Augusta and Schloss Richmond: How an English princess created a little corner of home in Germany

Schloss Richmond
Photo: Heinz Kudalla, via Wikimedia Commons

On a little hill just outside a provincial German city, there stands a charming 18th century building, modestly sized but still grand, with its pale stone walls and pilasters. The gates in front of it are open, so that a curious passer-by can wander in to inspect the structure more closely, before making their way around to the other side, where they can admire the view down to a river at the bottom of the hill, and away to the countryside beyond. There are no signs or information plaques to be seen here, but on the map, the building is marked as Schloss Richmond.

Our passer-by might wonder at this distinctly English-sounding name. It turns out that the palace is indeed named after Richmond, London, and once represented a little piece of England for a patriotic princess. Her name was Augusta, sister of George III of Great Britain, who married Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, in 1764. She appears to have been a reluctant expat, apparently dismissive of anywhere that was “east of the Rhine” – and unfortunately for her, her new home of Braunschweig, which is located about 35 miles east of Hanover, is quite a long way east of the Rhine.

Augusta circa 1764 to 1770
Johann Georg Ziesenis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Not only that, but upon moving there with her new husband, she found that her new living quarters in the old town castle left a lot to be desired in terms of comfort. And then there was her mother-in-law, Duchess Philippine Charlotte, and the rather earnest court over which she presided. Philippine was a highly educated woman whose favourite way to spend an evening was to gather together various men of letters in her state apartments and converse with them on the important cultural questions of the day. She had her finger on the pulse of German intellectual life and championed literature written in the German language. Meanwhile, Augusta preferred to speak her native tongue, a language not well understood in Braunschweig – and she was more partial to a game of cards and a good gossip than a lofty philosophical discussion. They were evidently not going to be bosom buddies.

Desiring a little more luxury, and keen to keep some distance from a court where she clearly didn’t fit in, Augusta came up with a plan. Using funds from her dowry, she had a summer residence built just south of the city on the Zuckerberg (“Sugar Hill”), presumably using sketches provided by William Chambers, the most famous architect of his day in Britain. The house was christened Richmond, to remind Augusta of where she had grown up. Just as the White House, her childhood home, was situated on a hill above the Thames, so Schloss Richmond would overlook the local river, the Oker.

The design of the building was quite unique at the time, mixing Baroque elements with English Neoclassicism. The many-paned, crescent-topped glass doors are reminiscent of the Orangery at Kew Gardens, which was one of Chambers’ recent creations. As for the park, this was very much “in the English style” and was designed by none other than Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Britain’s most famous landscape gardener. As George III’s Master Gardener, Brown had advised Augusta’s mother on planning the garden at Richmond, so it was natural that Augusta would commission him to design her own little Richmond. Brown usually surveyed estates on horseback, but not in this case – he never came to Braunschweig in person, instead relying on maps and the princess’s descriptions to draw up his designs.

Orangery at Kew
Photo: Michael Coppins, via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, most large houses in Germany still had formal, geometric gardens. In England, however, this Baroque style had long since been overtaken by something completely different: namely the landscaped park, and Brown had become hugely successful as a proponent of this style. Incidentally, the wonderful nickname “Capability” did not refer to the merits of the man himself, as you might assume, but rather to his habit of assuring clients that their property had “capability” for improvement.

Capability Brown
After Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This shift in approach to garden design had grown out of the philosophical ideas of the time. The new philosophy of sensationalism, whereby all knowledge was believed to come to us through our senses, opened up discussions of the relationship between the physical world and our mental states – including how architecture and garden design could influence human emotions. Naturalistic gardens were thought to be best suited to speaking to the mind and soul, and a link was made between such gardens and humanity’s own natural morality. This also tied in with the period’s enthusiasm for the classical world: Alexander Pope, for example, was an advocate of classical-style gardens, writing in 1713 that the ancients had a taste for the “amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature, that spreads over the mind a more noble sort of tranquility”.

The trend towards rejecting artifice and embracing naturalistic gardens was celebrated as a distinctly English phenomenon, and parallels were drawn with the political principles of liberty and tolerance. Several of the great gardens of the time were created for Whig politicians, including Sir Richard Temple’s garden at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. Jean Jacques Rousseau visited here in the 1750s and was impressed by what he saw; later, his writing would help to fuel the enthusiasm on the Continent for “the English garden”.

The gardens at Stowe
Photo: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, what 18th century royals and nobles desired in their gardens was an idealised version of nature, and this could only be achieved by human intervention, including ongoing maintenance. At Schloss Richmond, as in English parks of the time, groups of trees were carefully placed to create the right composition, as they would be in a landscape painting; little was left to chance.

A key aim was to create the impression that the park flowed seamlessly right from the house out into the surrounding countryside, fostering a sense of space. In the Braunschweig Richmond park, this included creating lines of sight that extended as far as the Harz mountains, where the highest elevations in Northern Germany are to be found.

We can imagine that Augusta gazed out upon her garden, or promenaded down the winding path to the river, and found it a source of comfort during what does not seem to have been a particularly happy life in Braunschweig. Although the Crown Prince Karl Wilhem Ferdinand respected his wife and she was initially pleased with him, it was not a loving marriage. Just three months after Augusta arrived in her new home, her husband’s mistress Maria Antonia Branconi, who held the unofficial title of the most beautiful woman in Germany, gave birth to a son. It wasn’t the best start to a marriage, although there is no evidence of Augusta’s feelings on the matter. Karl continued his relationship with Branconi until 1777, whereupon he immediately began a dalliance with another beautiful and clever noblewoman, Luise von Hertefeld, whom he had installed at court as his official mistress. At this point, Augusta had had enough and announced to the Duke that she would be withdrawing from royal duties and concentrating on bringing up her children, as well as on religious studies.

My copy of a painting of Augusta and one of her children

Maria Antonia Branconi
Anna Rosina de Gasc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three of the couple’s four sons were disabled, something which was widely, and of course unfairly, blamed on Augusta. There was even a rumour that the disabilities were the result of her insistence on the “English custom” of bathing her new-born children in cold water. Such claims served to further damage her reputation amongst a public who already did not feel particularly warmly towards her – the impersonal smile she wore when conducting her duties was felt to be a sign that she was arrogant and lacked real warmth.

Something else that raised eyebrows was Augusta’s habit of paying extended visits to her youngest sister Caroline Matilda between 1773 and 1775. The former Queen of Denmark had been at the centre of a huge scandal, following which she was banished to the town of Celle, which is about 30 miles away from Braunschweig. There must have been something about the name, because Augusta’s first daughter, also called Caroline, would go on to assume an unfortunate place in British history on account of her disastrous marriage to the dissolute Prince of Wales, later George VI.

Throughout the various hardships of her life, Richmond was a place of refuge for Augusta, somewhere where she could withdraw to play at her beloved cards and chat with her favourites, including English guests. It was at the card table that she was said to really liven up, dropping the mask that she wore in public.

Visiting her in 1799, the Swedish princess Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte provided an intriguing little portrait of Augusta, the Duchess consort, who was by now in her 60s. Evidently, she had clung steadfastly to her English identity through the years: Hedwig described her as “wholly English in her tastes, her principles and her manners”. She thought her “a typical English woman” who looked “very simple, like a vicar's wife”. Although generously assuming that Augusta must have “many admirable qualities”, she was evidently rather taken aback by what she saw as her complete lack of manners: “She makes the strangest questions without considering how difficult and unpleasant they can be.” One wishes to be a fly on the wall at Schloss Richmond to find out what these questions might have been that created such awkwardness for her visitors! As for the Schloss, Princess Hedwig wrote that “it was small and pretty with a beautiful little park, all in an English style. As Augusta had the residence constructed herself, it amuses her to show it to others.”

Princess Hedwig Elizabeth Charlotte
Carl Frederik von Breda, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When her husband took command of the Prussian army in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars (he was subsequently mortally wounded in battle), Augusta returned to Britain for safety. She was never to return to Schloss Richmond, remaining in England until her death in 1813 at the age of 78.

Schloss Richmond came through the war largely unscathed. But later in the century, the park was neglected and overgrown, its significance as an 18th century landscape garden all but forgotten. Fortunately, in the late 1980s, there was a revived interest in the park and its history, and these days it is well-maintained and open to the public. Sadly, traffic noise from the surrounding roads rather disturbs the idyll. Still, it has always been a favourite place of mine, not least because of the English connection. It's always a pleasure to see the pale handsome facade at the top of the hill when walking along the footpaths in the park. It took me three separate sessions of sitting on the lawn in front of the house to complete the sketch below!


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