The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach by Matthew Dennison - review by Sarah Fraser

Sarah Fraser

Philosopher Queen

The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach


William Collins 400pp £25 order from our bookshop

Wilhelmina Caroline of Ansbach went far. ‘Born to high-ranking obscurity’ in the southern German town of Ansbach, on 1 March 1683, she died at St James’s Palace in London in November 1737. On the way, she dropped the Wilhelmina in favour of the more English-sounding Caroline.

The eldest child of John Frederick, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, and his second wife, Eleonore, ‘her destiny at best’ was marriage into the top ranks of a German ruling dynasty. Her father’s early death, soon followed by her maternal grandfather’s, left no man to protect mother and child. Of no use to anyone, Eleonore had to remarry to regain status. She accepted a brute for a husband: John George, Elector of Saxony. Failing to give him a son and heir, Eleonore endured a life of bullying by her husband and his mistress, who had produced a daughter. Eleonore feared for her own and Caroline’s safety, since John George could not fulfil a promise to marry his mistress and legitimise his daughter while his wife lived.

A pattern of insecurity, Protestant piety and penury shaped Caroline’s childhood, relieved by her friendship with the philosophy- and music-loving Sophia Charlotte of Hanover. Sophia Charlotte instilled in Caroline an appetite for improvement, that classic Enlightenment desideratum, introducing Caroline to men like Leibniz. More importantly, Sophia hatched a plan to

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