Skeleton Discovery Reignites 300-Year-Old Royal Murder Mystery

Late this summer, a story emerged in the German press with all the trappings of an addictive soap opera: a secret affair, a sudden disappearance, and a buried skeleton.

During renovations to Leine Palace in Lower Saxony, Germany-the current home of Lower Saxony’s state parliament-workers discovered bones in a section of floor. After prosecutors determined that the person they belonged to hadn’t died recently, some began to wonder whether they could be the missing link in a 300-year-old mystery. And on Monday, they may find out.

The caper begins in the late 17th century, when Britain’s future King George I was still Georg Ludwig, prince elector of Hannover, Germany, and his primary residence was Leine Palace. In 1682, Georg married his cousin Sophia Dorothea of Celle. Like many marriages among nobility, theirs was motivated more by politics than by love.

Georg was not a faithful spouse, and neither was Sophia Dorothea. About a decade into her marriage, she began an affair with Philipp Christoph von Königsmark, a Swedish count. (Their romance is documented in about 300 surviving love letters, discussed in the video above.)

In the summer of 1694, Sophia Dorothea and Königsmark made plans to run away together-but Georg became aware of their affair. On the day the lovers planned to escape, Königsmark mysteriously disappeared and wasn’t seen again. Georg then divorced Sophia Dorothea and imprisoned her miles away in another castle, where she died three decades later.

For centuries, people have wondered if Georg murdered Königsmark. Many think that if the count’s body turned up anywhere, it would be at the last place he was seen-Leine Palace.

Researchers have been studying the recently discovered skeleton to see if it could be Königsmark’s. And on Monday, they’ll announce their preliminary findings.

Despite the intrigue, many people associated with the investigation maintain that the bones are probably not Königsmark’s. When National Geographic reached Bernd Busemann -the president of the Lower Saxony’s state parliament, who has been overseeing Leine Palace’s renovations-he was dismissive of the claim, saying that the chances are “under one percent.”

And there are many other people the bones could belong to. In the Middle Ages, a monastery and cemetery sat where Leine Palace is today. When Hannover became Protestant in the 16th century, the abbey was used as a hospital. Later, the Hanoverian kings (aka Georg and his royal descendants) made the spot one of their royal residences.

“Royal courts were like small towns, where all kinds of people worked and lived,” says Håkan Håkanssonm, associate professor of the history of ideas and sciences at Sweden’s Lund University (who also speaks in the video above). The bones could belong to a “worker, a soldier, someone from the kitchen staff-the possibilities are endless.”

According to Heinrich Jobst, the Count of Wintzingerode and also Busemann’s private secretary, human remains have been found in the castle before, when the Hanoverian kings renovated it in the 19th century.

So if these aren’t the first bones to be found in the castle, why do people think it could be Königsmark?

“The story of the ‘lover-count who strangely vanished the very night he planned to escape with his lover-princess’ from this very castle is so well-known,” Håkanssonm says. And identifying Königsmark’s skeleton would make the story complete.

But if the skeleton isn’t Königsmark’s, Jobst won’t be disappointed.

“Wouldn’t it be a pity,” he muses, “to solve this romantic mystery?”

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