The 18th century is a critically important period in the history of modern Western civilization. Politically, it was characterized by absolute monarchy almost everywhere except England and the Netherlands. To summarize a complex political system, absolute monarchy was based on the principle that all legitimate political power came from the king, who recognized only God as the limit to his political powers. In theory, the king had the power to run the state at his will, legislate as he saw fit, and enforce or waive laws as suited him.
The reality, of course, was more complex. While kings were supposed to rule in person, they typically depended on royal councils and bureaucracies to manage the state for them, and this meant that they had to compromise with the various other powers in their states, particularly the clergy and the nobility. Kings were more absolute in theory than they were in practice, and in some situations it took a truly determined absolute monarch to overcome resistance to the changes he wished to enact.
The 18th century was also the Age of the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution, which had gotten going in the previous century or so, had encouraged the growth of rationalism and a demand for scientific evidence for ideas about how the world worked. As Western society began to accept the existence of the laws of physics, it naturally began to occur to intellectuals that rationalism could be applied to human society. Intellectuals, often called philosophes, began to develop a rational critique of Western society in a movement that they saw as paralleling the Scientific Revolution. These men and a few women began searching for the laws of human society, the principles upon which society ought to be based. Broadly speaking, philosophes opposed anything they saw as irrational or arbitrary, such as laws that give the nobility legal privileges simply for being nobles. Many, such as the great thinker Voltaire, accused the Catholic Church of teaching not religion but superstition, while Montesquieu called for legal reforms and a more rational balance of powers in which executive, legislative, and judicial branches enjoyed separate spheres of power that mutually limited each other branch’s powers. Sound familiar? It should; this is the period that gave birth to American democracy.
Denmark in the late 18th Century
From 1766 to 1808, Denmark was ruled by Christian VII, at least in name. The Danish kings were, like all other kings except the English ones, absolute monarchs. But Christian VII was a rather poor monarch. He was a smart and sensitive man and seemingly quite talented, but he was the victim of a personal tutor who physically and emotionally terrorized him while growing up, and of a group of courtiers who provided him with a steady string of prostitutes and mistresses. The result was an emotionally unstable man who may have suffered from some form of schizophrenia. He was given to sudden outbursts of emotion and fits of anger, moments of paranoia, and perhaps even self-mutilation.
As a result, instead of Christian ruling personally, control of the government was in the hands of the nobles who controlled the royal council. Public opinion also had a remarkably strong role in Danish politics in this period, such that one historian has declared it “absolutism driven by opinion”. The details of government bored the young king, and he often ignored his responsibilities for days on end, which only strengthened the control of the royal council.
In 1766, in addition to becoming king, Christian married his cousin Caroline Matilda, the younger sister of George III of Great Britain. However it was a very poor match. Christian publicly declared that it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”, and instead continued carrying on with a string of mistresses and prostitutes. They consummated the marriage long enough to have a child, the future Frederick VI, and then apparently stopped sleeping together.
Caroline Matilda was an intelligent and well-educated woman, by the standards of her day; she spoke four languages. But whether she might be considered an intellectual is by no means clear; it is unlikely that she was deeply exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. She may also have had a taste for men’s clothing and riding astride rather than side-saddle, although this might be political slander from later in her life.
In 1770, Christian went on a tour of Europe, and when he returned home he brought with him a new German physician, Johann Struensee, who proved remarkably adept at managing Christian’s erratic mood swings. This gave him a great deal of control over the young king. Struensee was a man deeply sympathetic to the Enlightenment critique of government and society.
As a result of his influence over the king, Struensee was able to displace the royal council and essentially took over the running of the kingdom. Initially he had the king sign documents, but eventually the king signed off on a law allowing Struensee’s signature to count as his own. For three years, from 1770 to 1772, he produced an explosion of new legislation, averaging three new decrees a day. In accordance with Enlightenment principles, he centralized the government in a cabinet with himself at the center; replaced the senior officials (who mostly represented the land-owning nobility) with bourgeois bureaucrats; abolished censorship, torture, noble privileges, and the compulsory labor of the lower classes; restructured the state’s finances to the disadvantage of the landowners; reformed the university and the army; found a way to keep grain prices stable; and banned the slave trade, among other things. He also introduced vaccinations for small-pox, persuading the king and queen to permit their infant son to be vaccinated.
Struensee also reputedly began an affair with Caroline Matilda. I’m not an expert on 18th century Denmark, so I don’t know what the actual evidence for the affair is. None of the information I could find online seems conclusive to me; Caroline Matilda became a more powerful figure at court during Struensee’s period, he had a bedroom in the royal palace, and in 1771 Caroline Matilda gave birth to her second child, Louise Augusta (who was acknowledged by the king as his child).
Regardless of whether Struensee had an actual affair with the queen, in January of 1772, Christian’s step-mother Dowager Queen Julaine-Marie organized a coup against Struensee with the help of various disaffected nobles. She appears to have been seeking to promote the position of her own son, Christian’s half-brother. The king was persuaded to sign an arrest warrant, and in the middle of the night, Struensee, an associate Enevold Brandt, and Caroline Matilda were all arrested. Struensee was accused of usurping the royal authority (which, to be fair, he had), and of adultery with the queen. The fact that the adultery charge was so perfectly convenient politically leads me to be suspicious of it. But it was treated as serious at the time, and Struensee, after considerable torture, confessed to the charge.
Struensee and Brandt were both publicly executed, an action Christian later regretted. Caroline Matilda was divorced and imprisoned. After a while, pressure from George III led to her being shipped off to Hanover, George’s continental state, and she lived under loose house arrest in Celle, since George was reluctant to allow his sister to return home. She died suddenly in 1775, of scarlet fever, while she was in the middle of a conspiracy to overthrow her ex-husband in favor of her son.
However, while the Dowager Queen and her faction were able to return to power, they were unable to roll the clock back on the fundamental shift that had occurred away from the power of noble landowners. Danish agriculture underwent drastic reforms over the next two decades that modernized it and permitted small Danish farms to begin farming not just for subsistence but for the export market. That in turn increased their influence in society and prevented a return to a pre-Enlightenment status quo.
In 1784, a young Prince Frederick and a group of more liberal-minded nobles forced the Queen Dowager’s faction out of power and rather than governing by decree, found ways to incentivize the liberalization of the both the economy and the political system. In some ways, this was the beginning of modern Denmark’s social evolution.
So Is There A Movie Involved, or Was This Just an Excuse to Prattle on about 18th century Danish Politics?
Yes there is. A while ago, I was looking for movies about Scandinavian history on Netflix, and I stumbled across A Royal Affair (2012, dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Danish with subtitles). I’d never heard of it, but I knew just a little bit about its subject matter, so I watched it. It turns out to be a romance, but one with a rather strong interest in the politics and intellectual currents of the period, and far from the worst film I’ve seen on Early Modern Europe.
The film is told from the point of view of Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander). It opens with a framing device, a letter she supposedly wrote to Frederick and Louise Augusta as she was dying of scarlet fever. This letter establishes that she is not being allowed to see her children, and then the movie turns into a straight-forward narrative of the events mostly from her perspective. The film gets all the major facts right, and assumes that Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and the queen did have an affair.
The film does a reasonable job of trying to depict Struensee’s reforms and the complexity involved. Having revoked the censorship law, he is eventually shocked to learn that the press can be used against him, and he reluctantly has to re-instate it. His economic changes require financing, and once he starts paring back the government subsidies to the nobility, they begin to resist his changes. Indeed, the film claims that Struensee was betrayed by a noble who had previous been a friend that he refused to help out of debt. Juliane-Marie successful subverts the palace guard by pointing out to their captain how the reforms are negatively affecting the Danish army. So the film spends a fair amount of time exploring both the business of running an 18th century kingdom and the extraordinary challenge of introducing major changes to an established system.
What the film gets wrong is that it combines the story of the affair with the story of Struensee’s political reforms. The film asserts that Caroline Matilda was intellectually interested in the Enlightenment and political reforms; indeed that is one of the things that draws her to Struensee in the first place. The film also claims that Christian (Mikkel Folsgaard) was interested in reform but was too emotionally weak to act on those desires until Struensee helped him find his strength of will. While Christian and Caroline Matilda feel no attraction to each other, they become friends through a shared interest in Struensee’s projects and the three of them form the nucleus of a group of reform-minded people at court.
This is unlikely. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that Caroline Matilda was part of Struensee’s intellectual circle, nor does there seem to be much evidence that Christian was truly interested in political reforms. But linking the two major issues of Christian’s reign is an intelligent decision, because by getting the viewer to care about the relationship, it also gets the viewer to care about the politics.
What dooms both the affair and the political reforms is Struensee’s inability to keep a hold over the king. His relationship with Caroline Matilda and the enormous effort of running and reforming the government lead him to neglect his friendship with the king, which creates the opening that allows Juliane-Marie to drive a wedge between them and ultimately sink her hooks into the king. Thus the film extends the linkage between the romance and the political reforms by showing how the one essentially doomed the other.
Overall, the film does a nice job of presenting what is probably to most English-speakers a fairly obscure period, both culturally and intellectually. Given that there aren’t many films about the Enlightenment, I’d have to recommend it as an easy way to learn a little about it.
Incidentally, Caroline Matilda seems to have become the focus of a number of romance novels.
Update: Caroline Matilda was the sister of George III, who is the subject of The Madness of King George
Want to Know More?
A Royal Affair (English Subtitled)is available on Amazon.
Sadly, there’s a dearth of serious works on Carolina Matilda or Christian VII, and the only things I’ve found on Struensee are in German.