The Travails of a Constant Mistress
Some days ago, I posted about pretty Aurora and her lover, Augustus the Strong, king of Poland. As some of you may recall, Augustus and Aurora parted way some time after the birth of their son, and as Aurora was a savvy lady, she made it easy for Augustus to leave her for other welcoming arms, thereby remaining his friend for the rest of her life.
Augustus was, it would seem, incapable of long-term fidelity. His poor wife saw one mistress after the other dance in and out of his – and her – life, and with some of these women she had a cordial relationship (like with Aurora) with some she did not, but her husband didn’t care one way or the other. Not the nicest of men, Augustus, with a nasty tendency to objectify any female that crossed his path – objectify and bed her, should he consider her attractive.
But in 1704, Augustus fell in love. Utterly, irrevocably in love. He was thirty-five, she was a young twenty-something, a married woman. Her name was Constantia – most apt, as things would turn out – and although she was young she already had something of a reputation, having been sent off at the tender age of fourteen to serve with the princess of Holstein-Gottorp, only to return home some years later in disgrace – and enceinte.
Tsk, tsk! A girl of such background to become pregnant while unwed! Really, what had her mother taught her? (It is debatable whether people were upset about her lack of decorum or her stupidity for becoming pregnant) Things were hushed up – what became of the baby is uncertain. Constantia’s parents happily accepted a proposal for marriage from a certainMr Hoym. More than twelve years her senior, a widower twice over, Mr Hoym seemed quite taken by Constantia and her big, dark eyes, but no sooner had they arrived at his home in Dresden before Constantia realised this new marriage of hers was a ménage-a-trois. Mr Hoym’s long-time mistress was firmly entrenched in Mr Hoym’s bed. Constantia was not pleased. Not at all. She protested, she threw tantrums, but Mr Hoym merely shrugged, while his mistress smirked. A wife could do little more than bear it – as Augustus’ long-suffering wife could confirm.
One night, Constantia’s house burst into fire. The fire alarm was rung, a loud strident sound that reached Augustus in his palace. Ever the forceful man, he set off to see if there was anything he could do, and arrived at the blaze to see a young, very pretty noblewoman directing the fire-fighting efforts. Augustus liked his women colourful and brave, and Constantia, silhouetted against the angry flames, was just his cup of tea.
Mr Hoym did not like it when the royal eye settled with lust on his wife. He demanded a divorce. Conatantia was more than happy to ioblige, given the mistress and Hoym’s bastard child who lived in her home, but the church decided the couple needed to put effort into salvaging their marriage. Hoym fumed and left Contatntia to the tender mercies of Augustus.
Constantia had learned her lessons well. She refused to become Augustus’ mistress, unless certain conditions were met. First, she tried to convince him into taking her as his second wife (at the time, there’s been quite the notorious legal case in which Augustus’ brother had argued that nothing in the Bible barred a man from taking two wives). Augustus would have none of this bigamy stuff. Instead, Constantia succeeded in getting him to sign a document whereby he promised her they’d marry should Augustus’ wife die before him – and should Augustus predecease Constantia, the document included specific instructions to ensure Constantia’s well-being. In principle, this was a legally binding wedding contract – but with the caveat that it only became valid once Augustus became a widower. Constantia placed the document in an envelope, sealed the whole thing with five seals and sent it off for safe-keeping, far, far away.
For some time, Augustus and his little mistress lived in bliss. People muttered that their previous so forceful ruler had come under his mistress’ thumb. Courtiers sulked and sighed, muttering that it was unseemly that a royal bedmate should so influence the king. And seriously, what was the king thinking of? Did he plan on remaining faithful to this his latest conquest? Apparently yes.
Constantia became the single most important person to woo if one wanted access to the king. Ambassadors, ministers – even the disgruntled courtiers – they all converged in Constantia’s salons, bowing and scrapping as needed to win the fair lady’s approval. And this is how things could have remained, had it not been for that famous Swedish warrior king, Karl XII, and his desire to reclaim all lands that had previously (but for a very, very short time) been under Swedish control. One country Karl XII threw covetous eyes at was Poland. Augustus therefore had no choice: he had to ride to war, leaving constant Constantia behind.
The Swedish king was a brilliant general and very quickly gained the upper hand in Poland. Augustus was in something of a tight spot, and Constantia worried constantly – not only for his life, but also because rumours of other women in his bed had reached her.So Constantia set off on a dangerous journey to Warsaw, armed with a Swedish passport to allow her passage through the Swedish-controlled territories. She arrived in January of 1706. The king was overjoyed – and more than touched that she should brave the rigours of war to hasten to his side. He was somewhat less pleased when she expressed her suspicions about other women.
The war went less than well for Augustus, and he found substantial comfort in Constantia, who rode with him wherever he went (as an aside, this tenacious young lady was an excellent horsewoman – astride – and was also a capable shot). Spring became summer, and Constantia discovered to her utter joy that she was pregnant. A son! She would give her lover – oops, sorry: her almost-husband – a son. Augustus was more than pleased, but sent her back to Dresden – a battlefield was no place for a pregnant woman.
Unfortunately, King Karl XII decided to invade Saxony, and Constantia had to flee elsewhere. For several months, she had no news of Augustus, and she feared for his mental and physical health. How would he cope with defeat? Turns out Karl XII was magnanimous in victory, allowing Augustus to retain his royal title. Augustus was content – but more than displeased when Constantia refused to travel to Dresden to give birth – she was by now heavily pregnant. It is said Augustus pushed her – hard – and commanded that she be carried off to Dresden as he had ordered. Here, I think, is a turning point in their relationship.
Augustus was afflicted by guilt – more so when a courier rode in to inform him Constantia had given birth to a still-born son several weeks too early and was herself close to death. He rode like a madman to be by her side, sat for five days by her bed. The couple reconciled, and a number of years followed in which Constantia was always at Augustus’ side – unless she was giving birth to his daughters.
Finally, a man called Jacob Henrich von Flemming had had enough. Constantia’s influence over Augustus had to be broken once and for all – especially as Constantia recognised Flemming for what he was: a power-hungry climber. In 1712, Flemming decided to use drastic measures, and presented the king with a most alluring female temptation in the shape of a Polish countess. Augustus swallowed this nubile bait hook, line and sinker. Back in Dresden, Constantia awaited the birth of her third child, happily unaware of the threat to her future.
By the time Constantia realised the Polish countess was a fixture (although not for long) in Augustus’ life, it was too late. No matter her efforts to reach him, he ignored her – and their newborn son. She protested loudly, refusing to bow out of the relationship as gracefully as Aurora had done. Augustus became vindictive, threw her out of her house, more or less incarcerated her on her country estate, and in general acted as a boor – a boor with a very sore conscience, and we all know those boors are the worst.
Constantia was forced to sell her Dresden home to Augustus, he demanded the diamond ring he had given her as a token of love in return. After much haggling, the couple agreed on a lifelong pension and a huge one-time amount to be paid to Constantia – but only if she returned that irregular pre-contract for marriage that Augustus had signed. Constantia gave up. In 1715, she rode to Berlin to retrieve the requested document (and there’s a long convoluted story here involving her homosexual cousin) and rumours flew through Augustus’ court, claiming she had “fled”. In Halle (while returning from Berlin, sadly without the missive as her cousin was in jail) Constantia was arrested.
Whether at Augustus’ orders or not, Constantia lived through a sequence of nightmarish nights at the hands of her arresting officers, who submitted her to repeated rape and brutalisation. On several occasions, they left her unconscious. No way do I believe Augustus was unaware of this, so in my book he should be cowering in the darkest, hottest, most unbearable corner of hell.
Constantia was locked up while Augustus sent men to search for the dratted document – which was found in Constantia’s cousin’s archive. By now, it was too late to allow Constantia her freedom – she had been too badly treated. Instead, Augustus expended considerable energy in stealing all Constantia’s possessions and in cheating Constantia’s poor mother of what little she had of her daughter’s former belongings. As I said, quite the despicable man.
In 1733, Augustus died. Constantia had by then spent seventeen years as a prisoner . When the news of Augustus’ death reached her, she was utterly devastated. She dressed in black, she wept and moaned, grieving the deth of her “husband”. Clearly, the years she’d spent locked up in the looming fort called Stolpen had affected her mental health… She wrote to Augustus’ son and asked to be released, but he refused – he wanted to honour his father’s wishes. Huh! How can one possibly use the word “honour” in connection with Augustus the Strong? Year in and year out, Constantia sat in her prison, but at least her children were allowed to see her twice a year.
In 1743, Stoplen was struck by lightning, and Constantia’s rooms were destroyed. She was moved to the ancient tower, an icy and draughty place that was to be her last home. From the splendours of Augustus’ court and his royal bed, to a dank and damp hovel, so cold she had to wear clothes made of blankets to combat the chill. And here she lived on until 1765, when she finally died at the impressive age of eighty-four. Forty-nine of those years she’d spent locked up – at the vindictive say-so of her former lover and king.
Is there a lesson in all this? Probably not. Love is a fickle thing, an emotion that at times can sour into hate. Poor Constantia must have racked her brain trying to understand why Augustus behaved the way he did – as much a mystery for her as it is for me, two centuries or so down the line. Whatever the case, no one deserves to be treated as she was – not for the sin of loving fully and expecting her lover to be as constant to her as she was to him.