It was already clear that King Christian VII had sunk into a state of mental instability - he was depressed, paranoid and very infantile. Princess Caroline, for her part, was modern, passionate about art and literature, and very aware of the Enlightenment movement that was spreading across European societies at an uneven pace. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered that her husband was so incompatible, had she lived at home in Britain. But in Denmark, Caroline had no family, no friends, a hostile dowager queen and no staff who spoke English.
The young king came under the control of his advisors, eventually including the court physician, Dr Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee had been educated in a German university and was a great reader of Enlightenment philosophies. Struensee took the opportunity to reform the reactionary Danish Council and oppressed Danish society via his Enlightenment principles; he got his best opportunity when he was appointed as maître des requêtes in Dec 1770.
Struensee wrote more and more progressive legislation, which was in turn signed into law by King Christian, and Queen Caroline was thrilled by the moves to bring Denmark into the modern era. The problematic part was her love relationship with Dr Struensee from 1770 on. Queen Caroline gave birth to daughter, Luise Auguste, who was born at Hørsholm Palace near Copenhagen in July 1771. Naturally the most reactionary forces gathered momentum against the king and his court physician, but the very young queen also found herself being dragged down into the political crisis.
Dr Struensee was arrested; the reactionary Council grabbed back the government and overturned any progressive legislation that had been passed; the King and Queen were divorced in mid April 1772; and Struensee was beheaded in late April 1772. Although the royal divorce decree specifically declared that Princess Louise Augusta was the legitimate daughter of King Christian VII, Queen Caroline was never allowed to see her babies again.
Queen Caroline Mathilde was deported to Celle in Germany in May 1772 and died there in May 1775. King Christian VII continued to reign under several different regencies and died in Schleswig in March 1808, when he was succeeded by his and Caroline’s son, King Frederik VI.
From the marriage in Nov 1766 to Queen Caroline’s exile in May 1772, only 5.5 years passed. Yet in that short time the Danish royal family was irredeemably damaged, the ministers were changed and then were changed again, Danish society was turned upside down and important historical players were executed.
I love films based on historical dramas, but I always worry about how accurately the film writer has told the story. I know nothing about Japanese, Burmese or Nigerian history, so I suppose I would love their films in any case. But I do know a lot of European history, and would feel like running out of the cinema if they got the historical details wrong.
Thankfully the film A Royal Affair, which was directed by the Dane Nikolaj Arcel, was spot on. Dr Struensee was played by the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, the role of Queen Caroline was taken by Swedish actress Alica Wikander and Mikkel Folsgaard played the dithering and dim witted king. The architecture, gardens and costumes were beautifully filmed and I enjoyed every minute of the experience.
Only one historical dilemma remained for me. Dr Struensee was an idealistic social reformer - he introduced freedom of speech, forbade torture and improved the quality of life for the peasants. And he ensured that the Crown Prince was given a modern Rousseau-focused upbringing. But the royal physician-prime minister was also depicted in the film as a usurper of power and as a man who introduced progressive views by dictatorial methods. Sometimes I thought I was watching Rasputin, manipulating the royals.
And I was shocked that democratic and modern Denmark had a recent history that was backward, religiously rigid, oppressive and violent. 1766-1772 was not that long ago.