The 1700s were a time of radical reform, and as the Enlightenment reached the shores of Denmark, it suddenly became possible to be a professed atheist and not lose your head. That is, of course, as long as you didn’t also try to usurp the crown, undermine the aristocracy, and agitate the commoners while you were at it.
Such was the course that ended the rise of Johann Friedrich Struensee on this date in 1772. His friend and sometime cohort Enevold Brandt (Danish Wikipedia entry) was put on the block on the same day.
Struensee was born in 1738 in present day Germany and educated in Prussia, a doctor by trade and a budding Enlightenment political writer by practice. He seemed an unlikely character to involve himself in the court of King Christian VII of both Denmark and Norway, but Struensee was a vain and social man who managed to befriend the right people at the right time.
The first was Brandt. The second was Count Schack Karl Rantzau. A lawyer and Supreme Court justice, Brandt was a court favorite* and planted Struensee’s name as a capable doctor: young, kind, and competent, he would make a perfect personal physician for a king known for being a bit off: Christian was likely schizophrenic. Rantzau, meanwhile, was Count of the Holy Roman Empire, exiled from Copenhagen some 15 years before he met young Struensee, and eager to get back into politics.
In June 1768, Struensee took a post as the king’s traveling physician in England, and he immediately attached to Christian’s loneliness. The regent was interested in literature, philosophy, and music, and Struensee obliged him with patient regard for his charge, for which he was duly rewarded with access to a social life much more fulfilling than in Prussia. As a traveling physician, though, Struensee’s post had a finite span, and he lobbied hard to become a member of the Danish court.
With some help from others in the king’s court, Struensee managed to retain a permanent post, and his clamber up the nearest cliff to power began.
The young doctor, it seems, had a talent for playing two sides for personal gain. It started with the king, who had immense trust in Struensee and began to confide almost everything. Struensee was tactful with this information, adhering to an early form of patient-doctor privilege that endeared him to Christian. The other side was Queen Mathilde, Princess of Wales, by all accounts a beautiful woman who was not happy in Denmark and even less happy to be married to a mad and deteriorating king.
Mathilde initially disliked Struensee — or, at the very least, was indifferent to his actions. But near the end of 1769, the queen finally admitted Struensee into her chambers, and their relationship took off. He ably gamed Mathilde by convincing her that she was the kingdom’s future; Christian, meanwhile, remained ill, and Struensee remained a steady presence in his life. Come spring, Crown Prince Frederick VI also came under Struensee’s care, and as smallpox ravaged Copenhagen, the doctor pressed for inoculation. The king and queen assented, Frederick survived the epidemic, and Struensee garnered himself an official advisorship. It’s also suspected that, while Struensee and Mathilde watched over Frederick as he recovered from the inoculation,** their love affair began.
With a taste of power, Struensee pressed King Christian VII for cabinet changes — which he got — and was named Privy Councilor before 1770 was out. Now the principal advisor to the king, Struensee was able to advance his Enlightenment agenda, notably freedom of the press, the abolition of torture, limiting the death penalty, changing the rules of appointments, numbering the houses in Copenhagen, lighting the streets, and, perhaps in anticipation, removing penalties against those who produced illegitimate children. He was a bold visionary, but he also intoxicated by his growing power … and his programme obviously gored many an ox.
Struensee ascended still further early in 1771 when the king became practically unfit to rule. He was mentally faltering, and Struensee was all but running the show, and more.
In early July, the queen gave birth to a daughter who was widely assumed to be Struensee’s child. Days later, and just three years after being introduced to King Christian VII, Johann Friedrich Struensee effectively appointed himself Privy Cabinet Minister with dictatorial authority through one of King Christian’s edicts. Struensee’s orders would now have the force of law, and, as Christian’s proclamation noted, “They shall be immediately obeyed.”
Struensee spent the next six months turning the European aristocracy inside-out and foisting an aggressive set of cabinet orders on the Danish people — over 1,000, by some counts. Having ridden on the coattails of a queen and king, he now pushed them aside. He moved the court to Schleswig-Holstein, in Prussia, and pleasingly enjoyed both the prerogatives of aristocracy and a middle class contempt for them.
Struensee was, to say the least, not a favorite abroad;† that he and his friends dominated the king and queen did not sit well with Danish commoners. Even Brandt was becoming disaffected, writing in a letter asking for either a larger salary or a resignation from the court:
No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen…
But Brandt stayed on, and as 1771 drew to a close, Copenhagen became hostile territory for the royal family and their favorite doctor.
After the season’s first masquarade ball, on 16 January 1772, the Queen Dowager — Christian’s step-mother — Juliana Marie exposed Struensee’s affair and had Struensee, Brandt, the queen,‡ and many other Struensee accomplices arrested, ostensibly by order of the king.
Struensee was charged with lèse-majesté, a crime against the crown, for his affair with the queen; though he initially denied the charges — and though Mathilde did her best to shield him from harm — he was found guilty. Brandt was charged with the same crime for allegedly assaulting the king after being himself threatened with a flogging for impertinence (he even had a nip at Christian’s finger). Brandt’s punishment was the same. Each had his right hand chopped off, then was beheaded, drawn, and quatertered.
The queen, meanwhile, went into exile in France. Juliana Marie effectively ruled the kingdom through her son for over a decade, rolling back many of Struensee’s reforms and reverting power back to the aristocracy. This also turned out to be unpopular (the Danes and Norwegians are fickle people), and Mathilde’s son Frederick VI was able to regain power for his father in 1784, eventually moving to liberal reforms more in line with his erstwhile physician’s ideals.
Struensee’s epic rise and fall have spawned a variety of writings since his death. A memoir appeared just months after his execution which detailed his final months. He was also the subject of the Per Olov Enquist novel The Royal Physician’s Visit, which examines his life from multiple perspectives. Queen Mathilde’s life was put to ballet by Peter Maxwell Davies. And for a more contemporary cultural artifact, there’s the 2012 film A Royal Affair.
* Brandt was a court favorite, but after attempting to destroy the position of another minister, he was briefly expelled from Copenhagen, shortly after Struensee accepted his post.
** These inoculations predated “safe” inoculations by non-fatal, related disease strains such as cowpox. Frederick would have been made ill through the small pox strain Variola Minor, which had a mortality rate of about 1%. By contrast, Variola Major was fatal in about 30% of cases.
† While Struensee seems to have been book smart, his feel for international politics was limited, and his standing abroad would have unraveled had it ever raveled in the first place. He repeatedly upset the Russians, and Mathilde’s relatives were not pleased with him. Had he not been downed by public sentiment, it seems likely he would have fallen victim to one of his many royal detractors abroad.
‡ In a curious twist, Rantzau was the queen’s arrestor, and one of the principal conspirators in the dowager’s plot was a cabinet minister Struensee was responsible for ejecting very early in his career.