British History, Caroline Matilda, Catherine Curzon, Celle, Danish Court, Frederick VI, georgian, Georgian Court, Georgian England, history, Johann Friedrich-Struensee, King Christian VII, Kings of Georgian Britain, Kronborg Castle, New Release, Prince of Wales, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, release day, technology, Westminster Abbey
In the 1700s, a scandal erupted in the royal palaces of Denmark that began behind closed bedroom doors and ended in imprisonment and execution and upheaval when a love affair between a neglected wife and an ambitious doctor hurtled headlong into a political coup. It is far from a fairy tale and for the players in this story, there was to be no happily ever after.
The story began when Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, the youngest child of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, became betrothed to her cousin, King Christian VII of Denmark. Caroline had been raised in seclusion, a world away from the formal manners and customs of the court and she had little interest in royal life, preferring to devote herself to nature and equestrian pursuits.
Caroline Matilda’s quiet days ended at the age of 15 when the very reluctant princess traveled to Copenhagen to become Christian’s wife. Two years her senior and less than twelve months into his reign, Christian already enjoyed an eccentric reputation, though the full extent of his mental illness had yet to show itself. They were married at the Christiansborg Palace on 9 November 1766, and Caroline already found herself in a situation for which she was ill-prepared.
Reluctant to consummate the marriage, Christian preferred to spend his time with prostitutes, enthusiastically frequenting the brothels of the city whilst rejecting all contact with his wife. Yet as Christian began to exhibit ever more bizarre behavior, the birth of an heir took on a vital importance. The spare could wait, but if the king was mad, having neither heir nor regent was a disaster waiting to happen.
One can only imagine the unromantic scene at which the couple finally consummated their marriage but those ambitious advisers got their wish and, on 28 January 1768, the queen gave birth to the future Frederick VI. The king duly set her aside again and this time, she must have been glad that he did.
Christian’s paranoia grew ever deeper and when he summoned his friend and former travelling companion, Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee, to Denmark, the relief was palpable. Struensee was welcomed with open arms and under his calming influence, peace seemed to descend on the troubled Danish court.
It would not last.
Struensee trained as a doctor at the University of Halle and his wit and charm assured him entry to the grandest circles. He befriended aristocrats including the Danish Count Schack Carl Rantzau, who introduced him to Christian during the young king’s tour of Europe. It was a fateful meeting and no sooner had the doctor arrived in Denmark to treat his friend than he was awarded the position of State Councillor, the first step in what would become a short but flittering career.
Ironically, Caroline Matilda didn’t warm to the physician and was suspicious of his influence over her husband, though in time all of those doubts would be forgotten. Struensee’s interests soon extended far beyond the medical care of the monarch and as Christian descended deeper into madness, so Struensee’s influence at court increased. In 1770, he was elected privy counselor and with the monarch by now all but insensible, his former doctor enjoyed a period of virtually unchallenged authority. When he inoculated the infant prince against smallpox, the lonely queen found that Struensee might be the friend she had been seeking and soon the couple were lovers.
The relationship between doctor and queen was an open secret. If one expects that Christian would feel betrayed, he was anything but. Instead he was glad to see his wife finally happy, and was even more pleased to be able to hand over the burden of government to Struensee.
As unofficial regent, Struensee initiated over a thousand reforms that began with the total restructure of the unwieldy Danish cabinet and reached far and wide. With the queen’s guidance, Struensee’s reforms included the abolition of torture, the banning of slavery and widespread vaccination for the poor. All of this won him no friends amongst the noble classes, whilst even the public grew tired of his constant reforms.
The ‘Time of the Struensee’ was over within sixteen months. Outraged by the highhanded behavior of Caroline Matilda and Struensee, the ruling classes decided that the time had come to strike back. Facing higher taxes, reduced privilege and more reforms than they knew what to do with, the cabinet and court turned against the couple. In reply, Struensee dismissed dozens of officials and replaced them with his own friends, but he had reckoned without an enemy in the heart of the royal household.
Tired of watching her stepson being sidelined and hungry for some influence of her own, Queen Dowager Juliana Maria encouraged the once pro-Struensee Count Rantzau to take action against the doctor once and for all. The catalyst came with the birth of Caroline Matilda’s daughter, widely believed to be the doctor’s child. On 17th January 1772, Caroline Matilda and Struensee were arrested.
The royal physician was charged with usurping royal authority and was subjected to interrogation and torture. As the king toured Copenhagen waving happily to the joyous crowds who gathered to see him, his queen was spirited away to Kronborg Castle and held as a prisoner. For Struensee, however, things were to end more brutally. Sentenced to have his hand severed and then to be beheaded, drawn and quartered, he went to his death on 28th April 1772 before a crowd of thousands.
Caroline Matilda died in Kronborg Castle aged just 23, a victim of scarlet fever. Her brother, George III, rejected calls for her to be buried at Westminster Abbey and she was laid to rest at Celle, the final stop in a life that had been short, scandalous and ultimately tragic.
For over a century of turmoil, upheaval and scandal, Great Britain was a Georgian land.
From the day the German-speaking George I stepped off the boat from Hanover, to the night that George IV, bloated and diseased, breathed his last at Windsor, the four kings presided over a changing nation.
Kings of Georgian Britain offers a fresh perspective on the lives of the four Georges and the events that shaped their characters and reigns. From love affairs to family feuds, political wrangling and beyond, peer behind the pomp and follow these iconic figures from cradle to grave. After all, being a king isn’t always grand parties and jaw-dropping jewels, and sometimes following in a father’s footsteps can be the hardest job around.
Take a trip back in time to meet the wives, mistresses, friends and foes of the men who shaped the nation, and find out what really went on behind closed palace doors. Whether dodging assassins, marrying for money, digging up their ancestors or sparking domestic disputes that echoed down the generations, the kings of Georgian Britain were never short on drama.
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian who writes on all matters 18th century at www.madamegilflurt.com. Her work has been featured on HistoryExtra.com, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has provided additional research for An Evening with Jane Austen at the V&A and spoken at venues including the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum and Dr Johnson’s House.
Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.
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What a riveting story! I find the opulence, secrecy, and intrigue of the courts so fascinating. Truth is often stranger than fiction in these cases, isn’t it? 😉
Thank you for stopping by on release day, Lady Catherine, and congratulations on your latest release! Kings of Georgian Britain is a must-have on my list. Wishing you the greatest success!!!