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A Skeleton Found in a Castle Could Be the Key to Cracking a 17th-Century Cold Case

A murder mystery complete with royal intrigue

Today, any scandal by a member of the United Kingdom’s royal family will likely end up plastered on the front page of gossip magazines. But for centuries, intrigue among blue bloods carried much deadlier consequences. Now, as Alison Smale reports for The New York Times, a skeleton recently unearthed in a German castle could shed light on a 17th-century cold case linked to a then-future monarch.

Before the rise of United Kingdom's current royal family line, the House of Windsor, and before the House of Hanover, the House of Stuart ruled from 1603 until the line ended in 1714 with the death of its last reigning monarch, Anne Stuart. As she left no living heirs (and much of her family was barred from taking the English throne because they were Catholic), the throne then went to the nearest Protestant relative of the Stuart line: Georg Ludwig, making him King George I of Great Britain.

Georg was married to his first cousin, Sophia Dorothea of Celle, but Sophia's life was far from a fairytale. Her marriage to George was one of politics, and there was little love lost between the two of them. George humiliated his wife by openly taking mistresses and parading his lover, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, about the court. For her part, Sophia fell in love with a Swedish count by the name of Philip Christoph Königsmarck, whom she devised plans to flee her unhappy life and elope with, Becky Ferreira reports for Motherboard.

Then, in July 1694, Königsmarck vanished without a trace after paying Sophia one last visit.

The question wasn’t what happened to Sophia’s would-be savior—most people assumed that Georg had caught wind of the affair and had Königsmarck killed for cuckolding him. More curious was what happened to his body afterward. At the time, some reported that Königsmarck’s corpse was tossed into a river, or buried somewhere outside of Leine castle in Niedersachsen, Germany, where that he had visited Sophia in that fateful evening, Ferreira reports. But a recent find by a construction crew renovating that very castle suggests that Königsmarck may have never left at all.

Back in August, crews working on part of Leine castle uncovered a long-dead skeleton. Early analysis of the remains by researchers at Lund University indicates that the bones are centuries old, which could put them in the running to be Königsmarck’s long-lost body. However, there could be an answer soon—scientists at the university are working on ways to extract DNA samples from the bones in hopes of comparing it with samples from Königsmarck’s living relatives to see if they can make a match, according to a statement.

"If it really is the bones of Königsmarck, [it] would be a sensation," Thomas Schwark, director of the Historical Museum of Hanover, tells Isabel Christian and Simon Benne in German for the newspaper Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung.

While Königsmarck’s end may have remained a mystery for centuries, Sophia’s is no secret: George I had her essentially imprisoned in Castle Ahlden in Saxony when she was 34 to live out the rest of her life, Ferreira reports. If the recently discovered remains turn out to be Königsmarck's, it would put his story to rest. But the tale of Sophia and Königsmarck will live on—via the hundred of love letters that they wrote each other that have been preserved and can be found today at Lund University. 

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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