Duchess Augusta of Brunswick was born into an incredibly messed up royal family…and she still managed to be its most tragic member.
1. It Wasn’t Supposed To Happen That Way
At the beginning of her life, it looked like Augusta of Brunswick would become one of the luckiest women in the world. Her uncle was King George III of England, and her younger sister Caroline of Brunswick would go on to marry King George IV. But Augusta’s life quickly devolved into cruel chaos. And this cruelty started at home.
2. Her Home Life Was Miserable
By the time Augusta of Brunswick was just a pre-teen, her parents’ marriage had devolved into petty infighting. Her father Charles, Duke of Brunswick had openly installed a mistress in the house. This led her mother, Princess Augusta, to get a supremely passive-aggressive revenge: The lady of the house turned up her nose and said she was going to retire from public life to raise Augusta and her siblings.
Yet the way that worked out was awful for everyone involved.
3. Her Parents Misused Her
Augusta’s mother might have claimed she wanted to spend more time with her children, but in reality she just wanted to spend more time taking it out on her husband. As time went on, Augusta’s parents only resented each other more, and often used their children as a “shuttlecock” in their petty battles. That wasn’t all, however.
4. She Wasn’t Prepared For Her Fate
More harmfully, the elder royals were so busy with getting back at each other, they barely had time to teach their children the basics of life. Augusta’s sister Caroline, for example, was infamously brought up with almost zero contact with the outside world, and both girls reportedly had notoriously uncouth manners and hygiene.
Then again, the family had bigger problems than that.
5. Something Was Wrong With Her Family
There’s something you should know about Augusta’s family: They were royally screwed up in a very specific way. For one reason or another—perhaps some light inbreeding, as the Georgians did—practically all of Augusta’s brothers had mental or physical deficiencies, with her father describing them as “mostly cripples in mind and body”.
Still, the true family dysfunction was just getting started.
6. She Was A Teen Bride
When Augusta of Brunswick turned 15 years old, her parents considered it high time for her to marry. After shopping around for a groom, they chose Frederick, the future Duke of Wurttemberg, a tall and imposing man from a powerful family. Augusta got very little say in the matter, of course—but she soon wished she had. After all, it was this marriage that would seal her awful fate.
7. Her Husband Snubbed Her
Although Frederick was from an influential clan, he was also almost a decade older than Augusta of Brunswick, and the pair had very little in common except a desire to fulfill their family duties by having heirs together. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of it. Frederick was also a cold, cruel man…and he was keeping a ruinous secret.
8. She Was In Multiple Love Triangles
At the time, rumors abounded that Frederick was actually bi—a fairly scandalous claim for the time, yes, but it wasn’t just that. Instead of paying much attention to his young wife, Frederick apparently kept a coterie of his “favorite” noblemen around him at all times. Definitely not how Augusta of Brunswick would have imagined her fairy tale to a Duke. More surprises were in store.
9. She Was An Excruciatingly Young Mother
Despite her husband’s neglect and snubbing of her, Augusta still had to endure nightly “visits” from him—and just a year after her marriage, the 16-year-old was pregnant with their first child. The union was now officially consummated, and Augusta had started to fulfil her part of the bargain. However, this is where the wheels truly began falling off.
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
10. She Told Her Father A Secret
In 1781, Augusta of Brunswick made a decision that would shape the rest of her life. Although she was pregnant at the time, she suddenly ran back to her father and begged him to consider a divorce between her and Frederick. Now, it’s true her marriage wasn’t great…but it turned out, no one knew just how bad it had gotten. That’s when she likely made a chilling confession.
11. She Was Living A Horror Story
At some point during their marriage, Frederick moved from disdain for Augusta to enacting violence on her. It was terrifying state of affair, made all the worse once you clocked that Frederick stood at nearly seven feet tall and weighed over 400 pounds at his heaviest. Naturally, Augusta feared for her life and the life of her baby.
Her father’s response was cold, calculated, and unforgettable.
12. Her Father Betrayed Her
Even with his teenaged daughter entreating him to save her, Duke Charles did nothing of the kind. He not only refused to help her, he also went one step further—telling Augusta that if she dared to leave Frederick, he’d make sure society snubbed her from there on out. In the face of these threats, Augusta forced herself to stay. Bad idea.
13. Her Child Didn’t Save Her
With nowhere else to turn, Augusta of Brunswick endured her horrific marriage and gave birth to a baby boy, William, in September of 1781. It was no saving grace, either. Instead, her husband seemed to pay even less mind to her than before, carting the baby and mother off to her homeland of Brunswick while he performed military feats and political maneuvers for his own career advancement.
When Augusta heard from him next, her whole life would change once more.
14. She Got An Illustrious Invitation
In 1782, Augusta got one of the biggest upheavals of her life. See, while Frederick was off fighting and charming powerful people, he had earned the respect of none other than Catherine the Great, who invited him and his family to live alongside her in St Petersburg.
Augusta and her baby arrived that October with her husband, and the little family stayed at a luxurious mansion Catherine had custom-built for them. Yet no change of scenery could change her horrific marriage.
15. She Mourned A Child
In the coming years, Augusta of Brunswick tried to grin and bear her almost untenable situation, even having three more children with Frederick. Once more, her joy was always fleeting. The second of these children, a little girl named Sophia Dorothea, even perished in infancy, and left Augusta mourning on top of everything else. But someone was taking notice.
16. Her Husband Was A “Ferocious Rogue”
Frederick wasn’t trying to hide how horrible he was, even in the Russian court, and it wasn’t long before Catherine the Great launched a covert investigation into her vassal’s behavior toward Augusta. Her findings stunned her. At this point, Catherine deemed Frederick a “ferocious rogue,” while Augusta was “perfectly blameless”.
Considering this was the 18th century and “equality” was very much not a thing, you can only imagine how abhorrent Frederick was. Yet Augusta wasn’t out of the woods yet.
17. She Had A Powerful Friend
Over the course of the next months, Augusta’s situation became increasingly dire. It led Catherine the Great to an emergency act. The Empress took it upon herself to write a letter to Augusta’s father, warning him that his daughter was in enormous danger from her own husband and to, you know, actually do something about it this time.
Once more, the patriarch’s reply was heartbreaking.
18. She Sent Out An SOS
Pour one out for royal parenting, because Augusta’s father was about to get even worse. Despite the fact that one of the most famous monarchs in history was telling him to shape up, Duke Charles was still reluctant to do anything at all to help his own kin. After all, wouldn’t it just be so embarrassing for the whole family if his daughter had to divorce her powerful brute of a husband?
Instead, Catherine the Great had to come up with a drastic solution.
19. She Got Her Own Security Detail
Thank goodness Augusta of Brunswick had someone looking out for her. Probably for the umpteenth time, Catherine urged Augusta to just leave the idiot, whether she had her father’s blessing or not. But, recognizing this was easier said than done, the Empress also equipped Augusta with her own police security wherever she went.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be enough to protect her.
20. She Tried To Put On A Smile
Everyone at court knew Frederick was a piece of work, but so far they could only really shake their heads in the hallways of the palaces. But soon it all unraveled. Somewhere around Christmas of 1786, Augusta and her husband attended a play in St Petersburg. Like so much of their marriage, it was all about keeping up appearances—and that evening, the image shattered.
21. She Reached Her Breaking Point
It seems that Frederick became even more violent that night—because everybody knows theatrical productions turn people into boors—and Augusta finally, truly had enough. Directly after the play, she devised a desperate plan to get away from Frederick once and for all. It was a plan that had to go right to the very top.
22. She Demanded Retribution
Augusta of Brunswick was on the brink, so much so that she went back to Empress Catherine. She begged the monarch to help permanently protect her from her own lawfully wedded brute, indicating that she was finally ready to step away from her dumpster fire of a marriage. These were the words Catherine had been waiting for, and she leapt into action.
23. He Finally Got What He Deserved
Frederick may have had high standing in Catherine’s court, but it was still Catherine’s court, and she had been itching for an excuse to kick him to the curb for a good long while. In fact, that’s exactly what she did. Closing ranks around Augusta, the Empress expelled Frederick from the entire country of Russia.
Yet this safety came at a very high cost.
24. He Took What She Loved Most
When Catherine banished Frederick, the Duke took his and Augusta’s three children with him, causing the young girl—let’s not forget, she was still in her early 20s at this time—an immense amount of pain. Indeed, this custody sticking point would play a much bigger role later on. For now, though, Augusta’s first thought was survival…and a hiding place.
25. She Hid In An Iconic Palace
As soon as Augusta of Brunswick put this plan into action, she was evidently terrified of the consequences, and fled to Catherine’s Hermitage palace to wait out the storm. An enormous, architectural wonder, there were worse ways to rebound from your ridiculously awful spouse. Only as it turned out, Catherine’s intentions about all this weren’t necessarily pure.
26. The Empress Was Hiding Things
Catherine the Great’s had done what no one in Augusta’s family would and gotten the poor girl out of her mess. Yet she didn’t do it out of the goodness of her heart—not exactly.
When Frederick’s sister complained to the Empress about her brother’s exile, Catherine retorted, “It is not I who covers the Prince of Württemberg with shame; instead, I try to cover up his appalling behavior. It is my duty to suppress such things”. And what she was supressing? An absolute bombshell of a revelation.
27. His Plan Was Hideous
In the aftermath of Augusta of Brunswick leaving, the court learned a devastating truth. Reportedly, Frederick had devised his own diabolical plan for his wife. He was so vindictive, he had apparently tried to hire a man, or several men, to force Augusta into bed and dishonor her reputation. I mean, what do you do with a man like that?
But Augusta was no longer going to crumple, and she had one sticking point.
28. Her Divorce Got Messy
I probably don’t have to tell you that divorce back then was even more thorny and acrimonious than it is now, especially when royal titles were in the mix—not to mention Augusta’s ridiculously useless father. But Augusta wasn’t willing to make it any easier: Because Frederick still had custody of her children, she swore she would never sign any papers until the babes were in her arms.
Suddenly, the shy, beaten girl had become ferocious. Except no triumph was in her future.
29. She Had To Flee
With all this going on, Catherine realized Augusta needed to be even further away from the center of things, for her own safety and for the smoothness of the negotiations. However, they both knew Augusta wouldn’t be welcome back in her father’s land anymore, so instead Augusta had to go all the way out to Lohde Castle in Estonia.
Instead of a quiet haven, this castle became a sinister and scandalous tomb.
30. She Made New Friends
To be fair, Augusta of Brunswick wasn’t completely alone up in Lohde castle, and Catherine made sure she had company deserving of her station. Major-general Wilhelm von Polhmann, a 60-year-old retiree with a respected career, was one of her companions, and his two daughters generally rounded out the household.
In the end, this only meant they all had a front row seat to a deeply unsettling phenomenon.
31. A New Problem Invaded Her Life
Now that Augusta didn’t have her villain-husband to deal with, her life began to fall apart in other ways. She had been having difficulty with her monthlies for some time, and doctors couldn’t seem to figure out what was going wrong. After all, she’d had children before, and she was still only in her early 20s.
In this case, though, the medical “solution” was worse than the problem itself.
32. Her Cure Was Worse Than Her Malady
The 1700s were no time to be a woman, especially not a sick woman. In response to Augusta’s issues with her regular time of the month, her doctor tried to stimulate bleeding through a variety of herbal medicines. The only trouble was, these potions were very dangerous in ways they would only discover when it was too late.
Still, Augusta pushed on. And there was one silver lining.
33. She Found Joy Where She Could
Even with all these health issues, Augusta of Brunswick was perhaps never happier than when she was at Lohde. She kept in near constant contact with Catherine the Great, who continued to guard over her, and even reached out to her mostly absent mother to say how much she enjoyed living in the country.
Well, these idyllic dreams were about to transform into a nightmare.
34. She Woke Up To Terror
In the autumn of 1788, Augusta woke with terrifying symptoms. After so long not bleeding each month, she now looked down and found herself unable to stop. It was so distressing and intense, she called her doctor immediately—the one who had been prescribing all those medications in the first place—to come and help her with the opposite problem. Then she fought for her life.
35. She Was A Fighter To The End
Augusta was a survivor through and through, and for nearly seven hours, the 23-year-old dealt with near-constant bleeding and immense amounts of pain. She also did it, don’t forget, away from her children and most of the life she had known before coming to the remote Estonia. But when her doctor showed up, he was too little, too late.
36. He Couldn’t Save Her
In addition to his dangerous medicines, Augusta’s doctor also lived quite some distance away. He arrived to a tragedy. The poor girl had already perished from the blood loss, leaving behind her menacing husband and her three children to try make sense of the senseless loss and pick up the pieces that were left. Yet this is where her story takes yet another twist.
37. They Scrambled To Explain It
When the news reached Catherine the Great that Augusta had died, the Empress immediately set about informing her parents of the news, sending letters of condolences. Her mother and father also received Pohlmann’s report of the events leading up to Augusta’s end, as well as the doctor’s own official documents.
Yet this copious paper trail didn’t cover up totally different accounts of the tragedy.
38. People Thought She Turned Bad
Almost as soon as Augusta passed, dark rumors began swirling about her, insinuating that she had spent her time at Lohde Castle behaving as no (technically) married woman should. According to these whispers, Augusta had taken up with a man nearly triple her age—none other than her warden, Major-general Wilhelm von Pohlmann.
But my, how the plot thickens from there.
39. There Were Whispers Of A Secret Love Child
With Augusta cold in the ground, people also began to do some cold, hard calculations about her amenorrhea all the way out in Estonia. For some, the evidence was staring them in the face: Right around the time she died, Augusta must have gotten pregnant with a secret love child by von Pohlmann. What else could explain the lack of bleeding? But there was more.
40. Her Reputation Was In Tatters
In the next part of this whispered saga, Augusta then had a stillbirth, a miscarriage, or other complications during her labor, ending in her tragic death and the death of her illicit baby. The people around her at Lohde then rallied around von Pohlmann to cover up the sordid story, burying her with the baby and acting like nothing happened at all.
If you think that sounds like a soap opera though, just wait.
41. She May Have Met A Terrible End
Accompanying the rumors that Augusta had died shortly after giving birth to another man’s child was a much more gruesome suggestion: That she had also been buried alive. She had been so young, and her death had come on so suddenly, that this only compounded the tragedy and scandal surrounding her. It was also a scandal that just wouldn’t die.
42. Her Son Had Baggage
After Augusta perished, her young children survived as best they could, and her son William eventually became King of Wurttemberg. Yet as the years passed, William couldn’t stop hearing the theories that his mother had committed adultery in the final months of her life, and paid for her “sins” forever after. So he opened an investigation—and took drastic measures.
43. He Dug Up Her Body
Fed up with the suspicions surrounding his own mother and the honor of his family, Augusta’s son made a macabre choice. Years later, he had Augusta’s body exhumed and her coffin examined for any signs of a struggle as she was laid to rest, as well as indications that there was a baby in there with her. The answer provided him no peace.
44. Her Dark Reputation Didn’t Fade
In the end, this investigation showed no signs of Augusta struggling after she was buried, nor was there any indication of a baby in the burial plot with her. Yet what did this change? Almost nothing. To this day, rumors masquerading as truth insist that Augusta died after her shameless liaison with Pohlmann. A blacker mark was coming, too.
45. It Was A Family Curse
Today, Augusta’s family isn’t even most infamous for her marriage from Hades—but rather, for her sister Caroline’s disastrous and (some say) fatal marriage to the future King George IV of England. After Caroline’s wedding to the royal in 1795, long after Augusta’s end, the pair quickly realized they hated each other and separated. The truly infamous part came next.
46. Her Sister Met An Eerily Similar End
Caroline perished in suspicious and tragic circumstances just like her older sister—and in part because of her own horrible marriage. In 1821, she fell suddenly ill after trying and embarrassingly failing to get into her estranged husband’s coronation. When she passed soon after, people erroneously whispered that George poisoned her, though it was likely cancer or an intestinal obstruction.
47. Karma Didn’t Help Her
As for Augusta’s horrible husband Frederick…well, his fate is perhaps most chilling of all. Why? Because he got off all but scot-free. Indeed, after getting close to Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick even turned himself into the King of Wurttemberg, getting an upgrade to his title in the process. And there was one final snub on Augusta’s memory.
48. He Moved Up In The World
In 1797, the nauseating Frederick went on to marry Charlotte, the Princess Royal of the United Kingdom. Not only was she King George III’s daughter—and another upgrade for a man who deserved nothing—she was also Augusta's cousin to boot. When he finally passed in 1816, Frederick had outlived his first wife by almost three decades.
49. Her Body Was Lost
Sadly, even Augusta’s final resting place didn’t do right by her. She was buried in the floor of Kullamaa church in Estonia, but not for long. As her coffin decayed after her son’s exhumation of her remains, her bones eventually got lost entirely in the crypt.
50. Her Story Lives On
Today, Augusta’s story plays out in fictionalized form in William Makepeace Thackeray’s classic novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, where she appears as a supremely unhappy Countess whom the rakish hero attempts to seduce. Still, Augusta’s tragic, true story will always be stranger than what fiction.