07 July 2012

Scandal of the 18th century: Denmark

16 year old Christian VII ascended the Danish throne in Jan 1766, and in Nov that year he married the very young (15) British princess Caroline Mathilde at Christians­borg Castle in Copenhagen. This lovely girl, who was the sister of King George III, gave birth to a son Frederik at Christiansborg Castle in Jan 1768.

King Christian VII, 1749-1808. Painted by Nathaniel Dance-Holland

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.

Queen Caroline and Dr Struensee in the film A Royal Affair

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.


Andrew said...

Caroline was only twenty four when she died. Pretty sad.

Deb said...

The workers looked dirty, cold and poorly nourished. One worker was executed in the film by his landlord because of some slight offence.

The courtiers looked beautifully dressed, well fed and well entertained. What a divided society.

Hels said...


What were the British royals thinking? They sent her, totally alone, to a mentally disabled foreign king. It must have been a nightmare for her at 15.

In the film, she had a sympathetic older woman who taught Caroline Danish and functioned as her maid. But the king sent the maid packing :(

When my boys were 15, I wouldn't let them cross the road by themselves!!

Hels said...


I don't suppose it was any better for the workers in any other countries, or any less luxurious for the courtiers either. But the gap between the two groups in society was so starkly presented that viewers can perhaps start to understand why Dr Struensee acted as he did.

Amanda said...

If Caroline was intelligent, cultured and interesting, she was definitely an exception among the Georgian royal mob! Most of them were stupid, annoying, spendthrift and debauched. Pity she didn't stay in Britain for our sake, as well as her own.

Hels said...


that is so true, but if she hadn't have been sacrificed on the altar of a Danish alliance, she would have been given over to a different, foreign alliance. So she certainly wasn't going to be allowed to stay at home.

At least in a different royal family her new husband may not have been mentally disabled, her mother in law may not have been so vicious and she MAY have survived to a proper age.

Hels said...


that is so true, but if she hadn't have been sacrificed on the altar of a Danish alliance, she would have been given over to a different, foreign alliance. So she certainly wasn't going to be allowed to stay at home.

At least in a different royal family her new husband may not have been mentally disabled, her mother in law may not have been so vicious and she MAY have survived to a proper age.

Anonymous said...

I am extremely fond of Historical movies. After watching A Royal Affair I read more about Danish Royals. Its a very touching, sad true story.

Execution of Dr Struensee?? I was most heartfelt for King Christian as Dr Struensee was the only person Christian trusted, also loved his company. Was King Christian truly willing to forgive the German Physician?

As for Queen Caroline, no words for injustice done to her & enormous tragedy of her life.

This is a must watch movie for sure.

Hels said...


you are quite right. The film A Royal Affair clearly depicted the very unstable King, especially his trusting, rather dependent relationship with Dr Struensee. What a tragic outcome for all the main personalities in this Danish crisis. Even for King Christian.

Dinner Guest said...

At the dinner party the other day, I mentioned to you Stella Tillyard's review of this film. Here is the reference.
History Today, August 2012 http://historytoday.com/stella-tillyard/heads-and-tales-royal-affair

Hels said...

Dinner Guest,
nice wine :)

The film review's main additional bit of information was this:
"the film does not so much embellish the past as tone it down. Caroline Mathilde is naturally prettier than her plump blond original. She is also much less angry. The film is framed by her being seemingly reconciled to her exile in a Hanoverian castle belonging to her brother; in life she was furious and spent her years there plotting to regain her throne and the two children she had been forced to abandon in Denmark." I wish I had known that.

Keef said...

One has to realise that (Although today it is offensive ) a female offspring was a commodity to be traded for the most political advantage.
We must also bear in mind that most Royal families including our own in Britain were not a full picnic (oops sorry, Oz slang for not all there mentally). Remember, things did change during Frederick's long reign that surpassed what had been lost.
I suggest ppl interested in royal intrigue watch a 2 part TV series called Britains She Wolves.

Hels said...


Right. I should have made that point myself, or at least made it more clearly - female royals were a commodity to be traded for the most political advantage and the best royal marriages. Princess Caroline might have been the best-read, most modern thinking of all the Georgians, but she was only King George III's sister. And she was a baby herself.

Lally John said...

I watched this film last night and was struck by the similarities to the film about the Duchess of Devonshire. I am anti-monachy and this film certainly confirmed everything I believe to be bad about inherited power and the aristocracy. Clearly the arrangement for these two very young people to marry had little to do with feelings and everything to do with bloodline and alliances.
This film is a little masterpiece of observation storytelling and history. It was beautifully acted and filmed. I was compelled to read more about the Danish royals and amazed to see that the royals command so much respect to this day considering much of their progressive attitudes as a society can be traced back to the Enlightenment and a commoner.

Hels said...

Lally John

Thank you. I too do not believe in an inherited right to be head of state and agree that this film confirmed everything bad about the monarchy and the aristocracy.

But there are tons of books and films that show how Danish (or any other) society was turned upside down. What the film Royal Affair made VERY clear was that the personal can definitely be political. And nowhere more so than with King Christian VII and Princess Caroline. And Dr Struensee.