Sir Thomas Lawrence and the Romantic portrait

By the time of his death in 1830, Thomas Lawrence was the most sought-after and celebrated English portraitist of his age. He had painted everyone who was anyone, establishing his own distinct artistic style, and has been labelled in retrospect the visual chronicler of the Regency.

For such a supremely successful artist, however, Lawrence came from humble beginnings, being the son of a West Country innkeeper. Fortunately as it turned out, he grew up learning most of the accomplishments necessary to fit in with English nobility; namely, boxing, dancing, fencing, billiards, and a little Latin and French. When Lawrence’s father went bankrupt in 1779, the family moved to Bath, where Lawrence found a congenial atmosphere for developing his artistic talents. He was soon supporting his parents by producing small pastel portraits, such as the one below, of local notables. Lawrence’s affability, charm and talent endeared him to Bath’s residents and visitors alike, and he received commissions from the aristocracy and encouragement from other artists.

At the age of 17, Lawrence moved to London where he became acquainted with Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the premier portraitists of the day. Although Lawrence soon dropped out of the school at the Royal Academy of Arts, he managed to exhibit several works at the Academy, earning him his first royal commission, a portrait of Queen Charlotte. Although the finished portrait was not favoured by its subject, it found critical success at a public exhibition. Also shown at the 1790 exhibition was Lawrence’s portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, which was declared by the press to be ‘completely Elizabeth Farren: arch, spirited, elegant and engaging’.

One of Lawrence’s early pastel portraits. Done as a boy, it obviously lacks the sophistication of his later works.
Lawrence’s celebrated early portrait of Elizabeth Farren

Over the ensuing years, Lawrence went from success to success. In 1791, Lawrence was named ‘painter-in-ordinary to his majesty’ by George III, and he found in the Prince Regent a longstanding and generous patron. Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and commissioned to travel Europe in order to paint the allied leaders for what would become the Waterloo Chamber series, housed in Windsor Castle. His illustrious sitters included Emperor Francis I of Austria, Tsar Alexander, the King of Prussia, and a young Napoleon II.

Back in London, Lawrence was appointed President of the Royal Academy in 1820. This was the highest formal academic honour an artist could receive at the time. Yet for reasons which still elude Lawrence’s biographers, Lawrence spent his whole life deeply in debt. This despite the fact that he worked hard, earned the best commissions, and does not seem to have been an extravagant man. He despaired of his situation, complaining that ‘I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me’. It seems likely that Lawrence’s money went on generous presents to family and his extensive collection of Old Masters, along with his apparent inability to keep accounts.

Like most portraitists of his age, Lawrence strove to flatter his patrons. He made the aristocracy of late Georgian Britain appear uniformly beautiful, elegant and fascinating. He even managed to mould the corpulent Prince Regent into a sort of byronic hero in his sketch for a bust portrait.

George, the Prince Regent

Yet even if Lawrence idealised his sitters, I love his portraits for their bold colours and outstanding vividness. His sitters’ gazes are often direct and piercing, and their whole figure radiates energy. I am especially drawn to Lawrence’s portraits of women, as their strong gazes, sparkling eyes and confident poise are quite different from the serene countenances of earlier 18th-century portraits, or from the dull sweetness of early Victorian female portraits. In this respect, Lawrence had the advantage of his time. Fashionable patrons, strongly influenced by Romanticism, wanted to be painted as windswept romantic figures full of life and passion. Lawrence’s genius came both from his technical talent and his ability to mould his sitters into figures which truly captured the Romantic spirit of the age.

Emily Mary Lamb
Sir John Moore
Lady Selina Meade
Sir Graham Moore
Lady Caroline Lamb
Mrs John Allnutt
Pope Pius VII
Marguerite, Countess of Blessington
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey
Lady Maria Conyngham
2nd Earl of Liverpool
Arthur Atherley


‘Butcher Cumberland’ and the smashing of the Highland clans

Perhaps the most calamitous chapter in all Scottish history was opened when Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly referred to as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, decided to invade Scotland in 1745 in hopes of regaining the British crown. Charles Stuart was either the ‘Young Pretender’ or the legitimate heir to the British throne, depending on whether one’s sympathies lay with the Hanoverian dynasty or the Stuarts, the latter having lost the throne to George I in 1714. Supporters of the Stuart claim to the throne were known as Jacobites. They could be found all over Europe – the Pope, for one, wished to see a Catholic British monarch – but Jacobitism was especially strong in Scotland, from where the Stuart dynasty originated. The Highlands and Islands, in particular, were full of Jacobites. It was consequently to the Highland clans that Charles first turned to for support, upon landing on the Scottish coast with just a few thousand soldiers. Perhaps out of their ancient sense of feudal loyalty, Highland chieftains sent men in their hundreds to swell the ranks of the Jacobite army, although a number of canny chieftains hedged their bets by sending men to fight both for Charles and George.

Charles Edward Stuart, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745
Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in Edinburgh in late autumn 1745

Initially, the Rising of 1745 seemed to be going very well for the Jacobites, with a decisive victory against British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans, and the unopposed takeover of Edinburgh. However, Charles, flushed with his first taste of victory, made the great mistake of pressing on into English territory instead of consolidating power in Scotland. Much of his Highland army was made up of farmers, not fighters, and as the months dragged on, the army experienced desertions as men slunk away to look after their farms and families. Charles Stuart and his army got as far south as Derby, but then began an ignominious retreat back to Scotland. Charles Stuart lay low in Edinburgh over the winter of 1745/46, gathering strength and waiting for his relation, the French king Louis XV, to send him desperately needed funds.

By this time, George II had put his youngest son, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, in charge of the British troops who were deployed to crush the Jacobite rebels. Cumberland was of an age with Charles, but unlike Charles, he was an experienced soldier, having fought campaigns in Flanders and Germany. He recognised that one of the problems which beset British forces was the fear that set in at the sight of the infamous Highland Charge, in which thousands of wild-looking kilted Highlanders ran shrieking towards British lines. Cumberland therefore trained his soldiers to hold their ground until the Highlanders got close enough that they could be mown down by cannon and gunfire. This tactic worked to devastating effect when Cumberland’s army met the Jacobites on the field of Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. The British obtained a resounding victory, and Charles fled to France, never again to return to Scotland.

1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden
A very orderly 1746 depiction of the Battle of Culloden

After Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland was hailed in much of England, and even in parts of lowland Scotland, as a patriotic hero. The University of Glasgow awarded Cumberland an honorary doctorate, and Parliament granted him a staggering income of £25,000 per annum. A thanksgiving service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral that included the first performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, composed especially for Cumberland, which contains the anthem ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’ (incidentally, the tune of the hymn ‘Thine be the Glory’). By contrast, Cumberland was seen by Jacobites and his English Tory opponents as a cruel and vindictive man, and awarded the nickname ‘Butcher Cumberland’. His terrible reputation sprang, however, not so much from the events at Culloden as from his violent reprisals in the Highlands following Culloden.

Cumberland stayed in Scotland for several months, establishing himself at Fort Augustus (which was in fact named after him). He sent out troops all over the Highlands, with orders to kill anyone suspected of having been in the Jacobite army. In practice, many Scots who had taken no active part in the Rising were targeted; even women and children were driven out of their homes and murdered. The Highland economy was ravaged, as farms were razed to the ground and thousands of cattle rounded up and stolen. Even after Cumberland left for London in triumph, Highlanders were left to suffer the ongoing depredations of British soldiers. The resultant devastation almost certainly precipitated the economic and social crises which eventually led thousands of Highlanders to emigrate to America.

'The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant'. 1746
‘The Highlanders Medley, or the Duke Triumphant’. English pamphlet, 1746

In an age when long-distance communications took weeks or months, the actions of Cumberland’s army were presumably not individually sanctioned by King George, but the purpose behind them was nevertheless supported by the full force of British law. Legislation was passed to ensure that a Jacobite rising never happened again, by forcibly integrating the Highlands into the mainstream of British society. To this end, land was taken away from Jacobite rebels and given to those who had remained loyal to the Crown. The 1746 Act of Proscription outlawed the wearing of traditional Highland dress such as kilts and tartans. Repeat offenders were liable to be transported to the colonies as indentured servants. The Act also forbade the carrying of weapons; Samuel Johnson remarked of this that ‘the last law by which the Highlanders are deprived of their arms, has operated with efficacy beyond expectations…the arms were collected with such rigour, that every house was despoiled of its defence’. To a traditionally warlike society which still revered the warrior hero, depriving men of their weapons must have been a terrible psychological blow.

The Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act of 1746 had more far-reaching effect in that it abolished the traditional judicial rights afforded to a Scottish clan chief. Universal royal jurisdiction was thereby extended throughout Scotland, in an attempt to encourage closer union with England. It was argued in Parliament that to abolish the rights of clan chiefs to judge civil and criminal cases among their dependants would increase the allegiance of ordinary Scots to the British throne, as they would both depend on the Crown to obtain justice, and fear the retribution of the Crown. Clan chiefs were also stripped of their ancient feudal right to call men to arms. The cumulative result of these military depredations and punitive laws was, as Professor Rab Houston has argued, the destruction of ‘the social nexus of the clan that was at the heart of Highland society’.

"After Culloden - Rebel Hunting" - John Seymour Lucas (1884)
“After Culloden – Rebel Hunting” – John Seymour Lucas (1884)

‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ is commonly remembered as a patriotic hero who fought valiantly against the Hanoverian usurpers in order to preserve Scottish independence and culture, only to have his campaign meet a tragic end at the brutal hands of the British. Brutal the British forces may have been, but the fact remains that Charles’ reckless attempt to reclaim his throne actually plunged Scotland into even deeper chaos and precipitated the death of the Highland clan system which many loyal Highlanders believed he had come to protect. This sentiment is perhaps best expressed by the Jacobite commander Lord Elcho, who, on seeing Charles fleeing the field at Culloden, leaving his troops to be massacred, apparently cursed him as ‘an Italian coward and a scoundrel’.

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud – or the threat of it – was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man ‘whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]’, and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi.

Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family’s honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the “Barbarian West” sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814
Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as ‘blood feud’ today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as “a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries”. Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender.

The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to ‘true’ blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of ‘true feud’. I’m not sure how helpful the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ are – they are linguistically interchangeable – but Halsall’s differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar’s household contrary to the findings of the tribunal.

In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim’s kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent’s contrition, and capitalise upon the community’s awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction
King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall’s argument seems apt here: he observes that a ‘true feud’ is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer’s sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman’s death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father’s murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert’s reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic’s brothers saw their chance and decided to ‘avenge’ Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha’s dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha










We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne’s own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim’s relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It’s impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne’s laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an “eternal public peace”.


  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. ‘Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the “Blood-Feud” Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29


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”)