When Johann Struensee first met the young British princess Caroline Mathilde in 1766, never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that he – a German doctor working in the slums of Jutland – would one day become her lover, and the most powerful man in Denmark.
The brief meeting between Struensee and Princess Caroline Mathilde took place in the Danish city of Altona, where Struensee worked as a doctor in the filthy, disease-ridden slums. The 15-year-old princess was stopping over on her way from England to her new home in Copenhagen where she would join her cousin – and now husband – King Christian VII in the royal quarters at Christiansborg.
Being united with her 17-year-old king was no honeymoon to say the least. She quickly learned that she was expected to play hard-to-get towards her husband, who seemed to enjoy drowning her in spiteful remarks and using her as a verbal punch-bag. It quickly became apparent that it was not a fluffy teenage romance, but a rather unhappy marriage from the start.
The young king was psychologically unstable and suffered from anxiety attacks, outbursts of anger, paranoia, self-mutilation and hallucinations - possibly due to schizophrenia. He often vented his anger by going ballistic at Copenhagen’s nightspots with his entourage of hooligans, and he insisted on not sleeping with his wife. The young king reportedly had to be persuaded to consummate their marriage, in order to secure the succession. It seems that it was the young king’s disinterest rather than shyness, which kept him from going near his wife, since he was a familiar face at Copenhagen’s brothels.
Despite the cold relationship between the royal teenagers, Queen Caroline Mathilde quickly became pregnant. However, any hopes of the king settling down after this news were quickly extinguished as the king proclaimed: “I shall rage for two years,” ordering his wife to stay home during the summer, while he went away for months at a time with his mates. The king continued his rock-star lifestyle, of which sex and violence were the main components. He would raid brothels with his favorite prostitute, Anna Cathrine Benthagen, leaving smashed flats and bloodied faces in his tracks. The manhandling of her enemies seemed to be part of this prostitute’s special hold on the king, who is said to have been drawn to her, not because of her looks – which were mediocre at best – but because of her ability to satisfy his peculiar, shall we say, inclinations. The king’s uncontrollable urge to masturbate were a popular subject within the royal court, where the gossip was ripe about the time the king during a royal feast in Christiansborg entered the room with his pants around his ankles.
The straw that broke the camel’s back could well have been his public humiliation of his wife, as he took his prostitute – and his dog – to the royal theatre, while his pregnant queen sat at home. The charade was put to an end by the court officials, who sent the king’s favourite mistress – and best friend – away.
Christian met Struensee at the beginning of his grand tour of Europe in 1768 and was asked to join as the king’s travel-doctor. After the trip, Struensee was made the king’s personal physician. Under the surface the royal court was spilt due to the freezing cold atmosphere between the young king and queen. Caroline Mathilde therefore did not trust nor like Struensee, who had quickly worked his way into the king’s inner circle. Her sceptical attitude was not warranted though, as Struensee attempted to make the king appreciate his wife, whilst ordering him to take cold showers in order to control his masturbation.
As Struensee’s attempts to unite the unhappy couple progressed, so did his relationship with Queen Caroline Mathilde. They spoke for hours about politics, philosophy – and love. Soon the young queen and the German doctor were fully-fledged lovers. The strange thing was that the relationship between the king and queen improved during the time that Struensee kept his boss’s bridal bed warm. As a lady of the court noted: “The strange thing about it all, is that the relationship between the king and queen apparently has never been better. They are talking to each other continually.”
The affair certainly changed Struensee’s motives. As a concerned physician, he had persuaded the king to sleep with his queen, as a lover he really needed the royal couple to sleep together – how else could he explain the fact that the queen was pregnant again!
A new little princess, Louise Augusta, was born on 7 July 1771. Struensee had by this time seized a great deal of power and made a lot of powerful enemies. The people affected by Struensee’s decision to fire staff and slash salaries started gossiping about his overt relationship with the queen. Christian VII seemed to have been none the wiser, yet both within the ranks of the royal court – and even outside the walls of Christiansborg – the gossip spread that the new-born princess was indeed Struensee’s child. The ménage á trois continued despite the rumours and behaved like a family.
Struensee didn’t limit himself to invading the king’s territory in the royal bedchamber. When it came to political decisions, he had also been the king’s puppeteer for years. Before long, Struensee had even made sure that he didn’t need the king’s signature to pass laws and was now in reality the country’s dictator.
In the end it all became too much for the queen mother, Juliane Marie, who had watched in disbelief as the German doctor swept in and manipulated her step-son, Christian VII, and pushed her own son away from the circle of power. She swiftly arranged a coup.
On 17 January 1772, at four o’clock in the morning, King Christian awoke to the sight of candlelit faces surrounding his bed. They were there to tell him that Struensee and Caroline Mathilde were plotting to kill him! Little did he know that this was part of the queen mother’s plan. The frightened king quickly signed documents authorising the arrest of the two alleged plotters.
Caroline Mathilde was awoken by hammering at her door and, as it dawned on her that the curtain had fallen, her panic-stricken screams echoed throughout the hallways of Christiansborg as she cried out for her husband. She was placed under house arrest at Elsinore Castle before being taken to Germany (of all places), never to see her children again.
Struensee, meanwhile, admitted his royal affair under interrogation and was sentenced to death for his crimes against the crown. His relationship with the queen was not mentioned in the official sentence though, since Caroline Mathilde was the sister of the king of England. King Christian VII was portrayed as being “freed” by the queen mother, but in reality he had just acquired a new puppet-master.