If we are to believe Christian’s contemporaries, the king began to show concerning behavior at a very young age and quite early in his reign. However, this information was shared on a need-to-know basis, and restricted to the higher echelons of the aristocracy, and not as much among the “regulars”. Those close to Christian could see the writing on the wall, and set up some international trips for him in an attempt to boost his public image. Perhaps the most famous of these trips was to England in 1768. He was a hit with the Brits, not least because he held a magnificent masquerade ball. Big deal, didn’t royalty throw parties all the time? Unfortunately George III did not like parties, did not throw them and did not attend them. In fact, masquerades had been discouraged since 1755, after Lisbon, Portugal was rocked by the devastating earthquake that almost killed Princess Maria and her family. History, it’s all connected! The party and the trip were a success for Christian, and was temporarily even enough to distract from his deteriorating marriage to Caroline Matilda.
As Christian’s health and behavior deteriorated, his wife and doctor had to work harder and harder to hide his condition from his peers. The issue was complicated and delicate. First, it was illegal to talk about the king’s health, particularly ill health, which is one reason why many of the letters that were exchanged during Christian’s reign did not mention anything negative about his behavior. Such a letter would have merited severe punishment. Secondly, we again must take into consideration the societal norms and beliefs at the time. As Reddaway notes, “insanity, in the opinion of the age, was closely akin to crime”. Who would dare challenge the absolute ruler by accusing him of such a great shame? And lastly, because of the nature of the Denmark-Norway monarchy, in that it was an absolute monarchy unlike many of its contemporaries, it was extremely difficult to establish a regency. Not only was the burden of proof extremely high in order to name a regent, but someone also had to take the initiative to come out and accuse the king of being incapable of carrying out his sovereign duties. This was even more difficult because Christian was reported to have consistent periods of lucidity, where he engaged in intelligent discussions with his peers, particularly concerning military strategy. As a result, even those who knew Christian’s true struggles had ample motives to continue the facade that Christian was just doing what boys do (you know, constantly destroying property, excessively drinking, incessantly masturbating. Just dudes being dudes).
You Can’t Handle the Truth!
So, if you don’t approve of the current monarch and you can’t go the traditional route of getting a legal regency, what is the next best option? How about a good old fashioned coup! That is precisely what Christian’s step-mother and her allies decided to do in what became known as the Palace Revolution of 1772. The targets were those closest to Christian, and so presumably the ones pulling his strings – his wife Caroline Matilda and his doctor Struensee. These two also made easy targets because it was widely accepted that they were having an affair and that Struensee was the real father of Caroline Matilda’s second child. After being pulled from their beds in the middle of the night, Caroline Matilda and Struensee were jailed to await their trial. And as you can imagine, the “trial” was pretty much a sham. Neither were permitted to present any evidence in their defense or call any witnesses. Ironically, their best advocate ended up being Christian himself, who was called to give testimony that was supposed to confirm the theory that Struensee was manipulating him behind the scenes. Instead, “some two-thirds of the king’s answers favored the defense [and] his evidence tended to make it difficult to condemn Struensee in his name” (Reddaway). The fact that Christian was able to competently sit through the grueling questioning from the court, and did not speak ill of the man on trial for allegedly stealing his power, throws doubt on the theory that Christian was a clueless puppet being held under his doctor’s thumb.
Struensee maintained until the moment of his death that Christian was constantly in control of his own faculties and royal duties throughout the doctor’s time at his side. Certainly no one was closer to the king in those days, but we have to remember that Struensee was on trial for his life. If he had admitted that he had been controlling the king behind the scenes, he would have guaranteed his own execution. But in reality, there was no chance the doctor was leaving prison alive. He was executed on April 28, 1772 alongside another supposed co-conspirator. Both were beheaded and drawn and quartered, the most shameful of executions. And we all know that there was no way the adulterous Queen Caroline Matilda was going to win any legal battles, no matter how much she protested the accusations against her. But in terms of her punishment, she at least fared better (at least it appeared so on the surface). Because of her royal status and prominent ancestry, her life was spared, but she was separated from her children and banished from the country. Three years later, at only 23, the former queen died from scarlet fever. Caroline Matilda and Struensees’ daughter Louise was left an orphan.
With Struensee and his queen-turned-lover removed from the equation, stepmom of the year Juliana Maria and her insufferable son Frederick pushed their way into power (I don’t actually know if he was insufferable but I can just imagine that he was). They managed to do what others before them had not been able to do, or perhaps did not have the balls to do, and a regency was established under Christian’s half-brother Frederick. Whether Juliana Maria was actually the mastermind behind the palace coup is debated by historians, but that’s at least how she was viewed by the people at large. And they weren’t mad about it. Struensee and his lover were certainly not popular people at the time of their arrests, so people saw Juliana Maria as a sort of hero figure for ridding the kingdom of dangerous influences. There was no major opposition when her son Frederick was made regent, probably because there weren’t really any laws in place for how to handle a regency and, again, people were grateful. However, Frederick was still young himself. At only 18 years old, it is not hard to imagine that Juliana Maria was really the one in the driver’s seat. She and a man named Ove Høegh-Guldberg, who filled the political power vacuum in the government as “de facto” prime minister, combined forces to guide Frederick as regent. And they would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids!! Well, one meddling kid – Christian VII’s 16-year-old son, the future Frederick VI (we will call him Freddie). Freddie had been raised by Juliana Maria but that had done nothing to strengthen their bond. By 1784, Freddie had had ENOUGH of his half-uncle and his step-grandmother and staged his own coup. For the next 24 years, Freddie used his powers as regent for good, “supporting reform measures to grant personal liberty and legal protection to the peasants and instituted several other social and economic reforms”(Britannica). He remained regent until his father, King Christian VII, died in 1808, when he formally inherited the throne as King Frederick VI.
Too Hot to Handle
That’s right, in case you may have forgotten (because I know I did), Christian was still alive during all of this nonsense. For 36 years after the Palace Revolution, Christian was essentially a king without a crown. Add to that the years he was allegedly controlled by Struensee (approximately 1769-1772) and we can make an argument that Christian VII was really only in power for all of three, maybe four, years of his 42 year reign. My attempts at learning what Christian was up to during those three and a half decades have been in vain – either he was a really boring dude (hard to imagine with his reputation up to that point) or he really was so obsolete as king that he wasn’t worth writing about. Many historians refer to Christian as suffering from dementia in his later years – the majority admit that the reality was probably a diagnosis more along the lines of what Riley laid out last week, but this does give us some clue of what Christian must have been like at the end. His death was a result of either a heart attack or a stroke, so he clearly was not in good health.
Both Juliana Maria’s coup in 1772 and Freddie’s coup in 1784 were bloodless, and apart from some rearranging of key decision makers at the top, they really did not significantly disrupt the stability of the Twin Kingdoms. Hard to believe based on some of the stories we have covered here at ULTC, where either of these events would have plunged the kingdom into a devastating civil war. Part of the reason for this was due to the hundreds of years of political and religious stability that led up to Christian’s reign (for more on that I suggest reading Thomas Munck’s journal article: Absolute Monarchy in Later Eighteenth-Century Denmark: Centralized Reform, Public Expectations, and the Copenhagen Press) and part of it was that those who ruled in Christian’s place were fairly competent. Although very young when he ousted his step-grandmother, Munck notes that Prince Freddie’s “political instinct and sense of commitment helped to outweigh his inexperience”. It was also crucial to the survival of the monarchy that those in power allowed critical debates and discussions inspired by the ongoing Enlightenment movement across Europe. But unlike France and the Americas, the Danish were determined that any discussions remained exactly that – there was no room for violent rebellion. And clearly the people agreed, because relative peace lasted until the reign of Frederick VII in the 1850s, when a constitutional monarchy was finally established.
Freddie died in 1839 without any male children, so the crown went to the male who was next in line – Christian VIII, the son of Christian VII’s lame half-brother Frederick. And remember Queen Matilda and Dr. Struensee’s daughter Louise? Despite her dramatic entry into the world, she married well and had a daughter of her own, Charlotte, who was Christian VIII’s second wife. Not bad for a girl who history has considered to be a bastard. (As a side note: I have tried to piece together just how closely related Christian VIII and Charlotte were given Louise’s questionable parentage, but it’s a family tree that I just don’t have the patience for).
Christian VII of Denmark-Norway’s reign was long on paper, but very brief in practice. The revolving door of “regent” leaders acting in his stead would have been enough to bring down most monarchies, but somehow the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway persevered. We have certainly seen countries crumble under less. And while Christian was probably not the sex-crazed pervert that his contemporaries made him out to be, he was definitely not mentally capable of handling the duties of an absolute monarch. He was too busy handling something else…
We will be taking the next few months off for the holidays and for our own royal wedding in January (Queen Riley is getting married!) Check out the Uneasy Lies the Crown Podcast for content to fill the void in the meantime and we will see you back here in February!
Aileen Ribeiro | Published in History Today Volume 27 Issue 6 June 1977. “The King of Denmark’s Masquerade.” History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/king-denmark%E2%80%99s-masquerade.
Caroline Mathilde, Queen. “The Queen of Denmark’s Account of the Late Revolution in Denmark [Electronic Resource] : Written While Her Majesty Was a Prisoner in the Castle of Cronenburgh; and Now First Published from the Original Manuscript, Sent to a Noble Earl.” In SearchWorks Catalog, http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/8034055.
“Frederick VI.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-VI.
MUNCK, THOMAS. “Absolute Monarchy in Later Eighteenth-Century Denmark: Centralized Reform, Public Expectations, and the Copenhagen Press.” The Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 1998, pp. 201–224., https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x9700770x.
REDDAWAY, W. F. “King Christian VII.” The English Historical Review, XXXI, no. CXXI, 1916, pp. 59–84., https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/xxxi.cxxi.59.
S.M. Toyne | Published in History Today Volume 1 Issue 1 January 1951. “Dr. Struensee: Dictator of Denmark.” History Today, https://www.historytoday.com/archive/dr-struensee-dictator-denmark.
Schioldann, Johan. “‘Struensée’s Memoir on the Situation of the King’ (1772): Christian VII of Denmark.” History of Psychiatry, vol. 24, no. 2, 2013, pp. 227–247., https://doi.org/10.1177/0957154×13476199.