Eléanor d’Olbreuse, an exceptional destiny

Born in Olbreuse in January 1639, Eléanor lived and grew up between the château of Olbreuse and that of Grand Breuil, in a family which had been Huguenote for almost two centuries.

She was schooled in deep-rooted family values: uprightness, a strong sense of responsibility, respect for oneself and for others, strength of thought and religious education and instruction.

Like her brothers and sisters (she had three siblings from her father’s first marriage and two others from his second), she shared her life with people who frequented the Château d’Olbreuse.

Close relations with other protestant families in Mauzé, Surgères, La Rochelle etc, allowed the young girl to further her education; her father introduced her to a wider society; thus she was chosen to be bridesmaid to the Duchess of Trèmouille, then also of the Princess of Tarente, her daughter in law. Said to be “not too beautiful but agreeable in body and spirit”. “A beauty, a brilliance which surpassed the physical and which pleased all those who met her”.

She accompanies her mistress to the court of Louis XIV at Saint-Germain.  Her charm and spirit are noticed and provoke feelings of envy and jealousy. She paid no attention to insults such as “the shepherdess of Poitou” and “the little pile of mud”, and was persuaded that an exceptional destiny awaited her.

Her father, Alexandre Desmier d’Olbreuse, dies as the exile of the Huguenots had started in France.
The Princess of Tarente, worried about events in France, leaves the area for Holland. Eléanor follows: they are welcomed at Breda by the family Hesse-Cassel.

It is there, in 1664, that Georges Guillaume of Brunswick-Lunebourg (he is descended from the Guelfe line) who until then had spent most of his life in the great courts of Europe and Venice, makes her acquaintance and literally falls in love with her:

Uninterested in the responsibilities of state, he gives up everything ¨C his marriage rights, in favour of his brother, Ernest-Auguste, Bishop of Osnabruck, promising him all his properties and rights for him and his future children. At the same time he cancelled his engagement to the Palatine Princess Sophie Stuart, daughter of Frédéric V and Elisabeth Stuart.

So, that leaves is with:

- Mademoiselle d’Olbreuse does not give in to Georges-Guillaume, who offers her an assured future, even though another brother of the Duke smothers her with his affections, without actually declaring them openly.

- The difference in nobility between Mademoiselle d’Olbreuse and the Duke of Brunswick is important ¨C and she is a Huguenote.

The Duke is bound to his brother by a promise that he cannot break.

Eléanor accepts a marriage of convenience, called a marriage Morganatique, which gives her the title of Dame de Harbourg in 1666 and which brings her financial security.

This is a first step? A calculation or the result of a deep love? Perhaps both?

In 1668, Eléanor gives birth to Sophie-Dorothée, and loses her brother who is not even 20 years old.

A difficult relationship with her sister in law, Sophie of Hanover, become increasingly dreadful as Sophie fears that the Duchy of Brunswick will not now pass to her husband or his children. Sophie also has designs on the throne of England.

In this climate of hatred and opposition, the Dame de Harbourg makes it her business to become popular with all those around her. The understanding with her husband helps her in this.

The works at the Château de Zell have started.  Eléanor occupies herself with them, using the French fashion of the day: artisans, gardeners (it is Eléanor who introduced the asparagus to Germany), artists and others of all kinds are called who frequent the court of Brunswick. Also renowned scholars, for example, Liebnitz.
In 1674, her second brother Charles, dies, without wealth.

In trying to consider the position of Sophie-Dorothée in that society, we need to bear in mind that: Eléanor is not legally married to the Duke; her daughter is not therefore a true princess; her future is uncertain and thus what sort of marriage can she make? How best to protect the interests tied up in the contract between the Duke of Brunswick and his brother Ernest-Auguste? Without doubt these would have been among the considerations which led the Duke to legitimize his marriage with Eléanor d’Olbreuse in 1676. The king of France is informed, as are all the courts of Europe. Soon the Duke and Duchess announce an impending birth, which if he is a son, will become the Duke of Brunswick and Zell¡K..the baby dies at birth and was a girl.

The worry here is that the duchy of Brunswick will pass to the children of his brother.

This is stubbornly ignored by Sophie de Hanover, who is a close confidant of the prime minister of Zell, who in turn is hostile to Eléanor d’Olbreuse.

Eléanor unsuccessfully searches for an alliance in France worthy of her daughter.

Sophie-Dorothée was engaged at 8 years old, to a prince of similar rank, aged 16 years, but he was killed serving in the imperial army. Other possible alliances are studied, including with the Prince of Nassau.

Sophie Stuart puts forward her son Georges-Louis: bargaining, negotiations, reasons of State, reflect the reluctance of Oléanor even though her husband is already convinced.

The matter is settled, the marriage (destined to failure) takes place in 1682 between:
- the Princess Sophie-Dorothée, aged 16, beautiful and well-educated, and
- Georges-Louis, her cousin aged 22, brave on the field of battle but narrow-minded of spirit, entirely ignorant, vindictive and depraved.
- the marriage will produce two children: Georges-Augusteen in 1683 and Sophie-Dorothée in 1687.

Because she has the confidence of her husband, Eléanor participates in the affairs of the duchy.  She corresponds directly with the king of France who calls her “my cousin”, since she is officially married to a prince of the realm but also perhaps because she is the sister in law of one of the parents of Madame de Maintenon, who secretly married the king of France after the death of the queen in 1683.

We are now in 1685; the revocation of the edict of Nantes is announced; the duchy of Zell receives many Huguenot immigrants who have come to France ¨C soon to be some 10% of the population.

The plan of the town grows and is modernized.

Eléanor obtains from her husband a welcome decree to help with the installation of all the people, the artisans and talented traders; a reform church is opened, with no exterior signage (the church still exists nowadays); the French theatre is created in the heart of Brunswick.

When Louis XIV sends his ambassadors to the court of Zell to negotiate an alliance with William of Orange, the duke refuses to agree, even more since the threat becomes greater and the king imprisons in 1686 M. de Beaucoeur, the representative in France of the interests of Madame d’Olbreuse.

The Duke of Brunswick makes an appeal for greater powers but the king of France replies that he cannot change  the present conditions of the duchy; the negotiations continue…

In the same period at Olbreuse, Alexandre III d’Olbreuse received an order to go to Paris to serve the court until new orders are issued. Then, in January 1686 Mme d’Olbreuse, his wife, who was born Melle Saint-Hermine and who was a cousin of Mme de Maintenon, is forced to send back the refugees who have become established at the château, but also M Jean Migault who had also found a brief respite within the walls of the château.
In 1688 the duke sends word, through an intermediary, M de Bourgeauville, French minister in Zell, to the king saying that “ a prince who doesn’t keep to his word effectively gives his subjects the right to look for a new master”. The situation is extremely delicate.

The duchess, who doesn’t stop protecting the protestants who rely on her patronage, using part of her income for that and another part for looking after the immigrants in difficulty living in her courtyard.  That year she loses her sister Angélique and the next year her latter brother Alexandre. None of them leave any heirs and the chateau returns to her.

Over the same period Sophie-Dorothée, badly married and unhappy, still opposed to her mother in law, strikes up a relationship with Count Philippe de Koenigsmark, that relationship soon couples with another relationship which will be fatal to the two lovers.

Mme la Platen, mistress of Ernest-Auguste, the duke of Hanover since the death of his brother, got wind of a scheme by Philippe and Soplie-Dorothée to organize the flight of Sophie-Dorothée.  She stirs up the plot: in July 1694 Koenigsmark is assassinated before reaching the apartments of Sophie-Dorothée. The body is never found and Sophie-Dorothée is incarcerated for ever in the château-fortress of Aldhen.

From this moment Eléanor has less and less influence over her husband, who is preoccupied with considerations over the dynasty and its progression rather than with the fate of her daughter who he sees as guilty anyway. The duchess devotes herself almost exclusively to helping the protestants of Zell and France.
In 1702 the properties of Eléanor are confiscated by order of the king at the end of long arguments. They will not be restored to her until 1707, ie 2 years after the death of her husband and after she has left Zell for the princely residence of Lunebourg.

The last duke of Brunswick disappears and with him, the duchy, now absorbed into the duchy of Hanover. Georges-Louis of Hanover logically assuming the head of these estates (the marriage contact of Sophie-Dorothée makes her totally dependent on her husband).
Eléanor d’Olbreuse lives until 1722. She sees her daughter again several times, having been authorized by Georges-Louis who has become king of England, taking the name of George I.
She is buried without ceremony, just as she had requested in her will. Nor is there any statue of her in the church at Zell alongside that of her husband. He, having died before her, was the last representative of a long line; there was  therefore no longer any reason to remember her!
Her two grandchildren became: the one George II of England and the other by her marriage, queen of Prussia.
The family tree of Eléanor d’Olbreuse constitutes a dynasty of all the crown heads of Europe, among whom are the king of Belgium, the king of Greece, etc etc.

That is why she is called the Grandmother of Europe, after having taken to Germany “all the favours of her country” ¨C so said Voltaire much later.

Bibliography and documents:

Horric de Beaucaire: Mésalliance à la cour de Brunswick
Roget Prieur: Vandré, berceau des dynasties européennes
Archives historiques de Saintonge et d’Aunis
Bulletin des Antiquaires de l’Ouest, 4eme série
Musée du château et église réformée de Zelle (Celle)
Société Mauzéenne d’Histoire Locale: Jean Migault  Mauzé au temps des dragonnades  – Acquisition du Grand Breuil par A. Desmier d’Olbreuse  – les souterrains d’Olbreuse.
Pierre Henri Mitard: transmis par Mme Mitard
Texte écrit par Maryse, association Asst’Uss, Usseau
Version anglaise par David Priestley, Association Asst’Uss, Usseau.


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