Johann Struensee, the German doctor who ruled Denmark

Following several festivethemed posts, a three week Christmas break and the latest installment of Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, now for something completely different. For most people in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, Danish history is a blank, perhaps filled in only by vague memories of Hamlet’s line “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. I’m going to write about one of the most significant figures in 18th century Danish history and possibly one of the most intriguing political figures I have ever come across: Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee was a man of contradictions; an intelligent and witty German doctor who believed passionately in Enlightenment ideals, yet an arrogant man who ruled Denmark as a dictator, supplanting a mentally ill king whilst having an affair with his queen.

Before I talk about Struensee in particular, here is some background. Denmark in the 1760s was a backward country. The rest of Western Europe was creaking its way towards Enlightenment. England had an emerging parliamentary democracy, and even in absolutist France writers and thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were changing the way people viewed the world around them. Denmark was still a feudal state marked by oppression of the peasants and strict censorship. Denmark’s problems were compounded by the fact that its king, Christian VII, was not fit to rule. It’s not clear exactly what was wrong with him; probably he suffered from mental illness. His physical and mental health had been damaged by the brutal treatment meted out to him by his childhood custodian Count Reventlow, who had him cruelly beaten and debauched until he was so sunk into depravity that he was scarcely responsible for his own actions.


King Christian VII of Denmark
King Christian VII of Denmark

In the hope that a wife might be a good influence on the unstable king, Danish ministers married him off in 1766 to the 15-year old Caroline Mathilde, the youngest sister of George III. During the short honeymoon it seemed that their hope might be realised; Christian was attentive to his new wife and on his return evidence of his natural good nature showed in a desire to better the lot of the peasant both on his own estates and in the rest of Denmark. The recovery was, however, shortlived. He soon plunged once more into the wildest excesses, giving himself up to drunken orgies and visiting the taverns and brothels of Copenhagen. Christian and his drinking companions would go around smashing windows and creating disturbances, to the disgust of the inhabitants and the despair of the ministers. Meanwhile, the queen was left in lonely confinement, neglected and cruelly treated by the king. After the sickly crown prince Frederick was born in 1768, the king grew even worse; his periods of lucidity became less frequent, and he developed a fierce hatred towards his wife.

Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766











It was at this point that Johann Struensee entered Danish history. Struensee was a German doctor who in the late 1760s was working as a public physician in Altona, near Hamburg. His pitiful income wasn’t enough to support his lifestyle expectations, so he had to supplement it with private practice. It was in ministering to the rich and powerful that Struensee came into contact with a circle of aristocrats living in Altona in exile from the Danish court at Copenhagen. His sparkling wit, elegant manners and Enlightenment principles commended him particularly to two exiled Danish courtiers, Enevold Brandt and Count Rantzau. In Struensee, Brandt and Rantzau saw not only a fellow idealist, but the perfect means of getting themselves back into favour at court. At the time, the court was looking for a physician to attend Christian on his forthcoming tour of Europe. Rantzau saw his chance, and recommended Struensee for the post. When Struensee received the appointment in April 1768 (somewhat surprisingly considering his unconventional methods and suspicious political views), Brandt and Rantzau expected that he would use his new influence to get them once more promoted into court circles.


During the 8-month tour, Struensee gained Christian’s confidence and affection. The two of them discussed literature, philosophy and art, and went out drinking and whoring (unobtrusively). Danish ministers were pleased with Struensee’s influence on Christian, who began making fewer embarrassing scenes. In fact, the tour was a resounding success. The young king showed himself a charming and amusing guest; at parties and functions he was the centre of gaiety. What lay behind this improvement? Struensee had been in constant attendance during the entire tour. He seems to have made sure that the king was only seen in his best moods; his dark depressions and manic episodes were confined to the private sphere. There has been much conjecture about how Struensee achieved this apparent miracle; historians have suggested the use of anything from magnetism to concentrated doses of coca bean (i.e. cocaine).

Johann Struensee
Johann Struensee

Upon the court’s return to Copenhagen in January 1769, Struensee was appointed personal physician to the king and in May he was given the honorary title of State Councillor, which advanced him to the class of the third rank at court. Perhaps it was now that he started to envisage his role as a political advisor leading Denmark towards enlightenment. However, if he wanted to climb to the top of the greasy pole and have real influence on policy, he had to overcome two major obstacles. Queen Caroline and the long-serving chancellor Bernstoff were both opposed to Struensee. Bernstoff was worried by the German doctor’s radical ideas, and the Queen mistrusted him and his influence on her husband.

Bernstoff would prove impossible to placate, so Struensee turned his attentions to the queen. She was neglected and lonely and he now seemed to be one of the few people who paid her attention and tried to help alleviate her troubles. Struensee effected a partially successful reconciliation between Caroline and Christian; under his influence, the king ceased to treat Caroline with his previous contempt. A successful inoculation of the sickly crown prince in May 1770 against the smallpox epidemic ravaging Copenhagen further increased Struensee’s influence, and around this time he began a a clandestine relationship with the queen.

Now that the king and queen were both on his side, Struensee had the necessary political leverage to climb even higher. He kept on gaining promotions but generally kept a low profile as he started to take over the political machine. Once the king had dismissed Bernstoff in September, Struensee’s second obstacle was eliminated. However, by the end of 1770 he had grown impatient with the slow and conservative workings of the Danish government, and abolished the Council of State. He then appointed himself privy counsellor, thereby consolidating his power and starting the period generally referred to as the “Time of Struensee”. His official duty, which was to present reports from the various departments of state to the king, was much more influential than it may seem.

Struensee in 1771
Struensee in 1771

As King Christian was hardly responsible for his actions, Struensee was able to dictate whatever answers he pleased. Struensee really became Denmark’s king in all but name in July 1771 when he was appointed a “Geheimekabinetsminister” with the authority to issue orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign-manual. The king was now effectively sidelined and was discouraged from interfering in state affairs. Between December 1770 and January 1772 Struensee pushed ahead with his Enlightenment project and issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders; a rate of more than three a day. Reforms initiated by Struensee during this period included:

  • Abolition of torture
  • Abolition of unfree labour
  • Abolition of the censorship of the press
  • Abolition of capital punishment
  • Abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state office
  • Introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund the nursing of foundlings
  • Ban of the slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • Removal of penalties against those who produced illegitimate children
  • Criminalisation and punishment of bribery
  • Re-organisation of judicial institutions to minimise corruption
  • Re-organisation and reduction of the army
  • Reform of the state-owned medical institutions

Struensee’s reforms were undoubtedly very forward looking; Voltaire himself sent a letter to congratulate Struensee and the king on their progressive. He seems to have genuinely believed in the vision of an enlightened Denmark where serfdom could be abolished and the tyrannous partnership of the church and the aristocracy broken in order to make way for the ‘free-thinking’ bourgeoisie. Yet however laudable his aims, his style of governance left much to be desired. Struensee simply didn’t seem to care that he offended the very people who he needed on his side. He rode roughshod over Danish customs and traditions, and insisted on conducting all his business in German. In order to ensure obedience, Struensee would dismiss entire staffs of public departments without pensions or compensation, and substitute them with nominees of his own who in many cases were inexperienced men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.

An 1873 depiction of the court in the "Time of Struensee". The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king's alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot; like him, it is a captive creature. Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup
An 1873 depiction of the court in the “Time of Struensee”. The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king’s alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot. Queen Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup

Public opinion began to turn against Struensee in the autumn of 1771, spurred on by the flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets (an ironic result of his abolition of censorship). The populace resented the intrusion of this foreigner into the highest levels of government and disapproved of his affair with the queen. Anger on the last count came to a head  in July 1771 when the Queen gave birth to Louisa Augusta, who was clearly Struensee’s child (portrait comparisons show a strong resemblance). At first the king refused to recognise the girl as his own, but Caroline and Struensee overcame this effort to show a will of his own. Rumours began to spread that Struensee had the king locked up and even that he had murdered him in order to maintain his own power. Opposition was growing from both inside and outside the palace.

Aristocrats who had been summarily dismissed from lucrative state offices, and whose property and influence were hard-hit by Struensee’s egalitarian-minded reforms, were fuming with resentment. Even Brandt, Struensee’s closest political ally, was becoming disaffected. In a letter asking Struensee either for a greater salary or a resignation from court, Brandt was scathing: “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.”. The general ill-will which had been smouldering throughout the autumn of 1771 at last found its expression in a secret conspiracy headed by Count Rantzau, whom Struensee had neglected, and the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, who wished to wrest power away from both the king and Struensee and divert it to herself and her son.

The Queen-Dowager showing the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick
The Queen-Dowager showing off the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick

The palace coup took place on 16th January 1772 in the early hours of the morning, during a masquerade ball. Struensee, Brandt and the Queen were arrested in their respective bedrooms and charged with plotting to murder the king, who was the next morning driven around Copenhagen in order to prove his ‘rescue’, to great public rejoicing. In the ensuing trial, Struensee defended himself with considerable ability, but the authorities were determined to make an example of him; he was executed on 28th April together with his long-time supporter Brandt. They were beheaded, drawn and quartered in front of a crowd of 30,000. Caroline was separated from her children and sent to live in exile.

Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee's execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered
Struensee’s execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered









Fearing for her life, she appealed to her brother King George III of Great Britain for help. The nature of her disgrace was such that she could not receive asylum in England, but he did offer the castle at Celle, in the Hanoverian territories, for her use. Caroline lived only a few years, dying aged just 24. Back in Copenhagen, King Christian was as powerless as before, and the government reverted to a regency led by the Queen Dowager. Under her leadership Struensee’s reforms were rolled back, which proved just as unpopular with the Danish populace as Struensee had been. However, in 1784 Caroline’s son Frederick was able to regain power for his father, and the Queen Dowager’s faction was overthrown. Struensee’s early educational influence on Frederick showed itself when he succeeded to throne in 1808 and reinstated many of Struensee’s reforms, even doing what Struensee had not managed to do – abolish serfdom.

Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes "Ich hätte beide gern gerettet" ("I would have liked to have saved them both")
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes “Ich hätte beide gern gerettet” (“I would have liked to have saved them both”)


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