Thursday, September 28, 2017

Playing Doctor with the Queen

by Anna Belfrage

I believe she was a happy little girl, this princess who was raised far from the corrupting influences of the royal court by her doting – if strict – mother, Princess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg. Maybe, in her later life, Carolina Matilda, princess of England and queen of Denmark, would long for those halcyon days of her childhood, days when life was simple and structured, when she was the cosseted youngest sister of George III.

Caroline Matilda w her family

However protected her upbringing, Carolina Matilda knew from the start that at some point she would be expected to marry as it benefited her brother’s kingdom. To ensure the young princess was a credit to her future husband, she was given an excellent education, and by the time she was a teenager she spoke not only English, but also Italian, French and German.

Carolina Matilda (standing) w her sister

In October of 1766, the fifteen-year-old Carolina Matilda was married by proxy to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark. There were rumours surrounding the Danish king, mutterings that all was not well in the state of Denmark – or at least not in the head of its royal ruler – but for all George III’s concerns, he still chose to send his little sister off into the unknown. As to the Danish, it was all perfectly simple: “Avec un Coeur bon, une humeur douce (…) et une envie de plaire au roi son epoux, elle peut s’attendre à une sitiation très heureuse.” In other words, smile and please your king and all will be well.

Christian VII
The young Danish king was less than thrilled with his new wife. He didn’t want to be married; at seventeen he had hoped to enjoy some more years of carousing and whoring before he was forced into a marriage bed. Carolina Matilda was no more enthusiastic, but she knew where her duty lay, and so tried to make the best of things. Difficult to do, when she was a stranger in a country, doubly difficult when the king began to lavish all his attention and affection on a much admired prostitute.

Further to Christian’s womanizing, Carolina Matilda quickly realised her new husband was not all there. Given to panic attacks, to severe mood swings and a marked lack of concentration, the young king was restless and unhappy – and very much under the thumb of his formidable step-mother, Juliane Marie, and her cronies. Juliane Maria had a son of her own to look out for, and she was probably less than pleased when Christian’s reluctant visits to his wife’s bedchamber resulted in a little prince, born 15 months after the wedding.

Carolina Matilda giving birth to her son
The birth of an heir did not improve the relationship between the young king and queen. He remained as distant as ever, she submerged herself in the care of her son, a most doting mother. The ever restless Christian VII decided he needed to see the world, and now that there was a royal heir there was nothing to stop him from going, so in May of 1768 he set off on a grand tour, planned to take at least two years. I suspect Carolina Matilda heaved a sigh of relief. I suspect Christian did too, sitting back in his gilded carriage after waving goodbye to his assembled family.

A king on a grand tour didn’t exactly ride around unaccompanied. With Christian went a group of people numbering close to fifty, and among his inner circle was one Johan Friedrich Struensee, hired as his personal physician. Struensee was a highly educated man, a proponent of the Enlightenment. He was also a kindly and patient man, and for the first time ever Christian found a person who took his panic attacks and mental ghosts seriously, who genuinely tried to help him. In a matter of months, Struensee had become the king’s confidante, his pillar of strength, and when the king’s mental collapse in Paris forced the royal party to return home much earlier than planned, Struensee returned with them.

It is said distance makes the heart grow fonder. Not so in Christian’s and Carolina Matilda’s case. There seems to have been no correspondence between the king and queen while he was away, and his impervious, near on cruel, behaviour towards Carolina Matilda upon his return left her humiliated – and ill.

The king proposed that his new doctor examine her. Carolina Matilda was sceptical. Struensee was far too close to the king to initially gain her confidence. The king insisted, and after some weeks of illness, Carolina Matilda finally agreed to see Struensee. The progressive doctor concluded there was nothing physically wrong with the queen, she suffered from melancholia brought on by her obvious unhappiness. Struensee ordinated exercise, such as riding, and some months later the queen had clearly recovered, riding through Copenhagen in men’s clothes, her cheeks rosy, her eyes glittering.

The cause for all that rosy happiness was not only the horse. No, Carolina Matilda had fallen in love – most unfortunately – with her husband’s physician. Struensee performed an elegant balancing act, tending to the king’s needs and anguishes during the day, to the queen’s rather more carnal desires at night. The man was as besotted as the queen, finding in Carolina Matilda an intelligent companion, a woman who listened to his progressive ideas without laughing, who supported him on various issues.

The king may have been mad as a hatter, but he was no fool. He was well aware of Struensee’s nightly visits to his queen, and he doesn’t seem to have cared. If anything, the addition of Struensee to the household had resulted in something approaching domestic bliss for both the king and queen, and for the first time ever the king would voluntarily spend time both with his wife and his son.

If the king had no issue with his present unorthodox marital situation, his court most certainly did. The immorality had to be stopped, someone should cane the queen for riding about in breeches, and as to Struensee’s visits to her bedchamber, well, really! The king shrugged and intensified his relationship with Struensee, appointing him as his chief minister.

Struensee was a man of vision. A true child of the Enlightenment, he wanted to reform society, to break away the government from the stranglehold of the prim and conservative Danish church. In less than a year, Struensee pushed through more than a thousand new laws, notably among them being a law that forbade torture. The king happily went along with all this, while in the wings his former advisors gnashed their teeth and howled in frustrated rage. A mere doctor, a foreigner (Struensee was German) to usurp their power and change their world – no, this was unacceptable.

The king, the queen and the doctor
While discontent brewed, the king, the queen and Struensee continued to play happy families. The king was given a Moorish boy as his personal page, and he spent his days romping about with his new playmate. The queen was pregnant and even if the king now and then graced her bed with his presence, it was the opinion of the court that the expected child was Struensee’s, not the king’s. Whatever the case, once the child was born, the king claimed the new-born princess as his.

The summer when little Louise Augusta was born was the high point in Caroline Matilda’s life. A new child, a lover she admired and lusted for, a husband who seemed happy enough with his games, and a son she doted upon. All was well in her little world, and she probably dreamed of many future years like this, years in which Struensee would rule, the king would play, and she would raise the future king to be a man of ideals.

Unfortunately, the Danish nobility had other plans. Ably captained by Juliane Marie, the ousted former ministers performed a coup in January of 1772. After a night of festivities, a masquerade ball no less, Juliane Marie and her men paid the king a nightly visit, scaring him into signing two arrest orders, one for Struensee, one for the adulterous queen.

At dawn, January 17 1772, Carolina Matilda was wakened by her frightened maid, who handed her a note from the king telling her she was to be arrested and taken to Kronborg. Carolina Matilda thought first of Struensee and rushed through her secret passage to her lover’s room. It was filled with grim soldiers going through his papers. The queen rushed back and tried to get access to the king, to plead her case. Not to be, and an hour or so later the queen was bundled off to captivity, holding her little daughter. Her son she was forced to leave behind.

Under substantial pressure, Carolina Matilda admitted to her affair with Struensee. He did the same, and in April of 1772, Johan Friedrich Struensee was beheaded before a huge crowd. It is said he kept on hoping for a reprieve… His mistress, the disgraced queen, signed the divorce papers in the same month. Little Louise Augusta was taken from her once she was weaned, and in May of 1772, Carolina Matilda was exiled from Denmark. She was never to see her children again. In June of 1775 Carolina Matilda died, some months shy of her twenty-fourth birthday. It is said she died of scarlet fever – but some whisper she died of a broken heart.

[This post is an Editors' Choice, and was first published on this blog on 25/11/2013]


Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post! I saw a movie about this recently on Netflix...A Royal Affair, I think it was called? It seemed fairly accurate to the history you present, although if I remember correctly, it seemed to show that the king didn't know about the affair between the doctor and the queen.


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