Microbiographia | Issue 23

Microbiographia | Issue 23

Sophie-Charlotte of Hanover - Philosopher-Queen

Royalty, some might think, ought to be excluded from the class of “obscure historical figures” by default. Ruling an empire, nation, duchy, or whatever no doubt entails a fair measure of celebrity during the time that you rule, but the caveat “during the time that you rule” is important. The sheer number of European principalities that have existed at different times, coupled with the rapid “rate of replacement” for rulers, means that the list of European heads-of-state is longer and more incestuous than the list of Unicol hook-ups. Somewhere on that list, sandwiched between a British King and a German Duke (her brother and father respectively), is Sophie-Charlotte of Hanover.

Sophie-Charlotte was born in 1668 to Ernst August, Elector of Hanover, and Sophie of the Palatinate. As a girl she was proposed as a possible bride for both Louis the Dauphin (heir to the French throne) and his father, Louis XIV. Both sets of negotiations fell through, and Sophie-Charlotte ultimately married Frederick, Elector of Brandenburg. When the electorate was made a kingdom in 1701 she became the first Queen of Prussia.

During her time as ruler, Sophie-Charlotte surrounded herself with philosophers, scientists, musicians, and artists. Gottfried Leibniz, who had been a friend of her mother’s, became a close friend and possible romantic interest (evidence is limited) of Sophie-Charlotte’s. Leibniz, independent inventor of calculus, among other things, was made the first president of the Prussian academy of Sciences that Sophie-Charlotte helped to found. When she died suddenly in 1705, her last words are said to have been: “Do not pity me. I am at last going to satisfy my curiosity about the origin of things, which even Leibniz could never explain to me, to understand space, infinity, being and nothingness…” On a scale ranging from book-burners to Plato’s philosopher-kings, Sophie-Charlotte was about as Platonic as they come.

Her death, at the (reasonably) tender age of 36, was a devastating blow for both Leibniz and philosophy at large. For a time, Leibniz was so distraught that he feared serious illness – it was only after much grieving and cathartic poetry-writing that he eventually recovered. Regrettably, I’ve been unable to find an English translation of the German poem he wrote about her. Darn. Sophie-Charlotte’s death was cause for some suspicion – although pneumonia was officially held responsible, rumours of poisoning were rife in the Prussian court. One might suspect that such rumours surround almost all royal deaths, and this may well be true. As it happens, I can’t find any substantive evidence for the regicide of Sophie-Charlotte. On the other hand, it is speculated about in a generally trustworthy book I’ve been reading.
This article first appeared in Issue 23, 2012.
Posted 4:03pm Sunday 9th September 2012 by Toby Newberry.