Johann Friedrich Struensee – A Royal Affair

Johann Friedrich Struensee
(1735 – 1772)

On August 5, 1735, German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee was born. He became royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark and a minister in the Danish government, where he tried to carry out widespread reforms. His affair with Queen Caroline Matilda caused his downfall and dramatic death.

Johann Friedrich Struensee was born in Halle, Prussia and started his career as a doctor in Altona, where he glaced with his intelligence, his manners and overall appearance. His father, being a priest did not welcome his son’s career development, which caused the son to  revolt against his father even more. Struensee was known to be a progressive man with ideals from the Age of Enlightenment, which was not welcomed in every part of society. Even though his financial situation did not let him expect a carefree living, his behavior soon caused him to socialize with the high society. He met the Danish minister of Foreign Affairs and soon began writing first essays on Enlightenment treatises , published in journals. Getting in contact more and more with Denmark’s Royalty, he was recommended to take care of King Christian VII during his tour across Europe during which he received the honorary degree of Doctor in Medicine from Cambridge. When the tour was over, Struensee’s success was notable and he was appointed the personal physician to the king.

During his stay he won more and more confidence. Struensee always intended to play a bigger role in politics and worked on his idea to make the king his tool while he had to befriend the queen. Carolina Matilda was back then only 18 years old and dis-trusted the physician. Soon however, she started admiring his abilities and his charm. In 1770, Struensee became her lover and his influence increased.

While at first, Struensee’s political influence operated very controlled, keeping a low profile, he later on appointed himself to several offices and enforced several treatises. It was his duty to present reports from all governmental departments to the king. King Christian was, according to Struensee, in a pretty bad shape during this period, wherefore Struensee began dictating whatever he favored. He began dismissing several people from their offices while establishing the cabinet as the surpreme power. In the 18 months of his power, Struensee passed over 1000 orders including the abolition of noble privileges, introduction of various taxes, the abolition of torture and many more.

Firstly, the Danish people liked his reforms and saw new possibilities. After a while, he received lots of distrust, operating every business in German and firing numerous governmental officials without pensions. Struensee’s enemies increased. During the summer of 1771, the king and queen as well as Struensee and some members of the Royal Court stayed at Hirschholm Palace, where the queen gave birth to her daughter. The ill will against Struensee grew and on January 17, 1772 he was arrested along with the queen. He was charged with usurpation of royal authority and faced death penalty in spring of the same year.

Despite his doubtful behavior, Struensee was highly influenced by the Age of Englightenment and his actions are assumed to have altered the decisions of leading revolutionaries and governmental officals after his death.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture on the Age of Enlightenment and the Public Sphere by Professor John Merriman at Yale University.

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