08 November 2016

A Scandalous Marriage: The Story of a Teenage Queen

By Johannes Heinrich Ludwig Möller (royalcollection.co.uk)
via Wikimedia Commons
Long before King George III ever heard of a fellow named George Washington, he had another little problem fomenting itself much closer to home. His adorable, bright and talented baby sister would leave a trail of scandal before she had reached her twenties. Nearly 13 years younger than the King, Princess Caroline Matilda of Wales was born a few months after the sudden death of their father. Like most of her siblings, she was raised away from the court of their grandfather King George II, but she was still brought up in royal style.

A contemporary of the far more infamous Queen Marie Antoinette, Queen Caroline Matilda may be less remembered by history but she was certainly as noteworthy in her own era. Caroline Matilda's downfall is less tragic (she at least kept her head) but she certainly was an active, if unwitting, participant in what would happen.

At the tender age of 15, Caroline Matilda was the beneficiary of an apparently brilliant match. Despite the fact that her husband came with a crown, she had already cried for weeks by the time the couple was finally wed 250 years ago today, November 8, 1766. Seventeen-year-old King Christian VII of Denmark was young and handsome, but the Danes had done a good job of concealing his mental instability during the marriage negotiations. When George III sent Caroline Matilda off to her fate he could not have imagined all that she would have to face. Nor, how she would respond.

Christian seems to have enjoyed some sexual deviance, including masochism. Despite rumors that he preferred male companionship, he spent a good amount of his time indulging his predilections with women in brothels. He was not displeased with Caroline Mathilda's charming blonde looks but he was clearly not interested in consummating their marriage. Ill advised by her only friend in Denmark, Louise von Plessen, Caroline Matilda turned a cold shoulder whenever he did attempt to do his duty. 

Christian was finally motivated when it was suggested that people might see the lack of an heir as an indication that he was not manly enough to beget a child. Within short order, Caroline Matilda became a mother when she was just 16 and a half years old. The birth of Crown Prince Frederick, however, did not inspire Christian to become a kinder or more dutiful husband any more than it inspired him to become a more attentive and dutiful king. His manner continued to grow increasing erratic; he would slap courtiers and speak incoherently. He still avoided his duties as much as he could, indulged in disguises so that he could go about about anonymously behaving however he wished.

As a Queen in a foreign country, Caroline Matilda lacked such beneficial anonymity. She had quickly learned Danish (her fifth language) but her manners were too open and carefree for the strict Danish court. When her friend Louise von Plessen was forced out, her new friends were deemed too low in stature. Her choice to exercise by walking instead riding demurely in a carriage was criticized. And, even her visiting mother and distant regal brother tried to tame her tendency to wear men's clothing, but without success.

When Christian abandoned his duties to travel Europe in cognito, his 16-year-old Queen was left to her own devices. Things hardly improved upon his return with a handsome German doctor in tow. Johann Struensee, who had a special interest in mental disorders, was the one person who could get the king to actually do his work, to calm down and to treat his wife well. At first, Caroline Matilda was hostile to the foreign interloper until she realized the beneficial effect he had on Christian. When he also helped her medically, the teenage girl lost her heart to the older man. Far from being distressed by the budding romance, Christian seemed not to care and the threesome were soon living happily together. 

Struensee's influence grew quickly. He was soon powerful enough to enact his own extremely progressive reforms over a very resistant aristocracy. The foreigner radically implemented Enlightenment ideas banning torture and the slave trade, supporting freedom of the press, criminalizing bribery, taxing luxuries, reforming universities, giving farmland to peasants, etc. At the same time, he was blithely in different to the Danish customs of the day, especially those regarding court etiquette.
Jens Juel via Wikimedia Commons

When the nation was surprised by the announcement that their queen had given birth to a new princess, few people believed the king was the father. By this time, even Caroline Matilda's friends and supporters were growing tired of her self-indulgent behavior and her lover's all-powerful dictates. A palace coup was hatched and the king, convinced that a revolution was about to occur, ordered the arrest of the pair who were caught practically red-handed. At first, they both denied their illicit affair, but convinced that the other had confessed, they each admitted their guilt. 

Struensee was executed for treason and 20-year-old Caroline Matilda was divorced and imprisoned. Big brother George intervened, although he would not allow her to come home to England. Instead she was sent to live at Celle, where their great-grandmother had been imprisoned after her own lover was murdered 70 years early.

Both of Caroline Matilda's children continued to be recognized as legitimate children of the king. She even hoped that she might return as young Frederick's regent due to Christian's continuing and increasing insanity. Instead Denmark was run by the king's stepmother until Frederick took over at age 16. Princess Louise, despite her questionable paternity, later married into another branch of the Danish royal family. Both Frederick and Louise gave their disgraced mother's name to daughters of their own perpetuating the name into the modern era. The last Princess Caroline Matilda, the current Queen's aunt, passed away in 1995.

As for the original Caroline Matilda, she was never to realize her dreams of a regency. Within a few years, she contracted scarlet fever and died at the tender age of 23.

For more about Caroline Matilda:
Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark | English Monarchs
Caroline Matilda's Exile in Celle | History of Royal Women
Consort Profile: Caroline Matilda of Wales | The Mad Monarchist

Nationalism and Gender in the Eighteenth Century: Queen Caroline Matilda’s Misfortunes | Revista Estudos Humeanos 

On This Day in 1751 Caroline Matilda Was Born | Royal Central
Royal Scandal in the Court of the Queen of Denmark-Norway | Ancient Origins
Scandal of the Century | Historiful
The Scandalous Affair of Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark | History and Other Thoughts
The Scandalous Royal Romance of Caroline Matilda and Johann Struensee | Scandalous Women
Someone Call the Doctor | The History Witch
Tart of the Week: Queen Caroline Matilda | The Duchess of Devonshire's Guide

Books about Caroline Matilda:


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