Dukes of Brunswick I: Wolfenbüttel and the Unwanted Princess

In January 1820, Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, legally became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Queen of Hanover, as consort to the new King: George IV. But the King made it abundantly clear that Caroline was to have no part in his new reign and would not be crowned by his side in Westminster Abbey. They had barely spoken for over twenty years, and she had even resided abroad since 1814. Although quite popular with the general public, Caroline had made too many enemies at court and was unable to claim her rightful social position. She died just over a year later.

A satire of the reunion of George IV and his ‘Injured Wife’, Caroline of Brunswick

Many people know that the family of George IV was the House of Hanover, and that Hanover is in Germany. Most people do not know, however, that the older name for the House of Hanover is the House of Brunswick (or Braunschweig), and was therefore the same family as that of Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline’s branch, based in the town of Wolfenbüttel, was in fact the senior branch, and Brunswick-Lüneburg, based in the city of Hanover, was the junior, a fact that really irked the senior branch once the junior branch had been elevated in rank above them, first as Electors of Hanover in 1692, and then as kings of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714 (and then kings of Hanover itself in 1814).

arms of the dukes of Brunswick and Lüneburg: golden lions on red and a blue lion on gold with red hearts, and the arms of some of their smaller possessions. Also includes the white horse of Saxony, later the emblem of Hanover and Lower Saxony

This post will look at the family of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and its common origins with the family of Brunswick-Lüneburg, aka Hanover—which will have a separate post of its own. Emerging as a separate entity as early as the 1260s, the principality of Wolfenbüttel would remain one of the many divisions of the House of Brunswick, and included the dynasty’s ‘home base’ the city of Brunswick itself, until the re-shuffling after the Napoleonic Wars. Once Hanover had been proclaimed a kingdom, the territory of the Wolfenbüttel branch—with no other branches still extant—was called simply the Duchy of Brunswick, and would remain so until the dynasty became extinct in 1884.

the location of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in context of the German Empire of the late 19th century.

Yet another name for the House of Brunswick was the House of Guelph, or Welf. The Welf Dynasty (or the Welfen in German) was one of the core ruling families of Germany in the earlier Middle Ages. At their height in the 12th century, they dominated both Saxony in the north and Bavaria in the south, and they rivalled the Hohenstaufens for the Imperial crown. This rivalry also spilled over into the larger dispute between papal and imperial power in the 12th century, in particular erupting into violence in the towns and communes of northern Italy where rival factions took on the Italianised names of ‘Ghibellines’ (from the Hohenstaufen castle of Waiblingen in Swabia) for the pro-imperial faction, or ‘Guelphs’ for the pro-papal faction. Eventually, imperial power prevailed over papal power, and the Hohenstaufens triumphed as medieval Germany’s most powerful dynasty. The Welfs were reduced to a regional power only.

There are several different origin stories for the Welfs. One was that there was a huntsman’s son called ‘Wolf’ who was raised by a childless duke of Swabia as his heir, until his identity was discovered and he retired to a monastery in shame. Another was that he was the 11th (elf in German) son of a Swabian count. Another story puts their earliest origins in the 5th century, as descendants of Edeko, the father of Odoacer, the German chieftain who took power in Italy at the fall of the Roman Empire. Records indicate that there were indeed counts with the name Welf in Swabia by the 8th century, based in the castle of Altdorf, in the Argengau, north of Lake Constance. Some suggest that they were originally Franks, from the Frankish heartland in the Ardennes region, and this first Welf Dynasty were certainly closely related to the Frankish chieftains who established the Carolingian Empire (which included Swabia): two daughters of the first Welf (d. 876) married father and son, Emperor Louis I the Pious, and Louis II the German, King of the East Franks. One branch of the House of Altdorf became kings of Burgundy (9th to 11th centuries), while the Swabian branch continued as counts of Altdorf. They founded an abbey on their mountain (St Martin’s Mountain), which later became known as Weingarten, and was the family sepulchre for many centuries. Leaving Altdorf to the monastery (which remained an independent ecclesiastical territory of the Empire until 1805), they moved their headquarters to a nearby castle of Ravensburg. Count Welf III became close politically to one of his kinsmen, Emperor Henry III, who raised him in rank in 1047 as Duke of Carinthia and Margrave of Verona, important imperial territories on opposing sides of the eastern Alps.

a postcard of the Basilica of St Martin in Weingarten
The entrance to the crypt of the Welf Dynasty in Weingarten

But in 1055, this last member of the first Welf dynasty died, and his sister, Kunigunde, took the inheritance to her Italian husband, Margrave Alberto Azzo II of Milan. His ancestors were also descended from Frankish warriors, those who established themselves on the Lombard plains of northern Italy in the 9th century. His family were known as the Obertenghi, as they stemmed from a lord named Obert (or Obrecht). From this marriage sprung two separate noble houses, one for Germany and one for Italy. The eldest son took the dynastic name of his mother, Welf, and inherited her lands in Swabia. The younger son, Fulk, received a castle his father had built in the Lower Po Valley, Este, and his descendants took that as their surname. A full legal division was made between the properties of the Houses of Welf and Este soon after, but there would always linger some memory of a shared origin, or at least that is what the Hanoverian historians of the early 18th century tell us. 19th-century genealogical historians loved marrying together the names of Guelph and Este as one big giant pan-European superfamily. Two of the illegitimate children of the Duke of Sussex (6th son of King George III) even took the surname ‘d’Este’.

Welf I, founder of the new Welf Dynasty, was appointed Duke of Bavaria in 1070 by Emperor Henry IV, as a reward for his loyalty in a rebellion of the northern German lords. He was followed in this post by his son Welf II, who married a significant Italian heiress, Countess Matilda of Tuscany, which drew the family once more into the political squabbles of northern Italy (and eventually the Guelph/Ghibelline rivalries described above). Welf II’s younger brother succeeded him in Bavaria as Heinrich IX ‘the Black’, who also married a major heiress, this time on the completely opposite side of the Holy Roman Empire: Wulfhilde, an heiress of the dukes of Saxony, whose inheritance included the lordships of Lüneburg, Northeim and Göttingen (these are today in Lower Saxony, which was the Saxony in his period). Duke Heinrich and Wulfhilde had two sons: Heinrich X succeeded as Duke of Bavaria, while the younger, Welf, was given the ancient family lands in Swabia (Altdorf and Ravensburg) and the lands of Matilda of Tuscany; when he died in 1191, in conflict with his nephew, Heinrich XI, he donated these extensive territories to the House of Hohenstaufen, and the Swabian and Tuscan lands were thus lost to the Welfs. Nevertheless, the older brother, Heinrich X ‘the Proud’, Duke of Bavaria, continued to aggrandise the family’s holdings in the north, by marriage to the daughter of Emperor Lothar II, who was also Duke of Saxony. When Lothar died in 1137, Heinrich succeeded him as Duke of Saxony and was expected to be elected as Holy Roman Emperor in his father-in-law’s place. As holder of two (of the six or so) German duchies, this alarmed the other German princes, and he was defeated in the election and deprived of his duchies by the new emperor.

Heinrich the Proud’s son Heinrich ‘the Lion’ regained the Duchy of Saxony in 1142 and also the Duchy of Bavaria in 1156. He did an unusual thing for a German prince, and married well outside normal dynastic circles: Matilda of England, daughter of King Henry II, was offered  in 1168 as part of the English king’s attempts to get closer to Imperial power as a support in his conflicts with papal authority. Heinrich the Lion’s influence thus stretched from England to Poland, the North Sea to the Alps. But again this power reach resulted in disaster, and when he refused to help the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (a Hohenstaufen) in his Italian campaigns, he was tried and formally dispossessed of his duchies in 1180, and exiled to England. Although he and Frederick were reconciled in 1185, Heinrich was only restored to his allodial lands (lands held outright, not as fiefs of the emperor), the estates of his mother and grandmother in Saxony, notably around Brunswick.

Heinrich the Lion and Matilda of England

Brunswick was founded by a Saxon noble dynasty known as the Brunonids or Brunonians. Their chief town was ‘Bruno’s Town’ or Brunswick. They established themselves in the 10th century in the eastern parts of the Duchy of Saxony (known as ‘Eastphalia’—did you know there was once a counterpart to Westphalia?). They claimed to be descended from a certain Bruno, a duke of Saxony who died in 880, who was related to the Ottonian emperors (who were also from Saxony), thus giving them a blood relationship with the ruling imperial families. Heinrich the Lion built a new residence in Brunswick, the Dankwarderode (between about 1160 and 1175), in the style of imperial palaces of the time, and also Brunswick Cathedral, 1175. This remained the regional capital until the 15th century. The palace was remodelled in the Renaissance style in the early 17th century, but was abandoned again once the city became the main residence of the dukes of Brunswick once more from 1754, and they built a new, much grander ducal palace, the Residenzschloss, just outside the old medieval core of the city (see below). The Dankwarderode was thus used as a barracks and slowly fell apart, until it was reconstructed in 1887—in a wave of neo-medievalist passion that was prevalent in Germany at that time. It is now part of the Duke Anton Ulrich Museum complex and houses works of medieval art, including the famous bronze Brunswick Lion, dating from about 1170.

the Dankwarderode in Brunswick
the Brunswick Lion

Heinrich the Lion died in 1195, leaving three sons. The eldest, Heinrich, was appointed Count Palatine of the Rhine, a key post in the western side of the Empire. The second, Otto, was initially raised by his mother’s family as a surrogate English prince, and was created Earl of York and Count of Poitou by his uncle, King Richard I. In 1198, with the support of his uncle, he was chosen by a group of anti-Hohenstaufen princes to be king of the Germans. After battling against the forces of his rival, Philip of Hohenstaufen, he finally secured the German throne and was even crowned Emperor in Rome in 1209, as Otto IV, but was defeated in battled and forced to retire in 1215.

the seal of Otto IV

The third son, William of Winchester (or William ‘Longsword’), was also born and raised at the English court, but as an adult managed the family’s northern territories, bordering Holstein, and entered into a marriage with the King of Denmark’s sister, hoping to share in Danish control over Holstein. Of the three sons, only William left a surviving male heir, Otto ‘the Child’.

Otto the Child inherited all the lands of the Welf family by 1227. He was able to fend off lingering Hohenstaufen enmity through his great family connections: to England through this grandmother and to Denmark through his mother. With English and Danish backing, and the support of the Pope (and the Guelph party in Italy), he may have hoped to succeed his uncle as emperor, but the Hohenstaufens made him a peace offering instead and restored him to his grandfather’s rank of duke. The title Duke of Saxony was already taken, so for the first time in Imperial history, a brand new dukedom was formally created, in 1235, using the name ‘Brunswick and Lüneburg’—these lordships would now be independent of their former feudal lord, the duke of Saxony, and would remain united as a single fief held directly from the emperor, meaning that although other lands could pass in and out of the dynasty, these two would always be at its core. Even as late as the 18th century, the Hanoverian kings of England were still known formally in Germany as dukes of Brunswick and Lüneburg.

Otto the Child receives the Duchies of Brunswick and Lüneburg from the Emperor

Lüneburg was at the centre of the Welf dynasty’s northernmost territories, in the Elbe valley, built atop a large deposit of salt, which in the middle ages was nearly as valuable as gold. The saltworks here were therefore defended by walls and a fortress, the Kalkberg. The town’s name doesn’t have anything to do with the moon or with lunacy, but probably meant ‘place of refuge’ (as one of the few large hills in a very flat region of Germany), from the ancient Germanic name Hluini. But the Latin name for the town, Selenopolis, while probably referring to salt, also puns with the name Selene, the goddess of the Moon. The salt monopoly drew trade and wealth to the area, and the early Saxon dukes made Lüneburg one of their capitals as early as the 10th century. In the 12th century, the town joined the Hanseatic League, and the Welfs profited greatly from its trading power, with the Kalkberg as one of their chief residences. The castle was destroyed in the War of Lüneburg Succession, 1370-71 (see below), and although the lands were fully restored to the Welfs, the town itself managed to secure its independence as an Imperial Free Town. The Welfs therefore moved their base south to Celle. Hanseatic trade declined in the 16th century, and the House of Brunswick would reclaim direct rule over the town of Lüneburg in 1637. As a point of interest to an American like myself, this town, traditionally known as ‘Lunenburg’ in English, gave its name to several colonial settlements founded by the British in the 18th century, notably in Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, but also a county in my home state of Virginia. The original Lüneburg was a garrison town for the Prussians from the later 19th century, and was, interestingly, the setting for the signatures on the first of the Instruments of Surrender of the Nazi forces on 4 May 1945. The now much reduced salt-hill of Kalkberg is today a nature reserve.

Kalkberg today

The new Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Otto I, gained more territory by supporting the bid of his son-in-law, William of Holland, for the German throne in 1252. Otto’s other daughters were married to all of his powerful neighbours and potential rivals to his new ducal title: Saxony, Thuringia and Anhalt; his younger sons occupied the most important bishoprics that adjoined his territory: Hildesheim and Verden. The newly founded House of Brunswick was off to a great start.

the new duchy in the 13th century, stretching from Lüneburg in the north to Braunschweig in the south

But within only one generation, German tradition kicked in, and the new dukedom was partitioned amongst Otto’s sons. The eldest, Albrecht ‘the Tall’, created a principality centred on the Brunswick lands in the south, around the town of Wolfenbüttel, the upper Leine river valley, and the Harz mountains, a valuable source of copper and lead mining. The younger son, Johann ‘the Handsome’, received the northern territories of Lüneburg (with its salt), Celle and Hanover. They agreed to share the city of Brunswick itself, as a joint dynastic capital. From this point (1269) we have the first basic division between the branches of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Brunswick-Lüneburg.

The town of Wolfenbüttel had been founded along the river Oker, a few miles south of Brunswick, in the 10th century. The name refers to a ‘wolf’s residence’, and local counts built a castle here by the 12th century. This residence was seized and destroyed by the new duke of Brunswick in 1255 and a much grander castle was built in the 1280s. It was largely rebuilt in the 1540s after the religious wars and is considered a model of the Renaissance ‘water castle’, being defended still today by an elegant moat. After the court of the dukes of Brunswick relocated to Brunswick in the 18th century, Wolfenbüttel Castle fell into decline, but was given new life as a girl’s school in the 1860s—today it still houses a high school and a local museum. The town is now more famous as the home for one of the world’s great libraries—as we shall see below.

Wolfenbüttel Schloss

Another partition took place in 1292 amongst the sons of Albrecht I: Heinrich I ‘the Admirable’ created a principality of Grubenhagen, with a residence in Einbeck and a seat at Herzberg Castle dominating the southwest edge of the Harz Mountains. Grubenhagen was built earlier in the 13th century and probably named for a local family of Welf administrators called Grubo. It was once of the residences of the dukes of Brunswick-Grubenhagen in the 14th to 16th centuries, then fell slowly into ruin. The lands around it were sometimes used as a hunting retreat by princes of the House of Hanover in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the dukes of this line preferred to reside at Herzberg, which had been a seat of Emperor Lothar back in the 11th century. It was rebuilt as a half-timber fortress after a fire of 1510, and remained one of the chief ducal residences, passing to the line of Hanover in the 17th century, until the Hanoverians themselves moved to England.

the remaining tower at Grubenhagen
Herzberg Castle

The line of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, based chiefly in the Harz Mountains, also had an interesting connection with the Mediterranean in the 14th century, with one daughter briefly becoming Byzantine Empress (1321-24), one son becoming prince-consort to the Queen of Naples, one Constable of Jerusalem (in title only, since that Kingdom had long fallen), and one ‘Despot of Romania’ (a principality in north-western Greece and Albania). This branch of the dynasty would split into sub-branches, then re-form into one principality again in 1526, before becoming extinct in 1596. These territories were disputed by the surviving Welf branches until they were awarded to the Lüneburg line in 1617.

Back in 1292, the younger son of Albrecht I, Albrecht II ‘the Fat’, received Wolfenbüttel. He had several sons: the eldest, Otto ‘the Mild’, was lord in Wolfenbüttel, succeeded by his brother Magnus ‘the Pious’ in 1344. The third, Ernst, was given a separate principality in the upper Leine valley, centred on the town of Göttingen, while the youngest brothers became bishops of Hildesheim and Halberstadt. Göttingen, anciently called Gutingi, and probably named from the nearby stream of Gote, was the location of an Ottonian palace, Grona, on a hill west of the river Leine—it was a frequent residence for German kings and emperors from the 10th and 11th centuries. A town was rebuilt in the 1150s, around an imperial foundation church, St Albani, and it developed into a key economic centre for the Welf dynasty, sitting along one of the major north-south trade routes. The ducal residence within the town was built in the 1290s (the Ballerhus fortress), but in the 1380s the town fought for its autonomy, and the fortress was destroyed. Unlike Lüneburg, however, it never developed into a fully independent Free Imperial City. This separate line of Brunswick-Göttingen continued until 1463, then its lands returned to the main Wolfenbüttel branch.

nothing remains of the palace of Grona or the ducal residence in Göttingen, but there are fragments of the old defensive wall here and there

Magnus of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel married a niece of Emperor Ludwig IV, so had hopes for reclaiming former Welf glories in the Empire, and was temporarily made Count Palatine (or imperial deputy) of Saxony. He secured an important archbishopric, Bremen, for his second son, and pressed to ensure that his older son, Magnus II ‘Torquatus’ (‘with a necklace’) would succeed to the lands of the northern, Lüneburg branch, if it failed. When that line did indeed fail in 1369, however, Magnus II and his son Friedrich had to fight against rival heirs in the House of Saxony, and were only victorious after twenty years of struggle. Duke Friedrich I, feeling confident after this victory, stood for election as emperor in 1400 in Frankfurt, and though he lost, was murdered on the way home, perhaps to prevent him from contesting the election, or from trying again later.

Having briefly re-united the northern Lüneburg lands and the southern Wolfenbüttel lands, the next generation of dukes divided them again: after 1428, there was another line in Lüneburg, and a line in Wolfenbüttel, out of which was carved another smaller principality, Calenberg, in 1432. Calenberg, took its name from a castle built on a small hill (from kahl, ‘barren’) in the meandering valley of the river Leine, a few miles south of Hanover. It had been built in the 13th century to watch over the nearby bishopric of Hildesheim, and only served as an occasional residence for the Brunswick dukes—mostly a vogt, or administrator, lived here, and the dukes of Brunswick-Calenberg lived elsewhere. Calenberg was developed into a larger fortress in the 16th century, then mostly destroyed in the Thirty Years War (all that remains today are some earthwork moats and ramparts). The lands of the separate principality of Calenberg returned to the main Wolfenbüttel line in 1584, then were given to the Lüneburg branch in 1634. It was this line that evolved into the House of Hanover by the end of the century, and then the royal house of Great Britain in 1714. The House of Hanover in Germany still owns the estates of Calenberg, located not far from their chief residence, Marienburg Castle.

Calenberg in the 17th century.

One of these dukes of Brunswick-Calenberg, Friedrich II ‘the Turbulent’, was considered to be a little out of control, involved in feuds and banditry, so he was deposed by his brother Wilhelm in 1484, and died in his prison. Wilhelm thus re-united Wolfenbüttel and Calenberg, as well as Göttingen, which he had inherited when his cousins from that line died out in 1463. Sticking with tradition, he re-distributed these to his sons in 1494, and retired, before dying in 1503. Heinrich was given Wolfenbüttel, while the younger son, Erich I, started a new line of Calenberg-Göttingen. Erich I was a committed commander of Emperor Maximilian I, and established a new seat of power, Rovenburg Castle, aka Landestrost, in the town of Neustadt, north of Hanover. He also built Erichsburg Castle in about 1530, to watch over the more southern parts of his domains.

Duke Erich I and Elisabeth of Brandenburg
Erichsburg Castle

Erich’s wife, Elisabeth of Brandenburg, accused his mistress of witchcraft, so he held a trial, leading to the deaths of several women by burning, but the mistress (Anna Rumschottel) escaped, only to be tried and burned elsewhere. Part of the tension between husband and wife was that, while the Duke remained loyal to the Catholic Church in the early years of the Reformation, his wife did not. After his death in 1540, she became regent and formally introduced Lutheranism into this part of Brunswick. Her son, Erich II, was initially Lutheran, but reversed his loyalties once he took over his lands. He too got involved in the witch craze, and in 1572 accused his very Protestant wife (Sidonie of Saxony) of witchcraft—she too was tried and acquitted. In a more unusual ending, Erich II of Calenberg-Göttingen and his second wife (the very Catholic Dorothée of Lorraine, a failed claimant to the Kingdom of Denmark), fought for the King of Spain in his conquest of Portugal in 1580, then settled in Italy in his wife’s estates in Tortona, then bought a major palazzo in Venice and retired from German politics altogether.

Duke Erich II of Brunswick-Calenberg-Göttingen

Meanwhile, Heinrich I of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel was an active warrior, taking on many regional fights in Lower Saxony (conquering the smaller county of Hoya for his dynasty) and in Frisia, where he was killed in 1514. He was an ally of the powerful Prince-Archbishop of Bremen, and two of his sons succeeded to that ecclesiastical seat—the elder, Christophe, was the last fully Catholic archbishop, while the younger, Georg, gradually admitted a moderate form of Lutheranism into his diocese in the 1560s. Duke Heinrich II of Wolfenbüttel, on the other hand, remained a Catholic, and a firm ally of the Emperor Charles V, so he sparred with his neighbour the Elector of Saxony—in 1542, he was chased out of his estates by the Elector and the coalition of Protestant princes, but was reinstated by the Emperor a few years later.

The tomb of Heinrich II in Wolfenbüttel, with two of his sons and his second wife, Sofie of Poland

Heinrich II’s son Julius, though as a third son not expected to succeed, became one of the most important princes of the line of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. His older brothers having been killed in the religious wars, he succeeded his father as duke in 1568. He then succeeded his cousin Erich II in Calenberg and Göttingen, so the entire southern half of the Welf domains were once more united. Unlike his father, Julius was a passionate follower of Martin Luther and founded the Lutheran State Church in Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He was also passionate about education, so in 1576 he founded the Academia Julia, mostly to train Lutheran clergy—this developed into the University of Helmstedt, one of the most important universities in northern Germany until it closed its doors in 1810. The buildings remain and are really lovely.

Duke Julius of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

Duke Julius was a very capable ruler, in particular as an administrative reformer: of the tax system, the military, the judiciary. He was also a great collector of books, and his library of 1572 formed the core of the later Duke August Library (below). To improve his duchy he developed the copper and lead mines in the Harz Mountains, and built roads and canals to transport it, notably taking metals to renowned armouries in Wolfenbüttel. He also rebuilt the Hessen Castle, on the road towards the Harz, in a Renaissance style, and made it his chief residence. Originally a manor house from the 1120s, it was turned into a castle in the 14th century. After Julius’s reign, it became a dowager residence, then a hunting lodge by the end of the 17th century. It slowly decayed until it was renovated in the 1990s.

Schloss Hessen in the 17th century

Another castle Julius re-developed was Calvörde, which had been a Welf castle in the 14th century, but leased out to local nobles in the intervening centuries. The castle is unique with its rounded shape and round moat, but the district it commanded was also interesting as an exclave of the Duchy, far to the northeast (close to Magdeburg), guarding a strategic border between Brunswick and Brandenburg. It remained an exclave even after the reorganisation of the maps of Germany in 1815, all the way until the end of the German Empire in 1918.

Julius’ son, Heinrich Julius, continued his father’s work, and was considered one of the most educated princes of his time, with degrees in theology and law. As an administrator, he was Rector of the University of Helmstedt, but he also wrote plays and theological pamphlets himself. He was an avid supporter of church music, maintaining the famous Michael Praetorius as his Kapellmeister. Heinrich Julius rebuilt the Ducal Palace in Wolfenbüttel along more fashionable Renaissance lines (‘Weser’ style), constructed new buildings for Helmstedt, and commissioned a new church in Wolfenbüttel, the church of the Blessed Mary the Virgin or Marienkirche, in 1608. Though he was a Protestant, he became a chief counsellor to the Emperor Rudolf II, and was named to his Privy Council in 1607. He worked hard to try to resolve issues between competing factions of the Christian faith. He was less tolerant of other faiths however, and expelled the Jews from his territories, and persecuted witches with passion. His dynasty’s standing was increased as well through a marriage to a Danish princess, daughter of King Frederick II.

Of the many children of Duke Heinrich Julius and Elisabeth of Denmark, one of the youngest sons, Prince Christian, was set to be a great military commander in the early years of the Thirty Years War, in defence of the deposed Frederick of the Palatinate (the ‘Winter King’) and in coordinating the military invasion of his cousin and namesake, King Christian IV of Denmark. But he became ill and died, age just 26.

Prince Christian of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

His older brother, the new duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, was Friedrich Ulrich. He was apparently a wayward youth, a heavy drinker, and had been deposed by his own mother and her brother Christian IV of Denmark in 1616. Restored in 1622, he never really asserted himself as a ruler and lost much of his territory during the war, then died ignominiously in a hunting accident in 1634. With him died the last of this branch of the House of Brunswick. But there was one more lingering presence: his widow Anna Sophia, daughter of the Elector of Brandenburg, lived on for another 25 years, protecting the University at Helmstedt against the war ravaging all round, and founded a Latin school nearby, called the Anna-Sophianeum, which still exists today. She lived nearby in Schöningen Castle, another traditional Brunswick dowager residence (three in succession since the 16th century). It remained one of the main administrative centres for this part of the Duchy in the 18th century, but has decayed since.

Anna Sophia of Brandenburg
Schloss Schöningen

With the death of Duke Friedrich Ulrich in 1634, the House of Brunswick underwent one of those periodic grand regroupings and redistributions of territory that frequently occurred in ruling German families. Wolfenbüttel, Grubenhagen, Calenberg and Göttingen all passed back to the main line of Lüneburg. But this redistribution had already been planned for in the generation before: Duke Heinrich of Lüneburg gave up this senior position in 1569 to his younger brother (along with Celle and Hanover—the core of the future Hanoverian Dynasty) in return for the potential succession rights to Wolfenbüttel. While he waited he ruled from Dannenberg Castle, southeast of Lüneburg—a medieval castle overlooking the Elbe valley. Today only the central tower remains.

Schloss Dannenberg

Heinrich’s elder son succeeded him in Dannenberg in 1598, and his second son, August, was initially given Grubenhagen, then in the reshuffling of 1634, the principality of Wolfenbüttel. Having not expected originally to succeed to any of his family’s major estates, Duke August had spent much his youth in study and travel, so as an adult he integrated his growing collection of books with the library he had inherited from his cousin Duke Julius, re-founding it as the Bibliotheca Augusta in Wolfenbüttel, but known today as the Herzog August Bibliothek.

Duke August of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel
Duke August in his library

By Duke August’s death in 1666, his library was the largest collection north of the Alps and already seen as a national treasure by Germans. August himself was a great promoter of German language and literature, but also himself wrote in Latin (including a book a cryptology). Many of the books were bound in a creamy white leather, which still gives a beautiful uniform appearance in the library today. A new building was added in 1723, with a rotunda in graceful neo-classical style, then a grand monumental building replaced it in 1886. Duke August’s library continues today to be a beacon of scholarship particularly for the history of the Reformation and the German Renaissance. Its collections preserve treasures like the illustrated Bible produced for Duke Heinrich the Lion in the 12th century.

the interior of the Herzog August Bibliothek today, with its white leather bindings
The Herzog August Library in the 18th century
The Herzog August Library today
the Gospels of Heinrich the Lion

The three sons of Duke August are all interesting in their own way, and usher the House of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel into the 18th century and participation in dynastic politics on a much grander scale. The eldest, Rudolph August, was mostly interested in his studies and in hunting, and gradually associated his more politically minded brother, Anton Ulrich, with administrative rule of the duchy. Rudolph August’s preferred residence was the summer hunting lodge, Hedwigsburg, named for a previous duchess of Wolfenbüttel, Hedwig of Brandenburg. This small palace, southwest of the town, was sold in the 18th century and has mostly disappeared.

The third son, Ferdinand Albrecht, was also a scholar and an art collector, residing in a new Brunswick apanage territory, Bevern, sliced off in 1667. Bevern was in the far western parts of the family lands, on the River Weser; its castle was built in the early years of the 17th century. There was a separate Brunswick-Bevern line until 1809, but the family only occasionally used the castle as a residence. In the 19th century, it was used to house retired ducal court officials and soldiers, then a ‘correctional institute’ and an orphanage. In the 20th century it was a school, a barracks, a prisoner of war camp, and so on. Since the 1970s, it has been restored and today houses a local history museum.

Schloss Bevern

Duke Anton Ulrich is the next of the most important dukes in the Wolfenbüttel story. His rivalry with the House of Hanover and his ambition on the European dynastic marriage market makes for fascinating reading. He was the sole ruler of the Duchy after 1704 and established his rule as a model of what would later be described as ‘enlightened absolutism’. Anton Ulrich was well educated like his siblings, with a doctorate in theology from the University of Helmstedt, and was keen to continue the family legacy in supporting scholarship: he hired the famous philosopher and historian Leibniz to be the librarian at the Duke August Library and built the grand new rotunda building noted above, as well as an opera house in Brunswick.

Duke Anton Ulrich of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel

He also built his own summer residence to the east of Wolfenbüttel, Schloss Salzdahlum, where he amassed a large art collection, which today is the core of the museum which bears his name in Brunswick—built in the 1750s, it was one of the first public museums in Germany. Salzdahlum and its gardens were designed in part to impress, to rival the gardens built by the Hanoverians in Herrenhausen. But its glories did not last very long. The gardens faded and the palace was dismantled in 1813.


The rivalry with the House of Hanover was fanned by the promotion of the Lüneburg branch—the junior branch by this point—to the rank of Imperial Elector in 1692, and their being named as heirs to a fully royal throne, Great Britain, in 1701. Hoping to raise his own branch’s dynastic profile, Duke Anton Ulrich turned to match-making. His own daughters were already married—to mostly small-fry German princes—so he turned to his grand-daughters: in 1708 he arranged a spectacular marriage for the eldest, Elisabeth Christine, to Archduke Charles of Austria, at that point still considered King ‘Carlos III’ of Spain. She grumbled, but agreed to convert to Catholicism, as did her grandpapa himself in 1709. Her younger sister, Charlotte Christine married the Tsarevich Alexis, son of Peter the Great in 1711, so she too had to convert, to Orthodoxy. Tsarevna Charlotte did not get on well with her husband and died shortly after giving birth to the future Peter II in 1715. Elisabeth Christine, on the other hand, did not become queen of Spain, but instead ascended with her husband to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire in 1711, and was the mother of the famous Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.

Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Holy Roman Empress
Charlotte Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Tsarevna of Russia

Old Duke Anton Ulrich died in 1714, age 80, and left his duchy to his son August Wilhelm, who, like his uncle, was more interested in art and hunting, and despite marrying three times in an attempt to produce an heir, maintained a fairly open same-sex relationship. He spent a large fortune on raising the splendour of the small court in Wolfenbüttel, and left the duchy’s finances in tatters when he died in 1735 and passed the estates to his younger brother Ludwig Rudolf (the father of the Tsarevna and the Empress).

Duke August Wilhelm

Duke Ludwig Rudolf had already had a long career as a general in Austrian service, and added new territory to the Brunswick domains: the county of Blankenburg, another eastern exclave in the Harz mountains, which had belonged to the bishops of Halberstadt since the Middle Ages but was secularised as part of the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The county was raised to the level of a principality in 1708 at the time of his daughter’s marriage to a Habsburg archduke, partly to raise his rank, and partly to sever all the remaining feudal ties to Halberstadt which was now held by the king of Prussia.

The Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by the 18th century, showing the exclaves of Blankenburg and Calvorde, and the now much larger Electorate of Hanover, to the north and south (in yellow)

When Duke Ludwig Rudolf died in 1735, the duchy passed to his cousin, Ferdinand Albrecht II of Brunswick-Bevern, who also had a long career as a solider in Austrian service, starting as an aide to Emperor Leopold and rising to the rank of General-Field Marshal in 1733. He was Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel for only six months, then passed along the throne to his eldest son, Karl. Duke Karl I had an entire tribe of younger siblings, many of whom had illustrious and interesting careers of their own. Of his sisters, Juliana became queen of Denmark, Elisabeth Christine became queen of Prussia, wife of Frederick the Great, and Luise the mother of Frederick’s successor, Frederick William I of Prussia. The second son, another Anton Ulrich, was put forward by his aunt, the Empress Elisabeth Christine, as a groom for Anna Leopoldovna, a grand-daughter of Tsar Ivan V of Russia and a potential heir to the throne. He moved to Russia in the mid-1730s, married Anna in 1739, and briefly helped her rule Russia as regent for their infant son, Ivan VI, in 1740-41, before his wife’s cousin, Elisabeth Petrovna, daughter of Peter the Great, launched a coup and sent Anna, Anton, baby Ivan, and their entire family to Kholmogory near the Arctic Sea. Anna died soon after, and Ivan in 1764, separated from his family in Schlüsselburg Fortress. Anton Ulrich was then offered the chance to leave Russia by Catherine the Great, but he chose to remain with his other children in the far frozen north. He died in 1776, and in 1780, the younger children, two girls and two boys, were released into custody of their aunt the dowager queen of Denmark.

Prince Anton Ulrich, as a Russian general
Ivan VI (of Brunswick), Tsar of all the Russias

Two of the younger brothers of Karl and Antony Ulrich, Ludwig Ernst and Ferdinand, both became Field Marshals, the former for Austria and the latter for Hanover/Britain. Ludwig Ernst was also briefly involved in Russian politics, serving his brother’s wife as reigning Duke of Courland (on the Baltic) for six month in 1741 before he too was ousted as part of the coup of Elisabeth Petrovna. He then pursued a quite interesting career on the opposite side of Europe, in the Netherlands, where he became a military commander from 1750, and was appointed guardian of the young Prince of Orange, William V, after his mother died in 1759, managing the political affairs of the Dutch Republic for the next six years. Even after the Prince came of age, Ludwig Ernst of Brunswick continued to dominate government until he was pushed out in 1782, having to take the blame for Dutch military and economic failures of the 1770s. He went into exile and died in 1788.

Duke Ludwig Ernst of Brunswick-Bevern

Duke Karl I, who ruled Wolfenbüttel from 1735, kept the family tradition for scholarship alive, expanding the library in Wolfenbüttel and building a new college in Brunswick. He improved the Duchy’s economic situation by founding a porcelain company, at a castle on the Weser, Fürstenberg—which still produces porcelain products today. He also joined with other German princes with ties to the House of Hanover in selling several regiments of locally trained soldiers to Great Britain to use in its war against the American colonies in 1776. The province of New Brunswick in Canada was formed after the war, in 1784, having largely been settled by those English colonists remaining loyal to the House of Hanover, aka, Brunswick. There are lots of towns and counties all over the US, Canada and Australia with the name Brunswick, but these refer to the British royal family, not their cousins in Wolfenbüttel.

Karl I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, in Prussian military uniform

Karl I also relocated the capital back from Wolfenbüttel to Brunswick, and built a new, much grander ducal palace, started in 1718. It became the official residence of the family formally from 1754. This first palace burned down during the civil unrest of 1830, so was rebuilt in an even more imposing style—along the lines of Buckingham Palace or the new Imperial Palace in Vienna. The moving of the ducal capital away from Wolfenbüttel turned out to be a real blessing for the Herzog August Library, since the small non-industrialised town was entirely spared during World War II, leaving it with one of the best preserved collections of original half-timbered houses in north Germany today, whereas the city of Brunswick was mostly flattened, including the new Ducal Palace. The ruins of this building were fully demolished by the city council in 1960, but it was curiously resurrected in the early years of the 21st century, and re-opened in 2007 as a grand façade with a shopping mall inside (the Schloss-Arkaden). The grand equestrian statues of 19th-century dukes were also restored, flanking either side of the entrance.

the 18th-century Ducal Palace in Brunswick
Brunswick Palace in its reconstructed form

Karl I’s son, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand (known by all three names) began his reign in 1780. As a young man, he had been linked to his uncle Frederick the Great, and after starting off as an officer in the army of Hanover, became a Prussian general in 1773 and a General-Field Marshal in 1787. In that year he was sent to the Netherlands to support his kinsman, William V, Prince of Orange, against the revolting ‘Batavian Patriots’—and was praised for his swift, efficient and mostly bloodless way of handling the situation. As a ruler, he was popular, and good with finance. He built a new residence in Brunswick for his British wife, Augusta (sister of King George III), in 1768, which he named Schloss Richmond after one of the royal residences west of London. This cute wedding-cake palace still stands, and was acquired by the city in the 1930s—today it serves as official reception rooms for the city.

Princess August of Great Britain, Duchess of Brunswick
Richmond Schloss

Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand sponsored the arts and sciences in Brunswick, and had plans to further develop the duchy’s economy and educational systems. But the French Revolutionary Wars broke out in 1792, and the Duke was appointed as Commander-in-Chief of the joint Austro-Prussian army sent to contain the Revolution and to rescue Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette if necessary. In July of that year he issued the famous ‘Brunswick Manifesto’ (which was actually written by the Prince of Condé, the leader of the royalist émigrés, and not, some historians argue, in fact reflecting the beliefs or aims of the more pacific Duke of Brunswick). The Manifesto was meant to scare the French republicans into submitting back to ‘reason’, but had the opposite effect, fanning the patriotic flames for war. And when war actually began, with the Battle of Valmy in late September, Brunswick was surprised to see how prepared the French patriots really were, and swiftly pulled his troops back to the Rhine. Brunswick made a successful counter-attack in the next year’s campaign, notably re-taking Mainz in 1793, but he resigned as Commander-in-Chief in 1794 due to interference in his command decisions by the young king of Prussia. He did not return to command until 1806, age 70, to lead Prussian troops once more in the Fourth Coalition War. He was defeated by Napoleon at Jena in Thuringia in October, and died shortly after.

Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick

Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand was succeeded by his fourth son, Friedrich Wilhelm, since the elder three had all been declared ‘incapacitated’ due to mental disability. Mental illness was certainly rampant in the royal families of Europe in the later 18th century—not just limited to ‘Mad King George’, though continual inbreeding between the two branches of the House of Brunswick certainly contributed to its spread. Nevertheless, in 1795, another match was proposed, between the Duke’s second daughter, Princess Caroline, and her first cousin, George, Prince of Wales. They loathed each other from the start, and although they produced one legitimate child within 9 months of the wedding (Princess Charlotte), they rarely saw each other after that. Her story is one of many years fighting for her independence, and scandalising polite society through her brusque manners and indiscrete love affairs, notoriously with her Italian servant Bartolomeo Pergami, with whom she lived after moving abroad in 1814. The Prince of Wales tried several times to divorce her, but even once he succeeded as king (George IV) in January 1820, he was unable to secure it by legal means (an act of Parliament). Caroline, now legally queen, returned to England, and was very popular with the people—probably on account of George being so unpopular—but as we’ve seen above, was barred from attending her own coronation and died only a few weeks later in August 1821.

Caroline of Brunswick, Princess of Wales, 1804, by Lawrence
Caroline with Pergami

It is interesting to consider that Caroline’s wild and out of control behaviour may have been manifestations of the same mental disabilities as her brothers, especially considering that her only sister was renowned for the same outrageous behaviour. Auguste married the Duke of Württemberg in 1780, and was quickly separated from him, accused of uncouth behaviour, incivility and then all-out adultery. She died in 1788 giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her husband, Friedrich, went on to become the first king of Württemberg in 1806.

Auguste of Brunswick, Duchess of Württemberg

Caroline’s brother, Duke Friedrich Wilhelm, did not acquire so much extra territory and exalted titles as his brother-in-law and uncle, the first king of Württemberg and the first king of Hanover (George III). Brunswick remained a fairly small state, though independent (ie, it wasn’t absorbed by a larger state like many other German principalities), and the Duke joined the new German Confederation, the successor to the Holy Roman Empire. In 1807, however, the Duchy was occupied by France, and he took refuge in Baden, at the court of his wife’s family. From 1809, he formed an army of resistance, the ‘Black Brunswickers’ (who wore black in mourning for their duchy), and he became known as the ‘Black Duke’. They successfully retook the city of Brunswick, but he soon retreated with his mother to her homeland in England. He became a lieutenant-general in the British army, and commanded the Black Brunswickers in the Peninsular War, where they were mostly decimated. He returned to a liberated Brunswick in 1813, but was killed in the Battle of Quatre-Bras in Belgium, in June 1815, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.

The Black Duke of Brunswick, Friedrich Wilhelm

The new duke of Brunswick, Karl II, was only 10 years old. He had spent the war years in England with his grandmother, Augusta, and remained under the guardianship of his cousin the Prince Regent once he became duke. The Prince Regent, as regent also of Hanover, imposed a new constitution on both of the Brunswick duchies, and when Karl II took the reins himself in 1823, he found that his powers had been severely curtailed. He also found he had lost the income due to him as head of the House of Welf (recall that the House of Lüneburg, ie, Hanover, was the junior branch), and protested, with support of the Austrian emperor, but made little headway. He tried to dismantle the new constitution, but as revolutionary fervour once again spread across Europe in 1830, he was overthrown by a popular movement in Brunswick and sent into exile. From Paris, then London, then Geneva, he continued to issue formal protests, first against his deposition, then against Hanover’s continued domination of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, then over Prussia’s takeover of Hanover in 1866. He died in Geneva in 1873 and left a vast fortune to the city, who erected an equally vast statue in his honour.

Karl II, Duke of Brunswick, as a young man

In 1830, Karl II had been replaced with his brother, Wilhelm. Although he reigned for a very long time, over fifty years, he never made very much of a mark on German history. He joined the North German Confederation in 1866 (formed by Prussia, so therefore something his elder brother loathed), served as a general in the Prussian military, and left most government business to his ministers.

Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick

In fact, Duke Wilhelm of Brunswick spent most of his time at Oels Castle in Silesia. This castle and its town had been the centre of an independent duchy since the early 14th century, one of the many pieces of the fragmented Duchy of Silesia governed by Piasts (the former ruling family of Poland), fully Germanicised by the end of the Middle Ages. The original dynasty became extinct in 1492, and the duchy of Oels passed to the Podiebrad family of Bohemia, then the dukes of Württemberg in 1647, and from them to the House of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1792. By this point, Silesia was a province of Prussia, so when Duke Wilhelm died with no direct heirs in 1884, the King of Prussia reclaimed the ancient fief for himself as overlord—in 1905, it became the personal property of the Crown Prince of Germany, who continued to live there even after the Great War. In 1945, all of Silesia became part of Poland, so the castle at Oleśnica (as it became known) was nationalised and used for various state organisations. Renovated in the 1970s, it houses offices of a national health charity.

the Castle of Oleśnica today

Duke Wilhelm did try to leave his other possessions, notably the Duchy of Brunswick itself, to the Duke of Cumberland (Ernst August, the son of the deposed King George V of Hanover), but this was disputed—by the old law of the Holy Roman Empire, it should have reverted to the junior line, the House of Hanover; but since Hanover itself was now a part of Prussia, the King of Prussia, now German Emperor, claimed it for himself. It was administered by imperially appointed governors until 1913, when Kaiser Wilhelm II gave it as a wedding present to his daughter, Viktoria Luise, and her husband, none other than Ernst August of Hanover, thus ending the feud between the houses of Hohenzollern and Hanover. This wedding was the last great gathering of European royals before the Great War, attended by the German Emperor and Empress, but also the King and Queen of Great Britain and the Tsar of Russia. The newly restored Duchy of Brunswick was not long-lived, however, and the Duke and Duchess abdicated alongside all the other German princes in November 1918.

Today the city of Brunswick is bustling once again, and the Duke August Library remains one of the jewels in the crown of German academia. I was incredibly fortunate to receive a fellowship to study there for three glorious summer months about five years ago. The legacy of one of the oldest princely houses in Europe continues in this corner of northern Germany.

(images Wikimedia Commons)

Published by Jonathan Spangler

I am a historian of monarchy and the high aristocracy of Europe. I focus primarily as an academic on the early modern period and France, but my interests range from early medieval Ireland to 20th-century Russia. I teach history at Manchester Metropolitan University in Manchester, England, and am the senior editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies. I am also a musician and an avid traveler. I love heraldry and genealogy. My ancestors came from Germany to the American colonies in the 18th century and I am a proud Virginian.

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