Johann Friedrich Struensee

How a German Doctor ruled Denmark

Boy dresses as a king outside his castle
Struensee ruled Denmark for a short while. Brand New Images - Stone @ gettyimages.de

Though he was an important figure in Danish history, German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee is not particularly well known in Germany. The period he lived in, the late 18th century, is known as the Age of Enlightenment. New schools of thought were introduced and revolutionary ideas made their way to courts, Kings and Queens. Some of the policies of European rulers were heavily coined by the likes of Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau or Kant.

 

Born and schooled in Halle, Struensee soon moved close to Hamburg. He studied medicine and, just like his grandfather, he was to become personal physician to the Danish King, Christian VII. His father Adam was a high-ranking cleric, thus Struensee came from a very religious home. After he had already finished his university career at the age of twenty, he chose to become a doctor for the poor in Altona (today a quarter of Hamburg, Altona used to be a Danish city from 1664-1863). Some of his contemporaries criticized him for using new methods in medicine and his rather modern worldviews, as Struensee was a strong supporter of many enlightened philosophers and thinkers.

 

As Struensee had already been in contact with the royal Danish court, he was picked as the personal physician for King Christian VII while the latter travelled through Europe. Throughout their journey, the two men became close friends.

The King, in a long line of Danish Kings with severe mental issues, known for his wild antics without regard to his young wife, Queen Caroline Mathilde, sister of the English King George III. The country was more or less ruled by a council of aristocrats, which made the King sign every new law or regulation.

 

When the travel party returned to Copenhagen in 1769, Johann Friedrich Struensee joined them and was appointed the permanent personal physician to the King, who’s escapades got the best of him once more.  

 

Just as in any good movie, Struensee got to know the Queen Caroline Mathilde and they fell in love. As he saved the crown prince’s life, the German doctor and the royal family became very close. Struensee managed to rekindle the King’s interest in politics and started influencing him with his enlightened views. Right from the start of his involvement with the King’s affairs, many members of the royal council looked upon Johann Friedrich with suspicion. Nonetheless, he became more and more influential and quite soon the Christian appointed him to the royal council. As the King’s mind drifted away more and more, Struensee’s power increased. Soon he presented Christian with numerous laws and legislations that changed the face of Denmark. The King willingly signed them. While issuing many reforms that were supposed to better the situation of the peasants, amongst other things making Denmark the first country to abolish serfdom, Struensee managed to weaken the royal council’s power. In June 1771, Christian named Johann Friedrich Struensee Secret Cabinet Minister and gave him the general power of attorney, de facto making him the absolute ruler of the Danish Kingdom.

But whereas he developed an incredible efficiency in issuing new legislation and enjoyed a harmonious love life with the Queen, dark clouds started to tower on the horizon. His conservative opposition in the basically powerless royal council turned to intrigue. They used the rather new technology of printing to discredit Struensee and Caroline Mathilde. They spread flyers all over Copenhagen, stirring up the people against the opaque German physician and the English Queen. Struensee didn’t really pay attention to these tactics, he was far too busy, radically changing the country. In fact, the rate in which he issued new laws was so high he even opposed those powers at the court, that weren’t actually opposed to many of the changes he made. Though, to them the changes came too fast and went too far.

In the end, Struensee became so involved with his work, that he didn’t see his downfall coming. In a cloak-and-dagger operation, the opposition made the now almost moronic King sign an arrest warrant for Struensee, marking him a traitor for consorting with the Queen – a crime punishable by death – and further charges. In April 1772, Johann Friedrich Struensee was executed, while Caroline Mathilde was divorced from Christian and eventually banned from Denmark. After his death, most of the changes Struensee had made to Danish legislation were undone.

 

The dramatic story of the German doctor who ruled Denmark and – for a short while – made it one of the most advanced countries at the time, who fell in love with the Queen and ended up being executed, has been the topic of many books and movies, even though not as many as you might think.