The Scandal of the Century

On the 8th of December 1766, the brother of George III, Caroline Mathilde, daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, married her Danish cousin in The Church of Our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke). She was fiften, her husband sixteen and a king of all of six months. Caroline Mathilde had grown up apart from her brother’s court, due to her mother’s widowhood and was by all accounts a sheltered, young woman who had been transplanted in a strange evironment under the expectation that she would easily understand how to maneouvre herself. Christian VII, her husband, had grown up in the midst of a court in turmoil, with his father’s wife more or less openly disliking him. He was subject to physical punishment throughout all of his childhood – which promptly ended when he was 16 and his father died. The young man suffered from nervous breakdowns, bouts of scizophrenia and mania. He was diagnosed with dementia praecox and was fully expected to recover from it as he grew older.

Of course, this is no fairy-tale story.

Christian VII by Jens Juel, 1789

After the wedding Caroline found herself alone at a strange court, amongst courtiers who divided themselves into cliques. The young and eager men encouraged the king in his bouts of mania, and they would often wreak havoc upon the castles themselves and seek out prostitutes in the lower city, often those of sadomasochistic inclination. It is well-known that Christian VII sought the company of a prostitute aptly named Boots-Catherine in 1767 and he also famously declared that he could not love Caroline because “it was not fashionable to love one’s wife.” As Caroline became pregnant with their first child he sunk even deeper into debauchery, paranoia and hallucinations the result of which being that he would often harm himself, or seek our Boots-Catherine to physically demean him.

Meanwhile, Caroline had only the head of her household, Countess Louise von Plessen, to turn to as her husband’s stepmother the Dowager Queen Juliane Marie, discouraged the other ladies of the court to be openly friendly with the lonely girl. I’m not trying to make Juliane Marie sound like a monster, since she surely had many trials in her own life what with giving birth to a physically and mentally disabled son and trying to overcome the Danish people and her husband’s love for his firste wife Louise of England.

Louise von Plessen

Juliane Marie holding up a portrait of her son whom she hoped might become king as her stepson's mental health became worse and worse.

It is clear that with the mental disabilities apparent in both sides of the Danish-English family that yet another marriage between cousins was not a good idea, but that was of course never the concern for any royal family at the time.

In 1768, on the 28th of January, the now Queen gave birth to her first child, a son whom they named Frederik. It wasn’t long thereafter that Christian VII decided to go on a tour of Europe, leaving his wife at home alone with her infant child. He didn’t leave until after banishing Countess von Plessen from his court, and no amount of beggin on Caroline’s part could persuade him to take her back. I believe he may have accused her of having a negative influence on his wife. Christian left a court inhabitated by women and perhaps gave his wife a welcome break from his loud and boisterous friends who enjoyed rubbing Caroline’s nose in her husband’s affair with a prostitute. She and the Dowager Queen(s), as Christian’s grandmother, Sophie Magdalene, was still alive. They retired to Frederiksborg Castle for the summer, and came back to Copenhagen in the autumn where Caroline Mathilde attracted a scandal by taking walks in Copenhagen, where noblewomen would only ride carriages.

Queen Sophie Magdalene, 1700-1770

Christian came back from his travels on the 12th of January 1769, bringing with him a new doctor, Johann Friederich Struensee, whom he had found in Altona and decided to employ as his physician. At the time the smallpox was the single greatest threat towards children, high as well as low, and Caroline Mathilde, who were are afraid the disease would reach the castle asked the newly arrived doctor if he would inoculate her son. She did so knowing that the risks of doing so might be as great as her son contracting the disease itself. Thankfully, Frederik survived and Caroline developed a confidence with the doctor, with whom she began exchanging ideas for the raising of her son. The king also came to greatly confide in his doctor, as he by Struensee’s methods for the first time in years was able to calm his mind and lessen the need for self-mutilation.

Caroline Mathilde’s confidence in Struensee grew even deeper when he came to realise how despicably her husband treated her, and when he positively affected Christian to treat his wife with more respect. The result was a more amicable relationship between the young couple and a strenghtening of Caroline’s position at the court. As a show of gratitude Caroline appointed Struensee her secretary and Christian him his official reader.

Johann Friederich Struensee by Jens Juel

The relationship between Struensee and Caroline quickly turned romantic as one might imagine when a neglected young girl, who’s never known romantic love, meets a “tall, dark stranger”. Well, you get what I mean. Struensee became her closest friend, a man with whom she could discuss her child intellectually, a man who understood how to handle a girl like her. They engaged in a sexual relationship that quickly became an official secret in the court. Even the king knew and condoned the relationship. This time is known as the Time of Struensee, his 16-month reign, where he also managed to exile the king’s hitherto closest friend and confidante, and take up that position himself. He became a minister in no time, and even quicker did he manage to send away the former Prime Minister, and dissolve the former Council. He formed a new one with himself as the King’s only minister. Even more shocking to the general public of Copenhagen was that he encouraged the Queen to ride out – dressed in a man’s clothing

In June 1771 the Queen moved to Hørsholm castle, north of Copenhagen, and there Caroline spent an idyllic summer with her lover and her court. It is a large possibility that she also moved away from the King and the rest of the court because the 7th of July Caroline Mathilde gave birth to a girl. Her daughter was christened Louise Augusta, after Caroline and Christian’s respective mothers, and although the King acknowledged the child as his Louise Augusta was often called “la Petite Struensee” around the court. Most modern historians seem to agree that Louise Augusta was, in fact, Struensee’s child.

Louise Augusta

And although we might agree that Struensee was little short of a usurper and a dictator, he introduced freedom of speech and disbanded an old law forcing commoners to stay where they were born lest they left and took with them their labour force. He also made sure the Crown Prince was given a modern upbringing after the principles of Rousseau. I’ve not studied said principles in length but I am left with the impression that his upbringing was a little too heavy-handed, or to put it another way it nearly killed the small boy and his early childhood was also seen to be the reason for his somewhat peculiar adult behaviour.

Frederik VI by Jens Juel

Struensee’s reign could never last, of course. In the heat of the moment both he and Caroline must have forgotten that there was a formidable force in their opposition. Juliane Marie, who most certainly believed in the divine right of kings, was hardly pleased at seeing a commoner take her husband’s throne, and Caroline Mathilde must have been perceived as nothing short of a common whore debasing herself in such a way as to have an extramarital affair. (Please note that I personally do not advocate slut-shaming). Christian couldn’t have cared very much, so long as he was distracted from the governmental work that he had never cared much for.

Juliane Marie, along with ministers Struensee had unseated, struck after a masked ball in the night between the 17th and 18th of January 1772, and they arrested Struensee and his main accomplice Enevold Brandt who were then presented with a warrant on them, signed by the King. The men of Juliane’s party also had orders to apprehend the Queen. Of course, a Queen of the realm could never be arrested but she was taken into a carriage in the dead of night, with her infant daughter but without her son, whom she hadn’t been allowed to see. They drove her, for how many hours I daren’t imagine, to Helsingør (or Elsinore, as Shakespeare called it) and put her into custody at Kronborg, an old, drafty, renaissance castle. There she was kept for a matter of weeks, while it her “sentence” was discussed by the Danish and English courts.

Meanwhile in Copenhagen the trial for Struensee and Enevoldt had begun, and it came to light that paid by Juliane Marie, Caroline’s ladies had left flour on her doorstep to see whether a man would visit her at night. They had also found garters amongst Struensee’s possessions that the maids swore had originated in Caroline’s boxes. He admitted to having an affair with the Queen in a pleading tone, and his confession made Caroline confess also. A confession she later drew back, perhaps because she realised that she would never be allowed to return either to Copenhagen or England if she confessed.

Struensee’s pleading did not help him and he was sentenced to death. His sentence was carried out the morning of the 28th of April. Although the King had signed the death sentence he was said to be unaware of what was happening to his former friend. Juliane Marie, however, witnessed it from her windows. The crowd also witnessing the execution were said to be quiet after the executioner held up Struensee’s severed head.

The next day the ladies who were with the Queen, would discuss it in every gory detail in front of an obviously distraught Queen. In May her own fate was finally decided. Her brother would not take her back, as she was obviously not going to be able to marry anyone, and neither would the Danish court so she was instead deported to Celle, in northern Germany which was under British rule. There she was finally re-united with Louise von Plessen and a small, but loyal, court. In 1774 she began plotting to be re-instated as her son’s guardian and she would write her brother, King George III of Great Britain, and ask him of her support.

She never was to be re-united with either of her children. Caroline Mathilde, a Princess of the blood of England, and former Queen of Denmark, died suddenly on May 10th 1775. She had contracted scarlet fever. She was buried in the church of St. Marie in Celle, and hasn’t been moved to Roskilde Church, the final place of rest for all Danish Kings and Queens.

Although she was no longer Queen at her death, she would still call herself Caroline Mathilde of Denmark until the end.

Juliane Marie’s influence, and he governed Denmark informally until his father’s death in 1808.

Louise Augusta was married to Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg in Sønderbog, southern Denmark. Her sons went on to try and dethrone Christian the 8th, who would go on to marry their sister, Caroline Amalie. You know, just any normal big, happy family.

Caroline Mathilde

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9 comments on “The Scandal of the Century

  1. […] Click this link to read my post on Caroline Mathilde […]

  2. […] was also Frederick VI. The mother of Caroline Amalie is Princess Louise Augusta, the daughter of Queen Caroline Mathilde. Louise Augusta’s story is an interesting one that I will post about at a later […]

  3. Diane Barry says:

    I loved this blog thank you and I also love all the portraits. I’d very much like to know who they all are and where the portraits are hung.
    I recently saw the movie in Australia of this story and it was very good. I am currently in London on holiday, reading Janet Browne’s book on Charles Darwin and it mentions this scandel.

    • Sara L. says:

      It says beneath the portraits whom they’re off. The two first ones of Caroline Mathilde and her husband are hung at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. The black and white drawing of Louise von Plessen isn’t hung anywhere. The portrait of queen Juliane Marie (the fourth one) and the portrait of queen Sophie Magdalene are both hung at the Frederiksborg Castle museum. The sixth one is a copy of the original and is also hung at Rosenborg Castle. The black and white caricature is found in the royal collection at the Royal Library of Copenhagen. The portrait of Louise Augusta is for some odd reason hung at the Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh. The portrait of Frederik VI is also at the Frederiksborg Castle museum. The second to last portrait of Caroline Mathilde is at Rosenborg Castle. The last black and white drawing of Caroline Mathilde is at the National Archives of Copenhagen but it’s not displayed.

      Did you watch the movie A Royal Affair? I watched it recently too and really enjoyed it. I’m curious to know how a book on Charles Darwin ends up mentioning this story, though?

  4. […] ago reader Allison posted a comment asking me if I could dig up some English books relating to Caroline Mathilde, as she’d recently seen the movie A Royal Affair. The director of the movie mentions that 19 […]

  5. […] my blog for a while, you’ll remember this face. This is Louise Augusta, daughter of queen Caroline Mathilde but not of king Christian VII. No, Louise Augusta (named for her maternal grandmother, Augusta, […]

  6. Jonette says:

    Thank you so, so much for creating this post! I recently fell in love with the movie A Royal Affair, and I just had to learn more, and here you are. Thank you, and thank the Internet! I really, really enjoyed this. (And I think I need to lie down for a bit because of all the Carolina Mathilde-Streunsee feels.)

    Another of your posts on Danish immigrants in the US also looks just as fascinating, although I do wish I could stay up longer to read it, I’ll bookmark it for my pleasure reading, then. Please keep up the great blog posts!

    • Lis Piatt says:

      Thank you so very much…European History is so interesting. I recently went to the Frauenburg Germany built by Loretta von Sponheim-Starkenburg.(1300-1346)..she held Balduin the Erzbischof of Tier(1285-1354) for Ransom. She was succesful and built this wonderful small fortress from the high ransom funds. There is a lot of mystery surrounding their relationship….did he help her?
      Lis Piatt

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