The rise and fall of Dr Struensee

by Chris Bertram on August 25, 2011

I’ve been fixing the footnotes to a new translation of Rousseau’s Considerations on the Government of Poland (fn1) and whilst doing so happened upon a really fascinating bit of Danish history. Rousseau has a cryptic remark:

bq. You have seen Denmark, you see England, and you will soon see Sweden. Profit by these examples to learn once and for all that, however many precautions you may amass, heredity in the throne and liberty in the nation will forever be incompatible things.

What would they have seen in Denmark?

What they would have seen was the rise to power of Johann Friedrich Struensee, appointed as a travelling physician to the crazy Danish King Christian VII in 1768 and then as his personal doctor the following year. By 1770 he’d managed both to become the lover of the Danish queen and to persuade the king to get rid of his other advisers and grant him almost unlimited power which he used to promote various Enlightenment goals such as the abolition of capital punishment and torture, and the end of censorship. However it wasn’t to last. He’d upset too many people and the King’s mother denounced his relationship with the Queen in early 1772 and he was tried and then executed (after having his right hand cut off). The Queen, Caroline Matilda (British in a Saxe-Coburg-Gotha kind of way) who had borne Struensee a child, Princess Louise Auguste. The child was recognized as the King’s but the mother was swiftly divorced and exiled to Germany.

What a great plot the rise and fall of Struensee would make! What a great movie? What a great opera!

Well IMDB is you friend (as is Youtube) and so we have forthcoming “A Royal Affair” (Denmark, 2012) starring Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and co-written by Lars von Trier, no less. Historically there’s Die Liebe einer Königin (Germany 1923), The Dictator (USA 1935) and Herrscher ohne Krone (Germany 1957). And there’s an opera too by Bo Holten, based on a novel by Per Olov Enqvist (and the novel is translated into English!)

Here’s the trailer for the opera (more excerpts available from the Youtube sidebar)

Apologies to Danes and other Scandinavians (who presumably know all this already) and to anyone else familiar with the history, but I was fascinated, and wanted to share.

fn1: This will be in a new translation of the Social Contract and other writings out with Penguin next year. The translation is by Quintin Hoare and I’ve done the introduction and some of the editorial work.



bigcitylib 08.25.11 at 5:21 pm

Mads Mikkelsen, best known for his protrayal of the mute, bad assed viking “One Eye” in “Valhalla Rising”. Does he stave in any skulls in this one?


Dragon-King Wangchuck 08.25.11 at 5:26 pm

I always thought it went I see England, I see France,,,


P O'Neill 08.25.11 at 5:36 pm

Sounds kind of … Russian!


Meredith 08.25.11 at 5:49 pm

This fascinating bit of history puts me in mind of John Quiggins’ recent post on tyranny. Non-hereditary, extra-constitutional power, usually reformist in its initial impulse, can take more forms than Quiggins considered in that post….


stostosto 08.25.11 at 5:50 pm

Apologies to Danes and other Scandinavians (who presumably know all this already) and to anyone else familiar with the history, but I was fascinated, and wanted to share.

No need to apologise. It is a fascinating story, much more so than one was aware when one was young and bored to tears in miserable history lessons. I have since read and enjoyed Enqvist’s novel, but otherwise remain fairly uninformed about this strange episode in Danish history.

(Mads Mikkelsen also played Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale).


OCS 08.25.11 at 6:36 pm

Cool story. But as an indictment of hereditary monarchies it’s a bit tangled. After all, the king seems to have backed Struensee the reformer. It was his mother who kicked up the fuss, and other enemies (I take it) who used the excuse to eliminate Struensee because of his reforms — at least that’s how I read it based only on the above.

The moral could just as well be that hereditary monarchs need enough power to stifle their critics, including their mothers. Or maybe that people in public life should keep their pants zipped. It’s a lesson that seems to go unheeded to this day.

Of course there are plenty of reasons to eliminate monarchy. I’m not sure this one will serve as the rallying cry the world needs, however.


Kenny Easwaran 08.25.11 at 6:39 pm

Interesting – I’ve seen Denmark, England, and Sweden recently, and they seem to show that heredity in the throne and liberty in the nation are fairly compatible. But maybe “the throne” isn’t where the monarch sits, but rather where the power is?


Colin Danby 08.25.11 at 11:11 pm

Why isn’t Frederick the Great of Prussia on Rousseau’s list, if the category is Enlightenment-spreading despots?


burritoboy 08.25.11 at 11:27 pm


1. Don’t be so sure that Rousseau would see those nations as having liberty even today. In the case of England, I would argue that Rousseau would almost certainly not view it as having liberty today. He was not massively pleased with the British government of his day, and I don’t think the British regime has changed enough for Rousseau to change his opinion. We should note, however, that Rousseau thought there either were absolutely no nations that had liberty in his time, or, at most, there were some tiny and obscure ones on the very farthest outskirts of the civilized world.

2. Yes, Rousseau would probably view the current monarchs of those countries as vestigial.


Jim Harrison 08.25.11 at 11:43 pm

Franco Venturi’s End of the Old Regime in Europe assembles the reactions of Enlightenment opinion to the Danish saga. Good read if you’re not in a hurry.


Jacob Christensen 08.26.11 at 4:46 am

Ironic twist: Struensee applied the method from Émile in the education of Prince Frederik (later King Frederik 6) during his short spell in power. Frederik became a staunch defender of sovereign rule in the 1820s and 1830s.


Latro 08.26.11 at 9:14 am

OCS #6, for me it is clear. If the extend of needed reforms and change, the duration of the project and the direction is related to access or not to somebody, you get this kind of farce. Doesnt matter how good the intentions were, this was your standard tale of an idiot with a crown and the fight between powerbrokers to manipulate him because somehow the only legitimacy to do things is the crowned idiot signature.

National politics reduced to one person gets you to places like this – a ridiculous tale.


Doug K 08.26.11 at 3:24 pm

I knew the story but didn’t know there was a novel/opera/YouTube of it.. thank you. One of my ancestors was a supporter of Struensee’s, and subsequently banished. He took ship to South Africa, where they sank at the Cape of Storms. He swam ashore and became an ostrich farmer. Family sympathies were generally with the Queen who was shamefully treated all the way through, up until dying of scarlet fever at age 23, poor girl.


Sebastian H 08.26.11 at 3:42 pm

Sounds fascinating, though my original reading, Dr. Seuss, could have been even more so if he had been an adviser to kings.


Allen Hazen 08.30.11 at 5:00 am

For an entertaining chapter-length account of the episode, look for T.H. White’s(*) “The Age of Scandal.” The Queen was a sister of George III of England (and so may have been saved from worse than exile by English diplomatic pressure). The King seems to have been a good argument against hereditary monarchy all around: the only good thing about him was that he was easily bullied, which is how the Queen and Struensee managed, briefly, to come to power.

(*)As in “The Once and Future King” and “The Goshawk”: THAT T.H. White.

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