, “Review of New Books,” September 6, 1851, p. 4.
  • [8] E. Warburton, ed., Memoirs of Horace Walpole and His Contemporaries 1 (London: H. Colburn, 1852), p. 131–32.
  • [9] Pearson’s Weekly, “Word Famous Adventuresses,” May 16, 1912, p. 1132.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Hampshire Chronicle, “Winchester,” June 23, 1798, p. 4.
  • [12] Pearson’s Weekly, p. 1132.

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