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Biography of Charlotte Sophie, Countess Bentinck (1715-1800)

Charlotte Sophie was the only child of Anton II, Count of Aldenburg (1681-1738) and his wife Wilhelmine Maria, Princess of Hesse-Homburg (1678-1770), and was brought up at her father's estate at Varel in modern-day northern Germany.

At the age of 17, in 1733, Charlotte Sophie was married to the Dutch nobleman William Bentinck, Lord of Rhoon and Pendrecht (1704-1774). The marriage was arranged by her father. William Bentinck had recently purchased the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire, in order to attain a status suitable enough for Anton II to consider him for his daughter. Bentinck apparently thought that the Aldenburgs were weathly, but in fact Anton II's estates were heavily indebted.

The marriage was not successful, despite the birth of two sons, and in 1739 Charlotte Sophie left her husband. She entered into a relationship with Albrecht Wolfgang, graaf van Schaumburg-Lippe (1699-1748), the husband of her cousin Princess Charlotte of Nassau-Siegen (1702–1785), née Anhalt-Köthen. She had two illegitimate sons by him, both of whom were formally adopted by Charlotte Sophie's loyal friends or servants and took their names, but lived largely within her own household. The elder, Charles von Donop, was born in 1740. The younger, Charles Weisbrod, was born in around 1745, and became an engraver. He and his wife continued to live with Charlotte Sophie until she died, and he was the executor of her will.

Relations between Charlotte Sophie and her former husband became increasingly embittered and she was not permitted to see either of two legitimate sons, despite several attempts. Both died before she could meet them again.

In their separation settlement it was agreed that the Countess would keep her paternal family estates in Germany (Varel and Kniphausen, near Oldenburg), but that she would retain only a life interest in her Dutch estate at Doorwerth, on which there were heavy debts from her father's day. In 1754 an agreement was forced on the Countess, making her eldest son Christian the Lord of Varel and Kniphausen. His ownership was confirmed by Charlotte Sophie in 1757.

After Count William's death in 1774, the dispute escalated. Charlotte Sophie's daughter-in-law Catherine Maria Bentinck, née Tuyll van Serooskerken, took possession of Doorwerth on behalf of her young children, despite the fact that the Countess had been employing her own people there. A legal case over the ownership of the Doorwerth estate was heard at The Hague in 1781. The Countess won the case, and by 1782 her agents were administering the estate on her behalf.

In the turmoil caused by the French invasion of the Netherlands in the 1790s, Countess Charlotte Sophie agreed to bequeath Doorwerth to her eldest grandson William G.F. Bentinck, Count Bentinck-Rhoon (1762-1835), who claimed it as the eldest son of Count Christian. However, this agreement was later rescinded by both parties, and when the Countess died in 1800 she bequeathed Doorworth instead to another of her grandsons, Vice-Admiral William Bentinck (1764-1813) of Terrington St Clement, the eldest son of Captain John Albert Bentinck. The Countess had met William for the first time in 1789, when he travelled to Germany to meet her with his friend James Hawkings-Whitshed. Whitshed later married William's sister Sophia H. Bentinck, with whom the Countess had an intimate correspondence until her death in 1800.

The correspondence reveals Charlotte Sophie's increasing attachment to the members of her 'new' family, for several of whom she soon creates her own names. Sophie becomes 'la petite chatte' and there are references to the 'tribu chatte' and the 'famille chatonne' as well as other 'feline' references. Admiral Hawkins Whitshed, to whom Charlotte Sophie was particularly attached, is addressed alternatively as 'Hawkings', 'tête blanche', 'tête sage' and 'notre cher Roué'; when he marries Sophie she asks permission to address him as the 'châton'. William Bentinck is referred to as 'notre meilleur Grand Guillaume' or 'le grand garçon'.

In addition to the highly personal character of this 'family' correspondence it also reflects the political climate of the period. Charlotte Sophie was well-connected, having been acquainted throughout her life with many of the leading figures across Europe. Following her separation from Count William, she - together with her illegitimate sons - lived in various places. Initially she had moved to Schaumburg-Lippe's castle at Bückeburg, and lived within his household. After his death in 1748 she moved to Copenhagen, Leipzig, Berlin and Vienna, seeking support from various European rulers against Count William's attempts to seize her estates. She developed close friendships with Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Empress Maria Thérèse in Vienna. Charlotte Sophie met the French writer and philosopher Voltaire in Berlin in around 1750. Their correspondence was published by Deloffre in 2003. At Leipzig, later in the 1750s, Charlotte Sophie became intimate friends with Luise Gottsched (1713-1762), a poet, playwright, essayist and translator. Letters between Charlotte Sophie and the Gottscheds have been published in Adieu Divine Comtesse (2009).  Charlotte Sophie settled in Hamburg around 1767 and remained there for the rest of her life.

Although aged 75 at the start of her correspondence with Sophia H. Bentinck in 1790, Charlotte Sophie retained her wide social circle and was well informed about events in Europe. Her mind remained sharp and lively and the letters comment frequently on the political affairs of Europe, expressing in the most vehement and forthright manner her revulsion for the French Revolution.

 

Images

Painting of Charlotte Sophie, Countess Bentinck, née von Aldenburg. Copyright Heimatmuseum Varel (Germany)

Painting of Charlotte Sophie, Countess Bentinck, née von Aldenburg, unknown artist. Copyright Heimatmuseum Varel (Germany)

 

Family

Charlotte Sophie married William Bentinck, 1st Count Bentinck (1704-1774) in 1733. They had two sons before separating in 1738:

  • Christian F. Anthony Bentinck (1734-1768), 2nd Count Bentinck, m Baroness Maria Catherine van Tuyll van Serooskerken (1743-1793), and had:
    • William G.F. Bentinck (1762-1835), 3rd Count Bentinck, and Lord of Rhoon and Pendrecht, m Ottoline, Baroness of Reede-Lynden (1773-1799)
    • John C. Bentinck (1763-1833), Major-General in the British Army, m Lady Jemima Reede, daughter of the 5th Earl of Athlone. From him descends Timothy Bentinck, the current Count Bentinck and 12th Earl of Portland
    • Charles F. Bentinck (1764-1811), Dutch statesman
    • Henry W. Bentinck (1765-1821), colonial governor of St Vincent and Demarara and Berbice
    • Maria C.F. Bentinck (1767-1826)
    • John Albert Bentinck (1737-1775), naval captain

Charlotte Sophie is also thought to have two illegitimate sons with Albrecht Wolfgang, graaf van Schaumburg-Lippe:

  • Charles von Donop (1740-)
  • A.W. Carl (Charles) Weisbrod (c.1745-1806)

 

Archive Collections

 

Published Sources

  • Charlotte Sophie, Countess Bentinck : her life and times 1715-1800, by her descendant Mrs Aubrey Le Blond (2 vols, London: Hutchinson, 1912)
  • Article in Dutch about the Doorwerth estate and Charlotte Sophie, Countess Bentinck: Aleid van de Bunt, 'Iets uit het leven can een Vrouwe van de Doorwerth', in Bijdragen en Mededelingen, LXII (1965/1967), 247-254
  • Une femme des Lumières. Écrits et lettres de la Comtesse de Bentinck 1715-1800 Textes presentes par Anne Soprani et André Magnan (Paris: CNRS Editions, 1997)
  • Adieu Divine Comtesse : Luise Gottsched, Charlotte Sophie Grafin Bentinck und Johann Christoph Gottsched in ihren Briefen, herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Katherine Goodman (Würzburg : Königshausen & Neumann, 2009)
  • Hella S. Haase, Mevrouw Bentinck of Onverenigbaarheid van karakter. Een ware geschiedenis (Amsterdam 1978) [includes letters and fragments of letters]
  • Hella S. Haase, De groten der aarde of Bentinck tegen Bentinck. Een geschiedverhaal (Amsterdam, 1981) [includes letters and fragments of letters]
  • Frédéric Deloffre (ed), Voltaire et sa 'grande amie'. Correspondance complète de Voltaire et de Mme Bentinck (1740-1778) (Oxford, 2003)
  • Curd Ochwadt, Voltaire und die Grafen zu Schaumburg-Lippe (Bremen, 1977) [including a poem by Charlotte Sophie]
  • Renée Smith, Aldenburg, Charlotte Sophie von in: Online Dictionary of the Netherlands. URL: http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/vrouwenlexicon/lemmata/data/Bentinck, Charlotte [accessed 07/01/2015]

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