We got a copy of A Royal Affair the other week, drawn in mostly on the basis of the costume drama appeal. It’s good stuff, and the more I watched it, the more I wondered how much the film makers had fiddled with the truth. I mean to say, American movies that tear their stories from yesterday’s headlines are almost invariably poppycock.
The Danes, as it turns out, are a bit better at the whole thing, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop now and get yourself the video. This post isn’t going anywhere.
So – Struensee was a precocious son of a German superintendent (much like a bishop) of Schleswig-Holstein. He trained in medicine, getting degreed at a young age, and spent his off hours rebelling against the stodgy doctrines of his elders.
That is to say, he read a lot of Rousseau and Voltaire and that crowd. In a small and anonymous way, Struensee even put his own hand to writing a few forward thinking pamphlets. (anonymously, of course- you could get into a lot of trouble writing stuff ike that. There’s a reason Voltaire lived in Switzerland). Politics aside, Struensee had charm and wit, and these got him entree with high society, , including some Danish ex-patriots who were living in the area. Even so, he probably would have sunk without a trace at this point but for coincidence.
In 1766, Denmark got a new king, the seventeen year old Christian VII. Bad schooling with an unhealthy dose of corporal punishment and who knows what else left him a bit maladjusted, possibly a bit off his chump. He made the odd, inappropriate scene in public; or at least, in the public that made up the courtiers. He was a figurehead creature for the old and conservative council of elders.
So far, so bad. Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single king in possession of an absolute monarchy must be in want of a wife. The graybeards in Denmark found a suitable candidate in the person of Caroline Matilda, kid sister to England’s George III. The mad one.
Christian and Caroline had one child, Frederick, and it was separate bedrooms as the now blossoming king discovered the pleasures of debauchery. He and his crew made the rounds of red light Copenhagen, busted up taverns and knocking shops and such like. He became – moody. Unpredictable. He decided on taking a Grand Tour (without Caroline, note) and got no further than Hamburg where he fell in.
And who should happen to attend to him but Dr Struensee?
It turned out that the doctor had a way with the king – something of a king whisperer, if you like. The king found him such good company that he brought the doctor back to Copenhagen.
For a budding revolutionary, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Against the conservative religious counselors, he took some of the prince’s education in hand and tried to fill the monarchs head with the new-aged Enlightenment thinking.
We enter the Svengali period. Or perhaps the Dr Feelgood period. Even then there were ways to bolster the mood of a wayward charge. Struensee and his fellow travelers began to suggest strange new possibilities for Denmark.
Denmark at the time was not the liberal place of today. More like Tsarist Russia. A small number of aristos owned the land and effectively the people on it. Censorship, corporal punishment, capital punishment, slave trading, legalized bribery – the usual sorts of things.
Struensee couldn’t help himself, he was that close to the levers of power. His first goal was to get rid of the aging Chancellor Bernstorff. The king was happy to oblige, and did so in 1770, then more or less put Struensee in charge. After that, the king went into something of a mental funk for the next year or so.
No matter, Struensee was happy to take charge of the king’s paperwork. Sign this, don’t sign that, no need to read this – the doctor had in effect become the benevolent despot of his dreams. And it must be said, his reforms were like to seem pretty reasonable to our times. No capital punishment for theft, no slave trading, no special laws for the rich and connected. A man of the people. He was even willing to open the brothels of Copenhagen to the masses, not just the rich.
Denmark was still a religious country, and this sort of permissiveness was unacceptable to the more hidebound. It was after all, one things for the Quality to misbehave, but to open temptation to the masses, that was a bit much.
It was, however, as nothing to Struensee’s own sex life.
It seems he had gotten a little too close to the queen. Initially she had not found him much to her taste, but once he talked her into inoculating her son against smallpox, well, he could do no wrong, atheist though he be. Saving the children – women appreciate that sort of thing.
Which is how his abolishing censorship came back to bite him. Graphic pamphlets of the sort that were all too familiar to the likes of Marie Antoinette were now directed to him and the queen. The queen’s daughter, born 1770 was the talk of the town, generally referred to at the Little Struensee.
It was also his bad fortune to try his experiments in Up The People in a period of economic downturn. Eventually, the sinecures in the army fell under the doctor’s knife, and as history teaches us again and again, one does not fiddle with the rice bowl of the military.
Plotting brewed, involving the king’s stepmother, Dowager Queen Juliana Maria, whose own son had a shot at the throne. With the help of other disaffected Danes, a coup was arranged. One fine night after a ball, the guards were called out to arrest Struensee, his sidekick, and Caroline. The king, still in that mental funk, was put in a carriage and displayed around the town, so that the people could see all was well.
Struensee did get a trial of sort (in the movie, the Bad Guys just beat him up), but this was something of a formality. Without wasting too much time, he and the sidekick were to be beheaded, drawn and quartered.
The queen was dispossessed of her children, divorced and exiled to Celle, Germany. She never saw her son or daughter again, and gave her time over to working with orphans. The king never remarried and claimed to have regretted what happened to his one time friend the doctor. The reins of power were taken by , Dowager Queen Juliana Maria, her son, and the same claque of social conservatives. Life reverted to normal.
But nothing stays the same forever. The years passed. The daughter, the La Petite Struensee, the “Venus of Denmark” was raised nicely and would eventually marry Frederick Christian II, Duke of Augustenborg and have children and some intrigues of her own. That’s another story. The young prince meanwhile came of age and effected his own takeover of the court. He’d picked up a thing or two from Struensee, and hadn’t forgotten his Voltaire. Once his bottom was firmly on the throne, aA good deal of the doctor’s ideas and more were brought to pass.
Which, in the short and the long run, may well have saved a few royal Danish heads. To say nothing of making Denmark the pleasant place it became.
(I take some personal interest in the whole thing since one branch of the family goes back to Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, at the time indecisive about where exactly it lay on the border. In the 1850s, g-g-grand-father, the local protestant vicar, preached two sermons a week, one in German, one in Danish. From what I can gather, he was one of those can’t-we-all-just-get-along kinds of people. I doubt he understood the Schleswig-Holstein question either. No word on his thoughts re: the doctor.)