Even as an adult, Christian VII of Denmark (1749-1808) remained childish and playful.
Diplomats complained that, when he was discussing affairs of state with them, without warning he would slap them violently round the face.
He had hallucinations and his speech was often incomprehensible. Soon, his physician took care of him, his wife and his country.
But they hadn't reckoned with Christian's evil stepmother..
Although he was King of Denmark, Christian had already shown peculiar symptoms as a child. He had feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and although he showed some ability in various directions, at times he became frantic and his education was completely neglected. His chamberlain, Detlev Reventlow, was a stern man who believed in 'using a firm hand'. He terrorised the young Prince with severe beatings. After a beating, Christian could be found on the floor foaming at the mouth. The influence of his sensible tutor, Elie Salomon François Reverdil, was not sufficient to counterbalance the ill effects of the thrashings. With a gang of fellow-minded boys, Christian used to stalk the streets of Copenhagen, armed with a medieval spiked club, which he used viciously on passers-by. Christian was physically frail, short and slender, and as a result, he developed an abnormal concern with physical toughness. In the opinion of his doctors, he masturbated so obsessively that they feared for his health.
His mother, Louisa of Great Britain and Hannover (1724-1751), died before Christian reached the age of 3. His father, Frederick V (1723-1766), hated to be bothered and took very little notice of his son. He remarried the dominant Juliana of Brunswick-Wolffenbüttel (1729-1796), who bore him a physically disabled son. As the eldest son, Christian stood in the way of the boy's inheritance and his ambitious stepmother resented him for it. During this unhappy second marriage Frederick V became an alcoholic and led an increasingly debauched life, whilst neglecting affairs of state. He became physically ill and even mentally disturbed before he died at the age of 42.
Christian VII became King shortly before his 17th birthday. The populace expected a great deal from him, not knowing that he had already shown disturbing signs of madness. Within a year, Christian married his 15-year-old cousin, Caroline Mathilda of Great Britain and Hannover (1751-1775). She was not allowed to take English ladies-in-waiting with her and left England in tears. Poor bewildered Caroline Mathilda exchanged a safe nursery for the turmoil of a gay and pleasure-seeking court full of intrigue. Christian took an immediate dislike to his grief-stricken young bride and continued his ardent pursuit of whores and young men.
Although he was King of Denmark, Christian was still a boy, childish and playful. Freed from tutelage, he wanted most of all to indulge in those things he liked most. Once he threw a bowl of sugar over his grandmother's head 1 . Another time he stuck pins in the seat of her throne in order to see her jump. Often he kept dinner waiting for hours or rose abruptly before it had ended. He liked to play leapfrog over the backs of visiting dignitaries when they bowed to him. Diplomats complained that when he was discussing affairs of state with them, without warning he would slap them violently round the face. With his male favourite, Conrad Holcke, and his mistress, known as 'Katrine with the boots'2, Christian used to rampage through the streets of Copenhagen, smashing up shops and ravaging brothels. Frequently he returned with black eyes, bruises and cuts.
Early 1768 Caroline Mathilda gave birth to a son, Crown Prince Frederick (1768-1839). Meanwhile Christian made his mistress a Baroness and showered gifts upon her until public opinion induced him to send her away. Soon afterwards he undertook a tour to England, France and Germany with Holcke, and left his wife behind. To everybody's surprise, he acquitted himself quite well. Horace Walpole described Christian as an "insipid boy" who "took notice of nothing", "took pleasure in nothing" - except perhaps his own importance. On his visit to Canterbury, Christian remarked: "The last king of Denmark who entered Canterbury laid that city in ashes and massacred its inhabitants." In Denmark Caroline Mathilda was growing fat and took to wearing a male riding costume. Later it became a common saying that she was "the better man of the two".
As Christian's mental and physical state became gradually worse, his physician, Johann Friedrich Struensée, gained more influence. He got himself appointed to the post of cabinet secretary to the King and in this capacity all governmental documents passed through his hands. In October 1769 Caroline Mathilda had an attack of colic and was so depressed that she "turned her face to the wall and prayed for death". She was lonely, young and inexperienced and when she sought solace in the medical and other services of Struensée, she fell hopelessly in love with him. Presumably, Struensée had merely regarded the Queen as a means of acquiring greater power, but before long he must have fallen in love himself. Thus a passionate love affair developed between them.
Christian's mental state steadily deteriorated. Often he was found in the morning sitting in the corner of his room with a distressed expression on his face. From time to time, he would beat his head against the wall, sometimes until blood flowed. Occasionally, he attacked his entourage violently or laughed inappropriately and wildly. His speech was often incomprehensible and he was disturbed by hallucinations. Waking in the morning, he would declare that he had killed several people that night. At times, he questioned his birth, thinking that he was a changeling - or the son of Catherine the Great. He had delusions of grandeur and was very suspicious.
Struensée acquired the position of Minister of the Privy Council by simply placing the necessary documents before the King and getting him to sign them. He governed Denmark, Norway and Schleswig-Holstein in the same fashion as other enlightened ministers of his day. He did the accepted progressive things, and he did them boldly and impatiently. Whenever his tempo was slowed down by opposition, he regarded it as stupidity. He dismissed many superfluous civil servants - always a most dangerous thing to do - and decreed that henceforth the language of the government should be German. He really lived for the government of the country and was accommodated very modestly in a couple of plainly furnished rooms in a side wing of the palace. Nevertheless, his foolhardy policy, his arrogance and his violation of the King's marriage provoked resentment.
In January 1772 a group of conspirators, led by Christian's stepmother, his half-brother and the conservative Ove Høegh-Guldberg4, decided to interfere. While Caroline Mathilda and Struensée were dancing at a masked ball, they broke into Christian's bedroom, and scared him practically out of his wits. By now Christian had got over the antipathy he had felt for his wife, but he was almost an imbecile and physically frail. His wicked stepmother managed to bully him into signing the orders for the arrest of both Struensée and Caroline Mathilda5. Struensée was imprioned under harsh conditions, being chained to the wall. He confessed his love affair with the Queen, and was sentenced to a horrible death. First his right hand was chopped off. Then his body was quartered and broken on the wheel and finally he was beheaded. From her watchtower Juliana observed these medieval barbarities with pleasure. She is said to have remarked that "the only thing that spoilt her pleasure was the fact that she could not see Caroline Mathilda's corpse thrown into the death-cart as well". Caroline Mathilda at first denied everything, but later she signed a confession too, in the vain hope of saving her lover's life. Her sentence included an annulment of her marriage. Caroline Mathilda was only 20 years old when she was first incarcerated in the fortress of Kronborg and later exiled to Celle in Hannover, where she died within three years.
Caroline Mathilda was a sister of England's Mad King George III (1738-1820), who suffered from the disease porphyria. This is a rare hereditary disease with symptoms like an acute inflammation of the bowels, difficulty in articulation, a painful weakness of the limbs and over-sensitivity. In more severe attacks porphyria can result in over-activity, agitation, confusion, delirium and progressive senility. Caroline Mathilda and George III were known for their "infinite likeness of countenance" and contemporaries remarked on a peculiar quickness of speech, which they both showed when excited. Like his wife, Christian could have inherited porphyria. However, his progressive decline, incoherent conversation, impulsive violent acts and his alternation between immobility and wild excitement may be better diagnosed as schizophrenia.
Denmark was reigned by Christian's stepmother, his half-brother and Guldberg until 1784, when the 16-year-old Crown Prince placed a document establishing a regency before the King. Christian unhesitatingly signed it and ceased effectively to rule, although he officially 'reigned' in Denmark until his death. His public appearances were rare; he was dragged out only in periods of semi-lucidity when affairs of state demanded his appearance. He was never confined, constrained, or subjected to a medical regimen, but his servants were instructed not to obey his orders. Sometimes he could be seen at a window making faces at passers-by or pacing up and down his apartments. In the Napoleonic wars, he was moved to Rendsborg in Schleswig and he is said to have died due to the shock of seeing Spanish troops enter the city on March 13, 1808.
Copyright © 1998, 2000 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
King, Queen and doctor
1 Sophie Magdalene of Brandenburg-Kulmbach (1700-1770), widow of Christian VI.
2 Anna Catharine Beuthaken was a red-haired prostitute, who liked to dress in men's attire.
3 Another version of the story is that Christian remarked that "the King of Prussia had seduced Caroline Mathilda". "What King of Prussia?" he was asked. "Struensée," he answered unconcerned.
4 Guldberg was the former tutor of Christian's half-brother.
5 The count Enevold Brandt was arrested as a thrid accomplice, and condemned to death, too.